Into the Ark

Into the Ark

An endless rain is just beginning.
Into the ark, for where else can you go,
you poems for a single voice,
private exultations,
unnecessary talents,
surplus curiosity,
short-range sorrows and fears,
eagerness to see things from all six sides.

Rivers are swelling and bursting their banks.
Into the ark, all you chiaroscuros and half-tones,
you details, ornaments, and whims,
silly exceptions,
forgotten signs,
countless shades of the color gray,
play for play’s sake,
and tears of mirth.

As far as the eye can see, there’s water and hazy horizon.
Into the ark, plans for the distant future,
joy in difference,
admiration for the better man,
choice not narrowed down to one of two,
outworn scruples,
time to think it over,
and the belief that all this
will still come in handy someday.

For the sake of the children
that we still are,
fairy tales have happy endings.
That’s the only finale that will do here, too.
The rain will stop,
the waves will subside,
the clouds will part
in the cleared-up sky,
and they’ll be once more what clouds overhead ought to be:
lofty and rather lighthearted
in their likeness to things
drying in the sun—
isles of bliss,

- Wislawa Szymborksa

Why I might read The Sense of an Ending

Why I Might Read The Sense of an Ending

The short answer? Considering it won The Man Booker  (in 2011), it might be more reasonable to wonder why I wouldn’t read The Sense of an Ending. But when it came out, a few friends said they’d been disappointed by it. One friend hated it. For better or (possibly) for worse, I tend to skip prize-winning books written by men in favor of other books written by women. And so I skipped The Sense of an Ending

But now I might read it. I’ve been staying in a house filled with someone else’s library. Like most things here, the books are well-chosen, eclectic and strongly individual: preferences for Flannery O’Connor, Gabriel García Márquez, Annie Dillard, Robinson Davies, and O. Henry prize-winning short story anthologies. There are also several paperback novels by Julian Barnes (who wrote The Sense of an Ending). I finally got around to reading one of them and it impressed me. That begins the long answer. 

"Staring at the Sun" by Julian Barnes

“Staring at the Sun”     by Julian Barnes

Staring at the Sun was published more than 20 years ago, in 1986. Before I checked the publication date, I would have guessed the book was more recent than that. Not that 1986 is so terribly long ago—this book just manages to feel quite contemporary as its story openly and skillfully travels forward from the past. Staring at the Sun follows the life of one woman, Jean Serjeant, beginning with her 1920s childhood adventures caddying for her charming, lonely, oddball Uncle Leslie, following her late-adolescent fascination with Sergeant-Pilot Tommy Prosser, a grounded RAF officer billeted with her family and then her late-WWII marriage to a police officer named Michael.

After twenty years of childless, largely loveless, and in her eyes, fairly typical conjugal partnership, Jean unexpectedly becomes pregnant. When her husband asks her what she plans to do, she replies “Oh, I’m going to have the baby and leave you…But I expect I’ll leave you and then have the baby. I expect I’ll do it that way around.” And leave him she does, raising her son, Gregory, in a state of perpetual flight from one low-rent apartment building to another. Once he is safely installed in self-sufficient adulthood, Jean continues to fly, traveling to China, the Grand Canyon, wherever she can manage, almost always alone. Her observations about the world are keen and intelligent and humorously matter-of-fact and her curiosity is unending. She’s a wonderful protagonist. 

The novel wraps up as Jean Serjeant, now nearly 100 years old and living in a sci-fi-esque, eerily prescient, 21st century (where most information is instantly available via computer and you can apply to speak to TAT, a restricted-use area of the universal database whose acronym stands for The Absolute Truth), after a life spent thinking about how to live, begins to think about how to die. Even this has been made “easier” in the first years of the imagined new millennium.

