So aside from the fact that I want to ride Gustave Flaubert’s epic mustache like a cowboy wants to ride a wild stallion, I also really like his book Madame Bovary.
First published as a complete novel in 1857, Madame Bovary and her author Monsieur Flaubert there on the left were attacked for obscenity by the public, its trial and subsequent acquittal lent a fair hand in making the novel famous. It is now considered one of the most influencial books ever written and several top 100 lists, and in fact even a few top ten, stick it right up there in the number one or two spot. It most frequently stands beside Anna Karanina.
Madame Bovary is not a love story. It’s a story of realism and while you expect it would be a sweeping tale of romance wrapped up in juicy extra-marital affairs what the novel really represents is a perversion of values and how they will dehumanize those who hold such values. What we really have here is a morality tale, cloaked in the whispers and false promises of sweet nothings and satisfying trysts. And then she dies.
The main character, Emma Bovary idealizes romance and revels in secret letters, flirtations and clandestine affairs, believing them to be the very true nature of love. Then she finds herself horribly in debt, spurned by her former lovers and offering her own body in payment for bills she cannot possibly settle. Desperately Emma takes her own life, swallowing arsenic and dying slowly and painfully, her various life fluids gushing from her as a symbol of all the secrets that she kept from her naive and passionless husband. Then he dies too. It’s all quite tragic.
Flaubert did not sugar-coat or pander in his work, he started the realism movement, and influences how novels are written today. What readers come to expect from today’s authors, is a direct result of his presenting life as it is, without flourished embellishments or foolish idealism. While he presented ugly truths, he painted them beautifully, as an artist. He is precise, objective and emotionally restrained as a writer, yet he was able to take horrible things and describe them in ways that made them less ugly. Flaubert throughout his work also sought “le juste mot” the right word, rather than wrap it up in an approximate or something that didn’t quite fit, he always went for the unadorned, direct and sometimes brutal “juste mot”.
Here it comes, the J.D. Salinger post.
I was in the tenth grade when each student in my Honours English class was handed an identical copy of The Catcher in The Rye. It was white, with a little rainbow type thing in the corner and the title and author in bold black typeface.
My copy had been scrawled all over and I asked my teacher if I could swap for one without the notes in the margins. When I put my hand up and asked my teacher if I could have a new copy, he asked me if I was sure, he considered the margin notes of others to be “like gold” and thought it was unusual that I would reject a copy that had the answers and allegories and symbols all highlighted and spelled out for me in some other teenager’s painstakingly neat handwriting. My answer to him, as I handed the copy back, was that I didn’t want to be influenced by what anyone else thought before I formed my own opinions. He acquiesced and for the remainder of the semester, would flip through the copies of various other materials before he handed them to me, to ensure that my copy was scrawl free. I appreciated this in him, even if he graded me harshly which upon reflection I think may have been an attempt to encourage my grudging scholastic excellence.
To this day I am more successful if spite is a motivation factor for me.
But this post here is not about The Catcher in The Rye, I think I might be able to feel the collective relief that I am NOT writing about that particular novel, although I cannot guarantee that at some point there may not be a picture of me posted somewhere in this blog wearing roller skates and pretending to be Phoebe Caulfield. Instead I wanted to write about Franny and Zooey.
So Franny and Zooey was originally published as a short story and a novella, it’s two parts separate until 1961 when someone came up with the brilliant idea of sticking them together and making them a novel in two parts. It follows a long weekend in the lives of the two youngest Glass children. I loved this story from the first time I read it, sometimes there are just characters that get under your skin, and you immediately see the beauty in them, and I was in love with the Glass family.
The first part is Franny, it starts with Franny’s beau Lane waiting for her on the train platform, he is reading a letter that she mailed to him again, although he has read this letter many times, he acts as though he barely remembers it. He clearly feels very strongly about Franny, he has romantic notions about her raccoon shearling coat, thinks about kissing the collar of it, and how only he would recognize that coat on that particular train platform. However instead of telling any of this to Franny, who no doubt would love to hear such things, because at the end of the day we all want to be that special to someone, he starts prattling on about football games and frog’s legs.
Franny seems off, she tells Lane about a book that she’s been reading, called The Way of The Pilgrim, which is a Russian story about a pilgrim that gives up everything to wander the earth to learn to pray without ceasing, Franny is very much influenced by this book and has herself started to live more ascetically, leaving her college program and trying to be less pretentious and by all appearances seems to have stopped eating in her own attempt to pray without ceasing. After she collapses her part closes with her lips moving without sound, seemingly repeating the prayer found in The Way of The Pilgrim. (Incidentally I have a copy of this very book, and I intend to write about at some point.)
The second part of the story starts with Franny’s older brother Zooey, smoking in the tub and reading a letter from their older brother Buddy. He is interrupted by their mother Bessie, who comes in to tell him that Franny has collapsed in the restaurant with her boyfriend and is home, lying on the couch, refusing to eat and crying, all while holding on to the family cat and refusing to go back to school.
