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Nov 122014

MooreLisa Moore

Alligator teaches us to embark on an absolute concentration on what the eye receives. Like hyperrealist painting, it alters our sensory perceptions of objects around us; we start noticing them and pausing on them once we are out of the novel. She [Moore] concentrates on the defocalizing power of a random element that does not fit within the machinery of life. —María Jesús Hernáez Lerena



The philosopher apparently meets our expectations by spelling out what the “reverie” of the refined poets and the commitment of the contemporary artist have in common: the link between the solitude of the artwork and human community is a matter of transformed “sensation.” What the artist does is to weave together a new sensory fabric by wresting percepts and affects from the perceptions and affections that make up the fabric of ordinary experience. […] What is common is “sensation.” Human beings are tied together by a certain sensory fabric, a certain distribution of the sensible, which defines their way of being together; and politics is about the transformation of the sensory fabric of “being together.” (Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator 2009, 56)

I am similarly ensnared by consumer products and culture, especially “junk foods” such as chocolate bars: I like to celebrate their blaring colours and slogans, and I like the noisy, chance juxtapositions of everyday things: the newsagent’s sweet counter, the magazine rack, the stall of souvenir t-shirts.” (Cynthia Poole “Exactitude IV” 2008, 1)


Lisa Moore’s novel Alligator is fashioned by conferring the still life —the depiction of inanimate objects— primacy over other kinds of discourse. The narrative opens itself up to another medium in order to imitate methods of composition that would be otherwise fully realized in painting, thus resisting the naturalized impulse of narrative to become a transition or temporal process. By this transfer of the still life from one medium to another, I do not only mean that there are abundant descriptions of place and objects in the novel, since all novels depend on this explanatory apparatus [1], but that the mere sight of objects —a view the reader shares with the characters at all times—, becomes the center of gravity in their lives. Novelistic and biographical discourse is thus counteracted and transformed into a mode of understanding which does not depend on the disclosure of meaning through time but on the peculiarities of shape, color, and brightness that objects possess.

In this article I will attempt to describe Lisa Moore’s method of composition in Alligator and relate it to an analogous form of composition in the visual arts, particularly an artistic movement called hyperrealism, in order to throw some light on the epistemological implications of their common strategies. I will then discuss whether this perspective in the novel —a besetting representation of external reality— addresses or contests certain ideas of cultural distinction and community which are ever-present within the cultural context Lisa Moore belongs to, Newfoundland [2]. “Burning Rock” is the name of the writers’ collective where Lisa Moore began her career as a writer in St. John’s. The phrase refers to an unidentified burning object which fell into the sea off the Newfoundland coast. With this name, its members wish to point to the emergent incandescent energy coming from Newfoundland, The Rock, which until relatively recently was seen as marginal to or lagging behind Canada. They wish to conjure up “images of isolation and extreme subject matter”:

Geographically, we have always been an extremity: on the edge of a new, unknown world, the cusp of the Atlantic Ocean and the North American continent, our topsoil scraped by glaciers and dumped into the Grand Banks. An island on which, for centuries, it was forbidden to settle. And now, economically and culturally we have drifted to a state of emergency. The ball of lightning has burned past us and we stand stunned, dumbfounded by the experience. […] We live in a bruised landscape which cultivates extreme people with extreme stories. (Michael Winter Extremities 1994, xi-xii)

I will address two different but interrelated questions: first, how to think critically about our response to Lisa Moore’s particular invocation of reality in fiction; and second, does Moore’s particular depiction in Alligator of a group of characters in St. John’s constitute some kind of statement about sense of community in Newfoundland? [3]

My approach is conducted by a basic idea that underlies much of the theories of Susan Sontag, John Berger, and Jacques Rancière: the belief in the dichotomy between seeing and understanding. John Berger’s quote “Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight” (1972, 7) points at this basic premise: an awareness of the mismatch between what we perceive through our sense of sight and the elaborations of discourse. The idea that the image does not make you understand, that it only activates your sensory system, also runs through much of Susan Sontag’s interpretation of the photograph (1977, 110). For her, photography is the opposite of understanding, “which starts from not accepting the world as it looks” (1977, 23). How the world functions must be explained in time. “Only that which narrates can make us understand” (1977, 23; 2003, 89). According to her, muteness in a photograph is an attraction, a provocation; it “makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is” (1977, 24). The art of photography makes no invitation to understanding the world, but to collecting it (1977, 82). For Jacques Rancière, viewing is also the opposite of knowing: “The spectator is held before an appearance in a state of ignorance about the process of production of this appearance and about the reality it conceals” (2009, 2). Additionally, he believes that viewing is also the opposite of being active, “to be a spectator is to be separated both from the capacity to know and the power to act” (2009, 2).

Both critics agree that the photograph, the image in general, is a moral anesthetic, in spite of the fact that it may produce distress (Sontag 1977, 109-110). Our impression that we have come into possession of the essence of tragedy, for example, neutralizes horror, it distances us from it. As a result, history is transformed into spectacle because it possesses the qualities of beauty and eternity (Sontag 1977, 109-110; 2003, 99-103). “Despite the illusion of giving understanding, what seeing through a photograph really invites is an acquisitive relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and promotes emotional detachment” (Sontag 1977, 111). [4]

This idea of the binary image/word is supported, on a different front, by critics who could be termed sociologists of identity: Nicholas Rose (1997, 244), Charles Taylor (1996, 51), or Anthony Giddens (1991, 54), for example. For them, the self cannot be constructed outside words, it requires verbalization and narration: it requires the story of how things happened. There can be no such thing as instant identity. [5] For Rose “Language is one of the keys to our assembly as psychological beings. Only through lexicons, grammars, syntax and semantics can we organize our thoughts and formulate our intentions” (1997, 234). Psychological language is, for him, the main key to the modern soul (1997, 238).

In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor (1996 18, 48) rejects the value of the immediate experience or the sudden rupture by explaining that our notion of ourselves only comes through the story of how we have become, the unfolding of how we have travelled to get here. According to him, not to use this framework for one’s life is to fall into a life which is spiritually senseless. “The sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding as an unfolding story” (1996, 47). The self cannot be punctual or instantaneous. Self-understanding necessarily has temporal depth and sense of direction, and incorporates narrative. If we think that we become different persons each time we are in a different situation or if we fail to meet the full challenge of making sense of our lives we destroy our chances for a meaningful life. When analyzing confessional narrative, Dennis Forster remarks that “[n]o matter how one’s experiences may be present in memory, the events of these narratives are understandable only when they are transformed into objects of consciousness, into histories rather than sensations” (1987, 10). His argument clarifies the dilemma of our considering images as mere stimuli that cannot substantiate “real” knowledge, which is only to be accessed through a contextualized historicity. [6] Thus, we seem to be immersed in a battleground where the warring forces are the dissociated images —objects which belong to the realm of suspended temporality— and articulated plots sustained by informed rationalizations. [7]

One paradox inherent in Alligator is that, although the novel’s plot is action-packed, it is structured around the perception of a few objects whose presence becomes overpowering. A jar, a metal Christmas tree, the walls of an elevator, the arrangement of objects on a restaurant’s table, a plastic bag that contains food, reflections of the city in a car door. The visual qualities of these objects are a magnet around which events and thoughts seem to rotate. Due to the intensity of gaze these objects are given, the novel’s plot, events, even the thoughts of the characters, seem to be beside the point. The characters’ past also appears to them in a clear and crystalline form: like light falling on surfaces.

In a narrative, a description does not materialize into a still life merely because an object is being described; the description resembles a pictorial still life when the reader feels that a frame has been put around a small section of static material reality and the surrounding area remains out of sight. The same object may be shown again but, contrary to common poetic strategies which turn the object into a symbol once it has appeared several times in the narrative —and it has become interwoven with events and feelings—, the still life retains its specific characteristics in isolation, impervious to the meaning-making processes that narratives per se impose. Alligator opens with a young woman, Colleen, watching some footage where a man surrounded by a crowd is taming an alligator. For some time the narrator focuses on a helium balloon tied to a little girl’s wrist:

The balloon looks like a hole burned through the sky. There’s no wind, but the balloon jerks when the little girl shifts her weight. It jerks to the side and bobs and then settles, becomes still. There isn’t a cloud. The little girl’s blond hair is spread over her shoulders and bits of sunlight come through it and some of her hair is full of static and it stands up and the sun makes it buzz with light. (1)

A spellbinding fascination arrests the pull of the narrative. We are clinging to a sort of tableaux vivant whose mise-en-scène leaves the temporal processes of the plot without a sense of purpose. Both character and reader are given the position of a stunned viewer, what we see is sharply outlined but slowed down and torn from context. This ocularcentric approach presides over Alligator; the reader is put inside metaphorical bubbles which somehow prevent a rationale. The impression that characters are in a bubble returns many times:

On the street the boy from next door was playing with a bubble wand. He pressed a lever in the handle and the wand opened out into a large diamond shape and bubble liquid shot up from the clear handle and coated the plastic diamond when he tipped it into the breeze and a giant bubble wobbled into the air and lifted from the wand, and it caught the reflection of the landlord’s Jaguar, which was parked outside the bed-sit and the black streaky gleaming car slithered on the curve of the oversized bubble. (225)

Slavoj Žižek claimed that repetition turns an element into a symbol, that it ascribes a metaphorical import to an event due to our need for transcendence. “The crucial point here is the changed symbolic status of an event: when it erupts for the first time it is experienced as a contingent trauma, as an intrusion of a certain nonsymbolized Real; only through repetition is this event recognized in its symbolic necessity” (1989, 61). However, this direction of meaning is at odds with the dynamics of our understanding in Alligator: the objects depicted do not become symbols. What we perceive is the intensity with which the narrator or the characters look at them. Once an object becomes a reference for something else, the still life somehow loses its force. This is because the reader’s pleasure originally lay in the actual physicality of the thing, not in its evocative or allusive power. This is contrary to painting, where still lifes have historically gone hand in hand with fixed metaphorical traditions. Whether or not we wish objects to become metaphors, the actual achievement in a medium formed by words is to be found in the materiality they seem to bring to life, in their rotund visibility.

Thus, the usual methods of characterization in novels are somehow put on hold in Alligator; there is no panoramic setting that may hold or explain characters. Readers encounter mainly the exigent presence of objects. The first time we meet Frank, a street hot dog vendor in St. John’s, we read:

FRANK’S GOT THE windows open and the warm night breeze jostles the handful forget-me-nots sitting in a Mason jar of yellowish water on the windowsill. A few petals move on the surface of the water like tiny boats on a still lake. The glass jar and the submerged flower stems are coated with silvery beads of air. There’s a housefly near the jar, bluish and iridescent, lying on the crackled paint of the windowsill, since Frank moved in a few months before Christmas, two days after his nineteenth birthday. (10)

After this still life we are informed of the string of events in Frank’s past that the narrator recollects for him: Frank’s mother died of cancer, he sold her furniture, he was evicted and moved to a bed-sit, he became a hot dog vendor in a sleazy street in St. John’s, an Inuit man hanged himself in an apartment above his, the police came and removed the body. But all these chunks of experience are related as if in haste, while Frank himself is standing, having a shower, thinking. There is no analysis, no comment: meanwhile the way objects stand before Frank’s eyes while he is thinking acquires a full dimension. The objects are explored as if with a magnifying glass: minimal spaces which the narrator makes conspicuous by describing the way the light makes them appear. These descriptions are not ornamental or explanatory, they form the very substance of the tale.

At this early point in the narrative the reader may not yet suspect that the overwhelming presence of objects may in fact not be there for the sake of our understanding of the characters, their moods, or their plights. After all, we could agree that the image of a preserve jar and a dead fly on an old window sill may evoke the emptiness, the silence, the vacuity of a life. As has been previously mentioned, having objects as projections of the character’s situation is indeed a common literary device. However, at the end of this chapter, Frank leaves the room and we read:

Inside Frank’s empty bed-sit, water drops travelled in hesitant, zigzagging paths down the plastic shower curtain, and in the window several air bubbles on the stems of the flowers in the Mason jar floated to the surface and broke soundlessly. The breeze nudged the flowers into one another and the stems tippytoed across the bottom of the jar. (17)

Then we realize that objects, this object here, is not a thing which irradiates emotion coming from a human source. The relevance given to the physicality of the jar, its inner workings —so to speak— alters our idea of Story itself, story defined as sequence of events or a flow of emotion. Alligator becomes a medium to render life as externality attached to trivial, inconsequential objects we do not normally care to perceive in their full essence. At the end of the chapter we have been given a glimpse of Frank’s life but after he leaves, the object (the Mason Jar) is the element that remains there to give a sense of closure to the chapter. The attention paid to the jar seems to reduce everything else to insignificance, to diminish the pull of narration by having us stare at a random element when the room is empty. What stays is the solidity of the object, the little changes in its appearance; the rest seems to be ephemeral, pure silence. Narrative as such evaporates and the way an object impacts our retina remains. The personality of the object becomes the priority.

The abundance of examples of the previous strategy in Alligator implies that the novel articulates our dependence on the visual mode as a mode of conscience. This affects the reading experience structurally: all fiction strives to make the reader visualize but some fictions, such as this one, engage in the visual as a literal index to reality, even when the image itself is outside the drama of the story. That does not make its “reality” less urgent. When we experience a moment of intensified perception, we put continuity and sequence on hold. And this is the way suspense is created here: it defines experience as visibility in a strictly physical sense and stops short at that, without offering reasoning in transitions. The author refuses to provide the consolations often implied in novelistic, biographical, or historical narrative. These explanatory structures often assure us that life is a journey which can be explained by the author, that we have access to the characters’ minds and understand them, and that we can morally assess their decisions.

The presence of objects through their materiality of glass, metal, clothing, plastic, skin, is insistent (Fig. 1). Their solidity is sometimes offputting, even fierce, and it upsets the fluidity that events, feelings, and thoughts are supposed to be given in a narrative. To focus on the way objects are depicted in stories leads us to the question of narrativity and narrative resistance, that is, to the questions: Is reality amenable to storytelling? and, can we translate reality into a continuous and coherent temporal sequence? Any story is the abstraction of a temporal trajectory, a humanized sequence of events or emotions, of accomplishments and frustrations, or psychological deepening and sometimes of healing. Objects, on the contrary signal an impasse, an impenetrability, the indifference of the inanimate world.

Fig.1-StevenSmulka-SolarSystemFigure 1. Steven Smulka. “Solar System.” 2011, Oil on Linen, 76.2 x 116.8 cm.

Other explanations of the function of objects in literature have run against the above-mentioned interpretation of objects as repository of absence and of aloofness. The latter interpretation of the role of objects in narrative has been given, for example, by genre theory. The short story as a genre does not seem to depend on the rendering of temporality in the degree that the novel does, and one recurrent strategy to enhance meaning is to use objects to which characters become emotionally attached in order to express, through them, the characters’ ordeal. [8] This paradigm for understanding the characters’ dilemmas is a model usually called “feeling behind the surface,” that is, trivial objects embodying conflicts. The objects contain a quality of latent lyricism and speak on behalf of the characters. They signal turning points in their lives, they implement a revelation or show the manifestation of something hidden. The effect is usually of tragic awareness: a detail, an object from the past, emits significance without explicative intrusion; it discloses the character’s essence. [9] Our associations may be false but they show us the mechanism of our thinking: we like to believe our actions and feelings do have an effect on our environment, on the objects around us.

However, the objects we find in Alligator are not so obviously there for the sake of the distillation of meaning. If they are disturbing and their presence cannot be shaken away it is because of the fetishized relationship characters have with them and also because of the author’s frantic attention to visual compositions of objects and light: they are not peripheral, they always remain sharply focused in a close-up mode. Lisa Moore creates a certain kind of bond between words and things, a certain responsibility within language to render ocular arrangements. A focus sharper than you’d thought possible, as a fellow writer said. [10]

Madeleine is another character whose experiences we trace and whose life is patterned through vivid perceptions of a number of objects. She is an aging film director, obsessed by making a film with iconic images from Newfoundland: a priest, a cliff, the foaming sea, the rocks, horses running wild. She tries to put together this scenario for the film, she gets into trouble because of the transportation of horses, she has imaginary conversations with the archbishop whose letters she found in the Roman Catholic Archives. But her obsession with capturing the essence of Newfoundland becomes somehow secondary when, almost at the end of the novel, she gets inexplicably, almost pathetically, fascinated by a metal Christmas tree in the middle of the summer. The narrator says on her behalf:

It was as though she had unleashed all of her loneliness. Her loneliness had been imprisoned in a tree, which happens all the time: and she had been forced by some evil spell to walk up and down the aisles of Canadian Tire, forgetting why she was there (clothespins), until she found the tree. When she got it home, the tree leapt out of the box, screaming absurd loneliness in eight different languages. A burning bush of shame, how old she is and weak-feeling lately and the film is lost and how profoundly alone with a ball and chain of a film around her neck. (180) (My emphasis)

This passage may be interpreted as a parody of one the best known revelations or epiphanies in the history of English literature, the one rendered in Katherine Mansfield’s story “Bliss”: an upper class woman looks at a tree in her garden and comprehends how mistaken she was about her life and achievements. When looking at a tree in full bloom, she realizes she has lost her husband and her best friend. Madeleine wants to uplift the idea of Newfoundland through images but instead finds herself attached to a cheap commercial object. Moore is responding here to the often trotted-out western tradition which unites objects and feelings. This becomes even more conspicuous when Madeleine says in addition to the previous comments: “There is no need to question the rightness of the tree. She wanted some stone stupid objects in her life that are irrevocably themselves” (181) (my emphasis). Clearly, objects do not have to stand for emotions. Moore is explicitly defining objects outside our need to turn them into bearers of significance. Their solidity may be the only source of comfort.

Thus, in Alligator, Madeleine makes her final, important point: objects are, after all, just objects, and not any other thing or idea, and she claims their validity as such. But although objects are that, just commonplace things, even if we need to attach to them some psychological import, the very juxtaposition of objects and feelings hints at the monstrous separation between inanimateness and the continuity of ordinary life, at the abyss between life and non-life. The act of looking at something and the way Alligator is studded with these images increases this very distance. No quantity of words can make up for life’s opacity. There are no doors for in-depth revelations. However, the final issue in this novel does not seem to be the encounter with the untameable inhospitality of reality; Moore’s novel conveys a recognition of its impenetrability as well as an offer of a certain kind of pleasure, a call to pause on the objects’ idiosyncrasy. Experience is both blazing and numb, as one character in the novel says about love (263). By inflating the status of the sense of sight, Lisa Moore offers us narrative as bondage: this term, taken from dictionaries of fantasy —so concerned with alteration in narrative– means: “an engagement with story not as process but as bondage, that is, being trapped by a particular place or physical shape that keeps you immobile, under a spell” (Clute & Grant 339).

Alligator does not only represent the case of one medium (narrative) and a genre (novel) taking on the nature of another medium (painting or photograph) and genre (the still life): it contains an explicit dialogue with a painting style, a certain method of rendering external reality that an artistic movement, hyperrealism, has made well-known in the last few decades. [11] Lisa Moore’s interest in genre hybridity may have to do with the fact that she is an art critic. She studied Art at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and is an art journalist for a variety of Canadian newspapers and magazines. In Alligator, a meeting between two characters takes on the iconic quality of the paintings of photorealists and hyperrealists: a shaltshaker is foregrounded, “It was ordinary, with a stainless-steel screw on perforated lid and a fluted glass bottom. The salt looked very white” (83). Two friends meet at a restaurant: “There were white truffles in small jars under lock and key. The ceiling was stucco with bits of mirror and the tablecloths were checked and the balsamic vinegar and olive oil were poured into a saucer that must have a matching teacup in the back” (174).

Frank visits Kevin, another poor child who, like him, had to be kept in a home as a child. Both have been beaten down by life and they meet at Kevin’s run-down flat many years later:

The rain came down hard, drilling the metal garbage tin, rising up like white fur from the slabs of the concrete that made up the patio, spiking off the arm of the plastic lawn chair. Kevin unwrapped the bologna and, peeling off the wax rind, dropped each slice in the sizzling margarine. (259)

The embarrassment they feel at the uneasiness of being together is replaced by a concentration on objects (their conversation revolves around a frying pan). These are all very clear cases of ekphrases, literary representations of visual art. Ekphrasis is a mode of narrative which speaks to and for works of art, not only about them (Heffernan 1993, 7): it is the “art of describing works of art, the verbal representation of visual representation” (1-2). Its difference from pictorialism is that the latter “represents natural objects and artefacts, not art.” Ekphrasis represents pictures. And in this case, pictures which represent photographs, which look like photographs, as is the case with hyperrealism.

Whenever there is a shock experienced by the characters it is associated with a certain kind of brightness, a colour, a piece of clothing that assaults the characters’ memories persistently after seeing it. Scenes in Alligator are transformed into “metal experiences,” also plastic and glass: electrified fences, coins, saltshakers, plastic nozzles, meat in fridges, sun striking the doors of cars, the remains of food on a dish, bottles: precisely the icons that hyperrealist writers have painted over and over again. There are too many coincidences to be overlooked. Coincidences in subject-matter, method and purpose, even ethics. One could even say that Lisa Moore is establishing an open dialogue between her strategies of written composition and the pictorial approach to reality that has become the trademark of hyperrealism. She has gone beyond fiction to converse with visual art.

Hyperrealism is a style of painting, although some painters and critics consider it a proper artistic movement, which seeks a perfection of resolution above all other painterly interests (Head 2009, 16). [12] Hyperrealists seek to achieve a hypnotic sense of objective presence. They want to make the real and the illusory indiscernible: reality in their paintings looks like a photograph. The photograph is indeed their technical starting point and from that primal source, they enrich its photographic reality, they make it more palpable, larger, impossible to obviate. The real is translated onto the canvas through the camera and then it is “photographed” by painting it. They make of minimal spaces and objects magnificent feats of physicality. Some say their work is more realistic than photography. They do not leave marks of brush strokes on the canvas; functionality is emphasized. They are said to be an outgrowth of the photorealist movement which started in the 1960’s especially in America, whose subject-matter was mainly cars, motorcycles, diners, fast-food emporiums, etc. They believed that their work should adhere strictly to the information found in the photo, as the photo was the object to imitate because in their time it was the supreme reality. They zoomed in on shop windows and through doorways. Most of the time they approached a culturally charged subject matter (American everyday objects) while retaining the objective stance: their aim to reveal banality and beauty, but also address the industrial wastelands of our civilization. Some well-known photorealists are Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Charles Bells, John Baeder, Tom Blackwell, et al. [13] (Fig. 2 and 3)

Then again, at the beginning of the 21st century painters from a number of nationalities mainly exhibiting in One Plus Gallery in London, England, formed a movement called “Exactitude.” They showed a similar approach to reality to that of the photorealists, but this time they expanded their techniques and their range of subjects. They abandoned their fidelity to the photograph too. They added more detail than any photo would ever show and from the emphasis on urban wastelands and American cultural icons, they would move on to other less panoramic views in order to bring the contemporary commonplace to our attention. A certain amount of explicative literature has been gathered by them and about them. Certainly, the language painters and visual critics have used to describe their hyperrealistic methods and philosophy helps us to understand better the artistic qualities displayed by Lisa Moore in Alligator.

Figure 2-Ralph GoingsFigure 2. Ralph Goings. “Double Ketchup.” 2006, Pigmented Inkjet on rag paper. 22×32.75 in. Edition of 30.

Figure 3.- Randy Dudley, Coney Island Creek at Corpse Ave, 1988Figure 3. Randy Dudley. “Coney Island Creek at Corpse Ave.” 1988, Oil on Canvas. 28 1/2 x 54 in.

One of their maxims is that things deprived of their functions and of their context reveal their real status: “A thing stripped of its real function […] revealed to me the poetry of reflection, distortion and light!” says Dutch painter Tjalf Sparnaay (2002, 34). For him, the object is explored and discovered down to the smallest detail: “Under the realistic surface of this painting is the soul of the object, and essence we were never aware of before” (Introduction). He usually paints fried eggs, banana peels, half-eaten food, dishwashers, packaged meat, etc. He tries to find beauty in ordinariness and is fascinated by banal subjects unrelated to mainstream aesthetic traditions, the question being “is this thing really so ordinary?”:

Clean Crockery! A fresh start, gleaming as if nothing has happened, ready to be dirtied again. But then that is the whole point of crockery —and of the dishwasher. We are happy with it, although we never take the trouble to see how nice it really is. So I’ve done that for you. Our domestic and eating tools shine in all their clean-lined stupidity. (2002, 56). (Fig. 4)

Fig. 4-Sparnaay-DishwasherFigure 4. Tjalf Sparnaay. “Vaatwasser” (“Dishwasher”). 1998, oil on canvas, 185 x125 cm.

When trivial objects are contemplated in their timelessness, we obtain a renewed sense of reality:

Time stands still when I place these objects in a classical arrangement, removed from the context of their day-to-day surroundings. Ideally, this sense of timelessness is the way in which my technique is close to the 17th century Dutch tradition” (

Sparnaay talks back to classical painters by having their iconography transformed into a consumerist product, his most famous painting being that of “Meisje Van Vermeer in Plastic”, a version of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” wrapped in plastic and with a price tag (Fig. 5) (see /overview/meisje_vermeer.html).

Figure 5-Tjalf-Sparnaay-MeisjeVanVermeerInPlasticFigure 5. Tjalf Sparnaay. “Girl with a Pearl Earring in Plastic”. 2002, oil on canvas, 75 x 60 cm.

These painters share an acute awareness of the visual overload in our contemporary society, but they accept the ubiquity of consumer products and attempt to create new relationships with them: “The visual overload we are exposed to day in, day out, has deprived us of the ability to look “purely”, in the same pure way a child, for instance, looks at reality. The visual harmony of things is dictated not, as consumer society would have us believe, by perfection, but by imperfection, idiosyncrasy and unpredictability.” (Sparnaay 2002, 46).

Another hyperrealist, Cynthia Poole, says:

Many of the pictures are of chocolate bars and crisp packets, either in newsagents’ displays or in vending machines. I like their vivid colour and strident competitiveness. These objects are normally only perceived as signage, their actual visual qualities, particularly in combination, are invisible —yet they make up much of the visual fabric of contemporary life. […] Again, that captivating combination of ordinary objects, vivid colours, and strong signage. Still close-cropped, taking still life outside into the larger urban context. [14]

Cynthia Poole is interested in the surfaces and signage of everyday things, mass-market, consumer items, so that she can rescue them from our familiarity with them. She thinks of her work as “contemporary still life.” (Fig. 6)

Figure 6-Cynthia Poole -DisplacedMintsIIFigure 6. Cynthia Poole. “Displaced Mints II.”2011. Acrylic on canvas. 100 x 120 cm.

Thus, they promote a sense of seeing anew through an intense gaze at objects that are otherwise background and meaningless. Their aim is to activate a sense of visual excitement with our immediate environment (Clive Head 2009, 12). They share a common optimism “which asserts humanity’s ability to create beautiful objects” (10). Sometimes they represent reality in an almost forensic way, like Vania Comoretti; [15]  their purpose being to bring clarity and focus to our lives, suspend disbelief, realize meaning in the mundane. Sparnaay claims that: “As a painter I seek my personal reality in almost trivial subjects. […] even a till receipt offers a voyage of discovery.” (2002, 102).

They also like to experiment with the borderline of meaning: how close does a close-up have to be before becoming blurred and decontextualized?:

I like to arrange the objects in a ‘modern’ way: thanks to the camera, we are overwhelmed by images; we are used to seeing multiple views of the same thing. […] I am also interested in the close crop: how close can you go before the composition becomes entirely abstract, or the context incomprehensible? (Cynthia Poole at 382&Object=#Bio)

They sometimes openly manifest that theirs is not an art of social illustration or comment (Head 2009, 10-12), it is not an art which raises issues, or cultivates irony. [16]  Their dedication is to a world that has already shaped its identity; that is, there is no troubled relationship with “objective reality.” They say, we see what others miss and then make it compelling (Fig. 7).

Most of these painters are interested in a corner and not in the big picture, not in the architectonics of place and the archways of biography or feeling but, like Lisa Moore, only in that restricted visual space (or object) our eyes can apprehend with intensity. [17] They wish to possess the world and remove it from chaos (Head 2009, 12), or what is the same, from time. The world, or better, certain parts of the world are presented in a state of permanence, their object apparently, as Jean Baudrillard (1976, 1018) had claimed, “to enclose the real in a vacuum, to extirpate all psychology and subjectivity in order to represent pristine objectivity.” This project was common, for example, to the Nouveau Roman. It was an attempt to elide meaning by exhibiting the attrezzo of a meticulous reality.

Figure 7- TomMartin-OneofFiveFigure 7. Tom Martin. “One of Five.” 2009, Acrylic on panel, 90 x 90 cm.

Hyperrealism has sometimes been harshly criticized for being an art without soul, without a transformational end, that is, it has been regarded as unable to awaken consciences. Hyperrealist ethics, an extreme commitment to the reproduction of reality, seems not to be enough. After all, so-called “objective realism” has been downgraded from the early 20th century. Is this just art for art’s sake and therefore just barren aesthetics? Perhaps we are still clinging to a very limited definition of aesthetics, forgetting its capacity of awakening us into the qualities of the world. Or, could we say that hyperrealism represents the aggressive triviality of modern life and that therefore, Lisa Moore´s method liberates her portrait of contemporary St. John’s from all duty to depict inner states or to raise social issues?

Is the effect “glacial”, as some have said? Hyperrealists have been accused of not trying to depict inner states, to eliminate the presence and the interpretation of the painter. These questions about artistic positioning, as well as about method and subject-matter, bear on the impulse which generates Lisa Moore´s novel: her penchant for the still life, her close-ups of objects from kitchens and restaurant tables, her insistence on the city reflections on cars and windows, her habit of rendering people (characters) as patches of colours. The prominence of the surfaces of everyday consumer products turns her novel into a hybrid form: “The meticulous investigation of the events in a minimal space” as Vania Comoretti says of her work.

The way the biographies of the characters shape up in the novel is inextricably linked to their perceptions of a world made of glass, of metal. But do we perceive it as lacking in depth? Indeed, as in the case of Madeleine, there is a hitch between the character’s aims and their actual experiences; their sensorial input sends them off their tracks. Colleen, a young woman who wishes to act against the environmental destruction of developers in Newfoundland is caught out when she pours sugar into the fuel tanks of some bulldozers which belong to a business man in St. John’s. She wanted to save the Newfoundland pine marten from extinction. Her meeting with the judge is put in these terms:

THE ELEVATOR DOORS fling open and Colleen sees a judge heading toward her from the end of a long hallway. He’s in full stride, forehead first, the arms of his black robes billowing. The reflection from a tube of fluorescent ceiling light runs over his oily bald head like a charging train […] Colleen looks at the judge’s reflection in the brass panels of the elevator. His eyebrows hang down into his watery eyes. His face is warped in the polished metal. (18-9)

Just after this view, a whiff of perfume hits her and she immediately remembers a gift package of four bottles of Aqua Velva that she gave to David, her stepfather, for Christmas. The relationship of Colleen with her stepfather —the most important familial tie she’s ever had— will be told from now on through this object.

The Aqua Velva was the first gift Colleen had ever picked out by herself. A tower of boxes ingeniously piled one on top of the other, each with a corner slightly off-kilter so the stack rose like a spiral staircase. There were giant Christmas bulbs hanging from the rafters, carols bubbling wordlessly through the overhead speakers, shoppers in bright coats rushing forward and away like the bits of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope (20).

Before and after this passage, people seen at the supermarket are described within a dynamics of visual pyrotechnics. They become shreds of colours, the buttons on their clothes blinking: suddenly a close-up shows us the head of an obese woman in a wheelchair. “The grooves made by her comb were still visible and the pink of her scalp showed through.” (21)

How can Colleen remember the past in such a visual literality? Narrative is supposed to be the main medium to transform reality into psychological information, i.e., useful, therapeutic, but here narrative becomes a static medium more akin to a certain style of painting. Also, characters only remember themselves seeing something, their past only becoming remembrance through the visibility of objects. This approach gives a certain vision of identity. The self is defined as more punctual and instantaneous than narrative oriented; it is not given real agency. The cologne is the last agent in the chapter which tells about Colleen’s relationship with her stepfather:

The cologne eventually made its way up to the cupboard under the sink in the guest bathroom, behind the pipes, containers of Comet, cleaning rags. It remained there, even after David died, the plastic window of the box covered in a fur of dust (31).

The presence of this object permeates at least three chapters, but it does not crown an important episode in Colleen’s life. The cologne is placed outside a gigantic mechanism of causes and effects, rescued from a then-and-then narrative, from any kind of purposeful biographical arrangement. As a consequence of the high status given to the sense of sight, the narrative becomes the story of how objects put their imprint on us, how they assail us: in fact, everything else is defocalized by the spell that a banal element casts on us. It definitely blocks our reading habit of uniting objects and symbols: although the bottles of cologne can indeed be considered to stand for disappointment and forgetfulness, that dusty box that is waiting for our look there in the bathroom is not totally subservient to the character’s mental summary of her past. The visuality of the package challenges the passing of time, it refuses to be made absent, it makes the reality of feelings, the crazy turmoil of experience, recede, become tangential. It is as if the narrative proper, with its incertitude and all too human mistakes, would lie far away, muted.

An art critic said: “Stories may be told about animals, or even inanimate objects, but most Western narrative art depicts the vicissitudes of individuals in human form: men, women, children and the gods who take on their semblance” (Langmuir 2003, 11). Certainly here, humans seem to be more absent than objects, their burning wishes and fulfilments swallowed by a whirlpool, sent back in another direction, inapprehensible, unmanageable. In contrast, the permanence of everyday, commonplace objects becomes too familiar, almost threatening. And this method of composing a novel certainly reflects the way characters think of themselves. Beverly, Colleen´s mother, says:

She had come to think of life not as a progression of days full of minor dramas, some tragedy, small joys, and carefully won accomplishments, as she figures most people think of life —but rather a stillness that would occasionally be interrupted with blasts of chaos. (46) (my emphasis)

Alligator takes on the nature of the still life as a painting genre, and when it moves beyond it into a temporal dimension, the world of the characters explodes with grief and physical pain, like Frank, who is literally burned alive, one of the most horrifying sights we are made to look at in the novel. We see how his skin is transformed by the effects of fire; it is one of the climaxes of the novel rendered in descriptive slow down. The acts of perception of each character seem to originate in different dimensions of existence, there seems to be no thread that connects their personal circumstance so that we can reach a common platform for social analysis. The very idea of cruelty embodied in the dehumanized Russian exile Valentine, who sets a house and Frank himself on fire, is put in the background in view of the narrator’s fascination with the transformations of Frank’s body in the flames.

As in hyperrealism painting, in Alligator we have an altered state of reality through a meticulous depiction, taking human observation of the visible to an almost impossible realm. [18] But does this heightening of visibility inevitably provoke a trivialization of humanity? Is it a flat, clean, and thrilling art where the image is liberated from all metaphysical troubles?

Characters in Alligator are dissociated from large-scale setting and attached to common-place “universal” objects: crockery, cars, gifts, consumer items. These objects seem to bulge out of the page and they are presented to us at critical moments for the characters. They become pivotal and replace the role that psychological discourse often plays in fiction. The characters’ bond to the appearance of objects intensifies their isolation, trapped as they are by their overinflated visual perceptions. As a consequence of their fascination with the “outwardness” of objects, the idea of collective —of a common experiential space— is difficult to assemble or imagine in a novel where characters are given a more sensorial than social existence.

This narrative environment close to ekphrasis prevents the past from being memorialized. It cannot be passed to others as a legacy because it creates situations that are outside time. It precludes the possibility of offering a regional representational continuum made up of images that could be regarded as the epitome of Newfoundland, powerful as its iconicity has been historically in the literature of the province. In Alligator we find recognizable geographical and cultural facts of St. John’s, its streets, institutions, businesses, tourism, although the overall impression readers assimilate is that of the bleak realities of a city overridden by greed and short-sighted development practices. However, close attention to the dynamics of the novel prevent us from giving primordial importance to an interpretation revolving around loss or dilution of cultural identity. This is a fact at the start of the novel and the tone is not elegiac. Life is not seen as a collective enterprise and the transmission of information between individuals is not effected through storytelling; [19] there is either the isolation of intense perceptions, often happening in miniature domestic spaces, or an exposure to the violent realities of the world through the internet. The novel opens with a teenager, Colleen, watching an accident during a stunt performance with alligators in Louisiana; she then watches a man’s beheading on the internet while she eats a sandwich. In the unobserved intimacy of her room she can view the world’s detritus.

Rancière defined aesthetic and political communities in the quotation that opened this article. Through tactics similar to those of hyperrealist painters, Alligator shows us that the “sensory fabric” (Rancière 56) that characters share is personal and untransferable and if there is to be a community of sensations, it lies in those objects that everyone shares nowadays, objects that accompany us when we eat, watch TV, or shop at a mall. The second quote opening this article by hyperrealist painter Cynthia Poole attests the validity of that idea. This is the collective enterprise, “the distribution of the sensible” that Rancière alluded to, a globalized reality wedged into little worlds that, like Newfoundland, not so long ago were very different.

Another strategy which overrides the evocation of the uniqueness of geography —and the notion of connectedness among individuals in a community—, consists of forcing the reader to reconsider the status of narrative as process or plot by creating suspense through images unaided by any rationalization. Lacerating memories retain their physicality and cannot be appeased by the comforts of narrative: narratives are therapeutic, they tie things up. In a different kind of adventure —closer to the ecstatic nature of visual art—, Moore, like the hyperrealist painters, brings clarity of vision into focus by the isolation of detail. Moore makes us look at objects purely, as was Tjalf Sparnaay’s desire. There seems to be a resistance to take a step further than the impact caused by an assailing stimulus. Alligator teaches us to embark on an absolute concentration on what the eye receives. Like hyperrealist painting, it alters our sensory perceptions of objects around us; we start noticing them and pausing on them once we are out of the novel. She concentrates on the defocalizing power of a random element that does not fit within the machinery of life. The power of sight dismisses the significance of plot. By doing this, Moore makes problematic the conventional bond between image and message in narrations by showing us that the power of sight may reduce everything else to insignificance, to fuzziness. The paradoxes of hyperrealist art are the same paradoxes implicit in Moore’s style: does it give an intimate or a detached vision? Is her rendering of reality matter-of-fact or hallucinatory? Are objects reliable or menacing? This is a kind of psychic ambush, but it certainly does not foster a sedate or stultifying approach to reality, as some critics have claimed about hyperrealism.

The novel does show some concern with the modern overexposure to images, a problem which deeply troubled Sontag and Rancière, disturbed as they were by our “chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events” (Sontag 1977, 11, 28 and 30; Rancière 2009, 87). Photography negates the ephemeral quality of an event and once it makes everything permanent, the fact of considering one thing important and another trivial becomes arbitrary; discrimination is often beside the point. These critics have sensed the moral problems resulting from our saturation with the image, with the photograph; the analgesic effect of living in a world made up of overpowering visual display. At one point in the novel, Madeleine, the film maker, comes across a digital photograph of a naked man with his cuffed hands over his genitals. She is deeply shocked:

She brought the picture close to her face to see if she could see pixels, how the colour had been reproduced; she tried to understand the image. A blooming horror made her skin prickle; what was this photograph? It was a homemade joke about torture, folksy and kitsch, full of abject glee and hatred. She had left the egg boiling. The egg was boiling over. She went back to the kitchen and put the paper on the table. The shock of the photograph receded; shock smacks and recedes. She would not let herself think the word evil. The egg was rubbery. The photograph was evil. (170-71)

In this excerpt and the text that follows, we realize that extreme cruelty is unavoidably implicated and overridden by the little urgencies in our daily life. Madeleine soon forgets about the Iraqi prisoner, even after she notices his broken shoulder.

Although characters are occasionally allowed brief glimpses of the pain of others, Moore does not bear in the novel any representational burden, neither from the icons that may represent Newfoundland’s culture nor from an overly exhibitionist capitalist system. Thus, she somehow questions Sontag’s negative ethical interpretations of the overexposure to photographs that citizens in the first world are inevitably subjected to. Like hyperrealist painters, she has turned this overload of images of commercial items into a visual gift which can work toward creativity in art. There is celebration rather than rejection: of shapes and colours, also an impulse to foster a capacity for acute visual focus. Time and again in her novel we realize she does not show impatience with the image, that her approach is not fatigued or mournful, nostalgic for a time where the world was not so imaged-choked.

In Alligator people are defined for what they are, a portable kit of images. With them we try to possess the past and grapple with the present (Sontag 1977, 8). This definition of humankind rooted in the sensory does not mean that the novel’s final statement is to opt for visual entertainment removed from social discord. [20] There is deep reverberation beyond the sensorial. The emotionally neutral temperature of the still life in its coolness and detachment in fact intensifies the heated chaotic state of discomposure that the characters are experiencing. The intractability of reality, the resistance of objects and circumstances to bend to the characters’ purposes or understanding is a basic factor in realizing that the relationship between characters and objects is not one-way road.

There is another dimension added to this celebratory mode: all the characters seem to be spectators rather than actors. They do try to become agents in their own lives but cannot help behaving only as viewers. They build private spaces within which to be able to build protection against aging, failure, poverty, loneliness. Walter Benjamin (1936) and Susan Buck-Morss (1992) described a mental state where the individual, by looking at something other than himself, lets this otherness, usually inhospitable, invade his senses. As a result of this saturation of the senses, the powers for thought are paralysed. This understanding of reality as shock was explored by Benjamin to explain how modern society has created artistic mechanisms and commodities (phantasmagoria) that protect people from the excessive energies of external stimuli and from the harshness of industrial societies. The creation of cushioned spaces in the professions and in art is further developed by Buck-Morss, who located the threat of bewilderment and pain in the relationship between humans and the image. According to her, we possess a synaesthetic system through which the images we store in our memory get connected with external stimuli, thus creating an internal language that cannot be conceived of in conceptual terms (see Sarikartal 2005, 106). This language threatens to betray the language of reason, endangering its philosophic sovereignty. What is absorbed unintentionally resists intellectual comprehension, it baffles notions of knowledge as comprehension and confers instead climactic status on states of bewilderment. As Susan Buck-Morss explains, “all of the senses can be acculturated […]. But however strictly the senses are trained […] all of this is a posteriori. The senses maintain an uncivilized trace, a core resistance to cultural domestication […] they remain part of the biological apparatus” (1992, 6).

This existential stance undermines the polarity used against hyperrealist painting: the accusation that there is a prioritizing of aesthetic creation over reflexive criticality. Moore shows us in her novel pop-up images and the fascinating labyrinths of the mundane. Yes, she portrays characters as spectators, however, she shows the dangers of spectatorship. Characters keep trying to make cushioned versions of their reality that would fit their purposes, yet they live in a world of digitality which inhibits metaphor and transcendence. The digitalization of reality itself troubles definitions of what is real. Moore shows a world that is itemized through the image (see Sontag 1977, 22-3) and novelizes what to expect after humanity has gone through the saturation point, the image-choked world Sontag referred to. The consequences were diagnosed by Sontag (1977, 28): “The arbitrariness of considering some elements as trivial and some as important has been superceded long ago.” When all events are levelled, the result is lack of empathy: the world in Alligator has withdrawn the lines between the extreme and the trivial, between the relevant and the inconsequential or frivolous, the cruel and the desirable.

If we bring to mind how the notion of “Newfoundlandness” is usually codified, we perceive a marked contrast between Lisa Moore’s literary practices in Alligator and some manifestoes of national or regional identity, such as the one previously quoted, Extremities, which explained shared objectives by writers bearing witness to the same landscape and history. This declaration revolved around notions of extreme geography and extreme experiences, however, Alligator is constructed upon a foregrounding of globalized consumer objects.

Certainly Alligator’s message is not that geography is destiny, an idea which permeates much of the literature by Newfoundland writers and others writing about Newfoundland; the novel is almost a visual treatise on the materiality of new capitalist spaces. Alligator also runs against the idea of constructions of Newfoundland as a therapeutic space, where victims of capitalist modernity can pull themselves together and recover meaning. [21] Characters are not cultural artefacts and the plot is not contaminated by the stitches of historicity because the arbitrary intersections of emotions and circumstance provoke not so much a meditation on cultural heritage as an engagement in a densely displayed net of affective intensities. Moore’s technique prevents the past from being memorialized: she works on a common contemporaneous fabric of sensation that is often unnoticed but that nevertheless reaches everywhere.

How do we describe place now? Lisa Moore has shifted our ocular bondage to place from an evocation of landscape or cityscape to the hypnosis produced by readymade objects which do not transmit transcendental meaning or collective memory but a common sensory fabric, a certain quality of palpability devoid of conciliatory epilogues. [22]

—María Jesús Hernáez Lerena



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San Sebastian-2014
María Jesús Hernáez Lerena is an Associate Professor of American and Canadian literatures at the University of La Rioja (Spain). She is author of the books Exploración de un Género Literario: Los Relatos Breves de Alice Munro (1998), Short Story World: The Nineteenth-Century American Masters (2003), and co-author of Story Time: Exercises in the Study of American Literature for Advanced Students of English (1999) with Julieta Ojeda and James Sullivan. She co-edited the volume Canon Disorders: Gendered perspectives on Literature and Film in Canada and the United States (2007) with Eva Darias Beautell. She is the former editor of Journal of English Studies (University of La Rioja) and teaches graduate courses on Canadian literature within a doctoral program awarded a quality distinction by the Spanish Ministry of Education. She has published essays on English, American and Canadian writers such as Wyndham Lewis, Sarah Orne Jewett, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Douglas Glover, Katherine Govier, Barbara Gowdy, Michael Crummey, etc. Some of her articles and interviews can be found in the journals Toronto University Quarterly, Canadian Literature, British Journal of Canadian Studies, Arc Poetry Magazine, Wyndham Lewis Annual, Atlantis, Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, etc., and in the books Visions of Canada Approaching the Millennium (1999); Wyndham Lewis the Radical: Essays on Literature and Modernity (2007); Canada Exposed/ Le Canada à découvert (2009); Unruly Penelopes and the Ghosts: Narratives of English Canada (2011); Short Story Theories: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective (2012). Forthcoming is her edited book: Pathways of Creativity in Contemporary Newfoundland and Labrador.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Description and narration are not clear‐cut categories, there is usually instability of their boundaries. Nevertheless, some texts show a marked tendency to one or the other direction. See Heffernan (1993, 6).
  2. Some of the recurrent topics in Newfoundland literature have been the idea of extreme geography, rugged individuals, fraternal communities in the outports, a tradition of orality, and loss of nationhood. See O´Flaherty (1979), Adrian Fowler (1985), Seifert (2002), or MacLeod (2006).
  3. Lisa Moore belongs to a young established generation of Newfoundland writers who, after Wayne Johnston, have become well‐known beyond their region. Together with other writers such as Michael Winter, Michael Crummey, Kenneth Harvey, Ed Riche, Jessica Grant, Joel Thomas Hynes, etc., they represent the literary present and future in Newfoundland.
  4. Rancière poses that the intolerable image, the image which shows pain or infliction of pain does not necessarily imply or call for action or engagement, since we live “a single regime of universal exhibition”: “the mere fact of viewing images that denounce the reality of a system already emerges as complicity with this system” (2009, 85).
  5. Fernández Prieto (1994, 124‐25) claims that there is no identity previous to the act of narration. In order to achieve a sense of the self, we have to become a narrator and construct a plot in which we fashion some of our pasts as characters. Giddens (1991, 54) asserts that we are not to find a person’s identity in behavior, or in the others’ reactions, but in his or her ability to keep a particular narrative going. The self is no longer a list of qualities, but a narrator in search of coherence.
  6. Melnyk (2003, x) is another author who has reflected on this dilemma: “We know that reality is separate from language and beyond language, although language claims to offer us the truth of reality. At the same time we are not comfortable in a reality beyond the explanations of our language. If we find ourselves in a situation that is unexplainable we become either fearful or we struggle to find within our language some explanation. Trapped in the discourse created by our culture and our time, we are lost without it.”
  7. Photographs make us confuse beauty with truth, according to Sontag (1977, 112): “the truths that can be rendered in a dissociated moment, however significant or decisive, have a very narrow relationship with the needs of understanding.”
  8. See Elizabeth Bowen (1994, 262) and Michael Trussler (1996, 558).
  9. Well‐known examples are the pear tree in Katherine Mansfield’s story “Bliss” (1920) or the snow in Joyces’ story “The Dead” (1914).
  10. See Tracy Whalen’s (2008) view on the scope of Lisa Moore’s rendition of hyper‐sensory details.
  11. See Takacs for a definition of the hyperreal in the context of digital art and the contemporary indiscernibility between the actual and the virtual.
  12. See Clive Head (2009, 8‐19) and John Russell Taylor (2009, 20‐53) for a manifesto of hyperrealist principles. Some hyperrealist painters of a variety of nationalities are Tom Martin, Tjalf Sparnaay, Cynthia Poole, Pedro Campos, Ben Schonzeit, Paul Bèliveau, Cesar Santander, Steve Smulka (Fig. 1), etc. Literature on and reproductions of hyperrealist paintings can be found at the following websites: http://www.justart‐;;; http://hyper‐ Apart from Bèliveau, there are other Canadian hyperrealists who use the photograph as their starting point: Robert Potvin, Wayne Mondock, Merv Brandel, Olaf Schneider, Brandi Deziel, Evan Penny (sculptor), etc. however, not all their work would be closely related to the hyperrealist impulse. In Newfoundland we can also find paintings by Helen Parsons Shepherd and Mary Pratt. Lisa Moore’s iconicity in Alligator, however, does not seem to be related to the Canadian painters but to less panoramic artists who obsessively represent certain kinds of objects mainly related to an urban American tradition.
  13. See Louis K. Meisel (2002) for an introduction by Linda Chase and for excellent reproductions of paintings by most photorealists.
  14. In‐Info.cfm?ArtistsID=382&InTheNews=1&Object= #Press (Last retrieved April 2, 2012).
  15. See her pictures at (Last retrieved April 2, 2012).
  16. An exception would be Denis Peterson, whose astonishing paintings of poverty and marginality pose as call‐to‐action photographs. See, for example, “A Tombstone Hand and a Graveyard Mind” in his exhibition “Don’t Shed No Tears” at http://www.denispe
  17. These painters had a hostile or rather indifferent critical response. According to Clive Head, the brainchild of Exactitude in Europe, “The art world is predominantly a place for political or social pronouncement, not a forum for aesthetic development” (2009, 14). After so much conceptual art, they think of their realism today in terms of avant‐garde. There are websites devoted to them which engage in making this kind of art known to the public. See, for example, “Deviant Art” (http://hyper‐ Clive Head (2009, 18) claims that “Exactitude occupies a very particular stance within the contemporary scene. Undeniably rooted in their own personal creativity, these artists nevertheless present a collective position against the philosophical underpinnings of the mainstream. What might be seen as a conventional pursuit in another era could be regarded as radical in today’s context. The failure of the media and large art institutions to embrace this art only intensifies its outsider status, consolidating it as an avant‐garde movement.” A return to representation was seen as a retrograde step. See also Russell Taylor (2009, 33‐45) for a discussion on the criticism to this art and a meditation on the use of photography in painting.
  18. “There are certain qualities produced by the camera that do not exist in reality; they are only present in the hyper‐realist world of photography”, says Simon Hennessey, a hyperrealist painter who exaggerates the qualities in conventional photographic portraits of people. (Bollaert 2009, 144).
  19. This is somehow surprising for an author coming from Newfoundland, an island who has historically possessed an acute sense of independence based on a distinctive cultural legacy and a political past separate from Canada. Moore’s style is at odds with usual modes of transmission of cultural memory, namely storytelling, usually revolving around episodes of the national past, sense of place, the rural idyll (or tragedy), and on a reassuring sense of human connectedness in small communities.
  20. See T. J. Demos (2010) for a meditation of the status of storytelling in contemporary art and cultural industry.
  21. See Danielle Fuller (2004) and Ian McKay (1993) for the ideological dangers of romantic constructions of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. A notorious case is Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News, harshly criticized in Newfoundland for its inaccurate and stereotyped representations of the place (see Tracy Whalen 2004).
  22. An earlier version of this paper was published as “Still Lifes: The Extreme and the Trivial in Lisa Moore’s Novel Alligator” in the electronic journal Canada and Beyond 1, 1‐2 (2011). http://www.canada‐and‐
Oct 062014

Author Pic



“We wait for a thing, and when we come upon it, it is already in the process of turning.”

                                                         —Nathalie Stephens, At Alberta





How to do justice to a text so rich that I could only do justice to it, as Charles Bernstein says, by repeating it exactly? The Obituary (2010/12) is the most challenging and enigmatic of Gail Scott’s works to date. It borrows a little something from each of her previous works, exhibiting an array of experimental techniques that are visible in her earlier work back to her first novel, Heroine:

The Obituary incorporates multiple perspectives, or multiple speakers which merge with one another (the protagonist and speaker R—or ‘I/R,’ or ‘Rosine,’ or ‘Rosie’—is both continuous and discontinuous, for example, with I/th’ fly, another speaker, and with ‘The Bottom Historian,’ yet another speaker). The subject, or self, The Obituary depicts is in this way porous; it is not unlike the protagonist of Scott’s Main Brides (1993), Lydia, who, as Jennifer Henderson points out in an insightful analysis, is never rendered in any depth, but is only accessible through the portraits she provides of the other women at whom she gazes, portraits ‘she,’ as a self presented, ultimately blends with (Moyes 72-99).

The self The Obituary depicts is also obviously fragmented (it splits off into multiple perspectives), a fact that is enhanced by Scott’s use, in the novel, of the sentence fragment as a main building unit. Scott’s use of the present participle—“Increasingly I am slipping. Yesterday, riding bicycle down sidewalk…sticking middle finger straight up…Trying by slightly bending th’ digital…Turning right + driving, still on sidewalk…” (7)—is intended to serve the same end: to allow the subject, literally absent from many of the fragments, to fritter away. These techniques become visible in Scott’s oeuvre with My Paris (1999).

The jarring syntax in both My Paris and The Obituary takes effort to acclimatize to; the language making up Scott’s prose in these two works actively draws attention to itself. Because it takes getting used to, it delays the reader’s—depending on the reader—absorption into narrative (though not forever).

Scott’s novels have all, in one way or another, attempted to reinvent narrative; they can be said to exist as part of the rich and motley tradition of so-called non-narrative.[i] The Obituary, in particular, reimagines narrative structure as an improvised structure which exhibits recurring elements (in this case, tropes and specific questions) without seeming to head anywhere (while keeping a running commentary on the fact that it seems only to meander): Plot—at least understood in conventional ways: promise and the deferred fulfillment of promise; desire, thwarted, then navigated; conflict and the unfurling of its consequences—has a minimized place here and, as a result, the book does not lend itself to blow-by-blow summary.

‘What happens’ in the first section (“R, Negative”) continues to happen in each of the text’s remaining major sections (“The Triplex,” “Venetians That Even Private Eyes Have Trouble Sleuthing,” and “A Clue in R Case”), though of course not in the same way:

A face peers from the window in her Montréal, upper-floor apartment (her city is a fictional Montréal that, in many ways, has real-world resonance); the face is noted by different passersby, whom the narrative voice describes in excessive detail (conceptually-motivated excessive detail). Sections in which the face is present, gazing out, are intercut with sections in which R/protagonist, who is both continuous and discontinuous with the face, is moving through the city streets, either by bike or by bus, or is lying on her bed in the middle of her dark-centered apartment. In the sections in which she is described as lying on her bed, R might be dead, a corpse, or she might be masturbating, or she might be reflecting upon her family history (or on her lover, the absent addressee ‘X’): each of these possibilities is suggested. The Obituary refuses to decide between them.

The sections in which R is actively traversing the city occur in the fall, whereas those in which she is bed-bound tend to be set in the winter (there is ice on the sidewalks, for example). By the winter, specifically by November 2003, the face in the window, R, has been reported missing; two cops—a young, Québécois aspiring-actor who can’t seem to handle his food (he is highly flatulent) and an older Parisian virtuoso—have set up inside the stairwell outside her apartment. The Parisian peers in through her peephole and can perhaps see her there, on the bed; the younger gendarme sits a few steps down with a computer; at different moments he seems to succeed at hacking into her files. I/th’ fly is also in the stairwell, flitting about on the old cop’s shirt collar (“essayin’ little samba…I/th’ fly stickin’ backside out + swivellin’ to left, pirhouettin’ to right…” [76]). This fly/speaker is nearly omniscient: able to “see” into the apartment with the recumbent Rosie, or R, notwithstanding the apartment’s walls and closed door, and is also able to narrate the cops’ backstories.

The rest of the text in which the above ‘set-up’ is embedded, and repeated, reads like a collage of memory and history (the prose is densely reminiscent). As R rides about, either by bike or by bus, or simply reflects, the speaker, at times coincident with her, documents the city’s current process of transformation, the people in its buildings and streets, the hybrid languages and politics found there, as well as the play of events which helped shape the city into what it is (the labouring ‘Shale Pit Workers!,’ a smallpox epidemic, and the conflagration of the historical Crystal Palace building are recurring points of focus). As the narrative voice roves, it also documents the more encapsulating history of a country founded on genocide. Creative footnotes contribute to The Obituary’s historical enterprise, supplementing the main text with critical reflections, questions, and counter-memories (from “the margins of perception” [55]) which give the lie to dominant historical narratives. A footnote in the voice of The Bottom Historian reads, “What leads generation after generation of new arrivals in the Americas to endlessly iterate that everyone here an immigrant? From earliest fresh-faced settler boys enlisting, for economic reasons, soon leaning over pits + bayonetting every copper skin that moved…” (82).

R finds that the violent effacement of the Indigenous population is not even noted in the supposedly comprehensive Book of Genocides (on loan from her landlord), which she subsequently rips up, allowing the yellowing pages to scatter on the streets below her window (they become a recurring motif). Whether she is out and about or on her bed, R is haunted by this violence, particularly insofar as it permeates her personal and familial history: She herself is Indigenous, but her ancestry is spotty: it has been downplayed and, in some cases, actively concealed; she is unsure of the details. In the final section, “A Clue in R Case,” R addresses an absent grandfather with a few of the questions which agonize her:

Grandpa: on the subject of marrow. Was your paternal grandma Maria’s lack of family name meaning she Indigenous? Was the Canuck Maria marrying somewhere au nord du Québec mixed? Or pure laine? Was your father the Shale Pit Worker! fleeing smallpox epidemy, really marrying an Ojibwa somewhere in Ontario? Whose offspring [you, Grandpa] marrying [but why only saying after she dying?], the Métis, Pricilla Daoust… (158; brackets in the original)

These questions are not answered; they exist as instances or examples of hauntings and elaborate on the novel’s central preoccupation: R tells us early on that she is posturing as a woman of “inchoate origin” (we might read: an origin not formed, but forming and hence unknown) in order to “underscore how we are haunted by the secrets of others” (6). The text proceeds as a sort of sustained meditation on this subject: R, returning again and again, in different contexts, to the question of her origin, is not the only one haunted in the text: The passersby are haunted by R’s face in the window; the cop’s in the stairwell and her psychiatrist are haunted by the fact of her absence; those who have qualms with R, her neighbours, including her landlord—the latter because R set her sex toys out on the balcony one day, where they were plainly visible to children—“Dildo like a stallion’s!” (89)—are antagonized by the secret of what she gets up to in the privacy of her own home.

Scott has used the metaphor of ‘the spiral’ or of ‘roundness’ to describe the structure of her novel Heroine (1987), which proceeds in a similarly repetitious, meditative way (with the protagonist returning again and again to the question of whether her creative practice should be subordinated to political engagement, and to the somewhat masochistic ‘open’ relationship she is engaged in with a political leader, which is deteriorating). Heroine, as Scott discusses in her collection of essays, Spaces Like Stairs (1989), is supposed to enact a feminist politics of form while gesturing through its content and structure toward a conception of the self as, not only fragmented, but unfixed (the self could be or become anything). The Obituary enacts a similar politics and gestures toward a similar conception of the self, or subject. And yet it is also a text which actively resists reductive interpretations. It may seem impossible to have it both ways: to both inscribe the novel with a politics and to shun the idea of fixed meaning (this is one of the reasons postmodernism, a champion of unfixed meaning, has seemed so incompatible with, and has even seemed like such a threat to, feminism). In what follows, I examine the ways in which The Obituary, continuous, as a text, with other texts outside it, treads precisely this hard, paradoxical line. It is a feminist, postmodern novel if there ever was one.


A Politics of Form versus the Dead Author

It will be helpful to examine Scott’s poetic, as well as the feminist politics it implies, and the problem this politics might be said to pose for postmodernism, in greater depth before exploring the respects in which it plays out—in a way that is actually compatible with postmodernism—in The Obituary (at the level of the novel’sthemes, as well as at the level of its structure).

A poetic is typically understood as theoretical writing pertaining to an actual poetic practice, though poetry and poetics can intersect at times. Scott’s works have been marketed for the most part as fiction (novels, stories), though perhaps this term, in Scott’s case, is best reduced to a marketing label. Elsewhere she refers to her works as ‘prose experiments,’ and, in general, her writings refuse the sort of dichotomized mindset that would sever fiction from poetry. Why, Scott asks, quoting Ann Lauterbach, “should only poetry [be]…about the way language works (rhythms and sounds and syntax—musical rather than pictorial values) as much as it is about a given subject?” (The Virgin Denotes). In her collection of (at times also structurally and linguistically innovative) essays, Spaces Like Stairs, Scott expresses a desire for both poetry and the cultural legitimacy bestowed by ‘story’; at no point does she forsake fiction, though she does reconfigure it in order to better create, as she says, “stories ‘shaped’ like me” (67).

Her desire in this regard—to create stories “‘shaped’ like me”—is deeply indebted to the communal feminist/aesthetic practices that were specific to late twentieth-century Montréal. These practices, in which Scott herself participated, were informed by European French feminist philosophy and what we might call postmodern writings (writings by thinkers like Foucault and Barthes), which, given the absence of a language barrier, could find their way into that context independent of translation and mediation via academia. La Théorie, un dimanche (Theory, A Sunday) is a collection of essays by the writers working in that context and imbibing these European writings (Louky Bersianik, Nicole Brossard, France Théoret, Louise Cotnoir, Louise Dupré and Scott herself contribute essays). Its content reflects the conversations that transpired between these writers in a formal discussion group initiated by Nicole Brossard in 1983: meetings on different topics were held every two months, and the fruits of this sustained form of thinking were published in French in 1988. The English translation, Theory, a Sunday was only recently published—2013—by the American experimental press Belladonna.

There are several themes which recur in this text and which carry over into Scott’s Spaces Like Stairs, which was published a year later (in 1989). The possibility of a ‘feminine subject’ is a central concern. For these thinkers—though we can see the idea in the French feminist writings which were influencing them, particularly Hélène Cixous’ influential essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa”—“the feminine” expresses a gap, or black hole in patriarchal culture: it is something that has been misrepresented, distorted, and even actively occluded in a patriarchal setting, particularly by language as it is deployed according to the (patriarchal) norms and conventions (including literary norms and conventions) that govern this setting. The question for these writers is then how to score “the feminine” in culture through creative work that does not use the very language and literary forms that are deployed to obstruct it. This is a difficult task because, as they say, the patriarchal imagination not only governs the way in which women are represented (say, within works of fiction, or even within cultural narratives), but also preserves for itself the power to either validate or discredit works of literature—praising those which conform to its aesthetic and consigning those which do not to the proverbial gutters as either ‘green’ or ‘garbage,’ effectively exiling the author from prize culture and other avenues of legitimation.

The critique here is deep: It challenges the very criteria of literary valuation, which it recognizes is not neutral, demanding that its governing conception(s) of excellence be reassessed, and that we allow a descriptive rather than a prescriptive ethos to inform our engagement with new texts. As Louky Bersianik points out in her contribution to Theory, A Sunday, “a number of critics seem far too busy telling authors, especially female authors, what they should be doing instead of taking an interest in what they are actually doing” (64).

Scott’s Spaces casts light on the functional conception of the patriarchal aesthetic that serves as a backdrop for these writers’ thinking: In it, she suggests that linear narrative (with its linear time and cause-effect logic) and conventional sentences (which hammer subjects to verbs—in a later interview she also suggests that they “sentence” in a juridical sense, deciding things, definitively [Moyes 221-2]) may hinder the expression of “the feminine.” She also articulates a suspicion of the value of ‘action’ in narrative and conventional (possibly anti-intellectual) notions of accessibility, favouring writing which follows the ear, or lets language, lets poetry specifically, “take the lead in making ‘sense’ of the socially fragmented female ‘core’” (67). Those who care deeply about creating linguistically interesting sentences, or, even more generally, linguistically interesting text, may be more likely to appreciate the tension that exists between language that titillates the ears and is visually pleasing on a page and a focus on language as communication: It is hard to both control the direction of the prose and resist falling into ‘language as usual.’ As Nicole Markotic says, speaking as a writer of prose poetry, “[a]s soon as I take a step toward the horizon, the horizon reconfigures—itself and me” (“Narrotics” par. 5).

Consistent with this, some of Scott’s early critics claimed her prose consisted merely of “a whole lot of images going nowhere,” or, if they acknowledged a through-line in a given piece, claimed it was too distracted (Spaces 67). These qualities, of course, are not inherently negative (though the claim that Scott’s images go nowhere is overstated). Nothing in art is inherently negative, and these qualities in particular make sense within Scott’s theoretical framework, which suggests that “the feminine” might be best achieved in writing through the pursuit of poetry and the temporary suspension of plot, character, form, and “reasonable” writing more generally (reason has historically been associated with masculinity—femininity, conversely, has cultural associations with madness, chaos, emotion and puerility). “The more one transgresses,” Scott writes, “the more one distances from law and order” (73).

As I mentioned earlier, Scott has used both the metaphor of ‘the spiral’ and the metaphor of ‘the sphere,’ or ‘roundness,’ to speak of the structure of this alternative mode of writing she is engaged in, which, as she sees it, is conducive to creating stories ‘shaped like her.’ A story shaped like her, a particular female self who exists and writes from within a community of other critical female selves with whom she is not exactly uniform (since no self is), is, according to the theoretical framework she is working in, a story which bears the imprint of “the feminine” (“the feminine” therefore admits of no generic template). Scott’s politics of form—which is committed to bringing “the feminine” into view in a culture which has covered it over—insists that this imprint should be present: “the writing subject is not neutral, gender coding cannot be absent from the text” (Spaces 49).

This insistence on the trace of the author on the text at first seems to stand in opposition to a postmodern way of thinking—Barthes concluded his infamous essay “The Death of the Author” with the claim that the text (namely, the postmodern text) and the birth of the reader would have to come at the expense of the author: To attribute the text to an author in terms of whom the text could be read—the text could be read as a manifestation of the author’s psychology, or history, or could be read in the way the author ‘intended’ it to be read—was seen as a gesture which limited the number of ways it could be read: the meanings linked to an Author-God, rather than existing alongside other meanings, would eclipse all other possible meanings—they would, in other words, ‘close’ the writing. The postmodern mindset, reflected in pieces like Derrida’s “I have forgotten my umbrella,” is one, conversely, which values the proliferation of meaning, encouraging readers to promote this proliferation and to eschew reductive readings by relating to words, sentences and texts in a way which does justice to the nature of language—a system of signs whose meanings, according to this mindset, are always potentially infinite and have more to do with the way signs, or words, mingle with each other than they have to do with connections between words and the things in the world, to which they are usually said to refer.

