Perhaps fittingly, I arrived in Canterbury footsore, as Chaucer’s pilgrims did. I had spent three days in London, which was an overcrowded madhouse, and I say this as a New Yorker who works in midtown. My day trip to Cambridge did little to alleviate my stress, as I raced from my centrally-located (and well paid-for) hotel to get to the tourist office. I arrived at 4:54 to find my way barred by a teenager. “We’re closing,” she said. (The office closes at 5:00.) I managed to secure a $5.00 map off of her begrudging self, to attend an Evensong service at Kings College, where my Episcopalian confirmation training kicked in enough to keep my standing, sitting and kneeling in all the right places.
Dinner at my pricey hotel, and then to bed. I awoke to the sound of water rushing, and nearby dripping. Well, it was England, I thought, so rain. But no, the dripping was too close, so I investigated and discovered water dripping from the ceiling in my bathroom. Not a drip-drip-drip, but several streams of dripping, forming a syncopation of rhythm. Also, a crack was forming in the ceiling, just above the toilet, so when I sat, as one must, my head was soaked.
I called the front desk, who said, “OK, we’ll send someone up in a minute.”
Two hours later, daringly showered and packed, I arrived at the front desk. As I mentioned, this, the Hotel du Vin, was meant to be my splash-out hotel, not my splash-on.
“It’s an old building,” said one of the concierges.
“Right, well, there are cracks,” I said. Both concierges, not natives of England and recently enough departed from their teenaged years to remember the masks of eye-rolling forbearance, as in how big a deal is she going to make of this? “Look, it’s your building,” I said and watched their expressions shift to something akin to (had they been actual Englanders) well that’s just it, innit? Not our building, is it?
“That water damage is not going to stop,” I offered as my parting salvo. “Could I leave my bag here, please, until I leave for the station? By the way, is there a bus that could take me to the station, or should I just call a cab?”
“You can walk,” said the other concierge. “It’s an easy walk. Ten minutes. I’ll draw you a map.”
She drew the map, but perhaps a punishment for complaining about water pouring through the ceiling, I was sent on not an easy walk. I was by then walking 8-10 miles a day, so not quite a softie. However, my bewildered exhaustion drew the attention of a nice minister and her husband, and conversing with them shortened the (admittedly beautiful) train ride to London. I was afraid of coming off like a chatty American, because Brits think all Americans are chatty, and I’m chatty to begin with, but I learned a lot about them: that he had proposed to her in New York, at Ground Zero when it was still a steaming pile of rubble (I didn’t enquire why they went there; I will never understand why tourists do); that she used to be the minister in a men’s prison, until she had kids; that they had two kids; that they were having a romantic weekend in London and that this to them was made manifest by taking in the Harry Potter play.
(“Have you read ‘Peter Pan’?” the husband whispered to me, since we were on the subject of children’s literature. “Do you remember the part where the fairies are coming home in the morning from an orgy?” At this, I realized I had not read Peter Pan, but probably merely looked at some Disney picture-book version of it.“My boy Michael asked me what an orgy was and I said a party and now I’m scared to death of what he’ll say at kindergarten.”)
So off to Canterbury on the high-speed train, I maintained British silence until I could stand it no longer. “Why is this train so crowded?” I asked the young woman in the next seat.
“People getting off work,” she shrugged. It was three in the afternoon. “People getting away for the weekend.” It was Thursday.
“Seems a bit of a slog,” I said, although I realized that several of my co-workers do virtually the same commute, and they do it to live in crowded Long Island, not in a verdant countryside, caressed by swollen clouds.
“Kent,” said the young woman when she saw me press my fingers against the window. “You’re in Kent.”
“I love Kent,” I said. “It’s so English.”
“I love Kent, too,” she said. “I’ll never leave it.”
By the time I reached Canterbury, it looked as though we were in store for serious rain. It had only rained once during my English vacation, and at the time, I was in the British Library, having a coffee, watching the lightning fork the sky.
Now pulling up in front of the Ebury Hotel, I only hoped it wouldn’t rain just then, because the Ebury was far further out of town that I had reckoned and I was still holding out the hope of a decent meal in England.
“It is only a short walk into town,” said the hotelier, Matthew.
It was only a mile, after all.
I settled in on the patio of the “very good” French restaurant Matthew had recommended (it was a chain), and it was there that I met the witch.
The Witch’s Tale
The patio faced the cobblestoned court square of the town. In the twilight, pre-teen boys practiced, and failed at, their skateboard tricks. Failure meant that the skateboard sailed one or two feet into the air and then clattered to the cobblestones in a manner that the black-haired woman sitting at the corner of the patio with her husband found distracting.
“People come here to relax,” I overheard her telling the waitress.
She complained about various other things in a manner which made me want to apologize to the waitress (my therapist and I have yet to heal me of this compulsion). But then, bells chimed and I raised my head like a rapturous idiot, like some peasant girl in a movie on her journey to sainthood, played by Jennifer Jones or Ingrid Bergman, hearing the voice of God.
“Is that the Cathedral?” I asked, so dumb and humble that the husband took pity on me, and then so did the wife. Too bad I had come at such a time, they told me, the Cathedral was undergoing renovations. If I went the next day at Evensong, I wouldn’t have to pay to get in. How long was I here for?
When the wife went to the restroom, the husband told me that she was an artist. She’d earned her art degree here in Kent, and then her master’s in London. We then ate and drank privately until a particularly loud clatter of skateboard startled us back into a community.
I shook my head at the sound.
