Blood Diamond

Image “The Moonstone” is a novel that after it is read, still seems impossible to write. First, there is the simple anomaly that “The Moonstone,” a detective fiction, not only resists the temptation to be read once and shelved after the mystery has been solved, but practically demands an immediate second reading and, even then, periodic revisits.

 There is the wonder of the Moonstone itself, a religious Indian gem with a purported history, which introduces the novel as an adventure mystery of Indiana Jones proportions, only to become lost within the first hundred pages to provoke not a reclamation mission of an epic scale, but a series of ill-fated relationships and romances. There is the marriage between sensationalism, popular science, and an esoteric curse, all functioning in curious harmony with one another. There is Collins executing a bevy of acrobatic tightrope walks: approving opium for the conciliatory benefits while condemning it for its addictiveness; vindicating rational English conduct while nuancing its cruelty to its colonies (India).   

 Perhaps more importantly of all though, “The Moonstone” is a wonder for the fact that, as Anthony Burgess echoes the feelings of many scholars somewhere in his “99 Novels”, it proves that genre writing can still have literary merit. Since scholars have beaten me to the punch on theme and literary resonance, it’s to “The Moonstone’s composition that I’ll focus my attention.

 The plot, if we really need to focus on it, is straightforward, though by no means simple. Following a turbulent and bloody history, the revered and mysterious moonstone comes into the possession of the commanding officer General Baird when, during the 1799 English assault of Seringapatam in India, he kills the Brahma guarding the stone and appropriates both the stone and a fatal curse for himself. Years go by and the General dies, but not before, in a vindictive act against his family and to the Indiana Brahmans who have attempted to recover the stone, he bequeaths the fated diamond to his niece Rachel.

 We enter the scene in the mid 19th century on the eve of Rachel’s eighteenth birthday. Mr Franklin Blake, a young suitor of repute and vigor, is to present the fabulous stone, now estimated at approximately £20,000, to the young lady as a birthday present. This is done and the next day the delighted birthday girl sports the jewel in her bodice, to little joy from her birthday companions who are curiously melancholy and out of sorts. The next day an alarm is risen: the moonstone is lost and foul play is suspected. Fingers point to a local band of ‘jugglers’ (Indians), but they are absolved on lack of evidence. Rachel is devastated and lashes out at Mr Blake as the latter attempts to console her. Authorities are brought in, and summarily brought out. Theories as to the stone’s whereabouts are bandied about, servants are insulted, Rachel is suspected and feelings are hurt, all to the tune of no avail. Clues point to clues point to clues point to no thing. “Whatever else happens,” Gustave Flaubert might have surmised, “we will remain stupid.”

This summary does little justice to the intricate mechanisms of the moonstone’s disappearance and a little more explanation is useful to see just how admirable Collins’ powers as a crime writer are. As in “The Woman In White” Collins uses the technique of multiple narrators to add a subjective flavor to an otherwise objective mystery. For our first voice there is the bemused butler Gabriel Betteredge, the most reasonable, likeable, and intelligent narrator of the bunch. When the household, following the disappearance of the moonstone, call in the private detective Sergeant Cuff from the still-new Scotland Yard, the reader cannot help but feel that Betteredge, had he twenty years younger, would have been the man for the job.

But Betteredge ends up serving the reader as a better servant-master than detective (though, despite his best intentions, he ends up doing both). Collins has a knack for distinctive voices that rivals his poise of plot construction, and he recognizes Betteredge’s introductory whimsy as a valuable asset to counterpoint the much more serous actions that occur later. Sergeant Cuff’s own rendition of this following scene in which he questions the servants would have been much graver and lengthier; Betteredge provides it as an amusing theme with variations:

“I sent them in, one by one, as desired. The cook was the first to enter the Court of Justice, otherwise my room. She remained but a short time. Report, on coming out: ‘Sergeant Cuff is depressed in his spirits; but Sergeant Cuff is a perfect gentleman.’ My lady’s own maid followed. Remained much longer. Report, on coming out: ‘If Sergeant Cuff doesn’t believe a respectable woman, he might keep his opinion to himself, at any rate!’ Penelope went next. Remained only a moment or two. Report, on coming out: ‘Sergeant Cuff is much to be pitied. He must have been crossed in love, father, when he was a young man.’ The first housemaid followed Penelope. Remained, like my lady’s maid, a long time. Report, on coming out: ‘I didn’t enter her ladyship’s service, Mr Betteredge, to be doubted to my face by a low police-officer!’ ”

 

 Miss Clack, the second narrator, deserves little direct attention but much praise. Her narrative, audaciously headed “The Discovery of the Truth”, is an outrageous parody of holier-than-thou Christians with too much indignant righteousness and not enough common sense to keep it to themselves. There’s no diamond in this section, nor is there a Rachel, Sergeant Cuff, or Mr Franklin. How does it fit? The answer is through Collins’ brilliant engineering. Betteredge’s narrative, which produced possible culprits and an article of evidence, concludes with a horrendous suicidal drowning which devastation can be felt in the shocked silence of the narrative’s lead players. There would have been shocked readers as well and Collins, a brilliant serializing novelist by this point in his career, would be all too aware that his readers needed a break from the sturm und drang of the suicide and its terrible Gothicism:

 “The tide was on the turn, and the horrid sand began to shiver. The broad brown face of it heaved slowly, and then dimpled and quivered all over. ‘Do you know what it looks like to me?’ says Rosanna…’It looks as if it had hundreds of suffocating people under it—all struggling to get to the surface, and all sinking lower and lower in the dreadful deeps!’ ”

But Collins is never wasteful of his characters and he never engineers one with a singular purpose. Miss Clack operates under hilarious and overblown Christian goodness while she sheds light on the character of Godfrey Ablewhite (a sycophantic surname if ever there was one), Rachel’s more prominent suitor and a man who possess dangerous talents over women:

“He led me to a chair. I haven an indistinct remembrance that he was very affectionate. I don’t think he put his arm round my waist to support me—but I am not sure. I was quite helpless, and his ways with ladies were very endearing. At any rate, we sat down. I can answer for that, if I can answer for nothing more.”

 

 As readers, we know what we’re meant to take away from this information but once we have what we want, we don’t know how to apply it. Such is another of Collins’ talents: the ability to give readers every puzzle piece without the glue to hold them together. And who can doubt Ablewhite’s guilt, after reading Miss Clack’s hazy encounter and Betteredge’s glowing report that the man was,“…a barrister by profession; a ladies’ man by temperament; and a good Samaritan by choice”? Does Betteredge not know the first rule of detection: always suspect most whom you suspect the least?

 The joy of reading Sherlock Holmes, the undisputed superstar of detective fiction, is the joy of arriving at success through rationality: it is the joy of applying an equation to a difficult math problem and watching the work yield its solution. However, it is Watson and not Holmes who ranks as Conan-Doyle’s more brilliant creation; Watson, who invites the reader not only to tag along with the crime-solvers but also to indulge in the success when the pieces finally fit together. Watson clings to Holmes because he is both parts fascinated by his friend and concerned about his well being; Holmes allows Watson to cling because he knows what’s good for him; we cling to Holmes by proxy of Watson, but the detective has no stakes in the reader. He wouldn’t spare a moment looking for us if we got lost. No Watson for the reader, and there might as well be no Holmes.

