Elsewhere in Literature
On the most superficial level, the idea of ‘elsewhere’ in literature is a vague one. It rises up as the shadow to right here, right now. Then, it positively looms. It’s possible that characters in a story becomes so distracted by the here and now that the wider world remains unexperienced. By ignoring it, the characters produce this other realm—this elsewhere—defining it as something that’s missing. On the other hand, the wider world can impose itself with such force that it adds meaning, gravitas, depth to the present time and place, almost to the point of obscuring it. Elsewhere is what’s happening on the next block while you await a lover. Elsewhere is arrived at in a split second through curiosity. Elsewhere is an ideal or the event you happen to witness or the life you might have led. Depending on the story, elsewhere is madness, a longing for the past, or the world that is left behind.
Homer, The Odyssey, (350BC—?)
The Odyssey is an epic filled with elsewheres. After a war that last ten years, our hero spends ten years traveling home, visiting a number of fabulous lands, each with its version of treacheries, dangers, temptations, and ironies. Odysseus skirts the land of the Sirens, who dwell on an island in a flowery meadow. Having heard of their seductive songs, his curiosity overcomes him. He orders his crew to fill their ears with beeswax and to chain him to the mast, so that he might hear them sing without ill effect. He knows full well their song could lead to destruction, but his curiosity is stronger.
The tradition of courtly love in the chivalric age (11-15th centuries)
Courtly love is “a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent”; an ideal achievable only at a huge cost, if at all. The ‘elsewhere’ in this tradition is in the contrast—one quality evokes it’s opposite. When Petrarch courted Laura and Dante worshipped Beatrice, they were following a tradition that troubadours of earlier centuries had set in motion—one of unrequited love, sublimated passions, emotions channeled into poetry. What existed at the end of their desire was another, unachievable world.
Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha,
Published in two volumes a decade apart (in 1605 and 1615)
Following on from the tradition of courtly love, Alonso Quixano, a retired country gentleman, has become obsessed with books of chivalry, and believes their every word to be true, despite the fact that many of the events in them are clearly impossible. Quixano eventually appears to other people to have lost his mind from little sleep, not enough food, and too much reading.
Herman Melville, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, 1852
The exquisite Pierre was a critical and financial disaster for Melville, condemned universally for both its morals and its style. Yet, the work contains some of Melville’s most concentrated and accomplished writing, and it is his most direct treatment of the literary life and the process of literary creation. His hero Pierre is torn between the world as he has always known it—the world of light—and a different world that is being revealed to him, something darker and more ambiguous.
Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education, (1869)
Frederic, the capricious main character of Sentimental Education, is infatuated with Madame Arnoux, falling in and out of love with her over years. True to character, he is also unable to decide on a profession, instead living on his uncle’s inheritance. Other characters, such as Mr Arnoux, are as capricious with business as Frederic is with love. Without their materialism and “instinctive worship of power”, the entire cast would be entirely unmoored. While Frederic waits for Mme Arnoux on a street corner, the revolution unfolds a block away. His fate might have been other, grander, more significant, but for this dead-end attachment.
ee cummings, “a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon” (1926)
a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon
(where once good lips stalked or eyes firmly stirred)
my mirror gives me, on this afternoon;
i am a shape that can but eat and turd
ere with the dirt death shall him vastly gird,
a coward waiting clumsily to cease
whom every perfect thing meanwhile doth miss;
a hand’s impression in an empty glove,
a soon forgotten tune, a house for lease.
I have never loved you dear as now i love…
Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927
Brother Juniper, a devout Friar, witnesses the tragic collapse of the bridge and sets about to reconstruct the lives of those who perished. He works for six years on his book about the tragedy, trying various mathematical formulae to measure spiritual traits of the victims, with no results. A council pronounces his work heresy, and the book and Brother Juniper are burned in the town square. The novel ends with this observation: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, 1949
Port and Kit Moresby, a married couple from New York travel to the North African desert accompanied by their friend Tunner. Initially, the journey is an attempt by the Moresbys to resolve their marital difficulties, though this is quickly made more complicated by the travelers’ ignorance of the dangers that surround them. The three Americans, drifting through post-war North Africa, soon encounter the limits of human existence in the form of a land and a people utterly alien to them.
William Golding, Lord of the Flies, 1954
The ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a physical manifestation of the evil that resides within a group of boys, shipwrecked and far from civilization. The story attempts to trace the defects of human nature without society as a controlling force. The boys regress to a state of superstition, greed, and brutality.
Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere, 1973
Milan Kundera originally intended to call this novel, The Lyrical Age. He believed that the lyrical age in a life is youth, and Life is Elsewhere is an epic of adolescence—an ironic story that tenderly erodes the sacrosanct values of childhood, motherhood, revolution, and even art. The ridiculous, touching, totally innocent Jaromil is, at the same time, a true poet.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress ends with a conflagration of Western masterpieces. Father Goriot, Edmund Dantes, Quasimodo, Esmeralda, Emma Bovary and many, many others are condemned as ‘heretics’ and burned. Dai Sijie’s enchanting, slim, fable-like novel centres around the ‘re-education’ of two teenage friends during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
As doctors and intellectuals, the boys’ parents have been denounced as “stinking scientific authorities” and “reactionaries”, which leads to their sons being banished to a distant mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky. They must be trained in what it means to be true and faithful members of the proletariat. Forced to carry loads of excrement up and down the mountain, the two still manage to undertake their work with enthusiasm. It’s the only chance they will ever be allowed to return home. The boys make the best of their situation, using humour and exuberance and innate intelligence to get along.