“I know!” cried the wife. “Why must they do that! Paint a picture! Write a story!”
Well, I for one thought they did that because they were ten-year-old boys, and for a ten-year-old boy, mastering a useless physical skill is its own delight. But since she said, “Paint a picture,” I went to her, unwisely emboldened by the wine I’d drunk, the miles I’d traveled, the nice minister on the train, the orgiastic fairies of Peter Pan, the ardent Miss Kent . . .
“Your husband says you’re an artist,” I said. “I do these.”
I showed her my push-pin art on my phone.
She took my phone and began swiping.
“Do you have OCD?” she asked.
“Sorry?” I asked.
“What’s this? Magritte.” Swipe. “Munch. Who’s this meant to be?”
“Am I meant to take this seriously?”
“I just do it for fun,” I said. “It’s relaxing. I work in a cubicle farm. My colleagues like it, and I’ve learned a lot.”
“Oh? Like what? What have you learned?”
And here I confess to an is-that-the-Cathedral level of stupidity. The hostility in her tone was rising like a cobra ready to strike and I should have backed away.
“Oh, you know. How to direct the eye. How to saturate color, how to diffuse it with clear push-pins. I’m limited, you know, because I’m dealing with push-pins . . . ” I laughed but her eyes were by then slits.
“Look, do you want my honest opinion?”
Again, that question never leads to anything good. It never leads to I think you’re the whole package and the only one for me or this is the best manuscript that’s come across my desk in years or no, actually, that skirt makes your butt look quite flat.
“I think it’s absolute crap,” said the woman. “Absolute crap. This paint-by-numbers nonsense, this . . . ” Swipe, swipe, swipe. “Crap. Crap. These people, these people with no training at all, who think they can just . . . I don’t mean to upset you. But it’s absolute, utter crap!”
“It’s just for fun. It brightens up the nine-to-five.”
“It’s crap. I don’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m not upset,” I said.
I wasn’t. My therapist and I have managed to heal this compulsion, of becoming upset because other people are upset. Push-pin art has been to me like those desktop Zen gardens that were popular awhile back, or like a scavenger hunt of the mind. One’s resources are very limited. Even in a mosaic, the artist can shape the tessera (the name for an individual mosaic piece, for you crossword puzzle enthusiasts) but push-pins are almost always round. They come in only a few colors. The challenge of how to re-create a certain visual impact through a standard-issue office supply has been a soothing challenge to occupy me while I try to tease out solutions to the problems of my day job. The cubicle murals, in fact, had attracted so much congregating at my desk that I had decided to cease operations, even before this encounter.
“It’s crap. Crap. I don’t care how many Instagram followers you have.”
“I don’t have that many, actually.” Gently, I reclaimed my phone. Her husband had been laughing this whole time. “I’ll leave you alone now. Enjoy your dessert.”
“Oh, we will!” snapped the woman.
Walking back to the hotel, I reflected on how many times she had snapped “I don’t mean to upset you!” when upsetting me was clearly her aim. Amateur comes from amator, Latin for lover, and I did my push-pin art because I loved it. But there was no ego in it.
And that woman’s rage definitely came from ego. I tried to think of what occurrence, in my own field, would inspire a similar spite from me.
Maybe someone getting a three-book deal from a publisher based on a joke tucked into a fortune cookie? But would I say crap two dozen times?
But there was no money involved, no fame, no acclaim. Just me messing around with the masters using push-pins. I couldn’t figure it out.
The next day, I realized she must have been a witch. The kind the heroine meets on her journey in a fairy tale. The kind who tests her.
April 28 was Independent Bookstore Day, a day I usually let pass me by, although I do patronize my local bookstore, The Astoria Bookshop, for most of my book needs (the exception being out-of-print books or university presses). The Astoria Bookshop was the first (or last, depending on where you live) on the Independent Bookstore Day Crawl, trek through Astoria, Long Island City, Greenpoint and Williamsburg.
I recently experienced a professional setback that sent me down a spiral of sadness. Further, it has been rainy, cold and overcast throughout our so-called “spring” in New York City. I was grey inside and out. But Saturday was a lovely sun-kissed day, and I decided to embark on a literary adventure.
All biblophiles will say they have too many books, but, having recently packed up two bookcases in anticipation of a living room remodel, I can state firmly that I have too many books. They are sitting in boxes and piled on a table in my bedroom. No amount of purging—or, as we say in the library trade, “de-accessioning”—seems to cull the population. I have been researching and writing a novel about young women in British Intelligence during World War II for what seems like a quarter of my life, and between Atlas Obscura alerting me to new weird facts about the war, and AbeBooks on hand to supply me with obscure volumes, I keep acquiring and now own more books than I could read in a year if I quit my job and wrote nothing.
So to acquire more books simply to lift my mood seemed extravagant. I determined I would make one a gift, as my grand-nephew (that’s right; deal with it) is coming up on a birthday. Also, I would make one a goal, as I want my friend Sam to read William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. Sam and I have recently read John Williams’ Stoner and Augustus, and after reading Stoner, I thought he would like So Long, See You Tomorrow. Williams and Maxwell are both sad, dead, twentieth-century American males.
First stop, the Astoria Bookshop. No William Maxwell, so I decided to go for Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. With it in hand, I edged toward the register (it was very crowded, and it was story hour), when I saw Galia Bernstein’s I Am a Cat, and chose it instead for my grand-nephew, who lives in a household without a cat.