 But we cannot read “The Moonstone” the same way that we read Sherlock Holmes. Where Conan-Doyle is detective intricacy at its most ingenious, Collins is intricacy outweighed by humanity. No one who reads Sherlock Holmes is ever seriously invested in the detective. It’s the case and Holmes’s talents that draw out attention, and the characterization of Watson that holds it. Take out the first and you have no story; the second, and you have untranslatable data.

  When it comes down to it, it is emotion that drives both the crime and the apprehension of the criminal for Collins. Sir Percival Glyde in “The Woman in White” is driven by equal parts guilt and fear and, and though we know what crime he is guilty of, we cannot apprehend him until we know his ‘secret’, which reveals the nature of his character. Likewise, we can guess the guilty parties in “The Moonstone” but we cannot apprehend them without knowing the natures of the parties involved. Why would the housemaid commit suicide when our hunch is telling us that Ablewhite is guilty? Why would suspicion fall on Rachel that she had something to do with the disappearance when we know, as empathetic readers, that her character is clean?

 These are the questions that keep us going and that keep the story moving along even when neither moonstone nor clue to its whereabouts can be seen. “The Moonstone” may be “the first and greatest of English detective novels” as T.S. Eliot calls it, but ‘detective novel’ doesn’t seem to do it justice. “The Moonstone” is more than a story about a crime and detectives; it is about the nature of crime itself and where to divide the line when a criminal and the perpetrator of a criminal act are not one in the same. Collins’ talents as a writer are many, though this ability to give a criminal act, objective in the face of the law, a subjective voice in the face of the people is his greatest. 

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Leading Ladies

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Clubbing

Many readers find it easy to ignore early Romantic era novels under the pretenses that they, aside from boring, do little more than dress up the English gentility, take it to fancy balls, and marry it off. Salman Rushdie bemoaned Austen’s male characters as goodlooking hunks whose purpose it was to provide a suitable conclusion for the stronger female protagonists. This assessment is not entirely untrue, yet it fails to distinguish an important discrepancy between the reader and the early Romantic novels. Why, when our modern culture is already dominated by an all-too-apparent, too-vapid entertainment culture, do readers condemn the purposeless leisure culture of these novels?

This is an important question because, while it does not provide much framework for reading Maria Edgeworth’s “Belinda”, it brings attention to a hypocrisy committed by many an un-reader who sees these novels as the product of an indulgent culture which modern counterpart he himself indulges in.

Dig through the pages of Edgeworth’s novel and you’ll see hypocrisy in abundance, some of it very similar to the hypocrisy summarized above. What’s more important to grasp, however, is that readers who don’t like Austen need not moan and groan at Edgeworth. True, “Belinda” is framed by marriage proposals and populated by the aristocracy, but Edgeworth is not Austen. One may argue that she is more effective as a novelist than Austen: something that the latter certainly would have agreed with (there is a reference to “Belinda” in “Northanger Abbey”).

If I had to draw the distinction between the two novelists, it would be this: Austen’s marriages, for all of their emphasis on harmonized circumstances, succeed because the reader becomes convinced that the characters truly do love each other. Belinda’s marriage in the final chapter succeeds because of the heroine’s free and utterly rational decision. We are told that it’s love that unites the couple, but what makes the novel strong is the fact that we don’t have to believe in the love to be convinced of the union.

Coming of age novels in the early nineteenth century are hardly unique in the characteristics of structure, character, or the female protagonist. This is because buyers of novels were wealthy, English women with the sole duty of cultivating themselves for distinguished society. As is typical nowadays, socializing required a great deal of bullshitting, which of course is never easy unless you are a natural. Novels were the retreat away from society.

Belinda, ironically, opens the novel by retreating into society and into a life of aristocratic two-headedness that’s a far cry from her rural upbringing. To cultivate her taste for the gentility, the fashionable Lady Delacour has agreed to take the teen under her wings and set her up with a nice-looking match as soon as possible.

But Belinda, wary of the idea of a courtship after seeing her siblings suffer under a series of unfavourable matches, grows disillusioned quickly with the glitz of the balls and fancy dress and hungers for a more mature satisfaction:

 “ ‘Is it possible,’ thought she, ‘that I have spent three hours by myself in a library, without being tired of my existence? How different are my feelings now, to what they would have been in the same circumstances six months ago! I should then have thought the loss of a birthnight ball a mighty trial of temper…If I had never seen the utmost extent of the pleasures of the world, as they are called, my imagination might have misled me to the end of my life; but now I can judge from my own experiences, and I am convinced that the life of a fine lady would never make me happy.’ “

Belinda’s already rational character may have affected this change on its own accord, though Lady Delacour plays no small role in speeding the process along: her gaiety and excess, startling for society, is revealed to Belinda as an artifice to conceal her cancerous breast which became infected after a dueling pistol backfired.

Readers are quick to see the implications of the duel and Lady Delacour’s punishment when they read into the details. Dueling was undertaken to fulfill masculine satisfaction: Lady Delacour, who crossdressed in order to fight, betrayed her sex and is punished accordingly.

There are other instances in the novel of sex-betrayal but none are as dramatic as Lady Delacour’s. Still, a notable example is in Belinda’s future husband, Clarence Hervey. His initial character is summed up adroitly:

 “Clarence Hervey might have been more than a pleasant young man, if he had not been smitten with the desire of being thought superior in every thing, and of being the most admired person in all companies.”

“Most admired person” accounts for his eccentricity in all manners public, be it gambling, swimming, or fitting himself out in Lady Delacour’s dress and hoop to win an outlandish bet. So much for the propriety of the aristocracy. Yet Hervey, unlike Delacour, never pretends to accept his eccentricity as his character, nor does he ever really recognize it as such. His behavior is simply that of a man who hasn’t been tamed by responsibility. Of course, there is social responsibility, but this is Hervey’s hobby, not his prerogative. His tastes for maturity mirror Belinda’s; he just doesn’t know it yet, and the novel is more about him (and Lady Delacour) finding out.

Belinda as a character was criticized for being too coldly rational by its early readers. A modern reader may be inclined to agree, citing, for example, the lines of this devastating letter a mature Belinda writes to a former suitor:

 “You perceive, sir, that I am most willing, utterly to lose your esteem even when I renounce, in the most unequivocal manner, all claim upon your affections. If any thing should appear to you harsh in this letter, I beg you to impute it to the real cause—my desire to spare you all painful suspense, by convincing you at once, that my determination is irrevocable. I am persuaded that love cannot long exist without hope.”

But does extreme frankness amount to heartlessness? It is difficult to say, and equally difficult to immediately empathize with a character who is able to rebuff a lover with such candor. We may read this letter now as lacking the cushion of subtlety and Belinda cold for opting for the clean stroke rather than a more tactful display of non-affections. How we would reconcile a less painful approach to the breakup with Belinda’s character remains the problem.

In the realm of literature, Belinda remains a protagonist of Platonian feminism: strong-willed, rational, appropriately well read, and all without having to sacrifice her womanhood. Her inspiration can be felt keenly throughout Austen, but the shadow is long and some of it falls on the characters of Ayn Rand; Dagny Taggart and Dominique Francon being the primary examples.