The village headman discovers their natural ability for storytelling and sends them to the town to watch films in order to retell them in precise detail for the whole of the village. There they make the acquaintance of the Little Seamstress, the most beautiful girl on the mountain, and through an odd set of circumstances, they discover a secret suitcase full of marvellous works of literature. Luo, the older and more daring of the boys, falls in love with the wild mountain seamstress and sets about ‘educating’ her. In effect, he becomes a young Chinese Henry Higgins, reading her story after story, filling her head and heart with new ideas.
All the while, the boys are in real danger. Foreign books—in fact, all books—are considered to be ‘reactionary filth’ and therefore forbidden. To be in possession of such things means imprisonment—or worse. One day, when a book falls out of one of the boy’s packs, a gang of bullies stop their tormenting, as flabbergasted, hushed, and alarmed as if they were staring at an explosive device. Little do the boys suspect that the stories they tell are indeed ‘incendiary’.
The Little Seamstress is transformed, but not in the way Luo intended. And the boys must face the reality that stories and those they love have lives all their own.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie was first published in 2002 by Vintage Books.
Reblogged from The New Yorker: A CRITIC AT LARGE
Silence, Exile, Punning
James Joyce’s chance encounters.
by Louis Menand
On a day in May, 1922, in Paris, a medical student named Pierre Mérigot de Treigny was asked by his teacher, Dr. Victor Morax, a well-known ophthalmologist, to attend to a patient who had telephoned complaining about pain from iritis, an inflammation of the eye. The student went to the patient’s apartment, in a residential hotel on the Rue de l’Université. Inside, he found a scene of disarray. Clothes were hanging everywhere; toilet articles were scattered around on chairs and the mantelpiece. A man wearing dark glasses and wrapped in a blanket was squatting in front of a pan that contained the remains of a chicken. A woman was sitting across from him. There was a half-empty bottle of wine next to them on the floor. The man was James Joyce. A few months before, on February 2nd, he had published what some people regarded then, and many people regard now, as the greatest work of prose fiction ever written in the English language.
The woman was Nora Barnacle. She and Joyce were unmarried, and had two teen-age children, Giorgio and Lucia, who were living with them in the two-room apartment. The conditions in which the student discovered them were not typical—Joyce lived in luxury whenever he could afford it, and often when he couldn’t—but the scene was emblematic. Joyce was a nomad. He was born in 1882, in Rathgar, a suburb of Dublin, and grew up the oldest of ten surviving children. After he started school, his family changed houses nine times in eleven years, an itinerancy not always undertaken by choice. They sometimes moved, with their shrinking stock of possessions, at night, in order to escape the attention of creditors. They did not leave a forwarding address…
Shocking Books and Human Frailties: Seeking “that little sob in the spine”
Watch these clips from the 1950s show “Close Up” in which Nabokov tells how he enjoyed breeding Lolita “in his own laboratory” and refers to the novel as “a fruit salad”. He calls Humbert Humbert “a baboon of genius” and likens him to an ape that’s learned to sketch the bars of his own cage. Nabokov remains tongue-in-cheek throughout, pointing out important differences between Humbert and himself. For example, Humbert hates American hotels, while Nabokov has had many fine experiences in them. Also, Humbert confuses a hummingbird with a particular type of butterfly, something as an entomologist Nabokov would never do.
Trilling, on the other hand, glamourously fingers his cigarette and keeps to a loftier plane. The love between Humbert Humbert and Lolita, he claims, is not “an aberration but an actual love with all the terrible demands of love” — much like that between Tolstoy’s Kitty and Levin, in fact.
From those nagging suspicions that surface as a call to action through uncomfortable scans and biopsies, the wait for results, the unfailing shock of diagnosis and, finally, treatment that invades and exhausts, there’s nothing like a life-threatening illness to bring perspective to one’s life.
My habits changed in 2011. Right from the beginning, still reeling, I took stock, figured out which aspects of my life I have control of and which I don’t. Where I have control, I take it; otherwise, I let it go. I now connect more often with loved ones, and I connect better, speaking from the heart about things that count. My husband and I argue less—the little things just don’t matter—and we embrace more, glad at every sunrise. Before treatment and since I regained my strength, I’ve exercised with vigor, delighting in physical exertion and all it means: I’m here, now, alive.
The world looks and sounds different. That’s because I’ve slowed down. I take the time to look around, to listen. The shift of light in swaying branches, distant birdsong, the squeals of neighborhood children, the elderly couple walking hand-in-hand—life is all around.
One day, early on in my ordeal, when I went to collect the mail, I was delighted to find among the bills and junk an envelope with my name scrawled in blue ink. A friend had taken the time to send a card full of love and good wishes in an elaborate handwritten message. Not only that, but she made the card herself using the cover of an old Silhouette Romance paperback. Inside, she had glued a short passage from the book, a conversation between lovers about convention and risk taking, hilarious, terribly written prose that, out of the context of the novel, was just the message I needed at that moment. I was so touched. Over the next long weeks, a few other such letters arrived and became lifelines for me.