After the Astoria Bookshop, I hopped on the Q102 to take me to Long Island City, crossed the Plaza, and became thoroughly lost. Every person I asked for directions seemed also to be lost, until I found a young father with a baby in a stroller, who sent me in the right director to Book Culture.
Book Culture was celebrating the day with coffee, donuts and orange juice. No Maxwell there, either. I went ahead with How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and the friendly young women at the counter helped me determine how I could best get to Word, in Greenpoint, without having to cross the Pulaski Bridge on foot.
I took the B62 over the bridge and into Brooklyn, then walked, a lot, until I found Word. No Maxwell. I purchased some sticker books for the grand-nephew. I also bought a novel by Henry Green, whose novel Caught, about the Auxiliary Fire Service in London during the Blitz, I had just bought at the Strand kiosk at the southend of Central Park earlier in the week, on a rare sunny day.
I hope you’re sensing a theme.
Word was having a “blind date with a book,” where any purchase scored you a book wrapped in brown paper. Mine turned out to be a galley of a book about childbirth and drug addiction, so I politely handed it back. Word was also the first place I encountered a fellow traveler, who was coming from the other direction. She seemed confident about Book Culture but leery of The Astoria Bookshop, and waved away my attempt to tell her about how to use buses.
I paused along Franklin Street for sustenance, a bathroom and better Wi-Fi. I was trying to live-tweet my journey.
Then I walked down Franklin Street for a little over a mile, until the cross streets changed from named streets to numbered ones. At 4th Street, I turned left and made it to McNally Jackson.
And there I found Maxwell!
My card was now full!
My completed card was confiscated by the man behind the counter. It will now be entered into a raffle in which the winner will receive . . . well, I’ll let you guess.
I took the B32 up Franklin, over the Pulaski Bridge, all the way to Long Island City, where I was lucky enough to catch the Q69, which took me down 21st Street and left me at Broadway.
I then returned to my home base.
And then I came home, footsore but sunny.
The rule of four
Bookstores visited: four
Books purchased: four, plus three sticker books
Buses taken: four
Hours taken: four
Miles walked: 4.89
Ollie had a rough weekend, apparently, like most of us last weekend, and decided to leave her enclosure at the Washington Zoo, which she shared with two male bobcats. The full headline of the article in The New York Times was “Ollie, a Standoffish Bobcat, is Missing From the National Zoo.” The Times was merely quoting the Zoo’s “curator of great cats” (why, I wonder, has my library school never posted a position quite that cool-sounding on the school listserv?), who described her in rather lengthy and judgmental detail, adding that she was “not super friendly,” and that “it would be extremely easy on us if she were a cat who would come when called, but that’s not who this individual is.”
I puzzled that the curator of great cats was so perturbed by her aloofness. Is he not the curator of great cats? Has he met a cat? Does he taxonomize them by friendliness, rather than species? Are Ollie’s two enclosure-mates models of affability? The curator of great cats added crankily, “We’re looking for a cat who could literally be sitting in a tree right next to us,” as if elusiveness and tree-climbing were traits peculiar to “this individual.” (And who refers to a cat as an “individual”? Back in my youth, “individual” and “this person” were ways in which my gay friends would seek my romantic advice without outing themselves: “This individual is very possessive, so I don’t want to upset this person.”)
On the #Ollie the Bobcat Twitter feed (because of course), one individual tweeted: “Ollie has been criticized as “very standoffish” and “not super friendly.” Because I guess there’s no right way to be a female BOBCAT either.”
And then Ollie returned. Or perhaps she never left. (She could have literally been sitting in a tree right next to us.) She was spotted near the birdcage by a keen-eyed tourist and returned to her enclosure, after receiving two stitches in her left paw and a round of booster shots.
Her escapades generated twelve pages of news headlines on Google. Ollie stories were reported in France and the U.K., and her return provoked a number of think pieces in which she was used as a great symbol of whatever the writer had in mind.
“She was every American worker, underappreciated, shunted to the side,” wrote Petula Dvorak in The Washington Post. “The bobcat habitat wasn’t even on the zoo’s main circle around Big Cat mountain, just a little culvert, no more glamorous than the accounts payable or customer service department.”
This is the only news I wanted to follow this week.
I have recently finished a novel which I spent eight years researching and writing. I am also nearing the end of my master’s degree in library and information science; I’m at the beginning of the semester of my second-to-last class. I also quit my part-time gig reviewing books for one of the trades. Finally, the current political climate is one I find distressing. All of which combines to send me into literature. I can read what I like and I have more time to do it.
For the past two years, most of what I’ve read has been focused on WWII or library science, so to plunge now, hedonistically, wantonly, into reading what I like is a heady experience, and I intend to document it.
Going forward, I will do it in real time, but for the month of January, here is what I’ve read.
Title: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Author: David Mitchell
Where I got it: Christmas gift from a colleague
What I thought: Nicely built world, with Mitchell a bit of a show-off with his prose. The entire long middle section, which someone else described (quite accurately, I think) as a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go could have used a firmer edit.
Title: The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Author: Muriel Barbery
Where I got it: Second-hand bookstore on Fourth Avenue
What I thought: I just adored the characters and the setting. The misanthropic, sneaky concierge: “To be poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age,” and the rebellious bourgeois 12-year-old who is one of the residents in the luxury building the concierge tends, who are soulmates unbeknownst to them.