This book was funny, smart and exquisitely well-crafted. The most compelling part of the novel for me was Jean’s relationship to a man she barely knew, the pilot, Tommy Prosser. As Barnes suggests through the delicate similarity between Jean’s surname (Serjeant) and Tommy’s rank (Sergeant), these characters share a deep, imperfect sympathy. Or at least, Jean shares a deep sympathy with her memories of Tommy Prosser. “I’ll tell you the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he says to Jean one morning in her kitchen, and then he describes for her an ordinary miracle neither of them will ever forget: flying back from France across the English channel one morning at dawn, he watched the sun rise in the east. Aware of how visible his black-painted plane was in the light, he climbed back into darkness and then dropped into such a fast dive that his speed drove the sun back beneath the horizon. As he approached England, it climbed out of the darkness for a second time. Two dawns on the same day. Strange, solitary beauty in the midst of a war full of horrors and loss.

Two dawns—the sort of thing you can’t really see if you obey the prohibition not to stare at the sun, or if you follow other rules that keep you grounded in normalcy. But the moment you disobey, you realize that some facts and impossibilities are little more than matters of popular habit and agreement. This is a book about Jean’s curiosity teaching her to disobey the major rule of her existence (“to obey”) and about everything she sees after that. It is also a novel about the rules that most concern us—you know, the ones about life leading inevitably to death—and how to go about living within them. It’s not a life-changing book, but it was a very good one. Good enough to get me to read something else by Julian Barnes. Like maybe The Sense of an Ending.



Postal Reading Challenge: Why I Didn’t Read Willa Cather’s Letters.

(part of the Postal Reading Challenge hosted by Melwyk at The Indextrious Reader)

Why I didn’t read Willa Cather’s letters.

Willa Cather in 1926. Photograph by Edward Steichen.

Willa Cather in 1926. Photograph by Edward Steichen.

The short answer? I had to return the library book.

The long answer? Well, it starts with the fact that Willa Cather didn’t want me to read them.

“Before Willa Cather died, she did what she could to prevent this book from ever existing,” write editors Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout in the first sentence of their introduction to The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. “[Cather] made a will that clearly forbade all publication of her letters, in full or in part. And now we flagrantly defy Cather’s will in the belief that her decision, made in the last, dark years of her life and honored for more than half a century, is outweighed by the value of making these letters available to readers all over the world.”

A tough call, I think, weighing the rights and wishes of an author against those of her readers. Do readers really have such rights?

Various biographers of Cather have hypothesized as to why she constructed a will so overtly aimed at controlling the use of her correspondence, why she seemed so obsessed with protecting her privacy. I don’t know the details of Cather’s biography nor am I very familiar with her personality beyond what one can gather about an author’s mind through her fiction (more of a texture than a portrait). But as a letter writer myself, I can absolutely understand the desire to protect the privacy of my correspondence, to keep that avenue between my mind, writing the letter, and the mind that I’m writing it to, as narrow as possible. You can give a lot of yourself away in letters, especially if you’re writing to someone you trust. It’s one of the great things about the form, I think. I keep copies or images of most of my letters and whenever I look back over them, I realize I’ve admitted things I wasn’t aware of admitting, that I’ve struggled overtly with things I thought I was keeping closely under wraps, that I’m more palpably and vulnerably present on the page than I either intended or suspected myself to be. In my letters I see myself captured in moments of time so often exceptionally slender and always irrevocably past.

Cather may have had greater control over what she disclosed and did not disclose to her correspondents than I do—but even so, she had a right to protect her own privacy and she exercised it to its fullest extent. I don’t think there’s any great moral harm in collecting her letters at this point and I can understand the argument that her stature as a canonical American author demands this sort of breach of her personal privacy as a matter of respect for her public presence within the American literary tradition. This is a different era than the one Cather lived and died in—privacy is a different thing, maybe an impossible thing. I didn’t read the introduction to The Selected Letters of Willa Cather closely enough to remember whether or not the editors make a guess about Cather herself would say about her letters being published in this form today.

I’m not a Willa Cather scholar. I’m a Willa Cather admirer—I love the clean, elusive complexity of her prose, her confidence as a writer, the quiet theatricality in her use of frame narratives, and, most of all, the way she tells a damn good story. I know far less about her life and her character than Jewell and Stout. But I’ll hazard a guess: I bet Cather would say “Leave my letters alone. Go read my novels.” So until I’ve finished them all, I’ll do that.