I began to yearn for the time not so long ago when letter writing was commonplace. There have been times in my life when I wrote letters daily. This was in the late 1980s when I lived and worked in Thailand. Without the distractions of the Internet or TV or a telephone or any kind of nightlife, I managed to do quite a bit of writing during those years. I sent out dozens of letters every week, hoping for, but not necessarily expecting, a reply. I didn’t need an answer to feel a real connection with the people I loved. It was enough to give them something of myself in a dashed off postcard or a crammed aerogramme or lengthy descriptions of my daily life on several pages of onion skin paper.
During the awful wars of the 20th century, vast machinery was created to get letters to and from soldiers. Imagine the heightened emotion, the strange events, the care, the longing, the hope each of these letters held. Imagine going to the letterbox, finding in the stack of correspondence the unique handwriting of the man you love. Or what it meant to the soldier to hear his name called at mail time: A letter from his fiancé had finally arrived! Throughout the prodigious 19th century, letter writing was the most common form of communication. In fact, by the end of the century, there were between six and twelve mail deliveries per day in London, permitting correspondents to exchange multiple letters within a 24-hour period (Murray’s Handbook to London As It Is).
Without ever having had any formal instruction, my children use a variety of keypads with aplomb—to text, to send instant messages, to dash off emails. Even in school, when my youngest was assigned an overseas pen pal, she wrote her letter in Word and printed it out. To me, something valuable has been lost to us. Our words might be tidier and more readable, but what about our hearts?
There’s something wonderful about knowing that the page you hold in your hands was only a short while before sitting on the desk of a friend, bent over, brushed by the sweep of her hair. Not only does the letter bear her handwritten words, her crossed out mistakes, the afterthought that climbs sideways up the page, but also her fingerprints, her perfume, maybe a tear, her breath.
A letter is a gift of self. And of time. Something we all need more of.
Luck of the draw
Last week, my review of Sharell Cook’s Henna for the Broken-Hearted ran in The Courier-Mail and I reposted it here, mentioning that it may be the worst review I’ve ever written. I’ve thought about it all week and felt it deserved further explanation. I’ve also thought quite a bit about the contemporary memoir and how the everyday world functions in it.
I’m not back-pedaling, now, when I say that it was a bit of bad luck for Cook that her book was sent to me when it was. I stand by my review. However, I also feel I must acknowledge the obvious: the reviewer’s background, preferences, attitudes, and opinions—even current circumstances—are built into the process of reviewing.
I respect writers and writing and the dedication it takes to produce a book—even a bad one. When I’m sent a book for review, I remind myself that someone has spent hours crafting it and that, even if it’s not a genre I care for or a style I admire, the book must still be considered on its own merits. If I’d had more space in my review of Henna for the Broken-Hearted, I might have been more nuanced; however, nothing changes my opinion that this particular memoir should not have been published.
The contemporary memoir
I enjoy the genre in spite of the current flood. It’s interesting to read about of the lives of others. I’ve reviewed my fair share too: Joyce Carol Oates’ touching evocation of grief and loss in A Widow’s Story; Alice Pung’s bright light on the immigrant experience in Unpolished Gem; Kai Bird’s recollections of a childhood in the Middle East in Crossing Mandelbaum’s Gate. Having liked The Year of Magical Thinking, I’m looking forward to reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. Then, there’s Perfection by Julie Metz and Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen and, of course, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which are all similar to Henna for the Broken-Hearted in subject matter and approach.
While I was thinking about all of this, it struck me that there are two kinds of memoir. The first type offers a window onto remarkable events—growing up in the 1950s and 60s as the son of a US ambassador in the Middle East, for example, or being kidnapped (and freed) by Somali soldiers. The context for these stories makes the writing easier. The writer can let the facts speak for themselves. The second type of memoir is just the opposite. Instead of the remarkable, this kind of memoir deals precisely with the unremarkable, the everyday lives of ordinary people, something any of us might experience. It therefore requires something ‘special’ in the telling.
All of us grow up and each of our lives unfolds uniquely. And yet we all have many things in common. Most of us will know what it means to have a broken heart. One day, each of us will experience devastating grief at the loss of a loved one. The question becomes: Why should we be more interested in one of these ordinary stories than in any of the other millions just like it?
We care about Oates’ memoir of sudden widowhood because she’s an incredible stylist. Didion’s book on the same subject offers profound insights into marriage, parenthood, grief and loss. Pung and Janzen treat the collision between how they were raised and the grown-up world they’ve chosen with humour, tenderness, and a deep appreciation for their origins.
When I read Henna for the Broken-Hearted, I was looking for that ‘special’ ingredient. Instead, the memoir reads like a chronological recitation, and it feels patched together. When I learned that Cook authors a blog about her life in India, things began to make sense. The book had just the feel of blog posts only rearranged into a timeline. While I read it, I kept wondering why I should care for this particular romance, if there was anything about the events she recounted that shed light on the human experience.