Title: Margaret the First
Author: Danielle Dutton
Where I got it: ARC from publisher
What I thought: A vividly imagined and uniquely crafted novel about Margaret, Duchess of Cavendish, a free-thinking, dream-hounded, imaginative noblewoman whom the newspapers of her day dubbed “Mad Madge.” Poetic, almost hallucinatory prose takes us into the restless, unhappy, seeking mind of Margaret, a woman born in the wrong time.
Please note: This piece was originally published by the defunct website Chicklit and I am republishing it here in honor of Shirley Hazzard who died yesterday, December 13, 2016. I remain a fan.
“We have mysterious inclinations. We have our own intuitions, our individuality toward what we want to read, and we developed that from childhood. We don’t know why. Nobody can explain it to us.”
From Shirley Hazzard’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, November, 2003
Shirley Hazzard was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1931, the daughter of expatriates (a Scotswoman and a Welshman). Although her family suffered no exceptional financial hardship enduring first the Great Depression and then war, she was constantly aware of the deprivation around her, particularly that of veterans of the first world war. Her own deprivation was cultural; she heard little music and saw almost no visual art. Australia was still considered a colonial backwater. Books, she has said in interviews, were her lifeline. After World War II, when Hazzard was 16, her family moved to Hong Kong, where her father worked as a trade commissioner and Hazzard worked in the office of a branch of Special Operations. There were later moves, to New Zealand and then, for Hazzard alone, to Italy, where she worked as a translator for the United Nations. She also worked for the United Nations in New York before she quit, in the mid-60s, to devote herself to writing.
And from these experiences came are her themes: the devastation of war. The political infighting that all but cripples the social institutions set up for the public good. The loss of the concept of nation. The loss of the concept of home. The belief that home can be found in another person, or, failing that (and it always fails), in books and in poetry. Her characters are strangers in a strange land — exiles, orphans, refugees. They fall in love at first sight, forever, often with only fragments of one another (“Impressions came and went in them, like quick tides.”) Romantic love is a chronic fever from which they never recover. (“He had been so long creating this moment that it could not be new to either of them.”) Yet they belong together. They need each other. Most of all, they need to belong, and never will.
In one of the stories in the collection called “People in Glass Houses”, a satire of the United Nations, Hazzard writes:
“The nature . . . of the Organization such as to attract people of character; having attracted them, it found it could not afford them, for survival lay, like that of all organizations, in the subordination of individual gifts to general procedures. No new country, no new language or way of life, no marriage or involvement of war could have so effectively altered and unified the way in which these people presented themselves to the world.”
Hazzard’s characters are exceptions to this “subordination of individual gifts to general procedures. She writes about the war hero who sets himself the task of recording “the consequences of war within an ancient and vanishing society”, the idealistic overeducated secretary who means to rebuild the world and ends up serving tea, the working-class private scorned for his “over”-sensitivity — who sustain themselves with pocket editions of Dickens and Shakespeare. Their exceptionality invites scorn. (“‘You have enough books for now,’” a character tells another, knowing, “none better, the enemy when she saw it.”) Yet they all struggle for nourishment. Their struggle is their greatest strength, and their greatest hardship.
In The Bay of Noon, English-born Jenny (exiled to South Africa for the duration of the war) arrives in post-war Italy to work with one of the U.N.-type agencies that usually employ (and inevitably disillusion) Hazzard’s heroines. Jenny is no Henry James-type innocent inviting seduction from jaded continentals; although she does lack sophistication, she is not inexperienced. She has been fractured by her experience, displaced during the war, continuously separated from her family and home.
“Whenever the matter came up, people expressed anguish over that uprooting of mine. Yet — although the sufferings of children are the worst, being inextinguishable — children themselves seldom have a proper sense of their own tragedy, discounting and keeping hidden the true horrors of their short lives, humbling imagining real calamity to be some prestigious drama of the grown-up world. . . . I saw myself . . . insignificant in the convulsions of war, and believed I had no cause for complaint in a world where soldiers died and cities were devastated. It is only in retrospect I know myself to have been among the victims of war . . .”
What Jenny finds in Naples is the sense of community she has always lacked. She befriends Gioconda, who has written a popular, tragic, autobiographical novel, and Gianni, her lover, who directed the film made of it. Gioconda and Gianni pay her an attention she has never known, praising her, patronizing her, but most gratifyingly, drawing her into their bruising, but not fatal, drama.
The Transit of Venus rests lightly on a Jane Austen frame — close, orphaned, penniless sisters, the sweet blonde Grace and the aloof, clever Caro, and an older, sighing, put-upon half-sister who has cared for them throughout the war. The beauty is immediately snatched up as a bride, though not without attracting the resentment of her future in-laws and their circle. The sisters are thought to lack appreciation for the favor that is being done for them. Even Grace’s future husband, courting her at the sisters’ London apartment, finds “these women uncommonly self-possessed for their situation. They seemed scarcely conscious of being Australians in a furnished flat. He would have liked them to be more impressed by his having come, and instead caught himself living up to what he thought might be their standards and hoping they would not guess the effort incurred.”
Caro is studying for a civil service examination, which Grace’s fiancé believes “she would never pass . . . It had only recently been opened to women and he had never heard of a woman passing it.”
But Caro surpasses all the other entrants, although it still means nothing, the whole process is “a way of having people with languages” in the organization “without giving them career service.” In a real Jane Austen novel, a character observes, “man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal,” but The Transit of Venus demonstrates that choice does no one any favors. Caro rejects ardent, scholarly Ted Tice – the nice guy – who pleads, “`I’ve no charm at the best of times, and nothing is less charming than unwanted love. But as we’re parting soon I must say that I hope you’ll think of me and let me write to you. And eventually let me love you.’”