This being said, the trace of “the feminine” can be thought in relation to the postmodern in a few ways: As the insisted-upon trace of the author (a gender coding which cannot be absent), it might be thought to threaten the text’s capacity to ‘mean’ in an unlimited number of ways (it might be thought to provide a lens for the text which, treated as the exclusive lens through which the text can be explored, will hinder a reader’s exploration of the work’s myriad other possible significations ). Alternatively, the trace of “the feminine” might be conceived as a harmless pseudo, or merely supposed, trace, since fixing “the feminine” as an imprint on the text would be, according to a certain postmodern way of thinking (there are, in fact, a few different postmodern ways of thinking), an impossible task to begin with:

This postmodern mindset insists on understanding the text as a network of words which not only do not gesture to a world beyond language, but also, in mingling with each other in an infinite number of ways, perpetually posit meaning, “but always in order to evaporate it” (Barthes, DA par. 6). The text, viewed from within this mindset, cannot actually possess an ultimate meaning, let alone an ultimate feminist meaning. Because the language that makes a text up is not supposed to refer to an outside world and the things within it (words merely refer to other words), it is supposed to be impossible to discover “society, or history, the psyche, or freedom” behind it (Barthes, DA par. 6). This particular postmodern mindset also makes the more extreme suggestion that there is in fact no society or psyche (let alone a feminist psyche) behind the text: All is text. Simply. As Christian Bök puts this in “Getting Ready to Have Been Postmodern,” “the play of the postmodern goes on to display a new atopia of humanist cancellation in a world without any certified existence” (89-90; in Stacey).

I would like to defer discussion of whether “the feminine” as a fact of existence “beyond” the text is actually incompatible with a postmodern perspective (a kind of postmodern perspective) until the final section in this essay. For now, I would simply like to examine the ways in which the thinkers of Theory, A Sunday are dwelling within and acknowledge the postmodern perspective as outlined above, while also exploring the respects in which “the feminine” as an imprint on a given work may actually be compatible with this perspective.

For one thing, the thinkers of Theory acknowledge that it is impossible to limit what a text can mean; they profess a desire to create works which refuse singular meanings, as well. Louise Dupré writes that “[t]exts written by women cannot be reduced to a feminist reading, even a well-intentioned one. They constantly resist such a process” (Theory 101). Even Scott is explicitly devoted to creating texts that remain ‘open.’ In Spaces Like Stairs, she insists that “[w]here there is closure (firm conclusions) in ‘straight writing’ there are spaces, questions in hers. Even her anecdotes point to other possible representations, leave themselves open for reader intervention” (102)—‘her’ in this instance refers to a writer of “the feminine.”

As far as “the feminine” goes, moreover, it is in many ways bereft of content. True, expressed as a gap in patriarchal culture, something covered up or distorted, the term seems to point toward something pre-existing, specific and perhaps ‘essential’ (an ‘essence’ usually implies content of some kind: it is the key trait or set of traits that makes something what it is). In Spaces, Scott recounts, for example, how at a colloquium a writer asked her what she meant in using the language of “listening to the animal inside her” (presumably while speaking about how “the feminine” might be accessed): “I had to admit I meant listening to something essentially ‘feminine’—perhaps to a part of ‘self’ (i.e., self-as-woman) not quite integrated into the law, closer to ‘nature.’ In [postmodernist] terms this was heresy” (52). Yet elsewhere in Spaces, she describes “the feminine” as having a changeable meaning: it could be or become anything (47). This shift in Scott’s vocabulary speaks to a kind of intellectual flexibility and provisionality on her part; it is also in keeping with the idea that the thinkers of Theory, A Sunday are consciously engaged, not in an act of making feminist ideology—they are not telling a story about an essential “feminine”—but in an ongoing, open-ended, critical process of thinking:

Taking risks. That’s what fiction does when in uncovers a woman-consciousness that goes beyond the feminist superego. In this moment when it seems that theory is spinning its wheels, when young girls see feminism as a form of ideology, a strict doctrine that accuses them for what is actually imposed upon them from the outside, writing allows for a conception of feminism that would be a space of discussion, questioning, change. In short, a conception of feminism as it actually is: a territory in motion, open, polymorphous. A movement. (Louise Dupré, Theory 101)

“The feminine,” like the feminine subject, or self, and like the thinking that takes her as a subject, or topic, and that articulates her in different ways, is difficult to pin down in terms of content precisely because it is always “in process.” It does not necessarily find expression in female characters as they are represented or in feminist themes, and, as a result, as Scott points out, writing which inscribes “the feminine” may not necessarily lend itself to “content-focused” feminist analysis: its feminism, in keeping with a literary tradition particular to Québec, instead plays out more as a “radical contestation of language and form” (Spaces 39). I would add that, if it is registered on a thematic level, it is registered more during those meta-moments when a given text (we will see that this is true of The Obituary) has the opportunity to explicitly reflect on what it is doing (compare Spaces 47).

What is “the feminine” then? If it is, in the ways I’ve been describing, content-less, it is not clear in what sense, inscribed in the text, it would limit, like the looming Author-God Barthes criticizes, the field of a given work’s possible meanings. We still might ask how “the feminine” might be understood. I stumbled upon a passage that is illuminating in this regard while reading Rob Halpern on the topic of New Narrative. ‘Community’ as Halpern discusses it—as a concept which denotes a content that is only ‘potential’—is in some ways analogous to “the feminine” in the sense that we’ve been discussing it:

[P]otentiality characterizes New Narrative’s approach to community not as something replete with self-present or transparent content, but as a set of lacunae, blanks, opacities that propose the collective as a question, a negative, a place-holder for something in excess of what it is given…This suggests the temporality of the future anterior…In other words, what will the present’s incoherence look like from the vantage point of the transformed future our story will have ushered into being…” (89)

Interestingly, the future anterior does crop up as a theme in The Obituary—perhaps it is the trace-mark of a larger conversation, since Scott does have ties to the New Narrative tradition in the States (they developed after she became established as a writer through her initial engagement with Québec’s writing scene in the seventies and eighties), or perhaps it is not. Regardless of whether it is or isn’t, the future anterior, as a tense that is a metaphor for a future vantage point, helps us make sense of “the feminine” as something which might be both politically effective (it may usher in a new way of thinking, a new world because, proposed as a ‘blank’ or ‘opacity,’ “the feminine” poses the gendered social world as a question, suspending its assumptions) and non-ideological and in this sense non-reductive: Hindsight may show it to have a discernible content, but until then, it is without one (unless its content is its dearth of content), and by then the world and “the feminine” within it will once again be transforming.


The Feminine Subject-in-Process in The Obituary’s Themes and Structure

 “A sphere: a nice feminine shape to take off from, a shape that gives us the latitude to avoid linear time, that cause-and-effect time of partriarchal logic. Yes, the sphere is precisely the kind of shape, of movement, that permits us to leave reasonable prose behind. It’s a shape that abets (my) departure from a horizontal plane of writing, the better to decipher a memory blocked by silence, to leap from my discoveries towards a future not yet dreamed of. Twisting, altering in the process, the sphere itself…” — Gail Scott, Spaces 73

The prose making up The Obituary seems to meander. The text, which proposes a mystery and in many ways incorporates the tropes of film noir and the detective novel—we have R in the center of her dark apartment (though she may also be missing) and the two cops in her stairwell, who may see her or may not, and who are trying to solve the case of her disappearance, her possible murder—also gestures toward a direction the prose could take: It could move toward demystification, a denouement, toward the case resolved. And yet the novel only gestures toward this direction in a superficial way: it gestures toward the detective novel, toward crime fiction as a genre, only in order to subvert its conventions (particularly ‘the reveal,’ as well as the underlying assumption that there is a truth to be obtained); in doing so, the novel defines itself via a negative model (this is what I am not). Recurring themes and questions (which themselves are subject to variation as they are iterated) lend the text a degree of constancy without furthering the text along the path of knowledge. In this sense, the text’s structure is circular rather than linear (events do not unfurl and characters are not shunted along towards an endpoint, or the realization of a goal).

“The feminine,” I suggest, manifests in The Obituary, not only through the novel’s various repetitions, but also as a kind of digressiveness: as what seems at times to be the text’s improvised or haphazard, as opposed crafted, structure. ‘Digression’ takes the text afield of what is conventionally understood as good (reasonable) writing, in which all elements are supposed to serve some function (though it is never the case that every element in a text serves a function, and though it is always the case that every element, whatever it is, can be read back into a text so that it seems to). The Obituary’s seemingly improvised structure is also framed, in the text’s running commentary on itself, as an intentional and hence crafted structure, and the coexistence of these two possible meanings (such that the text can be read as both ‘improvised’ and ‘crafted’) functions to ‘open’ the text in a way that is consistent with a postmodern framework.


The Novel as Improv

The Obituary is typographically unconventional and a reading which focused on its visual presentation—a reading which paid attention, for example, to its plus signs and brackets, the line breaks which at times interrupt prose paragraphs, reconfiguring the space on the page, as well as the text’s playful lapsus linguae (its reference to Breton’s “great novel Najda” [100], among many, many others)—attempting to articulate its implications for the set of the novel’s possible readings would be valuable. Here, I will only point out that the inconsistency of its visual presentation—frequently varied spellings of “identical” words, the line-breaks I mentioned, the novel’s irregular abbreviations of ing- to in’-endings, and its irregular use of the hyphen along with the plus sign (as in “hurrying blue- + white-collar workers” [37] compared to “filth-+-vice-ridden city” [13] compared to more regular, unhyphenated combinations, as in “switching back + forth” [60])—seems to support the idea that there is no rule to this text, that it follows the idiosyncratic impulse of the moment (or that, more specifically, its “writer”—the writer the text implies, if not its actual author—was following the idiosyncratic impulse of the moment and for some reason chose to forgo editing).

Some of the text’s stricken words also belie the idea that there is any necessity behind its narrative direction: “Reeef, smiling rakishly, alongside Veeera his precocious little beauty Rosie. Already showing more leadership in her little finger than most” (121). ‘Veeera,’ the initially proposed focus, being Reeef’s wife. Rosie, swapped in, being his daughter. The text could have gone one way, but it went another. If we were to interpret the text’s omnipresent plus sign, which frequently takes the place of the conjunction ‘and,’ as a literal addition sign, then we could take its presence to suggest that the narrative progresses additively and is able to append whatever it happens to encounters to itself:

We are informed repeatedly, in different ways (which, taken together, make up the text’s meta-commentary) that the novel’s ambulation is and will continue to be that of the flâneur: random and indiscriminate, “subject to countless deviations” (25). In a footnote, the voice of The Bottom Historian tells us that, “Little by little revealing why we meandering in speaking. As disparate in associations as a voyageur on a train”; then, leaping off from her mention of the voyageur on a train, goes on in the same self-consciously meandering, free-associating way: “Hallucinating on various angles of the sunset, unless distracted by fussy table linen, or fancy brickwork or stations of the early era. When this still new, therefore allegorical, mode of transport advancing in winter night over ‘empty’ prairie…” (33).

Similarly, the “future novel space” is said to be opening “[w]ide as the legs of a porn queen” (24)—perhaps this can be taken to mean that it will admit much and admit anything.On page sixty, the novel absorbs and details a Cuban it confesses has “no future in R story.” Even one of the text’s major motifs, Hitchcock’s film Dial M for Murder, is introduced, or is presented as introduced, to the text in an aleatory manner:

A nobody in a bar R frequents notes that the washroom is “right out of Dial M for Murder” (24). The narrative voice goes on to describe his observation as “A serendipitous error. To use to our benefit,” then claims “Peter has served his purpose: / Dial M for Murder” (24). In other words, Peter, initially introduced, like the Cuban, haphazardly, and not because he had use-value, has come, it just so happens, to have use value: he has inadvertently provided The Obituary with a frame that it may now roll with; he has sparked an idea. It is illuminating, for example, to watch the film and to hear Mark Halliday, the crime-fiction writing character, explain to both Margot and her murderous husband why he believes in the perfect murder, but only on paper: “Well, because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to and in real life they don’t—always.” And, in the film, of course, the husband’s plan goes wrong, and Margot destroys her would-be assassin with a pair of scissors. The Obituary chooses to shirk Halliday’s claim about stories and the relation authors bear to control and proceeds, conversely, as life in the film does.


The Novel as Crafted

If The Obituary does in some ways identify with Hitchcock’s film, however, it also collides with it, or contests it. The novel may suggest that it proceeds, not in the way of a novel, but as life does, and yet it also unsettles this idea: As much as the Dial M for Murder motif seems to be introduced haphazardly, it is also the case that it is presaged: it appears, dripping with intentionality, six pages before Peter in the bar, when R suggests that her apartment is “awkward as 3-D set of Dial M for Murder” (18).

The Obituary, moreover, despite its labyrinthine way of proceeding, despite its indiscriminate curations, its descriptive excesses and digressions, also remains puzzlingly on task. At least compared to a work like Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence. Dies is anchored with a basic, recurring narrative frame—in this case, two people in different ways limbless, in a trench, awaiting onslaught, preparing soup—which, as Susan McCabe points out in her introduction to the work, freely recedes so that all manner of events and language can surge up, over and around it (xvii). The work lends itself to comparison with The Obituary because it, too, is a poetic experiment with narrative and is in similar ways friendly to digression and excess. However, whereas Dies tolerates sea-beasts bursting from ‘sea-sacks’ (see 43) and epic dungeon battles, The Obituary refrains from straying into the (overly) implausible or phantasmagoric. And yet The Obituary is, like Dies, intensely linguistic, sonic, odd: It is more than realistic (it is so linguistically specific it is less than realistic), only, unlike Dies, it is so without ever quitting a world whose historical and political valences resonate, uncannily, with our own. The following excerpt is in this way illustrative. ‘The face’—which is both continuous and discontinuous with R—has just streaked by the apartment’s peephole. It is

Ancilliarily coated in same dusky, near horizontal light penetrating inner stairway. Via Bottom oeil-de-boeuf door. Rendering our surveillants as splotches of miasma in corrupted stairwell air. Nitrogen. Methane. Ammonia from stagiaire J-F Jean’s [the young cop’s] steamy hotdog lunch. Dust mites. Scattered neurons. Dead ketones. Whorling swarms + electrons. Odour o’ p-p-p-patchouli from neighbouring sex trade worker. On whose scarlet salon wall hookers in blouses, long skirts, wooden trunks held over heads, themselves on way out West, ca. 1910. Crossing rocky steam in little boots. Walking walking toward red disc of a timepiece perched atop a craggy peak… (53)

The text suggests that this seemingly all-encompassing resonance, the way the novel, digressing, as towards the prostitutes above, remains so puzzlingly on-task, results from the fact that experience itself is over-connected (66). The novel, like the city in which its happenings are anchored, is saturated with history; any digression into history or memory, very capacious categories, moreover, is no digression at all, but aligns with the novel’s preoccupation with origins and genocide. In one possible reading, then, it is history, particularly but not exclusively the history of Indigenous erasure, which ‘over-connects’ experience, thereby giving rise to “th’ paranoia any citizen by definition trying to deflect” (ibid.). R/protagonist is, conversely, not a “citizen”; she is paranoid: She is trying to resist assimilation into a society of ‘better lawns’ and willed-ignorance, and, finding everywhere the traces of an undocumented genocide, goes missing herself. “Are not all paranoids,” her psychiatrist says, “self-fulfilling prophecies?” (ibid.).


A Gap in Lieu of Truth

R, as a character, is fractured; as a narrative voice, she blends with other narrative voices: those of I/th’ fly and The Bottom Historian, for example. She is also fractured in the sense that the novel refuses to make a decision about whether she is living and present, living and missing, or dead (murdered). She is also, like “the feminine,” or the feminine subject as we discussed her above, in her own way content-less. The mystery of her ancestry, of her origin, is at times presented as a major obstacle to identity (see 52). And yet ‘the truth’ regarding her ancestry, like ‘the truth’ regarding her disappearance, is tied, on a thematic level, to the novel’s (seemingly) improvised structure: the truth (whether regarding her ancestry or regarding her disappearance), the novel seems at times to suggest, is a mere improvisation as well.

I mentioned above that The Obituary subverts the conventions of the detective novel and the film noir, particularly by doing away with the requirement of a denouement; doing away with denouement is one way the novel subverts the premise that there is actually a fact about, for example, what happened, or about who murdered whom, or who attempted to murder whom (in Hitchcock’s film, the husband attempts to have his wife murdered), or even about R’s ancestry. The text is consistently ambiguous in this regard; different possibilities surface as R ruminates, but they are always framed in a way which calls their accuracy into question: “I/R [angry]: — I’m more Autochtone [exaggerating peut-être]. Than anything!” (59-60; brackets and italics in the original; “peut- être” meaning “a little”). Later, R states that, in school, “[n]o one teaching anything Algonquian.” (153).

The novel leads the reader on, perpetually making promises of a denouement (of answers) and gesturing toward a mode of arriving at it (them) which seems more suspect, more whimsical and jubilantly ineffective, every minute: “For a story, to be feasible, must be moving forward. Which is why I/R daily boarding avatar of public transport” (48). “Reader, in interest of dénouement, let us follow silhouette dégageant from wind-battered crowd” (125). Again and again, the text seems only to posit narrative direction as a pretext for its own persistence: “Is not our future narrative to keep us moving forward?” [9]yetwhatever it decides to say or turn its eye on, no matter how tangential, will sustain the forward motion. Oh! it seems to say, in its various addresses to the reader, ‘Let’s do this because we can. I mean, trust us, we are heading somewhere.’ At various points in time, a voice surges up and claims to be setting the novel back ‘on track’ (“But let us stick to the path of our intrigue” [28]; “Here, it behooves I/Basement Bottom Historian, to surface. Encore. For purpose of resetting intrigue on path to dénouement” [115]); the novel’s meta-statements concerning its own self-reflexive aimlessness, however, work tirelessly to corrode a reader’s faith that this is actually what’s happening.

The recurring, repeatedly re-contextualized, somewhat enigmatic idea that “we are moulded by circumstantial evidence” also vexes the idea that, in the novel, there is a truth to be had, specifically a historical truth beyond history’s various tellings, which are themselves sculpted by the vagaries which weave the context from which they issue: “But we are moulded by circumstantial evidence, so for th’future…no visible dénouement [again, no interval during which truth will be ousted]” (55). “R little surrogate,” moreover, is at a loss to “secrete th’Méta Physique under th’ Topo Logic of reality [or, we might say, though there are multiple ways the phrase might be interpreted, the (non-extant) truth under a linguistic surface]” (144).

Even the young cop—a knowledge-constructor—sitting, once R has gone missing or has been murdered, or has simply barricaded herself in her apartment, a few steps down from her keyhole, working away on his computer, decides to assemble his final police report—the hard evidence, as it were—using a “hazardous selection method” inspired by Breton’s “Najda” (100). He collects: E-mails. Word Doc diary entries. “Chat logs. Police cams in trees. Phone tabs. Whatever. Gleanings he ideally formatting into little rotating loops, disappearing/appearing in no fixed order. Creating nifty multi-flash effect” (ibid.). Truth here is merely the clash of random documents, which, taken together, remain enigmatic and uninformative.

We could read the young cop’s random assemblage, which makes up a sizeable chunk of the novel’s penultimate section, as a mise en abyme, a small-scale version of what is going on in the novel on a larger scale: The Obituary in this way insinuates that its parts have likewise been haphazardly selected, while rendering the idea that we might glean from it, from them, through our readerly efforts, any kind of knowledge or clarification concerning R—that is, knowledge which exceeds the idea that she is a missing center—suspect.

The text’s final section (where its denouement would be placed, if there was one) takes a similar form: it is a motley gathering of flashbacks, epistle-form reminiscences, and sharp, sometimes sad images (I am thinking of an image of Veeera, R’s mother, who is dead; R remembers her “expiring on divan. Tummy swollen from sugar + wheat. Very pale from refusing in summer to let tanning sun fall, even on back of little finger” (162); she refuses to be dark, and there is a racial meaning here, since the text also suggests that she was raised unaware of the fact that she was iBndigenous.)


The Future Anterior in Poe’s “Ligeia” in The Obituary: Two Readings

To be sure, The Obituary is not a lighthearted novel. It depicts a self, a subject, with a gap at her core. It deftly confuses the truth of the subject with its own ludic way of unfolding, proposing, perhaps, that there is no truth below the surface of a narrative that just happens to happen as it happens. In a sense, it favours the reach toward knowledge (the act of questioning) over the possibility of attaining knowledge (the answer). The former, it sustains; the latter, it suspends indefinitely. At the same time, it showcases other ideas and features (like its meta-commentary) which trouble this reductive reading. Perhaps, it suggests, for example, the text’s structure is not improvised after all.

In a sense, the novel also suggests that R’s history, far from absent, is lodged in her in a way that is so concrete it could actually be related to her eventual murder. I would like to trace this tension in the text between the thought that R is, like “the feminine,” content-less and the thought that she is overdetermined by her history (the thought that her ancestry determines her destiny). The Obituary refers to many outside texts—among these: Breton’s Nadja, Hitchcock’s film, which we discussed, Shakespeare’s Macbeth as well as Romeo and Juliet, and Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia.” It uses these texts to frame its own preoccupations. It is “Ligeia,” in particular, that can be read alongside Scott’s novel in a way which brings out the idea of an oppressively present past, or origin.


First, A Note on the Ghost of the Author

So far, I’ve been reading The Obituary largely in terms of the framework provided in Scott’s Spaces Like Stairs and in the collaborative work Theory, A Sunday, so I provide this new reading (making use of Poe’s “Ligeia”) partly as a way to deviate from that framework. Contra Barthes when he claims that “[t]o give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing” (DA par. 6), I want to examine the way in which the thought of a feminine-subject-in-process, possessing a content which might only come into sight retrospectively, exists as only one lens among others through which the work might come into focus. Yet, I want to insist that, in this case, a reading that hews (in a way certain postmodernists would find dubious) to what Scott, or The Author, has said about her own work is a necessary supplement to the alternative reading I outline below: it keeps this alternative reading from having what postmodernists should find even more dubious: a monopoly on meaning (the text’s possible meanings are supposed to be infinite).

As far as the question of whether “the feminine,” which I have suggested is inscribed in various ways in The Obituary,[ii] refers to something “beyond” the text goes…The extreme version of postmodernism suggests that everything is text, that there is no world and no self “outside” of the text, never mind a feminine subject which might be inscribed in the text for political purposes, namely, in order to bring that subject into view in a culture which has ignored it. And yet postmodernism is also a perspective that refuses hard and fast distinctions between opposites; it is in this sense a way of thinking which in theory should actually resist the idea that texts and selves, or even texts and the world, could be thought in any way other than in relation to each other: The thought that ‘all is text’ is too one-sided for this way of thinking.

In writings like Of Hospitality and “Violence and Metaphysics,” for example, Derrida collapses ‘self’ into ‘other’ and ‘inside’ into ‘outside’—he writes these concepts out in a way which allows us to see that these so-called opposites actually participate in each other, and that they wouldn’t be what they are if they didn’t. The subject, or self, that Foucault theorizes (from different angles in his early and late works) is likewise saturated with what is sometimes conceived as its “outside”: cultural norms as well as the writings and categories which make up the available means of self-interpretation. Foucault’s subject is, in many ways, just this “outside” in the sense that such texts make up what Foucault wouldn’t but what we might call its psychology.

This idea does not have to be taken to imply that the self is “only” text. The philosopher Seyla Benhabib goes this route when she argues that the self cannot be understood as both language, or text—as part of “the chain of significations of which it was supposed to be the initiator”—and as a political agent: If the self is only a “position in language,” then, she supposes, it cannot reflect on and alter language, let alone the world through language (a situation which leaves postmodernism and feminism looking pretty irreconcilable). Judith Butler’s works Giving an Account of Oneself and The Psychic Life of Power, conversely, encourage us to rethink the self, and its ability to act, as a paradox: as consistent with the idea that the social world’s normalizing categories and practices make up the self’s proverbial tissue, while at the same time making agency (mainly in the form of self-change) possible.

Postmodernism’s “dead” author can be thought of, then, in a way that is perfectly consistent with postmodernism, not as an instance in which the writer, or self, and world are abolished, but as just another instance in which self and other, and inside and outside, blend. When Barthes claims, for example, in “The Death of the Author,” that if the writer “wants to express [read: insists, naively, on expressing] himself [sic], at least he should know that the internal ‘thing’ he claims to ‘translate’ is itself only a readymade dictionary whose words can be explained (defined) only by other words, and so on ad infinitum” (par. 5), this claim in itself does little to discredit the idea of a feminine subject (rethought), in the world (rethought) beyond (even the idea of ‘being beyond’ must be rethought) the work. It also does little to discredit the idea of a feminine subject, leaving a trace on the text, or participating in the work as a frame which sits alongside and only sometimes inflects its many other meanings: Writing, as Barthes says, “ceaselessly posits meaning but always in order to evaporate it” (Barthes, DA par. 6)—why couldn’t a novel, then, posit “the feminine” in the way it posits any other kind of meaning: ephemerally?

All this being said, I should acknowledge that “the feminine” I’ve read into The Obituary has been relayed through another text (a book of Gail Scott’s theory): All I’ve truly done is read one book in terms of another by the same author. The above discussion has not been fruitless though, because, having read the “novel” in terms of the “theory,” we would still have to wonder whether a form of culturally-downplayed feminine experience could be said to exist “outside” of these paired works,and we would still have to wonder if articulating the feminine, whether in theory-form or fiction-form or via some inter-genre, such as Scott tends to work in, is both, even from within a postmodern way of thinking (since I am attempting to read The Obituary as a specifically feminist postmodern novel), possible and meaningfully political. If all is text, brute text (as opposed to text as the nuancing folds of Judith Butler’s mind make it out to be: text can take the form of a living self), then it is hard to see how anything other than the “new atopia of humanist cancellation” Christian Bök associates with postmodernism could be possible.

Reading The Obituary alongside Scott’s Spaces is a (postmodern) fair move. Any piece of writing is an entity with questionable boundaries, after all (remember that strict distinctions like ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ lapse from within a postmodern perspective). To speak metaphorically, a book extends into, or takes in, the other works to which it refers. It can also be joined, through a reading, with any number of other texts. (And the author is perhaps just a text of a different sort.)


“Ligeia” (R/protagonist as Rowena)

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” is a more conventional sort of text embedded in The Obituary. The young Québécois cop siting in R’s stairwell is also a drama enthusiast and is planning to audition for a night-school performance of a play based on Poe’s story. Other details strewn about The Obituary also serve to connect it to “Ligeia.” A brief summary here, so that I can draw these connections out:

In the tale named for her, Ligeia is a woman of angelic beauty and unsurpassed intelligence; her dark eyes, “orbs [of] the most brilliant black” (570) (which pop up at various places in Scott’s novel), according to her husband, the narrator, are her defining features. She falls ill, then passes. After losing her, the narrator purchases a gloomy abbey in England, where, in one of its decadently ornamented, though strangely moribund, chambers—perhaps it is the presence of vertical sarcophagi that does it—he takes another wife: Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine, though he continues to suffer his memories of Ligeia, mourning what, to his mind, had been an ideal marriage.

After their second month together, Lady Rowena takes ill. She summons her husband to her bedside on the night she is sure to die; she appears to be fainting, and so the narrator leaves her side to procure, from elsewhere in the chamber, the same chamber in which he had married her, “a decanter of light wine which had been ordered by her physicians” (576). But as he goes to fetch the wine, he feels “some palpable although invisible object” pass lightly beside him and notices “upon the golden carpet, in the very middle of the rich lustre thrown from the censer, a shadow—a faint, indefinite shadow of angelic aspect—such as might be fancied for the shadow of a shade” (ibid.). He also becomes aware of “a gentle footfall upon the carpet” (ibid.). He returns to Rowena and gives her the wine, but as she drinks, he notices a few drops of ruby fluid spring, “as if from an invisible spring in the atmosphere of the room” (ibid.) into the goblet. Rowena’s condition immediately worsens.

Soon afterwards, she dies. Around midnight, the narrator, who has stayed with the body, hears a sob. In fact, Rowena is not dead, he determines: there is colour in her cheeks; he hastens to resuscitate her. But all is in vain, for the colour drains off and a “repulsive clamminess and coldness” (577) colonizes the body. The narrator returns to his wake, sitting in the ambient dreariness, eyeing the corps. The clock rolls on and once more he hears something: a sigh, this time. The corps nearly grins: the lips disclose “a bright line of pearly teeth” (ibid.). There is “a slight pulsation of the heart” (578). The narrator responds again with all of his impotent urgency, but the corpse, once more, becomes corpse-like. Until the grey dawn, we are told, the narrator navigates, again and again, this “hideous drama of revivification” (ibid.)—until, finally, the corpse is committal: Its stirrings become more vigorous than previous stirrings; it stands and advances “boldly and palpably into the middle of the apartment” (ibid.). The shrouds loose off, and the narrator knows, by its indisputable eyes, that it is Ligeia.

In The Obituary, mention of ghosts is frequent. Early on, R, during one of her excursions into history, speaking of British officers, tells us that “They were rumoured not to like girls like me very much. / They also hated Indians. / This is better documented. / By the end of our tale, we may likewise be dead” (7). The stricken word ‘dead’ is, of course, because stricken, ambiguous, but the novel also suggests, at various points, that R might return as a ghost (47 and 115) (at any point in time, it is unclear, of course, whether she is dead or alive). At one point, as the young cop hunches in the stairwell, working on his computer, a “[w]hite light spot bob[s] back out 4999 Settler-Nun casement” (150)—4999 is R’s apartment number. Ligeia’s disembodied shadow on the carpet in Poe’s tale, as well as the narrator’s ghostly rubbing and the soft patter of footsteps he mentions, resonate with The Obituary at this moment in particular.

A few of The Obituary’s subtitles as well as the title given to the novel’s last section also link Poe’s dreary bridal chamber, which is also a death chamber, to R’s shadowy bedroom (the center, we are repeatedly reminded, is dark, and that is where she, or possibly her corpse, lies). These are “The Crypt’s Tale,” “Her Little Shelf a Cemetery,” and “A Clou in R Case,” respectively (“a clou in R case” sounds like “a clue in our case,” and can take on that meaning, but once the French word “clou” is translated, it literally becomes “a nail in R case,” which might be taken to mean something like “a nail in R’s coffin”). The “hideous drama of revivification” Poe’s narrator witnesses, moreover, finds an echo in The Obituary’s back-and-forth between autumn scenes in which R is out, roaming about the city, and winter scenes in which she is (possibly) dead in her apartment.

The most striking connection between Scott’s novel and “Ligeia,” however, is the absence of R’s shadow in a vision her fortune-reading grandfather somehow conjures in a teacup: “Black eyes [remember Ligeia’s], blonde curls, skating on future ice of big dark city. Something happening but winter keeps her warm. Entirely my sentiments, old man thinking. When beholding, in bottom of cup, time going on back. Out Room door. Stairs. Yellow leaves, also exiting court. What alarming Grandpa most: his little Rosie casting no shadow” (119-20). R’s absent shadow is, of course, the inverted figure of the shadow Poe’s narrator observes on the carpet, which is not attached to a body (but which may be attached to a ghost), yet both details stand out because they are curious. R’s absent shadow is suggestive of Ligeia’s unaccountably-present shadow because it is equally curious.

In all of the ways just outlined, The Obituary self-consciously aligns itself with “Ligeia”; because it does so, it becomes possible to read “Ligeia” in terms of The Obituary’s themes; it also becomes possible to read The Obituary in terms of the “Ligeia” which emerges when Poe’s text is read in terms of The Obituary’s themes: The Obituary, relayed through “Ligeia,” embellished there, returns to The Obituary. The character Ligeia can be read figuratively, specifically as a representation of R’s history, ancestry, or what she terms her origin, and this reading has consequences for the way we might read The Obituary.

Ligeia, the narrator’s former wife—her life has, quite literally, passed, such that she, and the narrator’s former life with her, are things of the past—readily lends herself as a figure for the past, or history. In Poe’s tale, however, she is fully restored, if the narrator is to be believed, to the present through the body of the hapless Rowena. It is possible that she even destroys Rowena or abets her illness so that she can take her place (red drops spurt, as if from an invisible spring, into Rowena’s cup, and we might associate this event with Ligeia, whose presence as a ghost has just been implied, and conclude from the fact that Rowena’s condition, once she has had her drink, immediately worsens, that the drops were a poison of some kind.)

Linking this reading back to The Obituary, we can note, once more, that R, noticing everywhere the traces of an undocumented genocide, herself goes missing. “Did not Auntie Dill,” R ruminates, “sitting on her scooter outside Starby’s in Kelowna…reply when asked what colour Grandma’s hair was, hint of panic beneath her perfect curled lashes:/ —N-O-T N-O-I-R [not black, or not dark]” (16). The fact that R’s is Indigenous, though she does not know the particularities of her ancestry, is significant. When speaking of the British officers mentioned above, she says, “They were rumoured not to like girls like me very much. / They also hated Indians.” Of course, ‘girls like me’ could, given what we know about R, also mean girls who happen to be Indigenous. This interpretation makes sense in light of the way R finishes her thought/verse: “They were rumoured not to like girls like me very much. / They also hated Indians. This is better documented. / By the end of our tale, we may likewise be dead” (7). The pronoun ‘we’ in this last sentence is ambiguous, however it does include R: if R is Indigenous, then the British (a figurative stand in for a more general cultural force perhaps) will kill her like they killed the other “Indians” they hated.

The origin which obsesses R, in a sense, and on a figurative level, in the way Ligeia overtakes Rowena, does her in. She cannot escape it: “Do not skyscrapers bear, deep within, straw huts? The person, her ancestors?” (115). She perhaps, the novel insinuates, in the past, even attempted to escape her origins (she has a dream about her mother, who is accusing her of lying about her origins [ibid.]; in the text’s final section, in an address to her grandfather, she also explains a move across the country as a way of attempting to become authentic, a state of being she associates, with having origins, with being either able, or willing, to remember them, all of which implies that at some previous point in time she was ‘inauthentic,’ either unable or unwilling to affirm them [see 152]). In the end, however, R does not escape her ancestry: she still goes missing, as if her Indigenous blood has marked her, such that she cannot be an exception to the genocide she has trained her eye on. “It is so easy to be murdered” (157), she tells us.

Read against the backdrop of Poe’s story, R’s ‘origin’ comes into sight, not as a gap, but as a concrete, future-determining presence. As such, it gives us an alternative way to understand ‘the future anterior’ at those moments it surfaces in the novel (we already encountered Rob Halpern’s version). ‘The future anterior,’ as a grammatical tense, signals the idea of a past which is not yet a past, but will be a past at a future point in time (‘she will have returned by tomorrow’). In other words, it is a future past, or, stretching things (figuratively again), it is a past lodged in the future (like Ligeia is lodged in Rowena’s body). (In the novel, the future anterior is presented as the figurative location at which “all stories are told” [46], a domain which is, according to R, “the realm of the ancestors” [152].) But this past lodged in the future is also described as a monstrous one: R refers to “th’ future [+ th’ anterior within it]” as a “monstrosity” towards which she is “obliged to keep movin’” (145; brackets in the original). The fact that it is described as monstrous is consistent with and supports a reading in which “th’ anterior” within “th’ future” is understood as one representation of R’s origin, or ancestry, which, pitted against an enduring cultural hatred, ensures her annihilation. Again, it is no coincidence that she goes missing: she is Indigenous, and her ancestry haunts, and governs, her future, which it expunges, much like Ligeia blots out Rowena. Her ancestry, on this reading, both provides and exhausts her ‘content.’

This take on the future anterior is, of course, markedly different from the one Halpern provided us with in suggesting that the ‘community’ New Narrative writing sometimes takes as its focus is always only a potential community: it is posed as “a set of lacunae, blanks, opacities that propose the collective as a question, a negative, a place-holder for something in excess of what is given,” rather than inscribed with a specific content. Above, following Halpern, I took the future anterior to imply that retrospection from a not-yet-existing (future) vantage point alone can make sense of what, at present, may seem to be a given novel’s chaos or nebulous ambiguity. “The feminine,” in Scott’s work, like New Narrative’s community, might come into sight as having a specific content from this vantage point, but, until then, remains a gap. Of course, ‘the future anterior’ might be interpreted in a more extreme way as well: It can be taken to mean that what a given novel—and whatever it preoccupies itself with, whether a community, as in Halpern’s case, or “the feminine,” in Scott’s—never means anything (any one thing) in particular and always only will have taken on a particular meaning, since a future tense remains a future tense (it does not, like the non-grammatical future, become the present, and then the past), and since this implies that the future vantage point the tense implies, not to mention the ‘content’ visible from that vantage point, is one which never arrives.

The future anterior, a theme in Scott’s novel, taken in this last way, dovetails with the idea of a (content-less) feminine-subject-in-process expressed in the work, where it is manifest partly as a structure that seems to wander, repeat itself and, ultimately, head “nowhere”—a structure which is the possible effect of an unconventional and, perhaps in many contexts, culturally disavowed approach to writing—a “feminine” approach, to use Scott’s terminology—which eschews logic linearity, knowledge and fixed endpoints, and instead pursues poetry in a way which allows the writer “to leap from [her] discoveries toward a future not yet dreamed of” (Spaces 71). It also resonates with the postmodern attitude which understands a given work’s meanings as open-ended and infinite (meaning only congeals at a never-arriving vantage point). It is in this strange way fully compatible with the alternative interpretation of ‘the future anterior’ which emerges when we read The Obituary alongside “Ligeia,” though the reverse is not true, since the version that emerges through this joint reading points towards the thought of an origin as the self’s—as R’s—fixed content, and also as a guarantor of death (her fixed end), which itself would depend on a fixed interpretation of the work.

Yet both meanings (and many more) emerge in the work, where they trouble each other. In fact, many of Scott’s sentences and sentence fragments have been crafted in such a way that they maximize possible interpretations and minimize situations in which one interpretation could become dominant: “By the end of our tale,” R tells us, “we may likewise be dead” (7). The word ‘dead,’ stricken, I mentioned above, is ambiguous. Because “dead,” in this sentence, is stricken (not absent, but still implied under the strike mark), the sentence might be read conventionally: “we may likewise [like the “Indians” the previous sentence refers to, and whom the British officers despised] be dead” (my emphasis; “may,” here, introduces another element of ambiguity, since it indicates a possibility, not a necessity). Or it might be understood in an opposite way (since ‘dead’ is, for all that, crossed out): “we may not be dead” or, more specifically, we may not, like the “Indians” the British officers despised, be dead: in one sense, they are not dead because they continue to haunt R. And a ghost—which R may or may not be—is itself an ambiguous figure: it is both dead and present, both dead and, in a sense, living.


The Obituary posits meanings constantly, but only to evaporate them. Interpreting the novel is part of the pleasure of engaging with it, and because of the way the novel is written, it will remain perennially interesting. The first time I read this book, about two years ago by now, I read it quickly, and not for meaning at all: it was poetry, sound, weird, refreshing language I was after. My particular reading here has depended on many other essays and creative pieces I was reading while encountering the novel for a second time: encountering it as a reader hoping, also, to write an essay—hoping to lock myself into a deeper kind of engagement with the work, hoping even, maybe, to ‘get something’). The Obituary absorbed these other texts, but it is not limited by them. It is forever a work that will have been. You must read it now. And forget everything this essay claims.

—Natalie Helberg


Selected Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. 1975. The Pleasure of the Text. New York: Hill & Wang. Print.

_____. “The Death of the Author.” Aspen (No. 5 + 6) (UbuWeb). Web. June 4. 2014.

Benhabib, Seyla. “Feminism and Postmodernism: An Uneasy Alliance.” Marxist Internet Archive. Web. July 1. 2014.

Bernstein, Charles. 1992. A Poetics. Cambridge; London: Harvard UP. Print.

Bersianik, Louky, et al. 2013. Theory, A Sunday. Brooklyn: Belladona. Print.

Butler, Judith. 2005. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham UP. Print.

_____. 1997. The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford: Stanford UP. Print.

Dial M for Murder. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Warner Bros., 1954. Film.

Halpern, Rob. “Realism and Utopia: Sex, Writing, and Activism in New Narrative.” Journal of Narrative Theory 41.1 (2011): 82-124.

Poe, Edgar Allan. 2002. “Ligeia.” Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems. Edison: Castle Books. 569-79. Print.

Markotic, Nicole. “Narrotics: New Narrative and the Prose Poem.” Narrativity: A Critical Journal of Innovative Narrative (Issue One). Web. 10 July. 2014.

Moyes, Lianna, ed. 2002. Gail Scott: Essays on Her Work. Toronto; Buffalo; Chicago; Lancaster: Guernica. Print.

Place, Vanessa. 2005. Dies: A Sentence. Los Angeles: Les Figues. Print.

Scott, Gail. 2012. The Obituary. Callicoon: Nightboat. Print.

_____. 2002. “The Virgin Denotes:Or the Unreliability of Adverbs To Do with Time.” Narrativity: A Critical Journal of Innovative Narrative (Issue Three). Web. 10 July. 2014.

_____. 1999. My Paris. Toronto: Mercury. Print.

_____. 1993. Main Brides. Toronto: Coach House. Print.

_____. 1989. Spaces Like Stairs. Toronto: Women’s Press. 65-76. Print.

_____. 1987. Heroine. Toronto: Coach House. Print.

_____. 1981. Spare Parts. Toronto: Coach House. Print.

Stacey, Robert David, ed. 2010. Re: Reading The Postmodern: Canadian Literature and Criticism after Modernism. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P. Print.

Stephens, Nathalie. 2008. At Alberta. Toronto: Book Thug. Print.


Gail Scott is one of Canada’s most eminent experimental writers. Between 1967 and 1991, she worked as a journalist and eventually as an instructor of journalism in Montréal; during this time she also participated in Anglophone and Francophone feminist circles which deeply influenced her writing practice. She is the author of four novels, or ‘prose experiments’—Heroine (1987), Main Brides (1993), My Paris (1999), The Obituary (2010)Spare Parts (1981), a collection of short stories, and Spaces Like Stairs (1989), a collection of essays. In 1979, she founded the French language cultural magazine Spirale; in the eighties, she co-founded and worked as an editor for the bilingual journal Tessera. More recently, alongside Mary Burger, Camille Roy and Robert Glück, she founded and edited the online journal Narrativity, whose express purpose was to supply a form of “missing nutrition” in articulating “ideas about theory-based narrative”; she co-edited the experimental narrative anthology Biting the Error (2004; shortlisted for a Lambda award in 2005) alongside the same writers.

Scott’s French to English translation of Michael Delisle’s Le Déasarroi du matelot was shortlisted for the Governor General’s award in translation in 2001. The Obituary was a finalist for the Montréal Book of the Year (Grand prix du livre de Montréal) in 2011. Her own work, the sentences which make it up, make much out of the bilingual and even multi-lingual language-contexts out of which they arise—they are clamorous, unique for their musicality. Scott has lived in a variety of places, including Paris, Grenoble, New York, and Stockholm, but her base continues to be Montréal.


 helberg pic

Natalie Helberg completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on and in Canadian Literature. She is working on a hybrid novel.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Scott’s writing grew out the experimental feminist writing scene localized in Montréal in the seventies and eighties; in Canada, around that time, bpNichol and Steve McCaffery were also toying with the idea of non-narrative narrative through their work on the book as a machine. This work emphasized the book’s materiality (some dimensions of which would be the look of words and letters used in a work and the use of white space on a page—the presence of suspect smirches on a particular copy’s page would count as well) and also attempted to dismantle the hierarchy between writer and reader, since the sort of texts they were theorizing were supposed to promote the reader’s participation in ordering the text—in choosing the sequence in which the text is read—among other things.
  2. Through its structure, when that structure seems improvised, through the running commentary it keeps on that structure, which gives the lie to the idea that it is fully improvised, and through the novel’s repetitious concern with what it means to be haunted, as R is, by the secrets of others, which I mention in the introduction.
Jul 152014

BeatrieBeatrice, Gustave Doré

Wayne HankeyWayne Hankey


I declare that to recommend Goodness and Innocence hath been my sincere Endeavour in this History. The honest Purpose you [his Patron] have been pleased to think I have attained: and to say the Truth, it is likeliest to be attained in Books of this Kind; for an Example is a Kind of Picture, in which Virtue becomes as it were an Object of Sight, and strikes us with an Idea of that Loveliness, which Plato asserts there is in her naked Charms.” —“Dedication,” The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.

Of Sophia “There is indeed in perfect Beauty a Power which none almost can withstand.” —Tom Jones

“Sophia expecting to find no one in the Room, came hastily in, and went directly to a Glass which almost fronted her, without once looking towards the upper End of the Room, where the Statue of Jones now stood motionless.—In this Glass it was, after contemplating her own lovely Face, that she first discovered the said Statue; when instantly turning about, she perceived the Reality of the Vision”  —Tom Jones

Jones replied “’Don’t believe me upon my Word; I have a better Security, a Pledge for my Constancy, which it is impossible to see and to doubt.’ ‘What is that?’ said Sophia, a little surprised. ‘I will show you, my charming Angel,’ cried Jones, seizing her Hand, and carrying her to the Glass. ‘There, behold it there, in that lovely Figure, in that Face, that Shape, those Eyes, that Mind which shines through those Eyes: Can the Man who shall be in Possession of these be inconstant? Impossible! My Sophia….You could not doubt it, if you could see yourself with any Eyes but your own.” —Tom Jones

“We have found beauty shining most clearly through the clearest of our senses; for sight is the sharpest of the physical senses, though wisdom is not seen by it, for wisdom would arouse terrible love, if such a clear image of it were granted as would come through sight, [1] and the  same is true of the other lovely realities; but beauty alone has this privilege, and therefore it is most clearly seen and most lovely.” —Phaedrus


Having chosen to stomp with me through history in seven league boots, you will expect neither minute accuracy nor subtlety. The aim of my outrageous generalizations is to present some features of conversion as represented over about twenty-five hundred years in the pagan and Christian west in a way which may prove illumining because not expected. Rather than looking at conversion as primarily a religious phenomenon, though not leaving this out, I shall mainly present it as psychic, ontological, and secular.[2] Moreover, although these three aspects can be seen together at almost every point, in order to bring out differences, I shall stress the psychological through Plato’s dialogues, the ontological through Neoplatonic–Peripatetic systems, and the secular through 18th and early 19th century novels of Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Jane Austen. The elements touched on from Plato and his Late Ancient and Medieval successors will largely be determined by what is modified or suppressed by our cast of English novelists.

Our conclusion with Tom Jones would justify beginning with the Odyssey and its hero’s conversion as return home drawn by the faithful Penelope; Fielding, the Etonian, the most learned mythologically and philosophically of our novelists, looks back to that paradigm.[3] I begin rather with a foundational and secular representation, that of the Cave and the Line in Plato’s Republic. There the gods and religious practice are not mentioned, either as the goal or means of the conversion. They stand in the background, because Parmenides’ The Way of Truth belongs to that. They are certainly found as end and means in the ἀναγωγή described by Diotima in the Symposium and in the Gnothi seauton of the Alcibiades to which the Cave conversion is assimilated in the Platonic tradition. The divine and religious practice will belong to the Platonic ἀναγωγή, not only for the Middle and Neoplatonists, but also when the Abrahamic monotheisms and Platonism merge so as to determine a fundamental of the Western religious and philosophical traditions. There, most notoriously in Augustine’s account of the Trinity and in its Latin successors, even the Divine Being will convert upon Itself.[4]


From the Cave to the Divine Mirror: Conversion in the Republic, the Symposium, and the Alcibiades[5]

By way of the analogy of the Cave, the movement, of the prisoners bent down by their chains, up the Line from ignorance, non-being, and darkness to knowledge, being, light and their source, the Good, is “to turn around” (στρέφειν). A journey upwards, a conversion (ἀναγωγή or περιαγωγή) is required. This demands someone with the art of leading around (τέχνη…τῆς περιαγωγῆς), who can convert (μεταστραφήσεται). Ultimately this requires that someone who has seen the light return to the dark to help the prisoners break their chains, turn around, move upwards and out.[6] The resulting soteriology is most influentially and completely worked out philosophically by Iamblichus and Proclus. Religions, pagan, Jewish, Christian, Muslim have this idea and these images at their centre and a converting saviour or saviours (Protagoras, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed).


Plato's Cave.Plato’s Cave

Convergence of the Abrahamic religions and Platonism in respect to this Platonic conversion was assisted by ἐπίστρεψον in the repeated refrain “Turn us again, O Lord; show us the light of thy countenance (πρόσωπόν) and we shall be saved” of Psalm 79 in the Septuagint, translated in the Vulgate and English by convert,[7] and by the use of the same language in both works in Lamentations 5.[8] Equally, the representation of that from which we are saved encourages assimilation. We are bent down (κατεκάμφθην),[9] incurvatus in Latin, which describes for Augustine the state of the idolater divinizing material objects,[10] and, when the Prayer of Manasse added “by many chains of iron”, it is not surprising to find that quoted by Aquinas.[11] Anselm may be linking the Psalm with Boethius who certainly knew Plato’s text when he describes the fallen children of Adam as “bent over double so that they can only see down.”[12] Bonaventure is looking back to Anselm when he describes fallen blind humanity as “incurvatus in tenebris.”[13]

The Consolation of Philosophy might be called a secularized Christianity insofar as that religion is assimilated to the common Platonism of Late Antiquity and never shows itself directly. The itinerarium of the imprisoned and condemned Boethius begins with his eyes cast down to the earth “in terram defixo,” so that saving Philosophia must sit or bend down to come to him.[14] Its centre, in every sense, is the famous prayer, “O Qui Perpetua,” sung by Philosophia on the authority of Plato’s Timaeus, and summarizing its doctrine, so as to effect the conversion of human ratio beyond itself up the Line to intellectus.[15] Beatrice, “cerchiato de le fronde di Minerva” in the Commedia, effects the same for Dante.[16] Tom Jones is converted to and by Sophia, but she is best translated as “prudence”. Its conclusion in Boethius and Dante is the Plotinian simplification of vision so that reason is drawn toward the divine intuition. Central to its means is a knowledge of the nature of Fortuna, unceasing change, which is mostly gained by humans from the experience of practical life. In common with the Platonic tradition, e.g. Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Proclus, Boethius teaches that Fate or Fortune operates under, and is an instrument of, Providence which characteristically brings good out of evil.[17] The use of Fortune by Providence, and the Providential drawing of good out of evil, are essential to Tom Jones and the other secular accounts of conversion.

interviewInterview between Tom Jones and Sophia Western

Plato and Aristotle turn the Delphic Gnothi seauton into a means of conversion by a reversal of Socratic philosophical religion where it agrees with the poets as the inspired revealers of Hellenic religion. For Socrates, only God is wise and the Delphic Gnothi seauton is directed against hubristic human pretence to know. In contrast, for Plato and Aristotle, it is a command to know what we are through knowing the divine, so (to quote Aristotle who will be taken up by Plotinus in this and much else) “being human we are not to think like mortals” but rather strive to participate the divine life.

The main dialogue employed for teaching the discipline of self-knowledge was the Alcibiades Major of Plato. In it Socrates, as the faithful lover, is represented in conversation with Athens’ most fatally beautiful kouros. Read early by those being educated in the Neoplatonic schools, the Oracle’s admonition is interpreted so as to require knowledge of self through the higher namely: the soul, the true lover and guide, and, ultimately, God. Mirroring is essential to understanding both what is (as theophany) and our knowing. Once again there is an important convergence. St Paul, writing to the Corinthians about the itinerarium love travels from lower to higher kinds of knowing until it reaches the mutual divine human intuition Boethius sought, compares our present knowledge to obscure vision through a mirror.[18] Plotinus uses mirroring repeatedly and variously, so, for example, the presence of soul to bodies is spoken of “as giving images of itself, like a face seen in many mirrors.”[19] We may say that Dante meets Beatrice in and as mirror.[20] It is especially important for the representation of Sophia and Allworthy in Tom Jones, that mirroring enables transcendence and immanence simultaneously. With such a convergence of Plotinus and Paul, it is not surprising that the mirror is important to Augustine, most notably in the De Trinitate which depends on moves back and forth between the Divine Trinity and its images in the human and other creatures.[21] The Itinerarium mentis in Deum of Augustine’s disciple Bonaventure represents everything through an infinitely complex system of mirrors, and conversion up the Line is from one kind of mirroring to a higher.[22]

danteDante and Beatrice, Henry Holiday, 1884 via Wikipedia

The ultimate goals of conversion are both given in the analogy of the Line and they correspond to the two ideas of God which will develop in the Western tradition: God as the identity of thought and being, at the top of the Line, and, above it, God as the source of thought and being but beyond both. The Good transcends the Line and its vertical division between the kinds of apprehension and their objects.[23] The first will be definitively deified in Aristotle’s highest substance, the self-thinking thought. It merges with the divinity of the Abrahamic religions when the Septuagint translated the “I am that I am” in terms of einai, which, as idipsum esse, is the most proper name of God for Aquinas and Augustine. [24] The Good ἐπέκεινα (Beyond), when merged with the One Non-Being of the Parmenides dialogue, will point to Plotinus’ Father God beyond nous and, when Proclus’ Commentary on the Parmenides is added into the tradition, will point us to the ultimate of the Mystical Theology of the Areopagite, so profoundly and widely influential. Of course the goal of conversion is not mere theory in the limited sense of that, but is given in yet another dialogue, the Theaetetus “to become like God as much as possible.” (ὁμοίωσις θεῷ κατὰ τὸ δυνατόν)[25] For Jews and Christians this is put in terms of Genesis. The goal is to move from “image” to “likeness”.[26]

In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, those converted to the contemplative life, and what is beyond it, sought union with the First, or at least ecstasy by moving with the divine activities around it. In the novels of classical modern Protestantism we are treating, marriage with the First and divinely inspired enthusiasm are replaced by the union of man and wife. The monkish contemplative embodied in Fielding’s “Man of the Hill” is made ridiculous and heartless: he is inhospitable even to the man who saves his life and ignores the attempted murder of a woman who is saved by Tom.[27]

One more depiction of the goal of conversion and the way to it is required before we have the barest sketch of the elements relative to which the modern secular account is intelligible. That is the way of the love of Beauty described in the Symposium by Diotima. She sets out an anagogy to conformity with God by love’s step by step movement from physical particulars to the more universal and intelligible.[28] It is important for our destination in this paper that she begins with individual beautiful forms and, for our purposes, it makes no difference if, like Augustine, following Plotinus in the ascents of Confessions 7,9, and 10,[29] the movement is more from, than, as with Dionysius, following Iamblichus, through, the sensible images.[30] Diotima, like Richardson, Fielding, and Austen would have us “consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form.” From love of the virtuous soul, the ascent will be “to see the beauty of institutions and laws.” From institutions the lover of beauty will turn upward to the sciences, until philosophy brings him to the loveliness of one science.[31] She goes on: “He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love [τὰ ἐρωτικὰ], and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty… absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things.”[32] Knowing this beauty by a power of sight raised to it, the lover will be able to bring forth true virtue and “to become the friend of God and be immortal, if humans may.”[33] Thus, the love of beauty also converts us to and makes us like God. It is of the greatest importance for both philosophy and religion that, according to Diotima, ascent to the highest beauty and good is by love, a divinity.[34]


Ontological Conversion

There is an alternative Platonic – Peripatetic tradition to the one I have exhibited in terms of the Gnothi seauton which also treats conversion as reflexivity. That tradition depends on the soul having access to its own essence in self-reflexivity and to the noetic by way of mental interiority. In the sillage of Plotinus, among Christians Augustine is its great propagator and conversion is the move inward and upward: “from exterior things to interior ones, from lower to higher.” The alternative tradition comes from the Neoplatonic understanding of thinking and being as the return of the One upon itself. Combining elements from Plato and Aristotle, it is especially worked out by Proclus, and by Christians under his influence, directly (like Dionysius) or indirectly (like Eriugena). It becomes central among Latin Christians after they have assimilated Arabic learning. The so-called Liber de causis, elements of the Corpus Areopagiticum, and, ultimately, works of Proclus, propagate this in the Latin world where it mixed well with what it received from Aristotle to produce the philosophical underpinnings of the Christian systems of Albertus Magnus, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Eckhart and Cusa, to mention a few prominent adherents.


For Proclus, all reality beneath the One – Good itself is structured by the mone [remaining], proodos [going out], epistrophe [return]. All is in the First, proceeds from it and returns, is converted, back towards its source when it achieves its proper good. Typically, Christians, like Aquinas under the influence of both Augustine’s trinitarian theology and Proclus, will import this conversion into the First itself and then structure their entire theological cosmic systems by it. I shall say something briefly about this kind of ontological conversion in Eriugena and Aquinas and conclude with enough about Dante’s Divine Comedy to provide the transition to, and contrast with, Richardson’s Pamela and Fielding’s Sophia.

After Origen, and with his De Principiis in the background, Eriugena is the greatest systematic theologian of the first Christian millennium. As Jean Trouillard put it, he “reinvented the greater part of the theses of Neoplatonism” having discovered them in the works of Patristic theologians.[35] Eriugena gave his system a Greek title, PERI PHYSEŌN, Concerning Nature (Expos. II 168a); it is a physiologia, a science of nature (Peri. IV 441c). Nature includes “what is and what is not” (Peri. I 441a) and the divine superessential nothingness, beyond all things which are and which are not, is its principle.

The division of nature gives its systematic structure. Nature is completely divided logically, and returns to itself according to the same logic: “first, into that which creates and is not created, second into that which is created and creates, third into that which is created and does not create, fourth, that which neither creates nor is created” (Peri. I 441d). These divisions produce four subjects: 1) God as creator, 2) the primary causes, 3) what is subject to generation in place and time, i.e. the labours of the Hexamaeron, including the human—the work of the sixth day—and its Fall. It, as the terminus of the procession, becomes the point of departure for the return into 4) God as end, the final object of investigation. This MONĒ, PROODOS, EPISTROPHĒ form he discerned in Dionysius.

Eriugena came to understand human nature in such a way, that it became “that in which all things are created (condita est)” (cf. Peri. IV 807a).[36] The human is the workshop of creation (Peri. II 531ab, III 733b, V 893bc); it is the medium in which God creates himself and the universe of beings out of his own nothingness precisely because, uniquely among beings, the human possesses all the forms of knowing and ignorance, including sensation. Because everything is through human perception, there are no absolute objects. As in earlier Platonic systems, the forms have become not only thoughts, but forms of apprehension in various kinds of subject; as Plotinus puts it, “all things come from contemplations and are contemplations” (Enneads III 8 [30] 7, 1-2). In Eriugena, there are, as Stephen Gersh puts it, “thinkers who turn out to be objects of thought…[and] objects of thought which turn out to be thinkers”.[37] Periphyseon is an interplay of diverse subjectivities looking at the universe from different, even opposed, points of view. Because God does not know what he is apart from human reason and sense, these perspectives are theophanies even for God in the human; divine manifestations of which God and the human are co-creators. Reality is mirroring.

A recent article by Paul Rorem indicates the elements which come together to constitute the cosmic conversion at the heart of the theology of the Greek Fathers, primary in Augustine’s Confessions, and communicated by Dionysius and Eriugena to the Victorines and Bonaventure (to give the most limited list). He writes of “Dionysian Uplifting (Anagogy) in Bonaventure’s Reductio”.[38] In Eriugena: “the Dionysian ‘anagogy and epistrophe (return) to God’ became AD DEUM REDUCTIO ET CONVERSIO.” By way of Eriugena “A whole Victorine tradition stems from this Dionysian theme … Hugh appropriates the translation of ανάγω as reducere: ‘Et hoc ideo fecit ut NOS REDUCTERET PER SENSIBILIA AD INTELLECTUALIA hoc est per visibilia ad invisibilia.’ As in Dionysius and Eriugena, the Hugonian ‘uplifting’ is specifically through or by means of the perceptible, an appreciation for the concrete means of ‘reduction’, or uplifting, that is continued in Bonaventure.“[39] We get a sense of what this conversion is in a passage from Bonaventure on the Hexaemeron: “Such is the uplifting metaphysical centre, and this is the sum total of our metaphysics: concerned with emanation, exemplarity, and consummation, that is, to be illuminated through spiritual rays and uplifted to the highest.”[40]

Aquinas ReadingAquinas Reading; Detail from Valle Romita Polyptych by Gentile da Fabriano (circa 1400) via Wikipedia

By his own account Aquinas’ Summa theologiae gives the subject its proper order, beginning in and determined by its treatment of God in Himself. The logic of the Deus in se is manifested first in the Quinque Viae to the Existence of God and its basic structure does not vary until its completion in the Sending of the Divine Persons.[41] This logic continues into the questions on creation, and thus into the Summa as a whole. There are two gatherings, breaks and transitions within the de deo, but there is a strong impulse throughout, and the structure, when reduced to its elements, is stunningly simple.

The circular motions returning upon themselves are of diverse kinds, but by far the most important are those which Aquinas deduces from the Proclean logic of simple substance.[42]  From the Liber de causis and Dionysius, he knows that simple substance has perfect self-return, a shape he has manifested, following Dionysius, in his initial questions on the divine names, beginning at Simplicity and circling around to Unity. In consequence, ipsum esse subsistens is, by the absolute necessity of its nature, knowing and willing.[43] These two operations, processions or emanations—the terms are used more or less interchangeably by Aquinas for whom emanation was a Scriptural term (Liber Sapientiae, 7.25 [44])—are internal to the divine essence. By employing the Neoplatonic notion of motionless motion, Aquinas is able to attribute the characteristics of Plotinian NOUS to Aristotle’s (and his own) God as self-thinking thought predicating life of it.[45]

Although, motionless motion is a metaphor for Aquinas, nonetheless, the divine self-diremption must be real. Thus we get “Et licet motus non sit in divinis, est tamen ibi accipere.” [ST 1.42.1 ad 3]. Accipere and its correlative dare are essential to the logic of infinite esse, as the form under which it is, or contains, the relation of opposites. Such a relation is real, the differentiation of the essence in the opposition of action and reception is not merely “rational”, that is, a creation of perspective. Thus, within the divine simplicity, the two relations of this kind must of necessity form subsistences, or hypostases, to use another word which is both Scriptural and Neoplatonic, or persons.[46] The circumincession, or περιχώρησις of the subsistences in the Divine essence is the fundamental conversion determining all the others. It makes understandable the emanation of finite beings, creation.

Creation, in a series of contrasts with the Divine in itself, is represented as the result of a productive operation, that of power. Unlike knowing and willing, perfect activities really given and received within the essence to become the Trinitarian Persons, power works outside the essence, as a procession or emanation of the Trinitarian subsistences in their essential unity. Unlike the internal operations, power is neither according to nature nor necessity. It constitutes a relation with the opposition of giving and receiving, but, in contrast to the Trinity, the terms are unequal. Thus, the relation is not mutually of the relative terms but in the recipient. So we move from the divine and creation under God’s Providence and Governance in the First Part, to the complete exitus in the Second Part produced by the human empowered as the image of God to create his own world in the pursuit of happiness. The conversio, which is the divine trinitarian life, is realized in the cosmos fallen in the human exitus, by a Chalcedonian interpretation of the hypostatic union in line with the humanism of the 12th century Renaissance. The Third Part is de Christo, qui secundum quod homo, via est nobis tendendi in Deum. In Him is the conversio to the Principle.

danteDante and Beatrice, John William Waterhouse (between 1914 and 1917)

Aquinas’ system gathers in itself all we have treated so far. Dante’s Commedia, which, like the Summa theologiae, is nothing but a complete cosmic conversion and, thus, and only thus, as with Augustine, a personal one, contains even more.

Like the author of Tom Jones, Dante is conscious of being a literary creator. In the dolce stil nuovo he created a Poetic-comic-epic[47] in which, as with Fielding and Cervantes, he gave us the “History of the World in general”. Beatrice tells her prisoner, he was so far gone she had to send him all the way to Hell to convert him. She accuses:

He set his steps upon an untrue way, pursuing those false images of good that bring no promise to fulfillment… ‘He sank so low that every instrument for his salvation now fell short except to make him see souls in perdition.’ And so I visited the threshold of the dead and, weeping, offered up my prayers to the one who has conducted him this far.[48]

Dì, dì se questo è vero: a tanta accusa/tua confession conviene esser congiunta”. (“Speak, Say whether this is true: to so grave an accusation your confession must be joined”.)[49]

Beatrice, thus, in the Adamic Paradise at the top of the Purgatorio’s mountain of repentance before Dante plunges into its two rivers, one of which derives from the Republic’s Myth of Er by way of Virgil’s Aeneid.[50]

She brings to mind the judgement there and the demands of Philosophia to the prisoner she heals and guides in the Consolation. Beatrice’s demand anticipates Sophia with the penitent Tom and the exigent lady confessors of Jane Austen.[51] Nonetheless, Beatrice and they convert very differently.

JonesTom Jones & Sophia Western, from the movie

It is not so much that their means are very different, and their understanding of the fundamentals of the act of repentance are much the same, but the end is altogether other. Beatrice comes to Dante as the one who particularly moves him by her innocence and beauty of body and soul, but, nonetheless, as also as only one agent in a long chain of mediators including Christ, the Mother of God, and saints above her in the hierarchy. Crucially, as she is moved from above, so also she leads Dante beyond herself. After his repentance is complete, with him already mitred and crowned at the end of his tutelage by Virgil, [52] she will return to her proper place in the Paradiso and he will rise with her. He will not possess her nor she him. Dorothy Sayers writes:

She was thus in fact the vehicle of the Glory—the vessel in which the divine experience was carried—she is, in the allegory, from time to time likened to, or equated with, those other “God-bearers”: the Church, and Divine Grace in the Church; the Blessed Virgin; even Christ Himself. She is the image by which Dante perceives all these, and her function in the poem is to bring him to that state in which he is able to perceive them directly; at the end of the Paradiso the image of Beatrice is—not replaced by, but—taken up into the images, successively, of the Church Triumphant, of Mary, the historic and universal God-bearer, and of God, in whom Image and Reality are one and the same.[53]

DoreDante & Beatrice, Gustave Doré

Put differently, coming to her, even to reconciliation with her and with God by her help, is not the end of the journey. There is another whole Cantina, the Paradiso, of contemplation, precisely that which Protestant England rejected when Henry VIIIth dissolved the monasteries, expelled or executed the monks and nuns, refunded the aristocracy, and helped the expansion of the bourgeoisie. Except for some Gothick moments, largely architectural, our secular novelists follow him without regret.