Zooey eventually tells his mother about the book, which she happened to find her brother’s bedroom and how both their older brothers Buddy and Seymour (who kills himself in another Salinger story, A Nice Day For Bananafish) and Zooey himself went through a phase of religious preoccupation. Zooey and Franny eventually speak and he encourages her to find the spiritual in everyday things, instead of trying to live like the Pilgrim, he uses their mother’s chicken soup as an example.
Franny has another breakdown as she and Zooey talk, and he calls her from another room in the house, pretending to be their brother Buddy, Franny eventually figures out that it is really Zooey and the two reconcile and he tells her something that allows her to rest, resolved in her spiritual crisis.
While on the surface, Franny and Zooey seems to be a book about dissatisfaction and a search for religious purity, under the surface it is to me, a much subtler book about the nature of love. Salinger himself cryptically called the second part “Zooey” a love story. The real root of the story is that everybody, regardless of class or education, or how petty and pretentious they are, deserve love. Franny and Zooey is a story about family love, and how that can be deeper and more true than any other sort of love there might be, while family may be the source of many problems, they are often, also the solution.
Perhaps, if you have been reading the various news feeds available across the urban sprawl of the Internets you may have come across this news snippet from the Associated Press :
Once I got over the condescension oozing from the reporter’s voice and only briefly focused on the ick factor that one immediately associates with the idea of lingering around the deceased, I was saddened and reminded of William Faulkner’s short story, A Rose For Emily.
You can read A Rose For Emily here, its brief, and not at all like The Sound and The Fury, which is impossible to read, instead its written in Faulkner’s usual literary voice, and quite a haunting tale. Haunting not in the way that its terrifying or will unnerve you, although perhaps I am just a little dark and find such things terribly romantic instead of disturbing and you will find it unnerving. A Rose For Emily strikes a chord with me because in the five short parts of the story it speaks of loneliness, isolation and the very things that make us human, the desire to love and be loved, and the failings of society, Faulkner himself stated that Emily “was a woman who had had a tragedy, an irrevocable tragedy and nothing could be done about it, and I pitied her and this was a salute (…)”.
In A Rose For Emily, Emily keeps the corpse of her alleged lover/husband in a bridal chamber in her home, and lies beside his remains every night. It is alluded that she killed him as well, but that’s not so much the point here. Written from the perspective of the town in which she lives, it’s tone ranges from ironic and confessional to hopeful and dare I say it, even romantic. But it’s also just a story. For Mrs. Stevens, the woman in the news clip above, it’s her life.
It’s not that hard to imagine why 91-year-old Jean Stevens would want to keep the remains of her twin sister and husband of over 60 years with her. It’s sad, and I feel compassion and empathy for her. She seems like a delightful, loving woman who just was not able to say goodbye and grieve in the way that our society has deemed “healthy” by the general standards of such things. I did some further digging (pardon that) and the local newspaper in her town stated Mrs. Stevens will be able to keep the remains of her loved ones on her property if she wishes to do so, provided they are housed in an appropriate mausoleum or crypt and she will not be charged with any crimes.
Our natural reaction to such things is revulsion, repulsion or immediately sticking a label on such behaviour, writing it off as mentally unstable or sick. Or worse, we mock – when we should strive to understand, and empathize. She’s lonely, her loved ones passed on and I think she was failed by society. Grief is deeply personal, and while there are measures in place by governing bodies and regulations to ensure public safety and dignified handling of human remains, I think her choices in how she expressed her grief are beyond anything that anyone other than Mrs. Stevens can fully understand.
All I hope is that Mrs. Stevens gets the support and compassion she clearly needs, and that the rest of her life is peaceful and filled with the love she so clearly demonstrates, poor, dear lady.
It occured to me after I had a conversation with a friend where it was mentioned that they have only allowed one other person to read their poetry, that writing is rather like getting naked in front of a stranger. By that token is asking someone if you can read what they have written rather like asking them to stand naked in front of you? This is like asking questions in a letter, but onwards anyway.
When I read a story or a poem that I really, really like, I do tend to get a sense of the writer themselves, which often encourages me to go in search of more information about them, which pushes me more towards reading those writers that have passed. The reason for this is two-fold. One, there is usually more information available on an individual once they have passed, and two, the information available is usually very, very interesting.
Writing is rather like standing naked in front of a stranger, in how it is very hard to write without judging yourself, feeling vulnerable and as though every flaw is being scrutinized, and not kindly at that.
There are certain writers that stay with you, Steinbeck for example with Cannery Row and East of Eden and The Pearl. Sylvia Plath and her attempts to drown herself only to be bobbed up and out of the ocean like a cork in The Bell Jar. The Tropic of Cancer and the whole “I can shoot hot bolts into you, Tania.” bit. These are the examples that come to mind for me now, without having to refer to my notes or book shelf, however there are scads of others which makes blogging about books easy, because I can always find something to ramble on about.