And write he does, letters which he revises and struggles over, letters which he lives for (this will be echoed in Hazzard’s next novel, The Great Fire.) But Caro falls in love with a smug son of privilege — the cad — who does not annoy her by idolizing her but instead regards seducing her as an opportunity to “violate . . . her pride or her integrity.”
Eventually, Caro marries a decent man, and Ted Tice marries a good woman, but The Transit of Venus follows the characters through thirty years of their choices, misgivings, and rewards, separations and reunions, and even does Grace the favor of revisiting her late in the marriage, and dispelling the fiction that the placid beauty lives happily ever after in a conventional marriage, without reflection or regrets of her own.
The Great Fire takes place in 1947, in occupied Japan and involves characters who take part in the reconstruction of the country after the “great fire” that was Hiroshima, although the “great fire” describes many other consuming forces, including the passion of love. Peter Exley, whose fate will be sealed by an impulsive act of humanity, is there to administer the trials of war criminals. Major Aldred Leith arrives at a small settlement near Hiroshima, run by an awful pair of Australians for whom post-war reconstruction is a career stepping-stone, while Leith, the son of a famous novelist, is there to write the story of the conquered, having spent the two years since the end of the war walking across China. “He’d grown up in China and Indochina, and knew that these places were evaporating, transforming. The last days of their centuries should be witnessed and recounted by someone who was not a spy, not a sociologist, beholden to no one.”
Leith is indeed beholden to no one, distanced from his father, divorced from his wartime bride, losing hold even of the correspondence which seems to be his lifeblood. But the awful Australians have two children — a dying son, Benedict and a radiant daughter, Helen and the three bond instantly through their love of languages and books.
Helen and Leith fall in love, of course, but do not seem to be able to articulate it until Leith travels to Hong Kong to visit his friend Exley. For the first time in years, he receives letters from “home” in the form of Ben and Helen and suffers the suspense of posting his reply: “he thought that by tomorrow Helen might have his letter.” Upon his return, they come together, Leith aged thirty-three, Helen seventeen (and, some critics have complained, impossibly precocious), the gossip about them more daring than their actual behavior.
[Leith] went to his own room and to his table – to those papers where the ruined continents and cultures and existences that had consumed his mind and body for years had given place to her story and his. He could not consider this a reduction – the one theme having embroiled the century and the world, and the other recasting his single fleeting miraculous life. Having expected, repeatedly, to die from the great fires into which his times had pitched him, he had recovered a great desire to live completely; by which he meant, with her.
Shirley Hazzard writes like a dream, by which I do not mean merely that her writing is beautiful or precise, but also that it evokes the same intense, fleeting, mysterious emotions as a dream. She does not write page turners. You don’t want to turn her pages so much as dwell on them. A character describes her mother’s death: “They wrote to me ‘Her heart gave out’ — her heart that had, I suppose, always been giving out, to everybody, with no revitalizing intake of grievance or self-pity. . . . ” Hazzard writes with a poet’s economy and clarity and casually inserts this kind of piercing observation that will cause you to look up from the book, close it on your thumb to keep your place, and fall into a reverie.
In this essay, I have focused on the books of Hazzard’s that are most likely to be found in a bookstore. Many are out of print.
Cliffs of Fall and Other Stories (1963)
The Evening of the Holiday (1966)
People in Glass Houses (1967)
The Bay of Noon (1970)
The Transit of Venus (1981), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
The Great Fire (2003), winner of the National Book Award for Fiction
Defeat of an Ideal: A Study of the Self-Destruction of the United Nations (1973)
Countenance of Truth: The United Nations and the Waldheim Case (1990)
Greene on Capri (2000)
At first, I regretted that the crowd was shouting louder, wasn’t giving out the sort of orgasmic screams you hear at the opera after an aria, because I wanted Ben Miles – the entire cast of Wolf Hall, but more than any of the others, Ben Miles, to know that we loved him. Later, on my way home, I reflected that perhaps a greater tribute than screaming applause (although we the audience did scream and applaud) was our silence. When Henry VIII signs five death warrants, he sits in a shaft of fog-shrouded light, at a table. Cromwell hands him a warrant. The king pauses, then signs. Rafe Sadler (who is played in the PBS series by Thomas Brodie Sangster, who I admire to excess, but that’s another story) who is played by Joshua Silver, steps forward, sprinkles powder to dry the fresh ink of the signature, removes the document and steps back into his position of relative shadow.
This happened five times, without dialogue, without music. I could hear the air whooshing from the cooling vents in the Winter Garden Theater (my father was in HVAC, so I notice these things). From the audience, there was no coughing, no rustling. There was not a throat clearing. I was aware of the spot on my spine that these days aches when I’ve been sitting too long and we were now entering the sixth hour of theater, but I compared my mild suffering–much like the many fervent clergy who had been part of the five hours of drama preceeding this moment, who flamboyantly proclaimed their willingness to suffer to achieve salvation–to that of what Ben Miles must be experiencing. For two and half hours that afternoon, and two and a half hours that evening, he had been onstage the entire time. He would start to exit a scene, then pivot to face a new set of players, like a knight on a chessboard. He rarely (and I do mean rarely) even sat down. When he wasn’t standing or moving, he was kneeling to a king or a bishop, a former queen, a queen to be.