Heaven for them is the future state of reward, whose promise together with the threat of Hell, are used as the ultimate incentives to morality: personal, social, and political order. Heaven’s joys serve the absolutizing of morality, a stance which Nietzsche so convincingly exposed as atheism that their successors recognised themselves in his descriptions and gave up Christian religion and morality both. Heaven is distant and without content; its God hidden. We never enter a substantial spiritual realm or reach out to it. Features of their own society left over from the revolutions in Church and state are forgotten. Not even Jane Austen, buried in Winchester Cathedral, sends us a rumour of scores of Men and Boys choirs in Cathedral, Royal and Collegiate chapels continuing medieval offices. Despite their frightening descriptions of the miseries of most of them, the ultimate present felicity is marriage. Incredible!


Conversion in Protestant Secular Romance: Beatrice converts to Protestantism and Marries Dante: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740)

Tom Jones’ Sophia (1749), the beauty of eternal Wisdom heavenly and incarnate, comes after Richardson’s Pamela (November 1740) and before Austen’s Fanny Price of Mansfield Park (1814). Both of the latter reiterate the kenotic Christ[54] as well as the irresistibly attractive loveliness of Person or Virtue which all share. As such they are the ends of conversion and the means of that, or of damnation. Here, and in the romances of 18th and early 19th century England I shall treat, the ultimate felicity consists in marriage to these descendants, in lineages conscious or unconscious, of Dante’s Beatrice and Plato’s form of Beauty. Flesh and blood marriage to what is heavenly either as the blessed, inspiring, but never possessed, intercessor or as transcendent deity is their “secularization”, as I use this term in this paper, but it means more than this. As we move from Richardson to Fielding and, at the extreme, to Austen, the forms of religion: prayers, sermons, liturgies, theological debates, either disappear or become more and more external to the conversion, or at least to its representation. The operation of Providence is by way of social and psychological forces and religion is hidden, being manifest in these but not alongside them.

Pamela is a fifteen year old universally loved, and irresistibly beautiful, servant in a wealthy and extensive aristocratic household. On the death of her mistress, who added education to her personal beauty, Pamela became the object of first the lust and, then, converted by her, the love of the son and heir. He confesses repeatedly after the conversion that he made what we, and Richardson, understand as the Platonic move from, and by way of, the love of “the Charms of her Person” to “the Graces of her Mind”. After attempting to make her his mistress, and outraged by the impudence of resistance from a minor servant, abducting and imprisoning her, and coming more than once to the physical edge of rape, when he meets with unbreakable, absolutely consistent, and endlessly ingenious resistance, Squire B. transgresses the social boundaries, subdues his pride, and marries her.

PamelaA plate from the 1742 deluxe edition of Richardson’s Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded showing Mr. B intercepting Pamela’s first letter home to her mother. Original engraving by Hubert Gravelot. via Wikipedia

Presented as a series of letters, mostly from Pamela to her aged, poor and pious parents from their equally pious daughter, determined to preserve what she calls her “honesty”, the novel is full both of the naive and importunate prayers of one dependent on God’s grace in the terrible exigencies of preserving her virtue against cozening, kidnapping, deceit, and violence, and of the constant self-humiliation and self-blame of the believer. By a deception which belongs to the ceaselessly repeated Augustinian biographical pattern of good brought out of evil, determinative in Pamela, Fielding’s Tom Jones and Amelia, and all the novels of Jane Austen manifesting the government of Providence, Squire B. reads the letters. They enflame his determination to possess their author, not just because her resistance increases her desirability, but also, because, among other reasons, he sees that Pamela’s dutiful prayers for him as her master continue during much of his abuse of her. That a fundamental good will and a love even for him her enemy, and, indeed, her wishing him the ultimate good rules her, is what in the final analysis converts Squire B. The terrible moment for her—terrible because she recognises that she is falling in love with him despite his dreadful abuse and that he might use this to seduce her—and simultaneously the converting moment for him is when she realises that she could not bear to be his accuser on Judgment Day.[55] Her love overcomes his evil.

An important character is an unbeneficed young cleric, Williams, entirely dependent on Squire B., who nonetheless courageously attempts to rescue her—though he is more than balanced by established clergy who oppose any resistance to “the powers that be”. Religion is so much present in its own dress, so to speak, that we even go through the moments of the marriage liturgy of our heroine. The novel was recommended and cited from the pulpits of England. As just suggested by my report of Pamela’s Christlike love of her enemy through which the servant converts the master, the turnings where Pamela acts as alter Christus are crucial. I must say a word about those which occur at the crux of Squire B’s conversion.[56]

In the final and most serious attempted rape Pamela is held down in cruciform shape on her bed by her master on one side and her jailor on the other. Imprisoned at his remote country estate, she is utterly in the power of “Lucifer in the Shape of my Master”.[57] “Wicked Man! said I; wicked, abominable Woman!”[58] In the hands of the wicked, as Jesus is described in the gospel Passion narrative,[59] Pamela cries out to God for death or deliverance. “With Struggling, Fright, Terror” she faints into a fit so deathlike that Squire B. mistakes it for the reality. She is resurrected by his ministrations. His pity aroused, he asks for her forgiveness. Her giving this is his turning. Pamela’s relief brings her to bless God in the words of St Paul, “who, by disabling me in my Faculties, enabled me to preserve my Innocence; and when all my Strength would have signified nothing, magnified himself in my Weakness!”[60]Out of the episode Squire B. is brought to confess: “I could curse my Weakness and my Folly, which makes me that I love you beyond all your Sex, and cannot live without you. But if I am Master of myself, and my own Resolution, I will not attempt to force you to anything again.” Nor does he. Pamela’s advice sought by him as to how he might keep his resolution consists in his sending her back to her parents because she had come to “love Poverty.”[61]

Pamela“Pamela swooning after having discovered Mr B in the closet. He (frighted) endeavouring to recover her. Mrs Jervis wringing her hands, and screaming.” From a series of twelve illustrations to Pamela, by Samuel Richardson (1745, 2nd edition). via


Tom Jones’ Platonic Sophia: the Learned Henry Fielding supplies the Romantic Philosophy

There is no love of Poverty in Fielding’s Tom Jones, his sense of the ridiculous is too acute to endure the piety of Pamela for hundreds of pages, and his determination to be true to nature prevents snow white characters. Indeed, Fielding is explicit that theologically, morally, dramatically, and essential to his new genre, the heroic figures in Tom Jones  must have flaws, their characters must be mixed.[62] Nonetheless, the most learned of our romancers, Fielding, depicts his paradigmatic heroine though the notion of the naked vision of a Platonic form. We are told that one might almost say “Her Body thought”; “Her Mind was every way equal to her Person; nay the latter borrowed some Charms from the former”.[63] Indeed, her virtue of mind so shines through her beauty that Tom, her true lover, is converted, not from lust for her, but to complete fidelity; his lust is for others.[64] His rival Blifil moves in the opposite way. As his aversion to Sophia increased, so did his lust. Aversion “served rather to heighten the Pleasure he proposed in rifling her Charms, as it added Triumph to Lust.”[65] Thus, Sophia too is subjected to schemes for rape made by the aristocrat cousin, Lady Bellaston, to whom she has fled for refuge, and by her father, proposing that his chosen mate for her, Blifil, use force.

On the road, Sophia is so “distracted between Hope and Fear, her Duty and Love to her Father, her Hatred to Blifil, her Compassion and … her Love for Jones…that her Mind was in that confused State which may be truly said to make us ignorant of what we do, or whither we go, or rather indeed indifferent as to the Consequence of either.”[66] In London, at the mansion of Bellaston, who is maintaining Tom as her amour, carefully keeping the true lovers apart, Sophia encounters Tom by accident. She first views herself and him through a mirror. In their conversation Sophia asks: “Can every Thing noble and every Thing base, be lodged together in the same Bosom?”[67] Nonetheless, when Tom formally proposes Marriage, she accepts. Almost immediately after, they are discovered by Lady Bellaston and an intercourse between Tom, Bellaston, and herself ensues during which all three conceal truths known or suspected by the others. Sophia self-consciously enters the mirror world of appearances and reluctantly teaches herself the “Practice of Deceit”.[68] So totally is Wisdom made earthly. The union of the heavenly pattern with the flawed earthly is the heart of the understanding of which Fielding aims to persuade us. Writing of “Platonic Affection which is absolutely detached from the flesh”, he reports: “I cannot pretend to say, I have ever seen an instance of it.”[69]

Fielding’s relation to Richardson’s Pamela is ambiguous. Praise from the pulpit was matched by criticisms so serious that Richardson revised the text several times. Some were distressed by its sexual explicitness and thought it encouraged licence, some correctly saw its depiction of the violent misuse of power by an aristocrat, the compliance of the authorities, civil and ecclesiastical, and his marriage to a house maid to be destructive of respect for the social order. Fielding instead savagely and profitably sent up its moralistic pedantry in An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews (April 1741), a parody or “burlesque”, which appeared less than six months after it. In The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams which came out less than a year later (February 1742), he adopts a more positive form, the comic prose epic. This he regards as his proper genre, “I am, in reality, the Founder of a new Province of Writing”,[70] “Prosai-comi-epic”[71]. Despite the contrast with Dante’s Poetic-comic-epic, Fielding and our other authors are probably too Enlightened to have known much of Dante. William Blake, a contemporary of Jane Austen was reviving Dante but he too was then unknown. In any case Fielding sets out to perfect his new province in Tom Jones. Certainly elements of the burlesque remain, but Fielding distinguishes the comic and satirical from it. Joseph Andrews both borrows much from and satirizes Pamela.

Joseph andrewsJoseph Andrews and Lady Booby, from the movie

Fielding explicitly places Joseph Andrews against Pamela as the demonstration that a male can also be virtuous. Indeed, although “Andrews” is borrowed from Richardson’s novel, “Joseph”, the Biblical figure, who, at great cost and greater risk, preserved his chastity against Potiphar’s wife, is borrowed from Genesis and from a sermon of the great Latitudinarian divine Isaac Barrow.[72] At Cambridge, Regius Professor of Greek, then Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, then Master of Trinity, this Platonist we may call Fielding’s theologian. Abraham, as the counterpoint of Joseph’s “virtue and integrity”, from the same sermon by Barrow, has the charity and beneficence of Parson Abraham Adams of his earlier and shorter “Prosai-comi-epic”. This characterizes Tom Jones, whose universally beneficent good nature makes him repeatedly and habitually charitable according to Squire Allworthy’s definition: “giving what even our own Necessities cannot well spare”.[73]Unfortunately in Tom it goes with “a blameworthy Want of Caution, and Diffidence to the Veracity of others, in which he was highly worthy of Censure.”[74] His extraordinary natural beauty, like his too trusting nature, match the same qualities in Sophia. Tom is described as an “Angel”,[75] as “Adonis”, and even as uniting that delicate beauty with Heraclean masculinity.[76] Given his lack of chastity, this is as much a destructive snare for him as an attraction for others.

It is his active, spontaneous and habitual charity which brings him the friends who save him from the hanging for which it had been the “universal Opinion of all Mr. Allworthy’s Family” he was born.[77] We may say, then, that the problematic of the plot of Fielding’s later prose epic comedy is set already in the first: the conversion of Tom to the chastity of Joseph[78] through the joint influence of the paradigmatic Sophia and Allworthy. Both of them are as great Patterns of Wisdom as of Goodness.[79] Allworthy also is heavenly: “Heaven only can know him, can know that Benevolence which it copied from itself, and sent upon Earth as its own Pattern.”[80] But though, like Sophia, he is irresistible,[81] Allworthy is also fallible and is frequently deceived,[82] and when Tom’s reconciling full confession is made to him, it is in response to his own admission of, and repentance for, his blameworthy faults.[83]

Be that as it may, the earlier of Fielding’s two comic epics of the road, depicts the resistance of Joseph Andrews, the brother of Pamela, to the sexual depredations of Squire Booby’s aunt, Potiphar’s wife updated. Nonetheless, the telos of Joseph Andrews is the reward of its heroes’ virtue by marriage to the beautiful, caste, and innocent Fanny to whom he has been faithful, and Lady Booby is sentenced to infinite boredom and degradation in the debauched high life of London, Fielding’s Hell. From both his satire of Pamela, and his mocking exploitative mirroring, Fielding took over positively, or by critical opposition, still more elements into Tom Jones: an uncompromising exposure of hypocrisy, especially sexual, the preservation of social rank and a strictness about the rights and limits of paternal authority,[84] elements of the converting heroine, marriage as telos and felicity, the Parson Abraham Adams, and the imitation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, whose Sancho Panza, under the form of Partidge, and very much else, appear in Fielding’s masterpiece.

In the sillage of what he called Cervantes’ “History of the World in general”[85] Fielding tells us that The History of Tom Jones is a “great creation of our own” in form and content.[86] The critic is warned “not too hastily to condemn any of the Incidents in this our History, as impertinent and foreign to our main Design, because thou dost not immediately conceive in what Manner such Incident may conduce to that Design.” Martin Battestin rightly adduces Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) with its comparison between a poem and the universe taken from Plotinus.[87] Fielding goes on from this to justify his characterization according to types and, later, will designate Experience of all social classes, along with Genius, Humanity, and Learning as necessary to his comic prose epics because they need knowledge of “the Manners of Mankind.”[88] The plenitude of Fielding’s Great Chain of Being is more than social. It reaches around the globe and up and down the hierarchy from the divine to “Insects and Vegetables”.[89] Sophia is Tom’s “goddess”[90], with a “heavenly Temper…[and] divine Goodness”,[91] he ascribes to her “all that we believe of Heaven”.[92] In the final chapter of the work, she is described as sitting among the other brides “Like a Queen receiving homage, or rather like a superior Being receiving Adoration from all around her”, and she helps conclude the work by a rain of graces procured by her “Mediation” or “Instance”.[93]

SophiaSophia Western (Susannah York), from the movie

However, lest we mistake her either for Dante’s Beatrice or Richardson’s Pamela, at the point when, owing to her “very deep sense of Religion”, she contemplates, with “an agreeable Tickling”, the thought of making herself “a Martyr to filial Love and Duty” by marrying the hated Blifil, Fielding remains faithful to his principles. He will stray neither from his Latitudinarian theology to a predestination of pure characters, nor from the plenitude of his comic epic with all sorts and conditions and their flaws as well as its own.[94] As to the former:

Sophia was charmed with the Contemplation of so heroic an Action, and began to compliment herself with much premature Flattery, when Cupid …like Punchinello in a Puppet-shew, kicked all out before him. In Truth (for we scorn to deceive our Reader, or to vindicate the Character of our Heroine, by ascribing her Actions to supernatural Impulse), the Thoughts of her beloved Jones and some Hopes… in which he was very particularly concerned, immediately destroyed all which filial Love, Piety and Pride, had, with their joint Endeavours, been labouring to bring about.[95]

Sophia Western2 wikipedia“Adorned with all the charms in which Nature can array her, bedecked with beauty, youth, sprightliness, innocence, modesty and tenderness, breathing sweetness from her rosy lips and darting brightness from her sparkling eyes, the lovely Sophia comes!”

Time does not permit us to follow the whole process of Tom’s conversion.  The comic journey begins when Sophia’s love and hopes, her hatred of Blifil, and the terrifying prospect of being forcibly married to someone whose passions for her are a mixture of greed, hatred, and lust induces her to flee her father and seek refuge with Lady Bellaston in London. Along the way, on discovering the path Tom was taking, she sets out to pursue him.[96] Tom, in disgrace with Allworthy and in flight from Sophia’s father, finds, in the discovery of her pocket book she lost on her journey, the excuse he desires to follow her there. On the journey, and in London, where he becomes the kept man of Bellaston (“nor do I pretend to the Gift of Chastity”),[97] the two sides of his personality,[98] his “naturally violent animal Spirits”,[99] and his universal beneficence,[100] have the space and opportunity to develop their opposition. He ends up in prison likely to be hanged for murder. There he is cast off by Sophia who has learned of his services to Bellaston and is deceived into thinking Tom has proposed marriage to his mistress. Worst of all Tom becomes convinced that he missed meeting Sophia when they were on the road together because he was “a-Bed” with his own mother![101] On hearing this Tom repents, crying out:

Fortune will never have done with me, till she hath driven me to Distraction. But why do I blame Fortune? I am myself the Cause of all my Misery. All the dreadful Mischiefs which have befallen me, are the Consequences only of my own Folly and Vice.”…He then fell into the most violent and frantic Agonies of Grief and Despair.[102]

Later, when released and welcomed by Allworthy, at this point known to be his uncle, Tom will make a full confession in due form with all the proper moments of sorting out what his sins were, taking responsibility, discerning the roots of each fault, and expressing his contrition with a promise of amendment of life.[103]

After the exclamation just recorded, the omniscient author assures us that it is not Fortune but the same governance ruling his comedy and the universe which has brought Tom to this complete mortification: “Instances of this Kind we may frequently observe in Life, where the greatest Events are produced by a nice Train of little Circumstances.”[104] The nice train of circumstances is already moving things in the other direction. Tom’s charity and basic goodness have won him friends who are well at work to clear him of the false charges and to release him from his mistaken notion of being incestuous. Fielding gives the operative law: “The Good or Evil we confer in others, very often…recoils on ourselves.”[105]

CaptureSophia Western (Susannah York) and Tom Jones (Albert Finney) in the movie

Providence exposes as rascals those who betrayed him and Sophia, according to the repeated dictum of Squire Allworthy: “Good Heavens, by what wonderful Means is the blackest and deepest Villany sometimes discovered.”[106] Tom changes places with Blifil, as nephew and heir, who turns “Methodist”.[107] Mrs Honour, Sophia’s maid who went over to Bellaston is known to be “Honour Blackmore”,[108] and traitorously ready to testify whatever Bellaston pleased.[109] Black George, who betrayed Tom’s charity is seen to have “a most remarkable Beard, the largest and blackest”, his robbery is uncovered and he disappears into oblivion, where Mrs Honour has already preceded him. [110]

Tom and Sophia marry on Christmas Eve[111] and move into her father’s mansion given up for them. They are neighbours to “Paradise Hall”, Allworthy’s noble “Gothick” house. To which they will succeed. There Allworthy has taken in Mr. Abraham Adams, who Sophia declares “shall have the Tuition of her Children.’[112] Tom’s tendency to Vice is corrected by “continual Conversation with” Allworthy “and by his Union with the lovely and virtuous Sophia.” We are assured that “He hath also, by Reflexion on his past Follies, acquired a Discretion and Prudence very uncommon in one of his lively parts.”[113]


Conversion in Jane Austen’s Novels: Secularization Completed and the Beginnings of a Critique[114]

Mary Crawford: “‘A clergyman is nothing’.” Edmund: “‘The nothing of conversation has its gradations, I hope, as well as the never. A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress. But I cannot call that situation nothing which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally, which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence. No one here can call the office nothing….[I]t is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and neighbourhood, where the parish and neighbourhood are of a size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct…And with regard to their influencing public manners, Miss Crawford must not misunderstand me, or suppose I mean to call them the arbiters of good breeding, the regulators of refinement and courtesy, the masters of the ceremonies of life. The manners I speak of might rather be called conduct, perhaps the result of good principles; the effect, in short, of those doctrines which it is their duty to teach and recommend; and it will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.’ ‘Certainly,’ said Fanny, with gentle earnestness” (Mansfield Park).

In contrast to the readers of Richardson’s Pamela or of Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), or of Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742), Shamela (1741), Tom Jones (1749) and Amelia (1751), those who are blessed enough to read through all six of Jane Austen’s novels will be spared ever attending a liturgy or hearing a prayer (as in Pamela) or repetitions of the words and doctrines of the Book of Common Prayer (as in Tom Jones[115]). They will never listen to a sermon[116] and only very very rarely witness one being read.[117] Reading a sermon will convert no one (as in Amelia), and in none of Austen’s novels will a clergyman function as a saving hero (as Williams, Adams and Harrison do, or attempt to do, in Pamela, Joseph Andrews, Amelia respectively). Importantly for my thesis, a discourse compared to preaching is that of a female character heartening a man and reflecting that she is in need of her own advice.[118] There are no lengthy theological debates to be read (as in Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones). The villains are neither Methodists nor on the way to becoming one (as in Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones). No references to Latitudinarian Divines are required to understand substantial debates about nature and grace, predestination and freewill, philosophy and revelation, and the nature of charity (as in Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Amelia).

The clergy are present in abundance and their characters vary from the ridiculous, gluttonous[119], greedy and manipulative (Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park, Emma (1816)) to the husbands of three of her six principal heroines, but two of these are rather weak, shy, and passive partners of their impoverished brides (Edmund and Edward in Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility (1811) respectively). These beneficed husbands are pluralist servants of the social hierarchy provided with livings by their friends or families.[120] The authoress daughter of a clergyman makes none of hers heroic resisters of powerful evil doers in the manner of Mr Williams, Mr Adams and Dr Harrison.

Yet we are not witnessing the loss of conversion in the Christian Platonist tradition but rather such a complete passage into the processes of social and individual life, i.e. secularization, that religious forms need not be represented along side them. Jane Austen is a modern Sophocles in his difference from Euripides and Aeschylus. Indeed, there is a sense in which her novels are the deepest treatments of conversion in the genre. Two other differences from her predecessors in her representation of conversion, as well as an important difference of style and domain are notable.


I begin with the last. Jane Austen’s romances are in the tradition of and dependent upon those we have treated, but the contrast to all of them and especially to Tom Jones is striking. In opposition to Pamela, The Adventures of Humphry Clinker, Joseph Andrews, Shamela, and Tom Jones, there are neither speeches in dialect nor the amusingly misspelled letters of servants. In fact, we never enter the world of the servants at all and we have none of Fielding’s learning: no Latin tags, neither references to Plato and the Stoics nor to modern rationalist philosophers, no Horace or Ovid, not even Homer. We have nothing of Fielding’s “great creation” and the determination to exhibit the plenitude of the social chain of being. Indeed, although Darcy in Pride and Prejudice must come to recognize that people in trade can have the virtues associated with the gentry, and Sir Walter Elliot and Lady Russell (Persuasion(1818)) must be educated to some respect for naval captains and admirals, Austen generally keeps people within their different social spheres: Emma sins in trying to raise a bastard daughter into the respectable gentry—which, after all is said and done, is the boundary Tom Jones transgresses. The rascals in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion (Wickham and Mrs Clay, respectively) are the son and the daughter of stewards of the estates, who, from too easy mixing with their betters, acquired ambitions and expectations beyond their places.[121] Certainly there is nothing approaching Pamela’s leap from the servant’s hall to becoming Lady Booby which so scandalised Richardson’s readers and provoked the imitations and mockeries of Fielding and Smollett. Instead of a great chain of social being, depicted in all its ridiculous contrasts and tyrannies so as to be enjoyed and transgressed, Jane Austen’s world, except for the navy, is almost entirely the small one of the country gentry and those with pretensions for it, or falling out of it. She seems not to have liked the titled aristocracy any more than her predecessor authors did, and the town, as for them, is the picture and reality of hell and damnation. Her power, and none had it in greater measure, was for the close ironic observation, and epigrammatical description, of the psyches which constitute it and of their inner and social movements. Heaven and Hell in a handful of dust. In exchange for the smallness of her world, we are admitted to sometimes terrible intimacies of the spirit unopened by her predecessors.

As to the two differences of her heroines, first, Jane Austen’s are not exemplars of the irresistible beauty which animates the conversion of the lovers of Pamela and Sophia. Second, although Austen has heroines whose virtue is perfect from the beginning and fix the stable centre around and towards which conversion takes place (thus, Elinor in Sense and Sensibility and Fanny in Mansfield Park), she is just as likely, and more interestingly I judge, to have heroes and heroines who undergo conversion which is mutual. Thus, outstandingly, Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Mr Knightly in Emma, and Anne and Frederick in Persuasion. Darcy, Knightly, and Anne[122] are the stable fixed centres of true judgment[123], as Brandon, Marianne’s true lover, is in Sense and Sensibility. Because I think these two characteristics of her heroines taken together may help expose what is most intensely Christian in her depictions, I elaborate them slightly.

The union of beauty, goodness, and wisdom in Dante’s Beatrice, Pamela, Joseph Andrews, and Tom Jones has disappeared. Jane Austen has no ugly heroines but they may, at some points in their lives in her stories, be judged “plain” (thus, Anne, Fanny, and Catherine in Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey, although all three will come to be regarded as attractively beautiful or at least “pretty” (Catherine)[124]). Even more telling is that her great beauties, male and female,  have faults or worse. Thus, Jane in Pride and Prejudice is endlessly charitable through refusing to discriminate,[125] and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility[126] has a self-destructive and selfish romantic sensibility; significantly, they are both the favourites of their mothers. Willoughby, who will nearly destroy Marianne and does destroy others, has “manly beauty and more than common gracefulness.”[127] Wickham, the villain of Pride and Prejudice, is judged more handsome than the hero Darcy,[128] has an “appearance greatly in his favour; he had all the great part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address.” [129] Worse, the more he lies the more handsome he seems. Darcy, though a “fine, tall person,” with “handsome features, noble mien” has disgustingly proud manners.[130] Mary Crawford, close to being a female villain, is “remarkably pretty” and she, and her even more destructive brother, are “of very prepossessing appearance”.[131]


What attracts in Anne, Fanny, Elinor, and Catherine is virtue which makes them standards of judgement when others err or are incapable of action, even if, in the case of Catherine, this is only an incorruptible and naïvely trusting innocence. They are stable poles of judgement rather than of physical beauty.[132] Further, and most tellingly, in the cases of Anne and Fanny, because of humiliations suffered early and at length[133], or, in the case of Elinor, of a self-effacement and self-conquest in the service of her family, especially of Marianne, and of her own integrity, their virtue comes from suffering, from mortification.[134] Emma and Marianne are indulged and indulge themselves. [135] They are converted towards the virtues of their husbands to be.[136]

Besides the following of Christ in the self-effacement and acceptance of humiliation of Fanny, Anne and Elinor, the most striking imitatio Christi in the novels appears in the self-humiliation of the noble Darcy. Having rejected Darcy’s proposal of marriage, Elizabeth is humbled and grieved when having repented her judgments she desires him when “a gulf impassable” had opened  between them.[137] Uniting with her would join Darcy to Wickham, a villain who had injured both families and defamed him wherever possible. “Rational expectation” of his returning to her “could not survive such a blow as this.”[138] Being mortal he must triumph in having escaped what he once proposed. However, very soon after these miserable reflections and repentances, Elizabeth discovers Darcy’s “exertion of goodness too great to be probable”, he has beaten back his pride and bridged the impassable gulf to make reparation for his own faults and for love of her. He has treated with those he most despised to save her undeserving sister and her family from disgrace. Thus, she and her family were “under obligations to a person who could never receive a return”.[139] This gratitude moves her to further repentance. And there is more reason for Elizabeth to be astonished at his grace.

Darcy’s aristocratic aunt comes to warn Elizabeth her that marriage to her “will be a disgrace”. Connection to her sister and “the son of his late father’s steward” would “pollute” the family “shades”.[140] However, the intervention of the aunt, which Elizabeth supposes “would address him on his weakest side,”[141] turns out to encourage him to renew his suit. She thanks him for “that generous compassion which induced you to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications,” he does the unthinkable and proposes again and Elizabeth accepts.[142] So great the condescension, so marvellous the love.

This brings us to the second difference of Jane Austen’s conversions, seen most notably, skilfully, and delightfully in Pride and Prejudice. There we do not have Elinor’s sense and Marianne’s sensibility in separate individuals, but rather Elizabeth and Darcy both are filled with pride and prejudice, tho’ differently, and must both come to self-knowledge, repentance, mortification, and conversion separately and through their interchange. A mutual conversion toward the complementary virtue of the beloved also occurs in Persuasion.[143] With Anne, Elinor, and Fanny, in respect to the sufferings and mortifications imposed on them but accepted and purposefully employed for spiritual deepening, and with Emma and Elizabeth in respect to the repentant self-knowledge their own vices require, we are admitted to their inner spiritual life in a way not found in our other novelists. Austen does not give us the sermons and theological debates of her male predecessors in this tradition, but she works out the same questions of grace and works, predestination and freedom in the questions of the relative roles of character and condition, education and breeding, principles and effort which her predecessors treated in the discourses she omits as well as in their stories. Generally, it seems to me that she judges within the same Latitudinarian “Broad Church” mentality that was theirs. She demands, and allows, much in the way of self-exertion and self-conquest, perhaps seen most movingly in what Elinor hopes for in Marianne, but certainly also in Anne (Persuasion)[144]

Within the predestination which the social order sets, Austen’s theology strikes me as standard anti-Papist and anti-Enthusiast rational English Pelagian 18th century Protestantism. But, there is something more, something from an earlier period. Those who are as completely formed by the Book of Common Prayer as she was, especially in the forms she used (basically 1662), which were not replaced in Canada before they had been thoroughly fixed in my psyche, will recognise the source of the need her converted or converting characters have for suffering for sin, for condemning self-knowledge, either imposed from without or self-inflicted, for mortification (after all, dying with and in the saviour). They are “miserable sinners” the burdens of whose sins are “grievous” and “intolerable”. Their confessions are lengthy, laborious, and as theologically exact as those in Dante’s Purgatorio.[145]


During the time of the novels we are considering, the clergy were expected to be able to guide the sinner, especially on his or her deathbed, through the moments of an eternally consequential confession. Dr Harrison in Amelia is seen doing this. Jane Austen probably learned them from her own practice of Prayer Book piety, and we see them undertaken as necessary to the conversion of her characters, enabling reconciliation and the union of marriage. Usually they will require a public aspect when what has been worked out inwardly is told to the beloved, whether or not he or she was the direct object of the sinful acts. The beloved, is, as Elizabeth King (and Bennet) assert “the keeper of her best self”,[146] but this qualification, not its identity in the beloved, is the essential for the one hearing the confession, as we see in the series of confessions made to Elinor in Sense and Sensibility.

Notable examples will be found in the long repentance of Emma and the mutual confession with Mr Knightly[147], the multi year penance and long confession of Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, which becomes more complete in stages, requires two self-accusations of pride,[148] and is matched, not by one from Anne, but by her correct refusal to repent for that which he supposed to be her sin.[149] Even the naïve Catherine of Northanger Abbey, whose sin, of no more than undo suspicion, comes from an overly vivid imagination formed in the reading of the popular horror romances, must undergo conversion and its attendant repentance in due form.[150]Confession is not cheap; nor is guilt to be generally diffused.

From the point of view of the plot, Elizabeth’s repentance is the longest because it takes place in stages.[151] Marianne’s confession is to Elinor, whose conduct has now become her standard, and Marianne expresses such remorse at her “imprudence towards myself and want of kindness to others” that she wonders she has been spared “to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all.”[152] The chapter just next but one earlier had been devoted to Elinor’s hearing of the confession of the errant occasion of the Marianne’s sins, Willoughby, which involves such exchanges as “Thank Heaven! It did torture me. I was miserable” (on his part) and “You have proved your heart less wicked, much less wicked. But I hardly know—the misery you have inflicted—I hardly know what could have made it worse” (on hers).[153] Nor have we done with confession: there are still those of Mrs Dashwood[154] and Edward for Elinor to hear![155]

The essential elements are the acceptance of responsibility: I did this, I am to blame, self-knowledge (under what false notion or passion was I working to do this), acknowledgement of the evil consequences; contrition (the humiliation and mortification which may often result in a depression and despair from which the sinner is lifted by the forgiveness of the beloved).

God is a mystery too high to be spoken of in her romances[156] but all things move towards the conversion of those destined for the felicity of which she writes, matrimony. When rightly taken in hand, a situation very rare in these romances, it is a communion of spirits which is heavenly felicity come to earth—or the earth raised to heaven. The alternative often wished on the wicked, and frequently witnessed in Austen’s novels, is a living hell of mutual punishment.[157] Perhaps it is imagined most satisfactorily in the mutual recriminations of Maria Bertram exiled for adultery and her Aunt Norris. Maria had been married for her beauty by a dunce and she took him for his money. Her follies were nurtured by her Aunt, the persecutor of Fanny, who is made her keeper so that they can bedevil one another.[158] Under the endings in perfect felicity of Jane Austen’s novels there are many more makings-do and perhaps yet more living hells.[159]

The decoupling of beauty and goodness and the depiction of marriages which, though not ideal, work in their own way, and may even be chosen in full consciousness of their imperfection, suggests that the ever perceptive and shockingly ironic Austen may be exposing the limit of marriage as the secularized ideal of conversion.

CaptureEdward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) and Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson), from the 1995 movie



Soul is a subsistent cosmic reality in the Platonic tradition, until, in its Christian continuation, the human replaces its mediating role. In consequence, psychological conversion is also ontological. We have only considered Christian versions of Proclean system and in them the mediating role of the human, and thus humanization, reaches an extreme never known in Hellenism. Sir Richard Southern’s judgment, when extended backward in time to Eriugena and strengthened beyond his sense of what is intelligible, remains correct: “Thomas Aquinas died in 1274 and, it is probably true that man has never appeared so important a being in so well-ordered and intelligible a universe as in his works. Man was important because he was the link between the created universe and divine intelligence. He alone in the world of nature could understand nature. He alone could use and perfect nature in accordance with the will of God and thus achieve his full nobility.”[160] The secularization and humanization of the human and cosmic telos and the means to it goes much further when we move from the culmination of conversion as contemplative or ecstatic union with the Divine Good, True, and Beautiful to felicity as marriage of the Protestant gentry. It is evident that such an incredible representation of matrimony must depend on its filling in for the transcendent divine goal of the ancient and medieval quest. Moreover, by the accounts of those who most enchantingly depict this humanized telos and process of conversion, its heaven is very sparsely populated and the massa damnata is the multitude which no man can number.

It seems clear the honourable estate of matrimony has not been able to bear the weight placed upon it. The fact that, in the Northern European Christian world and its offshoots, it is now mostly an on and off affair for those who attempt it at all is in part owed to the impossible expectations it bears. The best corrective would be a restoration of the contemplative goods alongside it, but in our society distraction is sought above all else. So we seem to be left with neither contemplation nor union in the flesh. Must, and can, we go further back? Will there be a renaissance by a conversio ad fontes, Parmenides and Plato? Or is the spiral now ever downwards?

— Wayne J. Hankey


Wayne Hankey was born and raised in rural Nova Scotia where he received his primary and secondary education. He studied Classics, philosophy, and theology at King’s College & Dalhousie University (Bachelor of Arts, 1965, with First Class Honours and the University Medal in Philosophy and Valedictorian), Trinity College & the University of Toronto (Master of Arts in Philosophy, 1969, First Class) and Oxford University (D. Phil. Theology, 1982). At Dalhousie from 2002 he chaired the Academic Development Committee as it reshaped Dalhousie University’s teaching of Religion into the new Programme in Religious Studies within the Department of Classics where he is Carnegie Professor and Chair. He is the author of more than 10 monographs and edited volumes, more than 100 scholarly articles, chapters and reviews, and a mass of addresses, sermons and journalistic pieces. Many of these are collected on his website at In the last year he delivered guest lectures at St Thomas University Fredericton, Smith College, Princeton University and McGill University.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. ᾗ φρόνησις οὐχ ὁρᾶται δεινοὺς γὰρ ἂν παρεῖχεν ἔρωτας, εἴ τι τοιοῦτον ἑαυτῆς ἐναργὲς εἴδωλον παρείχετο εἰς ὄψιν ἰόν
  2. Thus it owes nothing to the Conversion of A.D. Nock (Oxford University Press, 1933) which is almost exclusively, despite a chapter on conversion to philosophy, about conversions between religions and to them. It has much in common, however, with the even more learned classic of Gerhart B. Ladner, The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers (1959), for example, the use of convertere by Augustine.
  3. Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones. A Foundling, IV,xiii: she is “the great pattern of matrimonial love and constancy”. I use Fredson Bowers text with Martin Battenstin’s notes (2 vol., Wesleyan Edition 1975) as reprinted in a single volume, The Modern Library 1994.
  4. See my “Theoria versus Poesis:  Neoplatonism and Trinitarian Difference in Aquinas, John Milbank, Jean-Luc Marion and John Zizioulas” Modern Theology, 15:4 (1999): 387-415 at 406 on Aquinas: “[T]he divine knowing, as source, is Father; as the essence known, thus, as object, it is Son. ‘The Son understands not by producing a word but as being a word which comes forth from another.’ Father and Son are thus opposed as well as united.  The opposition engendered must be overcome.  The connexio duorum is the Spirit who receives his being from both as love. As Aquinas says, ‘If you leave out the Spirit, it is not possible to understand the unitas connexionis inter Patrem et Filium.’ Aquinas is explicit that this whole trinitarian process is an exitus and reditus.  It is the basis of that other going out and return which is creation.”
  5. Guest Lecture sponsored by CREOR, McGill Centre for Research on Religion / Centre de research sur la religion in partnership with ‘Early Modern Conversions’ Tuesday, 18 February
  6. Plato Republic VI,509d-VII,521b. At 515c ὁπότε τις λυθείη καὶ ἀναγκάζοιτο ἐξαίφνης ἀνίστασθαί τε καὶ περιάγειν τὸν αὐχένα καὶ βαδίζειν καὶ πρὸς τὸ φῶς ἀναβλέπειν; 517a ὅτι οὐκ ἄξιον οὐδὲ πειρᾶσθαι ἄνω ἰέναι; καὶ τὸν ἐπιχειροῦντα λύειν τε καὶ ἀνάγειν; 517d τὸ δὲ τοῦ πυρὸς ἐν αὐτῇ φῶς τῇ τοῦ ἡλίου δυνάμει: τὴν δὲ ἄνω ἀνάβασιν καὶ θέαν τῶν ἄνω τὴν εἰς τὸν νοητὸν τόπον τῆς ψυχῆς ἄνοδον τιθεὶς; 518c οἷον εἰ ὄμμα μὴ δυνατὸν ἦν ἄλλως ἢ σὺν ὅλῳ τῷ σώματι στρέφειν πρὸς τὸ φανὸν ἐκ τοῦ σκοτώδους, οὕτω σὺν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ ἐκ τοῦ γιγνομένου περιακτέον εἶναι, ἕως ἂν εἰς τὸ ὂν καὶ τοῦ ὄντος τὸ φανότατον δυνατὴ γένηται ἀνασχέσθαι θεωμένη; 518d τούτου τοίνυν, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, αὐτοῦ τέχνη ἂν εἴη, τῆς περιαγωγῆς, τίνα τρόπον ὡς ῥᾷστά τε καὶ ἀνυσιμώτατα μεταστραφήσεται, οὐ τοῦ ἐμποιῆσαι αὐτῷ τὸ ὁρᾶν, ἀλλ᾽ ὡς ἔχοντι μὲν αὐτό, οὐκ ὀρθῶς δὲ τετραμμένῳ οὐδὲ βλέποντι οἷ ἔδει, τοῦτο διαμηχανήσασθαι.
  7. Septuagint Psalm 79,4: ὁ θεός, ἐπίστρεψον ἡμᾶς καὶ ἐπίφανον τὸ πρόσωπόν σου, καὶ σωθησόμεθα.
  8. Septuagint Lamentations 5,21: ἐπίστρεψον ἡμᾶς, κύριε, πρὸς σέ, καὶ ἐπιστραφησόμεθα· καὶ ἀνακαίνισον ἡμέρας ἡμῶν καθὼς ἔμπροσθεν. Vulgate: converte nos Domine ad te et convertemur innova dies nostros sicut a principio.
  9. Septuagint Psalm 37,7: ἐταλαιπώρησα καὶ κατεκάμφθην ἕως τέλους,
  10. Augustine, Sermon 223A.
  11. In Super Psalmos Davidis Expositio 37.3 and 37.4. His Bible placed it at the end of 2 Chronicles. It was not in the Vulgate. It is now given as the Prayer of Manasse: 10: “Incurvatus sum multo vinculo ferri”. LXX,10 “κατακαμπτόμενος πολλῷ δεσμῷ σιδήρου”.
  12. Anselm Proslogion cap. 1: incurvatus non possum nisi deorsum aspicere.
  13. Bonaventure, Itinerarium, 1,7: “Secundum enim primam naturae institutionem creatus fuit homo habilis ad contemplationis quietem, et ideo posuit eum Deus in paradiso deliciarum. Sed avertens se a vero lumine ad commutabile bonum, incurvatus est ipse per culpam  propriam, et totum genus suum per originale peccatum, quod dupliciter infecit humanam naturam, scilicet ignorantia mentem et concupiscentia carnem; ita quod excaecatus homo et incurvatus in tenebris sedet et caeli lumen non videt…”
  14. Boethius Consolatio IP1.13 and IIIP2.1: Tum defixo paululum uisu et uelut in augustam suae mentis sedem receptasic coepit. The ascent from the Cave and a return are placed at the very end of Book III: IIIM12,53-58: quicumque in superum diem mentem ducere quaeritis; nam qui Tartareum in specus uictus lumina flexerit, quicquid praecipuum trahit perdit dum uidet inferos
  15. Boethius Consolatio IIIM9.
  16. She stands between truth and his intellect: Purgatorio 6,38: ”lume fia tra ‘l vero e lo ‘ntelletto.” Her appearance crowned with the Athena’s olive leaves is at 30,68.
  17. See my “God’s Care for Human Individuals: What Neoplatonism gives to a Christian Doctrine of Providence”, Quaestiones Disputatae 2: 1 & 2 (Spring –Fall 2011): 4–36 and “Providence and Hierarchy in Thomas Aquinas and the Neoplatonic Tradition,” for The Question of Nobility. Aspects of Medieval and Renaissance Conceptualization of Man, ed. by Andrea A. Robiglio, Studies on the Interaction of Art, Thought and Power 8, Leiden-New York, Brill, 2014, in press.
  18. I Corinthians 13.12-13: βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι’ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον· ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους, τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην.
  19. Ennead 1.1.8: εἴδωλα δὲ αὐτῆς διδοῦσα, ὥσπερ πρόσωπον ἐν πολλοῖς κατόπτροις.
  20. The movement to the masque and its mirrors begins, when Virgil departed, Beatrice speaks and names herself. Dante looks down and sees himself mirrored in water (the first mirrors of the world of forms for the ascending prisoner of the Cave), but in this presence such self-knowledge is too much to bear. 30,76: Li occhi mi cadder giù nel chiaro fonte; ma veggendomi in esso, i trassi a l’erba, tanta vergogna mi gravò la fronte.
  21. Augustine De Trinitate X,2, XIV,5, XV,3 provide examples.
  22. Bonaventure Itinerarium I,5: in quantum contingit videre Deum in unoquoque praedictorum modorum ut per speculum et ut in speculo.
  23.  Republic VI,509b: οὐκ οὐσίας ὄντος τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ, ἀλλ᾽ ἔτι ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας πρεσβείᾳ καὶ δυνάμει ὑπερέχοντος.
  24. Exodus 3,14: καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεὸς πρὸς Μωυσῆν ᾿Εγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν·
  25.  Theaetetus, 176a–b: Socrates. Evils, Theodorus, can never pass away; for there must always remain something which is antagonistic to good. Having no place among the gods in heaven, of necessity they hover around the mortal nature, and this earthly sphere. Wherefore we ought to fly away from earth to heaven as quickly as we can; and to fly away is to become like God, as far as this is possible; and to become like him, is to become holy, just, and wise.
  26. Philo, De Opif. 70-71, And again, being raised up on wings,… it is borne upwards to the higher firmament, and to the revolutions of the heavenly bodies. And also being itself involved in the revolutions of the planets and fixed stars according to the perfect laws of music, and being led on by love [eros], which is the guide of wisdom, it proceeds onwards till, having surmounted all essence intelligible by the external senses, it comes to aspire to such as is perceptible only by the intellect: and perceiving in that, the original models and ideas of those things intelligible by the external senses which it saw here full of surpassing beauty, it becomes seized with a sort of sober intoxication like the zealots engaged in the Corybantian festivals, and yields to enthusiasm, becoming filled with another desire, and a more excellent longing, by which it is conducted onwards to the very summit of such things as are perceptible only to the intellect, (see Plato, Phaedrus, 245ff) till it appears to be reaching the great King himself. And while it is eagerly longing to behold him pure and unmingled, rays of divine light are poured forth upon it like a torrent, so as to bewilder the eyes of its intelligence [dianoia] by their splendour. But as it is not every image that resembles its archetypal model, since many are unlike, Moses has shown this by adding to the words “after his image,” the expression, “in his likeness,” to prove that it means an accurate impression, having a clear and evident resemblance in form.” Following him, Clement, Strom. 2.22, 131, 6 and Origen De princ.3.6, 1.
  27. Fielding, Tom Jones, VIII,10-IX,2.
  28. Plato, Symposium 210b.
  29. See my “Recurrens in te unum: Neoplatonic Form and Content in Augustine’s Confessions,” Augustine and Philosophy, ed. Phillip Cary, John Doody, and Kim Paffernroth, Augustine in Conversation: Tradition and Innovation, (Lanham/ Boulder/ New York/ Toronto/ Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books / Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 127–144.
  30. Margaret Anne Doody, The True Story of the Novel (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 445-6, representing Diotima’s love as of the from variety, gives us the debate on the subject in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy(1759-1767)  and what that displays of a very considerable knowledge of Neoplatonism in the literary world during the time Fielding was also writing.
  31. Plato, Symposium 210d: ἐπιστήμην μίαν τοιαύτην.
  32. Plato, Symposium 210e-211b: ὃς γὰρ ἂν μέχρι ἐνταῦθα πρὸς τὰ ἐρωτικὰ παιδαγωγηθῇ, θεώμενος ἐφεξῆς τε καὶ ὀρθῶς τὰ καλά, πρὸς τέλος ἤδη ἰὼν τῶν ἐρωτικῶν ἐξαίφνης κατόψεταί τι θαυμαστὸν τὴν φύσιν καλόν,… αὐτὸ καθ᾽ αὑτὸ μεθ᾽ αὑτοῦ μονοειδὲς ἀεὶ ὄν, τὰ δὲ ἄλλα πάντα καλὰ ἐκείνου μετέχοντα τρόπον τινὰ τοιοῦτον, οἷον γιγνομένων τε τῶν ἄλλων καὶ ἀπολλυμένων μηδὲν ἐκεῖνο μήτε τι πλέον μήτε ἔλαττον γίγνεσθαι μηδὲ πάσχειν μηδέν
  33. Plato, Symposium 212a: τεκόντι δὲ ἀρετὴν ἀληθῆ καὶ θρεψαμένῳ ὑπάρχει θεοφιλεῖ γενέσθαι, καὶ εἴπέρ τῳ ἄλλῳ ἀνθρώπων ἀθανάτῳ καὶ ἐκείνῳ;
  34. Plato, Symposium 212b: Socrates: ὅτι τούτου τοῦ κτήματος τῇ ἀνθρωπείᾳ φύσει συνεργὸν ἀμείνω Ἔρωτος οὐκ ἄν τις ῥᾳδίως λάβοι. διὸ δὴ ἔγωγέ φημι χρῆναι πάντα ἄνδρα τὸν ἔρωτα τιμᾶν, καὶ αὐτὸς τιμῶ τὰ ἐρωτικὰ καὶ διαφερόντως ἀσκῶ, καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις παρακελεύομαι, καὶ νῦν τε καὶ ἀεὶ ἐγκωμιάζω τὴν δύναμιν καὶ ἀνδρείαν τοῦ Ἔρωτος καθ᾽ ὅσον οἷός τ᾽ εἰμί. “towards this acquisition the best helper that our human nature can hope to find is Love. Wherefore I tell you now that every man should honor Love, as I myself do honor all the erotica with especial devotion, and exhort all other men to do the same; both now and always do I glorify Love’s power and valor” (Fowler, modified).
  35. For references see my “John Scottus Eriugena,” (with Lloyd Gerson), Cambridge History of Late Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, edited Lloyd Gerson (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010), vol. II, 829–840, or, better, the online version from which Gerson produced his edition:
  36. M. Zier, “The Growth of an Idea,” in H. Westra, From Athens to Chartres.  Neoplatonism and Medieval Thought.  Studies in Honour of Édouard Jeauneau (Leiden, 1992), 71–83 at 80.
  37. Stephen Gersh, “Eriugena’s Fourfold Contemplation: Idealism and Arithmetic,” in S. Gersh and D. Moran, Eriugena, Berkeley and the Idealist Tradition (Notre Dame, Ind., 2006), 151–67 at 156.
  38. Paul Rorem, “Dionysian Uplifting (Anagogy) in Bonaventure’s Reductio”, Franciscan Studies 70 (2012): 183-188.
  39. Ibid.: 186-7
  40. Ibid.: 188 quoting Bonaventure, The Collations on the Six Days
  41. See my God in Himself, 141 & 142: “Thomas uses the causes to structure his writing only twice in the first forty-five questions of the Summa theologiae; in both cases he uses the same order. He places matter and form between the moving and final causes. Proper motion, as distinguished from activity generally, belongs to the material. When seen in relation to the divine causality, it involves a going out from simple immaterial being to matter which is raised to formal perfection as the good, or end, it lacks. In causing, God as the principle of all procession, i.e. the Father, knows the form by which he acts in [and as] the Son and loves the Son and himself as end in the Spirit. Thus understood, the order Thomas uses, in distinction from his sources in Aristotle, has a reason. The source of motion is the obvious beginning, just as its opposed cause, the final, is appropriate end….He says, glossing Aristotle, who also mentions their opposition, ‘motion begins from efficient cause and ends at final cause’ [In Meta. I.IV, 70]. ‘Prima autem et manifestior via est, quae sumitur ex parte motus.’ The moving cause is an obvious point from which to start the ways to God within a theology which also begins from him. Those ways ended: ‘Ergo est aliquid intelligens, a quo omnes res naturales ordinantur a finem, et hoc dicimus Deum’. But ‘intelligere et velle’ are motions as ‘actus perfecti’ and as such display the ‘rediens ad essentiam suam’. This return is perfect in the divine being. Its exitus and reditus become fully manifest in the processions of persons founded in God’s activities of knowledge and love; these in turn make intelligible the procession and return of creatures.”
  42. On which see K. Corrigan, “L’Auto-réflexivité et l’expérience humaine dans l’Ennéade V, 3 [49], et autres traités: de Plotin à Thomas d’Aquin,” Études sur Plotin, éd. M. Fattal (Paris – Montreal: L’Harmattan, 2000): 149–172 and my “Between and Beyond Augustine and Descartes: More than a Source of the Self,” Augustinian Studies 32:1 (2001): 65–88 at 84–85.
  43. For the beginning of an analysis of the connection between physical circling and knowing as reflection, see Stephen Menn, “Self-Motion and Reflection: Hermias and Proclus on the Harmony of Plato and Aristotle on the Soul,” in James Wilberding and Christoph Horn (eds.), Neoplatonism and the Philosophy of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 44–67; at 65–67 Menn treats Aquinas whom he finds to be the first person using reflexio or reflectio “as something like a technical term.”
  44. See W.J. Hankey, “Ab uno simplici non est nisi unum: The Place of Natural and Necessary Emanation in Aquinas’ Doctrine of Creation,” in Divine Creation in Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern Thought: Essays Presented to the Rev’d Dr Robert D. Crouse, edited by Michael Treschow, Willemien Otten and Walter Hannam, Studies in Intellectual History (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 309–333 at 310. As a result emanation is used a term for the proodos more by Latin Christian theologians than by pagan Platonists.
  45. My interpretation here is fully within the later medieval Thomist tradition, especially as taken up along the Rhine in the sillage of Albertus Magnus and worked out in dialogue with the texts of Thomas by Eckhart, see Evan King, “’Bonum non est in Deo’: on the Indistinction of the One and the Exclusion of the Good in Meister Eckhart,” M.A. thesis Dalhousie University (2012), 80–101. I am deeply grateful to Evan for the interest he has taken in this paper and his help with it. My thanks is equally owed, and very willingly given, to the members of my seminar for 2012-13 who worked through Questions 1 to 45 of the Summa theologiae with me. Their work confirmed Thomas’ judgment that the order of the Summa is the ordo disciplinae.
  46. See Hebrews 1.3.
  47. I am adapting “Prosai-comi-epic” of Fielding.
  48. Purgatorio, XXX, 139-141: “e volse i passi suoi per via non vera, imagini di ben seguendo false, Tanto giù cadde, che tutti argomenti a la salute sua eran già corti, fuor che mostrarli le perdute genti. er questo visitai l’uscio d’i morti e a colui che l’ha qua sù condotto, li prieghi miei, piangendo, furon porti.”
  49. Purgatorio XXXI,5-7.
  50.  Republic, X,621a: εἰς τὸ τῆς Λήθηςτὸν Ἀμέλητα ποταμόν; Aeneid VI,713-15: “Animae, quibus altera fato corpora debentur, Lethaei ad fluminis undam securos latices et longa oblivia potant.
  51. Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, XVIII,12: “Both sat with their eyes cast downwards on the ground, and for some minutes continued in perfect silence. Mr Jones during this interval attempted once or twice to speak, but was absolutely incapable, muttering only, or rather sighing out, some broken words; when Sophia at length, partly out of pity to him, and partly to turn the discourse from the subject which she knew well enough he was endeavouring to open, said— “Sure, sir, you are the most fortunate man in the world in this discovery.” “And can you really, madam, think me so fortunate,” said Jones, sighing, “while I have incurred your displeasure?”—”Nay, sir,” says she, “as to that you best know whether you have deserved it.” “Indeed, madam,” answered he, “you yourself are as well apprized of all my demerits. Mrs Miller hath acquainted you with the whole truth. Tom: “O! my Sophia, am I never to hope for forgiveness?”—”I think, Mr Jones,” said she, “I may almost depend on your own justice, and leave it to yourself to pass sentence on your own conduct.”—”Alas! madam,” answered he, “it is mercy, and not justice, which I implore at your hands. Justice I know must condemn me…”
  52. Purgatorio XXVII, Virgil: “libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:  per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio
  53. Dante, The Divine Comedy I: Hell, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers (Penguin, 1949), 67-68. For another and fuller description of Beatrice in terms of the Masque and the Eucharistic Host, see Dante, The Divine Comedy II: Purgatory, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers (Penguin, 1955), 311-12.
  54. Philippians 2.8.
  55. Richardson, Pamela, Oxford World’s Classics 2001, pp. 214-216.
  56. For another see Pamela, p. 435: “May I, Sir, said I, beg all your Anger on myself, and to be reconciled to your good Sister?”
  57. Pamela, p. 209.
  58. Pamela, p. 203.
  59. E.g. Mark 14.41.
  60. Pamela, p. 205. 2 Corinthians 12.9.
  61. Pamela, p. 216.
  62. Tom Jones, X,ii,XI,ii, XII,viii.
  63. Tom Jones, IV,ii.
  64. Sophia is attracted to Tom before he has any particular “Design” on her Tom Jones, IV,vii. She manifests her attraction first. This disturbs him. Tom Jones, V,ii: “He extremely liked her Person, no less admired her accomplishments, and tenderly loved her Goodness. In Reality, as he had never once entertained any thought of possessing her, nor had ever given the least voluntary Indulgence to his Inclinations, he had a much stronger Passion for her than he himself was acquainted with. His Heart now brought forth the full Secret, at the same Time that it assured him the adorable Object returned his Affection.”
  65. Tom Jones, VII,vi and see XVI,vi.
  66. Tom Jones, X,ix.
  67. Tom Jones, XIII,xi.
  68. Tom Jones, XIII,xii. This is not the first time Wisdom deceives; at VI,iii she ignores Tom and pays special attention to Blifil in order to hide the true state of her affections, and at XI,viii, and elsewhere, she leaves Tom out of her account of her reasons for fleeing her father. However, XIII,xii is the first time she is represented as seriously remorseful.
  69. Tom Jones, XVI,v.
  70. Tom Jones, II,i.
  71. Tom Jones, V,i.
  72. See Martin C. Battestin, The Moral Basis of Fielding’s Art: A Study of Joseph Andrews (Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1959).
  73. Tom Jones, II,vi.
  74. Tom Jones, VIII,vii.
  75. Tom Jones, IX,ii.
  76. Tom Jones, VIII,iv; Tom Jones, XV,vii, Tom Jones, IX,v: “a most masculine Person and Mein; which latter had as much in them of the Heracles, as the former [his face] had of Adonis.” And XVIII,xii.
  77. Tom Jones, III,ii. Parson Thwackum was firm in this conviction Tom Jones, V,ii. He is represented as a Calvinist predestinarian simultaneously sure of Tom’s “State of Reprobacy” and exercising his “Duty, however, to exhort you to…Repentance, tho’ I too well know all Exhortations will be vain and fruitless.” The wicked Captain Blifil is given the same kinds of doctrines, but, in him they are ascribed to Methodism (I,x) which his “Rascal” son will adopt. The two are united for Fielding in the evangelist George Whitefield (see Battestin’s note at I,x). Parson Abraham Adams of Joseph Andrews, and of the conclusion of Tom Jones, is the determined enemy of both the movement and the doctrines. For Fielding’s Tom Jones as set up to oppose this logic and its opposite, see XII,viii.
  78. Allworthy to Tom, Tom Jones, V,vii: “I am convinced, my Child, that you have much Goodness, Generosity and Honor in your Temper; if you will add Prudence and Religion to these, you must be happy: For the three former Qualities, I admit, make you worthy of Happiness, but they are the latter only which will put you in Possession of it.”
  79. So Allworthy is described at Tom Jones, VI,iv. Allworthy is the man to pull Tom together. He “was naturally a Man of Spirit, and his present Gravity arose from true Wisdom and Philosophy, not from any original Phlegm in his Disposition: For he had possessed much fire in his Youth, and had married a beautiful woman for Love.” VI.iv.
  80. Tom Jones, VIII,ii.
  81. Tom Jones, XVIII,ix: Western complains you “make me always do just as you please”.
  82. E.g. most importantly at Tom Jones, VI,xi.
  83. Tom Jones, XVIII,x.
  84. Although Sophia resists and flees the wrong exercise of he father’s authority, and is supported against it by Allworthy, Squire Western is permitted to do what he must as her father at the critical point when he saves her from imminent rape, Tom Jones, XV,v. In the end she does marry the man he wishes for her (though his mind has been changed), his bloody minded opposition to Tom is allowed to be forgiven because “I took thee for another Person” (XVIII,x), and Sophia (very willingly we suppose) yields to him on the date of the wedding (XVIII,xii).
  85. Joseph Andrews, III.i.
  86. Tom Jones, X,i.
  87. Ibid.
  88. Tom Jones, XIII,i.
  89. Tom Jones, XV,i.
  90. Tom Jones, IV,xiv.
  91. Tom Jones, V,vi
  92. Tom Jones, VIII,ii.
  93. Tom Jones, XVIII,xiii.
  94. Tom Jones, XI,i
  95. Tom Jones VII,ix.
  96. Tom Jones, X,ix.
  97. Tom Jones, XIV,iv.
  98. Tom Jones, III,v: “a thoughtless, giddy Youth”.
  99. Tom Jones, V,ix.
  100. Tom Jones, XV,viii where Terence’s most famous dictum is applied to him. And we have Tom on himself: “tho’ I have been a very wild young fellow, still in my most serious Moments, and at the Bottom, I am really a Christian.” Tom Jones, VII,xiii. His are the “Faults of Wildness and of Youth” XVII,ii
  101. Tom Jones, XVIII,ii.
  102. Ibid.
  103. Tom Jones, XVIII,x.
  104. Tom Jones, XVIII,ii.
  105. Tom Jones, XIV,vii.
  106. Tom Jones, XVIII,vii & XVIII,viii.
  107. Tom Jones, XVIII,xiii.
  108. Tom Jones, XV,x.
  109. Tom Jones, XVI,viii, XVIII,xi, and XVII, viii.
  110. Tom Jones, XII,xii and XVIII,xiii.
  111. See note to Tom Jones, VIII,ix.
  112. Tom Jones, XVIII,xiii.
  113. Tom Jones, XVIII,xiii.
  114. My treatment of Jane Austen’s novels has been encouraged and assisted by Paul Epstein, “‘Is Sex Necessary’: Friendship and Marriage in Jane Austen’s Emma’,” and Susan Harris’ response to Dr Epstein’s paper in Christian Friendship. Papers delivered at the Twenty-Fifth Annual Atlantic Theological Conference, June 26th to 29th, 2005, edited Susan Harris (Charlottetown: St Peter Publications, 2005), 173-192 and 193-199.
  115. Tom Jones, I,xii gives us the Book of Common Prayer on Matrimony and at V,ii the same on the Visitation of the Sick.
  116. Mansfield Park, ix, Mary and Edward disputing about whether a clergyman is nothing are agreed that sermons are pretty much ineffectual, what is needed is “a clergyman constantly resident” as “well-wisher and friend.”
  117. Except, very briefly, when the ridiculous Mr Collins attempts to read to Mrs Bennett and her daughters in Pride and Prejudice,[New York: Pantheon Books, nd]xiv and is rudely interrupted and thus silenced by Lydia, and when Lady Bertram cries herself to sleep after having heard “an affecting sermon” read to her, Mansfield Park, xlvii
  118. Persuasion, xi,101: “When the evening was over, Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination.” I owe this point to Elizabeth King.
  119. Dr Grant, after becoming a Prebendary of Westminster Abbey, “brought on apoplexy and death by three great institutionary dinners in one week.” Mansfield Park, xlviii
  120. Especially clear in Sense and Sensibility, [New York: Pantheon Books, nd]xxxixand Mansfield Park, xlviii: “the acquisition of Mansfield living”. Edward we are assured showed his contentment with his small living by “the ready discharge of his duties in every particular” (Sense and Sensibility, xxxix)—the wonder is that it should need remarking upon. Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey(1818) [New York: Pantheon Books, nd] is strong and has defied his father, the tyrannical General, to his face to be faithful to Catherine, xxx, p. 232. He employs a curate to do the ordinary pastoral work while he enjoys the parsonage and the greater part of the income of the living (Chapters xxvi & xxviii,205). Tongue firmly in cheek, Mr Bennet advises the sycophantic and ambitious Mr Collins to shift from Lady Catherine to her nephew: “he has more to give” Pride and Prejudice, lx,380. In Pride and Prejudice, pastoral charges are treated as sources of income and the right to appoint to them (present them) is a commercial matter. See also Sense and Sensibility, xli where Elinor’s brother cannot believe that the living is really being given rather than sold. Neither Sir Walter Elliot nor his second daughter regard a curate as a gentleman, Persuasion, [New York: Pantheon Books, nd] iii,22. Jane Austen has nothing of Fielding’s zeal both to better the lot of the poorer clergy—many of his worse off characters are the children of clergy who ridiculously regard themselves as gentry on that account (e.g. Black George’s wife and Honour Blackmore), and to inspire a spirit of independence vis-à-vis their patrons.
  121. At Pride and Prejudice, lvi: Lady Catherine de Bourgh: “…is the son of his late father’s stewart, to be his brother? Heaven and Earth—of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” However, Darcy does transgress this boundary in marrying Elizabeth.
  122. Persuasion, xxii, p. 226: (Anne speaks) “I am not yet so much changed”, xxiii, 244: “the resolution of a collected mind”, xxiii, 245: (Wentworth speaks) “You could never alter.” In fact, she has changed, but by the time of the action of the novel her sufferings and self-exertions have given her the habit Frederick admires. It shows itself above all when she alone knows how to act, and does it from the spontaneity of virtue, when Louisa jumps and falls. In contrast Frederick Wentworth and the other men are helpless. Persuasion, xii, pp. 109-110: “’Is there no one to help me? were the first words which burst from Captain Wentworth, in a tone of despair, and as if all his own strength were gone. ‘Go to him, go to him,’ cried Anne, ‘for heaven’s sake go to him. I can support her myself…’ Anne, attending with all the strength, and zeal, and thought, which instinct supplied…tried to quiet Mary, to animate Charles, to assuage the feelings of Captain Wentworth. Both seemed to look to her for direction.” I am grateful to Elizabeth King for reminding me of the change in Anne.
  123. Pride and Prejudice, vi where Darcy has already formed the right judgment of Elizabeth that will motive him, despite himself, his family and friends, and her family: Elizabeth was “becoming an object of interest”; “no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes…he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing”. He is compelled to repent his first hasty judgment. By chapter x “Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her.” In contrast, Liz’s aunt Gardiner must warn her about becoming further attached to the rascal Wickham (xxv) and in Chapter xxvi she confesses that he “must always be her model of the amiable and pleasing”. Liz is rescued by his forsaking her for someone with money. It is not until her visit to Pemberley (xliii) and its consequences that Elizabeth begins to understand Darcy and her love for him. Throughout it all, once fixed, Darcy is able to say “My affections and wishes are unchanged” (lviii). And Elizabeth declares to Wickham: “In essentials, I believe, he is very much as he ever was.” (xli).
  124. Northanger Abbey, ii. Henry Tilney “had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it.” (iii).
  125. Elizabeth on Jane, Pride and Prejudice, iv:”Oh! you are a great deal too apt, you know, to like people in general. You never see a fault in anybody. All the world are good and agreeable in your eyes.” At xxvi Jane reveals how this is self-serving: “But I will endeavour to banish every painful thought, and think only of what will make me happy…” In contrast Elizabeth comes to be ashamed of her too quick and too harsh judgments, especially of Darcy.
  126. Marianne is described in Sense and Sensibility at the beginning of Chapter x. Elinor is in her shadow for appearance: “her face was so lovely” as to make her more than a “beautiful girl”; “her complexion was uncommonly brilliant”, etc.
  127. Sense and Sensibility, ix. In contrast Marianne says of Edward “his figure is not striking—it has none of the grace which I should expect in the man who could seriously attach my sister.” (iii).
  128. Pride and Prejudice, xliv: “‘To be sure Lizzy,’ said her aunt, ‘he is not so handsome as Wickham; or rather, he has not Wickham’s countenance, for his features are perfectly good.’”
  129. Pride and Prejudice, xv. At xvi: “Elizabeth honoured him for such feelings, and thought him handsomer than ever as he expressed them.”…She thought: “A young man, too, like you, whose very countenance may vouch for your being amiable” When wrongly believing him as opposed to Darcy, Elizabeth gives as a reason: “Besides, there was truth in his looks.”(xvii). Again, at xxxvi: “As to his real character, had information been in her power, she had never felt a wish of inquiring. His countenance, voice, and manner had established him at once in the possession of every virtue.”
  130. Pride and Prejudice, iii: “Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.”
  131. Mansfield Park, iv.
  132. Thus, of Fanny, from her rejected suitor, Henry Crawford, who by losing her damns himself and those he implicates: “Your judgment is my rule of right.” Mansfield Park, xlii. Her judgment and perseverance in it prove to be truer and stronger than that both of Edmund, the right principled clergyman she marries, who gave her guidance when she was younger, and of Sir Thomas Bertram, the admirable but erring pater familias. Naïve Catherine of Northanger Abbey is nonetheless of sure and unmovable judgment “my opinion of your bother never did alter”, xviii, and xxvii, “an innate principle of general integrity”.
  133. “[T]he advantages of early hardship and discipline and the conscious of being born to struggle and endure” belonging to Fanny come to be appreciated. Mansfield Park, xlviii. Persuasion i.4: “Anne…was nobody with either father or sister”.
  134. Of Eleanor Tilney, who is rescued from her tyrannical father by “the most charming young man in the world”, then persuades the tyrant to let Catherine and Henry marry, we are told “I know no one more entitled by unpretending merit, or better prepared by habitual suffering to receive and enjoy felicity.” Northanger Abbey, xxxi.
  135. What ruins is displayed for example in Elinor’s reflection on Willoughby’s confession in Sense and Sensibility, xliv: “the irreparable injury which too early an independence and its consequent habits of idleness, dissipation and luxury, had made in the mind…The world had made him extravagant and vain…” Female versions abound, most notoriously Lydia of Pride and Prejudice indulged by her mother and ignored by her father. Maria of Mansfield Park is ruined in the same way and to much the same effect by an indulgent Aunt and an aloof father. Also in Mansfield Park, xlvii, Mary Crawford, who together with her brother had independence too early, and the example of a morally “vicious” uncle to substitute for lost parents, is found by Edward, who had once been completely in love with her, to be in “total ignorance” of right feelings about good and evil. “Hers are faults of principle…of blunted delicacy and of a corrupted vitiated mind”. More ridiculous than harmful are the faults of Mr Collins: Pride and Prejudice xv: “Mr Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of Nature had been but little assisted by education and society…[including] the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity.”
  136. Emma was nearly led astray by the troublemaking, if not vicious, Frank Churchill: “He was a very good-looking young man—height, air, address. All were unexceptionable, and his countenance had a great deal of the spirit and liveliness of his father’s—he looked quick and sensible.” Emma, [New York: Pantheon Books, nd] xxxiii.
  137. Pride and Prejudice, l: “there seemed a gulf impassable between them. Had Lydia’s marriage been concluded on the most honourable terms, it was not to be supposed that Mr. Darcy would connect himself with a family where, to every other objection, would now be added an alliance and relationship of the nearest kind with a man whom he so justly scorned.”
  138. Ibid.
  139. Pride and Prejudice, lii: “It was painful, exceedingly painful, to know that they were under obligations to a person who could never receive a return. They owed the restoration of Lydia, her character, every thing, to him. Oh! how heartily did she grieve over every ungracious sensation she had ever encouraged, every saucy speech she had ever directed towards him. For herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him. Proud that in a cause of compassion and honour, he had been able to get the better of himself.”
  140. Pride and Prejudice, lvi.
  141. Pride and Prejudice, lvii.
  142. Pride and Prejudice, lviii.
  143. While the once too submissive daughter of a gentleman snob must learn something of the freedom of the self-made naval man, Frederick Wentworth confesses his need to learn submission at the end of the novel, delightfully combining irony and truth: “I have been used to the gratification of believing myself to earn every blessing that I enjoyed. I have valued myself on honourable toils and just rewards. Like other great men under reverses,” he added with a smile, “I must endeavour to subdue my mind to my fortune. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve.” Persuasion, xxiii,249.
  144. Persuasion, ix,80: Anne “arranged” her feelings. “She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was, and it required a long application of solitude and reflexion to recover her.” xix,177: “She hoped to be wise and reasonable in time; but alas! alas! she must confess to herself that she was not wise yet.”
  145. This from Elizabeth King commenting on a draft of my paper richly adds to it. “What you point out about the heroines’ (as well as some other peripheral characters’) confessions is so true. They are the most convicting element of her novels, without a doubt, and the reader cannot but be changed and moved toward conversion herself through the privilege of both witnessing the public act and, far beyond that, the interior self-examination and terribly piercing repentance that it involves. In every novel it is the moment when you most love the confessing character (I think here especially of Emma.) I am convinced of what you say about both the pattern their confessions follow, and their ultimate and necessary orientation toward the Beloved. I think what I appreciate most about what you have written is your point about the precisionof the confession. That really is at the heart of it—it is absolutely necessary that the exact nature of the fault be recognized—its outward manifestation, the passions that underlie it, the precise limits of the wrong. And also exactly how that fault relates to the Beloved; because he is the keeper of her best self which she is yet to come into, he must know all.”
  146. Pride and Prejudice, lx. My good qualities are under your protection, and you are to exaggerate them as much as possible.”
  147. Emma, xlvii,gives the beginning in a revelation by Harriet: “Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes. She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet!”; by xlvii, 421 she is wretched and mortified and undertakes self-examination: “To understand, thoroughly understand her own heart, was the first endeavour.” As a result of “the first series of reflexions”, she comes to acknowledge her fault: “With insufferable vanity had she… ” (421). This continues ”Alas! was not all that her own doing too.”(423) The repentance she undertook alone turns to confession to Mr Knightly, the beloved, in which she takes care not to wrongly accuse another, Emma, xlix: ”Let me swell out the causes ever so ingeniously, they all centre in this last—my vanity was flattered.” She undertakes to repair the damage of her sin, and, at xlix, 440: ”She felt for Harriet with pain and with contrition….” Later, in liii, there is a mutual assessment of faults between herself and Mr Knightly.
  148. Persuasion, xxiii, 249: “There may have been one person more my enemy than that lady: My own self….I was proud, too proud to ask again….Six years of separation and suffering might have been spared.”
  149. Persuasion, xxiii,248: “I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and the wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right….” Anne was not always of exactly this mind. In Chapter iv,28 we are told she might have been eloquent “against that over-anxious caution which would seem to insult exertion and distrust Providence! She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”
  150. Northanger Abbey, xxv: “The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened….She hated herself more than she could express….[I]t had been all a voluntary, self-created delusion”. However, the tone of this novel requires a counterbalancing lightness: “Her mind made up on these several points, and her resolution formed, of always judging and acting in future with the greatest good sense, she had nothing to do but forgive herself and be happier than ever; and the lenient hand of time did much for her by insensible gradations in the course of another day.”
  151. It begins once she has forced herself to reread a letter from Darcy and examine against her prejudice its veracity. Pride and Prejudice, xxxvi: “She grew absolutely ashamed of herself.…[S]he had been blind, prejudiced, absurd. ‘How despicably have I acted!’ she cried: ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment!…How humiliating is this discovery! Yet how just a humiliation!…Till this moment I never knew myself’…[H]er sense of shame was severe.”She continues the self-examination in xl where it goes with accusing herself to Jane. She begins to make reparation for her bad treatment of Darcy with Wickham in xli. On the process goes until completed in the mutual confessions of the engaged couple in Chapter lx.
  152. Sense and Sensibility, xlvi.
  153. Sense and Sensibility, xliv.
  154. Sense and Sensibility, xlvii.
  155. Sense and Sensibility, xlix: “His heart was now open to Elinor—all its weaknesses, all its errors confessed…”
  156. Though in Sense and Sensibility, xlvi, Marianne breaks this rule.
  157. Thus Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, xliv whose continued longing for Marianne and criticism of his wife Elinor the strict judge in the Confessional must suppress: “That is not right, Mr Willoughby. Remember that you are married. Relate only what in your conscience you think necessary for me to hear”.
  158. Mansfield Park, xlviii “their tempers became their mutual punishment”.
  159. The marriages of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram (Mansfield Park), and, in Pride and Prejudice,the senior Bennets, by both of which only one daughter in the end is irretrievably damaged, and above all of Charlotte and Mr Collins must raise the question as to whether Jane Austen’s irony does not extend to her own idealization of marriage. See this from David Curry: “Austen, like Dante, understands the way in which incurvatus se can be turned around (and not down). The penitents on the cornice of the Proud are turned down—bent double—to contemplate the exemplars of humility and self-awareness, particularly Mary. For Austen, even the little ones or the foolish ones, (as in Mozart’s the Magic Flute, too,) such as Wickham and Lydia, are part of something greater than their own folly and are sustained by the institutional expression of that greater principle, all their folly and limitations notwithstanding.”
  160. R. Southern, Medieval Humanism and Other Studies (Oxford: 1970), 90.
Jun 152014

DublinersAuthor and the First Edition

Bloomsday is tomorrow, June 16, a day of literary legend, which may also commemorate James Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle. But today is very special as well. It’s the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners, which appeared on June 15, 1914. It took ten years for Joyce to get the book published. Sending an early version to his eventual publisher Grant Richards in London, Joyce wrote perhaps not the best cover letter ever composed but one of the truest. According to Nora’s biographer Brenda Maddox, Joyce told Richards he thought “there might be a market for ‘the special odour of corruption which, I hope, floats over my stories.'”