There is an intimacy that develops between writer and reader, a level of trust that the writer has to have to stand for all intents naked in front of their audience, and a certain tenderness required on the part of the reader. The tenderness is required because even if you didn’t love the book, there is a desire, at least for me, to not judge too harshly, to still love the writer for the effort.
I have now completely dissolved into a puddle of literary love.
At my non-interesting, non-literary day job, which sometimes runs over into evenings and weekends, I work with a group of about fifteen people. On a daily basis we send various e-mails back and forth about the usual things that happen on a daily basis at any average office.
One of these emails happened to be based around a team prize, and since we all work in an office and it is a soul crushing environment, a bottle of wine was suggested as a nice prize. Let’s be honest here, for a moment, alcohol and mind-numbing office work go hand in hand. Often you will hear at the end of any working day “I can’t wait to get home and have a glass of wine.” or “There is a cold beer in the fridge with my name on it.” We all know it’s true, any real job (read, the job that you took as a stopover to pay the bills while you waited for your golden opportunity to come by and it’s now been twenty years, and your youth and dignity are all but gone) that you know you are just doing for the pay and the benefits has its own special level of self medication that’s required to 1.) help you forget at the end of the day how awful the soul sucking, crushing weight of said employment is, and 2.) chill you the fuck out so you can get on with actually forking over a third of said soul sucking earnings to the Government. Why we do this, is a mystery left to the ages. Life is suffering, apparently.
Getting back to the email, my co-worker, was very enthusiastic about the bottle of wine, because as she so eloquently wrote to the entire team she is a “wineau”. W-I-N-E-A-U. I paused for a moment when I read that, now I knew from experience, that this was not a typo, not being the … ahem, brightest bulb at times, my co-worker had obviously never seen the word “wino” in print, and thus, typed it out phonetically, and quite cleverly. Given the geographic location of our office, and being Canadian I am sure also added to the ‘eau’ part on the end, the influence of French-Canadian speech patterns on our everyday language and the like. Did you know that poutine, for example, means mess? As in “ça va faire une maudite poutine”, which translates to “It will make a damn mess.” The more you know.
I paused because, in these cases such misspellings usually cause me to glance over and then scrap the whole conversation as I die a little inside. This one actually caused a smile, and then a laugh and then a declaration of it’s very genius. Wineau, of course, it’s like pronouncing Target with a French accent “Targe-aaay”, it just classes the whole thing up. It’s less paper bag on the corner and more, paper cup at a street festival. It’s not passing out in a puddle of your own sick, it’s declaring you have a headache and putting yourself to bed. It’s GENIUS!!! and I am appropriating it for my very own!
Now what, I am sure we are all wondering, does this have to do with books, or writers, or anything remotely on topic with the rest of this blog? Well, frankly, a lot of very good writers are drunks, or rather, wineaus.
Let’s look at the some of the better known ones:
Jack London : author of Call of the Wild and White Fang, “(…) There was no time, in all my waking time, that I didn’t want a drink. I began to anticipate the completion of my daily thousand words by taking a drink when only five hundred words were written. It was not long until I prefaced the beginning of the thousand words with a drink.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald : author of the Great Gatsby “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”
William Faulkner : author of The Sound and The Fury, I wrote about him here, on ikstim.
Ernest Hemingway : author of The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and The Sea, who is also tied forever in history to six-toed cats and for whom I named my perfect daiquiri. Recipe here.
Jack Kerouac : the daddy of the beat-generation, author of On the Road, The Dharma Bums and several other largely influential books, Kerouac died an early death caused by cirrhosis, after a lifetime of heavy drinking. “As I grew older I became a drunk. Why? Because I like ecstasy of the mind.”
Hunter S. Thompson : Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, do I need to write anything else? Oh here’s a quote, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
one more, Charles Bukowski : whom I love, to the nth degree, the Laureate of American lowlife, all of his stories involved heavy drinking, and even his live readings featured him getting bombed and having combative discussions with his audience.
Now that’s not to say that in order to become a great writer, you need to be on a bender all the time. Not at all, some of them take drugs.
The list above is only a short one and only mentioning a few American writers, I didn’t even get on the subject of the Russians, the French or the English. There are hundreds, thousands of writers, artists and performers that have substance abuse issues, for some it helps to quiet the deafening roar of the inner critic, to help them face the blank page, or simply to dull the pain of suffering for your craft. I am certainly not advocating abusing drugs and alcohol, in fact for many it was simply a short stop on the way to an early grave, either by disease caused by excessive drinking or at their own hands.
I can’t dispute however that some of the best literature, some of the most beautiful, heart-rending stories were written on liquor soaked pages, in a booze fueled haze of creativity. We all know the dangers of drinking, and for god’s sake, but more your own, don’t drink and drive. Stay home and read instead.