“Belinda” also does a fair bit to distance itself from the typified society of the aristocracy, which even Austen cannot help but celebrate. Rural life is the epitome of happiness and society is exposed for its shallow glamour, likewise perceived in later novels, the obvious being Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby”. However, Edgeworth’s relationship between these two aspects of English life is not so simple, and society still has its merits. Belinda can only affirm her true character once she has been indoctrinated into Lady Delacour’s escort; Clarence Hervey would likely never have socialized with Belinda had he not met her at a ball.

Moreover, there is still another more interesting development to report. As “Northanger Abbey” would later demonstrate, the reading of novels was a hot topic for conversation as well as controversy. Aristocratic high-browers looked down upon the hobby as fashionable brain-rotting; something like premodern TV watching. Edgeworth herself darts nimbly in and out of the fracas with a complicated stance on the subject that both approves the empathetic powers of novels and decries those who take the hobby too far. Yet the argument reaches an astonishing, postmodern twist in these last words of Lady Delacour:

 “ ‘Yes,’ said her ladyship; ‘it is so difficult, as the critic says, to get lovers off upon their knees. Now that I think of it, let me place you all in proper attitudes for stage effect. What signifies being happy, unless we appear so? Captain Sunderland—kneeling with Virginia, if you please, sir, at her father’s feet. You in the act of giving them your blessing, Mr Hartley. Mrs Ormond clasps her hands with joby—nothing can be better than that, madam—I give you infinite credit for the attitude. Clarence, you have a right to Belinda’s hand, and may kiss it too. Nay, miss Portman, it is the rule of the stage.’ ”

Aside from literally closing the scene, Lady Delacour is bringing the reader to an important conclusion. “Belinda,” operating under the auspices of tactful realism, cannot be mistaken from the romance that it really is. These last pages are humorous both for their originality and their theatricality however they bear the essential warning for the reader not to mistake the romance for reality. Bear in mind the fruits of humanity which the novel gives, but do not deceive yourself into thinking that life operates under the same control as the novelist. We are indebted to Edgeworth for providing us this moral and for the fact that the novelist, acting as total creator, is but a playwright in the grander scheme of life.

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About A Girl

ImageOh, the relief to be back and writing these little blog posts again—the feel-good twitch of fingers over a keyboard: how I missed you! And you of course, too, dear readers, whoever you might be, if you be.

You’ll have to excuse that melodramatic introduction; (or you don’t, it’s really up to you), but I’ve spent the last three weeks in county Galway, simultaneously devouring the verdant greenery of the place as well as well as the verdant poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose selected poems, long after-sought, I finally found yesterday in a used bookshop. It’s made me quite the romantic.

But this is also due in no small part to Wilkie Collin’s “The Woman In White”, which I bought by accident and have since been unable to put down. Sexual and baffling, paced at the maddening speed of a teenager in a Corvette, but constructed with the poise of a Gothic cathedral, it’s a page-turning masterpiece since elided by a modern-day focus on graphic sex and cheap thrills. I name no names.

Collins dominated the commercial literary market in his day, surpassing even his colleague and close friend Charles Dickens in terms of popularity. Read the Oxford World’s Classics Introduction and you will learn how the novel spawned a whole literary culture: everything from fans betting on the novel’s outcome, letters posing marriage directed at the novel’s chief characters, and pets whose names were changed to mirror those of the book’s villains.

Collins was presumably baffled and embarrassed by this storm of interest. He had stepped up to embark on a serious venture and ended up creating a Romanticism-era “Twilight.”

“The only narrative which can hope to lay a strong hold on the attention of the readers,” he said, “is a narrative which interest them about men and women—for the perfectly obvious reason that they are men and women themselves.”

It’s nearly impossible now to read this quote with the simplicity Collins intended. One does not finish “The Woman In White” thinking chiefly about its portrayal of humanity, but by its many preternatural ‘firsts’ that continue to dominate the market. Arguments could very well be made for how the writer created the tradition of the ‘spy-novel’, the archetype of the gentleman villain, the literary obsession with the occult, and, with his “The Moonstone” the first ‘McGuffin’: a term coined later by Alfred Hitchcock for a plot-driver.

Nevertheless, it’s important to separate oneself from these now-conventional tropes in order to read the novel as Collins intended it to be read. It’s not as difficult as it sounds. The writer, speaking through the manifold voices that narrate the story, drops hints constantly, such as in this famous opening line from the gallant Walter Hartright: “This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” The line is extremely useful for the reader trying to secure his footing in the dense pages to come, and it foreshadows well Hartright’s character’s progression. It is also misleading. On the outset, Walter is hardly the man, more like boy, for making any serious resolutions.

Dispatched with the well wishes of his family and his friend Pesca from his comfortable London lodgings to an estate in Hampstead as a drawing tutor, he is daunted by the idea of adventure. His experiences in the world are limited; his decisions the product of instinct and fear rather than of rational forethought. His relationship with the Italian Pesca, for example, comes from an experience the two men shared at the beach when Walter saved Pesca from drowning in the ocean. Yet the memory is clouded over by the fact that it was Walter who originally pressured the Italian into swimming, careless of the fact that the latter had never learned to do so.

Collins introduces the shadowy “woman in white” almost the instant that Walter leaves London. The move itself is strategically brilliant, but moreso is the diction that accompanies it:

“I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the handle of my stick. There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments; her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.”

And later, Walter’s thoughts about her:

“The loneliness and helplessness of the woman touched me. The natural impulse to assist her and to spare her, got the better of the judgment, the caution, the worldly tact, which an older, wiser, and colder man might have summoned to help him in this strange emergency…I trace these lines, self-distrustfully, with the shadows of after-events darkening the very paper I write on; and still I say, what could I do?”

There’s much analysis that can go into these words. Hartright asserts that his “natural impulse” was to “assist her and spare her”, yet the reader knows that his impulse was really to assure himself that his walking-stick was close enough that he could fight with it. The Freudian symbolism is too obvious to dwell upon. More important are the broader themes of immediate foreign danger (London, shrouded in darkness, representing the shadowy past of Hartright’s hearth and home; and the mysterious woman, though pitied by Hartright, is an escaped mental patient), Hartright’s indecision (“I trace these lines self-distrustfully”), and his questionable honesty as a narrator due mostly to his inability to properly control his impulses.

We move on. Hartright arrives unmolested at Hampstead where he meets the fractious and annoying Mr Fairlie, his pupil and Mr Fairlie’s niece, Laura Fairlie, and her infinitely intriguing foster sister, the bumptious Marian Halcombe. What follows are the events characteristic of typical romance. Hartright develops a crush on Laura, complete with fawning love verses, which are nearly reciprocated, but Marian dissuades him of, seeing as how Laura is already engaged to one Sir Percival Gylde. Hartright is devastated and, by Marian’s council, determines to leave the manor, but not before discovering the identity of the mysterious woman as a Miss Anne Catherick, well known to the Fairlie family. Collins cuts his narrative off here, wisely choosing to resurrect Hartright only until after he has matured.