It was partly Cook’s misfortune that I’d just finished re-reading a very different kind of memoir, The War by Marguerite Duras, when I was sent her book for review. Henna for the Broken-Hearted recounts Cook’s recent courtship and plods heavily through the terrain of the everyday. In contrast, The War covers the weeks Duras awaited the return of her husband from Belsen immediately after the camp was liberated in 1945. The memoir was published in 1986, more than forty years after the events, when Duras and the rest of us had the benefit of knowing what really happened in German concentration camps. At the time she wrote it, of course, news was sporadic, uncertain, beset by rumours and misinformation. Duras preserves this uncertainty, choosing not to provide commentary or offer insight gained over the intervening years. The War is a raw document of history, a powerful testament to the experience of so many others who similarly awaited news of loved ones displaced through war. And, although it’s written as a diary, filled with “various comings and goings”, the everyday melts away, transformed into the universal.
It begins like this:
I found this diary in a couple of exercise books in the blue cupboards at Neauphle-le-Château.
I have no recollection of having written it.
I know I did. I know it was I who wrote it. I recognize my own handwriting and the details of the story. I can see the place, the Gare d’Orsay, and the various comings and goings. But I can’t see myself writing the diary. When would I have done so, in what year, at what times of day, in what house? I can’t remember.
One thing is certain: it is inconceivable to me that I could have written it while I was actually awaiting Robert L.’s return.
How could I have written this thing I still can’t put a name to, and that appalls me when I reread it? And how could I have left it lying for years in a house in the country that’s regularly flooded in winter?
The first time I thought about it was when the magazine Sorcières asked me for a text I’d written when I was young.
The War is one of the most important things in my life. It can’t be called “writing”. I found myself looking at pages regularly filled with small, calm, extraordinarily even handwriting. I found myself confronted with a tremendous chaos of thought and feeling that I couldn’t bring myself to tamper with, and beside which literature was something of which I felt ashamed.
It’s true that the book may have had less force if it had been published in the late 1940s when the world was tired of war stories. Duras had already published two not very good books by the war’s end (Les Impudents, 1943, and La Vie Tranquille, 1944), but she was known more for her activities in the Resistance than for her writing. Had the memoir been published before Duras attained such a huge presence in literary and intellectual spheres, it might have made barely a ripple—who knows?
Then, there is something devastating about the fact that the diary remained unremembered for so long. Remarkable that it was hidden in a couple of exercise books, stashed away in the blue cupboards in a house that regularly flooded. The exercise books might have been washed away, destroyed, tossed out, turned to dust, burned in a fire, or forever forgotten about. The fact that none of these things happened is astonishing enough, but that the story is so wrenching and immediate, so important, on top of being so very nearly lost, strains our nerves. What else has been lost? What other treasures have been forgotten, carelessly destroyed?
The fact that The War was discovered in time and finally published is a gift.
The problem with blogging
In the 1940s, it was exercise books. Today, it’s blogs.
With the same ease as purchasing a notebook, we can sign up with WordPress, pick out a design template, and expound two cents’ worth on any subject. The difference between the old exercise books and today’s medium of choice is that it’s all so public and so right now. This is a big problem. Cook’s story might have been more interesting if it had been lost for a number of years. Perhaps certain events will occur to make her romance representative or poignant or of historical worth.
If everyone has a voice and feels the need to broadcast it, what we end up with is a lot of noise. And if all we’re writing about is our ambivalence toward parenthood, our annoyance with traffic jams and nosy neighbours, what we ate for breakfast, and how to get that stain out of our best shirt, we’re not commenting on anything really, we’re only perpetuating our own drudgery for others.
It isn’t every day that one waits for a loved one to return from a concentration camp. Duras’ wait was filled with days and the days with commonplace events—eating and not eating, sleeping and not sleeping, waiting by the phone. The War connects us to a heightened experience of the everyday and to a deeper sense of our common humanity—just what a potent and worthy memoir should do. My fear is that with so much self-profiling going on, with all that noise, the remarkable is being swept away on the riptide of the ordinary. Sadly, we will be less for it.
I challenge everyone who writes to think carefully about what they put out there. Could your story withstand being lost for four decades? Would it be made better?
The Invention of George Eliot
Resignation from strong-minded woman?
On 16 May 1880, Marion Evans married John Cross, a man twenty years her junior, and changed her name once again, this time to Mary Anne Cross. The couple moved to a new house in Chelsea but, shortly thereafter Eliot fell ill with a throat infection. This, coupled with the kidney disease she had been afflicted with for the previous few years, led to her death on 22 December 1880 at the age of 61.
Rosemarie Bodenheimer, one of Evans’s recent biographers, presents her marriage to Cross, who already managed her investments and venerated her work as well as her privacy, as the most practical step she could have taken. In stark contrast to Evans’s decision to live with Lewes, in which, in her letters of the mid 1850s, she casts herself as the “heroic chooser”, Evans as Mrs Cross represents her marriage to John Cross as a passive acceptance of another’s wishes.