Wolf Hall is being presented on Broadway by the RSC in two discrete plays: Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies, each based upon the book of the same title. They are the first two books (each won the Booker prize, a rarity for a series) of a trilogy by Hilary Mantel about Thomas Cromwell, and his role during part of the reign of King Henry VIII. Tudor England has always interested me, since Anne of a Thousand Days, which I didn’t get to see when it was first released but read the book, which was most likely a novelization of a screenplay based on a play, but I was a child at the time, so I read anything I could get my hands on. I’m a bit more discriminating now, and perhaps I’m fairly arrogant about my own writing, but it is rare that I read a novel by a contemporary author and think, maybe I should just hang this up and open a wine bar, because I will never be that. But that is how I felt when I read Wolf Hall, and I proceeded, while waiting for Bring Up the Bodies, to read her other writings, and to generally worship Hilary Mantel (see my earlier post, “History Dames”). For me, the Broadway production of Wolf Hall was among the best theater I have ever seen.
The dialogue is witty and contemporary without seeming anachronistic. Much of it is taken directly from the books, so much so that the Tony nominating committee has decided that Hilary Mantel should be credited as a co-playwright. The production values are of the latest trend for the RSC — large, high sets with minimal props (tables, chairs) brought on and removed by the actors, with the interesting (and well-used in this case) innovation of strips of fire to indicate the fire of a fireplace and also the mayhem of vandalizing fire. This firestrip was also put to use in the recent and uneasy Romeo and Juliet with Orlando Bloom. That production suffered, as Wolf Hall does not, with a number of “look at me! I’m acting!” performances. You don’t look at the acting in Wolf Hall because you are watching the characters–easily manipulated Henry, overplaying-her-hand Anne, boasting George Boleyn, and always the crafty, patient, loyal and vengeful Cromwell. Thanks to the skill of the writing and acting, they are swiftly familiar and often exasperating, like more clever and less clumsy versions of people you already know.
All that said, this might not be the play for you. This was a self-selecting audience: one with enough money for the tickets (if you buy tickets to both you get a break, but it’s still $220 for a day’s entertainment) and enough education and interest in this specific area of history. A man turned around during intermission of the first play to ask if I was a teacher (I’ve learned that if, while sitting in the audience at a play, you mention more than two other plays, people think you are a teacher.) He told me that he had taught high school English for 38 years, which made him, in my eyes, a far greater martyr than Sir Thomas More on stage there. The woman in the next seat for the second play spoke at length to me about the novels, reminding me of bits of dialogue I’d forgotten.
We audience were primarily women. I’d say 85%. We were all ardent fans already. From the conversations I had with seatmates, ladies-in-waiting for the restroom, and people at the next table at dinner (during the dinner break, which comes relatively early, so it was easy to spot fellow “Wolf Hall-ers”) the audience had read the books and/or but mainly and were watching the PBS series. If you don’t know what you are going to see, you would be lost. There are a few grounding bits of dialogue (“It’s been 18 years!” and “this is 1503!”) but no long expository exchanges of dialogue. The scenes are swift and cinematic, but there is a lot of ground to cover.
Theater is spectacle, and Wolf Hall is spectacular. The stagecraft alone — the lighting and the costumes — are breathtaking. Characters scurry about, becapped, in black, dark grey or foreshadowing blood-red, scurrying across the stage, scheming, betraying, blundering, while Cromwell, who unveils new hard-won skills only when they are needed (“I was a solider.” “I was in the silk trade.” “I was a banker in Florence.”) keeps a ledger of grudges and insults, scores he will settle.
On occasion the busyness stops and we are caught in a tableau, as when Henry signs the death warrants, when Cromwell, spends a last quiet moment with his wife, when meek Jane Seymour, in virginial white, penetrates Cromwell’s many masks with her sincere offering of sympathy for the loss of his wife and daughters. These scenes are lit like a Vermeer painting, except that in Vermeer, women in isolated rooms sit in the illumination of a window, sewing a hem, writing a letter, awaiting their fate, which will be decided in a far different painting, say, a Rembrandt, where sallow men bicker over points of theology and law, or an impromptu militia charges into heedless action.
Henry wanted a son so that upon his death England would not descend into the civil war from which it had only recently emerged. Protestant stirrings were creeping in from the low countries, after the invention of the printing press increased the availability of books, leading to an increase of literacy, leading to the idea that people might want to read Scripture themselves in their native tongue, rather than have it presented to them by a priest. “Is there a Pope in the Bible?” asks Cromwell. “Are there monks, nuns?” Wolf Hall balances these and a dozen other ideas — how harshly grief haunts, the harsh demands of loyalty, the fleeting nature of power — and in doing so creates a world I never wanted to leave, even after five and a half hours.
Yesterday was my birthday and when I looked in the mirror, I realized I had Lady Hair. It’s not quite “the helmet.” I don’t set it in rollers or cover it in hairspray (does anyone do that anymore?) but it’s definitely short in the “this is all the hair you get” way rather than the “this flatters my face” way. Last fall I walked into the salon and told my stylist, “Let’s just end this.” “This” being the ends that would never re-ravel and grow healthy, but would always remain split, and broken, until I cut them off.
This is a metaphor, you see.
This week the weather began to flirt with spring and one morning I decided that I could resume the ritual of my morning walk. My morning walk means I forego the subway and walk about a mile and a half to catch a bus which will take me over the Queensboro Bridge and drop me off a mere block from my office. While walking through Astoria’s still (but threatened) pleasantly residential streets, I listen to podcasts. Monday, I started with This American Life (“TAL”).
And it was devastating.