Postal Reading Challenge: Dear Tiny Heart

In January or thereabouts, I signed on to a Postal Reading Challenge created by Melwyk at  The Indextrious Reader. I was coming of What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, a book I adored, and I was (still am) purposefully and naively ignoring the demands of graduate school and the way it makes it impossible for me to read for pleasure, let alone to writing about doing so, so I’ve been a bit slow on the uptake getting the Postal Reading challenge underway. However, at the end of spring quarter my advisor loaned me a copy of Dear Tiny Heart: The Letters of Jane Heap and Florence Reynolds and this mixture of pleasure and obligation (not a book for a class, but still a book given to me by a professor) was just enough to get me to read and write about a collection of letters for the first time this year.

As the full title indicates, Dear Tiny Heart collects the correspondence of modernist artist and writer Jane Heap and Florence Reynolds, one of Heap’s early lovers and her lifelong friend and supporter. To my eye, this is a slim, fragile book; the extant correspondence, as edited for this collection, is largely one-sided, comprised mostly of of Heap’s letters to Reynolds. This is completely understandable from a publishing or scholarly perspective, since Jane Heap is the major draw here. An understudied figure within the lively and much-examined world of transatlantic modernism, Heap co-edited the literary magazine, the Little Review, with her lover Margaret Anderson and her correspondence reveals her central position within the New York and Parisian artistic and literary circles better known for figures like Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But I missed the other side of the correspondence—original and engaging as Heap is (and she is!), I wanted to hear more from Reynolds, the steady, constant presence to whom Heap wrote regularly for nearly forty years. In the end though, the steady and constant correspondence of ordinary people is not the sort that is often published, unless the letters are distinguished either by extraordinary literary merit or the unusualness of the situation in which they were written.

Heap offers both: she is extraordinary and unusual. Dear Tiny Heart reveals the personal reflections of a woman who quietly and matter-of-factly (although sometimes exasperatedly) lived the life of a sexual radical. Heap (often best known in today for her androgynous self-presentation—you would probably recognize a picture of her sooner than the title of anything she published) offers intense, humorous and quick-moving renditions of her infatuations, relationships, jealousies and ruptures with other women and she writes often of her anything-but-ordinary family life. Despite her persistent need for money and her rapidly shifting, bohemian lifestyle, Heap adopted her ex-lover Anderson’s two nephews, supporting them financially and never failing in her loyalty as parent (even if she incisively notes their adolescent foibles and failings in her letters to Reynolds). Almost 90 years before ABC’s Modern Family, Heap writes, amusedly and quite accurately, “we’re moderns, those boys and I.”
There isn’t a wide audience for letters, certainly not for letters by a relatively unknown female modernist and her entirely unknown friend. This is the sort of book that takes advantage of its partial alliance to multiple existent demands in order justify its own creation. I don’t mean this in any way as a slight; the editors created a collection that could find several audiences, clearly and intentionally appealing to those who want to know more about the messy and passionate lives of high modernists in the 1920s, to scholars of 20th-Century lesbian identity, or to those interested in an artist’s reflections on her own growth and maturity. It’s interesting to consider the importance of these priorities in the editorial shaping of this and other collections of correspondence.
Dear Tiny Heart’s final section shifts the balance of addresser and addressee from Heap to Reynolds, containing letters written during World War II. These letters felt particularly moving and pertinent to me right now, as Reynolds grapples with her position of comfort and safety in a world where the threat and reality of violence elsewhere is brought home to her constantly with every radio broadcast and newspaper headline. Heap, writing from London, describes the craters from land mines streets away from her home and attests her commitment to staying where she is, despite Reynold’s concerns. Both writers are clearly conscious of government surveillance and censorship, writing circuitously at points to disguise certain details of their relationship, but offering personal reflections on the grim and overwhelming international political situation all the while. That’s what I love about reading letters: the way written conversations from the past resonate with my life (and my written conversations) in the present. In the end, Dear Tiny Heart left me wishing I could read Heap and Reynold’s fuller correspondence—hardly a bad feeling to have on the final page of anything worth reading.