As Bruce Stone explains in his luminous essay here published, Dubliners was “a revolution without fanfare.” Joyce’s grim naturalism, his disposition to document the underside (not to mention the underclass) of Edwardian Dublin, has inspired much of what we call realistic and even minimalist fiction today. When I attended the Iowa Writers Workshop in the 1980s, I had classmates who swore that “Araby” was the best short story ever written. Conversely, since it somewhat cants against the naturalistic grain of the stories, that word “epiphany,” used so often in the discourse of contemporary American letters, also derives from Joyce’s technique in Dubliners. But for Joyce, who couldn’t get out of Dublin fast enough when he was 22, who felt betrayed by city, family and literary culture, the book was a squaring of accounts. Bruce Stone writes, “Dubliners is a boarding house for failed men and fallen women, with bad teeth, worse hair and cataracts of both eye and mind.”

Bruce Stone has published essays, book reviews, and fiction in Numéro Cinq, including “Nabokov’s Exoneration: The Genesis and Genius of Lolita” and “Viktor Shklovsk’s Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar,” two bedrock texts in terms of the aesthetic behind the magazine. “Dear Dirty Dubliners, Revisited: James Joyce’s Classic at the Century” is the third in this string of exemplary texts, erudite, insightful, surprising, and straight — not the sentimental celebration of the great Irish writer but a re-Joycing of Joyce, the writer returned to us.



“Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” Stephen Dedalus,
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

In June of 1914, after an agonizing labor fraught with complications—marriage, emigration, the births of two children, some unusually vexed negotiations with publishers, to say nothing of a rapidly crowning first novel—James Joyce saw his Dubliners delivered into print. The collected stories were written primarily between 1904 and 1906, and though several had appeared promptly in The Irish Homestead, the book would have to wait almost a decade for publication. The breakthrough came only after Joyce engineered a publicity coup, with the help of Ezra Pound. In an essay called “A Curious History,” Joyce aired his publication woes, naming names of fickle publishers and citing a disputed passage from the text. When Pound ran the article in The Egoist, the public shaming apparently did the trick, because Grant Richards, whose imprint had reneged on a contract in 1906, agreed to give the manuscript a second chance.

Early readers balked at the book’s then-scandalous content, which was enough to cause printers, fearing lewdness and libel charges, to break up the type. But even if we no longer share those period qualms, the collection’s arduous journey into print still seems inevitable. Perhaps no other great book can match in drabness, meanness, or deliberate ungainliness the fifteen stories of Dubliners. Turn-of-the-century Dublin, in Joyce’s lens, is a hard-scrabble place, shabby and penny-pinching, gas-lit and chill. There, alcoholics arm-wrestle for the national honor and lose, children suffer abuses both physical and spiritual (pedophiles prowl the public greens), marriages are joined out of necessity and spite, sex is mercenary, work routinized and alienating, life nasty and bleak, if rarely brutish or short (passivity and inertia are the rule). Dubliners is a boarding house for failed men and fallen women, with bad teeth, worse hair and cataracts of both eye and mind. And a few months after the book’s publication, all hell broke loose: the Archduke was shot, the European countries charged variously to war, and the course of civilization warped in proportion to the scale of the carnage. Against this backdrop, the tenor of Joyce’s book, its systemic anhedonia, its grim determination to record the blemishes and mange of the human populace, might have seemed oddly prescient, the only fit appraisal of our domestic condition. Maybe it’s less surprising then that this quiet, unprepossessing little volume, this revolution without fanfare, should continue to haunt us today, its blighted populace still animate, immune to the passage of time.

For most readers, if the collection’s title is familiar at all, it remains so largely because of its most toothsome parts: “Araby” and “The Dead” have been obsessively anthologized over the years, to the perennial chagrin of high school students and undergraduates. The rest of the book, like the inedible parts of the fish, is reserved for the inoffendable palates of scholars. This ghettoization of the stories has given rise to some serious misconceptions about Joyce’s achievement in the genre—which is no small matter since “Araby” and “The Dead” have conspired to establish perhaps the dominant paradigm for modern short fiction. On the strength of those two stories, generations of readers have been conditioned to think of Joyce as the progenitor of a photographic realism in literature, and of the epiphany—the sudden flash of insight, a burst of self-knowledge—which still ranks among the favored plot devices in contemporary short fiction.


In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Bennett captures indirectly the popular view of the book: that Dubliners represents Joyce’s flirtation with naturalism, an artistically conservative prelude to those later mad-scientist experiments of Portrait, Ulysses and the illegible Finnegan’s Wake (which Nabokov called a “petrified pun”). Bennett describes how this style took root at the Iowa Writers Workshop and rose to prominence in North American letters in the latter decades of the 20th century. He also conveys, in the same breath, his personal distaste for this programmatic realism and its blanching imperatives: to “carve, polish, compress and simplify: banish [oneself from the text] as T. S. Eliot advised and strive to enter the gray, crystalline tradition of modernist fiction as it runs from Flaubert through early Joyce and Hemingway to Raymond Carver (alumnus) and Alice Munro.” In Bennett’s view, Joyce’s aesthetic, subsequently institutionalized, equates to the triumph of showing over telling—and showing of a particular cast, call it literary asceticism. Bennett continues:

Frank Conroy [director of the Iowa Writers Workshop from 1987-2005] had this style down cold—and it is cold. Conroy must have sought it in applications, longing with some kind of spiritual masochism to shiver again and again at the  iciness of early Joyce. Such lapidary simplicity becomes psychedelic if you polish it enough. Justin Tussing (class ahead of me) mastered it in his prismatic novel, The Best People in the World. I myself, feeling the influence, revised sentences into pea gravel.

For a long time I shared Bennett’s aversion to this artistic parsimony, its vows of linguistic chastity and metaphysical silence, that parched clarity and bitter taste, but I’ve since come to appreciate its limited charms. In “The Sisters,” for example, Joyce depicts the boy-narrator’s distraction as the kid prays in the mourning house of his dead mentor (a bent priest); unable to concentrate on the profundities of death and godliness, instead the boy observes the homely details of the priest’s sister kneeling beside him: “how clumsily her skirt was hooked at the back, and how the heels of her cloth boots were trodden down to one side.” The details, for all their meanness, constitute an artistic revolution that still seems radical: the moment reads like a rebuke to the notion that literature should concern itself with melodrama or metaphysics, that the human comedy can be portrayed or conceived in such high-flown terms. Yet, the passage is played with monstrous restraint, as if nothing much is going on.

This low-mimetic drift of the art in Dubliners often approaches the sublime. In “An Encounter,” for example, another boy-narrator, this one playing hooky from school, offers in passing this line of description: “The day had grown sultry and in the windows of the grocers’ shops musty biscuits lay bleaching.” A throwaway moment, but the drabness of the image and the economy of the phrasing yield a magnesium flash in the consciousness (maybe this is the psychedelia that Bennett mentions). Such passages abound in Dubliners, but what most recommends Joyce’s naturalistic mode is the fact that his characters, as a consequence of this scrupulous accounting, are perfectly incarnated, fully realized if not always exactly alive.

Consider this description of the drunk Freddy Mallins, a bit player in “The Dead”: “His face was fleshy and pallid, touched with colour only at the thick hanging lobes of his ears and at the wide wings of his nose. He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips. His heavylidded eyes and the disorder of his scanty hair made him look sleepy.” Freddy shows up at the Morkans’ party already soused, with his fly open, eager to share a bawdy story with anyone who’ll listen. When a Mr. Browne interrupts Freddy’s story to alert him to the “disarray in his dress” and give him some lemonade to sober him up, the vignette concludes with this little tableaux, forever inscribed in my memory:

Freddy Mallins’ left hand accepted the glass mechanically, his right hand being engaged in the mechanical readjustment of his dress. Mr. Browne, whose face was once more wrinkling with mirth, poured out for himself a glass of whisky while Freddy Mallins exploded, before he had well reached the climax of his story, in a kink of highpitched bronchitic laughter and, setting down his untasted and overflowing glass, began to rub the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye, repeating words of the last phrase as well as his fit of laughter would allow him.

There are characters in Shakespeare who have the same effect on me—like the flea-bitten ostlers in Henry IV, Part One who spend the night in a room without a chamber pot and resort to pissing in the fireplace. I think I went to high school with those guys—that is, such characters feel as alive to me as those in my own lived memories. And Freddy: that bronchitic laughter, that gesture of rubbing a fist into an eye itchy with tears of mirth. The feeling the passage evokes for me can only be described as love. Admittedly, Freddy is a gregarious anomaly among the cast of Dubliners. A more typical city denizen would be James Duffy, who lives in Chapelizod, on the outskirts of town, under self-imposed quarantine, his blood as congealed as the white grease on a plate of corned beef and cabbage. (He’s like one of those monks, mentioned in “The Dead,” who sleeps in his own coffin.) And Freddy Mallins himself isn’t exactly admirable. I wouldn’t want to have a drink with him, or spend time with him, or be responsible for him. I suspect that sometime soon he will do something stupid, maybe unforgivable (though not tonight—see how dutifully he tends to his aging mom and gets her settled in a horse-drawn cab at the party’s end). But that he exists at that moment, as he is, scanty hair and open fly and all, makes him lovable.

Even from a vantage point as jaundiced as Bennett’s, Joyce’s dreary collection retains a hard-earned luster. But this view of the book, as a forerunner of minimalist realism, is limited, as boxed-in as the blind end of North Richmond Street. Scholars have suspected as much (albeit contentiously) for decades, yet the memo seems not to have reached creative writing circles, or the heavily trafficked annexes of contemporary anthologies. What better way to observe, then, the collection’s centennial birthday than with a close examination of one of its forgotten stories, one which might begin to rectify those well-meaning misconceptions. For best results, I would submit for your perusal “A Little Cloud,” Joyce’s parody of the artist as a no-longer-young man. This little story, muted, discontinuous, captures the essence of the collection. It both revises our doctrinal assumptions about epiphanies and reveals how Dubliners anticipates Joyce’s later innovations, the book of a piece with, not other than, Portrait and Ulysses—in its own way just as momentous.


“A Little Cloud” Atlas

James Joyce pictured in 1934

Like many of the stories in the book, “A Little Cloud” is an oddly warped, broken-backed affair. From start to finish, the plot spans only a few decisive hours in the life of Little Chandler, a milksop law clerk who dreams of becoming a celebrated Irish poet. We first meet him daydreaming at his desk, idling away the last of the workday in anticipation of his evening plans: his longtime friend, Ignatius Gallaher, now a journalist in London, has returned for a visit to “dear dirty Dublin,” and the men have arranged to grab a drink at a posh bar with a Continental vibe. Chandler envies Gallaher and tries to talk himself into believing that Gallaher deserves his good fortune, but after a few whiskeys at the bar, when the conversation turns to manners and sexual mores in Paris (a sore spot for the untraveled Chandler), Chandler’s resentment for his friend starts to manifest. The men jokingly disparage each other’s marital status—Chandler a husband, Gallaher a confirmed bachelor who vows to settle down only with a rich Jewish woman—and they part on uneasy terms, a pantomime of friendship and fellow-feeling.

At this point, the story cuts to Chandler’s house, and the conflict centers not on his stymied artistic career, but on his stultifying marriage (which is never mentioned until Gallaher raises the subject, and then himself disappears: the story fluidly shifts thematic focus—thus, the broken-backed feel of the narrative). Chandler has forgotten to bring home his wife’s tea, and though she claims not to mind the oversight, at the last minute, before the shop closes, she rushes out to get the tea, leaving Chandler, probably still buzzed from the alcohol, alone with his infant son.

Cue the epiphany. Chandler stares at a picture of his wife and discovers in her still-life eyes the truth about his marriage: “They repelled and defied him: there was no passion in them, no rapture.” The recognition sparks a wave of “resentment” for the whole of his life, and he longs to escape. For solace he opens a book of Byron’s poetry and tries to comfort himself with illusions of his own poetical nature, but just then, the baby starts crying, disrupting Chandler’s reading, and he snaps: “It was useless, useless! He was a prisoner for life. His arms trembled with anger and suddenly bending to the child’s face he shouted:–Stop!” Of course, this only makes matters worse. The baby begins to cry so hard that it struggles to breathe, and just in the nick of time, Chandler’s wife comes home and brutally relieves Chandler of his childcare duties. The story ends with Annie, the wife, soothing the child and a broken Chandler feeling “tears of remorse [start] to his eyes.”

Because the third-person point of view closely simulates Chandler’s perceptions, and because Chandler pretends to have a poetic cast of mind, “A Little Cloud” lacks some of the emphasis on naturalistic observation that makes “Araby” and “The Dead” famous. Instead, we get trace amounts of the musky humanity from those stories. See Gallaher, as he doffs his hat when he greets Chandler and acknowledges the toll of time on the body: “He bent his head and felt with two sympathetic fingers the thin hair at the crown.” In a similar spirit, Chandler’s house feels lived-in precisely because it’s so sterile in its staging, carefully curated—equipped with the nice, but not too nice, furniture that his wife picked out and which Chandler has bought “on the hire system” (a sort of rent-to-own arrangement). But given its comparative lack of physical details, “A Little Cloud” relies on dialogue to bring the characters to life, and it does. That dialogue is, to my ear, dullish, maybe too lifelike in its fidelity to the conversational conventions of the time, but when the talk turns acrimonious, Joyce captures indelibly Gallaher’s contempt for Chandler and his marriage:

I don’t fancy tying myself up to one woman, you know.

He imitated with his mouth the act of tasting and made a wry face.

Must get a bit stale, I should think, he said.

The words limn the gesture in only the barest terms, yet I can’t help but fill in the gaps, imagining Gallaher with scrunched lips, fussily mincing the rank idea. I can smell the smoke from the cigars that the men have been puffing.

Nevertheless, if this is all there is to Dubliners, if such moments are both part and parcel of Joyce’s achievement, I think the collection would survive for us largely as a footnote to the monumental novels, and it might be justifiably parted out for the assembly of a crash course in narrative design. But the lifelikeness in Dubliners is mere prelude to a more complicated and more compelling agenda, as even the enigmatic title of “A Little Cloud” attests. To what does this title refer? The Little clearly evokes Little Chandler’s name, but the Cloud is curiously opaque. Does it refer to the cigar smoke wafting around the men’s conversation? Is it a Biblical reference, as the Norton Critical Edition scholars suggest? Is there a typo perhaps: should the title have read “A Little Clod”? Is the plot crisis here tantamount to a cloud passing over Chandler’s existence (or burning off in the sunlight of epiphany)? Might the Cloud denote the ungrounded quality of the narrative, its relative lack of physical description? The text never explicitly confirms any of the reader’s suppositions. What the title does make clear is that the story’s vision doesn’t promise or aspire to perfect clarity—however harsh, grainy and overexposed a “realistic” clarity might be. No, this story, like the book to which it belongs, trades in equal measure, perhaps primarily, in obfuscation.


Narcissus and Echo

The fluent banality of the dialogue, for example, its plodding mimesis, doesn’t define the story’s tone; rather, it sharply contrasts with the lyrical timbre of Chandler’s poeticizing mind. As Chandler sits at his desk, staring out the window, he narrates, indirectly, the scene, a little landscape sketch:

The glow of a late autumn sunset covered the grass plots and walks. It cast a shower of kindly golden dust on the untidy nurses and decrepit old men who drowsed on the benches; it flickered upon all the moving figures—on the children who ran screaming along the gravel paths and on everyone who passed through the gardens.

The irony in the sentence is hilarious: Chandler believes himself to be experiencing a beautiful moment of melancholic communion, as natural beauty gilds the urban scene. Yet, his mean-spiritedness, his contempt for his fellow Dubliners, punctures the graceful illusion at every turn: those untidy nurses, decrepit old men and screaming children belong to a different genre than the sunset’s kindly golden dust. (Even the phrase golden dust can be pressed to yield an oxymoron). Chandler is oblivious to the tone-deafness of his narrating consciousness, but the word choices reveal his true colors to the reader.

Later too, as he walks to meet Gallaher, he experiences another even more self-consciously poetical moment (later in the story he will try to recall the poem taking shape here):

For the first time [not quite true] his soul revolted against the dull inelegance of Capel Street. … As he crossed Grattan Bridge he looked down the river toward the lower quays and pitied the poor stunted houses. They seemed to him a band of tramps [Chandler discovers metaphor] huddled together along the river banks, their old coats covered with dust and soot, stupefied by the panorama of the sunset and waiting for the first chill of night to bid them arise, shake themselves and begone. He wondered whether he could write a poem to express his idea.

Lest you have any doubt that the intention here is parody, a caricature of the poet, consider that, as Chandler continues walking, the poem still unwritten, he fantasizes about the reviewers’ praise that might follow his performance, a passage too rich to truncate:

He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was a melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy. If he could give expression to it in a book of poems, perhaps men would listen. He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds. The English critics perhaps would recognize him as one of the Celtic school by reason of the melancholy tone of the poems; besides that, he would put in allusions [here, I laugh out loud]. He began to invent sentences and phrases from the notices which his book would get. Mr. Chandler has the gift of easy and graceful verse. … A wistful sadness pervades these poems. … The Celtic note. [Guffaw!] It was a pity that his name was not more Irish looking.

The tone is so deadpan, unobtrusive, that we might miss the withering irony. That is, the parody doesn’t make a lot of noise; Chandler remains, throughout, pathetically human, not a cartoon. But the verdict is clear: Chandler’s trademark timidity (he carries a shyly scented handkerchief) gives the lie to these delusions of grandeur, and it seems especially damning that he abandons the poem to craft the praise, which is itself airily patronizing (or sentimental rot, to use a period term).

In a similar fashion, the fact that Chandler turns, later, to Byron’s poetry to escape the reality of his chintzy apartment, cold marriage and demanding child also exposes him as a poser, not a poet. Byron, as the exemplar of the Romantic era, is English, and in the nationalistic milieu of Dubliners, Chandler’s taste in poetry marks him with a self-destructive servility to British rule. Further, the poem Chandler reads (unnamed in the story, but printed in full in the wonderful Norton Critical Edition), is called “On the Death of a Young Lady, Cousin of the Author, and Very Dear to Him.” The first stanza sets a scene in which the writer visits the “tomb” to “scatter flowers on the dust [he loves],” and he notes how “Not e’en a Zephyr wanders through the grove.” Compare the tone of the poem, with its tombal sonority and absent zephyrs, with that of the conversation between Gallaher and Chandler, or even that of the immediate context of the room in which Chandler is reading, with a bawling infant and layaway furniture. The incongruity here, the dissonance, amounts to an indictment of both Chandler’s tastes and the Romantic project: this sort of art is cast as precious and dated, out of tune with contemporary reality. If a story like “The Sisters” exposes the bankruptcy of metaphysics, “A Little Cloud” turns its eye overtly on aesthetics and likewise splashes cold water in the face of the hallowed tradition.

The problem with the naturalistic view of Dubliners is that it’s blind to the irony that pervades the text. As I understand it, photographic realism is, by definition, unequivocally tone neutral and impersonal: the language captures and records, reliably, the real (sounds like an impossible project to me). In Dubliners, everywhere characters are, like Chandler, victims of their own delusions, and this discovery emerges obliquely in the text, in the ironic distance between the characters’ and the readers’ perceptions.

What makes us see a work like “A Little Cloud” or, more famously, “Araby” as naturalistic is precisely the way in which mundane description comes to eclipse the protagonists’ lyrical fantasies, couched in poetic language. Early in “Araby,” for example, the boy-narrator carries his love for Mangan’s sister like a “chalice” through the storm of hectoring reality: his love is existentially girded in metaphor. By the story’s end, he boards a sluggish tram, self-consciously pays his admission fee, peruses the underwhelming staging of the workaday “bazaar,” gets slighted when trying to pick out his gift for the girl and pauses, in the story’s last line, to survey the ruins of his romantic imagination. But it’s an oversimplification to call this naturalism (as Edmund Wilson did in 1958). Instead, Joyce’s stories, as a rule, record a conflict between literary styles; if a pitiless realism tends to come out on top, this doesn’t mean that the war is over. The next story will reconfigure the conflict in another manner, play it in a different key. Even the most resolutely pragmatic stories, those most immune to the spirit of “poetry,” feature characters who could hardly be called visionaries (see Mrs. Mooney in “A Boarding House,” or Mrs. Kearney in “A Mother,” both hell-bent on balancing ledgers). Rather, these apparently objective views of reality are at odds with other presumably objective views, and we never reach an artistic or existential high ground. Absent this conflict, this endless tilting of voices and visions, the art would be drab, indeed. Moreover, and perhaps more alarmingly, that bedrock of reality, when it does obtrude in the stories, often proves to be hollow and porous—particularly on the matter of Joyce’s vaunted epiphanies.

To see how, and to catch the full measure of “A Little Cloud”’s contribution to Dubliners, and of Dubliners’ contribution to world literature, we need to acknowledge the inadequacy of reading the stories in isolation. If we fillet the collection, extract its most succulent parts and toss the rest, we miss the deliberate artifice that binds the stories together: they’re all interwoven, with almost subliminal recurrences of images and motifs, each part an essential contributor to the collection’s larger design (Dubliners is a story cycle inclining to a novel). “A Little Cloud” reveals this intertextual patterning from its first lines, when Chandler recalls seeing Gallaher off at the “North Wall,” the Dublin dock favored by emigrants of the period. It’s at the North Wall that Eveline, the title character of the book’s third story, refuses to budge one inch further, recedes into an animal stubbornness, and watches her lover depart for points distant while she remains behind in paraplegic Dublin. And like the self-stranded Eveline, Chandler is prone to sitting idly and gazing out the window while his mind travels, not freely, but inside its self-made cage.

The prominent male duo in “A Little Cloud” also evokes comparison with the two gallants of “Two Gallants” who manipulate and use callously a wealthy family’s servant girl. At that story’s midpoint, Lenehan, the unsightly wing-man of the gallants, dreams epiphanically of middle-class comforts with a reliable wife; in Chandler’s predicament, we see the puncturing of that illusion: Lenehan’s sentimental dream is a dead-end vision. Chandler’s rough treatment of his child also prefigures the conclusion to “Counterparts,” the collection’s next story, in which Farrington, an alcoholic scrivener, blows his money on drink, embarrasses himself in an arm-wrestling match and heads home to take a strap to his son. (The story’s last line belongs to the boy, his disembodied voice pleading for mercy, “I’ll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don’t beat me … I’ll say a Hail Mary.”) Even the Byron poem in “A Little Cloud” serves to decode the cryptic title of “Clay,” which concerns an aging cleaning-lady named Maria, a woman prone to self-delusion who becomes the butt of a morbid joke during a Hallow’s Eve game (involving blindfolds and divination). As Byron writes of “the clay” that he loves, we grasp clay’s associations with death, a connection essential to a reading of “Clay,” but never made explicit in that story. For one last example, consider that Chandler’s fantasies of generous reviews point to Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of “The Dead,” and his part-time job as a literary columnist for the Daily Express.

The whole of Dubliners works like this: the details of the stories call out to each other at a distance, yielding an echo chamber of motifs, a plexed matrix of correspondences. Perceiving this patterning in Dubliners is a bit like creating a cat’s cradle of the mind; one can only marvel at the artistic intelligence that fashioned it, and maybe share in some of the wonder by seeing it for oneself (sort of like visiting the Grand Canyon). When I first discovered the intricate design in Dubliners, the effect was dizzying; though I continued breathing normally, in a spiritual sense it left me gasping. The only metaphor I could supply was that it felt like staring directly into the sun. That is to say, in isolation, the stories in Dubliners are often less than scintillating; in many ways, the book shows Joyce’s determination to drive a cleaver between the notions of art and entertainment, aesthetics and enjoyment. But maybe as a whole the collection does supply, in its interlocking craftsmanship, an experience of joy; against the pervasive chill of the collection, for those of us who need it, we might find a contravening warmth in the artistry.

Maybe. The discovery of the patterned surface (or depths) in Dubliners sounds itself like the experience of the epiphany visited upon so many of the collection’s characters. And in fact, this intertextual patterning yields some startling revelations about the nature of those epiphanies, both in isolation and in the aggregate.


Has No One Learned Anything?


Charles Baxter represents the orthodox view of the Joycean epiphany, in his otherwise heretical essay “Against Epiphanies.” Baxter begins by acknowledging the cultural baggage that attends this artistic device: the epiphany doesn’t originate with Joyce but dates back to the rhetoric of religious revelation (see, for example, the conversion experience of Saul of Tarsus). When I consider the roots of epiphany, I think less of saints and more of heroes, as in the anagnorisis, or recognition event, from classical drama and epic poetry. In that tradition, the revelation was directed outward, more public than personal, a recognition of a truth about somebody else (like the incognito Odysseus being spotted by his servant, or Oedipus Rex solving the riddle of his life). The epiphany, by contrast, is anagnorisis turned inward—you recognize at last the face in the mirror—and this attainment of knowledge often supersedes the importance of any action that might follow. Thought trumps plot.

Baxter also shows how Joyce’s epiphanies, contra Bennett, have a metaphysical thrust; he cites the lines from Stephen Hero (the prototype for Portrait) in which Stephen Dedalus describes the epiphany of the object, a perception of its genuine essence. You might call it a transfiguration of the commonplace, a moment that lights up trivialities with transcendental significance. As Baxter summarizes the upshot of the device in Dubliners,

The stories […] are astonishingly detailed, but they continually aim for a climactic moment of brilliant transforming clarification. The clarification happens on the page, even if it doesn’t become visibly apparent to the characters. The stories aim for this effect because the lives Joyce is putting on display might be insufferable to contemplate otherwise, or rather, they would exist in a condition of unimproved Naturalism.

Despite (or because of) this grand inheritance and aim, Baxter complains that epiphanies have become too pat to be convincing anymore; they’re tropes, not genuine transformations of character. And he ultimately argues that writers need to shake up their notions of epiphanies, perhaps showing us how an epiphany can be treacherous: “the insight, if it does come, [need not] be valid or true.” He’s right, of course, but he holds up Joyce’s “Araby” as a shining example of the classic epiphany, the epiphany played straight. When that story’s narrator peers up into the darkness and sees that he’s a “creature driven and derided by vanity,” his eyes burning with “anguish and anger,” he seems to have discovered the essential truth about himself, his folly in romanticizing his budding relationship with Mangan’s sister. This puncturing of a literary illusion is in fact the signature gesture of Dubliners, and maybe this explains why “Araby” has survived while the other stories have faded: the part stands for the whole here. But the local observation needs stressing: for Baxter, the boy-narrator’s conclusive judgment, while somewhat self-destructive, is reliable and truthful. “He has become visible to himself,” Baxter writes.

David Jauss, in “Some Epiphanies about Epiphanies,” holds a view similar to Baxter’s in that he too urges writers to experiment with the device. Relocate it in the narrative, he suggests (among other things), rather than reserving it for the dubious and tired fireworks-of-insight finish. However, unlike Baxter, Jauss is critical of the epiphany at the close of “Araby.” He finds a disproportion between the “showing” of the narrative up to that point, and the glib “telling” of the epiphanic moment: “the final sentence,” Jauss argues, “knocks the story off balance.” He also notes how the boy’s epiphany is couched in the language of religious revelation (vanity, anguish) instead of clear-eyed self-awareness. For Jauss, this fault in the epiphany is the crucial weakness in the story; he isn’t, as a result, “convinced the epiphany is incontrovertibly true, much less permanently life-altering.”

Jauss is right to suggest that the story’s last sentence invites and requires a double take, but what if the doubtful nature of the epiphany is precisely the point? That is, the pseudo-religious tenor of the epiphany might mark it as another form of self-delusion; the boy doesn’t progress, then, from blindness to insight, but rather exchanges one astigmatism for another: exalted romanticism for hair-shirt contrition. In fact, the interconnections among the stories help to confirm this “suspicious” reading (as Margot Norris, author of the superb Suspicious Readings of Joyce’s Dubliners, might call it).

Consider that in “An Encounter,” when the boy-narrator gets drawn into conversation with a pedophile on the public green, the guy’s speech is incantatory, mired in the repetitions of a one-track mind:

He began to speak to us about girls, saying what nice soft hair they had and how soft their hands were and how all girls were not so good as they seemed to be if one only knew. There was nothing he liked, he said, so much as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her beautiful soft hair. He gave me the  impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetized by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit. … He repeated his phrases over and over again, varying them and surrounding them with his monotonous voice.

Repetition, a verbatim recycling of words and phrases, is here the stylistic marker of a sinister self-delusion. In some ways, incantatory repetition is similar to Romantic poetry: both offer a linguistic experience that calls attention to artifice, a sense of words being “magnetized” (repetition is the slovenly cousin of rhyme and alliteration). In the world of Dubliners, any act of dressing up language in artificial clothes scans as a symptom of error, an epistemological failure: see again, for example, Chandler’s description of that kindly golden dust and the lyrical parallelism (repetition) in his syntax. So when the narrator of “Araby” adopts that poeticized and quasi-religious rhetoric, the alliteration is the giveaway that he is girding himself in a defective system: his newfound self-knowledge is driven by the same delusive impulse as his love. Objective reality doesn’t carry the day, after all.

Read in this light, Joyce’s text was already practicing what Jauss and Baxter recommend for contemporary writers. And in every instance, I think, the epiphanies experienced by the characters in Dubliners prove to be forked, flawed, existential false positives.

The epiphany in “A Little Cloud” is, on this point, typical. Chandler’s discovery of the “hatred in his wife’s eyes” appears to represent an arrival of authentic knowledge. Yet, the initial trigger for this devastating insight is Chandler’s glimpse of the lack of “passion” in those same eyes (in the photograph). In other words, what Chandler laments in the scene is Annie’s failure to measure up to his Romantic ideals, which we’ve already seen are ridiculously inflated and artistically bankrupt. So how much truth can be said to inhere in Chandler’s judgment? The very foundation of the epiphanic scene is dubious.

The conclusion to the sequence further aggravates the ambiguity. As those “tears of remorse [start] to his eyes,” the text doesn’t specify the thing that Chandler regrets. He might regret his treatment of his son; however, this would make for a pretty hollow ending to the tale, as the minor failure eclipses the major crisis and a mood of conventional sentimentality prevails. At best, it would signal, implicitly, Chandler’s recognition of the hurtful selfishness of his artistic dreams. But because the scene appears to confirm the irreconciliability of Chandler and his wife (of Chandler to his life), it seems more likely that Chandler regrets his decision to marry the woman with the passionless eyes. In this reading, the story concludes with an access of self-pity: Chandler has learned the truth (maybe) about his marriage, but nothing about the error of his ambitions. His abusive behavior pales, for him, in comparison to his own suffering. In either case, the epiphany is ruinous, not exalting. And because the epiphany conceals within it this crucial misdirection, this potential for a forked reading, the gambit, while promising a neat resolution to the story’s conflict, cagily withholds the very closure that authentic self-awareness would supply.

With its ironic ending and parodic disposition, “A Little Cloud” also proves crucial to our understanding of the collection’s crowning epiphany, at the close of “The Dead,” possibly the most famous paragraph in all of world literature. Recall the scene: Gabriel Conroy, in the aftermath of his discovery of his wife’s private emotional world, stares out the window and observes the snow, falling softly and softly falling, faintly falling and falling faintly, “like the descent of their last end on all the living and the dead.” The prose is magnificent: lyrical but not overwrought (though the verb “swooned” hasn’t aged well), simple but not anemic (those “dark mutinous Shannon waves”), the whole charged with an existential urgency. Mundane experience is here transmuted into credible transcendence. Yet, having observed the function of stylistic artifice (repetition) elsewhere in the collection, it’s hard not to think, “Uh-oh,” when Gabriel’s meditations wax poetic, as if he’s hearkening to the false counsel of literary language.

The consensus reading (see SparkNotes, for example) catches the essential ambiguity in the passage. On one hand, Gabriel seems invested with a fresh understanding of his shortcomings, and newly resolved to embark on a journey with his wife to make amends. On the other hand, he doesn’t move a muscle in the scene, but remains spellbound, even paralyzed, by the experience of observing the snow, and as he burrows into his imagination, his thoughts tend toward the ultimate inertia of death. This paradox is almost identical to the predicament of the poetic speaker in the last stanza of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the rimy sleigh driver with promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps. As Terry Eagleton expertly parses Frost’s stanza, he might be speaking equally of the conclusion to “The Dead”:

There is much recurrence and repetition in [the poem’s] rhyming pattern, which brings with it a curious sense of stasis. By the time the last verse arrives, we have the mesmeric, incantatory repetition of a single rhyme (‘deep’ … ‘keep’ … ‘sleep’). There is no longer any progress or modulation in the rhyme scheme, even though the speaker is reminding himself to move on. The effect is rather like someone trying to shake himself out of the paralysis of sleep with the thought that he should get up.

Style and content are likewise at odds in Gabriel’s epiphany, the stasis in the language nullifying the promise of profluential transformation. In Gabriel’s case, the content is further at odds with itself, as he appears simultaneously to embrace his Irish identity (his journey westward) and to obviate the difference between life and death (the last words unite “all the living and the dead”). His destination with Gretta is either Galway or Hades. Here, redemption is indistinguishable from doom. This paradox is in its own way brilliant, even perfect, but we understand the passage incompletely if we ignore the signposts elsewhere in the collection, and these further unsettle the passage’s already unsettling equipoise. In particular, the precise echoes between Chandler’s window-side view of the golden dust and Gabriel’s view of the falling snow—both scenes featuring atmospheric cascades—make me doubtful of the authenticity of Gabriel’s vision, as if it too, while seeming more humane and genuine, is just another kind of self-delusion, Chandler’s foolishness played in a more sympathetic key.

Or is Chandler’s vision a parody of Gabriel’s view, serving to contrast with, not sabotage, the epiphany in “The Dead,” the one bathed in the sunlight of stupidity, the other cloaked in the darkness and frost of a paradoxical truth? In either case, some readers would bridle, understandably, at the notion of deriving the meaning in one story from motifs in the others, as if each story requires and deserves an interpretive isolation. But even within the confines of “The Dead,” I do worry about the quantity of snow. At the hotel window, Gabriel imagines how the snow lies “thickly drifted” over everything, over all of Ireland, down to the crosses on the tombstones, the thorns of the trees, even the spear points on a cemetery gate (a neat trick that would be). Yet, a few pages earlier, as the Conroys are leaving the Morkans’ party en route to the hotel, we find this description of the snow event: “It was slushy underfoot and only streaks and patches of snow lay on the roofs, on the parapets of the quay and on the area railings.” This sounds like something more than a dusting, but hardly a blanketing. The contrast between these perceptions of snowfall is startling, and suggests that Gabriel’s meditative epiphany carries perhaps a greater portion of error and overstatement than of genuine insight. The moment might be not only ambiguous, but, like the epiphanies in “Araby” and “A Little Cloud,” in some measure bogus.

And what of Michael Furey, Gretta’s teenage sweetheart, with the bad lungs and the job at the gasworks? Remember, he courts his own death when he stands out in the rain under Gretta’s window, a desperate (and pointless) show of devotion. In the act, he seems more like a stock character from a sentimental Irish ballad (like “The Lass of Aughrim,” sung at the Morkans’ party) than like an infatuated teenager. More pointedly, isn’t Furey basically the boy-narrator of “Araby,” minus the bubble-bursting epiphany? Yet Furey’s example is what exposes, by contrast, the flabbiness in Gabriel’s character. So when Gabriel reflects, “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age,” isn’t he invoking the same ideal as Little Chandler and the love-blinded narrator of “Araby”? That is, here, on the epiphanic precipice, Gabriel is buying into the very illusionment that the stories repeatedly dispel; he hasn’t reached a summit of wisdom, but stumbled into a cul-de-sac. Rather than attaining a glimpse of objective reality, Gabriel instead fades out “into a grey impalpable world” “where [dwell] the vast hosts of the dead,” a recession into the mythic, the mystical and the supernatural. Maybe the surest evidence that the collection’s epiphanies are inherently and endemically problematic is that the two most famous examples, in “Araby” and in “The Dead,” are incompatible, even perfectly contradictory.

It isn’t quite accurate to think of Dubliners as the epitome of conventional realism, or an incubator of genuine epiphanic insight. The stories are crooked and warped, rife with voices and modes, often brutally evasive, the whole wracked by confounding involutions. If this is naturalism, we should probably revise our definition of the term because, in order to capture life as it is, Joyce repeatedly depicts characters who have, at best, a loose acquaintance with reality. And if the book has a grand epiphany, it might be that all epiphanies are suspect, self-knowledge inevitably compromised by literary wishful thinking, human folly endlessly renewable. These thoughts have led me to reconsider my estimation of the collection’s meta-patterns. Isn’t this just another dimension of artificial repetition? And as such, isn’t it, by the collection’s aesthetic logic, suggestive of an epistemological error, something to be corrected rather than cultivated? Or is this the only kind of artifice that can transcend the immediate and purblind human context, and thus prove durable (stand us now and ever in good stead) precisely because it defers meaning and avers nothing? Or is this artificer’s impulse anyway ineradicable, an inescapable part of the human condition? You tell me.

Maybe there is an element of masochism in revering an art that would disabuse readers of all notions of reverence, but this is the legacy of Dubliners. With its blinkered populace, its warped and harshly truncated narratives, all shot on the fraying black-and-white film stock of Joyce’s most miserly style, the book can seem off-putting in its relentless mundanity, Joyce’s art merely commensurate with his subject (this composite portrait of curdled human potential). But Dubliners does indeed model a radical consciousness of craft; it previews many of the most powerful strains of the Modernist revolution. For writers of the next century, it remains required reading.

— Bruce Stone


Bruce Stone

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a good book on DG’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, F. Scott Fitzgerald Review and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.


Jun 042014

02 Eagle An eagle swoops past a ship over Zolotoi Rog harbor. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

Nikolai Gogol couldn’t have written a better story than this, and this one is true: a Russian provincial governor, a lost fleet of ships, an illegal tiger skin, vainglory, murder, and the mob — Russell Working is a prize-winning fiction writer, a master wordsmith and a castiron reporter. For many years he lived in Vladivostok, running a small English language newspaper, falling in love, living in a frigid flat inhabited by the spirits of great Russian poets. He wasn’t “embedded”; he LIVED there. The result has been a recent spate of  brilliant reportage (NC ran an earlier essay), or reportage crossed with memoir (or maybe it is a NEW FORM Russell invented). In Dead Souls, Gogol wrote the tale of a Dickensian con-artist who went around Russia buying up dead peasants that, by a book-keeping sleight-of-hand, he planned to mortgage off as live serfs. Gogol’s admirers said he had done nothing but tell the truth about Russia; Russell Working is doing the same.



A MERCHANT. Such a governor there never was yet in the world, your Worship. No words can describe the injuries he inflicts upon us. He has taken the bread out of our mouths by quartering soldiers on us, so that you might as well put your neck in a noose. He doesn’t treat you as you deserve. He catches hold of your beard and says, “Oh, you Tartar!” Upon my word, if we had shown him any disrespect, but we obey all the laws and regulations. We don’t mind giving him what his wife and daughter need for their clothes, but no, that’s not enough. So help me God! He comes to our shop and takes whatever his eyes fall on. He sees a piece of cloth and says, “Oh, my friends, that’s a fine piece of goods. Take it to my house.” So we take it to his house. It will be almost forty yards.

KHLESTAKOV. Is it possible? My, what a swindler!

MERCHANTS. So help us God! No one remembers a governor like him.

—Nikolai Gogol

The Inspector General, Act IV, Scene 5


A Word to the Wise
Among the Lackeys of Foreigners
In the Fleet and the Media

Late one night in June 1999, a broadcast journalist named Yury Stepanov was walking home in Vladivostok, a Russian port city of six hundred fifty thousand on the Sea of Japan, when he came upon a Toyota minivan blocking his way up an alley. He hesitated. He was an editor at Radio Lemma, which had been receiving anonymous threats for reporting allegations of corruption and attempted extortion by the Primorye regional governor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko. But he had to get home, after all, and a cousin to hope, in the human mind, is the ability to convince oneself that all is well.

So he headed on between the van and the wall. A burly man in black emerged from the dark and smashed Stepanov in the face, knocking him to the ground. Another thug joined in the assault. They kicked and stomped Stepanov, head, ribs, gut. His assailants rolled open the door of the van and threw his briefcase inside. They tried to drag Stepanov in, too, he later said. He fought his way free and fled. His attackers chased him on foot all the way to his apartment building. They gave up when he flung himself through the doors. Perhaps it would have been a little too public, even for Vladivostok’s goodfellas, to kidnap an editor from the lobby of his apartment. Or maybe they figured their message had been delivered.

That week Stepanov holed up in his apartment, and this is where I found him a day or two later when I visited with Nonna, then my girlfriend and now my wife. She was a deputy editor at the Vladivostok News, a little English-language paper which I edited, and she often interpreted for me. We had gotten his address from his colleagues at Radio Lemma, but we had not called ahead. Probably he didn’t have a phone; many Russians never did get land lines, and this was before the era of ubiquitous cell phones. Or perhaps he simply was not answering, not wishing to subject himself to death threats. We headed up the filthy stairwell of his Soviet-era building, of concrete slab construction, and knocked at his door, a steel one, such as any sensible Russian lives behind. A blood-yellowed eye appeared in the peephole.

“Who is it?”

Nonna introduced herself and she had brought an Amerikansky zhurnalist to interview him. The blood eye blinked doubtfully, so I said in English, “Tell him I freelance for The New York Times and The South China Morning Post.”

Stepanov let us in to the bedroom/living room and bolted the latch behind us. His face was bruised purple and brown. He hobbled across the room and winced as he lowered himself to the futon and slumped over with a groan.

“How are you doing?” Nonna said.

“I’ve got three broken ribs, a concussion, too, the doctors said. It’s my family I’m worried about. I sent them out of town.”

Stepanov was not the only victim of mysterious circumstances at Radio Lemma. The day after Stepanov’s beating, a reporter glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw a truck accelerating toward his car. The truck rammed him, totaling the car. He was uninjured. Days later, strangers would snatch the nineteen-year-old daughter of another Radio Lemma editor from the street, take her on a little drive around the city, and warn her that her daddy had better tone down those broadcasts criticizing Governor Nazdratenko. “Tell you-know-who that if these statements continue on the radio, he’ll face the same thing that happened to his friend,” the men said. The friend they were referring to was Stepanov. After that they let her go.

Stepanov told us that Radio Lemma staffers had been living in fear ever since they had broadcast a series of reports about Vostoktransflot, the largest refrigerated shipping company in Russia, which was under pressure from the governor. Under the previous director, Viktor Ostapenko, Vostoktransflot had run up a debt of $96 million, the media reported. A pity, to be sure, but what could a chief executive do in a troubled business climate like Russia’s? Among Vostoktransflot’s creditors was the Bank of Scotland, which as lender effectively owned the MV Dubrava and eleven other vessels. To Ostapenko’s profound regret, he was unable to pay his employees’ salaries for nine to twelve months at a time. Understand, times were tough, and everyone on the team would just have row together and bite the bullet and give a hundred and ten percent and all that. Unpaid wages were commonplace in those days, and if Ostapenko was calculating that no one would mutiny over this, he knew his countrymen well. But then in August 1997, a young Moscow investor named Anatoly Milashevich, a graduate of Russia’s MIT—the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology—obtained a majority share of Vostoktransflot, and the nation’s business climate magically improved overnight. This was clear because Milashevich began meeting the payroll every month. The next year, Vostoktransflot ran a profit of $10 million. By 1999 the company reportedly had paid off half its debts.

But business success is dangerous in Russia; dollars smell like blood. Or this is more or less what Vostoktransflot’s leadership team discovered. Nazdratenko summoned Milashevich to the regional administration building known as the White House and, the young executive alleged, demanded a $2 million “campaign contribution,” or else. Milashevich went public with what he claimed was an extortion attempt. It so happened that the day before Stepanov’s beating, Radio Lemma had broadcast a live interview with Milashevich.

01 GuberVeterani_001Nazdratenko (right) offers flowers to veterans in Vladivostok. Photo by Yuri Maltsev

The governor denied he had bullied or threatened Milashevich or sought any bribes. By God, he was just protecting Russia’s fleet from nefarious foreigners and their Russian hirelings. The regional media, mostly controlled by Nazdratenko, launched a propaganda campaign against Milashevich. The governor had other levers to pull, as well. Under pressure from the White House, a district court ruled that Milashevich had gained control of Vostoktransflot illegally, and a judge replaced him with a man more to Nazdratenko’s liking, one whose extensive experience in refrigerated shipping made him an ideal pick to lead the troubled company. He was Viktor Ostapenko, the very man who had sailed Vostoktransflot onto a reef and run up that $96 million debt.

Bailiffs accompanied by a police SWAT team of masked gunmen stormed Vostoktransflot’s office, evicted Milashevich’s staff, and installed the new management team. When the new team opened the safe, with great excitement, they found nothing but a bottle of Chateau de la Tour red and a note that Milashevich had left for them (“Gentlemen, help yourselves”), he recently told me in an e-mail. Milashevich and his team fled to Cyprus.

This spring I exchanged a number of e-mails with Milashevich, but I never caught up with him for an interview. He noted that the Vostoktransflot case was not isolated, but acted as an “archetype” for government actions against business nationwide. “Our history was a drop of water that reflected trends that were happening in this country later (with Yukos, etc.),” he wrote, referring to the company that the Russian government crushed in a tax case, sending its chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to prison. Critics of President Vladimir Putin suggested the case against Yukos was politically motivated, as Khodorkovsky had funded opposition political parties.

Once he was in charge, Ostapenko issued a worldwide order demanding that the entire fleet of thirty-eight ships return to Vladivostok, never mind their contract obligations or cargo they were carrying or their position on the earth. Oh, and good news: Ostapenko now discovered that it was possible, after all, to meet payroll. Puzzlingly, only four ships obeyed. One of those that did respond was the ship Ulbansky Zaliv. Over a year later, the crew was still owed $300,000 in wages despite a court order to sell off three Vostoktransflot ships to cover the debt to their sailors, and the crew of were Ulbansky Zaliv was left to issue threats that they would flood the fuel tanks with seawater and scuttle the ship by the pier of Vladivostok’s fishing port if they were not paid.

10 UlbanZaliv_0249The prow of Ulbansky Zaliv. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

09 UlbanZaliv_0225Unpaid sailors from the ship Ulbansky Zaliv at a meeting in which they announce they will sink their ship in port if they aren’t paid. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

The rest of the captains continued to answer to Milashevich, who was communicating with them from Cyprus by radio. On July 2, Milashevich’s team sent Captain Igor Tkachenko to Calcutta to sell the ship, Titovsk, for scrap, because it was obsolete and did not meet company standards, Tkachenko later told the media. Ostapenko began sending radiograms every seven hours demanding that Tkachenko break the ship’s contract and carry out another job more to Ostapenko’s liking. One message stated, “You are hijacking the ship together with the crew, a violation of Article 211 of the Russian Criminal Code … Are you thinking about what you are doing?” Alarmed and confused by the turmoil, Tkachenko ignored the messages and kept sailing. “They were absurd,” he said in a later press conference quoted by The Moscow Times. “Can you imagine how I felt about that message on a stormy sea?” Once Titovsk arrived in Calcutta, the deal was delayed a month because Ostapenko’s team began telegramming the Russian consulate demanding that officials intervene.

Now it was time for Vladivostok Mayor Yury Kopylov, a Nazdratenko appointee and ally, to turn up the heat. He ordered Radio Lemma to stop interviewing his and Nazdratenko’s political foes in what was an election year, the journalists said. “I hope that you guys are smart enough, and that no physical actions will follow,” Kopylov reportedly told them. A spokeswoman for Kopylov denied that he had threatened them, adding that he had nothing to do with Stepanov’s beating. Indeed, she found the editor’s claim of an assault “suspicious.” Since when had any journalist ever suffered for defying the authorities in Russia?


Curiously, while staffers at Radio Lemma were afraid for their lives, we at the Vladivostok News operated with an editorial freedom the rest of the local media, including our Russian-language parent paper, the daily Vladivostok, could only envy. Our print edition had died with the 1998 ruble crisis, and we now published on the Internet only. It would not have taken anything as crude as a beating to deal with me, had anyone cared. I could have been denied a visa or threatened and chased out of the country. But that never happened. The publisher of our parent paper, who had shown courage during the attempted coup d’état against Gorbachev in 1991, was by now allied with Nazdratenko; this made the Vladivostok News’ editorial independence all the more surprising. I suspect this was only because neither our publisher nor anybody else who mattered could read English. The point is, it took no courage whatsoever for me to publish stories that contradicted Nazdratenko’s official line. For my Russian staff, Nonna included, it was a different story. Had the governor’s White House woken up to what we were writing, they could have been subject to the Radio Lemma treatment.

The federal authorities also left us alone. In 1995 an agent from the FSB—the successor to the KGB—had become curious about the small group of Russians and foreigners who were putting out an English-language newspaper in town. He phoned Nonna in the newsroom and told her to come downstairs immediately and meet him outside. A tired-looking agent in his late thirties was waiting in a shabby Russian car, although anybody of means in the Far East drove a Japanese import. His familiarity with her biography frightened her a little. He knew all about her time dancing in a contemporary troupe, her past work as a translator for the Oceanographic Institute. He wanted to know what all those foreigners were up to in town.

“Why don’t you come up and ask them?” Nonna said.

“No! You never talked to me. This is just between us. That’s an order.”

But when he sent her back upstairs, Nonna immediately told everyone about her conversation with the FSB agent.

Only one article I wrote, a freelance piece for The New York Times on another firm, Far Eastern Shipping Co., ever drew any reaction from the local authorities. I can only speculate that this story must have been translated by the Russian Foreign Ministry and found its way to the regional White House; surely nobody in the Nazdratenko administration was paging through The Times or reading it online in English. A few weeks after the beating of Stepanov, Natalya Vstovskaya, the governor’s press secretary, phoned our parent paper and asked the editors to print a letter. The White House would pay the usual rate, she said. Russian newspapers often accept cash to print official statements disguised as letters or news stories, and the governor wanted this one to play prominently. It had not yet been decided who would sign it, but Vstovskaya would supply a name.

Fine, fax it on over, she was told.

By the time the letter arrived, someone had scrawled a name at the bottom: Yury Ukhov, chairman of the Far Eastern Shipping Company Trade Union. This was a typical Soviet-era practice: using a mouthpiece with working class bona fides to issue a denunciation on behalf of the Party. Oddly, the publisher declined the opportunity to make a buck off an advertorial attacking an employee, and the White House went trolling elsewhere for a venue for its letter.

A few days later the letter ran in a tabloid called Novosti. Ukhov (or his ghostwriter in the governor’s office) expressed indignation over my story for The New York Times. He called me “illiterate and dumb” and warned of the “boundless evil” of foreign provocateurs such as me. “What a beast Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko is!” the letter stated sarcastically, implying that I had written this. Ukhov, who apparently did not realize I lived in Vladivostok, wrote that I was one of these foreigners who think that Russians still wear velveteen trousers and sleep on stoves in the fashion of peasants of old. It compared foreign investment in the fleet to stealing a cucumber out of someone’s garden. (The quotes I have are preserved in a column I wrote for The Moscow Times. The full letter appears to have melted into the sands of the Internet.)

Even if we had not known that the letter originated in the White House, it would have seemed unlikely that that Ukhov was a regular reader of The New York Times. I asked Nonna to telephone him and subtly sound him out on this (Gosh, that’s great that you read English; where did you study?). But she was filled with righteous indignation on behalf of her man, and, judging from the side of the phone conversation I overheard, it turned into an argument. She hung up.

“Well?” I said.

“He told me, ‘I am ashamed that you, a Russian woman, are defending foreigners.’”


03 Newsroom Handsome or whatNazdratenko views mock-ups of the next day’s paper in the newsroom of Vladivostok. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

Once, Nonna and I had the opportunity to ask Nazdratenko directly about some of the turmoil at Vostoktransflot. Around that time he dropped in on the newsroom of the Vladivostok to take questions, and Nonna and I invited ourselves upstairs. The newsroom was like any other—crowds of desks, computer terminals, heaps of faxed press releases—except that an old bust of Stalin occupied a shelf near the door. (The journalists considered this a joke.) The governor was a fleshy middle-aged man with a five-o’clock shadow and permanent sheen of sweat, and the publisher ushered him to a comfortable seat. Nazdratenko was relaxed, accustomed as he was to fawning coverage. He tended to refer to crowds as “my friends,” and, in the condescending manner of communist bureaucrats, addressed young women reporters as “ty”—the informal you. The journalists crowded around, and everyone lobbed questions at Nazdratenko, who amiably swatted them into the bleachers. Who wouldn’t enjoy this? Local TV stations devoted their entire hour-long newscasts to his daily schedule, trumpeting the governor’s ribbon-cuttings and handshakes with visiting officials. When he held press conferences, his spokeswoman distributed printouts listing the questions he wished to be asked. Reporters compliantly raised their hands and asked. Even editors said they felt compelled to attend the governor’s press conferences, although they had reporters in the room to cover the events. “Someone might notice if I don’t show up,” one editor said.

But at one point as he droned on, I whispered in Nonna’s ear: “Ask him about Milashevich and the $2 million.” When Nazdratenko paused, eyebrows raised, awaiting another softball, Nonna fired the question.

The governor purpled, and his nostrils flared. The publisher’s mouth fell open. Reporters stared at us in surprise. “Did you [ty] ask that question yourself, or did your friend put you up to it?” the governor asked Nonna, nodding at me.

Characteristically, Nonna said, “I myself” (ya sama).

Sama, sama!” Nazdratenko muttered scornfully.

He then angrily denied the allegation and reiterated his contempt for foreigners and their hireling Milashevich. “I wouldn’t accept a postcard from that company.”

He looked around to indicate he was open to a more appropriate line of inquiry. Andrei Ivlev stood up, a bony-elbowed, thirties-ish senior editor in a suit coat that hung on a frame like a dry cleaner’s coat hanger, and, with a glance of solidarity at Nonna and me, he nervously sang out a confrontational question that made the publisher flinch. I can no longer remember what he asked, but he could have been dealt with Radio Lemma-style. Nazdratenko growled a reply and looked at the publisher as if to say, This will not be forgotten. Other tough questions followed. But this moment of editorial fortitude did little good. Nothing that contradicted the governor’s narrative made it into the paper the next day.

Around that time, an item appeared in the newspaper Utro Rossii. A spokesman for the governor’s office invited editors to attend a critique of their coverage of Vostoktransflot. As the paper noted, “the editors of the newspapers were urged to fire journalists who give the wrong point of view of events.” And when Nazdratenko’s birthday rolled around, members of the media threw him a party. They gave him a dartboard decorated with the face of a political foe. And they sang a song they had composed, referring to him, in the formal Russian manner, by his first name and patronymic:

Yevgeny Ivanovich, molodets;
Oppozitsiyi prishol konets.

Which means:

Yevgeny Ivanovich, attaboy;
The opposition has been destroyed.



Governor Yevgeny Ivanovich Nazdratenko reportedly was born February 16, 1949, aboard a ship that was evacuating one of the Kuril Islands, a chain whose southernmost outcroppings Russia and the Soviet Union have possessed since World War II but Japan also claims. According to the website, islanders were warned a tsunami was approaching, and they fled to sea, where the wave would ripple harmlessly beneath them. I have been to the remote islands, and the story raises questions in my mind. Did thousands of islanders really have enough notice, in the hours it takes a tsunami to sweep across the North Pacific, to round up the kids, drive over the island’s unpaved roads to the port, take a motor launch out to a ship anchored in the harbor, and clamber one-by-one up a gangway to the deck before steaming to safety? Nazdratenko’s mother is said to have come from a family of former Gulag prisoners, but this should not be taken to mean they were dissidents. Even if the story is true, Nazdratenko’s family could have been anything from common criminals—the elite of Stalin’s slave labor camps—to innocent citizens denounced by envious neighbors in search of a better apartment. Nazdratenko’s mother reportedly divorced his hard-drinking father when the future governor was a child.

Romantically, Nazdratenko is said to have met his future wife, Galina, as a child, although does not detail the circumstances; the Web site does state that the future governor attended a music school, where he mastered the accordion. He served in the Navy as a welder, graduated from the Far Eastern Technological Institute, and eventually rose to “helm” (as The Wall Street Journal likes to put it) a mining company. In time he became a member of the Russian Duma, and was elected governor in 1995. Since taking office, he had accomplished the feat of impoverishing a region rich in natural resources at the crossroads of the booming economies of Japan, South Korea, and China. Nazdratenko did excel at collecting personal rewards and medals. When Patriarch Alexii II visited Vladivostok, the holy leader of the Russian Orthodox Church cited Nazdratenko’s “great service to the people” and honored him with the Order of St. Daniil Moskovskii.

Governors serve a different role in Russia than they do in the West. In the U.S., the states form separate power centers with taxing and enforcement structures independent of Washington. But in Russia, governors are part of a pyramid of authority with the Kremlin at its peak. For most of the nation’s history, they were appointed by Moscow, rather than elected, although Nazdratenko did win his office in a popular poll. Putin would scrap the election of governors in 2004, then reintroduce the vote following protests in 2012. A few months later he signed a law rendering the reform meaningless by allowing him to pick regional leaders if local lawmakers overturned the polls. The governor controls the police and distributes funding from Moscow to the cities. This allowed Nazdratenko to starve the Vladivostok administration of cash when he clashed with the city’s eccentric former mayor, Viktor Cherepkov. Nazdratenko eventually forced him from office.

It says something when the chief hope for reform lay in the FSB—the former KGB whose agent had summoned Nonna to his car. In 1997 President Yeltsin appointed General Viktor Kondratov, head of the local FSB office, as his representative to Primorye. Yeltsin was said to be sick of the constant reports from the Russian Far East of corruption, blackouts, unpaid wages due to theft by higher-ups, and other misery, and it was rumored that Nazdratenko would not survive much longer in office. Kondratov’s agents raided Nazdratenko’s White House in a case that brings to mind the U.S. Attorney’s Office swooping in on a corrupt Illinois governor. FSB agents lugged out computers and floppies and boxes of documents, and had this been the Northern District of Illinois, grand jury indictments would have followed. But in Russia, governors are immune to prosecution, so Kondratov focused on those around Nazdratenko, hoping the pressure would push the governor from office.

I first met Kondratov shortly after the raid, when we learned he was holding a press briefing at the FSB headquarters. Nonna and I showed up at a lobby decorated with a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, a Polish revolutionary who headed the FSB’s predecessor, the Cheka, at a time when it was notorious for torture and summary executions.

We tried to get in, but the public affairs officer told us, “We’re not having a press conference. Who told you that?”

“The Mayor’s Office,” Nonna said.

“Well, it’s not true. Besides, the general’s office is very small. He can’t fit many reporters in at once.”

Nonna is nothing if not persistent, and she phoned Kondratov from the lobby. We were invited on up.