This week’s episode explored some happy-clappy initiative a decade back where extremely poor high school students in the South Bronx were paired up with pen pals at an elite ($43,000 a year in tuition. For high school.) Westchester private school. One day there was a field trip. The Bronx students piled into a bus and were released three miles later (the episode is called “Three Miles”) onto a verdant, hilly campus with a pool, a dance studio, and a freestanding library.
And one Bronx student, Melanie, had a meltdown.
She realized at that moment, she told the TAL reporter who tracked her down with no little difficulty ten years later, that the game was rigged. Potential was a lie. The elite students would be doctors, lawyers, professionals, while she and her classmates would grow up to mop their floors and hold their doors. Melanie was bright and driven. She had been outraged at her surroundings on her first day of high school, a day she had happily anticipated all her life. She knew she deserved better. Her high school had no library, no gym, no cafeteria, no playground, and she appears to have achieved her education mostly on her own. She earned a spot to complete for one of the scholarship granted by The Posse Foundation (the process, however well-intended, comes off as a bit callous and dismissive). She made it to the final round for a full ride to Middlebury College. And then she was rejected.
“Devastated” is an overused word, but here are the actions taken by the 17 year old Melanie after she was rejected by the Posse Foundation. She didn’t apply to any other college. She didn’t apply to a state college, where she might have thrived among more similar students. She didn’t apply to a city college, or one of the borough community colleges. She was a loser, in her own eyes. Worthless. She hated herself for not getting into Middlebury. Her sense of failure and shame became her Scarlet Letter. She took her GED exam, left high school before her classmates graduated, and vanished from the lives of everyone who cared about her. It took the TAL reporter serious legwork to track Melanie down. Melanie now works in a grocery store on Sixth Avenue. She has a boyfriend, she takes the occasional college course, but she has words for the guidance counselors and careworn teachers of her high school, who had been startled out of their besiegement by her “potential”: “Be fuckin’ realistic. Don’t tell me I can ‘achieve anything.’ Don’t tell me I can go to Harvard. Be fuckin’ realistic.”
Having been held up as a beacon of what is possible was too much of a burden, particularly when there was no one to share that burden, no role models, no educated parents, no community support. (TAL went on to explore Posse Foundation students who did make it to college, only to flounder there as strangers in a strange land, too ashamed of their poverty, their lack of resources, and their “otherness” to even ask for help.)
Which brings me back to me. What is possible, with what is left? I started library school with the idea that it would open up for me a whole new world. And now I believe it can only enhance the world I have. Not a small thing, but a different thing. I’m not going to switch careers, most likely, in the late innings of my working life. Unless my circumstances change by a choice not made by me, I’m staying put, and getting better at what I do where I do it. My classmates, mainly debt-soaked, idealistic, magical-thinking twenty-somethings (“Oh, I know I’ll never pay off my loans!”), chatter happily about “user experience” and “information architecture,” and while I grumpily acknowledge that while these are good things to learn, I know that given the choice between a newly-minted MLIS graduate who grew up coding and whose work experience consists of unpaid internships, and a newly-minted MLIS graduate with twenty-five years of experience (and who remembers DOS) in the well-compensated corporate world, who wouldn’t choose the newer, cheaper model?
This degree is a walking stick, not a stepping stone.
Be fuckin’ realistic.
I have been struggling this semester because I have been trying to secure representation for a novel while writing another novel. I am also enrolled in two classes, one of them with an aloof hipster tech-snob professor (who has little interest in teaching, let alone teaching middle-aged students who ask questions), all while working more than 40 hours a week at a major international law firm, where I perform work I take pleasure in doing well.
Work, school, writing. In order of importance according to passion: writing, work, school. In order of importance according to being fuckin’ realistic: writing, work, school.
Soooooo . . . not so good at school as I’d have liked to be. Not so much a literary genius in the marketplace at writing as I had hoped when I set out. Strangely contented in my work life, which is down I suppose to my being fuckin’ realistic. This is all the hair I get.
Last night I went to the 92nd St. Y to see Hilary Mantel with Jeremy Herrin, who is the director of the upcoming Broadway production of Wolf Hall, in a conversation moderated by Candice Bergen, who wore bright red laces in her high-top sneakers. I was invited by my friend Leslie, who has invited me to at least a dozen things this quarter (she is quite the culture vulture) but due to my schedule of day job as a researcher, writing and grad school, I have always said no. Hilary Mantel was too good to pass up, however. And she did not disappoint.
I hadn’t planned to take notes, but she kept saying such interesting things. As a historical novelist myself (and yes, I realize what that sounds like, putting myself in the same paragraph with Dame Mantel), I have had a recent problem with two of my characters, Nick and Daisy, frisking around in the attic of my brain when I am meant to be doing homework. Where were they during winter break? (To be fair, during winter break, I was polishing the novel I am now trying to sell, Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me, and the characters barging into grad school studying are the fresher (in the sense that I haven’t been writing them for SEVEN YEARS), fiestier characters from Untitled Berlin Love Story.
“I had wanted to write about Thomas Cromwell for more than thirty years,” Dame Mantel said, which made me feel slightly better about my seven, and also prompted me to reach into my bag for a notebook and pen. We must remember when writing historical fiction, she said, that we are writing “characters who are ignorant of their own fate . . . [unaware that their choices] have cascades of consequences that go down through generations. They’re not people in history. They’re people in their lives.”
As a researcher, I was gratified to hear Dame Mantel state that the does her own research and has no assistants. “How do you know what you need to know until you come across it?” she asked, adding that research is “a devious process. I don’t see how you can delegate it. The research is just as creative as the writing itself.”
