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[MARCH 2008.]

Charlotte Brontë, Villette

Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. New York: Modern Library, 2001 (1853).

Virginia Woolf said that Middlemarch was one of the few English novels written for grown-up people; Villette must also be on that short list, and its unerring wisdom and sobriety must be the reason it gets read less than Jane Eyre despite being, as I just found out, one of the very greatest novels in the literature. Lucy Snowe, our narrator/heroine, is not herself unerringly wise or sober—that wouldn’t make much of a novel—but she knows her own heart and spares herself nothing, not least the constant recognition that by usual standards she ought not to be in the book at all. Plain and poor, possessing no virtues but a fathomless moral intelligence, she is obliged to work for a living without hope of relieving that obligation by inheritance or marriage; thus if she could be expected to claim any place in the novel, at most it would be that of confidante to the real heroine—here, either the boundlessly annoying Ginevra or the more artless Paulina, both of whom Lucy does advise, and both of whom do claim their appointed rewards. That Lucy is, notwithstanding, the structural center means that she has to spend the entire book fighting for her own existence. And what existence might be possible for such as her—what is given, what is taken away—leads into one of the cruelest and most beautiful endings I have ever read.

toujours villette!


Why do we keep driving across Nevada? I don’t know, but on Wednesday epic winds were blowing across the plains, kicking up dust and darkening half the sky. What is up with this, I asked, and J. said, “A complex emergent phenomenon”: egghead. Armies of tumbleweeds came bouncing across the road; when cars hit them, our own included, they puffed out into evanescent clouds of twigs, like bad guys in a video game. Those that survived the passage would get caught on the miles of barbed wire fence that run along the highway to screen off the range lands. When we drove back the next day they had piled ten deep along the fences, on both sides of the road, for mile after mile. We made out a column of smoke, a glint of red flame, and as we got closer we saw about fifteen people from the highway department standing around the fence in their orange overalls, watching a pile of weeds burn down. But is that what they’re planning along the entire highway? It will take months to burn them all.


André Gide, L'Immoraliste

Gide, André. L’Immoraliste. Paris: Gallimard, 1972 (1902).

How the wastes of North Africa remind me of the Greeks! Ah, the Greeks, for whom philosophy was a natural outgrowth of poetry, poetry but a dialect of philosophy, who practiced all arts naturally—and boy-love—What? Who said that? Silence, devil! BOYLOVE Ah, my wife will be inconsolable! HOT ARAB BOYS WITH BRONZED LIMBS But what is your morality to me—I must discover my true self—why do I always end up down by the canal where the boys go swimming? Sultry Africa! Oscar Wilde, you never should have taken me to that club!


I do well in the quiet, high, bright places. When I was in better shape I would climb mountains; now I have to settle for walking to campus and perching on a wall above the current construction site, which blessedly sleeps weekends. Cool bay air, sparrows. A towhee scratching for morsels under the leaf carpet. The occasional well-groomed undergraduate walking by with sandals on his lily-white feet.

Mundo mundo vasto mundo! Not over yet.





Black beans, carrots, onions, mushrooms, red potatoes, edamame, spices, sauce. Let it in; make it better.


I am trying to read Gide in French, and it is all right except that I don’t understand the function of all the farms and horses in the middle. J. is at work on her winter quarter papers, and it is a slow haul up a rocky slope but it is getting done: go J. I am in my department building on the weekend because I am lightly rooted and go with the prevailing winds; and when I climb up the unswept stairs I ask myself, “Is this a home? In what sense has this been a home?” Dumb question to ask a building. I never like the talks that are advertised on the bulletin boards, and right here next to the computer is a copy of the 1603 quarto edition of Hamlet, and damned if I know what to do with it, if I could make a life of doing things to it, or of encouraging others to do the same.

I have been here nearly four years, because I am very good at staying on the racetrack as long as there are clearly marked hurdles, so I hear that I need to start professionalizing. Now I just forgot to send in any conference abstacts before the MLA deadline, because fuck the MLA. Oh dear. If labor is alienating always and everywhere, why pick this? I drank coffee until my head unscrewed and spat out steam, then followed the ravens over the grass. That is the self of youth, I guess, and the ravens will still be around when youth is gone.


Jean Racine, Andromaque

Racine, Jean. Andromaque. En Théatre Complet I. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1964 (1668).