An FSB agent escorted us upstairs to an office where, yes, reporters had indeed gathered. The burly general kept a set of barbells to work out with (he also liked to swim in the sea), and in a later story on Vladivostok’s loony politics, The New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon would describe him thus: “Dressed impeccably in a suit and tie and carrying an unlit pipe, Mr. Kondratov looks like a suave character out of a John le Carré novel.” By Kondratov’s account, he was present at a 1982 meeting when Communist Party First Secretary Yury Andropov, a former KGB chief, announced a twenty-year plan to liberalize the economy; thus Kondratov makes the astonishing claim that it was the KGB that set the Soviet Union on the path to democracy. Still, Kondratov was not always above reproach. After the police searched his allegedly drunken and belligerent son-in-law during a raid on a night club, the two officers involved were fired, the media reported. Many papers suggested Kondratov played a role in this, a charge he denied.

As I pulled up a chair, his gaze settled on one of my ears.

“What’s that?”

“A hearing aid. I’m hard of hearing.”

“American spy,” the general muttered with a wry tilt of the eyebrow. The other reporters chuckled. “But we have become friends now, haven’t we?”

Kondratov summarized a report the FSB had compiled for President Yeltsin’s office. Later leaked, the document, dated June 19, 1997, accused Nazdratenko of working hand-in-glove with the Mafia to muscle the economy of Primorye. His sons allegedly used bribery and force to wrest control of fuel, alcohol, and casino businesses in the region, and to smuggle contraband through the region’s ports. The FSB documented allegations that Nazdratenko’s son, Andrei, had gained control of Chechen gangs in the border city of Khasan, streamlining the smuggling of narcotics, rare metals, and sea urchins, which are considered luxuries in China and Japan. The FSB stated:

On the governor’s initiative, people were appointed to the main posts who used their work in the power structure of Primorye to strengthen their influence on the economy for the purpose of personal enrichment. These bureaucratic bosses empower corrupt interests with the aid of law enforcement agencies and leaders of organized crime.

In other words, the bureaucrats and the goodfellas were all in it together. It was an association Nazdratenko himself once hinted at in an interview with the newspaper Izvestia. “Indeed, I have appealed to the criminal world,” Nazdratenko said, in an interview quoted by The Chicago Tribune, “and many of those whom I asked for collaboration are wearing tuxedos rather than leather jackets for the first time,” as if the emergence of godfathers in dinner jackets with shiny lapels were not a tacky throwback to Capone and the Corleones, but an unprecedented and favorable development of his administration.

06 TolstosheinFirst Vice Governor Konstantin Toltoshein, accused of mob connections and kidnapping a reporter, promotes a book on Nazdratenko. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

Most U.S. states somehow get by with a chief executive and a single lieutenant governor, no doubt toiling to exhaustion, but Nazdratenko distributed the workload among thirteen vice governors. These sub-bosses forged alliances with the mob to further their interests, the FSB alleged. The most noteworthy of them was First Vice Gov. Konstantin Tolstoshein, a weak-chinned, beak-nosed man who perpetually wore a parrot’s expression of fanatical perplexity. I once encountered him on the edge of a protest outside the White House—workers demanding unpaid wages, if I recall correctly—and through Nonna I asked a neutral question along the lines of, “What do you make of all this?” An American politician would slap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey, how you doin’, great question,” and then blame the previous administration for the problem, and assure you that he and the governor were fighting every day for working men and women, and, by God, they wouldn’t rest until every penny of back wages was paid. And he would have cited statistics proving that problem was receding under the current administration, or argued that his opponents had reached a new low in politicizing this human tragedy. But Tolstoshein looked as if I had stuck a ruler between the bars of his birdcage and rapped him on the head. He began shouting obscenities. When I tried to interject, “I don’t understand why—,” his voice rose to a shriek, and I was instructed in rich new forms of Russian poetics. Nonna tugged on my sleeve, and we retreated.

Now Kondratov was alleging that Tolstoshein had seized control of numerous companies in the region, setting up his adult daughter and mother-in-law as puppet executives. “Tolstoshein,” the FSB stated, “uses connections with the leaders of criminal groups for violent actions toward competitors.” The report noted a notorious incident from 1994, when Tolstoshein had been mayor of Vladivostok. After VBC Radio broadcast an assessment of Tolstoshein’s first hundred days in office which he didn’t like, he phoned the station, “screaming obscenities and demanding apologies,” the newspaper Kommersant reported. The radio station hastily climbed down and offered its regrets, both on air and in print. But that was not good enough for Tolstoshein’s pals, who keenly felt the mayor’s pain. The radio station’s commercial director took VBC reporters Alexei Sadykov and Andrei Zhuravlyov on a little drive to a city stadium, supposedly to tell Tolstoshein in person they were sorry, for his feelings really were hurt. For God’s sake, he was probably sulking in his cage, plucking out his feathers in a rage, refusing to do any more goddamned mayoring until he received further apologies, and where would that leave the city, eh? Unmayored, that’s right. From the stadium, the mobsters (the crime boss A.B. Makarenko was involved, the FSB alleged) then drove Sadykov to a cemetery and helped him see how unfair he had been. Tolstoshein was a great guy, and in case Sadykov forgot it, here was proof. The mobsters put a sack over his head, beat him, and tortured him with cigarettes.

Kommersant added, “They forced him to dictate on a tape recorder that he received a bribe of $100 from the ousted [Mayor] Victor Cherepkov.” Which of course settled the matter.

When he escaped with his cigarette-pocked skin, Sadykov filed criminal charges. But his own station’s commercial director was merely reprimanded, and nobody went to jail.

Three years after the alleged kidnapping, but before the FSB report that raised the same charges, we pursued the story at the Vladivostok News. I admired the guts of our interpreter (and later reporter), Anatoly Medetsky. He phoned Tolstoshein’s secretary on my behalf and asked to arrange an interview for me with the first vice governor. Why? Well, I wanted to know whether Tolstoshein did or did not order the kidnapping and torture. Told that the first vice governor was unavailable, Anatoly bravely left a message. Tolstoshein never called back. Maybe we lucked out.

As for all the evidence the feared FSB accumulated, Kondratov filed forty-two criminal cases. The local courts, under the control of Nazdratenko, refused to consider them. And that was that.


The Baron and the Sex Ambulance Tycoon

Since the time of Gogol, the character of the governor has periodically appeared in Russian literature. In The Inspector General, Governor Anton Skvoznik-Dmukhanovsky extorts bribes and flogs a corporal’s widow so severely she cannot sit for two days, although she gets off lightly compared to the prisoners in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead, who are sentenced to a thousand strokes, two thousand, the beatings distributed in tranches, between which the inmate is hospitalized, nursed back from the shadowland at the border of life, and then flogged another thousand times, often to death. On the remote Pacific island of Sakhalin, a former penal colony, Governor-General Baron Korf told Chekhov, who visited in 1890, that the prisoners there lived better than their fellows anywhere else in Russia or Europe, never mind that Dr. Chekhov was tormented one night by the cries of inmates in the prison next door, begging for admission to the hospital. The next morning he glimpsed the sick, mud-soaked men, and he concluded that “I saw before me the extreme limitations of man’s degradation, lower than which he cannot go.” For his part, Tolstoy offers us Count Fyodor Rostopchin in War and Peace. Terrified of a mob that gathers outside his palace during the French invasion, he hands over a prisoner as a scapegoat, to be torn to pieces. “Lads!” Rostopchin cries. “This man, Vereshchagin, is the scoundrel by whose doing Moscow is perishing.” But only one governor in Russian history, as far as I know, has ever won a prize from a secretive society of noblemen who serve their fellow man by giving away cash to super-rich actors and politicians.

It happened like this. One day late in 1998, amid daily blackouts and a heating crisis that left water freezing in the toilets of thousands of apartments across the Russian Far East as temperatures plunged to minus 49 Fahrenheit, the White House announced news it seemed confident would cheer its grumpy citizenry. The World Aristocratic Academy, an association whose address was a post office box in the Bahamas, had awarded Nazdratenko a million-dollar prize as Aristocratic Governor of the Year, the White House reported. The Academy was said to be headed by a certain Baron De Caen and included a Baron de Rothschild, Duke Kemberinsky, Prince Golitsyn (presumably a descendant of the great Russian statesman of the seventeenth century), and “other prominent representatives of aristocratic families.” The academy wished to honor Nazdratenko “for his incorruptible sincerity, principles, and aristocratic manners in defending his opinion,” the White House stated. The members of the academy apparently had never sat in on a press conference in which Nazdratenko blew his stack at a question, but never mind. He would now be honored, we were told, alongside King Juan Carlos of Spain (“Aristocratic King of the Year”), New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (topping the “aristocratic mayor” category), the Russian boy band Na Na (surely you’ve heard of them), actors Demi Moore (star of the movie “Striptease”) and Harrison Ford (revered for his cardboard portrayals of righteously angry men in a scrape), and Princess Diana of Wales (a posthumous winner). Six million dollars would have bought a lot of polio vaccinations in Afghanistan, but, blimey, think of the trickle-down effect if we give it all to the rich and famous: this must have been the philanthropic academy’s logic.

The source of these tidings, the White House reported, was a hospital procurer and White House confidant named Viktor Fersht, previously known for his failed effort to establish a “sex ambulance” for men in urgent need of physical congress. Fersht claimed to be a graduate of the New York-based University of International Education, an organization whose existence I was unable to confirm. His résumé was filled with impressive flourishes. Fersht said he represented Primorye to the United Nations, a claim that might have surprised the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He also made known that he was “director of medical intelligence” for an organization that treated wounded “veterans of espionage,” presumably providing care for all those secret agents who are injured every year in James Bond-style shootouts with their American counterparts. Fersht would soon procure further fame when he announced that a meteorite that had hit Primorye decades ago prevented erectile dysfunction and helped smooth facial wrinkles. Overnight, enterprising healers began selling chunks of blackened iron ore in Vladivostok’s street markets.

So which of Nazdratenko’s noble qualities had led the World Aristocratic Academy to honor him? When I called the Bahamas, a receptionist for the lawyer who had incorporated the academy refused to reveal the names of any officers or put me in touch with a spokesman. It was left to Fersht to explain. He said the award came about after a chance meeting he had with Baron De Caen in the Bahamas. Devil knows, as the Russians say: perhaps after a gratifying tour around Nassau in an ambulance, sirens blaring, the French nobleman in Bermuda shorts settled at a swimming pool bar beside the secret agent health sector executive, where they both sipped Mai Tais from water coconuts and twirled their little cocktail umbrellas. Whatever the setting, Fersht said he described Nazdratenko’s noble attributes, and the Frenchman must have been moved. For the next thing you know, His Liege was writing out a million-dollar check to an obscure Russian satrap in a region plagued by accusations of official thievery, assaults on the free press, and Mafia connections at the highest levels. Or this is more or less the tale citizens were asked to swallow.

Curiously, Primoryeans did not celebrate Fersht’s news with fireworks, spontaneous mazurkas, or smooches to the lips of pretty girls on downtown boulevards. The award was too much to swallow even for those papers on the governor’s payroll, and the news was covered skeptically. Never mind that the money to buy coal for the region’s power plants had evaporated, that fractals of frost were blossoming on the walls of our apartments; all Russians could take pride in Nazdratenko, Fersht insisted. In an act of noblesse oblige, Nazdratenko announced that he would donate his entire million bucks to the poor. The Primorye Red Cross promised to partner with the governor to give away food packages, and leading Western businessmen and international aid groups were recruited to serve on the board of an umbrella organization that would distribute His Worship’s largesse.

No good deed goes unpunished, as they say, and sure enough, certain types sneered at the reports of aristocratic jackpots. Foreigners, cynics, political foes—unsavory, all. I phoned a Giuliani spokeswoman in New York, who told me, “Quoted: Mayor’s press secretary says, ‘No way.’ We’ve never heard of this group.” The Princess of Wales’ former spokesman and her charitable foundation had no record of any windfall from societies of toffs in ascots or powdered wigs, nor had they heard of the name of Fersht. Never mind all that. The foreigners were lying, Fersht said, to evade taxes. Meanwhile, Governor Nazdratenko’s foes charged that the so-called prize was a money-laundering scheme or a means of buying the votes of the poor as the election approached. “This scheme will try to use the international humanitarian aid for his political purposes,” said a spokesman for Kondratov, the local FSB chief. “I cannot exclude that this money came from the regional budget.”

Nazdratenko’s press secretary Natalya Vstovskaya denied this. “That’s a load of crap,” she said. “Are we not supposed to give humanitarian aid at this point?”

One morning early in 1999, Fersht and the White House called a meeting at the Chamber Drama Theater, where Nonna and I once had once watched an excruciating Russian-American production of Waiting for Godot in which the actors kept forgetting their lines. In Fersht’s spectacle, though, it was the extras who veered off-script. Instead of showing gratitude for the foodstuffs they were promised, hundreds of sour-faced seniors and hard-luck types in threadbare coats and rabbit-skin hats planted their bony bottoms in the seats and folded their arms with a scowl, expecting the worst. And who wouldn’t be skeptical? The meeting was held just a year after a pyramid scheme co-founded by Galina Nazdratenko collapsed, taking with it hundreds of thousands of dollars invested by the suckers who had trusted her. The governor had personally gone on TV to promote the scheme, called the Primorye Food Charitable Fund, but with its collapse, 50,000 people lost their life’s savings. The president of the scheme vanished for a few weeks, only to reemerge a few miles out of Vladivostok in a group of Russian Orthodox pilgrims who were walking six thousand miles to Moscow, carrying crosses and icons. The former pyramid scheme president felt guilty about the whole mess, he did. So he was repenting of his sins. Nazdratenko did not join the pilgrims, but surely he, too, felt bad about stripping his citizens of their life’s savings. Maybe that’s why he was so generous with his million dollars from the baron in Bermuda shorts.

At the Chamber Theater that morning, there weren’t enough applications to go around, and the scowling seniors seemed masochistically gratified to find their worst fears proven right. When Fersht gave a speech thanking Nazdratenko for his generosity, an angry grumbling and a few derisive whistles sounded from the crowd.

A lawyer took the lectern to explain that—hush, people, listen up—the assembled body would need to vote, yea or nay, on whether to create a Council of Independent Organizations and Citizens Living Below the Poverty Level, which would distribute the million bucks as food aid. The council would also have political objectives that everyone present would surely gratefully embrace. See, their benefactor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, was up for reelection, and so were pals of his at the federal level. This new council could help.

“The chief goal shall be the protection of members’ interests in the election for governor, Federal Duma, and president of the Russian Federation in 1999-2000,” the lawyer said.

The old folks jeered and shouted.

“Who stole the applications?” cried an old woman in a matted fur turban.

Elderly men and grandmas on crutches trundled down the aisle and hobbled up on stage demanding their foodstuffs. No vote could be taken in the unruly crowd.

Fersht’s voice could be heard frantically assuring the crowd that more applications would be printed, and people could apply for assistance at Red Cross the next day. Then he, the lawyer, and the other organizers fled the meeting, leaving a room full of angry pensioners who were convinced the governor had pulled another fast one and stashed his million-dollar prize in a Cypriot bank account. The next day the papers announced that the assembly had gratefully voted to create this Council of Independent Organizations and Citizens Living Below the Poverty Level, which would distribute the aid.


I wanted to talk to the goodhearted Baron De Caen, but when I was unable to find him, we pressed the White House for an explanation. Why didn’t a philanthropic organization with what must have been an endowment in the hundreds of millions of dollars even have a rental office with a telephone and a part-time public affairs officer willing to pass along a message to the noblemen running the show? Nazdratenko’s office kept telling me, talk to Fersht, he’s the liaison. Eventually, Nonna and I caught up with him in an upper-floor hallway of the White House. I asked for documentation of the award.

I don’t have it with me, he said. The academy called with the news.

They just phoned? You didn’t get a letter or anything?

They said they’ll be sending it.

Who called you? Do you have a name?

Baron de Caen. He’s very famous.

Do you have a contact number?

I’m afraid not. He talked to my wife.

Wait. So, you’re saying a baron you met in the Caribbean called out of the blue—

—and told not you but your wife—?

—that Yevgeny Ivanovich won a million-dollar prize from a secret society of plutocrats?

Well, yes.

And the governor chose to announce this to the media without any verification?

You know, I’m really very busy. My wife has all the information.

What’s her name, her phone number?

I’m sorry, I have to go.

He slipped into an office and closed the door behind him. Taking with him my dreams of a poolside exclusive in Nassau with Yevgeny Nazdratenko, Rudy Giuliani, Harrison Ford, Demi Moore, the Spanish king, and the child heirs to the British throne.


“We Heartily Welcome the President
Of Our Brother Republic, Belarus”

Only once, that I know of, did Yevgeny Nazdratenko share the stage with a worthy peer. In February 1998, more than a year before the Vostoktransflot affair, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus stopped over in Primorye on his way home from the Winter Olympics in Japan. Sporting a comb-over and an Augusto Pinochet mustache, Lukashenko clearly regarded Nazdratenko as a kindred soul. Like the Primorye governor, the Belarusian had married his high school sweetheart; she, too, was named Galina. But the Lukashenkos’ union appears to have been less blissful than that of the Nazdratenkos. In a 2005 interview with the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi, Galina Lukashenko reported that she and her husband had long resided separately, though they remained legally married. Shortly after Lukashenko’s visit to Vladivostok, a series of opposition leaders and journalists in Minsk began disappearing or turning up dead, among them the deputy chairman of the legislature, who was kidnapped and never seen again. An investigative journalist was knifed to death in her apartment, a crime that remained unsolved.

Later Lukashenko reportedly fathered an illegitimate son, a precocious lad, by all accounts. “The child first appeared in public around four years ago, and now sits in on almost all state occasions,” The Independent reported June 29, 2012, when the boy was seven. In a story titled, “Who’s that boy in the grey suit? It’s Kolya Lukashenko—the next dictator of Belarus,” the paper reported that the lad strutted around at major military events brandishing a golden pistol. Generals of the army were obliged to salute the child, who was also a fixture on his father’s infrequent foreign trips. Kolya even met Pope Benedict XVI. But all this happened long after I heard Lukashenko speak.

The day I saw him, Lukashenko joined Nazdratenko on stage to address a hall full of apparatchiks and black-uniformed naval cadets at the Marine Academy. The curtains and bunting were commie red, and onstage a giant bust of Lenin wrathfully jutted his muzzle like a Scottish terrier that has spotted a squirrel on the other side of a window pane and can’t get at it. Strung across the front of the auditorium was a banner that read, “We Heartily Welcome the President of Our Brother Republic, Belarus,” as if Primorye, too, were an independent nation. Lukashenko likes to refer to the representative form of government as dermocratia— a pun that translates as “shitocracy.” The crowd laughed when Lukashenko recalled breaking up a protest by “fascists” who opposed his government, and they clapped when he warned that other nations are scheming to conquer Russia. Applause also broke out when Lukashenko fantasized about dealing with economists who wanted Belarus to adopt a Western-style market economy: “I wish they could go to the ore mines and work there and see what the real economy is like.” The Belarusian won a standing ovation in the end. Then Nazdratenko took the dais to sneer at members of the Yeltsin government with “Jewish names.” It was a hand-picked audience, but still: I could not find anyone who was troubled by the event.

I relate all this for a reason. Lukashenko flew on to his presidential palace in Minsk, where his first lady surely was not waiting to welcome him with bread and salt, being previously engaged in a small village she had never quite managed to leave. And the rest of us found the wherewithal to carry on with our lives in the anticlimax that follows any great historic moment. But the next day a senior editor of our parent paper dropped by with a tip. At a banquet honoring the Belarusian statesman, Nazdratenko had given his guest the skin of a Siberian tiger, head attached, mouth open and snarling. Fewer than five hundred of these great cats survive in Russia, and it is illegal under international law to hunt them, traffic in their parts, or transport them abroad. The Vladivostok mentioned the tiger skin deep in a fawning story: “The Governor of Primorye gave Alexander Lukashenko a tiger skin as a gift and advised him to look at the fangs in the mouth of the lord of the taiga in order to remember the most radical way to answer the attacks of his foes in Minsk and Moscow.” The reporter claimed that Nazdratenko possessed documents that somehow made the gift legal.

But that morning we heard a different story.

“There were no documents,” the editor told us. “It was completely illegal.”

“Why aren’t you guys writing this?” Nonna said.

“We can’t,” the editor said. The publisher would not allow it.

08 NazdrMuzei8Nazdratenko visits a museum. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.


So alone among Vladivostok’s media, the Vladivostok News reported the story as a potential violation of international law. Primorye’ environmental prosecutor, who routinely sought jail terms for tiger poachers, refused to pursue the matter. “I have no authority to interrogate the governor,” he said.

After I wrote about Lukashenko’s tiger skin for our little paper and The Moscow Times, The Los Angeles Times followed up with a story that asked, “So what do you give the authoritarian who has everything? Well, if you’re a provincial governor in Russia’s Far East, you give him the pelt of an endangered Siberian tiger.” Having stirred up this row, we awaited an angry call from the White House, but it never came. Our paper was even on sale in a gift shop in the White House lobby. It was the first of many stories that taught me that the White House and its alleged allies in the mob did not know or simply could not care less what we published in English.

As Lukashenko left Russia, a keen-eyed customs officer discovered the tiger skin in the presidential luggage, according to news reports. After a moment of embarrassment and consultation with his superiors, he waved the visiting head of state on, and Lukashenko brought his trophy home to Minsk. No doubt to this day it lies beside a fireplace in some palatial hall, where from time to time a senior adviser drags his father to the floor for a tickling match while the Joint Chiefs of Staff applaud.


Her Majesty’s Scheme
To Scuttle the Fleet
With the Help of
Imperialist Sharks and Vultures

By 1999, one of the few foreigners who was still bullish on Vladivostok was a British businessman named Andrew Fox, a wry, bearded man in his mid-thirties who somehow reminded one of his namesake. The son of a Reuters reporter and grandson of a Russian émigré, Fox was a Cambridge University graduate who owned a brokerage called Tiger Securities. In a region where mobster-tycoons traveled with platoons of body guards, Fox had no security. He avoided the ostentatious displays of wealth that made the word businessman synonymous with mafioso in Russia—the gem-encrusted rings and convoys of SUVs and drunken bacchanalias at night clubs and duffle bags full of U.S. dollars. Fox was married to a Russian and spoke the language, and he lived in a three-room flat, with a small dacha on nearby Russky Island. Impressed with his thinking on business in the Russian Far East, the British government named him its honorary consul. But like Milashevich, he drew Nazdratenko’s attention because of his interest in Vladivostok’s commercial fleet. His offense: investing on behalf of Tiger’s foreign clients in Far Eastern Shipping Co., or FESCO, which was the world’s largest shipping line. Foreigners held 42 percent of the company’s shares. (Milashevich also was a director and key shareholder at FESCO.)

In June, just as the Vostoktransflot affair was brewing, Nazdratenko began attacking Fox in speeches, press conferences, and the media. The governor denounced the Britain as “an imperialist shark” and “a vulture who’s robbing Russia.” The tabloid Novosti—the same one that published the trade union leader’s letter accusing me of thinking Russians wore velveteen trousers—stated that Fox wanted to sell off FESCO’s entire fleet, so that “we will have to close all the maritime academies of Russia and delete Russia from the list of seafaring countries.” Apparently unaware of Fox’s status as an honorary diplomat, Nazdratenko announced in a press conference that he was ordering the main successor agency to the KGB to investigate whether Fox had illegally obtained the shares held by his clients. On June 3, Nazdratenko summoned Fox to the White House. In an office overlooking Zolotoi Rog harbor, Fox found himself seated at a table with perhaps thirteen or fourteen people: Nazdratenko, several vice governors, and uniformed FSB officers with medals on their chests (by now Kondratov had been recalled to Moscow). The governor told Fox he was going to throw him in jail if he did not somehow convince foreigners to meet three demands: appoint a FESCO chairman of Nazdratenko’s choosing, elect a board friendly to the regional administration’s interests, and sell the regional administration a seven percent stake in the company. Since Fox himself could not order other foreigners to sell their stock, it is unknown how the governor expected him to hand over the shares, but a basic appreciation of the workings of business never was Nazdratenko’s strong point.

11 _____G~1Rusty ships in Zolotoi Rog harbor. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

This spring while participating in a writing fellowship in Brussels, I visited Fox in London. He grilled a slaughterhouse’s worth of chicken, beef, and ribs, and we sat out under a blossoming magnolia tree in his back garden with his two daughters and the Dutch boyfriend of one of the girls. His eleven-year-old son and three of his friends marauded through, loading their plates, then vanished upstairs to play video games. As the daughters and boyfriend listened, wide-eyed, Fox and I swapped stories about Russia’s “Wild East” until a hailstorm drove us indoors. As a joke, Fox also presented me with an artifact of White House propaganda: a chapbook called The Favorite Songs of Yevgeny Nazdratenko, printed up by the regional administration.

In his meeting with Nazdratenko and the sub-bosses of Primorye, Fox recalled, the governor explained the consequences if the foreigners did not comply: “He told me he would put me in a small room in Partizansky Prospekt”—the local jail.

Fox flew to Moscow and held a press conference to reveal the threat, and it became an international scandal for Russia, with Her Majesty’s government denouncing the bullying. Media ranging from the BBC to The New York Times covered the case. Nazdratenko’s intimidation not only undermined diplomatic norms but threatened private investment in Russia. Nazdratenko’s staff hastily denied he had threatened anyone and only said he had spoken to Fox in a “manly” fashion.

But that did not put a stop to the pressure. The drumbeat against FESCO continued when Nazdratenko’s allies in Vostoktransflot’s leadership hired buses to bring maritime academy students, sailors, sea captains, and others to downtown Vladivostok for a protest. A thousand people showed up to denounce Russian businessmen close to Fox as “agents of imperialism.” From the dais, Vladivostok Mayor Yuri Kopylov excoriated a local journalist whom he noticed at the edge of the crowd interviewing a business partner of Fox’s. “She won’t be a reporter for long,” he told the crowd.

Nazdratenko pressured the FESCO board to appoint his candidate to head the company. His man for the job was Aleksandr Lugovets, who happened to be Russia’s Deputy Transportation Minister. Fox replied that Lugovets was unacceptable to foreign investors, who were insisting on a Western level of accounting and transparency. There seemed to be little chance Lugovets would land the job, because board members allied with the foreigners were in the majority. But at a July 6 board meeting, an American board member and a former employee of Fox’s named Richard Thomas threw in with Nazdratenko against the foreign shareholders, handing Lugovets a six-to-five victory. I do not know why Thomas voted as he did, because he did not respond to my inquiries at the time. (He had been editor of the Vladivostok News before my time.) The foreigners Fox represented ended up selling their shares to the Primorye regional administration.


By September of 1999, Vostoktransflot’s debts under Ostapenko exceeded the assets of the company, according to media reports. Thirty-four of its thirty-eight ships were arrested to be sold for debts, with one of them to be auctioned off in Lagos, Nigeria. The four remaining ships were docked in Vladivostok, where they had returned in July at Ostapenko’s orders. None of the crews had been paid under his management. Wage arrears to Vostoktransflot’s employees ran in the millions.

The turmoil in the company briefly drew the attention of the federal prosecutor general, Vladimir Ustinov, who flew to Primorye to sniff around. But Russia had changed since the days of Gogol. No one trembled as Gogol’s governor did before the man he mistook for the inspector general from Moscow (“My God, how angry he is. He has found out everything”). Ustinov’s assistant spoke with Vostoktransflot’s legal adviser, Taisia Ponomaryova, who claimed to have evidence of corruption in the Primorye prosecutor’s office and said she possessed documentation proving that a Mafia gang known as the Larionov brothers had gained control of Vostoktransflot through front organizations and that Ostapenko was linked to the brothers, the newspaper Kommersant reported. Valery Vasilenko, the Primorye prosecutor general, dismissed her accusations as nonsense. Anyway, nothing came of Moscow’s interest. Ponomaryova was scheduled to join Milashevich in Moscow for a meeting with Ustinov.

Her phone began ringing at night. Callers she did not know wished to offer a word to the wise. She’d end up beneath the ground with her feet to the east if she kept stirring up trouble, capisce? And it turned out these dial-up friends possessed an uncanny clairvoyance, or must have access to tarot cards or soothsayers, for how else could they have foreseen what would happen at her suburban dacha on the night of September 12, 1999, when she went to bed, and either did or did not say her prayers or think the warm thoughts of the night or reassure herself that a Moscow prosecutor was now paying attention and nothing could happen to her? After she turned out the light, she was blown to bits by a half kilo of TNT.

Suspects? Ostapenko, the new director of Vostoktransflot, wanted to make clear he was not to blame for the “accident.” (The word choice was important, because, who knows, maybe Ponomaryova had in fact bought a child’s chemistry set and stashed it under the bed in an unsafe manner. It does happen.) He issued a statement denying any involvement by his office: “Some media have run absolutely false information on the alleged complicity of the present lawful administration of [Vostoktransflot] in the tragic death of Taisia Ponomaryova. In this connection, the acting administration has to state that it does not have anything to do with the accident.” Besides, he had been sick at home the week of the bombing. How could he be involved?

Well, all right, then; scratch Ostapenko off the list of suspects. What did Alexander Shcherbakov, prosecutor of the Pervomaisky district of Vladivostok, think about all this? He quickly denied any wrongdoing in raiding Vostoktransflot and kicking out Milashevich’s team. He said his office investigated all the facts and concluded that the court executors and the police were acting in full accordance with the law.

Nazdratenko? He was never implicated or named as a suspect. Who said he was? But the governor now controlled Vostoktransflot through the new board of directors, the media reported.

One of Russia’s greatest shipping companies was now falling to pieces. Foreign investors were panicking. Six ships under the Cyprus flag, pledged to the Bank of Scotland, were arrested by Nazdratenko in the port of St. Petersburg in what he said was “the national interest,” Milashevich recently recalled. And anyone who questioned the current ownership arrangement was encouraged to see things the governor’s way. Chief Judge Tatyana Loktionova, head of the Vladivostok department of the State Arbitration Court, was overseeing a case concerning Vostoktransflot’s bankruptcy, and she said she was sure Ponomaryova had been killed because of her attempts to establish corruption in the Primorye administration’s handling of the Vostoktransflot affair. This was not the first time Loktionova had heard a case that interested the White House. Once Nazdratenko phoned her and demanded that she place a crony of his as external manager of a shipping company called Yuzhmorflot, she told Nonna in an interview. And Loktionova, too, had been receiving phone calls from strangers urging her to get with the program and start ruling in accordance with the White House’s wishes, or else. Just before Ponomaryova’s assassination, Loktionova allowed Ponomaryova to copy some files to give to the federal prosecutor general, the judge said. That same day, her neighbor stumbled upon a stranger leaving a package outside Loktionova’s apartment door. Caught in the act, the man grabbed the gift and ran off. She believed it was a bomb.

“This time I again wrote to the local police and the FSB and asked for bodyguards, but I haven’t been given any,” she said. “I am afraid for my life and the life of my husband.”

She sent her two daughters, eleven- and twenty-four years old, into hiding.

04 Protest Loktionovs to Kolyma Voyakin“Loktionovs to Kolyma”—protesters outside the courthouse call for Chief Judge Tatyana Loktionova to be sent to one the most notorious Stalin-era gulag camps. Photo by Vyacheslav Voyakin.


Meanwhile, Vostoktransflot’s sailors and workers were going unpaid once again. After Ponomaryova’s death, the White House-allied local media began falsely reporting that Loktionova had frozen the company’s bank accounts. This was untrue, but it had the desired effect. On September 22, a hundred-odd protesters, identifying themselves as sailors, began camping outside Loktionova’s court in a round-the-clock demonstration. Russian police are not known for their tolerance of protests, but this crowd was allowed to remain there for weeks, shouting at anyone they recognized who entered or left the courthouse. Some of them carried signs that read, “Nazdratenko, you were a thousand times right.” Another sign, decorated with a set of handcuffs, said, “Send the Loktionovs to Kolyma,” a reference to a far northeastern region notorious for its Stalin-era Gulag camps. The protesters slopped graffiti on the walls denouncing Loktionova, and they brought in lifeboats, gray with orange covering, which were absurdly beached on the sidewalk along Ulitsa Svetlanskaya. Court employees complained that the seafarers were swigging from bottles and were often, quite frankly, drunk. The sailors chanted their support for the new boss, Ostapenko. This was remarkable, given that all the Vostoktransflot employees I had ever talked to were angry at their chief executive for failing to pay their wages.

On October 4 the protest grew violent. The former acting general director of Vostoktransflot showed up to the courthouse. The protesters dragged him from his car and beat him up. It took another three days before the Primorye regional prosecutor’s office finally ordered the crowd to clear off. As Loktionova left the courthouse that afternoon, police officers escorted her out. As she tried to drive off, roughly a hundred protesters surrounded and began rocking her minivan, shouting, pounding on it, and trying to tip it over.

“We’ll stay here until we kill you,” they screamed.

05 Protest3 VoyakinDemonstrators protest against Loktionova in the Vostoktransflot case. Photo by Vyacheslav Voyakin.

For a half an hour the crowd would not let the judge leave, witnesses said. Eventually, police reinforcements arrived and freed the van. Loktionova escaped unharmed. In a later interview, she told us she had become a scapegoat for the governor’s office because of the bad regional economy. She believed Nazdratenko had drummed up the protest as a part of his re-election campaign. “Just look at the posters praising him,” she said.

The governor’s office dismissed this. “It’s an absurd statement,” said spokesman Andrei Chernov. “It doesn’t have any grounds. The governor does support Ostapenko’s management just because the previous managers couldn’t provide salaries to the sailors.”

Ostapenko held on as company boss, and a year later, Loktionova again found herself under fire. Prosecutors accused her husband of accepting bribes from two businessmen who were trying to influence his wife’s rulings. She herself was never accused of wrongdoing, and she said the charges were trumped up, but the stress took its toll. She was diagnosed with high blood pressure, a nervous condition, and a heart ailment, and doctors admitted her to the hospital. But days later, the chief physician of Primorye, Polina Ukholenko, personally showed up in Loktionova’s room and kicked the judge out. Loktionova sought admission to other hospitals, but they all refused. “They politely told me to go home, as they didn’t want to get in trouble,” Loktionova said. No other clinic or hospital in the region would admit her.

Ukholenko denied that Loktionova was being refused medical treatment, and claimed that the judge was perfectly healthy. “We did not order clinics not to take her,” she said. “The doctors who denied her help bear full responsibility for her health.”

The New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights wrote to President Putin to complain that Nazdratenko was intimidating judges through smear campaigns in the media, threats by police and government officials, fabricated criminal charges, and physical violence. “This strong-arm governor appears to operate without any external controls, giving him free rein to threaten anyone who challenges his status quo,” wrote Robert Varenik, director of the Lawyers Committee’s Protection Program.

But the letter had no effect. The Higher Qualification Collegium of Judges, a professional licensing body, voted to dismiss Loktionova and strip her of her status as a judge in response to the criminal charges against her husband. He had not yet been convicted, nor had she been accused of anything. Never mind. Nazdratenko had won again.


The Goat in the Garden

Let us return to the tale of Radio Lemma. In July of 1999, shortly after the beating of Stepanov and threat to the editor through his kidnapped daughter, the building management company cut off electricity and ordered the staff to clear out of its city-owned office and studio. The reporters who arrived to cover this mostly worked for the national media, beyond Nazdratenko’s control, and Nonna and I also showed up. There in the dark, station director Alexander Karpenko told us that Radio Lemma had asked the city property committee to halt the eviction order, but the request was ignored.

“We have appealed to the governor and to Mayor Kopylov,” he told us there in the dark. “I can’t call this situation an accident after all this noise and all this scandal.”

I do not know how Radio Lemma got the power restored, but somehow the station found its way back onto the air. Then late in November, the month before the regional elections, with Nazdratenko on the ballot, the phone rang at the Vladivostok News. It was Marina Loboda, a local reporter for the national newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.

“The mayor’s shutting down Radio Lemma,” she said. “Get over here.”

We flagged down a car whose gold-toothed driver intuited our urgency. On the road over a mountaintop that pokes up in the city between our offices and the downtown, he kept his foot to the gas, demonstrating Formula One moves on bald tires as he screeched around the curves. Nonna asked him to slow down. He grinned and ignored her. We clung to the armrests. The Japanese cars widely used in the Russian Far East have no seatbelts in back, and for that matter, drivers themselves seldom buckle their shoulder straps, regarding this as unmanly. From the mountaintop we saw Zolotoi Rog harbor laid out before us, the slump-shouldered cranes, the rust-streaked ships at dock, the barren November hills; and we found ourselves contemplating the shortness of this blessed life. But our time had not yet come, and we screeched up safely outside the offices of Radio Lemma. It was swarming with armed cops.

As a foreigner thought to be The New York Times’ guy, I could breeze in and cover a story like this without risk. For the Russian journalists, it took guts just to gather outside the building in the November wind, clutching a notebook. Loboda, the Moskovsky Komsomolets reporter, once said that whenever she filed a story on a dangerous topic, she holed up in her apartment, fearing that something bad was going to happen to her. She and a few others from the national media were there, but this event would not be well-covered by Primorye’s media. Possibly Arsenyevskiye Vesti was there; they had been showing guts in covering the shipping scandals.

The cops wouldn’t let reporters inside. I buttonholed a young lieutenant, who told me the radio station had been storing gasoline to run its generator. This was a fire hazard, he said. The authorities were compelled to act in the interests of public safety. That was all.

I told him, “I don’t believe you.”

Anger flashed in his eyes.

He referred further questions to his captain, who shrugged that orders were orders. I asked, “Why are you doing this when the Russian constitution guarantees freedom of speech?”

A look of alarm and confusion momentarily crossed his face, as if he had received no instructions as to this point. But the raid went on, and Radio Lemma was off the air until after the election in December. It touched and saddened me later that week when Andrei Kalachinsky, one of the courageous reporters who were there, told Nonna he admired the aggressiveness of my questioning. This compliment was undeserved, particularly from Kalachinsky, who was fired from several jobs because his investigative reporting angered the governor. Later, a pliant court would attempt to seize Kalachinsky’s car after Nazdratenko sued the journalist for an article in the Moscow newspaper Novye Izvestia. (Nazdratenko eventually dropped the case. Uncharacteristically, he shook Kalachinsky’s hand the next time he saw him.) The heroes were the ones who filed their stories and then hid in their apartments, worrying about bombs under the bed. And also my wife, who never hesitated to ask the toughest questions.

Nazdratenko’s campaign in December was filled with attacks on “greedy foreigners” and their Russian allies, and he portrayed himself as a patriot fighting to preserve the Russian fleet. Yet in Vladivostok he was almost beaten by his political rival, Alexander Kirilichev, director of Primorsk Shipping Company. A majority of those we spoke to at the polling stations on election day said they were voting for Kirilichev. Milashevich also ran, but when I asked him what percentage he won, he said he did not remember—maybe 5 percent. “But it does not matter, because the practice of election fraud had already begun,” he wrote. “For example, I cannot believe that Nazdratenko, who froze Vladivostok and left it in the winter with no electric light, scored as much as 75 percent.” As for Kirilichev, he claimed he could prove the election was stolen, but the courts owned by Nazdratenko and the regional election commission found his evidence insufficient.


All good things must pass, and while Russian tsars and presidents will forever serve for as long as the state requires them—i.e., for life—mere governors rise and fall. (“No man in this country is irreplaceable—except for one,” Russians used to say under another ruler-for-life, Stalin.) Nazdratenko lost his job, and when he did it happened abruptly.

By the winter of 2000-2001, the Kremlin was embarrassed by the electrical and heating crisis four thousand miles away along the frozen Sea of Japan, and by the foreigners who persisted in writing about it, not just me but the foreign press corps in Moscow as well. Every year Moscow dispatched millions of rubles to buy coal for Primorye’s power stations and boiler houses, and yet in city after city the budget evaporated and ice formed on the interior walls of apartment blocks. In our apartment, Nonna and her son Sergei and I slept in sweats and long underwear and gloves under heaps of blankets, and in the morning, when I got up at four to write fiction, I wore my fur hat and sheepskin coat and fingerless gloves. During the day, amid sixteen-hour blackouts, I scrounged electricity in places where it stayed on. By now I was freelancing and no longer went in to the Vladivostok News to work, so I had to plug in my laptop in the restaurants of international hotels, which had generators to keep the power on. For eight hours at a time I sat there ordering coffee after coffee, so the staff would not kick me out. Or I tipped the waitresses and asked them to leave me alone.

Others could not afford such luxuries. Citizens staged hapless protests—blocking traffic for less than an hour on the main road into Vladivostok one night when the city was so dark, you could see the Milky Way spilled against the void of space. But the regional administration told us we were wrong to complain. First Vice Governor Tolstoshein said there was no energy crisis in Primorye. They were fools and liars, those citizens who complained about living in an apartment where ice formed in their toilets.

President Vladimir Putin was still new on the job, just a year after Yeltsin’s New Year’s Eve resignation had placed the former KGB man in power, and, funny to think, the leader who may now be the richest man on earth was then subject to hopes that he might be a reforming tsar, willing to crack heads together and set things right. Citizens of Vladivostok were cheered in late January when he assailed Nazdratenko for the heating crisis and called the situation in Primorye “utterly outrageous.” Boris Reznik, a State Duma deputy from neighboring Khabarovsk region, told The Moscow Times that Primorye was a “bandit’s nest … one of the most corrupt regions in the country. The fuel crisis was just a consequence.” Russia excels at allowing problems to reach a crisis point, and then heroically solving them. Putin shoveled emergency funds from the federal treasury to be incinerated in the boiler house of Primorye, and he sent his own inspector general in the person of Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu to investigate what might be amiss in Primorye—that is, apart from rampant criminality, theft at every level, and a governor who claimed he had been honored by an international brotherhood of blue bloods. Federal prosecutors began pressing criminal charges in connection with Primorye’s energy problems, and a mayor was found guilty of gross negligence. Cargo planes full of radiators and pipes thumped down on Vladivostok’s concrete-slab runway, and other regions sent plumbers and welders to help restore heating, Reuters reported in January. Moscow ordered other regions to ship coal to Vladivostok, but their governors balked, saying they would run out of fuel if they had to pour their supply into the rat hole by the Sea of Japan. Primorye’s scandals were beginning to touch them. They were angry. The upper house of the federal Duma, in which governors serve, scheduled a debate on the heating situation in the Far East and Siberia. There was the sense that this would not end well for Nazdratenko.

All this drove the sensitive blueblood the point of physical collapse. Taking Loktionova’s lead, Nazdratenko reported to a clinic, claiming serious heart trouble. Luckily, the doctors didn’t kick him out. Reuters cited a regional spokesman who said that “Nazdratenko, the target of a blistering attack by Moscow for alleged blatant mismanagement of the region’s infrastructure, had ended up in hospital after suffering a family loss and because he took his people’s plight to heart.”

One day early in February, the sun set on the Golden Age of the World Aristocratic Governor of the Year, that and every other: Viscount Yevgeny Nazdratenko, chevalier, Order of St. Daniil Moskovskii, Duke of Rothesay, recipient of the Grand Cross of the House Order of the Wendish Crown, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the Foreign Hirelings in Russia. The governor tendered his resignation during a phone chat with Putin.

But a few weeks later, Putin appointed the fallen governor and alleged friend of the mob to helm a new ship, the federal fisheries committee, where he would oversee hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of quotas for Arctic and North Pacific fishing and crabbing. These licenses were lucrative because trawlers could pack their refrigerated hulls with one full quota’s worth of fish, sell it straight off the boat to the Japanese in exchange for U.S. dollars, then head back out to fill their nets again, exceeding their quotas by twenty times or more. The previous head of the committee had just been dismissed amid allegations the committee was running a bribery racket. Reformers were suggesting the solution was to auction off the quotas to the highest bidder, but Nazdratenko made it clear he was opposed to auctions. And besides, with him at the helm, what difference did it make? Alexander Kirilichev, head of the Primorye Shipping Co. and Nazdratenko political rival, told The Moscow Times that ousted governor should be kept away from any managerial position in the government. “They just allowed a goat into a garden,” he said. “Don’t tell me about auctions—he will be able to benefit from any scheme. Very soon those who want to participate in the auctions will have to pay him for access.” But that was a problem for the fishing companies, or the North Pacific environment, not the Russian government.

And now Putin’s house-cleaning had left a new acting governor in place, one with the fanatically baffled gaze. The new boss of the East was the mob-allied parrot himself: First Vice Governor Konstantin Tolstoshein.

“Such stories make Russians, to some extent, feel keenly the depth of depths,” Milashevich wrote to me. Then he quoted a poem titled “12,” from The Stone, by Osip Mandelstam, who died in a gulag transit camp in Vladivostok:

When blow falls on blow
and a mortal, untiring
pendulum swings over my head
wanting to become my fate…
Pointed patterns wind around
each other, and faster and faster
poisoned darts fly up
from brave savage hands.



List of Sources

Gogol’s The Inspector General is quoted in a translation by Thomas Seltzer (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1916), reprinted by the University of Adelaide Library.

The New York Times description of General Viktor Kondratov comes from Michael R. Gordon’s “On Russia’s Far East Fringe, Unrealpolitik,” which ran Feb 14, 1999.

The Mandelstam poem “12,” translated by Burton Raffel, appeared in Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1973), pg. 36. The Russian version, which was published in his 1913 collection Kamen(The Stone), reads:

Когда удар с ударами встречается
И надо мною роковой,
Неутомимый маятник качается
И хочет быть моей судьбой,

Торопится, и грубо остановится,
И упадет веретено –
И невозможно встретиться, условиться,
И уклониться не дано.

Узоры острые переплетаются,
И все быстрее и быстрей,
Отравленные дротики взвиваются
В руках отважных дикарей…

My own articles from that era ran in The New York Times, The Moscow Times, The Japan Times, The South China Morning Post, Columbia Journalism Review, The Vladivostok News (now defunct), and many other venues.

—Russell Working


Russell Working
Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story.  A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune.  His byline has appeared in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post,the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.

Mar 082014

The novel’s binding element is thus not an ordered chronology but a fascinating system of concepts and images. Early on Mircea introduces an idea that soon emerges as one of the novel’s central conceits, that humans “exist between the past and future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings.” However, like a butterfly with just one wing, “we all have memories of the past, but none of us can remember the future.” The strange, spectral energy driving Blinding is a desire for that symmetry denied to us as mortals, the memory of both past and future. —Adam Segal


A Novel
Mircea Cărtărescu
Translated by Sean Cotter
Archipelago Books
Paperback; 380 Pages; $22 US/$24 CAN


There is an extinct volcanic cinder cone a few blocks from my house, named Mount Tabor after the mountain in Israel where Christ, according to tradition, experienced transfiguration. At 636 feet, less than one third the elevation of its Holy Land namesake – dwarfed in the daylight by Mount Hood, which looms white-peaked in the distance like an imprisoned moon – the average hiker can hardly expect to undergo a divine metamorphosis on Tabor’s summit, crowned as it is by westward-pointing statue of newspaperman Harvey W. Scott. But the view sure is fine. Fine enough that some nights ago a friend and I stole up to the summit to sit on a bench and observe.

Through a deltoid clearing in the pines we watched a slice of Portland: the flickering boulevards, the nigrescent scar of the Willamette, the glowing city, the softly lit clusters in the hills beyond. Suddenly the focus broke, the wind died, and we were overtaken for that moment by some otherworldly turbulence. If I were a believer I might have called it a communion with God. But, mind tempered by a book I’d been reading, I supposed instead that it might have been an intimation of Something Else, a fleeting whiff of a world beyond human perception.

That book is Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding: The Left Wing. Originally published in Romanian in 1996 as Orbitor: Aripa StângăBlinding takes place – nominally, anyway – in Bucharest, Romania’s capital and largest city. This is where narrator-protagonist Mircea (Cărtărescu) lives in a dark apartment and writes; this is where most of Mircea’s characters hail from or eventually find themselves.

But the novel’s true setting is hardly a physical one: Blinding occupies a liminal space between lucid “reality” and the imagined. It is a subjective empire built of memory, nostalgia, and absurdity; as well as the crushing anxiety that results from imagining all that may exist beyond the grasp of human sensory organs. Though where Blinding really exists, as Cărtărescu is keen to remind us, is simply in words on a page, words bled from the mind of one lonely man. In a passage that haunts the rest of the novel, Mircea – for it is the fictional stand-in who allegedly writes the book – concludes an early chapter chronicling the fabulous origin story of his grandfather’s rural village thus:

The bar was a place to toast the Devil, the Lord’s little brother… to kill each other with tomato stakes over a woman, to hold vigils over old men in agony, so that they wouldn’t have to die without a candle on their chests, and to look for rainclouds in the sky, all without ever imagining that, in fact, they weren’t building houses, plowing land, or planting seeds on anything more than a grey speck in a great-grandson’s right parietal lobe, and that all their existence and striving in the world was just as fleeting and illusory as that fragment of anatomy in the mind that dreamed them.

Cărtărescu’s prolific and continuing career as a poet, novelist, and essayist began in the late 1970s. He carries the torch of Onirism, a Romanian surrealist literary movement that flourished in the 1960s but was soon quelled by government censorship. “Oneiric,” a charismatic little word signifying something dream-like, is a frequent guest throughout Blinding’s multitudinous pages.

For simplicity’s sake I’ll continue to refer to the novel as Blinding, although The Left Wing is actually the first book in the Orbitor trilogy, followed in 2002 by Corpul, (“The Body”) and concluded in 2007 by Aripa Dreaptă, or “The Right Wing.” I find myself wishing the title had not been translated; Orbitor is a gorgeous word, stately and majestic. In an interview with Bookforum, Cărtărescu explains, “Orbitor is a special word in Romanian, it signifies both a dazzling light and a mystical light, and I wanted to do something mystical, something without any similarity to any other book in the world.”

“You do not describe the past by writing about old things,” Mircea muses in the novel’s introductory sequence, “but by writing about the haze that exists between you and the past.” If this is true, then Mircea’s haze is unlike any I’ve yet to encounter. It is a concealing mist, at once luminous and opaque, out of which nearly anything might emerge. Cărtărescu’s vast imaginative potential is essentially unhindered by the fact that Blinding is loosely framed as memoir. “I try to avoid changing historical facts and instead fill the gaps in my memory with fantasies,” says Cărtărescu in an interview for The Quarterly Conversation, adding, “When information is hard to come by, I let my pen do the work.”

So it should hardly surprise that Blinding struggles like a proud and cautious beast against traditional summary. We learn of Mircea’s mother Maria and her life as a young woman brought from the countryside to work with her sister in a Bucharest factory before and after the Allied bombings during the Second World War. We learn of Ion Stănilă, the state-employed statue-cleaner and onetime admirer of Maria who soon finds himself an agent of the Romanian secret police. And of course we learn, in dizzying, anxiety-ridden bursts, about Mircea: his multiple hospitalizations, his dreams and writings, his struggles to make sense of his own life as it relates to all human life and to all incomprehensible existence. These storylines, along with dozens of others, drift into and rise out of one another freely and without warning.

The novel’s binding element is thus not an ordered chronology but a fascinating system of concepts and images. Early on Mircea introduces an idea that soon emerges as one of the novel’s central conceits, that humans “exist between the past and future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings.” However, like a butterfly with just one wing, “we all have memories of the past, but none of us can remember the future.” The strange, spectral energy driving Blinding is a desire for that symmetry denied to us as mortals, the memory of both past and future. This symmetry would offer us a heightened consciousness and make us all prophets, or angels, or gods. “Yes, we are neural embryos, tadpoles caught in atavistic organs… How strange we will be when, like cetaceans, we complete our departure from the firm earth of inert flesh and adapt to the new kingdom, where we will bathe in the mental fluid of enormous knowing…” Blinding is a psychedelic dream of transfiguration.

So keen is Cărtărescu to remind his reader of the butterfly’s symbolic power that the insects appear in almost every scene, not as saccharine representations of sunny summertime innocence but as winged behemoths trapped under vaults of ice, as loyal children fed on human milk, as subterranean monstrosities whose piercing proboscises bore into brains and deposit eggs straight into the victim’s mind. But Blinding is a gallery full of recurring images. Nipples and vulvae are frequent visitors (“All around the walls of the granite vagina where we traveled”), alongside machines wrought of bone and blood, and organic bodies composed of concrete, rebar, marble, steel. Towering statues of disfigured humans stand as reminders of our imperfections, monuments to the blindness we don’t even realize we suffer from.

Mircea’s revelries, though they hinge on familiar images, know few limits. “There were ghost towns there,” he says of his mental space, “villas with crystal columns, and torture chambers with instruments of gold. There were crematoria with violet smoke coming from their chimneys. There were Flemish houses lining canals where cephalorachidian fluid flowed lazily.” Cărtărescu has a vocabulary that seems to press against the very limits of human knowledge. “Three quarters of the books I read are scientific books,” he admits in the Bookforum interview. “I’m very fond of the poetry you find in science. I read a lot about subatomic physics, biology, entomology, the physiology of the brain, and so on.

And it shows. Human knowledge drips from the pages, it seasons every sentence, one’s hands get sticky with it. Exploring the wreckage of a bombed-out factory elevator, Mircea’s mother “held out her hand with such grace that it seemed to cascade from her body, like a pseudopodium full of florescent corpuscles.” This is a rather concentrated sampling, but it is hardly a misleading one. Cărtărescu weaves together a massive interdisciplinary lexicon and uses it to build marvelous structures of text. While reading I often felt that were I to earn a degree in biology, or medicine, or pure mathematics, I might gain something new from the novel each time I returned to it with fuller understanding.

Yet just as Cărtărescu masters the protean majesty of the dream world, he also faithfully recreates its almost claustrophobic sense of unknowability. Blinding is a difficult text, one I predict some readers – those partial to conventional storytelling and a more cohesive narrative – might find alienating. No one is more aware of this fact than Cărtărescu himself, whose narrator-persona “Mircea (which Mircea?)” sees himself “writing a demented, endless book, in his little room,” and elsewhere ponders “my senseless and endless manuscript, this illegible book, this book…” Is this a genuinely apologetic aside, and does the author truly find his work to be unworthy, or is it part of the game Blinding is playing with identity and self-reflection? I suspect these options might not be mutually exclusive.

The novel’s finale takes place in an unspeakably large hall with a mirrored floor, billions of doors leading to everywhere on Earth, and a central light source that is “a column of pure, liquid flame.” It is, on one hand, an exposition of technical brilliance. With unapologetic prose, Cărtărescu crafts a hellscape that – in terms of utter visual insanity – rivals Bosch’s depiction of the underworld in The Garden of Earthly Delights. And yet, after all the hallucinatory voyages of the first few hundred pages, the novel’s culmination left me oddly underwhelmed. The horrific butterflies, the rhetorical inclination toward duality, and the constant transmutation of organic bodies; after so many encounters these images begin to lose some of their wonder.

In an early scene, Mircea visits a woman whose scalp is adorned with arcane tattoos. He loses himself in the tattoos. In a segment that mirrors the way one might approach this very novel, Cărtărescu writes, “exploring any detail meant you had to choose one branch, ignore the rest of the design, and concentrate on just one detail of the original detail, and then a detail of the detail of the detail. This plunge into the heart of the design could be deadly for one’s mind to even attempt.” Mircea, scouring the scalp for hours, massaging it and entreating it, eventually sees “Everything, and everything had my face. Looking directly at the middle of the fontanel, I saw my face in a convex reflection.” Spend some time with Blinding. Search its pages, approach it from new angles, get lost in it. Then please, tell me what you see.

—Adam Segal


Adam Segal is a writer and culinary professional in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Iowa some time ago, and has since interned for Graywolf Press and contributed extensively to Whole Beast Rag magazine, among myriad other adventures.


Oct 152013


two or three

Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions
Ror Wolf
Translated Jennifer Marquart
Open Letter Books
142 pages, paperback, $14.95

From its opening page, Ror Wolf’s Two or Three Years Later defies expectations. This collection of forty-nine ‘digressions’ (Wolf’s term), translated from German by Jennifer Marquart and published by Open Letter Books, takes the reader on a disorienting journey through a series of fast-hitting, unresolved, and zany stories. Located at the intersection of anti-novel and metafictional farce, Wolf blends his own spare style with absurd setups, half plots and tragic loneliness. We never get inside. We never arrive. Hell, sometimes we never even depart. Instead, we bounce about on a pointed quill of uncertainty and wild merriment.

Of the forty-eight miniature stories in this collection, only three are longer than two-and-a-half pages. Many take up less than a page of text. The last story, “The Forty-Ninth Digression: Twelve Chapters from an Exposed Life,” is forty-nine pages long.  (Wolf does seem to enjoy these little riddles.)

Born in eastern Germany in 1932, Ror Wolf is an award-winning novelist, poet, artist and collagist. Two or Three Years Later is the first of Wolf’s books readily available in English. He emigrated west in 1953, working in a variety of fields before studying with the German philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, members of the famous Frankfurt School, the source of modern critical theory.

Wolf plucks his stories from the edge of the familiar, so that we recognize some part of the architecture, some cornice or balustrade that hints at a larger design, but the building never materializes. Instead, we are left with only fragments, an incomplete blueprint that distorts assumptions and dismisses significance.

Take the story “Neither in Schleiz, nor Anywhere Else in the World,” in which Wolf announces his ambiguous intention in the title itself, not really a title but the negation of a title. Then the opening lines: “A man who prefers anonymity, a certain X—his name is irrelevant—arrives one day, one morning, one afternoon…It’s all the same in a city whose name we won’t disclose. He does nothing, which is what we wanted to report, since what he does is so insignificant that that’s the only significant thing to say about it.”

Notice how the story races ahead of the reader, all the while undercutting expectations. In a few sentences, Wolf silences character, plot, setting and theme with the cold-blooded efficiency of an assassin. What’s left, the reader reasonably wonders? But don’t expect Wolf to deliver an easy answer. He goes on to further nullify, through a series of parallel non-descriptions, any remaining hope of familiarity: “If he contemplates something, it is without feeling; if he touches something, it is without reason.” He’s erasing the story, rather than inventing it. He tells us nothing, and shows us even less. This story, like most in the collection, becomes almost impossible to summarize because it never arranges itself into any order.

Again and again, through a series of seemingly disconnected anecdotes and halting starts, Wolf declines to assemble. This is more than just post-modernist style. The collection doesn’t drift toward absurdism, it wallows in an almost nihilistic refusal to conform. And yet there’s a sturdy elegance about each of these pieces, a cold, biting quality that binds and spreads, so that what remains is a refreshingly pure, playful examination of stories without meaning (and, by implication, stories that do appear to have meaning).

“In a French Kitchen. In a Swiss Lake. In a Berlin Closet.” is a half-page story that delivers the accounts of three tragic accidents. A man intentionally blows himself up with dynamite. A golfer drowns after throwing his golf bag into a lake. Three seventy-year-old men playing cards burn themselves to death. Wolf relates these incidents without any context, emotion or explanation. “All three burned. This was in Berlin, near Nollendorfplatz.” Thus the story ends.

In “On the Edge of the Atlantic,” Wolf’s turns comically ornery. “A man yelled out in fear. Shortly thereafter, he died. That’s basically what happened, in any case, generally and essentially.” Nothing else happens. No explanation is offered. No narrative details fill in the missing pieces.  In fact, what Wolf supplies in place of the expected is a direct admonishment: “Of course, the reader deserved nothing better than the waves crashing over the man’s body, and the rain rolling in simultaneously, streaming down from above. Maybe he didn’t even deserve that.”

The idea of the reader not deserving the image, the prose that Wolf refused to render, certainly strikes a sinister, hilarious tone.

This roguish antagonism is embroidered in the text—between expectations and outcomes, between narrator and reader. It reveals that the patterns here are non-patterns, or anti-patterns at least. Uncertainty and doubt prevail. The stories rest on conditionality hinged together with the subjunctive mood.

Wolf does offer something of a clue to his aesthetic in the two-and-a-half page story, “At Nightfall.”

Last Monday I began to describe a man, who turned the corner of 82nd Street with a tremendous yawn. I didn’t want to describe his yawn, in any case it’s indescribable, and I didn’t want to describe how he turned the corner, but rather I wanted to describe how this man—or differently, differently. I’ll start over.

Wolf goes on to make nine aborted efforts to describe the simple act of a man turning a corner. “No, that’s weak, and not very good either. Maybe I should begin like this…” Is Wolf showing us the impossibility of language to adequately describe reality? Is he unmasking the fickle power of words to conjure anything? Or is he just having fun? If a story can’t get the simple act of turning a corner right, how can it hope to tackle the larger issues of morality, life, death, meaning? Wolf seems to be reminding us that, sometimes, it’s better not to try.

Artists are always trying to kick down the doors of tradition and form. The artist is always radicalizing his art; testing boundaries, pressing forward. Ror Wolf — with his philosophic roots in the Frankfurt School, famous for its intense critique of reason, the Enlightenment and modernity — appears to be of this ilk. His writing challenges the very notion of meaning and interconnectedness. In the end, the only thread that holds these stories together is no thread.

“I’ve traveled throughout this entire loud, reverberating world,” Wolf writes in “The Power of Song in Nevada, my favorite story in the collection.  “I’ve traveled out of a profound disposition for the echoing sea. I’ve heard ship bands and chamber orchestras, I’ve experienced the howling of the wind and the wild shouts of sailors—but all of that is nothing compared to the men’s choir I heard in Nevada.”

I don’t know what this means, especially when Wolf tells us how awful this choir was. But somewhere in the peregrinations and uncertainty, somewhere in these digressions, these strange and wondrous non-stories, the writer searches for the true note, for the profound disposition. It’s anyone’s guess if he’ll ever find it.

—Richard  Farrell



Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, A Year in Ink, upstreet, New Plains Review, Descant (Canada) and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.


Sep 172013


This is the beginning of things, the Ur-essay, the thought-lode out of which most everything else I have written about literature has evolved. It was written in the late 1980s and so, to an ever so slight extent, is a period piece. It forms the centre piece of my book of essays and memoir Notes Home from a Prodigal Son (Oberon Press, 1999). The ideas here expressed evolved out of my philosophical background, long reading, and the lessons I learned during my time at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I mention specifically the novelist Robert Day (who now contributes mightily to NC), but I would be remiss if I didn’t also recall the influence of the late Claude Richard, who was a visiting professor from the University of Montpellier at the time.

I reprint the essay here because the book and the essay were both published long ago; such is the nature of readership that older things fall out of the line of vision. But in fact this essay (and Notes Home from a Prodigal Son), along with The Enamoured Knight and Attack of the Copula Spiders and my long essay “Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought” form a consistent, coherent and elaborated system of thought about writing, criticism and philosophy.


…there is an other [irony] besides the irony of the learned man; there is the poem, in the sense that it is rhythm, death and future.

— Julia Kristeva


The best writing teacher I ever had was a Kansas cowboy named Robert Day who showed up at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a last minute, one-semester replacement for a sick colleague in January, 1981. The first day of classes he strode into the room wearing Fry boots, jeans and a checked shirt. Without saying a word, he picked up a piece of chalk and wrote across the full length of the blackboard in huge looping letters: REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM.

At the time, Day had only published one novel, a book called The Last Cattle Drive. He was a tenured English professor at Washington College in Maryland. He was a past president of the Associated Writing Programs. As a young man, he had worked at G. P. Putnam’s in New York and could recall for us the excitement over the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Summers he went back to western Kansas where friends ran a borderline ranch. He kept a horse there, a horse which at various times had eaten loaves of bread through the kitchen window, or Day’s hat. All summer long he would hand out with his friends, their cattle and his horse.

That semester we read Queneau, Musil, Rulfo, Achebe, Nabokov, Tutuola, Abe and Marquez. Day did not tell us what he meant — REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM. Maybe he forgot. Half-way through the semester he read the second draft of my novel Precious, three hundred typed pages of plot, dialogue and scene that stubbornly refused to come alive. I still have the notes I made during our conference, fifty-four words. It took less than fifteen minutes. But like a skilled surgeon he had opened the novel up for me and shown me its heart still beating, its bones, nerves and veins.

He taught me four basic devices. The first  was what he called the language overlay. My first person narrator was a newspaperman, he had printer’s ink in his blood. Day said I ought to go through the novel, splicing in words and images, a discourse, in other words, that reflected my hero’s passion for the newspaper world. So, for example, Precious now begins: “Jerry Menenga’s bar hid like an overlooked misprint amid a block of jutting bank towers…” Or, in moments of excitement, the narrator will spout a series of headlines in lieu of thoughts.

Second, Day taught me about sub-plots. The main plot of a novel, he said, is like a pioneer wagon train moving across the prairie. The sub-plot is like the Indians coming in out of the hills to attack from time to time. The pattern of the sub-plot must reflect or parallel the pattern of the main plot, Day said, just as the gene inside a cell contains the pattern for the whole body.

Third, he showed me how to use background and revery. My protagonist must have been somewhere before the novel began, he must have a story to tell that will give texture and depth to his thoughts and, by extension, to the narrative. In Day’s words, he wanted me to “give the novel a memory.” Once again, the background must reflect or parallel or bear the seeds of the main action. A revery that does not bear a relation, in pattern, to the main plot is wasted. It diffuses the reader’s attention. It makes the book foggy and boring.

What this means in practice is that far from being “loose and baggy monsters,” to use Henry James’s phrase, in which the author has room to digress, expand or linger, a good novel is a tight, formal production with very few wasted words.

Finally, Day told me how James used the confidante device to modulate the weight of a given speech. In Precious, I had two secondary characters who were both close to the hero. What if I created a pattern of giving and withholding information? What if I made one of the secondary characters the hero’s confidante, the person to whom he told his secrets? He could then maintain an ironic distance from the other, giving opportunities for lightness and humor. The reader would sit up and pay attention when the confidante was on the scene.

Day then lied and told me I could splice all these changes into the novel in three weeks. Actually, it took me five months, and I rewrote the thing from beginning to end. I remember those months as being the best time of my life; the woman I lived with then says otherwise. She says she never remembers me being more miserable. What that means, really, was that the work was hard but also amazingly exhilarating.

What I had learned was far more than a collection of four devices. I had learned a secret about writing stories, novels and poems. Also painting pictures and composing symphonies. I had learned that a novel is not a string of seventy-five thousand words, all different, all pressing the plot forward. If you think about it, the stories of most novels can be told in a page or two of summary. Then imagine me trying to stretch that summary over another two hundred and ninety-eight pages.

Or, to use an image I had carried in my head through two earlier failed novels, think of a novel as a bridge thrown across a bottomless gorge with nothing to support it from one end to the other. In my mind I had to get a running start and write fast for fear of not making it across. I wrote my first novel in six weeks in a state of terror. As a bridge it was a shambles.

What I had learned was that besides story, plot and characters, the novel needs patterns. That in fact the story, plot and characters don’t begin to come alive until they are submitted to a pattern. I had made a common mistake. Before Robert Day, I had assumed that a novel’s “aliveness” depended upon its verisimilitude, i.e. how closely it resembled what we call real life, whereas in fact it depends upon patterns. I think this is what Day meant when he wrote REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM. He meant for us to notice that, like a poem, the novel should be seen as an arrangement of materials of which one, but only one, is the story. This patterning is the poetic quality of prose.