As for how she does what she does: “A novel is an inherently unpredictable thing.” and “I write in scenes and I put it together like a collage.” (She is currently writing the third volume in the Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.) When questioned about her “routine,” she said “I don’t really understand writing routines. I am writing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Nobody gives you a holiday. You take your sensibility with you everywhere.”
This was gratifying as well, since I remain bruised from an interrogation a couple of years back by a leader of a short-term workshop I was in, who demanded that I explain my “practice.” What room did I write in, did I write first thing in the morning, did I set aside a time every day? This same woman was initially delighted that I was going to start graduate school, but then horrified to learn that I did not intend to quit my job to do so. “When will you have time to write? You’re a WRITER!” How, um, I asked her, did she think I was going to pay for grad school without a job? “Can’t you get a grant? You’re a WRITER!”
She is a child of the 60’s but even so. In the 60’s, was there an abundance of grants which provided housing, food, medical insurance to women of an age more likely to have children in grad school than to be in grad school? But then, we were obviously of different mindsets. For one thing, the workshop was in “flash fiction,” which I don’t read, don’t understand and, as it became apparent, can’t write. For another, I don’t “practice” writing, as it is not law, medicine, or religion. I write novels. I take my sensibility with me everywhere.
And a novel is an inherently unpredictable thing.
A homework assignment I thought I’d share.
In a fascinating article in the September 29, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, called “The Solace of Oblivion,” legal reporter Jeffrey Toobin examines the discrepancy between the United States and the European Union regarding privacy on the Internet. He quotes the director of civil liberties from the Stanford Center for Internet and Society as saying “Europeans think of the right to privacy as a fundamental human right in the way we [Americans] think of freedom of expression or the right to counsel.” Toobin traces the grisly story of the fight of Christos Catsouras, a bereaved father trying to force Google to remove photos of his daughter’s decapitated corpse, which morgue attendants had taken and then e-mailed to several friends as a “Halloween prank.” The images soon went viral and now appear whenever the young woman’s name is googled. The father cannot compel Google to remove the photos. (He eventually sued for emotional damages.)
By contrast, an irritated Spanish property owner sued to have removed information regarding certain of his debts which were settled but still popped up whenever his name was Googled. The Spanish Data Protection Agency granted the claim against Google. In May 2013, the affirmation was upheld by the European Court of Justice, a kind of Supreme Court for members of the EU, which wrote that all individuals in EU countries had the right to prohibit Google from linking to items that were “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed.”
This quickly became known as the “right to be forgotten.”
Google is annoyed. Its general counsel states “we like to think of ourselves as a card catalogue.” The president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in D.C. argues “Google is no longer the card catalogue. It is the library – and it’s the bookstore and the newsstand.”
Is Google a card catalogue or a library? A recent article in Law Technology News (LTN) asserts that it is a crime scene:
Even though the Internet has been, is, and always will be a crime scene, there are, at last count, 634 million websites and 2.4 billion users. The Internet is here to stay and nobody is going to uninvent it. Because the online world mirrors the real world, the millions of people who go to New York or London or Paris or Delhi, knowing there’s a chance they’ll get robbed or ripped off, go because they feel they’re taking an acceptable risk. They go online feeling the same.
(“Grey Questions,” 8/27/14 — hyperlink not available as it is a subscription service)
In September, a European Commission began to offer guidelines for how European courts should handle “right to be forgotten” complaints and plans to issue a full set of guidelines in November. An article in The Asian Lawyer states, “Google revealed in July that it had already received “right to be forgotten” requests from 91,000 individuals in Europe.” (“European Commission to Offer Guidelines on `Right to Be Forgotten,’” 9/22/14 – hyperlink not available as it is a subscription service).
Toobin relates Google’s elaborate system for complying with such requests, but this New York Times article
lays it out more clearly.
• Do not retaliate against someone online
• Take a screen shot and record the evidence
• Use this online form to report the violation to Facebook.
• Use this online form to report a copyright infringement on YouTube.
(In the quoted New York Times article, a mother writes of having posted a video of her four-year-old daughter discussing racism to her private youtube channel to share her daughter’s views with friends. Someone else downloaded it, altered it, stripped it of identifying details, changed the title, and reuploaded it to general youtube. The video was shared 80,000 times and was aired on the television show “The View.”)
The Internet is a crime scene, as the LTN article asserts, yet I disagree that it “mirrors the real world.” It would mirror the real world if in the real world we all went around in masks, costumes, and pseudonyms. It’s the power of anonymity and the lack of repercussions that makes Internet behavior so appalling, and the ease of access to potentially harmful or inaccurate information that makes it so fraught with danger. Also, LTN’s assertion that users log onto the internet feeling they’re taking an “acceptable risk,” as they would when traveling to a big city is not quite apt. What the Internet did to the Catsouras family was more akin to sending all the criminals from New York City crashing into their home to take up residence forever. This article points out that health care records could be compromised by hackers who could then upload them to the internet. “Internet regulation must recognize the power of certain dominant firms to shape impressions of individuals.” Impressions lead to reputation which lead to destiny. In the real world, we are quite resistant to other people shaping our destiny. Why should we allow it to happen online?
The information service profession is about information storage, retrieval, access, and user experience. We don’t allow malicious patrons, or even benevolent ones, to wander through our archives or our databases altering records, stealing them, or sharing them without authorization or consequences. Ultimately, I think, “the right to be forgotten” is not so much about privacy or free speech. It’s about control.