I had expected this one to end up more or less like Phèdre; a consecutive chain of unrequited desire threatens to undermine projects of state... meanwhile Andromaque, in the impossible position of extortion for her son’s life, is forced to simultaneously plot his salvation and her own death. You could derive the whole thing from the fact that larmes rhymes with charmes, and that isn’t a knock; Racine’s simplicity is his beauty. So I was bouncing along with the alexandrines, appreciating the rhetoric and expecting the usual relaxant catharsis with all the aristocrats dying—and that is sort of what happens, but the fifth act brings a number of reversals that I really wasn’t expecting and which leave the violence frighteningly unfinished. As the curtain falls the Trojan War is set to start all over again, in displaced form, and Aeschylus could have told you that an infinite revenge cycle yields no tragic comfort at all. It gives me the fantods. I have to go to bed.


And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so. He knows instinctively that this space identified with his solitude is creative; that even when it is forever expunged from the present, when, henceforth, it is alien to all the promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic. We return to them in our night dreams. These retreats have the value of a shell. And when we reach the very end of the labyrinths of sleep, when we attain to the regions of deep slumber, we may perhaps experience a type of repose that is pre-human; pre-human, in this case, approaching the immemorial. But in the daydream itself, the recollection of moments of confined, simple, shut-in space are experiences of heartwarming space, of a space that does not seek to become extended, but would like above all still to be possessed. In the past, the attic may have seemed too small, it may have seemed cold in winter and hot in summer. Now, however, in memory recaptured through daydreams, it is hard to say through what syncretism the attic is at once small and large, warm and cool, always comforting.

—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

c'est fantastique dedans la périphérique


Jean Racine, Phèdre

Racine, Jean. Phèdre. Translated by Margaret Rawlings. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1962 (1677).

The way to read this, I discovered, is to sit down with a bilingual text and a library DVD of the sixties film version; when I tried to read the alexandrines in my head they kept falling into the rhythm of The Steeple-Chase, and this high-school version excerpted on YouTube, while charming, does not exactly convince one that Racine is a crown jewel of Western culture. Admittedly, the film had a weird Moorish-castle set, relied on a lot of voiceover whispering punctuated by the periodic cri de coeur, and would cut to a slow-motion shot of the ocean whenever Neptune was evoked. Doubly amazing, then, that the play itself turns out to be a wonder.

I take Erich Auerbach’s point about how far removed the play is from social reality; we never see the ruling family do anything in the way of governing, they’re just ontologically royal, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to have properly august emotions. That granted, the play isn’t unaware of its own grounding:


Ne vaudrait-il pas mieux, digne sang de Minos,
Dans de plus nobles soins chercher votre repos,
Contre un ingrat qui plaît recourir à la fuite,
Régner, et de l’État embrasser la conduite?


Moi, régner! Moi, ranger un État sous ma loi,
Quand ma faible raison ne règne plus sur moi!
Lorsque j’ai de mes sens abandonné l’empire!
Quand sous un joug honteux à peine je respire!
Quand je me meurs!


Would it not better suit the blood of Minos
to seek your respite in more noble cares,
to spurn a wretch who takes so soon to flight,
and reign? To embrace the conduct of the state?


I, reign! I, fix a state beneath my law,
when my frail reason governs me no more!
When I have lost the empire of my senses!
When every breath pulls taut the yoke of shame!
When I am dying!

I will admit to a soft spot for the incest tragedy; the premodern idea of passion as something foreign and deadly always struck a chord, and incest is such a satisfying way to render it utterly destabilizing and beyond the social pale.

Ce n’est plus une ardeur dans mes veins cachée:
C’est Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée.

This is no passion hidden in my veins:
now Venus in full flower grips her prey.

I originally wanted to read Racine because of the impression he had made on Beckett, and it made sense by the end; neither the plotting nor the style sprouts the constant excrescences and divagations of Elizabethan tragedy. It is a single perfect sphere, rolling along an inclined plane and flattening everything it meets.


J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year

Coetzee, J.M. Diary of a Bad Year. New York: Viking Penguin, 2007.