In a poem it is much easier to see the patterns. We’ve all had to map out sequences of stressed and unstressed syllables, the ABBAs of rhyme, the internal rhymes of alliteration, the surprising anti-patterns of sprung rhythm and free verse. We’ve all dissected extended conceits, noted the effects of diction and imagery. These are the things we focus on in a poem. Narrative, story and verisimilitude are secondary to the poetry of poetry, by which I mean the effect of patterns.

With novels and stories, the reverse is true. We tend to read a novel first for plot and character and the narrative’s relation to reality, what post-Saussurean critics call its “aboutness,” and only secondarily, if at all, for pattern. This is a little like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit argument. You know how you can draw a little circular figure with an elongation here and a dot there. If you squint your eyes one way, you can see it’s a rabbit with long ears. But if you squint another way, it becomes a duck with a protruding beak. With poems and novels, you can read for pattern or you can read for aboutness, depending on how you squint your eyes.

It happens to be the case, though, that we rarely read novels for patterns. One reason for this is that the novel’s very aboutness gets in the way. It is the easiest and most natural thing in the world to read a novel for plot and character. In fact, in most cases you have to read for plot and character in order to situate yourself, as an observer, in the world of the novel. The shift of focus, the new squint, if you will, from plot to pattern only happens on rereading. A good reader, as Nabokov wrote in his essay “How to Read, How to Write,” is a rereader.

When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and the artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have one in regard to the eye in a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy the details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave toward the book as we do toward a painting.

When Nabokov makes a distinction between “what the book is about” and our “artistic appreciation” of the book, he is separating our reading of the subject, story and characters — the book’s aboutness — from our appreciation of the book’s so-called artistic qualities, the details we would notice if we looked at a novel the way we look at a painting.

Nabokov assumes that we all look at paintings for more than the resemblance they bear to old dead people in funny clothes, for more than romantic seascapes and sunsets. He assumes that we see, for example, Whistler’s mother as something other than an elderly lady in a plain black dress and that we know, perhaps, that the painting of Whistler’s mother was originally titled “Arrangement in Grey and Black” and that when Whistler talked about painting he would say, as he did in a letter to his friend Fantin-Latour:

…it seems to me that color ought to be, as it were, embroidered on the canvas, that is to say, the same color ought to appear in the picture continually here and there, in the same way that a thread appears in an embroidery, and so should all the others, more or less according to their importance; in this way the whole will form a harmony.

Whistler is talking about patterns, patterns of color that exist over and above and through the subject of the picture, its aboutness. And when Nabokov talks about “artistic appreciation,” he is talking about appreciating the patterns of the novel in the same way, the repetition of certain verbal events or structures in a novel like the colors in a painting. This is precisely the way we appreciate poetry, where it is, as I have said, much easier to see that sounds and words are like oil paints or, for that matter, like notes in a piece of music.


Other ages and times have provided writers with pattern books, with instructions on rhetoric and composition. They put names to commonly used devices: paronomesia, periphrasis, prosopopoeia. Even in the 1920s at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, my aunt was taught to write, to compose sentences, by translating back and forth from Latin to English. But no one teaches composition any more except in remedial programs to students who patently can’t write at all.

Instead we teach creative writing with the emphasis on “creative” (which, I guess, implies that there is “uncreative” writing as well, though I have never seen it). At Iowa, outside of Robert Day, teachers tended to urge us to “write what you know.” If we managed to do that, they said, whatever we wrote would come out all right. Ernest Hemingway, that most brazen of liars, once wrote, “All you have to do is write one true sentence…,” sending generations of his competitors chasing vainly after a will o’ the wisp reality. Why people choose to believe what he says about writing and not what he says about his manliness is a curious instance of intellectual willfulness and self-deception.

In university English departments, on the other hand, students are taught criticism — Arnoldian, Freudian, New, Structuralist and Post-Structuralist, etc. Archetypes, symbols, influences, foreshadowing, metaphor and theme. Academic critics tend to see a novel as full-blown, not something built; as something found, not constructed. Academics are romantics — they see, or prefer to think they see, romantic intention in a novel as opposed to the bricks and mortar. I tried to tell a friend of mine, a person partway through a PhD. in English, what I meant by a pattern in a novel. She said, “Well, we call that recurring imagery.” A singularly bloodless phrase. But fair enough. Yes, that is sort of what I mean.

But why does it recur? And who made it recur? And is that all there is to it? Does the phrase “recurring imagery” help a writer? Academic critics generally see recurring images as evidence of a point the author is trying to make, part of the aboutness of the work. Deconstructionists, on the other hand, look for recurring images that the author may not have intended so as to “deconstruct” the aboutness of the work. In either case, they are wedded to thematics, to aboutness, to truth. Write what you know, throw in a little recurring imagery, and it’ll come out right. That’s what the creative writing schools and the English departments teach us.

In general it’s not terribly bad advice. Many writers get by with no other. Every writer borrows to a greater or lesser extent from the real world the images which he or she deploys in his or her novel. Every writer who has read significantly has an instinctive feel for rhythm, pacing and the repetition of images. But to go through life believing “Write what you know and throw in recurring imagery” is like going through life believing in God and free enterprise — it leads to a conservative and narrow view of life and art.


Pattern is an ambiguous word and I want to keep it that way. Writing a novel, Faulkner once said, is like a one-armed man nailing together a chicken coop in a hurricane. It helps to be open-minded and undogmatic about the rules of the operation.
Experience itself rests on our ability to recognize patterns — Forms Plato called them — in the sensory flux. A pattern that does not repeat itself is not a pattern, it is chaos, or it is something like God, or it is nothing. And the ability to recognize patterns is tied up with out ability to remember. Pattern, repetition and memory are the foundations of consciousness.

The same happens in a novel. On a very rudimentary level the author depends on pattern, repetition and memory to give the reader confidence in the world of the book, what we call verisimilitude, the quality of seeming to be real. In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna appears on almost every page. Anna is a pattern, a group of words and characteristics that repeat. If Tolstoy had changed Anna’s name, age, hair color and social background every chapter or so, we would throw the book down in disgust.

Pattern can mean a model or design upon which something else is constructed. Or it can mean the systematic repetition of certain design elements as in the pattern in wallpaper.

Pattern can, for example, refer to something large such as a plot.  All romances are based on, say, the model boy meets girl, boys loses girl, boy gets girl. We also say there are no new plots under the sun. And we refer to coming-of-age novels, which have plots based on myths and rites of passage, or adventure novels, which are based on the quest model. What we call genre is a sort of pattern.

But pattern can also refer to something minute, a device such as, say, the list or the epic simile or even the structure of a sentence. Here is Nabokov talking about Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:

Gogol called his Dead Souls a prose poem; Flaubert’s novel is also a poem but one that is composed better, with a closer, finer texture. In order to plunge at once into the matter, I want to draw attention first of all to Flaubert’s use of the word and preceded by a semicolon. This semicolon-and comes after an enumeration of actions or states or objects; then the semicolon creates a pause and the and proceeds to round up the paragraph, to introduce a culminating image, or a vivid detail, descriptive, poetic, melancholy, or amusing. This is a peculiar feature of Flaubert’s style.

Now, though the actual number of usable patterns may, for practical purposes, be infinite, we always choose to use a finite number in any given piece of writing. This finite number of further reduced by the fact that many of the patterns are repeated throughout any given work. The more patterns a writer knows, however, the better his or her chances of being published, being read, or of writing a masterpiece that will endure. The way a person learns patterns is by reading; literature is an encyclopedia of patterns and devices.

Though it is possible to invent a pattern that no one has ever used before, originality in a writer generally amounts to an ability to vary the pattern in fresh ways. One might, for example, decide to use Flaubert’s semicolon-and sentence pattern in a contemporary rites-of-passage novel set in Montreal’s Jamaican emigre community. The pattern would be Flaubert’s, but the variation, the unique application, would be the author’s own.

Repetition, as I have said, is also a pattern. But it is a pattern of a different order, perhaps the pattern of patterns. To me, it is the heart of the mystery of art, of novel-writing. Without it, the novel becomes a strung-out plot summary.

I have tried to think out why repetition is appealing, why it is aesthetically pleasing as a pure thing. I think there are two reasons, or sorts of reasons. The first is essentially conservative — repetition is allied to memory, to coherence and verisimilitude.

The second is biological or procreative or sexual. Repetition creates rhythm which on a biological level is pleasurable in itself, the beating of our hearts, the combers rolling up on a beach, the motion of love. This is the sort of thing Lyotard is talking about when he writes about “intensities” or patterns of intensities in his book Économie Libidinal, or what the Spaniard Madariaga meant when he talked about the “waves of energy” in Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Seville.

In Anna Karenina there are two sub-plots: Levin’s marriage and Anna’s brother’s marriage. The novel actually begins with a sub-plot scene — Anna’s brother banished to sleep in his study for having an affair with a maid. These subplots are not simply tacked on. They repeat the marriage theme of the main plot, Anna’s marriage. Anna’s brother’s marriage is, like her own, a marriage on the rocks because of infidelity. Levin’s marriage is, by contrast, dutiful and steadfast.

Tolstoy created three identical patterns which twine and leapfrog and reverberate through the novel. Of course, the details, the contents, are different (this is one sort of variation); and, in the case of Levin’s plot, the structure, the pattern, is inverted, a positive to the negative of the other two plots (repetitions of abstract structures such as plots or relationships can vary in three ways — congruence, contrast or inversion, and the tree in the seed).

References to plot and subplot form a kind of rhythm in the novel. This rhythmic repetition of structures has something to do with what we call pace. As each plot comes round again for scrutiny by author and reader, it is like a new wave of energy, a drum beat. Anna’s story is the melody; Levin’s is a kind of booming base note thudding in counterpoint to Anna’s; Anna’s brother’s rhythm is lighter, more frenzied and comic. Or they are like Whistler’s colors, threading through a painting, darker, lighter, heavier, fainter.

There is another sort of repetition in Anna Karenina, one more mysterious yet. Just after Anna meets Vronsky, there is a train accident. A station guard, either drunk or muffled up too much against the cold weather, fails to hear the train approaching and is crushed to death. This station guard returns in Anna’s thoughts over and over again. He begins to inhabit her nightmares. He even migrates into Vronsky’s nightmares — transformed now into a dreadful-looking little man with a bedraggled beard, bending over a sack, groping in it for something and talking in French about having to beat, to pound into a shape a piece of iron. At the end of the novel, Anna sees him again just as she throws herself beneath the wheels of the train: “A peasant muttering something was working at the iron above her.”

Obviously train imagery is repeated as well, at the beginning and the end. Why? Coincidence? Or is Tolstoy telling us something about the 19th century Russian transportation system? Of course not. Is it foreshadowing? Well, sort of. But foreshadowing is a word I don’t trust. Does this mean Tolstoy is telling us ahead of time that Anna is going to die in a train accident? I think not. I think there is some other motive at work, that the repetition of trains and bedraggled peasants, this bookending of image and incident, the beginning and the end, has a pleasing quality all its own, symmetry, if you will, a rightness, that is felt and appreciated, not “known.” Overture and coda, rather than prediction. A symmetry that would be lost, say, if Anna drowned herself or beat herself to death with a hatchet.

As a pattern, this terrifying little peasant just seems to pop up. He is just there — and there and there and there. He “means” nothing, except insofar as he is associated by juxtaposition with a larger pattern of trains, death, dreams and Vronsky. Somehow he manages to accrue all the potential horror of that pattern. He reminds us, not of the end to which Anna journeys, but of the beginning; so that when she dies, her end is freighted with a kind of fatedness that makes it all the more horrible and pathetic. The peasant is a tiny thread in the tapestry of the novel, a hint of color in the painting, a grace note in the symphony. Nothing more. Yet without him, how much shallower a book Anna Karenina might be.

It is worth noting that certain kinds of patterning, e.g. the repetition of character traits, enhance verisimilitude, while others, e.g. Anna’s peasant, work against it. We might distinguish between these by calling the one sort patterns of verisimilitude and the other patterns of technique. Every novel uses both, so every novel is a little balancing act between the two, or a war. John Hawkes, the experimental novelist, for example, says that “plot, character, setting and theme” (which are generally what I mean by patterns of verisimilitude) are the real enemies of the novel. “And structure,” he adds, “–verbal and psychological coherence — is still my largest concern as a writer. Related or corresponding event, recurring image and recurring action, these constitute the essential substance or meaningful density of writing.”

But, oddly, though patterns of technique and patterns of verisimilitude tend to destroy one another, like matter and antimatter, both are necessary to the work. Depending on how heavily the author plays up one or the other, his or her novel will be more or less “realistic” or more or less “experimental.”

Getting the balances right in any given work is part of the art of art and its mystery and is a skill that cannot be taught. It leads to the feeling, a feeling I have had twice, once with each of my novels, of submission, of loss of freedom, of loss of expressiveness. Because there is a point in the process of writing a novel at which you must submit to the strictures of pattern that you have chosen. All of a sudden, there are things you can no longer fit into this novel, things you must cut, and other things that you must put in. And, of course, with something as complicated as a novel, you never get it right. And you end up wanting to slash your wrists.

As Paul Valéry once said, “A work of art is never completed, only abandoned.”


I have already noted that some patterns in novels, those patterns which tend to create verisimilitude, are like the patterns of experience in the world. This is as much as to say that a conventionally realistic novel reflects a certain metaphysics or philosophy of being and knowing. Modern novels of a less conventional sort also reflect a metaphysics, but it is a new metaphysics, a radically new way of talking about the locale of existence.

Vladimir Nabokov, whom I have quoted extensively and who has influenced a whole generation of North American writers (in Canada, at least two Governor-General’s Award winners, Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man and Hubert Aquin’s Trou de Memoire, owe huge debts to the structural and verbal pyrotechnics of Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire), was an intellectual heir of the Russian Formalists. Formalism was an aesthetic and critical movement that thrived in St. Petersburg and other eastern European cities early in the twentieth century. The Formalists pegged a whole philosophy of language and literature on the split between meaning and signifiers, between aboutness and pattern.

What they did was put a theory to the things painters like Whistler and, soon after, the French Impressionists, and Surrealist poets like Breton, Eluard and Ponge — all the way back to Mallarme (Nabokov sneaks Mallarme quotations into his novels) — had been doing ten, twenty, thirty or more years before. They simply recognized that aboutness and pattern were two aspects of the things we call art and language, and that you could, in fact, have pattern without aboutness.

Since it seem impossible to have aboutness without pattern, a corollary of this is that aboutness is somehow secondary, a poor cousin, on the aesthetic scale of things, to pattern. Nabokov again:

There are…two varieties of imagination in the reader’s case… First, there is the comparatively lowly kind which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature… A situation in a book is intensely felt because it reminds us of something that happened to us or to someone we know or knew. Or, again, a reader treasures a book mainly because it evokes a country, a landscape, a mode of living which he nostalgically recalls as part of his own past. Or, and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use.

This is what the post-Sausurrean critics, recently so popular in Europe and on American university campuses, are saying. Aboutness is old-fashioned, authoritarian, and patriarchal. Signs — read, pattern, poetry — are playful, subversive, and female. How a thinker can jump from a purely logical incongruence — the fact that, apparently, you can have pattern without aboutness but not vice versa — to these strings of value-loaded predicates is marvelous indeed and evidence that the instinct for narrative and romance has not died behind the ivy-covered walls of academe.

Another corollary of splitting the categories of pattern and aboutness is that there is a sense in which pattern itself creates meaning. Or to put it another way, the novel is about its own form. Or every book is about another book, or books. And every work of art is a message on a string of messages which begins nowhere and ends nowhere, to no one and from no one, and about nothing except the field of pseudo-meaning created by previous and future messages. It is all a game of mirrors and echoes. A little dance of images, words, and patterns. The of the Hindus, or all is vanity, all is dust, sure enough.

Keats wrote, “A man’s life is an allegory.” Nothing else. Or conversely, Korzybski says, “The map (read, the allegory, the pattern, the words) is not the territory.” Which is to say, as Jacques Lacan does, that all utterances are symptomatic and that the real is impossible.


Form (or pattern) and aboutness (or content, or reality) are the binary opposites of thought. The stance of the modern, whether he or she is a novelist, critic, theologian, or psychologist, is that ontology begins and ends with the former, that so-called reality is a highly suspicious article.

We are pressed back to a position of washed-out Cartesianism: I think, therefore, I think; or more precisely, I think, therefore something is thinking. Structuralists like Levi-Strauss say things like, “There is a simultaneous production of myths themselves, by the mind that generates them, and, by the myths, of an image of the world which is already inherent in the structure of the mind.” Linguistic philosophers like Wittgenstein say, “The world is my world: that is shown by the fact that the limits of language stand for the limits of my world…I am my world.” Except that this “I am” is not the body but language itself.

Reality, meaning, aboutness, the good, God and the self are pushed away into the realms of the unconscious, the unknowable, the unspeakable, and the unfathomable. In a very logical sense, they no longer concern us here as we race toward the end of the twentieth century. To say you are writing “realistic novel” is to commit as much of an intellectual solecism as, say, the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart does when he says God spoke with him before breakfast. The words “realistic novel” can only be spoken by a person who is speaking in the discourse of an earlier age or in parody.

Think of yourself in a room with bare plaster walls and no windows or doors. You have an infinite supply of variegated wallpapers. You paper the room with something in blue with a skylark pattern, then you do it over with angels, then an abstract, decorative pattern.

The first thing you notice is that you can’t see the wall anymore. This is the first effect of language, according to the philosophers and critics. As soon as you begin to use language, describe the world, you can no longer see it. You can only see your description. In fact, since we can’t even begin to describe something without language, then the existence of the wall itself becomes moot.

The second thing you notice is that each layer of wallpaper covers the previous layers. They’re lost, though you know they’re under there. In a sense the old wallpaper, the past, becomes part of the reality you are describing with each new layer of wallpaper. And sometimes you wake up in the morning and wish you still had the skylarks. You might even try to scrape some of the new wallpaper off. But that only makes a mess.

All you have is the design of each successive layer of wallpaper, and, just possibly, the shape of the room, its broad outlines, its cubic form. Life and art are a little like this. We only see the current wallpaper, remember bits and pieces of the old in the form of myths and memories of memories and fragments of discourse which no longer “mean” what they once meant. And, if we’re lucky, we intuit, or think we intuit, some vague outline of the something which may or may not be the room or the womb of reality.

To be a writer is to write with this knowledge, that the wallpaper is wallpaper and not the room, walls and plaster. It is to have that quality which Keats said went to form a man of achievement “especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously,” what he called Negative Capability — “that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Negative Capability is the artist’s ability to suspend belief in any particular conceptual system (or wallpaper) or to see the conceptual system as pattern, as opposed to reality, as material in itself to be juggled and juxtaposed. Or, to put this another way, aboutness is illusory. What we see as aboutness the artist sees as just another pattern or part of a pattern. Or again, everything is pattern, infinitely plastic and malleable. A person who believes in a particular conceptual system believes that everything can be explained by reference to that conceptual system. Whereas the artist sees the pattern and feels the mystery that looms beyond the pattern.

The truth of the matter, everything that seems supremely important in life, begins when the talking, writing, painting, sculpting, filming and singing of discourse stop. All talk or art that says it’s telling you the truth about life is second rate. Of course, you can write something second rate that’s very popular, even quite good, for all these categories are relative. But great art is pattern over mystery, it is juggling words over whirlpools of silence.


In the extended sense, this view of language, life and art can seem exceedingly austere, if not forbidding and bleak. “The ultimate goal of the human sciences is not constitute, but to dissolve man,” says Levi-Strauss. (Just as Nabokov says that one of the functions of a novel is to prove that the novel in general does not exist.) Few of us can help feeling a nostalgia for the old ways, or what we think are the old ways, of talking. For ancient beliefs. For certainty and immortality. For familiar stories with plots and characters and recognizable locales. For adventure, romance and magic.

A lot of fictional, intellectual and political hay has been made out of this nostalgia, a nostalgia expressed, say, in the phrase “breakdown of values.” When an old way of talking disappears, many people are forced to apply narrative in order to explain it to themselves. They often feel they have a stake in the old way. They invent metaphors and analogies — machine breakdowns, erosion, war, disease — to make themselves feel easier. And to sell books.

You can see where nostalgia led Levi-Strauss in his wonderful autobiographical novel Tristes Tropiques. The annihilation of the self, of meaning and aboutness, by structural anthropology drove him into a quest for theological support, which he may or may not have found wandering amongst the Buddhist temples of the Far East. Or think of Sartre turning from the barrenness of existentialism to the warm, sloppy infantilism of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Or of Michel Foucault leaving his university office every afternoon to pursue a gruesome and self-destructive quest through the bath houses of New York until his death from AIDS.

One can look at people like Sartre, Foucault and Levi-Strauss as contemporary monks whose intellectual vigor and honesty led them to the conclusion that God, man and reality cannot be reached through words. (On December 6, 1273, at the age of fifty, Thomas Aquinas suffered something like a nervous breakdown and never wrote again.) That, by analogy, telling a story is a logically impossible project. That our only recourse (save for silence) is to take a step willy-nilly into narrative, or faith — Keat’s Negative Capability is something like Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith. It can’t be done — all the critics and philosophers tell us — but some of us will jump in anyway and start the story “Once upon a time…”

In this regard, the American Catholic novelist Walker Percy once wrote:

…a novelist these days has to be an ex-suicide. A good novel — and, I imagine, a good poem — is possible only after one has given up and let go. Then, once one realizes that all is lost, the jig is up, that after all nothing is dumber than a grown man sitting down and making up a story to entertain somebody or working in a “tradition” or “school” to maintain his reputation as a practitioner of the nouveau roman or whatever — once one sees that this is a dumb way to live, there are two possibilities: either commit suicide or not commit suicide. If one opts for the former, that is that; it is a letzte Losung and there is nothing more to write or say about it. But if one opts of the latter, one is in a sense dispensed and living on borrowed time. One is not dead! One is alive! One is free! I won’t say that one is like God on the first day, with the chaos before him and a free hand. Rather one feels, What the hell, here I am washed up, it is true, but also cast up, cast up on the beach, alive and in one piece. I can move my toe up and then down and do anything else I choose. The possibilities open to one are infinite. So why not do something Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Faulkner didn’t do, for after all they are nothing more than dead writers, members of this and that tradition, much admired busts on the shelf. A dead writer may be famous but he is also dead as a duck, finished. And I, cast up here on this beach? I am a survivor! Alive! A free man! They’re finished. Possibilities are closed. As for God? That’s his affair. True, he made the beach, which, now that I look at it, is not all that great. As for me, I might try a little something here in the wet sand, a word, a form…”

—Douglas Glover

May 162013


Like Paul Curtis, as a young writer I was enthralled by Lawrence Durrell’s four astounding novels — Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive & Clea — together known as The Alexandria Quartet. I can’t count the vivid snippets of scene and dialogue that still float up in my mind: especially the end of Clea when the painter’s wounded hand can suddenly “paint” as here healthy hand had never been able to do or the moment when the feckless journalist (a minor character throughout) returns from war in the desert, a tan, golden warrior who has suddenly found his place in existence. Yes, I love the transformations at the end of the quartet, when time suddenly moves forward. I loved the mysterious and ineffably sad hand prints on the brothel walls, Justine’s mad search for her stolen child, and Pursewarden’s epigrams (I began to learn to write epigrams reading The Alexandria Quartet). There are so many things I tried to copy here as a beginning writer (the faux Einsteinian structure and the Pursewarden endnotes, for example), so many ideals inhaled and transformed to my own uses.

I met Paul M. Curtis during my East Coast reading tour last November and we discovered a bond over beer at the Tide & Boar in Moncton, a bond that included dogs and Durrell. He offers here an all too brief glance backward at the novel of his youth. He began the project half afraid that what he had remembered so passionately might not hold up in the years of wisdom. But his essay sent me back, and when I went to my bookshelves to get the book, I realized my copy was gone, a gift to one of my sons in whom I hope it ignites the same conflagration it did in my heart. And I hope this essay sends our readers to the Quartet as well, an experience you should not miss, the brilliant, elaborate structure, the explosive lava flow of language, the stark view of modern love, the redemption of art.


TheAlexandriaQuartetImage via Wikipedia


At the time when we knew [Pursewarden] he was reading hardly anything but science.  This for some reason annoyed Justine who took him to task for wasting his time in these studies.  He defended himself by saying that the Relativity proposition was directly responsible for abstract painting, atonal music, and formless (or at any rate cyclic forms in) literature.  Once it was grasped they were understood, too.  He added: “In the Space and Time marriage we have the greatest Boy meets Girl story of the age.”  (B, 142)[1]

— you might try a four-card trick in the form of  a novel, passing a common axis through four stories, say, and dedicating each to one of the four winds of heaven. A continuum, forsooth, embodying not a temps retrouvé but a temps délivré.

Pursewarden to “Brother Ass” (C, 135)


The year 2012 was the centenary of the birth of Lawrence George Durrell, and the event was celebrated with The Guardian’s online reading group of The Alexandria Quartet (1957-60), the publication by Faber of a new edition of the Quartet (with a specially commissioned intro by Jan Morris) and an important conference in London sponsored by the International Lawrence Durrell Society. Durrell was born in Jullundur in the Punjab, India, 27 February 1912, the son of Anglo-Indian parents who had never been to England. The circumstances of Durrell’s birth, while distant from the mother country, pluralized his identity as Anglo-Indian-Irish (Irish on his Mother’s side). Born into colonial exile, the religious and political ideologies of Edwardian England, “Home of the eccentric and the sexually disabled” (M, 85), haunted the young Durrell through his first three novels: Pied Piper of Lovers (1935), Panic Spring (1937) and the The Black Book (1938).[2]  Since one is haunted only by what the senses cannot perceive, Durrell had to turn upon his inner self and to exorcise much of his Englishness in order to become an artist. Through the creation of his symbolist künstlerroman, The Black Book, he “first heard the sound of [his] own voice” (Preface, The Black Book, 1960, 13).[3] As a young bohemian in the London of the late 1920’s, Durrell was polymathic in his ambition, a lover of Elizabethan literature, an alluring presence with a powerful sexuality. Yet, he grew into a man of contradictions, best summarized by Marc Alyn:

Here is a recluse who loves being surrounded by people; a hedonist whose great pleasure is asceticism; a lazy man who never stops working; a man who finds joy in despair; a traveller who enjoys nothing more than quiet contemplation; a dandy truly at his ease in the company of tramps and vagrants; a novelist whose major preoccupation is poetry; an enemy of literature who gives the best of himself to his work.[4]

PaniccovIn celebration of the centenary I had the good fortune to embark upon a fresh reading of The Alexandria Quartet with several upper-year undergrads at l’Université de Moncton, and we were joined by several members of Moncton’s very vibrant and bilingual community of readers. Celebration aside, the objective of the reading was to determine if the Quartet still had ‘it’ – the power to hold today’s reader in an intimate and potentially redemptive connection with the work. I remember clearly thirty-two years ago when I read the Quartet, my first contact with Durrell. I spent one uninterrupted week in a glut of reading Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea. The set pieces are unforgettable: the hunt on Lake Mareotis, the Carnival in all its excess, or the Sitna Damiana celebration and the slaughter of the camels in the desert encampment. In the wake of the reading I remember feeling as if I were held in a cocoon of sensation generated by the exoticism of the setting – in particular Alexandria, “the great winepress of love,” “the capital of Memory” (J 14, 188), “the cradle of all our scientific ideas,”[5] “the Alexandria of the human estate” (C, 223) – and being moved equally by the literary ambition of the series. Rarely have I had such an intense reading experience, and I was aware at the time that the originality of the Quartet’s form had marked me as a reader. I was not aware to what extent, however. With the help of our Moncton reader/critics I wanted to determine, in the wake of the Egyptian Spring, if the Quartet would produce a similar effect on first-time readers, and, secondly, to test if the seductions of Durrell’s prose would leave me vulnerable and critically lame as they had the first encounter. As our reading proceeded, the effect on the first-timers was strong and positive, and this in spite of the apparent devaluation of Durrell’s reputation as a late Modernist writer since his death, a confirmed Buddhist, 7 November 1990. From a personal perspective, I came to realize that the Quartet had been my aesthetic standard for the novelistic treatments of time and love, and, even more destabilizing to realize, that this standard had been in silent, unconscious but continuous operation since my first reading. No small claim for one whose job is professing ‘objectively’. Then again, if the Quartet’s  “Relativity proposition” holds true, the starting point for every reader, amateur or professional alike, partakes of a relativity particular to each and whose dictates determine each reading.

Justine1The scope of the novel is grand with various settings in Alexandria, Cairo and an unnamed island in the Cyclades. The novel begins with the Englishman Darley’s arrival in Alexandria in 1933 and concludes in 1945 after his second stay there through the war.[6] The grandness of the setting, however, is little compared to Durrell’s ambitions for the form of his novel. Durrell, a poet, novelist, playwright, painter (as ‘Oscar Epfs’) and a playful philosopher (an Epfsistentialist!), is everywhere concerned with form. As laid out in his important Preface to Balthazar, the second volume, he wanted to write “a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition.” Durrell later called this ambition pompous presumably because the link to early Twentieth-Century physics is tenuous. I remember one waggish critic commenting that surely one couldn’t fly to Mars after reading the Quartet. Durrell later explained that he wanted to create a bridge between Einstein and Freud, whom he cites in the first epigraph to Justine. The young and aspiring writer Darley is the first-person narrator of the eponymous Justine. The narrative point of view is crucial here because Darley narrates his love affairs first with Melissa, a tubercular dance-hall girl of serene resiliency, and then concurrently with Justine, the deeply flawed mythical figure who is also a powerful and power-hungry Alexandrian Jewess. “When it comes to men who genuinely like women,” Durrell once observed, “each of them is quite simply a mythical being” (Conversations, 30). Melissa is described as “washed up like a half-drowned bird … with her sex broken” (J, 24). However powerless Melissa might be over her life and lovers, the acceptance of her solitude transforms her into a powerful force of agape.[7] Justine’s mythical being, by contrast, is aligned with beauty and a death-dealing political power. She has “the austere mindless primitive face of Aphrodite” (J, 109) — divine beauty, yes, but beauty unblemished by a conscience. Whereas Melissa’s presence is positive and loving, Justine’s influence is “death-propelled” (M, 197), hence thanatic. “[Justine] was not really human – nobody wholly dedicated to the ego is” (J, 203).

Balthazar1At the conclusion of the first volume, Justine disappears and Darley retreats to an island in the Cyclades to lick his love wounds. Once there, he writes an MS which becomes, metafictionally, the novel Justine, the first novel of the Quartet. The Balthazar of the second volume is a homosexual Alexandrian doctor and cabalist who lives and works at the centre of the novel’s ex-pat society. In Balthazar, related again from Darley’s point of view, Durrell creates the device of the “great interlinear” (B, 21), a massive and detailed commentary written by Balthazar on what must be Darley’s MS of Justine. The genius of Durrell’s technique is to relativize – or, better still, recreate — the events of the first novel through the device of Balthazar’s interlinear. Balthazar has an eye for association and the logic of continuum over that of sequence: “But I love to feel events overlapping each other, crawling over one another like wet crabs in a basket” (B, 125). From Balthazar’s interlinear the reader infers that her task is doubled: one should read between the lines of both Balthazar and the Justine it destabilizes. As Darley comes to realize that Justine has used him for political ends and that she loves the other older writer Ludwig Pursewarden, the reader shares his deception with an ontological frisson.

mountolive1But the relativism continues with Mountolive. The third novel is remarkable for the political overlay it provides to the previous two, and especially because its apparently banal naturalistic technique is held in sharp contrast to the inventiveness of its content. Durrell called Mountolive the “clou[8] of the series, and in it he re-shuffles the “four-decker” yet again. Within the omniscient third-person narrative technique, Darley becomes an objective character, much as he thought the others had been from his first-person perspective in Justine and Balthazar. Pursewarden, the political officer serving Ambassador David Mountolive, gets caught in the knot of plot and takes his own life, but not before he has revealed the cause of his deception by writing a message on a mirror. The message is the political and symbolic crux of the novel: politically, because it reveals Pursewarden’s unwitting self-deception with regard to Justine’s “Faustian compact” (M, 201) on behalf of the nascent Jewish state; symbolically, because the surface of this mirror reveals for once its depths that have been hidden in plain sight. As implied within Keats’ famous epitaph, “Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water,” the careful reader has a momentary and awful glimpse of the depths below the surface of reality that, to the more casual, has always seemed to be everywhere intact, constant, reliable. As we read very early on in Justine, “Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold — the meaning of the pattern.” Once we catch a glimpse of this meaning, we behold what Durrell has called the Heraldic Universe, the natural home of the imagination from where it makes “‘sudden raids on the inarticulate’” (Conversations, 136).

The first three novels are “siblings,” as Durrell explains in the note to Balthazar, “and are not linked in a serial form. They interlap, interweave, in a purely spatial relation. Time is stayed. The fourth part alone will represent time and be a true sequel.”

You see, Justine is written by Darley. It’s his autobiography. The second volume, Balthazar, is Darley’s autobiography corrected or revised by Balthazar. In Mountolive, written by me, Darley is an object in the outside world. Clea would be the new autobiography of Darley some years later, in Alexandria once again (Conversations, 41).

Clea1In Clea, the maturer Darley returns to Alexandria now engulfed by the Second World War. The Vichy frigates, “symbolising the western consciousness” (B, 105), lie under arrest at anchor in the harbour; the crew members, however, have the permission to carry small arms. The blonde blue-eyed painter Clea, modelled after Durrell’s third wife, the Alexandrian Claude-Marie Forde, has a significant presence in all three previous novels. Like Darley, she too is an artist evermore about to be, and she paints the portraits of several characters including that of Justine, with whom she had an affair. The tetralogy holds forth the promise of redemption by means of Clea’s transformation into the artist at the novel’s conclusion. Only art has the power to free humanity from its own perversions, eminently the case in Alexandria before a world run riot with fascist ego. In Clea’s apartment, defenceless against a night-time bombing raid, she and Darley become lovers. However genuine their love might be, it comes from a mismatched readiness and founders temporarily.  Their love succeeds ultimately, however, through Darley’s newfound “willpower of desirelessness” (Conversations, 119), the Taoist posture from which one respects, contemplates and yet engages Nature.

When you read Clea I hope you will feel that Darley was necessarily as he was in Justine because the whole business of the four books, apart from other things, shows the way an artist grows up…. I wanted to show, in the floundering Darley, how an artist may have first-class equipment and still not be one.[9]

Before Clea realizes herself as an artist at the novel’s conclusion, Durrell creates a remarkable parable of rebirth. The scene takes place in an underwater gallery off the legendary islet of Timonium, where, in the ruins of their world well lost, Antony and Cleopatra fled after Actium (C, 227). Clea’s right wrist, her brush hand, is pinned underwater accidentally.  Darley must deform the hand to release her and to regain the surface. In a life-saving act of resuscitation that is the simulacrum of love-making, the forces of eros and thanatos are held in momentary equilibrium over the unconscious Clea before she splutters back to consciousness and, subsequently, to her new life as artist.


The second epigraph to this essay occurs in the second chapter of the second Book of Clea,[10] and appears in Pursewarden’s diary entitled “My Conversation with Brother Ass.” His imagined interlocutor is Darley. In addition to being the Quartet’s foremost novelist, Pursewarden serves as Durrell’s artistic consciousness of the series. On Pursewarden as character, Durrell observes teasingly, “You must become a Knowbody before you become a Sunbody” (Conversations, 73). Pursewarden knows the difficult lessons of love, even incestuous love, and his ribald wit shines through the entire novel. The reader’s reflex is to give weight to everything he says since he, in effect, compels it.  “We live,” he declaims early on in Balthazar, “lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time – not by our personalities as we like to think” (B, 14). Pursewarden is the first to articulate the fiction of personality and, in particular, the danger posed by the ego. “My Conversation” is the greatest concentration of Pursewardian apothegms that “litter” the novel,[11] and it’s addressed to the Darley of his imagination, or “Brother Ass,” the aspiring author in the Quartet and the ‘author’ of the first-person ‘autobiographies’ Justine, Balthazar and Clea. Darley reads the conversation in the MS after Pursewarden has taken his own life, ostensibly for a diplomatic gaffe with international reverb. With a wink at the forthcoming literary post-modernism, Pursewarden describes neatly the sprawling structure of the Quartet from within its fourth and final volume. Such a metafictional irony enhances Durrell’s interest in the relativity proposition as he set out in the forward to Balthazar. Unwise as it is to trust any author’s self-evaluation, the four-decker novel is the Quartet’s principle conceit, and it arranges across the four novels, as we shall, see several “moments of connected recollection.”[12] Darley’s attempt at reading the past in order to understand his love for Justine and Melissa is ‘true’, however subjectively. What Darley doesn’t realize in the first two novels is that he cannot escape his own subjectivity in a multi-dimensional universe. By the time the reader has reached the fourth volume, she has been trained to read retroactively, that is to say, with a forward view of the plot at hand as well as simultaneously of its prior layerings. The overall effect is to hold before the reader’s mind a valence of several stories. More to the point, the book teaches us to look forward to looking back. The overall effect of these alternant plots is to make the reader, this reader at least, think about the Quartet less as a sequence and more as a “word-continuum”(Author’s Note to Clea).[13] The reading experience is quite unlike any other series of novels. As we shall see, each narrative layer contains a purposeful misconception on Durrell’s part. And as each layer dissolves with the information supplied by each succeeding volume, the reader experiences a sudden awareness that is compelling because an event first interpreted innocently must be reinterpreted through the powerful catalysis of each narrative development. Each event in the story is dynamic as if it has a life of its own, the plot of which we discover as we proceed. Each, therefore, has the potential to become an opening into time rather than a reified point in some Freytagian progression. Let us turn to one such example of narrative layering that will serve to illustrate Durrell’s finesse with form.

The first example depends upon the agency of a telescope. The scene occurs in Justine at the summer house of Nessim and Justine Hosnani, and I cite the excerpt at length in the hope that the reader will sense the planes of emotion Durrell evokes and superimposes as the passage proceeds. Darley is anxious that Justine’s infidelity has been discovered by her husband Nessim who is also Darley’s close friend.

This further warning was given point for me by an incident which occurred very shortly afterwards when, in search of a sheet of notepaper on which to write to Melissa, I strayed into Nessim’s little observatory and rummaged about on his desk for when I needed.  I happened to notice that the telescope barrel had been canted downwards so that it no longer pointed at the sky but across the dunes towards where the city slumbered in its misty reaches of pearl cloud.  This was not unusual, for trying to catch glimpses of the highest minarets as the airs condensed and shifted was a favourite pastime.  I sat on the three-legged stool and placed my eye to the eye-piece, to allow the faintly trembling and vibrating image of the landscape to assemble for me.  Despite the firm stone base on which the tripod stood the high magnification of the lens and the heat haze between them contributed a feathery vibration to the image which gave the landscape the appearance of breathing softly and irregularly.  I was astonished to see – quivering and jumping, yet pin-point clear – the little reed hut where not an hour since Justine and I had been lying in each other’s arms, talking of Pursewarden.  A brilliant yellow patch on the dune showed up the cover of a pocket King Lear which I had taken out with me and forgotten to bring back; had the image not trembled so I do not doubt but that I should have been able to read the title on the cover.  I stared at this image breathlessly for a long moment and became afraid.  It was as if, all of a sudden, in a dark but familiar room one believed was empty a hand had suddenly reached out and placed itself on one’s shoulder.  I tiptoed from the observatory with the writing pad and pencil and sat in the armchair looking out at the sea, wondering what I could say to Melissa (J, 168-9).

The passage begins by establishing an earthbound perspective as the perspective descends from sky to minaret to hut, and the agency of the telescope serves to conflate the vision of Nessim and Darley. The telescope’s magnification brings to Darley’s eye the precise scene that it had previously brought to Nessim’s, and with an eerie irony Darley becomes an eyewitness to his own adultery as he rummages about in his host’s private quarters. The lovely personification of the breathing landscape in contrast to Darley’s breathlessness brings to bear the weighty hauntedness of the scene. Seeing through Nessim’s eyes magnifies, of course, Darley’s own blindness vis-à-vis the affair. Such shifting of visual perspectives is the Quartet’s primary motif, and the characters often encounter each other through the beguiling surface of a mirror, at one remove from unmediated vision.[14]  Darley’s ostensible reason for his presence in the observatory is for paper to write Melissa, his other lover; but one can’t help but wonder how sincere Darley’s motivation to write her might be if he pursues it in the wake of a beach-hut encounter with Justine. The copy of King Lear is a clever device developed with increasing effectiveness by Durrell in his first three novels. Shakespeare’s play resonates powerfully in this scene more from an ambiguity of symbolic reference than through precise allusion. Does Darley’s revelatory moment of telescopic vision imply Gloucester’s blindness and fall to another beach? Or is the reference more general still, about the power of a genuine love unperceived, as is Cordelia’s by Lear and Melissa’s by Darley? The example is one of Durrell’s painterly touches where an image creates a plane of emotion that haunts a scene rather than appearing in full outline.

The telescope returns in the fourth volume, Clea, but with purposeful differences. The Egyptians have begun to expropriate Nessim’s things in punishment for his political adventurism, and his friends defend him in the interim by buying his possessions. Now Mountolive’s, the telescope re-emerges on the verandah of the British summer legation overlooking the Corniche.  Clea, “with time to kill,” sees Mountolive and Liza Pursewarden, the dead writer’s sister (and former lover), opposite the legation walking along the Stanley Bay front:

As I had time to kill I started to fool with the telescope, and idly trained it on the far corner of the bay.  It was a blowy day, with high seas running, and the black flags out which signalled dangerous bathing.  There were only a few cars about in that end of the town, and hardly anyone on foot.  Quite soon I saw the Embassy car come round the corner and stop on the seafront.  Liza and David got down and began to walk away from it towards the beach end.  It was amazing how clearly I could see them; I had the impression that I could touch them by just putting out a hand.  They were arguing furiously, and she had an expression of grief and pain on her face.  I increased the magnification until I discovered with a shock that I could literally lip-read their remarks!  It was startling, indeed a little frightening.  I could not ‘hear’ him because his face was half turned aside, but Liza was looking into my telescope like a giant image on a cinema screen.  The wind was blowing her dark hair back in a shock from her temples, and with her sightless eyes she looked like some strange Greek statue come to life (C, 117).

Undoubtedly, Durrell wants the reader to telescope the two scenes across the four-decker novel, and in so doing to see the one through the other. Whereas Darley in Justine is haunted as if by a hand on his shoulder, Clea, in her mind’s eye, extends her hand as if to touch the lovers on the beach. Darley’s ‘blind’ love for Justine re-emerges as Liza’s physical blindness; but, whereas the blind Liza has insight into love, Darley must earn his insight through trial and experience. Such a compression of formal symmetries works with a crisp logic. If Darley can be the eyewitness to his own love affair in Justine, Clea’s view of lovers on another beach seals her own love Darley since, with a curious “optical democracy,”[15] she becomes Darley’s specular and, therefore, full partner. The extension of a telescope from volume one to four promotes the effect of looking forward to looking back and creates the illusion of the suspension of time, what Durrell calls disparagingly, the “Western deity.”[16] It’s as if each of these local smaller stories has a life that takes form within the larger narrative of the Quartet. As Darley considers Balthazar’s interlinear: “It was cross-hatched, crabbed, starred with questions and answers in different-coloured inks, in typescript. It seemed to me then to be somehow symbolic of the very reality we had shared – a palimpsest upon which each of us had left his or individual traces, layer by layer” (B, 21-2). Each reader might enjoy the layers singly or in their shifting ensemble.


If one reads the interviews with Durrell about the time of the publication of the Quartet, Durrell raises constantly the question of form. It must have taken considerable daring or confidence and financial need for Durrell to publish the novels separately since the form of the tetralogy was unalterable once the first came to light.

I suppose (writes Balthazar) that if you wished somehow to incorporate all I am telling you into your own Justine manuscript now, you would find yourself with a curious sort of book — the story would be told, so to speak, in layers.  Unwittingly I may have supplied you with a form, something out of the way!  Not unlike Pursewarden’s idea of a series of novels with “sliding panels” as he called them.  Or else, perhaps, like some medieval palimpsest where different sorts of truth are thrown down one upon the other, the one obliterating or perhaps supplementing another.  Industrious monks scraping away an elegy to make room for a verse of Holy Writ (B, 183)!

When one attempts to account for form in a novel, the necessary phrase ‘narrative technique’ might sound commonplace to the ear, especially after the metafictional ironies of Ackroyd, Calvino, Don Coles, and David Foster Wallace, to name but a few. Narrative technique is everywhere apparent in the Quartet because of the overlay of diary, letter, novel within novel, commonplace book, and the “great interlinear” which informs much of Balthazar and Justine. The characters as well have a bit of the artist about them: Clea, Nessim and Pursewarden are painters – the first professional, the latter two amateur. Pursewarden, Arnauti, and Darley are writers – again, the first two professional, the latter coming into being through the story of Quartet. Durrell was very conscious of the difficulties of writing a ‘great’ book in the wake of Proust and Joyce. He chose not to write a novel of temps retrouvé or a roman fleuve. Each novel in the Quartet is a “sibling” hence genetically kin rather than related through, say, religion, philosophy or the logic of cause and effect. The principal beauty of Durrell’s narrative technique lies in its enactment of relativity rather than an invocation of it at one remove by means of description. In a manifestly complicated novel, people and events occupy a single time, often a single moment. Each occupation of the moment creates considerable narrative momentum since we see the same moment repeatedly, but differently with each repetition, the familiar made fresh. As Durrell overlays narrative bits in the Quartet, each bit accrues about it its own story, such as Scobie’s apotheosis from a cross-dressing transvestite and alcoholic to the saintly El Scob with his annual feast day. Each overlay aligns planes of emotion that produce a greater impact in their ensemble than might any incident taken singly. Like Balthazar’s “wet crabs” each incident has a narrative ‘life’ as it expressed through the contact with or awareness of another incident. Examples come to mind such as that of Balthazar’s gold ankh (J, 94), a key he uses to wind his pocket watch and the loss and discovery of which triggers its own narrative. Justine has an eburnine ring (B, 200). During the masked Carnival, when rings or wedding bands serve as signs of identity, Justine gives her ring to a minor character, Toto de Bunuel, so that she might pursue an unknown mission anonymously.  Toto, mistaken for Justine, is murdered that very night with her ring on his finger. Upon his return to Alexandria, Darley glimpses Clea for the first time “by chance, not design:”

My heart heeled half-seas over for a moment, for she was sitting where once (that first day) Melissa had been sitting, gazing at a coffee cup with a wry reflective air of amusement, with her hands supporting her chin.  The exact station in place and time where I had once found Melissa, and with such difficulty mustered enough courage at last to enter the place and speak to her.  It gave me a strange sense of unreality to repeat this forgotten action at such a great remove of time, like unlocking a door which had remained closed and bolted for a generation.  Yet it was in truth Clea and not Melissa, and her blonde head was bent with an air of childish concentration over her coffee cup.  She was in the act of shaking the dregs three times and emptying them into the saucer to study them as they dried into the contours from which fortune-tellers ‘skry’ — a familiar gesture (C, 76-7).

As Darley’s and the reader’s consciousness of the overlay grow, so does the potential for meaning. The story of Balthazar’s ankh – so redolent with suggestions of time — winds the time of its loss and discovery into a recursive loop.  Justine’s ring, exhumed from an ancient tomb, partakes of death and confers it, however unintentionally. Darley’s vision of Clea superimposed upon the memory of Melissa “refund[s] an old love in a new” (C, 112). Melissa is the most vulnerable, marginalized and yet the strongest female in the Quartet, and Clea must be reborn before assuming her nature as artist. As Darley remarks to himself, as if speaking of a grammar of the heart, “And in my own life … the three women who also arranged themselves as if to represent the moods of the great verb, Love: Melissa, Justine and Clea” (C, 177). Enacting the relativity proposition across episodes, then, has everything to do with form. As Balthazar comments, “To intercalate realities is the only way to be faithful to time” (B, 226). Or, in Durrell’s own words:

The root [of the mirror game] is relatively banal like an Agatha Christie novel; but by changing the lighting the reality of the thing is changed. My primary game was to write a Tibetan novel rather than a European novel. I attempted to bring together the four Greek dimensions, which are the basis of our mathematics and the five skandas of Chinese Buddhism. For us the individual consciousness of each person is filtered through five perceptions and notions. I wanted to observe what would become an ordinary novel if one changed the lighting and if individuality became blurred. What seems stable in Mountolive in the Quartet is simply the collection of states that are always in agitation. In Chinese philosophy destiny is not limited to a single life; it is well known that you don’t learn anything in one life (Conversations, 197-8).


An essay such as this is can offer but a glimpse of the Quartet because the novel lends itself to multiple types of reading. We can read it for the exoticism of its setting, for its treatment of modern love and for Durrell’s skills as a literary innovator, “An assassin of polish.”[17] As Durrell himself remarked:

The thing was, I wanted to produce something that would be readable on a superficial level, while at the same time giving he reader—to the extent that he was touched by the more enigmatic aspects—the opportunity to attempt the second layer, and so on …Just like a house-painter; he puts on three, four coats. And then it starts to rain, and you see the second coat coming through. A sort of palimpsest (BS, 66).

Durrell noted often and brilliantly that the English language had only one word for love. “The richest of human experiences is also the most limited in its range of expression. Words kill love as they kill everything else” (M, 48). One paradox of Durrell’s treatment of “modern love” is its power to convince Darley of his own objectivity while he is in the midst of the purest egotism. “For observation throws down a field about the observed person or object” (M, 160). His reading of events, however sincere as a seeker of ‘truth’, is still bound unwittingly by the emotional perspective of the loving, and aching, ‘self’. [18] We learn as we read in Justine, “Egotism is a fortress in which the conscience de soi-même, like a corrosive, eats away everything. True pleasure is in giving surely” (53). The notion of the “impossible ego” (Conversations, 214), moreover, is the thematic bridge between the investigation into modern love with the birth of Darley and Clea as artists. Darley discovers his truer expanded self by letting go of his ego and by letting go of Clea and his love for her at the end of the fourth volume. The letting go of his love, and Clea’s intuitive acceptance of the gesture, serves in part to transform both Darley and Clea into artists. Such a pleasure in loving without attachment is the novel’s concluding redemptive moment.

In the investigation, the selfishness of modern love is so necessary, because through the narcissism one comes to the poetic realization and at the end they (Clea and Darley) are both fit to marry each other, so to speak. They have evaluated sexuality and attachment as its true function and they use it in the most spiritual way possible, because it’s information, it’s the algebra of love they’ve discovered” (Conversations, 243).

Durrell’s insistence on the spirituality of their love explains his choice of De Sade for the epigraphs of each novel. De Sade is as “infantile as modern man is: cruel, hysterical, stupid, and destructive – just like us all. [De Sade] is our spiritual malady personified.” [19] In order to release the love and the art within, one must conquer the ego in a Taoist sense. Another contemporary novelist obsessed with form is David Foster Wallace. In reference to the writer’s attitude to her work, he once commented, “The obvious fact that the kids [young writers of the 1990’s] don’t Want to Write so much as Want to Be Writers makes their letters so depressing.”[20] The phrase ‘Want to Be Writers’, in effect, erects statues in honour of and submission to the demands of the ego. The second ‘Want to Write’ presupposes an ‘I’ who creates from beyond the bounds of ego, as did Blake, so as not to be enslaved by the creations of another man. The Quartet concludes in a position of spiritual equilibrium. Clea and Darley are in love but are not together. Their love exists all the more powerfully in the egoless plenitude of its possibility. The “nudge” from the universe felt by Darley at the novel’s last page prompts him to begin a story with the words “Once upon a time.” The time has come for Darley to write from a posture of serenity, of actionless action. To those few artists who can perceive with the Taoist smile in their mind’s eye, such a cosmic nudge is nevertheless the most furtive and yet the most enduring.

 To the lucky now who have lovers or friends,
Who move to their sweet undiscovered ends,
Or whom the great conspiracy deceives,
I wish these whirling autumn leaves:
Promontories splashed by the salty sea,
Groaned on in darkness by the tram
To horizons of love or good luck or more love –
As for me now I move
Through many negatives to what I am.[21]



—Paul M. Curtis



Alyn, Marc. The Big Supposer: A Dialogue with Marc Alyn. Trans. Francine Barker. London: Abelard-Scuman, 1973.

Durrell, Lawrence. A Smile in the Mind’s Eye. London: Wildwood House, 1980.

_______________. The Alexandria Quartet. 4 vols. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1961.

_______________. Collected Poems: 1931-1974. Ed. James A. Brigham. New York: Viking Press, 1980.

Haag, Michael. “Only the City Is Real: Lawrence Durrell’s Journey to Alexandria.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 26, Wanderlust: Travel Literature of Egypt and the Middle East(2006): 39-47.

Hitchens, Christopher. Arguably. Signal/McClelland & Stewart, 2011.

Ingersoll, Earl G. Ed. Conversations. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998.

Kaczvinsky, Donald P. “When Was Darley in Alexandria? A Chronology for The Alexandria Quartet.” Journal of Modern Literature Vol. 17 No. 4 (Spring, 1991): 591-594.

MacNiven, Ian A. “Lawrence George Durrell.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ( 11 July 2012.

______________. Lawrence Durrell: A Biography. London: Faber & Faber, 1998.

Max, D. T. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.  New York: Viking, 2012.

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West. New York: Vintage International, 1992.

Morrison, Ray. A Smile in his Mind’s Eye: A Study of the Early Works of Lawrence Durrell (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

____________. “Mirrors and the Heraldic Universe in Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.” Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 33 No. 4 (Winter, 1987): 499-514.

Wedin, Warren. “The Artist as Narrator in The Alexandria Quartet.” Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 18 No. 3 (July, 1972): 175-180.

Wood, Michael. “Sink or Skim.” London Review of Books Vol. 31 No 1, 1 January 2009.


Paul M. Curtis

Paul M. Curtis is Director of the English Department at l’Université de Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, where he has taught English Language and Literature since 1990. He has published numerous articles on the poetry and prose of Lord Byron. Professor Curtis is preparing the first digital scholarly edition of Byron’s correspondence.




Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. All citations are from The Alexandria Quartet, 4 vols. (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1961) and are indicated by the initial of the volume: J, B, M, C and page number.
  2. Thanks to ECW Press at the University of Victoria, the first two novels have been recently republished. In the The Black Book, the protagonist Lawrence Lucifer transforms himself into an artist by liberating himself from the mind-forg’d manacles of England’s manufacture. Ray Morrison, in his A Smile in his Mind’s Eye: A Study of the Early Works of Lawrence Durrell (Toronto: U of T Press, 2005), is the only critic who has come to terms with the LGD’s debt to Taoism.
  3. Quoted in Ian MacNiven’s biographical article in the ODNB:
  4. The Big Supposer: A Dialogue with Marc Alyn, trans. Francine Barker (London: Abelard-Scuman, 1973) 11.
  5. Conversations, ed. Earl G. Ingersoll (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998) 207. Hereafter Conversations followed by page number. This collection of interviews is essential reading.
  6. On the chronology of the novel see, Donald P. Kaczvinsky’s “When Was Darley in Alexandria? A Chronology for The Alexandria Quartet,” Journal of Modern Literature Vol. 17 No. 4 (Spring, 1991): 591-594.
  7. Monsieur, je suis devenue la solitude même. ”Melissa to Pursewarden as they dance (M, 168).
  8. Ian A. MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell: A Biography (London: Faber & Faber, 1998) 466.
  9. Quoted in Warren Wedin, “The Artist as Narrator in The Alexandria Quartet,” Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 18 No. 3 (July, 1972): 175.
  10. My attention to the detail of narrative divisions in the AQ is out of respect to LGD’s formal intentions. If one were to cast her eye over the entire tetralogy and divide each novel into its sub-headings of numerical division, book or chapter number, and then calculate the number of pages contained in each book’s smallest division, the reader would begin to get the impression of the formal (a)symmetries and narrative rhythms that LGD exploits.
  11. Michael Wood, “Sink or Skim,” London Review of Books Vol. 31 No 1, 1 January 2009.
  12. To pilfer one of Christopher Hitchens’ phrases, see the essay “Rebecca West: Things worth Fighting For,” [2007] in his collection, Arguably (Signal/McClelland & Stewart, 2011) 194.
  13. See Conversations, “If you remember scenes or characters and can’t quite remember which book they come in, it proves that the four are one work tightly woven, doesn’t it? The joiner is the reader, the continuum is his private property. One dimension in light of the other.” (71).
  14. As Ray Morrison informs us, mirrors occur 120 times in the AQ. “Mirrors and the Heraldic Universe in Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet,” Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 33 No. 4 (Winter, 1987): 499-514.
  15. This brilliant phrase is original to Cormac McCarthy in his Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (New York: Vintage International, 1992) 247.
  16. Durrell’s notebook “A Cosmography of the Womb, London Jan 1939,” is quoted in Michael Haag’s “Only the City Is Real: Lawrence Durrell’s Journey to Alexandria,” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 26, Wanderlust: Travel Literature of Egypt and the Middle East(2006): 42.
  17. “Style,” Collected Poems: 1931-1974, ed. James A. Brigham (New York: Viking Press, 1980) 243-4.
  18. “Then in the relativity field you get the relation of subject and object completely changed. In other words you can’t look at a field without influencing it. A very singular thing” (Conversations, 121).
  19. MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell, 433.
  20. See the first full-length biography on DFW by D. T. Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (New York: Viking, 2012) 178.
  21. “Alexandria,” Collected Poems, 154, lines 1-9.
May 012013

Nabokov collage

This is the hard lesson of Lolita; it is a monument to an awful existential truth: simply to be alive, in the face of the whole history of human suffering, requires a kind of insane fortitude. Lolita reminds us that while soldiers were dying in European trenches, Monet was painting lilies in his garden; that horror and beauty are cosynchronous; that for every fine sentiment, every sweet emotion, someone else pays in blood, and eventually we all get presented with the check. —Bruce Stone

KubrickLolita2From the Stanley Kubrick film Lolita.


On March 19, the literary marketplace welcomed a new title by the young Vladimir Nabokov, who hasn’t been greatly inconvenienced by his death in 1977. The Tragedy of Mister Morn, a verse drama written in Berlin in 1924 and never published during Nabokov’s lifetime, reads as a kind of retread of Othello, set among the Bolsheviks: the plot points to Leninism, but the artifice is all Shakespeare, and the play’s release is timely on both counts. Six days earlier (a near eclipse of Morn’s arrival), the Erarta Museum in St. Petersburg, then hosting a performance based on Nabokov’s Lolita, absorbed the latest attack by the Orthodox Cossacks, a band of Russian conservatives that has been campaigning against Nabokov, denouncing his masterwork, since the start of the new year. Among the more serious incursions, a theater producer was beaten in January, but perhaps the most emblematic gesture was the lobbing of a vodka bottle through a window of the Nabokov museum: tucked inside the bottle, a note condemned Nabokov as a pedophile and warned of the imminence of God’s wrath.

Viewed as domestic terrorism (even Cossacks have dreams), these acts seem comparatively tame, even quaint. As a more benign kind of vandalism (tell that to the producer), they make their point clearly enough, I suppose. But as literary criticism, they are an utter travesty, an intellectual obscenity that should make the Cossacks and their kin themselves the object of public and lasting derision (pillories and tomatoes or, at minimum, raspberries). A half century has passed since Lolita’s publication, yet here we are again—it seems inevitable—with the literal-minded and the simpletons, the well-meaning zealots and zombie mooncalves breaking out torches and pitchforks, vodka bottles and spray paint, to decry Lolita as the work of the devil. Twenty-five years ago, in her appraisal of the novel, Erica Jong found this noise over its propriety exasperating, so maybe now more than ever, the only fit response to the Cossack charge is to ignore it, at most to repay the protesters with a bottle of one’s own, bearing just the terse rebuttal, “It’s art, stupid.” To do anything more, to defend Nabokov and his work more fully and forcefully, would be to concede that either needs defending in the first place.

And one would think that the Cossack claim could be made only by someone who hasn’t read the book. After all, unless you abuse the text pretty seriously (beat it within an inch of its life), it’s not possible to construe Humbert Humbert’s pathology as a behavioral recommendation. In this regard, his case is no different from that of multitudes of literary characters. Consider, for comparison, Brigadier Pudding in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, who, for the sake of sexual arousal, eats the excrement of the book’s femme fatale as she is producing it (do the math for yourselves here). That the novel contains this character doesn’t mean that readers, or his creator, find this behavior appetizing. Unfortunately, the semi-literate Cossacks are not alone in their sentiments about Lolita, not the only hostiles in the field. In fact, their cause often finds support even from the ranks of Nabokov’s fans. In the 2009 BBC documentary How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lolita?, journalist and literary pilgrim Stephen Smith promises to resolve the title question, which he poses more bluntly at the outset: “was [Lolita] a morality tale or the fantasies of a dirty old man? [his grammar]” On the whole, the documentary feels like a superficial traipse through Nabokov’s life and work, a mercenary stoking of this combustible subject. But one vignette particularly rankles: Smith interviews Martin Amis, perhaps the most famous champion of Nabokov’s work, and here, as Amis glosses the prevalence of pedophilia in the Nabokovian catalog—which, indeed, spans (vestigially) from the very early stories to The Original of Laura, the unfinished last novel, published posthumously—his view of Nabokov bends sinister. He flatly concludes that this recurrent theme “distorts the corpus,” cropping up so frequently as to be an admission of guilt.

Scholars too, from time to time, have tried to paint Nabokov in these same colors, casting him as the pervy uncle in the house of literature. In 1990, in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Brandon Centerwall attempted to deduce from the fiction that Nabokov himself was a victim of molestation, and subsequently a “closet pedophile.” The article is a textbook example of the biographical fallacy, a case study in bad reading (call it what it is, a masterpiece of stupidity), yet this line of attack was taken up once again in 2005, inflated to book length, by an Australian critic who elected to self-publish her treatise when the university presses balked. The book appears to be a work of character defamation masquerading as scholarship (a wonderfully scathing review, by Sarah Holland Batt, is available online), but should these academic insults seem a little dated and recherché, consider this incidental disclosure, the novel’s cameo appearance, in a New Yorker feature, from January of this year, on the treatment protocol for pedophiles. One of the men interviewed for the piece, who had as yet hurt no one, kept a secret list of child-pornographic art works, among which he numbered something called Lolita, which is hilarious, though he might have been referring to a film version. (I wonder if he has seen Hard Candy). The man had also jotted some notes to justify his erotic appetites—“Strictly speaking a girl between 13 and 17 is not a child”—and Cossacks will notice how these seem eerily akin to the pleas of Nabokov’s Humbert. No, the derogation of Nabokov and his Lolita is a doggedly persistent refrain, a vampire meme in the cultural memory.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that it might be necessary to entertain these charges against the writer—for the sake of argument, as a logical exercise—if only to shred them the more completely. It’s not just the prevalence or persistence of these attacks that compels me. Let me explain. In his very readable book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton argues that the French writer’s masterpiece can subtly alter the reader’s own habits of cognition and perception. I take it for granted, as a given, that the same is true of Nabokov’s work: with its radiant precision, its richly patterned surfaces, its rampant serendipity, its rhapsodic and pulverizing prose, his fiction warps the mind in a most salutary way. In a thoughtful exchange on Slate, James Wood and Richard Lamb testify to the fact as they both complain of infection by Nabokov’s jeweled style. On a more tangible level, Nabokov’s work as a naturalist—his love for botanical things and butterflies which infuses his fiction—routinely inspires readers (not just me) to take up taxonomy, birdwatching, say, or tree identification: see Lila Zanganeh’s whimsical but skimpy hagiography The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness (2011), in which she reports that she too has found this element of Nabokov’s fiction contagious.

While Zanganeh chronicles a bit preciously her personal enamoration with Nabokov, David Kleinberg-Levin, a philosopher emeritus at Northwestern, advances more or less the same exalted argument; he attributes to the Nabokovian catalogue the full measure of the joy inherent in his own book’s title—Redeeming Words and the Promise of Happiness: A Critical Theory Approach to Wallace Stevens and Vladimir Nabokov (2012). (Clearly, the news hasn’t been all bad for Nabokov in the last few years.) Essentially, Kleinberg-Levin highlights two distinctive features of Nabokov’s fiction: its animated lexical surface (the prosody, cryptograms, puns and metamorphic words) and its narrative vanishing acts (in which worlds like a mad king’s Zemblan homeland are painted in lurid colors only to be razed, exposed as phantasmal and illusive, in which a Dreamer can stumble onto the set of Morn and remind the actors of their unreality). These features, for Kleinberg-Levin, evoke the awesome, originary power of language itself, its power to birth human consciousness, an experience conducive to, or synonymous with, happiness. Although his book is dense with reference and coiled academic prose, Kleinberg-Levin writes feelingly about the subject and is nearly convincing (I know he’s right, as is Zanganeh; I’m just not sure that there’s any rational way to argue the why). But here’s the rub: if sensible people are willing to ascribe a benevolent influence to Nabokov’s work, is it possible to dismiss out of hand, without a hearing, those concerns of the Cossacks and the demonizers that Lolita’s impact might be pernicious? That is, if books can be salutary, can they not also be toxic?

In his 1958 laudatory review of the book, Lionel Trilling inadvertently supplies the Cossack cause with this deadly ammunition; he writes that “in the course of reading the novel, we […] come virtually to condone the violation it presents.” The only outrage the work provokes, for Trilling, comes after the fact, when we recognize “we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting.” Trilling is mistaken in this conclusion, which is more a personal reaction than a reasoned response, but for Cossacks, I think it’s all the same anyway. That is, the Cossack argument makes no moral distinction between the author and his audience. The writer’s guilt is visited upon readers, museum curators, even by-standing sympathizers—everyone is smeared with the same graffitist’s brush—so it’s hard to know if influence, per se, counts among the novel’s offenses. Scholars like Centerwall, on the contrary, seem willing to allow that Nabokov’s moral hygiene isn’t necessarily identical to the reader’s, but if we grant to Cossacks this concern over influence—the novel’s ability to leave readers enlightened or benighted—it’s the Cossack position that seems the more dangerous of the two. For those of us who know better, this confusion of culpability actually has its advantages. It stands to reason, then, that if we can exonerate the reader, we have vindicated the author, or vice versa. But in the interest of coherent logic and simple commonsense, we might also distinguish between and treat separately these twin poles of accusation, to try to put the matter to rest. At the same time, I realize that this might be an impossible project: not that the controversy can’t be resolved, but that maybe it shouldn’t be resolved. Maybe Lolita is the shard of glass forever embedded in the flesh, the blade that never loses its edge, the trail of hot coals that perpetually smolders: maybe, when we reread it, as we must, we should feel the cut, let it scald, as if for the first time.


The Art of Self-Defense

After Lolita’s publication, Nabokov himself spent a good deal of time responding to the trumped-up charges against him, with inconsistent results. The interview transcripts assembled in Strong Opinions appear to be unassailable, pitch-perfect rejoinders to critics and demonizers. However, television seems to have been a less hospitable medium. In a 1958 interview for the CBC—last year, 3 Quarks Daily ran clips of the footage—Nabokov and the telegenic Trilling joined forces to discuss Lolita’s shocking content, and in that conversation, Trilling identifies perhaps the most scandalous thing about the novel: that it invites us to believe that Humbert’s love for his nymphet is authentic, that by the book’s end, it transcends the category of child rape. When Humbert meets Lolita for the last time, she is married (at seventeen), pregnant, a nymphet no more, and trying sensibly to shift for herself and her husband in their hard-luck life. Of the encounter, Humbert writes,

You may jeer at me, and threaten to clear the court, but until I am gagged and half- throttled, I will shout my poor truth. I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty- lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine. … [E]ven if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn—even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice.