Her personal correspondence from this period is revealing. The language of several letters appears to indicate a shift. In a letter to John Cross’s sister, Eleanor, she writes: “Without your tenderness, I do not believe it would have been possible for me to accept this wonderful renewal of my life”. To Georgiana Burne-Jones, she writes: “He has been a devoted friend for years, and now that I am alone, he sees his only longed-for happiness in dedicating his life to me”. And there is a letter to Barbara Bodichon, in which she says: “You will have inferred something of [his] delicacy and generosity from his desire to dedicate his life to the remaining fragment of mine”. After 25 years of silence, Marian Evans Lewes Cross resumes a correspondence with her brother, due exclusively to the respectability she gained in marrying Cross. To him, she writes: “His affection has made him choose this lot of caring for me rather than any other of the various lots open to him”.
Bodenheimer reads these letters and others as an announcement of “her resignation from the position of ‘strong-minded woman’”. Bodenheimer says:
She had made a contract with her audiences and her admirers to be George Eliot, great writer and infamous woman, and now she had broken that promise to the expectations she had raised in others’ minds. She had given up her special status and the names that marked it in order to end her life within the pale of her father’s world.
This type of passivity does not fit well with the way Evans had always conducted her life; and Bodenheimer, in casting the last act of George Eliot’s life as if it were the last chapter in a work of fiction, appears to be searching for a literary resolution and, in the process, overlooking something crucial.
From an early age, Evans acted, then stood her ground. When she refused the doctrines of Christianity, she was nearly sent away from her father’s house, but she did not waver in her resolve to follow her own beliefs. She chose to live openly with Lewes, forsaking her family for him, risking her position in society and her livelihood. The risks involved in such an act are difficult to fathom today: if Lewes had taken his connection with her less seriously – had he abandoned her – Evans would be just another Victorian statistic of fallen womanhood, and George Eliot may never have existed. But it would be a mistake to focus on chance. As wrote to Chapman on 4 October 1954, she had “counted the cost of the step [she had] taken and [was] not mistaken in the person to whom [she] attached herself”. Many years after George Eliot’s death, the journalist Eliza Lynn Linton recalled the aureole of new love that surrounded them immediately after their flight. She writes that “the consciousness that [Marian] had finally made her choice and cast the die which determined her fate, gave her a nobility of expression and a grandeur of bearing.”
There are other incidents that show how Evans was inclined to act rather than wait, even when it wasn’t in her best interest to do so. When speculations settled on Mr. Liggins as the author of Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede, the Leweses were initially amused. However, after pretenders stepped forward to take credit, they grew increasingly annoyed. Ultimately, it triggered the withdrawal of the incognito;, although, to be fair, some had already identified Evans as the holder of the pseudonym, and George Eliot’s identity had even been correctly guessed by members of her family. The timing, however, does suggest something about George Eliot: she risked exposure and public censure regarding her personal circumstances, against the strongest advice of Blackwood, possibly even jeopardizing her arrangements with him, in order to gain proper credit for her work and the fame she felt she was due.
Close on the heels of this incident, when her sensitivity was at its height, and while she was regularly being savaged by gossip columnists and friends alike, the publisher T.C. Newby advertised a book called Adam Bede, Junior. A Sequel. After receiving an indignant letter from Lewes demanding legal action, William Blackwood wrote to his brother, John: “Lewes of course exaggerates the importance of the matter, and I have endeavoured to tone him down by recalling Pickwick Abroad and the many similar felonies on popular authors”.
Evans remained outraged, however, complaining in her journal that the Blackwoods “are slow to act in the matter — hitherto, have not acted at all: not being strongly moved, apparently by what is likely to injure me more than them”. The situation precipitated a near break with the Blackwoods, who thought it was best to let the matter die a natural death. Although the issue resolved itself, the degree of annoyance and emotion this incident inspired in Evans, and the lengths to which Evans and Lewes were willing to go illustrate how passionately concerned the two were concerning George Eliot’s reputation.
The most revealing example of Evan’s concern for the fame and reputation of George Eliot was her wish to be entombed in Westminster Abbey, which she had discussed with Lewes prior to his death. Immediately following her death, Cross elicited the help of Herbert Spencer, a long-time friend of Evans and Lewes, who in turn collected signatures and solicited others, such as Edward Byrne-Jones, Frederic Leighton, and John Tyndall, for support. These men steadfastly petitioned Dean Stanley.
Thomas H. Huxley argued that the proposal was certain to be bitterly opposed, perhaps with the raking up of past histories, as was the case with John Stuart Mill. He writes: “George Eliot is known not only as a great writer, but as a person whose life and opinions were in notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regards to marriage, and in Christian theory in regard to dogma.” Cross did not press the issue.
In the face of these examples, how should her marriage to John Cross be read? Her various biographers offer a range of interpretations. Haight interprets it straightforwardly, as an act of sincere affection. Referring to the many friends, loyal throughout 25 years of an unconventional alliance, who were shocked by her marriage, he comments that they underestimated her essential conservatism. He argues that “after her few years of rebellion, Marian… reverted quickly to traditional ways”. Bodenheimer reads her marriage to Cross as a pragmatic, but also essentially conservative, step. Redlinger proposes that she married from “a fear of losing her power to love”, helped along by a sense of defencelessness with regard to the attentions of Edith Simcox, who Redlinger suggests grew bolder after the death of Lewes. Redlinger doubts that Cross had “done much in the way of instigating this marriage”, asserting that Cross’s illness on their honeymoon was severe mental depression (brought on by feeling “overwhelmed” at his marriage), which led to a suicide attempt. *
Any interpretation of Evans marriage to Cross is speculative. Even the letters written by Evans about her marriage are suspect. Rather than explaining anything, they are primarily dictated by the unusual circumstances. Politeness required that she provide a happy tone, a forward-looking attitude, an overall positiveness, although in the same letters, she refers often to her illness, her thinness, her sickness of heart. She sees her life as “a remaining fragment”, suggesting she is anticipating her death.