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Frederick Walker’s 1871 portrait of the crazed heroine; commissioned for the first stage production of the novel

The reader is thankful for this abrupt conclusion of Hartright’s narrative. Collins, a lifelong philanderer and lover of women, strikes a curious personage as someone able to not only enjoy women’s company, but also able to respect their attributes of strength and determination. One can read the flirtation between Hartright and Laura Fairlie as an unassuming parody of conventional romance and Victorian society: melodramatic, obsessed with protocol, and thoroughly boring. Hartright, at least this early form of Hartright, is a plastic sheet with some pretty lines in terms of character. Larua is a pretty face. Their love-turns take no drama but that of social politicking.

Marian Halcombe, on the other hand, represents a triumph of Victorian radicalism. Fat but not overbearing, more mannish than Hartright in her determination and ability to act, she even enjoys a more realistic love affair with Laura than Walter:

“I waited a moment, looking at her from behind her pillow, as she lay beneath me, with one arm and hand resting on her night-dress never moved—I waited, looking at her, as I have seen her thousands of times, as I shall never see her again…MY own love! with all your wealth and your beauty, how friendless you are!…Who else is left to you? No father, no brother—no living creature but the helpless, useless woman who writes these sad lines, and watches by you for the morning, in the sorrow that she cannot compose, in doubt that she cannot conquer.”

It’s easy to read Marian’s relationship with her ‘sister’ as lesbic. Doubtless Collins was aware of his readers’ discomfort at the sight of this large, manly woman enjoying such a passionate and also incestuous relationship. Collins’s solution is admirable—he makes Marian Halcombe so likable that the reader cannot help but empathize with her. This answer also helps to solve the other problem of why Marian would be so willing to part with her beloved Lauren with a man as flighty and irresponsible as Walter Hartright, were the option available.

Enter Lauren’s beau-to-be, Sir Percival Gylde. He is every inch the brutish and churlish villain the Victorians were used to seeing; so unprepossessing that even Walter stands a chance with Lauren in comparison.

But even Sir Percival is not the focus. For here, approximately one-half of the way through, the romance would take off, if the book were that romance, had not Collins chosen the moment to introduce his most brilliant creation.

There are a thousand adjectives to describe Count Fosco, and a thousand more that the man would recommend for himself if they did not first occur to the reader’s attention. Daring and cunning, flamboyant and flirtatious, built like a kettledrum yet tender as a faun (the man flirts with white mice and cockatoos).

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Count Fosco: a man of excesses

But I don’t need to say any of this. Count Fosco has long since entered the public domain as an ingenious marriage between gross personality, gross ego, and an even grosser villainy. We’ve met him before as the prototype of Bond villains and those of other espionage thrillers (Auric Goldfinger, and Mr Theodorescu of Burgess’s “Tremor of Intent”) We meet him here, after Laura has become Mrs Percival Glyde, as a friend of the baron Percival come to live with the couple at the secluded manor in Blackwater Park where, as events unfold slowly, he emerges the sinister mastermind of a plot to deprive Laura of her inheritance in order to pay the debts of the capricious Sir Percival.

For a man as larger than life as Fosco, these comes off as a rather trivial use of character, who could, by our modern thinking, employ himself to much bigger tasks such as murder or world domination. We’re not too far off from expecting more from Fosco as matters pecuniary soon turn to matters murderous when Laura, en route to the Count’s London home in order to visit the ailing Marian Halcombe, ostensibly transported some time before, contracts a fever and dies.

It does not spoil any of the novel’s pleasure to report that this Laura’s death is a façade, enacted in order to kills two troublesome birds with one stone: the first, the bearer of the inheritance, and the second, Miss Anne Catherick, who has become privy to Sir Percival’s mysterious and perhaps fatal “Secret”.

I need not elaborate any more on plot: no reader would want me to. Condense the novel down to sequential events and summarize its ‘curtain-endings’ (we would use the term ‘cliff-hanger’ nowadays) reduces the read to a laundry list.

Nevertheless before I end, it is imperative to address at least one fault of the novel. Fleming, who taught us that every good villain deserves an equally good demise, could very well have taken this clue from Collins in how the writer dispatches of Fosco in the novel’s final pages. It spoils nothing to allude to the fat Count’s death: Western Literature is far too steeped in the conventions of moral society to let its baddies go unpunished. An active killer on the pages keeps readers intrigued; an active killer off the pages turns their stomachs.

And so the mammoth of a man comes to his end, draped on a slab outside the French morgue like a dried-fish to be viewed for the amusement of an ignorant mob. Does the Count deserve this death? Anyone who has read the novel and read it thoroughly couldn’t agree so. There’s too much life in the man to be so suddenly extinguished, too much sentiment that gives the reason for this death (which I will leave unsaid), and an even grosser injustice that spares Hartright and Laura. What’s more, the manner in which he was dispatched (Collins tells the reader that it was Fosco’s involvement in an esoteric spy organization, but this feels more like a plot device than a realistic turn of events).

Even so, it’s easier coping with this end knowing that the brilliant criminal, notwithstanding what we read on the page, has wormed himself into conventional literature where, for all intents and purposes, he will, like his creator, remain.

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Big Fish

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Thar she blows!

 “Moby-Dick” is one of those books that every reader has either read, attempted to read, or lied about reading at one point or another. Doubtless even the most unlearned of us have not escaped mention or parody of the Leviathan, the most famous Terror of the Deep until Jaws nibbled his way up the carnivorous canon.

“Moby-Dick” is one of those rare masterpieces that is able to bring a singular leitmotif roaring into public attention; you can ask someone what any of the other greatest novels of past two hundred years have been: “Ulysses” or “Middlemarch” or “Bleak House”, and he’ll fumble a noncommittal response if one at all. Ask him what “Moby-Dick” is about and he’ll answer with ‘a whale.’

Strangely enough, if you ask a Melville scholar or a learned student the same question, he’ll likely respond with the same answer. Ask for anything more specific and he might clarify with ‘a sperm whale’ or ‘a white sperm whale’, or even, ‘a group of New England whalers hunting a white sperm whale.’

Do we dare say that these singular answers betray a simple story? Anything but. Melville may rely upon this single motif to get his Leviathan of a novel across the pages, but it’s rigid and strong enough to conduct a symphony with: a theme in the hands of Beethoven.

In one hundred and fifty years of publication, there’s little new interpretation about “Moby-Dick” that one can bring to the table. The story of the novel’s dejection—seventy years’ worth—and rediscovery amidst the boom of the aesthetes, is as classic a comeback as you can find in the real world. The disillusioned, post-WW2 school of criticism longed for the romantics of their younger and more vulnerable years, and so they made the tradeoff, revitalizing nature poets and the White Whale while scorning the modernists. The rest, as they say, is history, and “Moby-Dick” emerged a literary champion.

Why was it disparaged in the first place? It’s a thesis that a thousand thousand English majors have groaned over while they wrote their term papers, and it certainly isn’t a question is any more interesting now than it ever was. What can be read today in “Moby-Dick” as quaint and even funny, elicited no laughs from the mopey fuddy-duddies of mid nineteenth century America, otherwise known as the Puritans. God may be omnipotent, but religion had no place within the criticizing pages of a writer, who undoubtedly had a better understanding on the scriptures and intricacies of Christianity than his condemners who hadn’t seen much of the world outside of their churches. Naturally, an ultimatum boiled down to either a harsh editing or damnation because of artistic integrity. We all know the one that Melville chose.