Trilling might be on to something here, but the book proves more equivocal. Besides the disconcerting adjectives preceding that “delta,” a long-running debate among Nabokov scholars is whether the book’s last nine chapters, including the final meeting with Lolita and the murder of Claire Quilty, ever really happen beyond Humbert’s imagination. More importantly for the moment, Nabokov’s own remarks in that interview might fuel the ire of his antagonists. He mentions, for example, that he and his Humbert differ in many things besides their views of little girls; particularly, he mentions Humbert’s inability to distinguish a hawkmoth from a hummingbird. You don’t have to be a Cossack to hear something tone-deaf in this comparison, a jarring collision of the incendiary (pedophilia) and the urbane (ornithology). As a result, viewers might find themselves trying to interpret the writer’s body language, which is by any measure ungainly as he slouches and slides on an unaccommodating sofa. Jasper Rees, in his review of Smith’s BBC documentary, does this too: although he seems largely to suggest that the charges against Nabokov are bogus, the controversy a non-starter, he ends his article by picking again at the scab of the debate with this sketch of the writer: “Asked by an interviewer if he’d ever known a girl like Lolita, the old man’s lizard eyes flickered, and just for a second the body language spoke as eloquently as anything Nabokov ever wrote in his adoptive tongue.”

These allegations also prompted Nabokov to respond, away from the cameras, in the more composed forum of this Russian-language poem from 1959 (the translation is Nabokov’s own):

What is the evil deed I have committed?
Seducer, criminal—is this the word
for me who set the entire world a-dreaming
of my poor little girl?

Oh, I know well that I am feared by people:
They burn the likes of me for wizard wiles
and as of poison in a hollow smaragd
of my art die.

Amusing, though, that at the last indention,
despite proofreaders and my age’s ban,
a Russian branch’s shadow shall be playing
upon the marble of my hand.

At first glance, the poem too makes for a poor defense of the writer’s character (smaragd?!). An unusually attentive Cossack might seize upon the fact that Nabokov can’t bring himself to use the more accurate “pedophile” as the relevant aspersion, and in the last stanza, again he seems to put on equal footing the weighty matter of censorship with the trivial matter of proofreading (which is the point, at least in part: I wonder if the word doesn’t also contain a pun, alluding to readers who seek in literature a kind of proof, a bedrock of actionable belief). However, upon reflection, the poem does in fact do more to clear Nabokov’s name than it first appears. In refusing to countenance directly the charges against him, in evading the subject (and the horror) of real-world pedophilia, he reveals that his only concern is his literary legacy, which will carry the day in the end (those last two lines envision a marble statue of Nabokov in the Russia from which he was exiled). That Nabokov can find his predicament “amusing,” that he figures his lifespan and historical progress in terms of typographical conventions (the “last indention” in the story of his legacy): this is suggestive of a callousness, an aesthete’s flint-heartedness, a narcissism so frosty that the writer can convert his flesh-and-blood hand without anguish into marble. But on some level, this very heartlessness is not a failing but a requirement if the artist is to create a work, any work, in which characters are made to suffer and perpetrate cruelty.

In his Afterword to the novel, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” which has accompanied every edition since 1958, Nabokov offers his most thorough response to his critics, successfully deflecting those charges that Humbert’s obsession is traceable to the writer. He notes the differences between his Lolita and the conventions of pornography (child or otherwise): “in pornographic novels action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust.” Although this eminently sensible and widely available text has done little to quell the controversy, it points the way forward. Yes, to find the best defense of the novel, and the fullest exoneration of its author, we have to turn to the work itself, the story of its genesis and the skill in its artistry.


The Fine Art of Edification

Stephen Smith tries to do exactly this, consult the book to vindicate the writer, in his documentary (though he too is hamstrung by the medium). Referring back to his title question—morality tale or pervert’s fantasy—in the end, Smith comes down firmly on the side of the former reading, endorsing the book’s moral vision. He points to Humbert’s acknowledgement of his own crime, his theft of Lolita’s childhood, his gross violation of her body and her life, an access of conscience that blossoms toward the end of the tale:

Unless it can proven to me—to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction—that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.

Essentially, Humbert acknowledges the evil of pedophilia for what it is.

While Smith is right on some level—the book does powerfully indict Humbert for his crime—his conclusion rests too heavily on Humbert’s eleventh-hour repentance. In this regard, Smith would appear to share the view of John Ray, Jr., a fictional psychopathologist who pens the Foreword to Humbert’s manuscript confession. In that Foreword, Ray characterizes Humbert’s story as a “tragic tale tending unswervingly toward a moral apotheosis,” just as Smith does, but Ray, in my reading, is a pedantic clown, an incompetent alienist more prone to titillation perhaps than any of Nabokov’s real-world readers (he refers to men who “enjoy yearly, in one way or another,” exactly the crime that Humbert commits: that choice of verb and the cruel euphemism for rape that follows are unnerving). Further, Nabokov portrays Ray as unusually blinkered in that, on the point of Humbert’s redemption—that moment of his moral transfiguration, staged atop an allegorical hill from which he can deduce the extent of his crime—the text is, again, uncooperative. Though the scene arrives only on the novel’s penultimate page, Humbert’s presumed “apotheosis” actually takes place before he reunites with Lolita, and before he tracks to his lair and kills Quilty, the playwright and pornographer with whom Lolita makes her escape from Humbert. That is to say, the “apotheosis” doesn’t exactly cause him to desist (and, yes, murder appears to be the less objectionable of Humbert’s offenses).

Instead of relying on the authenticity of Humbert’s professed repentance, we should look elsewhere to catch the novel’s antipathy for his crimes, which indeed is inscribed much more thoroughly and pervasively in the text. The book reveals most clearly that the nympholept’s paradise is painted in the colors of hell flames, from first to last; in fact, Humbert’s manuscript confession is more a record of the frustration and cauterization of his desires than a chronicle of their satisfaction. In one example, Humbert rents a new home in voyeuristic proximity to a school yard, but immediately, some construction workers arrive and start building a wall which they leave forever unfinished only after they have completely obstructed Humbert’s view. Elsewhere, he offers a passing sketch of his criminal lust in which Lolita is completely uninvolved, picking her nose and reading the newspaper, while Humbert clings desperately to his fantasy of tenderness, his invented image of the dream girl. It might be in the portrait of Quilty, Humbert’s nemesis, that we catch the most scathing indictment of the sexual predator. In Quilty we see the leering and lecherous monster, as Humbert describes him poolside, “his naval [sic] pulsating, his hirsute thighs dripping with bright droplets, his tight wet black bathing trunks bloated and bursting with vigor where his great fat bullybag was pulled up and back like a padded shield over his reversed beasthood.” The irony here is that Quilty’s beastliness is the very image of Humbert’s own evil; Humbert observes not his adversary and enemy, but his double, and notably then, it is this figure that Humbert destroys (if only metaphorically) in the novel’s last chapters.

The grotesque description of Quilty should make clear another point about Lolita: the mode and mood of the book is parody. In its blood and bones, the novel is a lampooning of any number of literary subgenres: the confession, the psychological case study, the murder-mystery, the doppelganger tale, even the fairy tale. As a result, neither Humbert nor Quilty offers a naturalistic portrait of a pedophile—these are parodies of pedophiles, unusually animated, expressive and convincing caricatures but still caricatures, their monstrosity and their manipulative charms (such as they are) intensified and distorted, to comic effect. No, to catch the real-life portrait of the pedophile, to isolate the type, I think we would have to consider Jerry Sandusky, the shambling dufus, a creepy lummox with an overbite incapable of formulating the extent of his own evil. Readers are welcome to quibble here, pointing to hyperliterate pedophiles in the historical record, but Humbert is a blow-up bogeyman, a balloon-animal of a pedophile that everywhere leaks air. When he makes his explicit defense of pedophilia as a cultural practice, readers can’t miss the irony that undercuts his pleas and renders the entire effort self-defeating and incriminating. While cataloging the historical prevalence of pedophilia, for example, he refers to the sexual mores in “East Indian provinces,” saying “Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight and nobody minds.” Those last three words are crucial, charged with a blistering irony; to state that “nobody minds” is to offer a coded acknowledgement that something transgressive, patently wrong is at issue, and the trite colloquialism of the phrase, its chummy tone, is entirely incompatible with the heinousness of the subject. Humbert’s purported self-defense is routinely punctured with this kind of recrimination—and the net effect is hilarious, morbidly, unforgivably hilarious, maybe, but all the more sublime for being so.

The comedy itself in Lolita speaks volumes in defense of the author. See Humbert’s ludicrous description of his perceived competition for Lo’s affection, “two gangling, golden-haired high school uglies, all muscles and gonorrhea.” See how his extravagant ogling of the girl inspires the outburst, “oh, that I were a lady writer who could have her pose naked in a naked light!,” which is immediately undercut by authorial laceration, “But instead, I am lanky, big-boned, wooly-chested Humbert Humbert, with thick black eyebrows and a queer accent, and a cesspoolful of rotting monsters behind his slow boyish smile.” Again, I’m no expert in criminal psychology, but it seems to me that an actual pedophile would be incapable of making his avatar such a buffoon, his lust such a sadomasochistic farce. For Nabokov, laughter, rather than rage or righteous indignation, appears to offer the best defense against monsters and tyrants. As he wrote in arguably his best short story, “‘That in Aleppo Once…’” (1943), in reference to the Nazi horrorshow that claimed the life of his own brother, “with all her many black sins, Germany was still bound to remain forever and ever the laughingstock of the world.” This mature insight finds expression as well in the early Tragedy of Mister Morn, whose philosopher-king succumbs to belly-laughs even while trading punches with a rival.

This isn’t to say that Humbert’s narration isn’t often poignant, or that the novel lacks gravitas. Humbert is a skilled poet of his own pain, converting his agonies into art, and Nabokov allows him to express something of the purported rapture and the corresponding regret that inhere in his crime. After a run-in with Quilty inflames his jealousy, Humbert describes how he “ushered [Lolita] into a little alley half-smothered in fragrant shrubs, with flowers like smoke, and was about to break into ripe sobs and plead with her imperturbed dream in the most abject manner for clarification, no matter how meretricious, of the slow awfulness enveloping” him. Beyond this local and misdirected experience of rue, elsewhere, he records the “smothered memories” that emerge as “limbless monsters of pain,” “icebergs in paradise” in which his lust is interwoven with “shame and despair.” The beauty of Humbert’s lament might best be captured in this passage, in which he contemplates his fatal error: “it struck me that, quite possibly, […] behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight and a palace gate—dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions.” True, Nabokov has the gall to render the concrete particulars that vivify Humbert’s lust—the portrait less a high-fidelity recording than a Warhol lithograph, garish and overexposed—but he does ensure that Humbert is tortured, deservedly, for his crime. If readers experience a measure of empathy for Humbert, it’s only because Nabokov allows us to see him as both villain and pathetic victim of his own delusions. (In this last, the Cossacks share Humbert’s predicament as surely as anyone who is led into violence by the force of belief—not a bad summary of the human condition).

Not surprisingly, Nabokov himself offers the most apt assessment of Humbert’s character in the Foreword to one of his earlier novels, Despair; he compares the two comparable narrators and concludes, “there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year, but Hell shall never parole Hermann.” Yet, even if it’s clear that Nabokov himself is on the side of the angels in Lolita, this way of framing the debate, at its root, seems to me potentially self-defeating. After all, the novel itself anticipates this need for moral vindication. To that end, Nabokov outsources to John Ray, Jr., the task of representing the moralist defense: Ray’s Foreword ends with the admonition that Humbert’s tale “warns of dangerous trends” and that the book’s “ethical impact” trumps its “literary worth.” Coming as they do from the myopic Ray, these assurances are doubtful, best viewed with suspicion. To defend Lolita by invoking the didactic function and ethical purpose of literature is to commit the same Cossack mistake in the opposite direction. Art isn’t a service industry for the glorification of conventional wisdom or received ideas: art is an aggravation, an explosive device strapped to the I-beams of culture, a cattle-prod for our existential complacency. In its content, art can be transgressive, revolutionary, but perhaps the greater insurrection resides within the very precondition of art: namely, that it exists for the sake of artistry, that it defines itself according to this cultural non-value, beyond the dictates of the marketplace or the agendas of advertisers and propagandists. The pursuit of artistry, the experimentation and innovation housed within the word novel, is by definition a subversion of the social contract, a forged-in-steel, plated-in-gold fuck-you to the notion of utilitarian enterprise. (Some writers are able to convert this posture, paradoxically, impossibly, into a decent living.)

As I see it, the real subject of Lolita, its proper theme, is not immorality, but immortality. And perhaps this in itself is an affront to Cossacks, who would insist that the writer prosecute their own outrage at the crime, rather than see it subsumed within something so precious and grand as temporality. But Humbert’s pursuit of nymphets, his longing to reside on that “intangible island of entranced time,” appears to be a crazed instantiation of a larger existential crisis. Repeatedly throughout the book, Humbert inserts parentheses into his text in which he addresses the supporting cast: to a doctor who treats Lolita, “(hi, Ilse, you were a dear, uninquisitive soul and you touched my dove very gently)”; to Rita, the women with whom H takes up after Lolita escapes, “(hi, Rita—wherever you are, drunk or hungoverish, hi!)”; and most tellingly, to Jean Farlow, who shares a tender moment with the newly bereaved Humbert in Ramsdale, then dies shortly after of cancer, “(Jean, whatever, wherever you are, in minus time-space or plus soul-time, forgive me all this, parenthesis included).” All of these apostrophes are redolent of the tomb, given that we know from Ray’s Foreword that Humbert, like Lolita, has died prior to the book’s publication. Those chummy and penitent salutations emanate as if from beyond the grave, and Nabokov wants us to feel the fact, to make the spectral dimension palpable (the word for this is haunting).

The novel’s pervasive concern with temporality is captured most succinctly in Humbert’s description of his metaphysics, which is part and parcel of the novel’s artistry: he cites his academic paper “Mimir and Memory” (Humbert the scholar), in which he posits a “theory of perceptual time” that resembles the human circulatory system and bridges the poles of the past and the future (call it a fluid and equivocal time-space continuum). This circulatory system analogy applies equally to the method of the book, its imagistic reflux in which motifs proliferate madly. For one minor example, little remarked upon, consider Humbert’s arrival at the Haze house in Ramsdale, where he meets Lolita for the first time. As he prepares to tour the house, a potential lodger, he spots, in the foyer, “an old gray tennis ball” of dubious provenance. Lolita doesn’t take up tennis, as far as we know, until after she takes up with (or is taken up by) Humbert, so how do we account for the presence of the ball in the foyer? It’s as if Humbert’s memory is inscribing the earlier scene with the later event—or vice versa: perhaps the entire tennis sequence, a highlight of Humbert and Lo’s travels (precipitating a rendezvous with Quilty, among other things), is itself a spontaneous invention, a metastasis of this incongruous detail that Humbert notices in Ramsdale. (Think Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, the devil who invents his far-out tale from the details close at hand—yes, Nabokov deserves a credit for this gambit too). This artistic method makes it almost impossible to separate the fact from the fantasy in Humbert’s confession—which crucially undercuts any moral takeaway obviously. Further, the interweaving of temporal layers, this mixing of times or tenses, is itself a confounding of linear narrative (in life or literature), a means of forging a realm immune to the passage of time, an art synonymous with eternity and immortality. (Morn captures the sentiment with the excellent phrase “large books that smell of time.”)

In a 1989 article, a seventeen-page conniption of sorts, Trevor McNeely argues that every attempt to take an aesthetic view of the novel is an evasion, a “basically nihilistic position of ignoring, and therefore condoning, pedophilia.” For McNeely, the book is a grand hoax perpetrated on readers, the author a reprehensible fraud. In Cossack terms, Nabokov isn’t the pedophile; rather, the evil of the novel is that he makes readers complicit in the crime: “Lolita’s critics swallow Nabokov’s bait, and come to believe, or pretend to believe, that the pedophilia and sexual slavery it depicts actually do not matter.” The most troubling thing about McNeely’s paper is that Studies in the Novel bothered to print it; yet, even an eloquent and temporally distant Cossack is welcome to a hearing. What McNeely fails, or chooses not, to grasp is that the novel’s treatment of pedophilia is, by definition, philosophical and aesthetic, rather than practical. He makes a simple category error. Nabokov portrays the subject as filtered through the prism of art to exploit neither readers nor victims of the crime, but the aesthetic possibilities of the material. To that end, Humbert’s obsession is figured as a crisis of the artistic imagination, which loosens the boundaries between fact and fiction, unmoors time from its anchor: nymphets and their mythical island don’t exist, but Humbert deceives himself into believing that they do—and this is the recipe for tragedy.

The other tragedy, Mister Morn, helps to clarify the point. In the play, the Leninist revolution is figured in the character of Tremens, a kind of prophet of death. He articulates his ideals abstractly, in archetypal images: “But why do we/ always want to grow, to climb uphill/ from one to a thousand, when the downward path–/from one to zero—is faster and sweeter? Life/ itself is the example—it rushes headlong/ into ash, it destroys everything in its way:/ first it gnaws through the umbilical cord….” Clearly, Tremens doesn’t debate the merits of particular Five-Year-Plans or even calculated purges. The revolutionary speechmaking, the offhand executions: those are relegated to the subtext. Elsewhere, Tremens links his philosophy of death, the tenets of revolution, directly to the play’s other prominent plot thread, love: “the soul/ must fear death as a maiden fears love.” The two concepts are positioned on a continuum of sorts, the one experience (death) figured as a corollary of the other (love). Does the observation of these techniques and relationships place a reader on the side of Tremens, condoning the tragedy that follows? It’s art, stupid.

Surprisingly, though, McNeely’s preposterous argument might contain a grain of truth. He suggests that Lolita is Nabokov’s vengeance on critics of every stripe: “the Freudians, the New Critics, the Existentialists, the Structuralists, and all their bastard progeny,” any interpreter who experiences “terror of the void of unmeaning.” McNeely draws the wrong conclusion, but there might be something in the observation. Nabokov’s fiction is strangely resistant, in my experience, to traditional critical approaches, even those that the author doesn’t explicitly subvert. In the case of Lolita, New Criticism, with its emphasis on structural paradox, works reasonably well. With this interpretive apparatus, we can acknowledge and cope with the troubling fact that Humbert’s Proustian quest, his pursuit of artistic immortality, also manifests in his lechery. The former, a New Critic would say, isn’t a means of ennobling the latter; the triumph of Humbert’s art doesn’t excuse the travesty of love that he perpetrates on Lolita. Instead, Nabokov’s novel composes a charged paradox of these contradictory impulses, resulting in an interpretive stalemate: Humbert’s contest with time, his triumph over mortality, might well be bogus, both aesthetically and philosophically. (Or perhaps even a sinner is allowed to finger the keys to the kingdom of heaven.) Maybe it is wicked of Nabokov to recuse himself on this sorest point, but such silence, for New Critics, is the very language of art (Keats heard it on his urn). As Humbert frames it, claiming to quote an old poet: “The moral sense in mortals is the duty/ We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty.”


The Edifice of Artifice

What the New Critical reading suggests is that it isn’t quite possible or advisable to salvage a wholesome moral vision from Nabokov’s Lolita; every avenue ends in a cul-de-sac. Even so, the perception of the paradox seems almost beside the point, inadequate somehow to the effect of the novel. Maybe, to best appraise the vision of Lolita, we have to access the amoral provinces of Formalist poetics, because in the intricate patterning of the text, its scintillating architecture, we begin to see the novel’s clearest vindication, and perhaps the most common talking point, with good cause, among the novel’s proponents. Simply put, the prose in Lolita is a marvel, a blow-your-hair-back, stand-up-and-shout performance with few equals in the annals of world literature. Consider this passage, an evocation of the American landscape as Humbert and his ward travel aimlessly cross-country, dissimulating a road trip:

Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roofs, there would come a slow suffusion of inutile loveliness, a low sun in a platinum haze with a warm, peeled-peach tinge pervading the upper edge of a two-dimensional, dove-gray cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist. There might be a line of spaced trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot still noons above a wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral swoon of the background. Or again, it might be a stern El Greco horizon, pregnant with inky rain, and a passing glimpse of some mummy-necked farmer, and all around alternating strips of quick-silverish water and harsh green corn, the whole arrangement opening like a fan, somewhere in Kansas.

Nick Mount, in a lecture on YouTube, cites this passage as an attempt to inscribe nymphet-omania into the landscape, but I offer it merely as a sample of Humbert’s prose at its most majestic.

Of the human comedy, Nabokov is an equally sharp observer, a merciless recorder of mortal folly, with a Boschian bent: when Humbert’s first wife, Valeria, announces that she’s leaving him for another man, that other man turns out to be the driver of the cab that the couple is traveling in. This cab driver, Maximovich, then chauffeurs the pair back home, where he helps Valeria to pack up her things (Humbert claims to be dying the whole while of “hate and boredom”). When Valeria and her beau have gone, Humbert describes what follows:

Clumsily playing my part, I stomped to the bathroom to check if they had taken my English toilet water; they had not, but I noticed with a spasm of fierce disgust that the former Counselor of the Tsar [Maximovich], after thoroughly easing his bladder, had not flushed the toilet. That solemn pool of alien urine with a soggy, tawny cigarette butt disintegrating in it struck me as a crowning insult, and I wildly looked around for a weapon.

Immediately after, Humbert chalks up the outrage to an excess of politeness: probably Maximovich didn’t want to call attention to the shabbiness of Humbert’s apartment, in which both flush and urination would be audible in every room. The nuance of the character portrait here bespeaks an imaginative generosity, a willingness to inhabit, humanely, even peripheral lives; ironically, this is the very point on which Humbert fails with Lolita, and we should notice too that Humbert’s psychological parsing, along with some rummaging in the kitchen, spares him a pummeling from the departed Counselor, who is made of “pig-iron.” However, the rich human portraiture would come to nothing were it not for the peerless phrasing. The seething excess of “spasm of fierce disgust,” the venomous sarcasm and off-kilter, pidgin-inflected verb in “thoroughly easing,” the collision of registers, high and low, in the two types of toilet water, in the promotion of the homely cab driver to Counselor: all of this energy crackles in that “solemn pool of alien urine,” which conveys a coarse bodily function with a rich musicality, a little stilted in context, and it’s that odd formality that ignites the description and makes it sear.

In Nabokov’s sumptuous prose, readers might overlook the liberal admixtures of the mean, the harsh, the cloacal: H contemplates a swimming pool, which he feels lodged in his “thorax,” and his “organs swam in it like excrements in the blue sea water of Nice”; Charlotte Haze’s body, after the accident, “the top of her head a porridge of bones, brains, bronze hair and blood”; his own manuscript, “This then is my story. I have reread it. It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies.” Humbert’s isn’t exactly a decorous, museum English. His voice often betrays something florid in its inflection, something a little overheated, steroidal, wearing too much makeup. His isn’t a tone of high sincerity or grim seriousness, much less is it identical to Nabokov’s own literary voice—see for comparison the baroque and steeled serenity of Speak, Memory! (there’s a family resemblance, but Humbert would be the dissipated, loutish cousin wearing too much toilet water at the reunion). Yet Nabokov gifts him with this line, upon his high-spirited departure from Ramsdale after Charlotte’s death, an example for which the best syntactical descriptor might be catastrophe:

And presently I was shaking hands with both of them in the street, the sloping street, and everything was whirling and flying before the approaching white deluge, and a truck with a mattress from Philadelphia was confidently rolling down to an empty house, and dust was running and writhing over the exact slab of stone where Charlotte, when they lifted the laprobe for me, had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita.

What’s more, Humbert proves to be a skilled ventriloquist; he masterfully conveys Lolita’s tough-teen idiom (“Doublecrosser!”), as well as her mother’s bullying affection, and his own narration veers from a no-nonsense gruffness to the genuinely moving timbre of his contrition. Humbert’s tale is a monologue, but the effect is symphonic, the orchestra including both pipe organ and kazoo, yet the larger point here is simply this: virtuosic prose shimmers on EVERY PAGE of the novel. To find its equal, we have to look to giants like Joyce and Shakespeare. The prose, the artistry, the antimatter of style: this is why good and wise people revere Lolita.

Of course, it might not be wholly possible to separate the work’s style from its content. Because surely the masterful plotting of Lolita—as much a matter of matter as style—the suspenseful, carefully staged exposition of Humbert’s predatory pursuit, the untimely death of Charlotte Haze, the montages of the road trips (deliberately punctuated with pungent set pieces), the elaborate decryption of Quilty’s identity and the culminating murder: surely this contributes to the work’s triumph. Cossacks will start harrumphing again, suggesting that Nabokov might have found something a little too inspiring in the sordid content of the book. Perhaps the book’s scandalous content did in fact galvanize his imagination, did induce him to write a novel more readable, more accessible than ever before. None of his books before or after is so companionably plotted, fluidly paced, as it arcs toward its radiant zenith, despite the subtle sleight-of-hand that everywhere sabotages the chronology. Perhaps the deranged subject matter allowed Nabokov a special dispensation: he could revel more freely not in the heinous crime, but in the threadbare conventions of page-turner fiction (which he tugs at cheerfully). Who knows? Maybe Nabokov sensed that, given the book’s inflammatory subject, the writing had to be perfect. Indeed, the novel is as richly reticulated as a Shakespearean drama, as mad with reference and as ripe with metaphysics as Ulysses, as lyrical and rhapsodic and fluent in the vernacular as Gatsby (but more grotesque, wiser and deeper), as eloquent as anything in Conrad, as polished and timeless as Petrarchan marble. Yet unlike its luminous predecessors, Lolita remains uniquely, scandalously, readable, singularly hospitable to modern sensibilities. While the great works of the past often petrify over time, Lolita lives on, its colors as bright and bruising today as when they were first painted.

There is one simple and, I think, inarguable proof that, in the final reckoning, style, artistry alone has secured for Lolita its place in the pantheon of world literature. This vindication is in some ways an accident of history: to understand how, we have to consider the strange tale of the novel’s genesis, its slouching march toward Bethlehem. However, to alleviate reader fatigue, it seems wise to adjourn here for a brief rest. In the intermission, I invite you to contemplate the following rejected titles for the present article:

The Book in the Brown Paper Wrapper: Why It’s OK to Love Lolita

Nabokov’s Blues: The Tribulations of Lolita

Lolita’s Vampire Problem

The Four-Minute Medium: Why Long Essays Die on the Web

The Hard Lessons of Lolita

Bonfire of the Straw Men!

The Importance of Italics: Why We Love Lolita.


Lolita’s Genesis

In his Afterword to the novel, Nabokov attempts to answer the elementary question that many readers might ask, but that only Cossacks would charge with a special innuendo: what drove him to write such a work in the first place? Nabokov’s answer is typically oblique, but at root, this is a question of the book’s genealogy, that confluence of determinants that sparked the writing of the novel. In his introduction to The Annotated Lolita, Alfred Appel, Jr., sketches the novel’s fitful evolution, but a convenient summary of Lolita’s inception is also available online, in an article by Neil Cornwell. Cornwell tracks the first appearance of the pedophilia motif in Nabokov’s short stories and shows how a minor character in Nabokov’s The Gift pitches the very premise of Lolita as an idea for a book. Cornwell proceeds to cite a number of scholars who have tallied the novel’s literary precursors, including Edith Wharton’s The Children (which features a Humbertian romance) and Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, which concludes with “the barely teenage eponymous heroine propos[ing] co-habitation with her stepfather.” Dostoevsky’s name also crops up at times among the literary forerunners of Lolita; his The Possessed contained a chapter, initially censored, in which the hero confesses to having abused a child. Even more pointedly, Cornwell examines the fishy allegation that Nabokov cribbed the idea for his book from the little-known German writer Heinz von Lichberg, whose short story entitled “Lolita” appeared in 1919. In this case, Nabokov wouldn’t be a pedophile, but a master thief (at best) or a plagiarist (at worst).

In his YouTube lecture, Nick Mount cites the literary forerunners noted by Humbert himself: Dante, Petrarch and, most pertinently, Poe, all of whom suffered from nympholepsy. Other scholars have pointed out that those poetic ancients, Dante and Petrarch, are miscast as perverts, given that the writers were themselves children when they were smitten; similarly, scholars have speculated that Poe’s relationship with his teenaged cousin might have been chaste. While Humbert’s inventory of “classic” pedophiles might be suspect on its face, it might also contain at least one notable omission. Humbert never mentions Alexander Pushkin, sometimes called the Russian Shakespeare, who also fell in love with (and was doomed by) a young-ish girl, their romance flirting with impropriety as it straddles awkwardly the current age of consent. After writing Lolita, Nabokov would go on to translate, epically, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and the poet’s cradle-grazing romance receives a mention in the great story “‘That in Aleppo Once….’”: the narrator says of his own wife, “She was much younger than I—not as much younger as was Nathalie of the lovely bare shoulders and long earrings in relation to swarthy Pushkin; but still there was a sufficient margin for that kind of retrospective romanticism which finds pleasure in imitating the destiny of a unique genius.” To this list, as well, Cornwell adds, on one extreme, Lewis Carrol (whom Nabokov had also translated) and, on the other, the Marquis de Sade. The evidence here is a little erratic, but a clear trend appears to emerge. It’s hard not to think that Nabokov recognized something absurd in the prevalence of this motif (or disease)—as if literary history were a Henry Darger watercolor teeming with daisy chains of eroticized children. In this merging of the ludicrous and the tragic, maybe he found something hospitable to his artistic sensibility.

Cornwell points to another possible precursor of Lolita: he itemizes the numerous precise relationships between Joyce’s Ulysses and Nabokov’s novel, including Leopold Bloom’s unusual interest in his fifteen-year-old daughter’s budding sexuality, as well as the masturbatory encounter with teenaged Gerty McDowell (whose lameness is passed on to Lolita’s Ginny McCoo with her “lagging leg”). Suffice it to say, the novel is an overgrown garden, a Daedalian labyrinth of forking references. In fact, given the likelihood of Joyce’s haunting of the novel, this relationship might shed light on the origins of one of Lolita’s only explicit scenes (John Ray calls them “aphrodisiac”): the infamous sofa scene, the setting of Humbert’s first gratification of his criminal desire in Ramsdale.

Readers will recall how Humbert cagily manipulates the girl to facilitate his orgasm, claiming at the same time to have preserved her innocence: she doesn’t notice a thing, Humbert says (yet when the phone disrupts the proceedings and Lo goes to answer it, she stands with “cheeks aflame, hair awry”: the details of Humbert’s narrative betray him). To that end, to keep the girl distracted, Humbert, in the course of his magician’s “patter,” strikes upon “something nicely mechanical”: “I recited, garbling them slightly, the words of a foolish song that was then popular—O my Carmen, my little Carmen, something, something, those something nights, and the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen; I kept repeating this automatic stuff and holding her under its special spell,” he writes. This incantatory device, the repetitious language that undergirds the scene, might point to another Joycean precursor: consider that in “An Encounter,” from Dubliners, Joyce also chronicles a run-in with a child molester, a shabbily dressed man, well-read and yellow-toothed, who has designs on the story’s child narrator. As the characters converse on the green, the talk turns erotic and, as in Humbert’s case, incantatory: “He gave me the impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetised by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit. [….] He repeated his phrases over and over again, varying them and surrounding them with his monotonous voice.” Although wildly different in tenor, and although Joyce himself spares his boy narrator Lolita’s victimization, the similarity in the characters’ vocal performances is striking.

While allusiveness alone is hardly exculpatory, it does strongly suggest that there is much more contributing to Lolita’s creation than a simple autobiographical impulse. Cossacks, naturally, might balk at this line of reasoning; they might argue that textual genealogy is just another, highbrow attempt to naturalize pedophilia, to make it seem the norm—something analogous to Humbert’s overt pleas in the book. Yet here again, Nabokov’s lacerating irony seems to me unimpeachable: he takes the ominous tenor of Joyce’s story, for example, and turns it into mad farce. The sofa scene is ludicrous in mood and effect: “I kept repeating,” Humbert writes, “chance words after her—barmen, alarmin’, my charmin’, my carmen, ahmen, ahahamen….” No, Humbert is ridiculous in his role of enchanted hunter; Nabokov simply grants him the privilege of hanging himself with his own pen.

Beyond the artificial provinces of literature, the real world also supplied the writer with no shortage of material. First, there is the actual crime of Frank Lasalle, mentioned by Humbert in Lolita, and tracked down by scholars; in 1948, Lasalle abducted thirteen-year-old Sally Horner and traveled with her cross-country for over a year, just as Humbert does with his captive. Then, there is the case of Professor Henry Lanz, Nabokov’s colleague during his brief stint at Stanford in 1941 and possible model for both Gaston Godin, the chess-playing pederast in Beardsley, and maybe Humbert himself; in the words of Leland de la Durantaye, Lanz “married his wife in London when she was fourteen” and “allegedly revealed to Nabokov the wild array of his pedophile adventures.” In the same vein, Cornwell notes Nabokov’s close reading of Havelock Ellis’ famous case history, “The Confession of Victor X,” whose Russian narrator “develops from precociously over-sexed adolescent debauchery […,] through a lengthy period of abstinence in Italy, which finally degenerates into paedophilia, voyeurism and masturbatory obsession amid Neapolitan child prostitution.” Cornwell even cites Nabokov’s reaction to the confession, in a letter to Edmund Wilson, who had introduced him to Ellis’ work:

I enjoyed the Russian’s love-life hugely. It is wonderfully funny. As a boy, he seems to have been quite extraordinarily lucky in coming across girls with unusually rapid and rich reactions. The end is rather bathetic.

Determined skeptics, of course, may still accuse Nabokov of dissimulation, but this response is, obviously, a far cry from the commiseration of a fellow sufferer. In a larger sense, it’s clear that the precipitants of Lolita were, well, legion.

While Cornwell considers multi-media influences on Nabokov’s art, he doesn’t mention Fritz Lang’s M (1931), a classic work of German Expressionist cinema. The film, also available (amazingly) on YouTube, centers on the crimes of a child murderer (played by Peter Lorre), and it ends with Lorre tracked down by vigilantes who quickly rig up a kangaroo court to try the criminal on the spot. The scene is breathtaking in its emotional intensity, marked by monstrous shifts in tone: Lorre will be shrieking his defense, pleading for his life (as Humbert does), only to be interrupted by the devastating civility of his self-appointed attorney. The crowd of “jurors” will veer rapidly from murderous clamoring to sit-com laughter. The movie, most tellingly, ends with a bereaved mother staring balefully into space, imploring the audience to be more attentive guardians of their children. This is the same plea with which John Ray, Jr., ends his fictional Foreword: “Lolita should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.” (Note how Ray’s words seem subtly critical of Lolita as the representative of her generation.) M would be worth mentioning here, if only because it offers a succinct glimpse of the emotional extremes that typify Nabokov’s work from the same period. But the movie is equally interesting, in its content and conclusion, as another potential precursor of Lolita.

Lang’s M also takes us back, conveniently and necessarily, to the Berlin of the ‘30s, where Nabokov lived until 1937, when the Nazis hurried him out of the country. Before he left for America, Nabokov resided for a brief period in Paris (until the Nazis, again, came calling), and it was there that he experienced “the first little throb,” as he calls it, of the work that would become Lolita. The resultant manuscript, a story of 50-some pages, was called The Enchanter (published posthumously, as a book, in 1986). Written in Russian and set in France, the story contains the central premise of the later Lolita, a pedophile’s pursuit and capture of his twelve-year-old victim, by means of his doomed marriage with her mother. It remains more or less exactly faithful to the plot and method of Lolita, through the hotel scene (Lolita’s Enchanted Hunters) in which the characters’ bed down together for the first time. At this point, The Enchanter abruptly concludes, while Lolita plunges on, across the country, settling in Beardsley, taking flight again, and culminating in the chase and murder of Quilty. In his Afterword to the text, Dmitri Nabokov, the writer’s son and translator, claims that the early story is a distinct work, an independent creation, but I can’t see it as anything but a first, failed draft of the iconic novel. One detail might suffice to show just how closely the two books are related; a flower show interferes with the hotel accommodations of both Humbert Humbert and the unnamed agonist of The Enchanter.

This story, The Enchanter, as it happens, is the indisputable proof that Lolita’s rightful fame has nothing to do with titillation, that readers and fans of Nabokov’s fiction are not condoning, much less celebrating Humbert’s crime. And here’s why: although The Enchanter takes up the same demented content as Lolita, almost no one reads it, and no one, to my knowledge, reveres it. In “The Enchanter and the Beauties of Sleeping,” Susan Elizabeth Sweeney gives the text perhaps more attention than it warrants, tracking the fairy-tale motifs that Nabokov exploits (the Red Riding Hood references are impossible to miss). But my impression is that very few readers even know that The Enchanter exists—this, despite Stephen Smith’s dutiful documentary, and despite the fact that Lolita’s Wikipedia page contains in its fine print a reference to the work (watch for its Russian-language title Volshebnik—which looks strangely like an anagram for Bolshevik, to boot). Apropos of the plagiarism scandal, Cornwell and others have noted how difficult it is to prove a negative, an absence of knowledge, so all I can offer by way of evidence for The Enchanter’s obscurity is this: that New Yorker-interviewed pedophile doesn’t include the title of The Enchanter among his secret stash. If Cossacks were right, if Nabokov’s fans were criminals, The Enchanter would also be a household name. It isn’t (though Lila Zanganeh’s book title, The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, seems increasingly audacious.).

Nor should it be. In one of fate’s many ironies, this book, which incontrovertibly exonerates readers, at the same time makes it hardest to vindicate the writer. The plot, per the text’s length, is paper-thin, its course excruciatingly linear, its focus painfully myopic and claustrophobic, everything about it wooden and under-aired. For all its traumatic content, it might be a little boring. Nabokov’s brilliance does at times rouse itself long enough to cast a bleary eye on the proceedings, before lapsing again into dormancy. For example, as the agonist contemplates the act of consummating his sham marriage to his Brobdingnagian bride, we’re privy to the black comedy of her anatomy: “it was perfectly clear that he (little Gulliver) would be physically unable to tackle those broad bones, those multiple caverns, the bulky velvet, the formless anklebones, the repulsively listing conformation of her ponderous pelvis, not to mention the rancid emanations of her wilted skin and the as yet undisclosed miracles of surgery… here his imagination was left hanging on barbed wire.” But Erica Jong offers a capsule summary of the relation between the story and the novel: “The difference between [the texts] is the difference between a postcard from Venice and a Turner painting of the same scene.”

The Enchanter is interesting primarily for what it isn’t. It contains in utero some of the basic material and tactics that make Lolita incomparable: a passing reference to Hourglass Lake, where Humbert considers murdering Charlotte (“some seaside sand useful only as food for an hourglass”); an ur-Quilty in The Enchanter’s hotel; a prefatory attempt by the agonist to rationalize and philosophize, like Humbert, his obsession. Importantly, the story also prefigures Lolita’s tactic of lampooning and, in a moral sense, condemning the agonist’s schemes. After the untimely death of his ailing wife (in hospital, a nicety that also survives as a ruse in Lolita), the man takes a train to collect his stepdaughter; while in transit, he fantasizes about the night to come, his gradual assault on the girl’s virginity in the “tightest and pinkest sense,” and the text incorporates and confirms the reader’s response in the character of a woman who shares the train compartment: “The lady who had been sitting across from him for some reason suddenly got up and went into another compartment.” The silence of that “for some reason” speaks volumes: even through the blinders of third-person-limited narration, the text manages to convey that the agonist has visibly aroused himself, and caused the woman to bolt.

But perhaps what The Enchanter lacks, even more than Humbert’s comic self-laceration, even more than the novel’s three-dimensional world, is a greater allotment of this authorial intervention. The story’s conclusion is especially difficult to read, as Nabokov appears to ride the current of the narrative beyond the boundaries of good taste. The agonist finds himself, at last, in the hotel room with his prey; believing the girl to be asleep, he begins to weave his spell over her body, availing himself of his “magic wand” (thus, the title), which appears to be a euphemism for his penis. Yes, it’s almost too silly even to be creepy. Belatedly, the character recognizes that the girl has in fact been awake for a while and is screaming at the top of her lungs. The story rushes to its end, then, with the agonist fleeing the scene, seeking a convenient suicide, only to be struck down in the street by an obliging truck. Strangely, at this moment, the style veers directly into stream-of-consciousness narration, as the agonist welcomes his violent end (for my part, I prefer the third-person-indirect phrase that precedes this turn, “this instantaneous cinema of dismemberment”).

Nabokov must have recognized the failure in the sequence—else, he would never have rewritten it as he did. Humbert, in The Enchanted Hunters hotel, passes the whole night suffering from insomnia and dyspepsia, and the morning tryst is a masterpiece of understatement: “by six-fifteen, we were technically lovers.” Yet, something of the edge, the creepiness, of The Enchanter survives in Lolita, in the very hotel scene which features one sentence that will challenge the stomach of any reader. It describes Humbert’s anticipatory image of the girl, and depicts her anatomy starkly, unflinchingly:

Naked, except for one sock and her charm bracelet, spread-eagled on the bed where my philter had felled her—so I foreglimpsed her; a velvet hair ribbon was still clutched in her hand; her honey-brown body, with the white negative image of a rudimentary swimsuit patterned against her tan, presented to me its pale breastbuds; in the rosy lamplight, a little pubic floss glistened on its plump hillock.

There have been times when I have asked myself what the novel would lose if one were simply to strike this sentence from the page. Basically, in such moments, I have contemplated censorship of a kind. Why would Nabokov write such a sentence in the first place? Or similarly, why dramatize with such heat and precision the sexual escapades of Humbert and Annabel, when both were Lolita’s age? Humbert writes of Annabel, “whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful,” and the lyricism of the line rings so true that the sentence strikes with the force of memory. At such moments, it almost becomes possible to sympathize, somewhat, with the Cossack position. But before we leap into that intellectual abyss, we have to realize that in this, in many things, Nabokov was smarter, wiser, braver, than any of us. Without such passages, I’ve concluded, it might be possible to read the novel without feeling sufficiently repulsed.

Such moments bring to the surface the horror that bubbles steadily in the margins of Humbert’s tale; it skitters across the frame of the page, never far from view, seeping in from the edges, muted and ghastly in its attenuation. In the wake of the events at The Enchanted Hunters, for example, Humbert pauses to describe the mural that he might have painted for the hotel, had the proprieters “lost [their] minds”:

There would have been a sultan, his face expressing great agony (belied, as it were, by his molding caress), helping a callipygean slave child to climb a column of onyx. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of juke boxes. There would have been camp activities…. There would have been poplars, apples, a suburban Sunday. There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child.

The mural supplies a loose corollary, a hieratic version of Humbert’s confession. And if you can read that “wincing child” and not feel lanced by grief, you should either have your conscience checked or learn to become a better reader. The method is oblique, but the result is a wound.

My sense is that, if Nabokov had written only The Enchanter, the Cossacks might have a better case against him. But then again, if Nabokov had never gone on to write Lolita, there wouldn’t be any museums to vandalize. And because Nabokov did write Lolita, we can’t indict him for the limitations and failings of an early draft whose publication he considered (in 1959), but never approved. To put this simply, the evidence of The Enchanter serves to exonerate both the author and his readers. It’s doubtful that an actual pedophile would be capable of artistic (rather than pornographic) revision; it’s certain that readers would be indifferent to anything but an artistic triumph.

Lolita’s achievement is of such an order that it precipitates and compels every kind of artistic response, from imitation to inspiration to competition to homage to a desperate lunging at the maestro’s coattails. See again Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, his magnum opus, with its ship of lost souls whose bacchanals might make Sade blush; the shipboard set piece concludes with a pedophiliac tryst considerably more erotic than anything in Lolita. (If memory serves, this scene ends with the male participant, the book’s protagonist, Rocket Man, passing through the wormhole of his own urethra.)  Yet Cossacks will likely excuse Pynchon from their auto-da-fé, partly because such depravities are walled off behind a fortress of impenetrable prose, and they will leave alone, thankfully, Gary Shteyngart with his wave to Lolita in one of the best American stories of the new century, “Shylock on the Neva”; Shteyngart’s gangster narrator spies a young girl at a museum and flashes his “standard Will-you-sell-your-body-for-Deutschemarks? smile. […] Not yet, her black eyes [tell him].” Nor will the Cossacks touch their torches to the digital record of the Oscar-lauded American Beauty (another Kevin Spacey sighting) with its unsubtle, rose-encrusted reprise of Nabokov’s novel. Lolita even intrudes on the latest book by the turncoat Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo; the novel begins with the fifteen-year-old male protagonist prosecuting an incestuous relationship with his Humbert-aged grandmother. No, perhaps the only unforgivable thing about Lolita, the thing that makes it uniquely susceptible to attack, is that Nabokov managed to turn a tragedy into a trope.

Cossacks might try, but surely not every instance of literary child abuse can be traced back to Nabokov; only among writers of a certain stylistic cast is the ancestry clear (they write prose that bioluminesces and stings like a Portuguese man’o’war). In any case, contrary to Cossack opinion, the proliferation of Lolita’s flammable premise is neither trivializing nor sinister. Rather, in evoking Nabokov’s achievement, writers not only honor the best of the tradition, they consent to shoulder in their own ways the novel’s grim burden: to confront the very worst that humanity has to offer, and to wring from that misery something beautiful: to stare into the blackest pit and find (forge) the sun. This is the hard lesson of Lolita; it is a monument to an awful existential truth: simply to be alive, in the face of the whole history of human suffering, requires a kind of insane fortitude. Lolita reminds us that while soldiers were dying in European trenches, Monet was painting lilies in his garden; that horror and beauty are cosynchronous; that for every fine sentiment, every sweet emotion, someone else pays in blood, and eventually we all get presented with the check. The world is thick with atrocity, past and present; Lolita shows us that, from such material, within and out of it, we might wrest some measure of transcendence. The novel casts its gaze on the monstrous, but also the mythical, the banal, the comic, the poetic, even the tender (with an asterisk), and fashions a kind of harmony from the discordant and myriad particulars. A sob of despair becomes a song of hallelujah. Though perhaps beyond morality in the narrow sense, the novel’s project, this artistic patrimony, is at its root affirmative and redemptive.

The Cossack storm—a light shower, really—will soon blow over, if it hasn’t already. The circus can always be relied upon to leave town. Although it would be wrong to compare too closely the offenses of Cossacks with those of actual pedophiles, they do have this in common: both, in the end, are acts of sterility, the one perhaps trivial, the other savage. Nabokov’s novel, on the contrary, and fit testimony to its genius, is blessedly, maybe endlessly, generative.

— Bruce Stone


Bruce Stone

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a collection of essays on Douglas Glover’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Numéro Cinq and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.


Apr 092013















Herewith a fascinating essay on philosophical dualism, the East, the West, poetry, yoga, Ralph Waldo Emerson and, well, just about everything else worth talking about. A. Anupama has already contributed reviews and translations to Numéro Cinq (see especially her “Translations of Classical Tamil Love Poetry, Essay and Poems”) but in this essay she makes a special effort to extend our (western) understanding of the interconnection between love (eros), poetry and yoga in the Tamil Indian tradition. This is intriguing to read in part because it reveals a poetic tradition steeped in spirituality and philosophy, a tradition that is formal, ancient and self-conscious in its almost ritualized deployment of patterns and devices (which are, in themselves, a poetic language). In both the East and the West, humans have long wrestled with the famous gap between consciousness and the object, self and nature; love, even in the West (see Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet), has been a constant source of metaphor for this relationship: lover and loved one/mind and what it perceives. We also have gorgeous photos taken by Dorothea Erichsen, the yoga poses were shot near Hook Mountain on the Hudson River.



Emerson, in his essay “The Poet,” wrote, “I know not how it is that we need an interpreter; but the great majority of men seem to be minors, who have not yet come into possession of their own, or mutes, who cannot report the conversation they have had with nature. There is no man who does not anticipate a supersensual utility in the sun, and stars, earth, and water. These stand and wait to render him a peculiar service. But there is some obstruction, or some excess of phlegm in our constitution, which does not suffer them to yield the due effect. Too feeble fall the impressions of nature on us to make us artists. Every touch should thrill. Every man should be so much an artist, that he could report in conversation what had befallen him. Yet, in our experience, the rays or appulses have sufficient force to arrive at the senses, but not enough to reach the quick, and compel the reproduction of themselves in speech. The poet is the person in whom these powers are in balance, the man without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart.”

Emerson sees the poet as an interpreter—someone who is clear of the “phlegm” of consciousness that pervades mundane experience.  In this essay, and in his 1835 essay “Nature,” Emerson dissolves even the distinction between consciousness and nature itself within the framework of his logic. In “Nature,” he wrote, “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” This dissolve is also the goal of yoga practice. The very first sutra in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an ancient manual for yoga practitioners, states, “Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.” Emerson’s essays and Patanjali’s teachings seem to be on the same track here. Like Emerson’s thought, the Yoga Sutras are based on a dualistic philosophy in which an individual’s pure awareness is distinct from objects of awareness.  The translator and commentator Edwin F. Bryant summarizes it this way: “The goal of the entire yoga system … is to extricate pure consciousness from its embroilment with the internal workings of the mind as well as the external senses of the body.”

This might seem like the very opposite of poetry. Our discipline in poetry is to permit our minds to move, sometimes quite wildly, to let the mind bathe itself in the senses. As poets, we focus a lot of attention on image. The way the image heightens one’s senses is sometimes crucial to expressing the sublime essence of a poem. That sublime essence is the goal of both poetry and yoga, even though they seem to pursue it in opposite ways.

Patanjali’s Sutra 41, in section 1, states that by fixing one’s mind on an object, all mental disturbances cease, and the mind becomes like a pure crystal, reflecting the nature of whatever is placed before it. In yoga science, the pure intellect, in Sanskrit called buddhi, is the encasement of the eternal soul. The natural, inherent luminescence of the mind is the reflection of that eternal soul within it. In poetry, we are, in effect, practicing this clarity of mind. By our attention to image and senses, we are exercising and purifying the mind so that awareness and expression of the light within may follow.

Emerson again, in “The Poet” (and please forgive the gender specific language characteristic of Emerson’s time): “If the imagination intoxicates the poet, it is not inactive in other men. The metamorphosis excites in the beholder an emotion of joy. The use of symbols has a certain power and exhilaration for all men.” He goes on to say, “Poets are thus liberating gods. Men have really got a new sense, and found within their world, another world, or nest of worlds; for, the metamorphosis once seen, we divine that it does not stop.”

The Cankam poets of South India knew this well. In the carefully crafted style of love poetry, known as akam poetry, the mystery of the soul’s presence becomes accessible by the concrete imagery of the symbolic landscapes and by the reality of the emotional dramas that unfold between the archetypal lovers. This highly symbolic form of poetry was written by assemblies of poets for several generations. Cankam means “a community or assembly.” The anthologies we have today were written in the third and final Cankam gathering, in about the third century.

Akam poems are small monologues, and in each one the speaker is one of five archetypical characters in a love drama: the hero and heroine in love, her friend, her mother, and the hero’s mistress. Each poem is set in one of five symbolic landscapes, called “tinai,” each representing a different mood of love. The mountain tinai, named kurinci, for a mountain shrub that blooms with purple flowers, represents the dawning of first love, with its longing and secret trysts. The forest tinai; named mullai, for jasmine, presents the sweet mood of union and patient waiting for the beloved. The countryside, named marutam, for a flowering ornamental tree, is the mood of the quarreling lovers. The seashore, named neytal, for the blue lotus, offers the mood of unfulfilled longing. And the desert-like landscape, named palai, for a scrubby bush, offers portraits of the lovers’ separation or hardships during elopement. Each tinai has its dazzling particulars, in the types of animals and specific flowers and plants, the occupations of the people in each, and even the type of water to be found in each, as waterfalls in the mountains, or dry wells in the desert. As specific and inevitable as the features of the landscape, so are the movements of the lovers’ hearts and actions. These poets’ imaginations had an abundant and beautiful playground to share. The anthologies were written by scores of poets, and many of the poets are named only by the metaphor they use in their poem, as one called “the poet of the long white moonlight,” or another called “the poet of red earth and pouring rain.”

Even as the poems stand firmly in the landscape and describe the dramatic motions of the heart, the specific blends of imagery, the directionality of the syntax, and the formal meter of the poems lead to a quiet interior space. Here is a verse I translated from the ancient Cankam anthology Kuruntogai,

Poem from the desert road

He says—

Fearlessly, my heart has departed
to embrace my beloved.
If its arms are too slack to hold her
what use is it?
The distances between us stretch long.
Must I think of the many forests
where deadly tigers rise up roaring and
circling like the waves of the dark ocean
standing between us? I don’t dare.

Allur nanmullaiyar

Kuruntogai 237

In this poem, the lovely image of the heart embracing, but lacking arms to do so is reflected in the image of the forest tiger roaring like ocean waves.  The word for “circling” in the original poem can also mean “echoing.” And its placement in the poem makes it a little ambiguous as to whether it refers to the tigers’ roaming movements or the sound of repetitive ocean waves. This fine swirl of images echoes the dark tumult of the heroes’ heartbeat as he moves through the landscape on his journey..

Here is verse 38, translated by the poet A.K. Ramanujan.

What She Said

He is from those mountains

where the little black-faced monkey,
playing in the sun,
rolls the wild peacock’s eggs
on the rocks.

Yes, his love is always good
as you say, my friend,

but only for those strong enough
to bear it,

who will not cry their eyes out
or think anything of it

when he leaves.


This verse enacts a vision of a nest of worlds through metaphoric image within the symbolic landscape representing secret trysts and longing. A broken heart like broken eggs on the mountainside. The grand level of landscape is signified by the name of a single plant, the kurinci, which blooms extravagantly every twelve years. The Cankam anthologies show us a multitude of poets writing the same drama and setting. There is a similar experience in a yoga practice, in which a pose like Mountain pose, signifies a position of the body, but also an attitude of the mind and heart. Consider the way the five tinai of Cankam literature can be experienced in the Sun Salutation, a vinyasa popular in today’s yoga practices. The Sun Salutation is a sequence of poses, movement mediated in time by the breath. In a class setting, a yoga teacher sets the pace, and a roomful of yogis on their mats enact this world.

We begin in mountain pose. Sweep our arms up and then dive into the ocean, the forward fold. Straighten the spine and level it to the horizon for the flat desert road. Stoop deeply again, as in a rice paddy—the fertile countryside. Then fly upright to the trees of the sacred forest, hands pressed together at the heart. So kurinci=mountain, neytal=diving at the seashore, palai=the desert road, marutam=the fields, and mullai=forest.






Indian classical love poetry is meant to illuminate the energetic precision of yogic wisdom. Another well-known work from the Cankam period called Tirukkural by the poet and weaver, Tiruvalluvar, concludes with a long set of erotic verses based on the archetypal lovers— some from his, and some from her point-of-view.  But while Tiruvalluvar sets a foundation for the practice of yoga in the practice of Virtue with a capital V, the akam genre of Cankam poetry sets the foundation in Nature itself and in the very landscapes’ inescapable features. The poetry’s attention to the details of flora and fauna speaks volumes about the very precise nature of what they were about in the inner realm. Aside from references to teh five landscapes, botanical references are particularly rich, like the sound made by seedpods on a tree blown by the wind, the circular look of mounds of pollen dust when it is shaken onto the ground, the shape of a certain flower’s calyx..

Henry David Thoreau described Walden Pond with a similar attention to its particular beauty. Some of my favorite passages in his book Walden detail his measurements of aspects of the pond: its depth, its temperature, its color, the precise characteristics of the depth and quality of its ice. In one lovely passage, he wrote about midnight fishing from a boat by moonlight. “These experiences were very valuable to me—anchored in forty feet of water, and twenty or thirty rods from the shore, surrounded sometimes by thousands of small perch and shiners, dimpling the surface with their tails in the moonlight, and communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below, or sometimes dragging sixty feet of line about the pond as I drifted in the gentle night breeze, now and then feeling a slight vibration along it, indicative of some life prowling about its extremity, of dull uncertain blundering purpose there, and slow to make up its mind. At length you slowly raise, pulling hand over hand, some horned pout squeaking and squirming to the upper air. It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element, which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes as it were with one hook.”  A metaphor of the consciousness using itself as the object of its meditation, this passage is a beautiful rendering of that movement of awareness from a sense of nature to a sense of mind, to a sense of enlightenment..

Yoga and poetry are sisters yet again when we consider the use of breath for approaching the experience of the sublime. In yoga class, usually the first instruction is to become mindful of the breath, to deepen it, so that we extend it fully. Only then do we proceed, pairing our movements with it. In poetry, we are often advised to speak our poems aloud, to let the breath guide the movement of our expression.  In both yoga and poetry, a beautiful pose relies on the way the breath corrects our stance. In yoga, breathing into each pose makes an automatic correction in the alignment of the pose, especially in the twists and the poses in which the belly and torso are stretched taut so that it is difficult to draw a full breath. Your aching muscles will show you an easier way if you are breathing well. When speaking a poem, the poet’s experience of the sound of it creates a similar internal tension. We utter the words, with breath. Our aching ears show us an easier way if we are breathing well.

In yoga, breathing exercises called pranayama are intrinsic to the discipline. Besides creating a silent relationship between one’s mind and one’s body, attention to breathing can affect the quality of one’s awareness. William J. Broad in his book The Science of Yoga describes in detail the effects of these practices on levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body, and the resulting effect of those on the brain and nervous system. The slowed forms of yogic breathing have been shown to increase calm awareness. “Today a standard figure is that cutting lung ventilation in half prompts blood levels of carbon dioxide to double. And the ensuing dilation of cerebral blood vessels means the brain now gets more oxygen, not less.”  But, the slowed yogic breath has a temporary negative impact on practitioners’ ability with logic-driven and problem-solving tasks, as researchers have found. The quality of awareness is transformed by the practice.

Broad points out that the opposite happens in the rapid-breathing exercises like one called Breath of Fire. With this form, the emphasis is on exhaling forcefully and quickly, speeding up the breath, and letting the inhale occur as a result of the forced exhale. The plunge in carbon dioxide levels causes cerebral blood vessels to constrict, so the brain takes up less oxygen, sometimes resulting in dizziness and fainting. Practitioners are cautioned build up their use of this pranayama gradually. This leaves one’s awareness more laden in the region of the heart and of the belly, which has been pumping like a bellows to create the movement necessary for the breath.  EEG studies of advanced yogis show increased brain activity arising in the central parietal lobes, which are the brain’s processing points for sensory information from the body. So, in this pranayama practice, awareness arises from the body instead of the mind.

Broad presents modern yoga practice as a systematic workout for the autonomic nervous system, the half of the nervous system that is responsible for the body’s automatic responses to its environment. The physical disciplines of yoga use the two things about that system that can be consciously manipulated in order to improve its overall health: 1) the subtle physical positions of the body and 2) the velocity of its breathing. This discipline of movement and breath has a profound impact on the body’s ability to cope with stress, to regulate metabolism and digestion, to glide through its moods. Recent studies of yoga practitioners’ levels of mood-boosting neurotransmitters have only confirmed the obvious benefit.

Knowing the limits of one’s breath and movement in the practice of asana and pranayama offer a sense of both confidence and humility, which carries over into our treatment of our bodies, in what we eat, how we dress and shelter ourselves, what we offer to others.  By extending our awareness into our autonomic nervous systems, we can tap into the intense voltage of our hearts, and honor the complex neurology of the belly, with its gut feelings and reactions. Consider the poems of the 12th century saint Avvaiyar, who wrote this about the way the belly can be one’s best guru:


If I say give up food for one day, you won’t.
If I say for two take, you won’t take.
……………………………………………….O belly, full of pains,
You don’t know one day of my grief.
How great, how rare, to live with you.

Avvaiyar wrote to impart wisdom to children and young people, and her poems are beloved today as treasuries of that wisdom. Like Tiruvalluvar, she points to virtue, and like the akam poets she twines her verse with nature.

The first verse from her book Muturai is this—

“When doing good to a man, do not ask
If he’ll do good.
……………………Tall-standing coconut palms,
Tireless and growing, take water at their roots
And return it, sweet, from above.”

The very next verse seems to contradict—

“Good done to a man of character—
letters etched in stone.
…………………………….Good done
to a man who lacks ethics and love—
letters traced upon water.

Her movement in these two verses is a kind of sawing back and forth, like yoga’s deft autonomic workout.


Water that runs from the well to the rice
also waters the wayside grass.
…………………………………If on our old earth
There walk one upright man, for his sake
Everyone receives rain.

As verses from Tirukkural are recited by heart by children, by everyone, as an expression of Tamil culture, so are Avvaiyar’s. She had this to say about the ascetic yogis:

(7, Nalvali)

Looked at in all ways, this body is a hovel
For foul worms and teeming disease.
………………………………………………The great,
Because they know this, stand apart from it, silent,
like water on a lotus’s leaves.

William Broad devotes a long chapter of his book to yogic experiences of enlightenment, called samadhi in Sanskrit. Researchers interested in the physiologic aspects of yoga have noted the cooling effect of the discipline on the autonomic nervous system. In advanced practice, however, yoga’s ancient roots in Tantra become evident. Sharp spikes in heart-rate and brain activity in meditating yogis closely resemble the patterns of sexual orgasm. Broad cites the studies and then calls this yoga’s little secret, as though yoga’s marketing, as mere exercise, or stress-relief, or physical therapy, has successfully altered its image. He also offers a long discussion of Kundalini yoga: the fiery experience of the arousal of yogic energy. Kundalini promises its practitioners a path to boundless creativity, joy, and spiritual bliss. Broad mentions Carl Jung’s studies of kundalini and provides anecdotes of sudden transformations of ordinary lives into artistic virtuosity.

One of the most common forms of yoga practiced today, however, is Hatha yoga—a discipline that was invented in the tantric tradition to generate an ability to retain erotic tension within the body. Akam poetry and Tirukkural describe this erotic tension, evoking intimately both sides of the experience of love while grounding firmly in the landscape and social wisdom. Avvaiyar sums it all up in one verse:

Giving is virtue, earning rightly is wealth, living
in harmony and hospitality is love.
Letting go of all three, thinking only of god—
the bliss without peer of release.

This movement is what the bhakti poets take on in the shearing force of their devotional verse. Bhakti is defined as a counter-cultural poetry, composed in vernacular, with a devotional attitude, meant to be chanted or sung, according to Andrew Schelling, the editor of the new Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature. He wrote in his introduction, “At a level deeper than what a poem or song says, occur disruptions or subversions that appear both spiritual and linguistic. These include forbidden emotions, raw vernacular vocabulary, riddles, secret codes, and non-rational images.” The big change from the ancient modes of poetry is that bhakti is born in dissent from religious and/or political authority. The result is that it is composed in the first-person– the lyric “I” with which we are familiar in our contemporary verse. An attitude of defiance paired with an attitude of devotion stretches the erotic tension inside the poet.

A few long verses now from the ninth-century poet-saint, Kotai, a devotee of the god Krishna, whom she calls Govinda and refers to here as cowherd, dancer, and thief. She is usually known by her honorific name, Antal.

I am caught in the snare
of that omniscient lord
who slumbered
upon the banyan leaf.
Do not speak
whatever comes to mind—
your words pierce me
like a dagger.
The cowherd chief
who tends his calves
with staff in hand,
that dancer with the waterpots
who reclines in sacred Kutanai—
bring me
his sacred basil
cool, lustrous, blue,
place it
upon my soft tresses.

Like an arrow
from the bow of his eyebrows,
the sidelong glance
of him who destroyed Kamsa
enters my heart,
makes me sore with pain,
weak and worn.
I yearn, I melt,
yet he says not
‘have no fear’.
If willingly
he gives his garland
of holy basil,
bring it,
place it upon my breast.

My soul melts in anguish—
he cares not
if I live or die.
If I see the lord of Govardhana
that looting thief,
that plunderer,
I shall pluck
by their roots
these useless breasts,
I shall fling them
at his chest,
I shall cool
the raging fire
within me.

To soothe the grief
of my rounded breasts,
is it not better
in this very birth
to serve Govinda
in little intimate ways,
than wait for a life beyond?
If one day
he would fold me
into his radiant chest,
that would fulfill me.
Else, looking straight at me,
uttering the truth,
he should give me
leave to go—
that also I would accept.

Kotai, daughter of Visnucittan
master of the town of Villiputuvai,
she of excellence
whose eyebrows arch like a bow,
poured her intense longing for
the radiant light of Ayarpati
the lord who brought her pain.
Those who chant
these verses of praise
will never flounder
in the sea of sorrow.

In the last stanza, the poet refers to herself in the third-person, forming a signature within the verse. Other bhakti poets use the name of their personal deity in the last lines of their poems as the signature, a complete removal of the self at the end of the lyric. The poet Mahadeviyakka, another woman poet-saint with an honorific name, wrote her burning verses in the twelfth century, as she wandered in a state of undress, scorning suitors and authorities alike.

Would a circling surface vulture
know such depths of sky
as the moon would know?

would a weed on the riverbank
know such depths of water
as the lotus would know?

would a fly darting nearby
know the smell of flowers
as the bee would know?
O lord white as jasmine
only you would know
the way of your devotees:
how would these,

on the buffalo’s hide?

Following bhakti into north India, into the 15th century, the tradition of signing the poem with a third-person reference to oneself continues. Here is one by a male poet, the weaver Kabir.

My husband is called Hari,
And I’m his young wife.
My husband is called Rama.
He’s an inch taller than me.

Looking my best,
I go in search of Hari,
The lord of the three worlds.
He’s nowhere to be found.

We live under the same roof,
Sleep in the same bed,
But seldom meet.
Fortunate the bride, says Kabir,

Whose husband loves her.

Notice the twisting of gender in this verse as he calls himself god’s wife. Kabir is known for this and many other logic-smashing contortions in his verse. Thoreau and Emerson both cite Kabir’s poetry in their writing.

Mirabai, like Antal and Mahadeviyakka, calls herself the Dark One’s lover, and plunges into even wilder twists of voice. She sings this poetic conversation,

Listen, friend,
the Dark One laughs
and scours my body with ravenous eyes.
Eyebrows are bows,
darting glances are arrows that pierce
a wrecked heart.

You will heal
I’ll bind you with magical diagrams
and crush drugs
for a poultice.
But if it’s love that afflicts you
my powers are worthless.

Sister, how can I heal?
I’ve already
crushed sandalwood paste,
tried witchcraft—charms and weird spells.
Wherever I go
his sweet form is laughing inside me.
Tear open these breasts
You’ll see a torn heart!
Unless she sees her dark lover
how can Mira
endure her own body?