Affection, need and practicality are not mutually exclusive, but I believe Evans was motivated less by conservatism than by a desire to assure her recognition in posterity. In John Cross, loyalty, devotion, attention to detail, knowledge of her private finances, appropriate reverence were all to be found. When Lewes died, Evans lost the advocate who would have arranged for George Eliot to be handed down to later generations, whether by burial in Westminster Abbey or through the publication of her life and letters. Her marriage, therefore, continued these efforts and assured her future reputation.
*There is no evidence for this, contrary to gossip and occasional poorly researched biographies. Also, Cross’s behavior during their marriage and after his wife’s death was not that of a man overwhelmed, as Redlinger suggests, by a mistake. At forty, he was capable of making his own decisions with open eyes. Whatever the terms of their relationship, it is likely that Cross had his share in defining them.
See the other sections in The Invention of George Eliot:
Grass in literature
There’s an ancient proverb in China: “Plant one bamboo shoot, cut bamboo for the rest of your life.” Bamboo is the largest member of the grass family.
Papyrus sedge was beaten into strips to form the earliest know ‘paper’ for writing. According to Theophrastus (371-287BC), who wrote the earliest known history of plants, papyrus sedge ranged from North Africa to as far away as Syria. Theophrastus’ extensive works were recorded on papyrus scrolls.
Milton speaks of God dressing the naked earth in his vivid re-imagining of the biblical creation story, Paradise Lost:
…when the bare Earth, till then
Desert and bare, unsightly, unadorn’d,
[He] Brought forth the tender Grass, whose verdure clad
Her Universal Face with pleasant green…
(Book VII, 313-316)
In Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (1807), William Wordsworth celebrates ‘splendour in the grass’, by which he refers to the child’s retention of some memory of paradise. This state glorifies children’s existence on earth, something lost to distracted adults.
In Ruth, a novel of seduction by Elizabeth Gaskell (1853), Jemima learns of Ruth’s illicit relationship and the truth surrounding the birth of Ruth’s son: “The diver, leaving the green sward, smooth and known…down in an instant in the horrid depths of the sea, close to some strange, ghastly, lidless-eyed monster, can hardly more feel his blood curdle at the near terror than did Jemima now.” The grassy bank represents safety, innocence; the lidless-eyed monster, the way the 19th Century viewed sex.
The title of Walt Whitman’s celebration of nature and the human body, Leaves of Grass (1855), was intended as a pun. “Leaves” is another word for the pages on which the poem is written, and “grass” was used by publishers of the day to refer to works of insignificance.
Because of blight, drought, grasshopper plagues, debt, and other troubles, Isak Dinesen was forced to sell her coffee farm in Africa. Her lover, Denis Finch-Hatton, was due for a farewell lunch but failed to arrive. She learned later that his plane crashed outside the city of Voi and he was killed. Because she and Finch-Hatton once spent lovely days in the Ngong Hills, Dinesen buried him there among the waving grasses. Later, years after her return to Europe, she heard from friends that a lion and a lioness had been frequently seen sitting on his grave. (Dinesen writes of this episode in her memoir, Out of Africa, first published in 1937.)
In A Thousand Plateaus (1980), the second part of their work Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari borrow the concept of a thousand plateaus from a Balinese Tantric tradition signifying a non-climactic orgasmic field. They reject hierarchical (or ‘arborescent’) organisation, which is vertical and linear, in favour of ‘rhysomatic’ organisation, which they see as being horizontal and therefore having the possibility for more connections. (I’m not kidding.)
Meanwhile, in a marijuana fog, Grady Tripp, the hero of Michael Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys (1995), broods about love and literature while he does just about everything possible to mess up his life. Getting high on pot, he says, “makes me feel like everything already happened five minutes ago.” Everything, that is, but growing up.
Mark O’Flynn gives us strange, mentally disabled Edgar, who collects dogs. When the dogs find the corpse of a man, Edgar is arrested for the murder. In Grassdogs (2006), the harrowing experience of prison life is contrasted with the wild, and often dangerous, freedom of the Australian landscape.
The Invention of George Eliot
Birth of a Persona
George Eliot did not exist before 1857. The pseudonym appears first in a letter to John Blackwood dated 4 February, 1957, after the appearance of The Sad Fortunes of Reverend Amos Barton in Blackwood’s Magazine, and its subsequent positive critical and public reception. Marian Evans writes (through George Henry Lewes):
…It will be well to give you my prospective name,
as a tub to throw to the whale in case of curious inquiries,
and accordingly I subscribe myself,
best and most sympathizing of editors,
Yours very truly, George Eliot
John Cross, the man Evans married at the end of her life, later wrote that she chose this name because “George was Mr. Lewes’s Christian name and Eliot was a good mouth-filling easily pronounced word”. It can be argued that it was through Lewes that a pseudonym came to be required at all, since it was “a consequence of [his] friendly urgency that she wrote the Scenes of Clerical Life“; and the fact that living openly with Lewes required a certain delicacy towards the audience to whom her work would most appeal.