The major departure in Coetzee’s new novel isn’t the split-page format that shares real estate between different narrators; the dialogic mode is perfect for an author whose stylistic signature is the question that looks like a rhetorical question until you realize that he doesn’t actually mean to answer it. What is daring about this book, and ends up qualifying its success, is the decision to make one of the narrators a young Filipina immigrant. For good or ill, Coetzee’s sentences are very much his own; they transfer well enough onto a certain spectrum of characters, but it isn’t clear how he wants to work this one. Sometimes she talks simply and, we assume, naturalistically: “Crumbs everywhere, even on his desk. Cockroach heaven. No wonder his teeth are so bad. Crunch-crunch scribble-scribble talk-talk.” Then the ideas come to the fore, and she starts talking like this:

So I say, But is Señor C really such a fraud? Don’t we all have opinions that we try to extend into the real world? For example, I have opinions about colour and style, about what goes with what. So when I go to the shoe shop, I buy shoes that in my opinion match the dress I bought yesterday. As a result of that opinion the shoe shop makes money, the factory that made the shoes makes money, the importer that imported them, and so forth. How is that different from Señor C?

I am sorry to say of one of my favorite living writers that this bit kind of hurt to read. The premise-conclusion format erases her individual speech markers in favor of neutral and correct constructions from written English (“for example,” “as a result,” “so forth”); presumably we are supposed to recognize the young woman’s continued presence only in the choice of shoe shopping as an example. (A similar passage elsewhere finds her using makeup as a metaphor for the changeful social self.) Of course literature of the last century has done a lot to question the relation between subject-position and language, and sometimes it’s clear that Coetzee is lending the character some of his technique for the sake of vividness: “sheathed in tight denim,” “his eyes avid upon me.” But the shoe paragraph does not seem like that; it’s just a failure of imagination.

Why, then, did the end of the novel move me, especially since it’s just a variant on the old story of a young hedonistic Muse renewing an old man on the way out of life? (Of course, this being Coetzee, the sexuality is tastefully displaced into hypotheticals.) Perhaps because of its conjunction with this late note, which expresses something about elective affinities that I’ve never quite known how to say:

The best proof we have that life is good, and therefore that there may perhaps be a God after all, who has our welfare at heart, is that to each of us, on the day we are born, comes the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. It comes as a gift, unmerited, for free.

How I would like to speak just once to that man, dead now these many years! “See how we in the twenty-first century still play your music, how we revere and love it, how we are absorbed and moved and fortified and made joyful by it,” I would say. “In the name of all mankind, please accept these words of tribute, inadequate though they are, and let all you endured in those bitter last years of yours, including the cruel surgical operations on your eyes, be forgotten.”

Why is it to Bach and Bach alone that I have this longing to speak? Why not Schubert (“Let the cruel poverty in which you had to live be forgotten”)? Why not Cervantes (“Let the cruel loss of your hand be forgotten”)? Who is Johann Sebastian Bach to me? In naming him, do I name the father I would elect if, from all the living and the dead, one were allowed to elect one’s father? Do I in this sense choose him as my spiritual father? And what is it that I want to make up for by bringing at last a first, faint smile to his lips? For having been, in my time, such a bad son?

oh, dear. there are no bad sons.


Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room

Woolf, Virginia. Jacob’s Room. New York: Norton, 2007 (1922).

This is the earliest Woolf I’ve read, and they say it’s the Woolf where she starts writing like Woolf; at any rate it’s as assured as Mrs. Dalloway and I may like it better. The net goes wider; we get a (truncated) life beyond a single day, an anthology of European landscapes beyond London, a confident movement between social classes without forced correspondences. Whatever Woolf may have to answer for in life, in this book she is no snob.

It gives nothing away to say that Jacob’s surname is Flanders, i.e. that he’s going to die in the war; if you can explain how a protagonist so clearly marked for death can avoid being determined by his end, then you have divined the heart of Woolf’s method, and I salute you. Obviously it has something to do with a calendar that answers neither to public time nor to individual memory; the book is full of virtuoso chronology, as when a kitten ages into a decrepit cat in the space of the page. And the balance between thinking and feeling is just right, since Jacob’s active intellectual life is generally alluded to rather than transcribed, and when he is naive and wrong, it is in very winning ways. He hurts his head reading the Phaedrus and has conversations with his friends about how they’re the only people who really understand Euripides, then goes off to Athens and gets sunburned and watches the guns fire off Piraeus. In sum he’s young and real, and I don’t think Woolf could have pulled him off had she not had one foot in and one foot out of British high culture.

(Note: one of these days I would like to do a study of the modernists and the Greeks, pitting Woolf’s gentle ironies against H.D.’s Bacchic-Sapphic landscapes or the pedants from America; respondebat Eliot: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω; and Pound’s “If you want to read Homer and all you know are modern languages, I can’t help you out; there are no good translations!” None of us actually know Greek, and Woolf had no problem pointing that out.)


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