In retrospect, there was probably no other direction that “Moby-Dick” could have gone in. People will remain ignorant until their environment forces them to be otherwise and Melville had to have foreseen the consequences of his work. But “Moby-Dick” was always due for redemption. It’s one of the few literary masterpieces that is able to throw its themes at the reader without losing stragglers due to interpretation because Melville, under the guise of his hero Ishmael, has already provided plenty.

In terms of content, “Moby-Dick” is foremost a revenge epic. No one walks away from reading it without knowing that the White Whale is Captain Ahab’s embodiment for his own hatred and fear: traits due, partly, to the leg the Captain lost in the jaws of the monster, but more in part to the hatred for his own life. And who could wish upon their worst enemy of a lifetime of perpetual voyage with no promise of ascension? Certainly no man is capable of such cruelty, and so it is not at man that Ahab’s hatred is directed, but at God, incarnated in the White Whale. It’s an easy fix. God forced the Israelites into forty years in the desert, so it’s no great stretch of the imagination to think that he can do it again with Ahab and the ocean.

But how does Ahab convince the rest of the crew to go along with the mad voyage? It’s a question of charisma, and Ahab’s got plenty. So much so in fact that Melville has him talk part philosopher, part evangelist preacher:

 “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s nought beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me.”

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Gregory Peck in 1956′s “Moby Dick” film adaption. Six years after Ahab, Peck would immortalise himself as another, quite different literary hero, Atticus Finch.

This eloquence works for the crew, but that’s probably because none of them had ever picked up a copy of “Hamlet.” Had they done so, Ahab’s words would have been unmasked for the shallow, highfalutin stuff they really were: words to fill the depths of time: thoughts to fill the gaps in action which, once it materializes, does so with horrendous consequences. Nor does it help the crew that the theory of the Death Drive was still a half-century away.

Lucky for the reader, the aesthetes and not the symbolists got ahold of “Moby-Dick” first. We’re allowed to get away from all of these meanings within meanings and turn our attention to where Melville wanted it: on the story itself, and on the juicy language that drives it. Any clever reader will take care to notice Melville’s great first line; not “Call me Ishmael,” but this one before the Extracts:

“The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his own mortality.”

More than Ishmael, the “pale Usher” represents Melville; as aged scholar, rather than wayfarer, whaler, or interpreter, he directs attention squarely on “old grammars”, which doesn’t take a great deal of examination to mean language: the truer source of life (“mortality”) even more than the story itself. This is a more solid and trustworthy narrator than Ishmael, for his age has lent him wisdom and worldly knowledge (“all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world”); moreover, Ishmael’s status as something of a criminal immediately puts his tale to question. The scholar is safer.

Again, I find myself with infinitely more to say than a preview has room for. One is at liberty to read from too many perspectives than even a critic has room to note, yet I would suggest for the reader to follow the excellent lead of the aesthetes: relish the Shakespearean soliloquizing rather than scavenge for “Jonah” parallels; envisage the tragedy of poor Starbuck, rather than the cold, white symbolism of Moby Dick. If you have to write a term paper about it, focus on the masterly command of dialects in the brilliant and bizarre semi-parody of Chapter 40, and how, through the manifold voices of the lesser crew, our camera finally settles down and hones in on the onomatopoetic whimpering of poor Pip:

“Jollies? Lord help such jollies! Crish, crash! There goes the jib-stay! Blang-whang! God! Duck lower, Pip, here comes the royal yard! It’s worse than being in the whirled woods, the last day of the year! Who’d go climbing after chestnuts now?”

Or you could write about the chestnuts.

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Victoria de Columbia

ImageThere is a point, within the first fifteen pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’snovel “One Hundred Years Of Solitude,” when Jose Arcadio Buendia, the leader of a motley, demoralized group of explorers intent on plowing through the jungle to discover the ocean, addresses his men with a fateful message. “ ‘It’s all right,’ “ he says. “ ‘The main thing is not to lose our bearings.’ ”

 A more accurate caution about reading “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” has yet to be written.

 Marquez’s novel, an epic of character and language, stands as one of the most grand and duplicitous books I have ever read, much owing to the fabulous narrative that the author unravels, in language both simple and infinitely complex, like a sea yarn.  Find yourself getting caught up in its almost-hypnotic powers, and there’s a fine chance that you’ll find the novel soon finished, and not be able to recount a single solid detail, but only a vague yet powerful awareness of your own mortality.

 On the other hand, if you try and savor each detail and sentence to its maximum, as though the novel were something to be sealed forever in one’s memory instead of simply enjoyed, you’ll end up much the same way, and all the enjoyment you would have gotten out of your reading would have been preemptive, as if you were expecting and preparing for a catharsis that never quite came (a symptom of this type of reading can be found in the reader who begins by expecting a certain feeling or emotion, instead of letting these sensations arise a biological product of the piece).

 What is the correct way to read “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” then? Someone like yours truly, who fell into the latter category of readers, would recommend a trail and error process: reading huge portions of the novel in single sittings for the hypnotic effect, and contrasting these readings with much smaller, more concentrative attempts at delving beyond the words and all their meanings.

 To put things more bluntly, “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” is a book that must be read, almost forgotten, and then reread continuously to give the most satisfaction. Harold Bloom’s criticism is apt for this phenomenon when he says (and I paraphrase) that the novel’s aestheticism induces a sort of “battle fatigue” which demands the reader’s full comprehension of every sentence of every page.

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The face of Genius

 But what do all these criticisms and comments, aesthetic disparagements and lofty praises, truly mean? Precisely this: no one yet understands enough about the novel, even more than thirty years after its publication, or why it affects us the way it does, to do anything other than praise or criticize its general grandeur.

 For my part, I am uncomfortable saying anything at all about the novel, seeing as how my immediate response upon completing it was to turn back to the first page and read the whole thing again at half the speed. What I did manage to catch through that first reading were thematic revelations, often in the form of single sentences that began as prosaic, even ugly, larvae, which would then gestate and beautify into a creature more magnificent and more encompassing than could have been anticipated. An abstract commentary, granted, but one which I think demonstrates one of Marquez’s most peculiar talents, as this passage involving two lovers shows:

“Many times they were awakened by the traffic of the dead,” (or so goes the larvae, preparing itself for its growth, here): “They could hear Ursula fighting against the laws of creation to maintain the line, and Jose Arcadio Buendia searching for the mythical truth of the great inventions, and Fernanda praying, and Colonel Aureliano Buendia stupefying himself with the deception of war and the little gold fishes, and Aureliano Segundo dying of solitude in the turmoil of his debauches, and then they learned that dominant obsessions can prevail against death and they were happy again with the certainty that they would go on loving each other in their shape and apparitions long after other species of future animals would steal from the insects the paradise of misery that the insects were finally stealing from man.”