That is not to suggest that Evans would not have written novels without Lewes’s “friendly urgency”, or that she would have felt comfortable publishing them under her own name if they had not been romantically involved. Undeniably, the name George Eliot and the fiction of a clergyman-turned-novelist somewhere in Coventry were part of a convenient cover for an unmarried woman concurrently living in sin and embarking on what might be seen as a somewhat risky career change after a successful stint as a translator and a journalist. But the social and literary environment was potentially far more hostile than suggested by the playfulness with which the newly created George Eliot writes to Blackwell.
As recounted earlier, Evans was indignant that her readers speculated that Adam Bede could only have been written by a country parson. When Joseph Liggins stepped forward, pretending to be the novel’s author, Evans revealed her identity. While this shocked many readers—because of her gender and her relationship with a married man—strangely, it didn’t affect her popularity as a novelist.
For the next twenty years, Evans lived quietly with Lewes writing novels under the name of George Eliot. The pseudonym served her well, providing a mask for those who did not know her situation and a nod to discretion for those who did. Her fame rose and times changed. In 1977, Evans and Lewes were even introduced to Princess Louise, the daughter of Queen Victoria.
George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, was published in 1876, around the time Lewes’s health began to fail. He died in 1878, leaving Evans bereft. Her career as a novelist was intimately connected to Lewes and his encouragement. Though her final work, Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879), is fictional, and also her most experimental work, she was never again to write another one of her expansive social novels. She returned to non-fiction, editing Lewes’s last work, Life and Mind.
Her grief was overwhelming during this period; and, consequently, her health began to fail. It’s likely Evans anticipated her own death during the months she work on this final project. As she was working to honour and perpetuate the memory of her lover, it’s likely that throughout the process of editing Lewes’s work, she gave some thought to how she would be remembered and how her work would be thought of in generations to come.
Many, including Henry James, have said her marriage to John Cross in 1881, a year and a half after the death of Lewes and eight months before Evans’ own, was an act motivated by the wish to have her memory ‘administered’ by a sympathetic friend after she died.
See the other sections in The Invention of George Eliot:
Angry Penguins, Fakes, and Other Monsters
What we write, like what we do, can take on a life of its own. And there are a lot of ways it can get out of control. I recently saw the DVD of Capote, a movie about writing and about the cost of being a writer. In the epilogue to the movie, before the final credits, we learn that In Cold Blood was Truman Capote’s greatest book and that it was also his last. He had the literary genius to recognize that ‘mining’ the story of Perry Smith, a cold-blooded killer awaiting execution, would make for a compelling narrative. What he couldn’t predict was that it would also change the way fictional accounts of real events would be written—and read. What he couldn’t imagine was that he would never again be able to live with himself for betraying Smith’s trust for the ‘story’. The movie shows an artist fracturing before our eyes and, in his place, we discover a sort of Frankenstein-like figure: pitiable, lost, doomed. A few short years later, Capote was to die of alcohol-related illness.
Helen Garner got it right when she wrote in one of her essays: “Writers will insist on writing about everything. We are voracious monsters, ravening beasts who roam the world seeking whom and what we may devour. There’s hardly a corner or cranny of life that hasn’t been zeroed in on, exposed to the light and relentlessly verbalised by some maniac with a biro and a keyboard.”
A couple of years ago on a trip to Melbourne, I arranged to meet B.D., a friend who had recently returned to that fabled city from what he considered to be the dreary exile of Brisbane. The trip happened to coincide with the re-opening of the Gallery and we decided to meet there. With sparkling eyes and a big hug, the first thing he said was: “It’s like I’d never left Melbourne. All those years in Brisbane seem like a long weekend.”
We wandered around the Gallery, chatting, catching up, stopping for a moment before the Jackson Pollack painting, Blue Poles. “It’s odd,” I said. “There is a bench here as if they expect crowds to sit in contemplation, yet the gallery is empty.” B.D. told me of the public outcry at their purchase. In 1973, the Gallery purchased the 1952 painting for $2 million, which was then the highest price paid for a contemporary artwork. “I suppose the bench is an artefact of the protest,” B.D. mused. “Something they put there to placate the public, to suggest its value, to create the illusion that the public would eventually get its money’s worth.”
We moved on to the Gallery café, where I quickly became intoxicated on too many strong coffees. I chattered on, enthusing about “the sleek look of the Gallery, how absolutely lovely it was to have a weekend away, how fascinating I found public outcries—indeed, how I would so like to write a series of one-act plays about them, isn’t that a great idea?” (I have since cut back on coffee and never have written any such plays, but even sober, I still think it’s a good idea). “If you think that’s interesting,” B.D. said, pausing to sip the last of his flat white and raising an eyebrow, “let me tell you about Ern Malley.”