Mirabai’s god, the Dark One whom she also calls Giridhara, is a form of Krishna, the handsome cowherd who lured the wives and milkmaids of Vrindavan into the forest for wild orgies. According to the mythology, when Krishna left Vrindavan, the women stood looking up the road, desolate and in anguish. A holy man came down the road and said to them, you can have him again. He went on, explaining to them the practice of yoga. One might imagine the women stringing him up in the nearest banyan tree by his saffron robes for such a suggestion. But luckily they listened to him and found their joy again.

Considering the devices and perspectives of the ancient poets, I have found this last one, in bhakti, to be surprisingly useful in the writing and revising of my own poems. Writing verse about yourself in the third person is a kind of headstand. It’s a good warm-up exercise. One way that I play with the device is to take a poem I’m revising, rewrite it entirely in third-person, then quickly and freely write another stanza in first-person. It’s a useful strategy for finding images that eluded me on the first writing, and sometimes this exercise helps me to find the fulcrum of a poem that felt lopsided or just incomplete. If the breath of the bhakti poem is a wind blowing from the south-east, as the monsoon does, the third-person voice blows in the opposite direction, miraculously steadying the flame of the devotional lamp within the poet.

Emerson wrote in “The Poet,” “We are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes, when we know least about it.” Our sun salutation contains that wisdom, too. Here is a full expression of the sun salutation, with its flowing inner motion.


—A. Anupama (Photos by Dorothea Erichsen)


Anupama, A. “Translations of Classical Tamil Love Poetry and Essay.” Numéro Cinq Magazine. Sept. 12, 2011. Web.

Avvaiyar. Thomas H. Pruiksma, transl. Give, Eat, and Live: Poems of Avvaiyar.  Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2009.

Broad, William J. The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Bryant, Edwin F. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature,” from Nature; Addresses, and Lectures. 1834.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet,” from Essays, second series. 1844.

Ramanujan, A.K. Poems of Love and War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Ramanujan, A.K. Molly Daniels-Ramanujan, ed. The Oxford India Ramanujan. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Schelling, Andrew. The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. New York: Fall River Press, 2008.

Tiruvalluvar. G.U. Pope, W.H. Drew, John Lazarus, and F.W. Ellis, transl. Tirukkural. 1886. Full text online at Project Madurai:


Translation Acknowledgements

Many thanks to B. Jeyaganesh, Vennila Amaran, and Dr. Malarvizhi Mangayarkarasi of Thiagarajar College for recorded readings of the verses in Tamil and for literal translations. I am indebted to the work of A.R. Ramanujan and Robert Butler for clues to the ancient Tamil. Also thanks Jen Bervin for advising and encouraging while I wrote the lecture.


A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at

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Jacqueline Kharouf writes speculative fiction (mermaid lovers, robotic daughters, demonic violins) which in many ways is a lot like other fiction (as in, it’s all a lie anyway) except that in speculative fiction the author has to pay special attention to those aspects of craft having to do with convincing the reader to enter and live inside a fictional world quite unlike the one we inhabit normally. It’s one thing to tell a reader that “Arthur staggered out of the bar and leaped into his red convertible Mustang and drove across town to see his lover, Gertrude” and something else to write that “Arthur staggered out of the bar and leaped into his anti-gravitron photon streamliner and instantaneously reappeared across town in Gertrude’s apartment.”

Jacqueline was my student last semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She took on the problem of convincing the reader for her critical thesis. She read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves” and plundered them for techniques she could use. The result is a useful compendium of devices for establishing the world of a story or a novel of any sort, not just speculative works. You will note, for example, the technique of the pre-story touched on in an earlier essay on Numéro Cinq in, Gwen Mullin’s “Plot Structure in Stories.”

Jacqueline earlier contributed a fine interview with Nick Arvin to the pages of NC. She also drew the illustrations for this essay.





Every story takes place in its own fictive reality, which is an exaggeration of the reality of the real world.  All writers write to create a literary reality that appears to be plausible, true or real within its own parameters.  Verisimilitude is the word we use for the literary quality of appearing to be real.  Writers strive for verisimilitude, that is, they try to make the fictive worlds of their stories seem plausible enough that the reader can suspend his or her doubts and trust the story.  This trust is a bit like the trust we have in the world we live in, the so-called “real world,” which we experience in the details we observe, in the rules and societal expectations we follow, in the documentation we read, and in the experts who share their knowledge with us.

Writers use several techniques to create verisimilitude.  These techniques mimic the ways we experience the real world.

The first technique I want to talk about is the use of false documents.  A false document is a fictional document presented in a text as if it were real in the context of the fictional world.  False documents, like documents in the real world, seem to authenticate the fictive world.  In the real world, we learn about current events and information by reading authoritative sources.  In a fictional text, false documents function much the way authoritative sources function in the real world, as more or less objective evidence of facts about that world.  Also false documents seem to be free of narrative bias; they are outside the point of view of the narrating voice.

A second technique is the use of detailed concrete descriptions to make the fictive world of any story seem realistic and familiar.  The more detailed the description of a world (up to the point of tedium) the more substantial and real that world seems.  Realistic writers use such techniques to establish a relationship between their works and the real world; speculative writers use the same technique, or mimic it, to give the sense of a reality that may in fact not be so real.

A third technique is the framing of the fictive world of a story through the perspective of an authoritative narrator.  An authoritative narrator is a reliable witness to the events of the story.  In the real world, we seek the advice of authorities who provide their perspectives and knowledge. In an imaginary fictive world, an authoritative narrator acts as a filter for the reader’s perspective and influences the reader’s acceptance of the verisimilitude of that world.

A fourth technique is to use a literary reference as a parallel for a retold story, or conversely, to retell the literary reference in a new way. The reader accepts the fictive world of the new story because he or she is already familiar with the fictive world of the original story.  Familiarity is, of course, one of the things we expect from the real world.

A fifth technique is the pre-story.  A pre-story is a small story which precedes the main story or plot.  Writers use pre-stories to introduce the reader to the world of the story and to illustrate the source of the conflict or incongruity which spurs the story forward.  In the way that we use examples of similar incidents or events to preface a larger story we want to tell, pre-stories in literature help to underscore the larger conflict of the main plot. Or they function as ways of delivering thematic material that underpins the consistency of the fictive world.

Finally, a sixth technique is the repetition of key words, images, and phrases.  Writers use repetition to create a consistent fictive world.  Just as repeated events, images, and colloquialisms make the real world familiar, repetition creates consistency which the reader recognizes and identifies as familiar aspects of the fictive world.




Buried Under Glass: The Science Fictional World of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s  We

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is a two-hundred page novel organized into 40 numbered records written by D-503, a man who lives in this fictive world.  In these records, D-503 describes his life in the One State, the events of the story as they happen, as well as his thoughts, dreams, and feelings.  The One State is a society composed of people who live according to the idea that happiness is a matter of following a regular and systematic schedule, conforming to rules which are applied equally to everyone, and ignoring individuality for the safety and stability of living as part of a group.  While citizens of a nation like the United States believe that freedom is the ability to live as we choose, citizens of the One State believe that freedom is the ability to live according to rules which all members of society follow.

D-503 begins his first record (and the novel) by copying an article from the State Gazette.  The article briefly explains the purpose of the Integral, the One State’s newest machine, and calls all so-called ciphers (or citizens of the One State) to compose written accounts of life in the One State.  The One State will include these written accounts in the cargo of the Integral, a spaceship which will spread the clockwork-precise methodology of the One State to millions of alien societies across the cosmos.  One day, D-503, the Builder of the Integral, meets I-330, a woman who seduces him and garners his devotion.  She tells him she is planning to disrupt the control of the One State by stealing the Integral during its inaugural flight.  D-503 agrees to this plan, but the mission fails.

In the wake of several threats to the supreme power of the One State, the One State issues a new mandate that all ciphers must participate in an operation to have their imaginations removed.  D-503 attempts to avoid this operation, but the authorities of the One State catch him and take him for the operation.  With his imagination erased, and his soul removed, D-503 feels restored to his former state of bliss.  At the conclusion of his records, D-503 watches while the Benefactor, the leader of the One State, tortures I-330 and sentences her to death.

False Documents and Double False Documents

Zamyatin uses false documents, which are documents “created” in the One State, to verify the events of the story and to provide information about the fictive world.  The entire novel is a false document because it is a collection of false records written by D-503 (he titles his records “We”).

For example, before I-330 and D-503 attempt to steal the Integral, I-330 plans to disrupt the power of the One State on the Day of the One Vote.  On this day, ciphers are supposed to vote unanimously to renew the leadership of the Benefactor, but I-330 and several other ciphers vote against the supreme leader.  In Record 25, D-503 describes the vote and the aftermath:

In the hundredth part of a second, the hairspring of a clock, I saw: thousands of hands wave up—“No”—and fall again.  I saw I-330’s pale face, marked with a cross and her raised hand.  My vision darkened.

Another hairspring; a pause; a pulse.  Then—as though signaled by some sort of crazy conductor—the whole tribune gave out a crackle, screams.  A whirlwind of soaring unifs on the run, the figures of the Guardians rushing about in panic, someone’s heels in the air in front of my very eyes, and, next to the heels, someone’s wide-open mouth, bellowing an inaudible scream.  For some reason, this cut into me more sharply than anything else; thousands of soundlessly howling mouths, as though on a monstrous movie screen.

The next day, the One State prints an article in the State Gazette denying the effectiveness of I-330’s planned protest.  D-503 copies this article in Record 26:

Yesterday, the long and impatiently awaited Day of the One Vote took place.  For the 48th time the Benefactor, who has proven His unshakable wisdom many times over, was unanimously chosen. The celebration was clouded by a slight disturbance wrought by the enemies of happiness, which, naturally, deprives them of the right to become bricks in the foundations of the One State, renewed yesterday.

This newspaper article is what we might call a double false document because it is a false document quoted within a false document (D-503’s record). Throughout the novel, D-503 copies double false documents, such as newspaper articles printed by the State Gazette, letters from other characters, or snippets of State poetry.  These double false documents provide evidence of the growing split between D-503’s own experience of the world and the official version of the world.  In a sense this is the story arc of the novel.  D-503 begins writing his records and gradually finds his written version is different from the official version.  But at the end of the novel he has again lost his ability to separate his personal experience from the official version.

D-503’s records enhance the verisimilitude of the novel; such diaries, newspaper articles, etc. are “firsthand” accounts.  In this case, through the use of double false documents, Zamyatin even mimics the real-world split between personal and official versions.


Zamyatin uses specific or concrete details to enhance the verisimilitude of the One State by creating the sense of a total consistent environment.

Ciphers depend on machines.  In one of the 1,500 auditoriums where ciphers regularly attend lectures, a machine called a “phonolector” gives the presentation.  When D-503 was younger and went to school, he was taught by a mathematics machine teacher that the students called Pliapa (because of the sound the machine made when it was turned on).  To make music, ciphers in the One State use a musicometer (using it, a cipher can make three sonatas an hour).  Later, at the Celebration of Justice, the ciphers sacrifice one of their own in tribute to the supreme rule of the Benefactor.  To sacrifice the cipher, the Benefactor uses “the Machine,” an execution device:

An immeasurable second.  The hand, applying the current, descends.  The unbearably sharp blade of a beam flashes, then a barely audible crack—like a tremor—in the pipes of the Machine.  A prostrate body—suffused in a faint luminescent smoke—melting, melting, dissolving with horrifying quickness before our eyes.

By inserting details about each of these machines—the pliapa sound, the cracks and flashes, the pipes, the color of the smoke—Zamyatin gives a sense of the concrete experience of the fictive world of the One State.

Zamyatin also includes details about the ciphers; the same details are repeated throughout the story to make the lives of these ciphers consistent.  Consistency is, of course, a characteristic of the so-called real world we live in, but in this novel consistency has an edge; the One State requires a super-consistency from its inhabitants.  Ciphers wear the same clothes, gold badges and time pieces: “Hundreds and thousands of ciphers, in pale bluish unifs, with gold badges on their chests, indicating the state-given digits of each male and female.”  All ciphers shave their heads: “Circular rows of noble, spherical, smoothly sheared heads.”  Every cipher wakes at the same exact time:

The small, bright, crystal bell in the bed’s headboard rings: 07:00.  It’s time to get up.  On the right, on the left, through the glass walls, it’s as if I am seeing myself, my room, my nightshirt, my motions, repeating themselves a thousand time.  This cheers me up: one sees oneself as part of an enormous, powerful unit.  And such precise beauty: not one extraneous gesture, twist, or turn.

Everyday, they sing the Hymn of the One State after breakfast: “Breakfast was over.  The Hymn of the One State had been sung harmoniously.” (31).  In groups of four, everyone marches to work: “In fours, we went to the elevators, harmoniously.  The rustling of the motors was almost audible—and rapidly down, down, down—with a slight sinking of the heart…”  The sensory details of the rustling elevator motors and the “sinking of the heart,” as well as the everyday familiarity of their harmonious movements, are concrete experiential details which make the One State seem like a real place.



Uncanny Duplicity and Scientific Perversion: The Metaphysical Worldview in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Stevenson separates his short novel into three sections.  For the first (and largest) portion of the novel, Stevenson divides the narrative into eight chapters and describes the main plot from the third-person perspective of Mr. Utterson, a lawyer.  In the second portion of the novel, “Dr. Lanyon’s Narrative,” Stevenson provides the first-person perspective of Dr. Lanyon, a friend of Utterson and Dr. Jekyll.  In the third portion of the novel, “Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case,” Stevenson writes a narrative from the first-person perspective of Dr. Jekyll, who provides his side of the story.  The novel takes place in nineteenth century London.  Stevenson’s London is like the real London of that century (the descriptions of the city seem to resemble what London may have looked like in that time in history), but it is different because the London of the novel is plagued by the heinous criminal activity of a man who slips in and out of society.  The mystery of this man’s identity, his origins, and his connection to Dr. Jekyll affects the world of the novel and drives the action of the plot.

The novel text begins with Utterson’s narrative. Utterson is worried about Dr. Jekyll’s will.  Utterson has learned that Jekyll has recently changed his will to name Mr. Hyde as his heir despite Mr. Hyde’s poor reputation.  After Mr. Hyde commits several crimes and Jekyll avoids meeting his friends, Utterson confronts Jekyll.  Utterson and Poole, Jekyll’s butler, break into Dr. Jekyll’s study, but they only find Mr. Hyde’s body and a sealed letter from Dr. Jekyll addressed to Utterson.

Then, in “Dr. Lanyon’s Narrative,” Lanyon gives an account of Jekyll’s strange behavior on the night he received a letter from Jekyll and witnessed Mr. Hyde transform into Dr. Jekyll.

Finally, the novel concludes with “Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case,” which is the sealed letter Utterson found with Hyde’s body.  In his statement, Jekyll provides personal testimony of his scientific experiment on his own dual-sided nature.  Jekyll explains that by drinking a concoction of several distilled chemicals and salts he could transform into Mr. Hyde, the embodiment of Jekyll’s worst qualities.  The more often Jekyll drank his chemical potion, the less easily he could resume his Jekyll-form.  In his final sentences, Jekyll explains that because he cannot correct his mistake and resume his normal form, he will kill himself.

Authoritative Narrator

An authoritative narrator is a narrator who provides a reliable perspective on the story.  In the case of Stevenson’s novel, Mr. Utterson, a lawyer, is an intelligent, common-sensical, and reliable witness attempting to understand and relay what is happening.

Utterson first learns about Hyde from Mr. Enfield, who describes the night he saw Hyde trample a child in the street.  Utterson questions his friend’s information:

Mr. Utterson again walked some way in silence, and obviously under a weight of consideration. “You are sure he used a key?” he inquired at last.

“My dear sir….” began Enfield, surprised out of himself.

“Yes, I know,” said Utterson; “I know it must seem strange.  The fact is, if I do not ask you the name of the other party, it is because I know it already.  You see, Richard, your tale has gone home.  If you have been inexact in any point, you had better correct it.

Enfield’s information about Hyde alarms Utterson and he returns home to study Dr. Jekyll’s will:

The will was holograph; for Mr. Utterson, though he took charge of it now that it was made, had refused to lend the least assistance in the making of it; it provided not only that, in case of the decease of Henry Jekyll, M.D., D.C.L., L.L.D., F.R.S., &c., all his possessions were to pass into the hands of his “friend and benefactor Edward Hyde”; but that in case of Dr. Jekyll’s “disappearance or unexplained absence for any period exceeding three calendar months,” the said Edward Hyde should step into the said Henry Jekyll’s shoes without further delay, and free from any burthen or obligation, beyond the payment of a few small sums to the members of the doctor’s household.  This document had long been the lawyer’s eyesore.  It offended him both as a lawyer and as a lover of the sane and customary sides of life, to whom the fanciful was the immodest.  And hitherto it was his ignorance of Mr. Hyde that had swelled his indignation; now, by a sudden turn, it was his knowledge.  It was already bad enough when the name was but a name of which he could learn no more.  It was worse when it began to be clothed upon with detestable attributes; and out of the shifting, insubstantial mists that had so long baffled his eye, there leaped up the sudden, definite presentment of a fiend.

From this moment on, Utterson, our authoritative narrator, collects more information in order to build his “case” on the true nature and intentions of Mr. Hyde.  For example, after the murder of Sir Danvers Carew (one of Mr. Utterson’s clients), the police contact Utterson because they found a letter addressed to Utterson in Carew’s purse.  Utterson identifies the body and a police officer tells him that a maid witnessed Mr. Hyde beat the old man to death with a walking stick: “Mr. Utterson had already quailed at the name of Hyde; but when the stick was laid before him, he could doubt no longer: broken and battered as it was, he recognized it for one that he had himself presented many years before to Henry Jekyll.”

As Utterson becomes more engrossed in understanding the strangeness of the connection between Jekyll and Hyde, his belief in the witnesses and information of the fictive world persuades the reader to accept that strangeness, too.

False Documents

Stevenson uses the same false document technique as Zamyatin, and in Stevenson’s novel, just as in We, false documents seem to authenticate the world of the story.  In Utterson’s narrative, Stevenson quotes correspondence and documents supplied by other characters.  At the end of Utterson’s narrative, Stevenson also includes personal testimony and sealed letters from both Dr. Lanyon and Dr. Jekyll; these comprise the second and third parts of the novel which corroborate Utterson’s investigation.

For example, toward the conclusion of Utterson’s narrative, he quotes a note Jekyll had written to obtain more of his chemical supplies.  Jekyll’s butler Poole shows Utterson the note because it is evidence of Jekyll’s increasingly strange behavior.  This note is a double false document:

Dr. Jekyll presents his compliments to Messrs. Maw.  He assures them that their last sample is impure and quite useless for his present purpose.  In the year 18—, Dr. J. purchased a somewhat large quantity from Messrs. M.  He now begs them to search with the most sedulous care, and should any of the same quality be left, to forward it to him at once.  Expense is no consideration.  The importance of this to Dr. J. can hardly be exaggerated.

Utterson doesn’t learn the full circumstances of Jekyll’s seclusion, however, until Stevenson supplies further explanations from the false documents of Dr. Lanyon and Dr. Jekyll.

In the second part of the novel, Dr. Lanyon witnesses Hyde transform into Dr. Jekyll and pens his reaction: “What he told me in the next hour I cannot bring my mind to set on paper.  I saw what I saw, I heard what I heard, and my soul sickened at it; and yet, now when that sight has faded from my eyes, I ask myself if I believe it, and I cannot answer.”  Lanyon does not explain how this transformation happened, but his claim that he “saw what he saw” and “heard what he heard” establishes an experiential authenticity for the strange event.

The reader doesn’t fully understand what has happened to Jekyll until Jekyll explains in his false document which is the third part of the novel. In this part, Jekyll describes why he did his experiments, briefly summarizes his theory behind his invention, and shares the sense of freedom his experiment gave him, as well as its drawbacks.  Jekyll’s letter has a special air of authenticity because it appears to answer questions asked and left unanswered in the previous accounts.  The letter has a dramatic impact that enhances its contribution to the verisimilitude of the novel.

I was born in the year 18— to a large fortune endowed besides with excellent parts, inclined by nature to industry, found of the respect of the wise and good among my fellow men, and thus, as might have been supposed, with every guarantee of an honorable and distinguished future.  And indeed, the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public.  Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity in life.

Jekyll’s apparently sound emotional judgement, his ability to see his faults, make his account seem real and possible in this fictive world.

Lanyon’s visceral reaction to Jekyll’s metamorphosis authenticates the strangeness of the event.  Jekyll’s honesty regarding his own mistakes rings true and this, along with Stevenson’s other false documentation, encourages the reader to accept his explanation of events.


Stevenson also uses the concrete sensory details technique to make Jekyll’s transformation seem plausible. For example, in his letter to Utterson, Dr. Lanyon provides physical details of Jekyll’s transformation:

He put the glass to his lips, and drank at one gulp.  A cry followed; he reeled, staggered, clutched at the table and held on, staring with injected eyes, gasping with open mouth; and as I looked, there came, I thought a change—he seemed to swell—his face became suddenly black, and the features seemed to melt and alter—and the next moment I had sprung to my feet and leaped back against the wall, my arm raised to shield me from that prodigy, my mind submerged in terror.

Lanyon’s detailed experience of what happened persuades the reader to accept the plausibility of a fictive world where such a transformation is possible.

Stevenson also provides details of the chemical potion which Jekyll concocts.  Stevenson is not specific on Jekyll’s exact recipe, but the potion’s power seems believable because Stevenson provides the same details from two authoritative medical sources.  Lanyon, who explicitly declares he’s not interested in metaphysical experiments, first describes these details in his letter—again in concrete experiential terms:

The powders were neatly enough made up, but not with the nicety of the dispensing chemist; so that it was plain they were of Jekyll’s private manufacture; and when I opened one of the wrappers, I found what seemed to me a simple crystalline salt of a white color.  The phial, to which I next turned by attention, might have been about half-full of a blood-red liquor, which was highly pungent to the sense of smell, and seemed to me to contain phosphorus and some volatile ether.

Jekyll describes his ingredients in his letter:

I had long since prepared my tincture; I purchased at once, from a firm of wholesale chemists, a large quantity of a particular salt, which I knew, from my experiments, to be the last ingredient required; and, late, one accursed night, I compounded the elements, watched them boil and smoke together in the glass, and when the ebullition had subsided, with a strong glow of courage, drank off the potion.

Lanyon’s staunch opposition to metaphysics supports the credibility of his observations just as Jekyll’s level-headed description, including the purchase of elements, also creates a sense of plausibility. The details—little half-hints that boiling a few well-mixed ingredients will coalesce into a substance which can melt away one self and replace it with another—lends credibility to Jekyll’s metaphysical experiment.




Red, Green, Gray, Howl: The Magical World of Angela Carter’s Short Story “The Company of Wolves”

Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves” is a contemporary reworking of the folk tale “Little Red Riding Hood.” Carter structures the story in two parts.  In the first part, she introduces the world of her story with a series of pre-stories and lore about wolves and werewolves. In the second part, she tells the story of a young woman who goes to visit her grandmother and encounters a werewolf along the way.

After the section of lore and pre-stories, the main story of “The Company of Wolves” begins with a teenage girl in a red shawl walking through the woods to visit her grandmother.  She carries a knife and stays to the path so that she won’t get lost or fall into the clutches of the wolves.  Along the way, she flirts with a hunter, who runs ahead to her grandmother’s house where he transforms into a wolf and eats the grandmother.  The girl arrives, knocks, and hearing the werewolf mimicking her grandma’s voice, thinks it is safe to enter.  The werewolf jumps up and slams the door behind her.  The girl undresses and throws her clothes in the fire because the werewolf tells her she won’t need them anymore.  But she defeats the werewolf by throwing his clothes in the fire, too.  According to the lore of the story, without his human clothes, the werewolf is magically condemned to stay in his wolf-shape. The story ends with the girl and the wolf together in a very strange sort of marriage.

Literary Reference as Parallel

Carter uses a literary reference as the basis for the plot of “The Company of Wolves.”   The familiarity of the original plot helps to create the fictive world of Carter’s story, which is similar but deviates from the original folktale (which is not about sex or werewolves and in which the wolf eats the girl).  In place of the big, bad, cunning wolf who gorges on human flesh, Carter invents a green-clad hunter who, though charming at first, transforms into a wolf and devours the grandmother.  Just like Little Red Riding Hood, the girl of Carter’s story is determined to visit her grandmother, but when she discovers the wolf-man in her grandmother’s place, the girl of Carter’s story is not so naive or unobservant.  Rather than falling prey to the wolf’s cunning, Carter’s heroine defeats the werewolf by condemning him to be a wolf for the rest of his life.

By referring to the plot, characters, and even dialogue of the original fable, Carter draws parallels between the two texts.  As we read, we contrast Carter’s story with the original.  We anticipate what will happen next based on our reading of the original story.  Carter subtly subverts these expectations by adding surprising new elements and twists of plot.


Before beginning the main plot of the story, Carter tells three pre-stories, anecdotes that precede the main plot in the text.  These stories tell about the interactions between humans and werewolves.  Here is an example.

There was a hunter once, near here, that trapped a wolf in a pit.  This wolf had massacred the sheep and goats; eaten up a mad old man who used to live by himself in a hut halfway up the mountain and sing to Jesus all day; pounced on a girl looking after the sheep, but she made such a commotion that men came with rifles and scared him away and tried to track him to the forest but he was cunning and easily gave them the slip.  So this hunter dug a pit and put a duck in it, for bait, all alive-oh; and he covered the pit with straw smeared with wolf dung.  Quack, quack! Went the duck and a wolf came slinking out of the forest, a big one, a heavy one, he weighed as much as a grown man and the straw gave way beneath him—into the pit he tumbled.  The hunter jumped down after him, slit his throat, cut off all his paws for a trophy.

And then no wolf at all lay in front of the hunter but the bloody trunk of a man, headless, footless, dying, dead.

This story introduces the theme of the magical transformation of man to wolf and wolf to man plus the idea that humans are constantly fighting werewolf incursions.  By creating the sense of a place where such transformations and conflicts are natural, Carter sets the stage for the story that follows.  In the second pre-story, a witch turns people into wolves out of spite.  She punishes the man who rejected her by making him the loneliest and most rejected creature in this fictive world.  In the third pre-story, a woman marries a man who is taken by wolves and later transforms into a wolf after he learns that she married another man.  The woman’s first husband turns into a wolf and attacks, but as he dies, he transforms back into the man he was before.

Carter intersperses other werewolf lore between the pre-stories. Later in the text, in the second half of the story, she refers back to this information.  For instance, after the third pre-story, Carter supplies material about the birth, appearance and heart of the werewolf: “Or, that he was born feet first and had a wolf for his father and his torso is a man’s but his legs and genitals are a wolf’s.  And he has a wolf’s heart.”  Later, Carter reiterates this information in her description of the werewolf before he eats the grandmother: “He strips off his shirt.  His skin is the color and texture of vellum.  A crisp stripe of hair runs down his belly, his nipples are ripe and dark as poison fruit […]  He strips off his trousers and she can see how hairy his legs are.  His genitals, huge.  Ah! huge.”  Carter provides this lore to describe and validate the world of the story.  And by repeating this information later, Carter builds consistency which helps to create the verisimilitude of that world.


Carter uses repetition of images, words, and phrases to build a consistent fictive world.  First, she creates a pattern of images of blood, the color red, and menses.  For example, Carter initiates the pattern in a bit of backfill and description; the girl “had been indulged by her mother and the grandmother who’d knitted her the red shawl that, today, has the ominous if brilliant look of blood on snow,” and that, “her cheeks are an emblematic scarlet and white and she has just started her woman’s bleeding.”  Carter repeats these images. For instance, when Red finds the werewolf at her grandmother’s house: “she shivered, in spite of the scarlet shawl she pulled more closely round herself as if it could protect her although it was as red as the blood she must spill.”  The blood the girl “must spill” is both an indication of her menses (which she “must spill” each month henceforth) and a hint at the act she will perform to condemn the werewolf to his wolf-shape (she gives him her immaculate flesh).  Finally, at the climax of the story, the werewolf bids her to take “off her scarlet shawl, the color of poppies, the color of sacrifices, the color of her menses.”

Carter also repeats references to the lore of wolves and werewolves.  Carter supplies this information first, as I have mentioned, in her pre-stories.  For instance, in the lore section, Carter describes the eyes of wolves: “…the pupils of their eyes fatten on darkness and catch the light from your lantern to flash it back to you—red for danger.” After the grandmother invites the hunter into her house, he is described as having “…eyes as red as a wound…” Later, his eyes are like “cinders” and then “saucers full of Greek fire, diabolic phosphorescence.” The moment the girl approaches the wolf-man, Carter describes him as “the man with red eyes.” (The red pattern here connects with the red pattern in the of blood, shawl and menses.)

Carter mentions the ribs of the wolves in winter: “There is so little flesh on them that you could count the starveling ribs through their pelts, if they gave you time before they pounced.”  Later Granny notices the werewolf’s ribs, too: “…he’s so thin you could count the ribs under his skin if only he gave you the time.”

Carter describes the wolves’ howling three times in her opening paragraphs: “One beast and only one howls in the woods by night”; “…hark! his long, wavering howl…an aria of fear made audible”; “The wolfsong is the sound of the rending you will suffering, in itself a murdering.”  The howling of the wolves serenades the witch in the second pre-story: “…they would sit and howl around her cottage for her, serenading her with their misery.”  In the third pre-story, the woman hears the wolves howling after her first husband disappears: “Until she jumps up in bed and shrieks to hear a howling, coming on the wind from the forest.”  According to the lore of Carter’s fictive world, the howling of the wolves is a mark of their melancholy:

That long-drawn, wavering howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never cease to mourn their own condition.  There is a vast melancholy in the canticles of the wolves, melancholy infinite as the forest, endless as these long nights of winter and yet that ghastly sadness, that mourning for their own, irremediable appetites, can never move the heart for not one phrase in it hints at the possibility of redemption; grace could not come to the wolf from its own despair, only through some external mediator, so that, sometimes, the beast will look as if he half welcomes the knife that dispatches him.

At the start of her journey through the woods, the girl hears a howl: “When she heard the freezing howl of a distant wolf, her practiced hand sprang to the handle of her knife…”  When the girl enters her grandmother’s house only to find the hunter, she hears the wolves howling outside: “Now a great howling rose up all around them, near, very near as close as the kitchen garden, the howling of a multitude of wolves; she knew the worst wolves are hairy on the inside […] Who has come to sing us carols, she said.”  The girl looks out the window:

It was a white night of moon and snow; the blizzard whirled round the gaunt, grey beasts who squatted on their haunches among the rows of winter cabbage, pointing their sharp snouts to the moon and howling as it their hearts would break.  Ten wolves; twenty wolves—so many wolves she could not count them, howling in concert as if demented or deranged […] She closed the window on the wolves’ threnody.

And at the end of the story, the wolves serenade the “savage marriage ceremony” of the girl and the werewolf: “Every wolf in the world now howled a prothalamion outside the window as she freely gave him the kiss she owed him.”

Carter also repeats specific phrases to create an associative pattern.  Like image and lore patterning, phrasal patterning makes the fictive world coherent and consistent because such repetition builds associations for the reader.  For example, she repeats the phrase “carnivore incarnate” three times in the story.  She describes the wolf in the second line of the story: “The wolf is carnivore incarnate and he’s as cunning as he is ferocious, once he’s had a taste of flesh then nothing else will do.”  Carter uses the phrase again after the wolf-man eats the grandmother: “The wolf is carnivore incarnate.”  Lastly, Carter uses “carnivore incarnate” when the girl defeats the werewolf: “Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him.”  Carter also repeats the title phrase “company of wolves” when the girl notices the wolves howling outside her grandmother’s house.  The wolf-man explains: “Those are the voices of my brothers, darling; I love the company of wolves.”

Repetition of these phrases makes the world of the story meaningful because such phrases influence how the reader interprets and understands the world of the story.  The wolf is such a danger to this world that it is essentially a “devouring deity” only pleased by immaculate flesh. By repeating images with the color red, lore about the features of wolves and werewolves, including red eyes, slavering jaws, ribs, and howling, and specific phrases, such as “carnivore incarnate” and the title, Carter builds a consistent and familiar fictive world.  Repetition creates consistency which reinforces the verisimilitude of the world of the story.

— Text & illustrations by Jacqueline Kharouf

Works Cited

Carter, Angela. “The Company of Wolves.” Burning Your Boats, The Collected Short Stories.  New York: Penguin, 1995. 212-220.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. New York: Pocket  Books, 2005.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. New York: Modern Library, 2006.


Jacqueline Kharouf is currently studying for her MFA in creative writing, fiction, at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  A native of Rapid City, SD, Jacqueline lives, writes, and maintains daytime employment in Denver, CO.  In 2009, she earned an honorable mention for the Denver Woman’s Press Club Unknown Writer’s Contest, and in 2010 she earned third place for that contest.  Her first published story, “The Undiscoverable Higgs Boson,” was published in issue 4 of Otis Nebula, an online literary journal.  Last year, Jacqueline won third place in H.O.W. Journal’s 2011 Fiction contest (judged by Mary Gaitskill) for her story “Seeing Makes Them Happy.”  This story is currently available online and will be published in H.O.W. Journal’s Issue 9 sometime in the fall/winter of 2012.  Jacqueline blogs at:; tweets holiday appropriate well-wishes and crazy awesome sentences here: @writejacqueline; and will perform a small jig if you like her Facebook professional page at: Jacqueline Kharouf, writer. She earlier contributed an interview with Nick Arvin to these pages.


Mar 132012

Herewith a lovely, trenchant, hilarious, smelly essay on writing narrative poems, growing up, mothers and sons, and skunks. Some of the delights: the essay is in part a dialogue with a friend and hence the deceptively intimate and casual throw of the long sentences which accrete heft and wisdom from underneath, as it were, slyly and with mysterious suspense. Lovely to read. Also, of course, the unforgettable image of Sydney Lea, naked, slewing down a muddy, dark forest road in a truck, holding a shotgun out the window as he steers one-handed and tries to shoot a skunk. Of the inception of this essay, Syd wrote to me:

“My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals — see attachment); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.”

Apparently, Numéro Cinq is just the place.

Sydney Lea is the Poet Laureate of Vermont, a prolific author of poems, essays, and fiction, a former colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts (where, one wintry eve in Noble Lounge—and I believe I have mentioned this before, becoming garrulous and repetitive in my old age—Syd gave the finest reading I have ever witnessed), and an old friend.




Many, many years ago I wrote a poem called “The Feud.” It got a little acclaim, several commentators applauding my reimportation of elements that most poetry had for some while ceded to fiction: character, plot, setting, dialogue – values of that sort.

In fact I hadn’t set out with any agenda in mind. I’d come to poetry late in life by most people’s standards, having been a conventional academic into my mid-thirties, and I didn’t know much about contemporary poetry. (I’m not yet sure such a thing is entirely knowable, at least to me.) So I wasn’t looking to be idiosyncratic or aesthetically inventive. I merely wanted to tell a tale, and when I did, for some reason it presented itself in blank verse.

“The Feud” is a long poem, some seventeen typescript pages, so it may appear surprising that it came to me intact in less than an hour. I never stopped my fingers on the keyboard, wrote as if possessed. Thereafter, such revisions as I did on the poem were very minimal: I remember excising a single stanza of the many, and changing a handful of words here and there. But that was about all.

As a good Puritan, I was suspicious of any poem’s quality if it presented itself do rapidly. But whatever that quality, I now think “The Feud’s” sudden arrival had something to do with its being the first thing I’d written in about half a year after the death by aneurism of my younger brother, an event so shocking of course as to make me wonder among other things why in the world one would bother with mere poetry at all.

I’m now persuaded that the whole story of “The Feud” is allegorical of my relationship with the man who’d died so tragically young, which was both an intimate and often a heatedly adversarial one, and on which I had of course been meditating for that half-year, even when I didn’t know it. In short, I had been doing so much emotional research, for the most part unawares, that when I began composition the material was right at my fingertips.

My narrative involved a speaker and his hostile dealings with a local have-not family named Walker. That speaker is proud unto vain, and is especially given to righteousness: throughout the tale, he contrasts himself with his sad, impoverished counterparts, seeing respectable ideals in himself, and in them no higher aims whatsoever.

I didn’t like my protagonist much, I still don’t, and it took me more than a year after the poem’s completion to recognize why: his self-absorption and quickness to judge were a lot like mine, particularly when I was even younger, and more particularly with respect to my late brother. In our school years, for example, I estimated my roles as accomplished scholar and athlete to be exemplary, looking down on him because he thought them useless charades. And despite my own shortcomings in her eyes, to my hugely imposing mother too I represented the white sheep, he the black.

I look back on that sad period after he died and I understand why I might have had a negative opinion of the person I’d been up until then. It wasn’t only my scores of petty feuds with the younger brother, which seemed so ridiculously petty in the wake of his passing. I can’t list, either, all the ways in which I was a bad husband to a fine woman, how often I fabricated occasions to look down on her too, as well as on colleagues, neighbors, even dear friends and family.

These introductory musings derive from my unexpectedly thinking, when I set about composing an essay on my confrontations with wild animals (and as an inveterate and devoted hunter I have naturally had many), of a passage from “The Feud.” I shortly recalled, and not at all for the first time, the circumstances that engendered those lines.

“The Feud’s” speaker at one point refers to a time when a skunk, reacting to a rush from his house cat, sprayed copiously enough in a shed under his bedroom to awaken him: “The smell was worse than death,” he remembers,

And till the dawn arrived, for hours I felt

the stink was like a judgment: every sin
from when I was a child till then flew back
and played itself again before my eyes.

Now the closest encounter I myself ever had with skunks goes back to a much earlier period, when I was in fact a child. Fourteen years old, I was mowing a patch of meadow at my great uncle’s farm. Suddenly the tractor’s sickle bar decapitated a mother skunk, though it was set high enough to pass over the heads of her three small kits.

I don’t know where on earth I could have gotten the notion, but I somehow believed – given their tininess – the baby skunks too young to spray. I left them tumbling between windrows and ran to the barn for a burlap sack. I’d heard that skunks made good pets, and I figured my mother, whose only sentimentality was for animals, would surely pay to have their musk sacs removed before they became operational.

I hustled back to the field, holding the bag open and reaching for the first kit. In that instant, all three skunks fell quickly into formation and blasted me from less than two feet away.

I won’t speak for others, but I find the distant smell of skunk almost pleasant, wild and woodsy as it is, redolent, particularly, of spring. To be literally soaked in skunk musk is another matter entirely. Child of the 60s, I know what tear gas feels like, but given a choice between the gas and what I experienced on that morning over fifty years ago, I’ll ask for the cops and their canisters.

Choking, blinded, I bumbled to the pond and threw myself in – which of course did no good at all. Since then, women’s douche solution has proven the best antidote for skunk that I know, and we now keep a lot of it on hand for dog-and-skunk emergencies. But I didn’t have this unlikely remedy then. I submitted to a more traditional one: my bachelor great uncle’s wise and wonderful Irish housekeeper (God bless dear Mary Griffin) doused me with tomato juice, tomato paste, even ketchup, which made things not perfect but a lot better. I soaked in a bubbly bathtub through the afternoon, then took shower after shower, and slathered myself with my great uncle’s cologne, By evening, I’d become bearable to Mary – and to myself.

For weeks after, however, when the weather turned very humid or rainy, the odor of skunk came nauseatingly back, and I recall that for whatever reason, yes, “the stink was like a judgment.”

Now let me leap ahead some twenty years, to a time more patently connected to that portion of “The Feud,” when I lived in a drafty yellow farmhouse with my first wife. One August, two or three times a week the same skunk kept waddling into the shed below our bedroom, even after I moved our rubbish can down-cellar. Having struck pay dirt once, it seemed, the beast imagined with persistence he’d get lucky again.

We had a cat named Wendy, good in the house but in many ways half feral. We left her outdoors at night all year round, and in summer would simply let her fend for herself back home after we went to our Maine camp for almost a month. She was always sleek and fat when we returned, having subsisted on the plentiful voles and red squirrels of the remote neighborhood. Wendy charged that skunk each time it came calling, but somehow managed never to get sprayed herself. The stench would rise up, though, and would indeed wake the sleepers above.

One night, an unusually hot and steamy one for upper New England, I lay up there in the buff, on top of the bedclothes. When the smell roused me from my slumber, I swore I’d had enough. Rushing down to my hunting room, I fetched my12-gauge Browning, a handful of shells and a flashlight. Then I ran to the kitchen door that opened onto the shed.

The animal must somehow have sensed danger, because, under a hazy full moon, I saw it bobbing down the dirt road, about to reach the deep woods west of the house. I knew I’d never catch the skunk on foot, so I leapt into my old Chevy pickup and roared after it, leaning out the window, shotgun in hand, ready to blow the creature to kingdom come from behind the wheel, like one of my childhood cowboy heroes shooting at a bad guy from horseback.

Just as I came within range, ready to hit the brakes and fire, I lost control of the truck and fishtailed into those same woods. I miraculously avoided every tree, but, four-wheel drive be damned, I found myself hopelessly stuck in a wetland pothole.

So there was I, buck naked, toting a shotgun, mud to my shins, perhaps a hundred yards from the house. Thank God, I thought, we live in the middle of nowhere and it’s three in the morning. I started walking homeward.

Then I heard the engine. On looking back I saw headlights pointing upward. Unbelievable. Whoever it may have been was climbing the hill a quarter mile behind me and heading my way.  By now I was out in the meadowland, so I couldn’t just dash back into the forest for cover. I stumbled up into a field and lay my naked body on the stubble of lately cut hay, mosquitoes strafing me, astonished at their good fortune.

To make matters worse, the driver of the car – whose identity I’ll never know – had noticed my truck in the woods and, no doubt with the best of intentions, gotten out to inspect the scene of the accident. I heard male voices, though not at such a distance what they were saying.

Jesus, can’t they see there’s no one there? I silently screamed. The would-be Samaritans seemed to be lingering a long, long time, and I was in plain misery there on my painful bed, prey to the vicious insects.

In due course, the vehicle passed, I picked myself up, returned to the house, showered, went back to bed. But I never slept again through those slow early morning hours. Again, “the stink was like a judgment.” I lay there wondering how in hell I had turned out to be such an unadmirable man. Even minor pecadillos, never mind what I considered my more epical sins, seemed monstrous. Even now, I find that insomnia can have ill effects under the best of conditions.

But even now I also wonder why, after those three skunk kits let me have it at fourteen, I’d felt so unlikable.

I do have a tendency – as my wife often reminds me – to what the feel-good parlance of our time names low self-esteem, and although I don’t want to engage in the very psycho-babble I usually mock, I suspect that this self-laceration goes back to a vexed relationship with that same larger-than-life, animal-loving mother.

I was a good student back in the field-mowing days, and better later along – but I never proved good enough for her. An example: our school still used a numbered grading system, and I recall getting a 96 on my English final in tenth grade. I also, and more painfully, recall her asking what had happened to the other four points.  For all I know, she was joking – but I’m pretty sure not.

It was late in her troubled, if quite productive life that she told me something about her own school days, something I now believe to have been crucial, determinative. She was her class valedictorian, and had just been accepted to Radcliffe, about the toniest women’s college going at the time. When she ran with the news to her uncle, the same man whose field I mowed and who was her virtual father, the biological one having died in her fifth year – when she ran in, breathless, to share that report from Radcliffe, the old man looked her in the eye and said five terse words.

Women don’t go to college.

I am sure our great uncle, like anyone, carried his own bag of rocks. My siblings and I have sometimes wondered if he remained unmarried because he was gay, closeted as the times demanded, though there is no way to prove that either way. For whatever reason, he could be gracious and generous in one instant, explosive in the next.

He was at his most daunting, however, when he turned steely. Women don’t go to college. On hearing that pronouncement, my mother must instantly have known there’d be no appeal.

And so, I suspect, she wanted me as firstborn to be her academic vicar. She may well have withheld approval of my scholastic achievements from a belief that I was squandering a gift that had been summarily denied to her. My every accomplishment, then, amounted to relatively little. It seems never to have occurred to her that I was doing the best I could. Who knows? Maybe I wasn’t. But that is a separate story.

After my mother’s death, and after more than a decade of resenting her memory, I wrote her a letter whose first half catalogued all my grievances, and whose second catalogued the things she’d passed on for which I felt grateful. I went to the columbarium where her remains lay, read the letter aloud, then struck a match to it, watching the paper’s ashes fall to earth around her own. For whatever reason, the resentments vanished in that moment.

My feelings about myself have subsequently improved, at however gradual a rate.

Which, oddly, brings me to skunks yet again. I recall a beautiful forenoon in May, and my even more beautiful wife and I enjoying it in Montreal’s botanical gardens. We had gone to that great city for a romantic weekend, and the blue sky, the brilliant sun, and the countless flowers in bud or bloom – all felt precisely in keeping with that mission.

We were near the Japanese-style temple at the heart of the gardens when Robin noticed a rustling in some pachysandra.

“What do you suppose that is?” she asked.

We leaned over together as I parted the leaves. There stood a skunk, back-to, tamping its front feet, its spray-hole distended almost to bursting. Needless to say, we bolted like hares.

As we walked back to the subway, we marveled at our good luck. Once sprayed, we’d never have been allowed on that Métro; we couldn’t have hailed a cab; it was a full five-mile hike back to the hotel, and once we got there, we’d have been barred from it too. What in the world might we have done?

Why that little creature didn’t let us have it I’ll never know. But while we wandered along, giggling like schoolkids, I suddenly realized that I felt not a trace of the old self-loathing.

Perhaps that equanimity came only from not being sprayed by the skunk. And yet there’s still enough of the romantic poet in me to turn that datum around.

I loathe and, largely on behalf of the animals, have always campaigned against the Disneyfied humanization of wildlife. I know that animals are emphatically not, as some inane bumper stickers would have us beklieve, little people in fur coats; so I also know full well how wrong the following notion is on a literal level. Metaphorically, however, it makes perfect sense to me that the skunk failed to spray simply because I’m a different man at seventy than I was at thirty or even fourteen – a man who, in his own eyes at least, has a lot less to feel guilty or inadequate about.

I’ll keep on dreaming that’s so.

—Sydney Lea


SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His most recent collection of poems is Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock. His 2011 collection is Young of the Year (Four Way Books). Later this year, the University of Michigan Press will issue A Hundred Himalayas, a sampling from his critical work over four decades. A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife (Skyhorse Publishing), a third volume of outdoor essays, will also be published in 2012, and his eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, will follow in 2013 from Four Way Books.

He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.

Jan 132012

Anthony Doerr

In his 2007 memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, American writer Anthony Doerr describes his desire to see snow falling through the oculus of the Pantheon. “If it ever begins to snow, we should run to the Pantheon, because to see snowflakes drifting through the hole at the top of the dome is to change your life forever.” At the time, Doerr is living in Rome with his wife and twin boys after winning the Rome Prize, a prestigious award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. The Academy has provided him with a fully funded year in Rome, a studio, a place in a community of artists, and uninterrupted time to write, travel, read and think. Winter passes without snow and spring arrives in Italy. Doerr’s wife, Shauna, comforts him over the missed opportunity: “Sometimes, she says, the things we don’t see are more beautiful than anything else.”

Those of who have had the good privilege to read Anthony Doerr are fortunate.  Through his words, we have, indeed, seen the snow falling through the ancient dome. Crackling with beauty, intelligence, lyrical prose, heartbreaking characters and a rarefied wisdom, Doerr’s work challenges many of the basic traditions of contemporary fiction. His short stories often run unusually long, brushing up against such uneasy labels as novella. He writes about characters from other cultures, other races, other genders. His prose is dense, filled with science and history and more than an ample supply of the magical powders that make good fiction fly off the page. A reader might find herself in the Liberian civil war, on Caribbean beaches, inside memory (literal memory) stored on a computer disc. But it hardly matters. I’ve yet to begin a sentence of his and find myself disappointed.

I reach Doerr in December of 2011. Like in much of the nation, winter has yet to arrive to the Boise foothills. An uneasy tension seems to hang over the unusually dry, warm season. It is raining and chilly here in San Diego, where I am. We talk about the weather, about raising children, about Santa Claus and about trying to keep kids believing in magic and fat guys delivering gifts through chimneys without directly lying to those we love.

The fact that such an accomplished writer can be such a nice damned guy is very reassuring. Doerr retains the humility of a seeker, of a fellow traveler on the road to discovery, even if he is light years further down the path.

Doerr’s describes his process of writing this way (from Four Seasons In Rome): “…A story—a finished piece of writing—is for its reader; it should help its reader refine, perceive, and process the world—the one particular world of the story, which is an invention, a dream. A writer manufactures a dream. And each draft should present a version of that dream that is more precisely rendered and more consistently sustained than the last.”

Anthony Doerr’s short fiction has won four O. Henry Prizes and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. He has won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, the Pacific Northwest Book Award, three Ohioana Book Awards, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and the 2010 Story Prize. His books have twice been a New York Times Notable Book, an American Library Association Book of the Year, and made lots of other year end “Best Of” lists. In 2007, the British literary magazine Granta placed Doerr on its list of 21 Best Young American novelists.

—Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell (RF):   The Paris Review once asked John Gardner this question: How do you name your characters? Is this something you think about as you write?

Anthony Doerr (AD): Names comes to me primarily through research. I’ve found last names on a gravestone and written on the back of a photograph and in the works cited at the end of a scientific paper.  And I’ve found first names in the fiction of other writers or overheard them in conversations.  For my short story “Village 113,” for example, I was reading lots of dry U.N. reports about the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, and whenever they would mention an engineer’s name, I would scribble it down. So for Li Qing I ended up simply mixing together two different names.

Right now, I’m writing a novel set in France and Germany during World War II, and am reading, among other things, a book called Voices From the Third Reich.  I’ll pull Uwe from Uwe Köster, who lived through the Hamburg firebombings as a young messenger, and Kühn from Klaus Kühn, who was Hitler Youth flak auxiliary during those same raids—and suddenly I have Uwe Kühn, a new person with at least a remotely plausible name.

That’s got to be a pretty common technique, don’t you think?  Once you have a name and you start spending months with a character, he or she begins to embody the name.  It starts to feel right; it starts to feel as though the character could never have been called anything else.  Like a child, probably.

RF: Can you talk about your earliest influences? Perhaps even the influences before you became a writer, such as the things that drew you toward reading?

AD: Sure. My earliest influence was maybe C.S. Lewis.?  I remember my mother reading The Chronicles of Narnia to me and my brothers; I was probably eight.  And I remember asking her: “How did they make this book?  How did they invent Narnia?”  And she’d always say, “It was just one person who wrote these books.  And he’s dead now.”

Dead!  What?  Dead people could tell stories that still held power over the living?  I had always had a sense that books were like oranges on a tree, that they pre-existed in the world, and humans came along and plucked them.  But now my mother was saying people made them.  One person, one book at a time.  That was a revelation: One weird old guy could use language, the cheapest of materials, and conjure whole worlds with it?  Then he could die and those worlds could still hold sway?

My childhood was very immersive. Very imaginary. I was making up pretty complicated narratives with my toys.  Sometimes I’d write them down. My brothers were older than I was, often doing things without me, and so I learned to make up stories about my Lego guy or G.I. Joe or whatever, and that was probably good training to be a fiction writer.

My kids are seven now, and because they are twins, they very rarely play alone.  Sometimes I worry about that; I feel like one of the best parenting strategies my mother had was to trust me to play by myself with my little toys out in the woods for hours.

I had the usual influences too, like writing for the high school newspaper. I was a history major in college,  and wrote a silly column with a friend for the college paper.  But I always had my eye on the English department. I would write long, lousy stories in notebooks about avalanches and keg parties and dogs that walked across Alaska and show them to nobody.  It felt precocious and impertinent to say to my parents, “I want to be a writer.”  It was hard to even say that to myself.  But that’s what I wanted to do.

RF: You’ve been described by other writers as being ‘scary smart’.  (I’m not naming names!)  How do you balance the intellectual side of writing with the more artistic/emotional parts?

AD: (Laughs) I don’t feel very smart sometimes.  I can feel like a failure all day long. Sometimes writing is like baseball, where you can hit .300 and be considered a good hitter.  What I mean is that I feel lucky if 30% of my sentences end up working out, if 30% of my ideas wind up turning into finished projects, if 30% of my hours can be productive.

When I read, I try to learn as much as I can.  Sure, I also read to escape, to enter other lives, but I also read to learn, and I don’t mean just to learn about extrasolar planets or conditions on slave ships. I mean to learn about the experiences of other people in other years, other eras, other climates.  A book like Moby Dick, for example, is so formally risky because Melville has no problem disrupting his narrative momentum and cramming in whole chapters about the history and techniques of whaling.  Often my students resist those chapters, but I love them: they have that classic duality of good writing: that it both teaches and entertains.

For me, writing fiction is often an excuse to explore curiosities. I get curious about venomous snails or hibernating ladybugs or the construction of dams or orphans during WWII; then I try to pull that information into a human story.

This is probably where I fail the most. I get carried away by the science sometimes, the information, the cool historical stuff, the wonders of the world, and I tend to lose sight of why a reader, in her guts, wants to turn the page: because she wants to learn what will happen next.

RF: I’m thinking of Steven Millhauser. He does this kind of writing, lots of cool, weird facts.  Do you read him?

AD: Oh sure. I haven’t read him much since I was in grad school, but he’s great. I love when he’ll make a story spiral in on itself, building all these crazy, whimsical details until he’s lost sight of narrative altogether, and is just building tiny boxes within tinier boxes.  Love that stuff.

I think of Calvino, too. He’s a writer who sometimes subverts narrative for the sheer glory of invention, playfulness, whimsy.  He was a very important writer to me when I was trying to figure out how to translate my own interests to the page because he seemed to say: yes you can be silly, you could love science and fables at the same time, you can be an intellectual but you can also tell stories.

RF: In “The Caretaker,” which is one of my all-time favorite stories, you build a long story with a very unusual structure.  There are so many distinct parts to it, so many disruptions. You have the Liberian civil war and the long trip to Oregon, the time with the family, the whale hearts, the garden, the survivalist section. I’ve noticed a lot of your stories tend this way.  More than most writers, you blur the line between the short story and the novella.  Sometimes, your work is almost indistinguishably close. Why do you write such long stories? Do you plan it out consciously or does it arise from the inner workings of the story itself.

AD: The latter. They just turn out that way. I probably do too much writing in my stories. Even for shorter stories that I do, I’m writing around a hundred pages, spiraling out long paragraphs that eventually get cut or severely trimmed.  It takes time to learn how much you can get away with not saying. Once you understand what the reader needs to make sense of the story, a lot of the choreography–the “Then they got out of the car and walked up the sidewalk and turned the doorknob and went into the kitchen”—can go.

But the material has to determine the structure.  Take “The Caretaker.” I felt like that section of the journey from Liberia to Oregon could have been a lot longer, and I wondered if the reader would forgive me the shortcuts I had to take, that I basically teleported Joseph to Oregon from Liberia.

One of the things I like to do is to open up spatial tensions in my work. Liberia versus Oregon in “The Caretaker,” for example, or the tension between the palace Joseph is caretaking and his subsistence in the woods around the property.  I played with it a lot in About Grace, in the way I use Alaska and the Caribbean.  The dialectic of those things interest me.  Place a character far away from home and immediately there’s longing implicit in her story.

But it’s not planned that way. I can’t just sit down and write a 9,000 word story for a magazine for $500.  It’s seven months of my life, and  I never quite know how long it will be or what structure it will take.  I guess I could say that I’m drawn to certain lengths, both in reading and writing.  I’m not a big reader of short-short stories, for example, and I agree with Poe who said that undue brevity can fail a reader.  Here’s Poe: “A poem too brief may produce a vivid, but never an intense or enduring impression. Without a certain continuity of effort–without a certain duration or repetition of purpose–the soul is never deeply moved. There must be the dropping of the water upon the rock.”  I feel like, in a short story, I’m not dropping water on the rock unless I’m pushing past some sort of moveable threshold: maybe 3,000 words?  You need time to establish a certain level of repetition, to establish a pattern, and then deviate from it.

RF: In the epigraph of Memory Wall, Luis Buñuel says “Life without memory is no life at all.”  Clearly all of these stories deal with memory, many of them, like the title story, deal with it overtly. But so much of a character’s memory must happen off the page.  How do you go about creating memories for your characters?  Are you ruminating a long time before a character gets on the page or are you writing drafts and finding the memories that way?

AD: The latter.  Characters are made and at the start of their lives they are lumpy and soft pieces of clay.  I form them through trial and error.   I ask myself: what could her life be if this happened in her past?  Should I invent a situation in her past that made her how she is now?  And do I need to present that in scene or summary to my reader?  But you can paralyze yourself with too much of this.  So often, the situation in a story will present the need for a memory, and then you spend a couple days inventing the memory.  And then, more often than not, you realize you don’t need to include it at all.

What I love about reading a short story is that a writer can spend days and weeks and months ruminating on her characters and their places and problems.  Maybe she spends years on it, honing them, trying to invent their pasts, guess at their futures. So a writer spends a year of her life on something and a reader gets to drink it down in an hour or two.  That’s a great gift of concentrated time, the ultimate milkshake.

RF: You were quite successful while still a relatively young writer.  Did you pass through a period of bad writing?  If so, when was it?

AD:  Writing can always be changed, improved, deepened, sharpened; that’s the beauty of what we do.    So when I was first starting out, I don’t know if I was in a period of bad writing; it was more like I just didn’t yet know how to get my writing ready for a stranger to read it.  In the beginning of a person’s attempts to write books, it’s more about learning to recognize what’s weak, what’s relying on false truths, what’s cliche, and repairing it before asking someone to be generous enough to read it.

RF: Another quirk of what I might call Anthony Doerr’s writing style is that you inhabit characters that are wildly different than you are.  I assume from your author photos that you are a white, male American writer, yet your stories are filled with Liberian refugees, Chinese villagers, South African men and women, teenage girls, blind shell collectors.  How did you learn to give yourself permission to be so versatile?

AD: When I get that question I usually ask myself why I read.  I read to enter the life of someone else, to leave myself and enter other selves.  I read to feel less alone–David Foster Wallace said something like that.  So I believe that the human experience can be communicated, can be shared.  I can go read Madame Bovary and in a couple of paragraphs I get to become a randy housewife in 1856.  That’s a miracle, isn’t it?

So I think that some human commonalities are shared. Things like loss, heartbreak, love.  These things happen everywhere. They happen in Iran, Vietnam, Ohio. So yes, it is a risk; I run the risk of not beginning to understand the subjects I’m interested in.  But I’m not going to write about some bald white Idahoan in a supermarket all the time. There are things about being a bald white Idahoan in a supermarket that interest me too, but not all the time. I’m drawn to discovery.

This can often be confusing for a young writer. So often, they’re told to write what they know.  Fundamentally, the things they want to write about they already know all too well: feeling lonely, feeling scared, feeling inadequate.  That doesn’t mean they can’t write about a lonely, scared, inadequate person on a space station in 2641.  The trappings of a person can be researched. If you want to write about a violin maker in 1743, you can do it with a lot of research and care.

RF:  Could you talk about travelling and how it has influenced you as a writer?  You make reference in Four Seasons in Rome to Viktor Shklovsky and the concept of defamiliarizaiton. Does living and writing abroad help you do this?

AD: Ah! Making the stones stony again!  What Shklovsky is talking about is estrangement, right, the way our homes, our lives, become invisible to us over time, and that the role of art is to make those things strange to us again.  When we become encrusted with habit, we stop noticing things.  But art breaks through that encrustation.  That’s what he’s saying, roughly.  That’s why my favorite novels can do things like show me a bald white Idahoan, and show me him in a new way.

So by travelling, I’m forced to see things new again: even very simple things, like how people get water, how they get to work, how they think about ambition.  But travel can also work against what I’m trying to do. I recently went to Ecuador for a New York Times piece I was writing. It was easy to take notes there, to come home and write 3,000 words from those notes. But it disrupted the work I was doing on my novel. In my fiction I was trying to conjure February and mist and gray oceans and hedgerows and instead I’m standing in primary forest in a plastic rain poncho with butterflies flapping past me.  But here’s what I tell myself: it all goes into the pot.  I take journals wherever I go and I fill them with crappy sentences I’ll never show anyone but I can still, maybe, use those sentences—or at least those memories—in the future.  And who knows, maybe someday I’ll go back to them and write about Ecuador. The images will still be there.

RF: How are your twins?

AD: (Laughs) They’re great, Rich.  Thanks for asking. They’re seven now.

(We proceed to talk about kids, Christmas and how fast they grow.  I tell him a story about visiting the Sistine Chapel when my son was two. My wife was pushing him in a stroller and he screamed for the entire time. Doerr and his wife lived in Rome for a year just after their twin boys were born. We talk about Santa Claus.)

AD: Does your daughter still believe in Santa? (She says she does.)  Did you ever have to tell a straight lie to your kids about it? (I answer that I’m not sure.) I love that children retain the power to want to believe.

 RF:  Is writing difficult for you?  Is it hard work?

AD: I have great days sometimes, mornings or evenings when it’s going well. Sometimes when you’re writing well, you look up and it’s noon and your leg is asleep and you’re hungry because you forgot to eat.  Those are great days, days that feel short because you’ve been dreaming all day.

But sure, it’s not easy.  It’s like working out. I know that’s a trite analogy, but it’s effective. Sometimes the last thing you want to do is go outside and run, but then you do it, and you’re a few miles in and it’s snowing but your body is warm and you just feel alive.

RF: Was there a particular writer or artist or teacher who most influenced your writing?

AD: Andrea Barrett, who I didn’t meet until recently. Her collection, Ship Fever, had science and history and good writing, and I thought, “You can do this?”  You can write short stories and novellas and be responsibly accurate about science and history and still be creative?  Rick Bass, too.  I still haven’t met him.  His story collection, The Watch, blended magic and love and setting and the natural world and he got away with it and it rang a bell in my soul because those were all the things I wanted to do.  Alice Munro, too, and how she deals with time; that she could take on time scales much larger than a single day in her stories showed me that I could try that too.  You have to give yourself permission to try these things and when you see older, accomplished, hugely passionate writers doing it, it helps so much.

RF: You say that a writer manufactures dreams. What dreams can we look forward to next?

AD: I’m working a novel that’s seven years in the making. It’s about a German boy and a French girl in World War II and how their lives intersect, though that intersection happens very late in the book. It has to do with radio, too: how radio was employed both as a tool of control and resistance.  Mostly I want to conjure a time when it was a miracle to hear the voice of a stranger in our homes, in our ears.  Nowadays we’re bombarded by electronic messages, of course.  It’s to the point where my house can seem too quiet if my kids are outside and my wife is away; I feel like I have to turn on the radio, just to keep me company.

Anyway, among the thousand challenges this book presents is this: Can I tell the story about how a boy got sucked into the Hitler Youth, made some bad decisions that led to terrible, unforgivable consequences, and still make the boy an empathetic character?

RF:  In Four Seasons in Rome, you describe a writing this way: “But to write a story is to inch backward and forward along a series of planks you are cantilevering out into the darkness, plank by plank, inch by inch, and the best you can hope is that each day you find yourself a little bit farther out over the abyss.” It’s such a nice description.  What gives you the confidence to take the next step?

AD: Some days, it’s not there.  But here’s the thing: when those voices are loudest, those critical voices which are telling you not to do something, often that’s when the story is really about to takeoff. Because that means you’re standing on the edge of something dangerous.

Take “Memory Wall,” for example.  I was writing a long story about whales and Alzheimer’s and it was a mess.  And when McSweeney’s asked for a story set in the near future, I had the idea to put memories on cartridges. That was a ridiculous idea; that’s when the voices started getting loud, saying, “Don’t do that, that’s science fiction, that’s silly, that’s a gimmick.”  Thankfully I had grown up enough to know that that was the sign that said, Try it.

So you have to train yourself to shut out the voices.  Writing is tough. It’s easy to question what it is you’re doing. I have friends with a fair degree of stability in their life, in jobs they’ve had for maybe two decades now, mostly on autopilot, making good money. I have some good friends out on the golf course right now as we speak!  You can get locked into that way of thinking, of worrying about what you don’t have. You have to come back down from that and tell yourself: I am doing what I love to do, I am blessed,  my family is healthy, and I’m healthy, and I need to keep challenging myself because who knows how much time any of us has left on Earth?

—December 2011


Nov 302011


The Answer I Found in a Fortune Cookie:

Toward a Digital Conception of Nonfiction

By John Proctor


I don’t know whether this is an ancient Chinese proverb or a mass-manufactured brainchild of an underpaid copywriter somewhere in Chicago. I do know that it was inside my fortune cookie after I had lunch at Hunan Delight about a year ago, and it changed the way I look at nonfiction. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to gather meaning from mass-produced slips of paper, but isn’t that what books are made of? I come from a family of electricians and mechanics, and though I can barely keep the oil changed in my car and frequently need my wife’s help to operate my MacBook, I know this much: Digital circuits work in bits of information, each bit working into the systematic logic of the circuit. If any bit doesn’t logically fit, the circuit will malfunction. Each bit, though, works in a continuous  strand, but has its own infinitely variable sequential order. I teach a class on convergent media, and one of the things we talk about is how digital online media have changed the way we read, and think. One of the ways we talk about this is by making a distinction between “analog reading,” in which a person reads something from beginning to end without stopping, and “digital reading,” in which a reader stops to analyze a piece of writing into interlocked units.  The first reading of anything is usually mostly analog; subsequent readings, if they happen, are usually digital.

Two years ago, I started writing creative nonfiction in earnest. My first and most looming problem was that I didn’t really know what creative nonfiction was. I’d spent most of my life writing journals, poetry, criticism, fiction, and some freelance journalism, in that basic order. When I applied to MFA programs, most were in fiction. I’d seen the term “creative nonfiction” in passing, and had mostly thought it an unjust term – if it’s creative, can it be truly called nonfiction? And if it’s nonfiction, where’s the room for creativity on the writer’s part? Nonetheless, I was finding myself drawn more and more to nonfiction – about my own life, but also the world I saw around me. In the movie Sideways, a man tells the main character, a novel writer, “I like nonfiction. There is so much to know about this world. I think you read something somebody just invented, waste of time.” I found myself agreeing with the nonfiction reader. But I still felt a bit justified in distrusting a genre that is younger than I am – Lee Gutkind, the “Godfather of CNF,” says he’s been using the term “creative nonfiction” loosely since the 1970s, and the National Endowment for the Arts made the term official in 1983 in order to justify handing out fellowships for it.

That’s where the fortune cookie comes in. If the nonfiction writer’s subject is the world, and his or her place in it, the first responsibility of the writer is to reduce the world into workable units. Much like a reader must read something numerous times to piece out the analog parts and then find the digital circuit at work, the nonfiction writer must find the story-units in the world and then fit them into a working digital circuit of the writing.  In telling the myriad stories the world and the self contain, one of the writer’s first steps is shaping and condensing systematic and narrative units. For our purposes here I’ll coin the term “digital nonfiction” for this process – if an essay or a memoir or a news story (and, universally, the world) can be thought of as a digital circuit, and if all the millions and millions of stories are the analog parts, then the creativity of the nonfiction writer is primarily on how the writer sorts – or lists – those analog stories.

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