 

 Even the reader unfamiliar with the references of characters earlier in the novel can appreciate the tremendous grounds that this sentence covers: from the ‘laws of creation’ that are fought by Ursula to ‘maintain the line’ of descendants (hers), each of whom is deluding him/herself in frivolous obsessions (‘mythical pursuit’, ‘deception of war’, ‘debauches’, and even ‘praying’ to an extent), the pursuits of which, however misguided, nevertheless lead the lovers to the discovery that their legacy (obsession) can be their mutual love, which will outlast all civilization as the law of decomposition: ashes to ashes and dust to dust; the law Ursula once fought, returns life to the lowly creatures that have preexisted before even humanity. Remark the themes of life continuity, fruitless struggle, and the everlasting power of love, all of which go seamlessly tied together in this one sentence of prose. And it is only one sentence!

 Perhaps a bit of plot would be best to put all this into context? We have some of it, but not enough to reveal much of the novel’s true worth. What Marquez gives us is a place, Macondo (Columbia, depending on how you want to look at it), and a history that is less a series of dates and events than it is the people who live it.

 History subject to the lives of its ancestry. This is what we have, and it accounts for the marvels one will read; of giants and timid girls who eat the paint of the house and dirt of the fields; of wars and firing squads, mysterious deaths and incestuous relationships, and at the very end, a fantastic conclusion straight out of Revelations with one of the most beautiful ending lines every written:

“Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the tablets, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

 

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The ‘boat in the tree’ from Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre der Zorn Gottes” shares much resemblance to the boat found by Jose Arcadio, seen on the Spanish cover of the novel. The theme of dangerous ambition and ill-fated conquest is striking in both images.

Image Perhaps it’s all a fabulous waste of time attempting to focus a single interpretation where there is so much to be found. Don’t lose your bearings, Jose Arcadio Buendia cautions, and yet you will inevitably as language and yarn, history and character threaten to overwhelm. This, unfortunately, is one of the few drawbacks to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s astounding novel: the feeling that whatever we’re reading, whatever we’ve read and indeed, whatever we will read, will only ever be but a shadow of the whole picture: one that we may never fully comprehend, even if given one hundred years of solitude to parse it all out. 

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Julian Barnes’s “Flaubert’s Parrot”

ImagePerhaps some of you who frequent our previews section will recall a rather disparaging post I wrote a few months ago on Barnes’s “The Sense Of An Ending,” which, though I do not claim was by any means a poor novel/novella, seemed to me as though the author were selling himself short. Barnes’s dry, post-middle age-ish protagonist, recalling and reconstructing his equally dry teenage years in the hope of finding, to put it briefly, where things went wrong, felt parceled and scathingly edited—more like the stuff of Ishiguro, which moves the reader towards a faint sense of unease rather than drive him towards catharsis with a toppling climax—than the style that I had come to associate with the novelist.

What is that style? Gimmicky and brash, charming and moralizing, erudite yet simple, digressive without ever seeming unnecessary, obsessively quotable. In short, everything that you find when you sample his great antinovel “Flaubert’s Parrot.”

And what a relief it is to return to the Barnes I know! Call it a long-overdue reunion with an old friend—Barnes engages the reader like a beloved confidante—or several old friends for that matter because the whole gang’s turned out for the social event of the season. Nabokov and Pushkin exchange a few words over the delicatessen, Joyce and Calvino regard the festivities with vague curiosity to make sure everything’s in order, Barnes, the writer-as-god keeps his quaint and dry post-middle age-ish protagonist (a character that, like the seedy, sandy-colored coat-wearing Englander of Graham Greene, is fast becoming a Barnes patent) Geoffrey Braithwaite in line as the indomitable spirit of Gustave Flaubert, father of realism and Emma Bovary, steals the show.

An unconventional life requires an unconventional novel; a genius of style should not have to make due with the banalities of tradition. Barnes recognizes the abnormalities of literature more than most and embraces them with a childlike glee, tossing form to the dogs to make room for style, style, style. “Style is a function of theme. Style is not imposed on subject-matter, but arises from it. Style is truth to thought.”

He says everything but style is gospel, although he doesn’t need to. “Flaubert’s Parrot” is as much the Gospel According to Gustave as it is the Gospel According to Geoffrey, as narrated in the Book by Barnes. What is interesting about this experiment is that Barnes ably argues the case against plot, citing style and subject as the fulcrums upon which a story turns.

It is for this reason that I feel uncomfortable attempting to summarize this novel. What we have is a subject: Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired doctor, widow, and amateur Flaubert scholar who is taking a holiday in France in order to investigate the author’s source for the character of Loulou, the parrot of Félicité, the main character of Flaubert’s novel “Un Cœur Simple.” To be clearer: there are two stuffed replica parrots from two separate museums, each of them claiming to be the parrot which sat on the writer’s desk as a model for Loulou. The mystery of the source parrot is a cause of considerable anxiety for Braithwaite—the scholar’s investigation into the matter begs the word obsessive—yet the reader never really gains much knowledge why the parrot is so crucial and demands so much introspection.

But let’s not mind the parrot, at least for a moment. What’s most striking about this initial setup isn’t the bird but the Flaubert: a two hundred year-old French writer of scandalous novels who, bloated and rakish (with both sexes) and ugly, hardly qualifies as sexy subject matter. Regard him as the preeminent literatur of the 19th century if you will, but it doesn’t change the fact that most readers, notwithstanding the more serious Braithwaites out there, don’t give a damn who he is nowadays. How does Braithwaite convince us otherwise?

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The great realist himself. Gustave Flaubert divided his time between bouts of writing, and wild sexual escapades with members of both genders

Examine these lines from the opening pages of Braithwaite making observations on a ruinous statue of his idol: “[It was] the one crying cupreous tears, the floppy-tied, square-waistcoated, baggy-trousered, straggle-mustached, wary, aloof bequeathed image of a man.” What do we gain from this? A sense of our narrator’s powers of observation; a staccato-poetic list of mundane features; a reoccurrence of the fact that what we are reading is untrustworthy, for we are not seeing the man or even the image of the man, but an image that has been twice-filtered—first through the observations of the men who made the statue of Flaubert, and then through the observations of Braithwaite—before the reader was even able to arrive at his deductions.

Simple observations, no? But what we’ve been given in this quote is in reality a very condensed example of the characteristics that make the reader follow Braithwaite and his observations for the next two hundred pages, irregardless of the lack of plot. He is charming and well-informed and well-expressed: an elderly professor, or a Disney tour-guide for your journey into the heart and mind of the writer. He begs trust, and we topple over one another handing it over. But wait! There’s the other side: the guarded unreliability, as though we were not seeing the whole truth but its warped version: as though the truth was a convoluted riddle with hints eked out by the narrator like helium from a balloon. “Aloof bequeathed image of the man.” If it was bequeathed, to whom did it belong? Whose image are we looking at?

Things get more interesting when the reader can begin asking the same questions from Braithwaite that he has been taught to ask from Flaubert. The transition is as perfectly balanced as one could hope for: dead center in the novel, and with a chapter entitled “Cross Channel” in reference of the cross from Flaubert to Braithwaite.