Most Australians grew up hearing about this great literary hoax and the outcry surrounding it, but it was new to me, and I found it delightful. I’ve thought about it often since that conversation and even did a little research. Ern Malley has his own website after all (http://www.ernmalley.com), which I suppose shouldn’t be so surprising given his larger than life dimensions. For anyone who’s forgotten, Malley’s creators, two bored young soldiers, decided to prank an old University mate. Max Harris just happened to be the editor of Angry Penguins, a literary journal the hoaxers considered to be pretentious, self-glorifying, and a bit ridiculous.
One lazy, wet Saturday afternoon, they sat down to write poetry according to a few explicit rules: there must be no coherent theme; no care was to be taken with verse technique; and they must only use phrases from the books that happened to be on the desk at the time (which included a military manual on mosquito control). The two later described the result as a “literary experiment”, “a wonderful jape!”, “a free association” test”, “utterly devoid of any literary merit as poetry”, simply “a grab-bag of plagiarised lines and snippets of bad verse.” Harold Stewart and James McAuley fabricated the poems the way Frankenstein was put together, without method or thought, but merely combining bits and pieces that were lying around.
Much later, they confessed: “Having completed the poems, we wrote a very pretentious and meaningless Preface and Statement, which purported to explain the aesthetic theory on which they were based. Then we elaborated the details of the poet’s life. This took more time than the composition of his Works.” Thus Ern Malley was born.
Peter Carey resurrects the Ern Malley ‘affair’ in his novel, My Life as a Fake. His version of the story results in a provocative, compelling and mysterious novel—almost a detective fiction—about layers of literary creation, about literature and reputation and the creative process itself. Setting the story within the dark framework of such a hoax, his novel explores how literary creation can take on a life of its own and lead to unexpected and dangerous outcomes.
My Life as a Fake is about the tension between truth and fiction. It shifts between seeing first one and then the other as the monster of the story. Truth is shown “dismembered and scattered” in the dead figure of Chubb, whose “substance, the blood that had coursed through his heart” is splattered over Sarah, the story’s narrator.
Carey most definitely has monsters on his mind. The novel opens with a quote by Mary Shelley. Later, the narrator recalls Milton’s fascination for Satan at the expense of the epic’s ‘hero’. And McCorkle’s journal, his work of genius, is described in various passages as though it were a living thing, with descriptive words like “rough and slippery”, and as a creature having “foreign stippled skin” and “claws”. When Chubb gives it to Sarah, she observes, “…when he laid his square hand on it and his cracked nails and liver spots made contact with its weathered skin, both book and hand seemed to be related parts of the same creature.”
Truth and fiction become intertwined, interchangeable. Literary reputation is called into question. At every level, life insinuates itself into literature, and literature insinuates itself into life.
There is a ‘twinning’ going on. There is the person who writes. Someone much like you and me. Someone who sleeps, eats, works, gets bored, worries, cooks, shops, reads to his children, laughs, and gets headaches. And there is the ‘author’. This is someone who exists as a separate being on a higher plane. We think of him as descending occasionally to launch books or give interviews; otherwise, he exists in a place apart from the rest of us, breathing in the rarified air of inspiration, nibbling the manna of creativity, producing one beautifully crafted passage after another.
Another of Carey’s novels—Theft, A Love Story—is about a different kind of artist, a painter whose reputation has floundered. I couldn’t help but think that Carey’s revisiting the question of artistic reputation, but from another direction. Is it that he’s exploring his own ambivalence towards success? Towards constantly playing the role of ‘author’? And who can blame him really? It’s something that every successful author must face, and it is a kind of monster. After all, how does one reconcile the private individual with the public persona? How much of oneself can one afford to give away? How much of real life is it safe to draw on? Even if characters are entirely made up, how does one keep them under control when they take a breath and begin to move, to act, to take on a life of their own?
I don’t blame Carey for this resistance. He is perhaps the most likely Australian novelist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in coming years. That prospect may be a thrilling one, but it must also be terrifying. Maybe in dealing with these themes, he’s battling with the monsters Reputation and Persona and Literature and Career. Because in the modern context, the journey of the artist in search of his art, his story, and his career can be perilous.
The Ern Malley website has a section called Ern Malley Today. Although the hoaxers are dead, Ern Malley is proclaimed to “live on!” Apparently, “his light is undimmed.” The page lists the books and productions and compositions he’s inspired. Indeed, some consider Malley’s ‘poetry’ to be among Australia’s finest.
Some creations refuse to live in the cages their creators have written for them. They burst off the page and out of the story. The Ern Malley affair has a happy ending. Indeed, it’s a playful and charming footnote to Australian literary history, summoning up an era of personalities and friendships not unlike America’s Brook Farm and England’s Bloomsbury. Carey’s version, however, is much darker. The editor commits suicide, the hoaxer is driven mad and eventually murdered. And don’t forget Capote’s vehement pursuit of “the story”, which created another kind of monster. One that resided within. One that led him to alcohol and eventually killed him.
I think Carey is doing it right. He seems aware of the danger and is facing it in his art, creating versions of literary monsters, playing out the possibilities, battling them over and over, and in doing so, keeping them under control. Just.
By Adair Jones.
(First published in Arts Hub in 2006.)