 “Directness confuses. I told you my name: Geoffrey Braithwaite. Has that helped? A little; at least it’s better than ‘B’ or ‘G’ or ‘the man’ or ‘the amateur of cheeses’. And if you hadn’t seen me, what would you have deduced from the name? Middle-class professional man; solicitor perhaps; denizen of pine-and-heather country; pepper-and-salt tweeds; a moustache hinting—perhaps fraudulently—at a military past; a sensible wife; perhaps a little boating at weekends; more of a gin than a whisky man; and so on?”

What an interesting paragraph! Look back to the early lines and notice the comparisons: we know that the “bequeathed image” comes from the writer himself, that the image we are looking at is the image formed by the writer, observed by the reader. Trust builds tremendously between the reader and Braithwaite, for the writer that can interpret the reader’s mentality; construct for him the images he is meant to see, has revealed himself to be just another fellow reader: a fellow at an airport terminal flipping through the same pages of the same novel as you, whom you happen to see and, in that instant, make a friend of, by virtue of a shared narrative. Braithwaite has answered our earlier questions and earned our trust.

But wait—do not let the adulations get too carried away—here is a proceeding paragraph:

“I am—was—a doctor; first-generation professional class; as you see, there’s no moustache, though I have the military past which men of my age couldn’t avoid; I live in Essex, most characterless and therefore most acceptable of the Home Counties; whisky, not gin; no tweed at all; and no boating. Near enough, and yet not enough, you see.”

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Barnes, a master of slippery characters and beautiful prose

We’ve been had. Instead of unveiling himself, the writer has done just the opposite; he has put on another mask, no longer the writer we thought we were reading, nor the reader we thought we were empathizing with, but a new writer: one who has chosen to interpret the mind of the reader and mislead him, only to project another, different, image in place of the one he has just offered. But why should we trust the second image? Why should the reader assume that Braithwaite, who has already lied once, duping the reader with a false self image, would not lie again?

I could go on and on, but won’t. One has enough interpretations of “Flaubert’s Parrot” to last five years’ worth of term papers and I won’t waste any more room offering my own reading. Yours, the writer’s, Flaubert’s own, is equally as valid as mine. In the end (and perhaps this gives something away from the novel’s conclusion) the one parrot who inspired “Un Cœur Simple” is nothing different from any other parrot, chosen but for grace of chance.

What Barnes has accomplished in his novel is a feat no less extraordinary than a literary miracle: the Death of the novel and the Birth of style; the character and the writer overcoming the form of the novel; the triumph of expression.

I’ve left the remainder of this preview for some of the novel’s most memorable quotations. Writing anymore on behalf of the book stinks of hypocrisy.

Quotes Quotes Quotes

“Words came easily to Flaubert; but he also saw the underlying inadequacy of the Word.”

 “Some fatal attraction draws me down into the abysses of thought, down into those innermost recesses which never cease to fascinate the strong.”

“ ‘People are like food. There are lots of bourgeois who seem to me like boiled beef: all steam, no juice, and no taste (it fills you up straight away and is much eaten by bumpkins)…Me? I’m like a runny, stinking macaroni cheese, which you have to eat a lot of times before you develop a taste for it.’ ”

 “If anyone ever asks you what my letters contained, or what my life was like, please lie to them. Or rather, since I cannot ask you of all people to lie, just tell them what it is you think they want to hear.”

“Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

 “It isn’t so different, the way we wander through the past. Lost, disordered, fearful, we follow what signs there remain; we read the street names, but cannot be confident where we are.”

 “ ‘Whatever else happens…we shall remain stupid.’ “

“Books are not life, however much we might prefer it if they were.”

 “The novel with two endings doesn’t reproduce reality: it merely takes us down two diverging paths.”

 “The past is autobiographical fiction pretending to be a parliamentary report.”

 “He finds himself by looking in the works of others.”

 “There is the life, and then there is the not-life; the life of ambition served, and the life of porcine failure.”

 “With a writer you live, the instinct is to defend…perhaps love for a writer is the purest, the steadiest form of love.”

 “ ‘I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.’ ”

“ ‘When you write the biography of a friend, you must do it as if you were taking revenge for him.’ ”

 

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How “The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards” Changed Me

bps_kristopherjansmaOh my. Today I have finished an incredible piece by the debut author, Kristopher Jansma, and I must say, oh my. At once moving and enrapturing and crushing, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is written for us, for writers, and it sings our fears, our hopes, our fondest dreams through the romping, transcontinental trekking of Jansma’s love-struck narrator. He is nameless but for the few pseudonyms he gives to others out of some sort of idiosyncratic, possibly pathological tendency he has to lie to people he has just met. Is he…Walter? Or Timothy? Billy? Well, even without the name set in stone, we get the gist of his character: An insecure, somewhat self-deprecating cynic with the occasional romantic idealism and a moral compass that rests off-center.

He tells his own story–of stories built into stories,the ones he has both written and experienced as parts of his own life,  and of his own journey as a person and as a writer. He tells of his friendship with the eccentric and fantastic Julien McGann/Jeffrey Oakes, and his “love” for the golden-haired stage actress Evelyn Demont, his friend and lover who passes over his affection repeatedly, always seeking again the richer, more acclaimed suiter–an olympic athlete, a prince, a duke, or a famous geologist.

Full of quaint gimmicks and charming tricks, Leopards is a lost story, sneakily noted at the front of the book after the contents: “If you believe that you are the author of this book, please contact Haslett & Grouse Publishers (New York, New York) at your first convenience.”

The story begins with the remark from the narrator that he has lost every book he has ever written, starting with one he wrote as a child, waiting on his flight attendant mother at the airport. From there, the story spirals out with loss: the loss of his next story, the loss of his first girlfriend, the loss of his best friend, then his lover. The entire first half of the book is  listed in the contents as “What Was Lost” and records quite intimately his making and unmaking, as the narrator builds himself riding the coattails of his rich friends, only to sloppily toss it all in a moment of heat.

Our narrator resides cozily in the ease of Julian McGann’s confidence. Being one of the only15811543 people Julian can stand, and thus, one of the only people who can possibly keep up with and mind after him, the narrator stays close, sharing Julian’s flat and saving him from bouts of mania and drinking, and desperately snatching glances at his friend’s pieces. Jealously, they look on at each other’s stories and try to steal from each other, only to find such merit in the other’s work that their own can never compare.  Meanwhile, every Sunday the two meet with Evelyn Demont, the beautiful and sophisticated stage actress who “adopted” Julian when they met in prep school. And every Sunday, Evelyn attempts to bring a friend–a girl in the hopes that perhaps the narrator will fall for her friend and move on, or a boy, in an attempt to test her new beau’s fitness against the judgment of her closest friends. Then the narrator takes the invited girls to the zoo to try and make Evelyn jealous. And always the narrator loses something. They are changeless in the errors they make, and they cycle around, upsetting themselves and each other endlessly. At least, that is until the narrator finally loses what matters most: his friends.

Amidst the mess that the narrator composes from the shambles of his life is a fairly true account of the writerly mind, the competition between good friends, the struggle to write and write well, to be published, and the dissatisfaction that one must push through just to reach completion.

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant” proclaims the narrator’s writing professor, quoting a line from Emily Dickinson. It is a line that the narrator must return to again and again as he tests the limits of this motto. How many lies can he spin from a single truth? It becomes difficult to track the number of aliases given to a single known person through the course of his tale, and there comes a time to wonder when he has finally given up treating the truth so.  He fights for inspiration and researches constantly in order to keep up with Julian, whose gifts allow him to toe the line between brilliance and derangement.

“I was keenly aware of being both outraged and jealous at the same time. Why hadn’t I been able to come up with anything like this? Was this slant?  This fantastic impossible dream? Made real with just the right words, with just the right sentences. Was I even capable of it? Or was Julian, as I’d feared, simply imbued with powers I would never possess?” (51)

But he cannot compete with his admiration of Julian, whom he idealizes too much to live up to–instead, the narrator cheats his way into a story, using his own real, personal experiences and memories and finessing small details.

“I furiously tapped away at the keys of my computer. Just two pages at first. Truth. And then five. Forget this slant business. And then twelve. Tell all the truth. And then a title. “The Trouble with Ibsen.” And then it was done” (48).

Yes, forget the slant. Dive right into the truth. But there is a problem with selling out one’s own stories, one’s personal life memories. They run dry; a friend might be offended; the line between reality and fiction becomes blurred. Jansma’s narrator sacrifices friendship for his stories and idealism, for a career and a love which will both always be just outside the touchable surface of his outstretched fingers.

Does he, in fact, love Evelyn? Or does he love his idea of her, of this fantastic girl, both sophisticated and untouchable, would-be royalty? Perhaps she is too pure and regal for him to contain in her entirety. He has form-fit her to the paper on which he prints his stories, and she has become so small to him that all that remains are the references to a gold-leafed nude portrait and the theme of a forbidden love.  An ideal love. And as he struggles to convince Evelyn that there is something between them worth more than the comfort and luxury her husband will give her, the narrator can’t see through the trees for the cliff beyond. It is an entire life that he cannot give her, a point Julian tries to press on his deluded friend. The three split and their regular Sundays are a thing of the youth, forgotten for ten years to come.

The second half of the book is labeled “What was Found”, as if written to be a solution to the problematic mindset the young narrator develops in the first five chapters. Before, all he had was his jealousy and competition and forbidden love. But he lost all that. Now he must find something to take the place of what he lost, better, or maybe worse. When the narrator returns to the page, ten years have passed since he fell out with his friends and he has grown into the lifestyle he had began all those years ago, when he used to steal away with Evelyn’s lunch guests and feed them false identities, only to scare them away. He presents himself as a professor under a the name of a workshop friend, whose place he has taken at a community college. He teaches a journalism class on plagiarism and how the people secretly appreciate being the end-consumer of a lie. His entire existence is a lie built upon more lies, a mountain too high to climb down from.

When he tires of this he becomes a plagiarist of another kind, selling essays online to students, an easy, moral-less existence that funds his roaming from country to country. He is “Outis”, nobody. And he personally associates with few, if anyone. But his unusual lifestyle leads him to the first thing he finds, a new friend. Tina is the editor of Jeffrey Oakes novel, “Nothing Sacred”, a world-rocking debut novel that ups the ante for novel number two. Tina represents the second chance that the narrator never bothers to trying to  reach. All he wants is the next big break, however small that may be, but with Tina there is the opportunity for much more. He doesn’t think of her, not as much more than a traveling companion and a business partner, but she wants to see him as more. With her, he makes the same mistakes he always has, proving the adage–you know what they say about spots and leopards. He can’t be open with her and he can’t be honest, and they both know it.

“She gives me a look–a pitiful, pitying look–and then I think she really would grab my heart from a funeral  pyre. For a second I think I would grabs hers, too, but then she moves off into a darker part of the bar and is gone” (179).

And when he lets this second chance go, his options are out–if not for a fateful phone call, who knows where he would turn?

The mother of Jeffrey/Julian is concerned for her reclusive, fame-fearing son, and the only one who he can half-stand is the narrator. He follows her lead to a writers’ colony in Iceland in search of Jeffrey and what will become a real second chance, the place where he starts all over. The friend he let go nearly a decade ago needs him, and once together, they see through all the muddle of the past and present. Up to seeing his old friend, the narrator is mentally trapped inside the boundaries of a scene he cannot stop rewriting, cannot escape from, while Jeffrey hides from the fame and expectations of his adoring fans. It is a kind of madness that these two men suffer from, that is if you consider writing insane.

 “There is anew, duller pain in my fingertips and toes that I suspect  vaguely as probably frostbite….At first I think this may be some sort of sweet relief–a reprieve from writing the same scene over and over. But the writing over and over isn’t really a sign of madness. It’s the only thing letting the madness out” (199).

The narrator feels the cyclical trauma in his pursuit of writing, but it’s not writing that undoes him–rather, he undoes himself.  Jeffrey helps him realize this, even as they revert to their old competitive ways, peering at each other’s unpolished chapters. They need each other to push through the negativity and madness within themselves, and pick out the good. Together, they set off to find the third musketeer, and the narrator’s third chance. It presents itself as the opportunity to sleep with his forbidden love, the Princess of Luxembourg. She is royal and married and mother of two, but her desires to see the good old days override all of this. The true test for a leopard, and a curious, not so subtle fold in of a twist in the theme:

 “‘To say ‘Black Panther’ is redundant,’” says the princess’s guard, “‘…In Asia or Africa, a panther is a black leopard…they actually still have their normal markings. Their spots. They’re just not visible against a background that is also black’” (232).

Can the narrator change his spots after all? Is there a life as  a panther in his future? He leaves a note for his princess, respectfully declining her advances. He has a missed opportunity to restore, a story to tell, a manuscript to write and lose.

Jansma’s writing is filled with clever, silly gimmicks like meta-storytelling and references to leopards all throughout. The narrator teasingly jokes to Evelyn that he feeds all her Sunday lunch guests to the leopards at the zoo. Jeffrey  affectionately refers to her guard as “Black Panther” because he sports an Afro. And the last manuscript that the narrator loses is this one, the manuscript for “The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards” because how cute is it that when the reader opens the cover and sees the note on the first page and sees that the book was separated from its author, then reads to the end to discover how the author lost it in the first place. Other reviewers claim the characters are too difficult to relate to, probably because they aren’t writers themselves, though the lack of emotional engagement is unignorable, and the constant shifting of aliases is certainly distancing.

For the writer turned reader, the fun of this book is in reading all of the throw-backs to our favorite American authors like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and in referencing the travails of writers and the drama of being a writer, Leopards takes an almost satirical voice, nudging its readers with a knowing, you’ve been there and you know it wink.

But even the average reader can appreciate the cohesive turn-around Jansma spins with his themes from cover to cover, and the gimmicky qualities are quirky and endearing  once you learn to accept that they are not going to disappear at any reasonable time. And despite that the narrator is morally bankrupt and occasionally cruel, there is something there to pity, to resonate with just slightly. From a humanistic vantage point, I wanted to see him grow up and see his friends again, and be in love again. I wanted to see him actually find what all he lost.  And I believe that is as much of Jansma’s purpose with Leopards as anything else.

 

 

Jansma, Kristopher. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. Viking Penguin, 2013: New York.

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