The crushing revelations of adolescence are perhaps hardest for boys. The elucidation of this fact is best captured by Alberto Moravia’s 1948 novella Disobedience and François Truffaut’s 1959 film The 400 Blows. It is no coincidence that the release of these works occurred so closely together. The post-WWII era was a period that exemplified forcing young men to fall in line in a capacity beyond soldierdom. The crushing pressure to grow into a “respectable” person by attending school, finding a well-paying job and marrying a “nice girl” proved too much for some, like Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in The 400 Blows and Luca in Disobedience.
For both characters, the revelation of harboring a distinct hatred for authority begins with their parents, figures they once deemed the source of all good, but now view as the sole reason for their oppression. This ire then bifurcates toward school, and the teachers who, as Doinel notes, “teach lots of useless things like algebra and science.”
In Luca’s case, the contempt for his parents, who he once held in such high esteem until reaching adolescence, manifests itself in rebellion against everything that represents life, and the conventions and motions attached to it. At first, this process of renunciation–of possessions, pleasures, etc.–causes a distinct split within Luca as the narrator remarks, “He was truly furious with himself, just as though–he could not help thinking–he were divided into two parts, one of which lay, abandoned and wretched, on the ground, feebly defending itself, while the other stood over it, striking it without mercy.”
Eventually, Luca finds the persistence in his hatred to shirk all scholarly responsibilities, still attending, but not performing. He also disavows his most valuable worldly items, including his stamp collection, books and sporting goods. In order to sell his library under the nose of his parents, he lies and tells them he wants to make a profit off them at the used bookstore and then pool his savings to have enough for a new record player and some records. Like his counterpart, distorting the truth is essential to self-preservation, or rather, self-decimation. Doinel states of lying to his parents, “I lie from time to time. Sometimes because if I told the truth they wouldn’t believe me.” When you’re “just a boy,” it seems, no one wants to think anything but the worst of you anyway.
With the money he makes, Luca takes another drastic stand against authority by burying the loot in a park near the area where they feed the lions. As he watches, he thinks about how satisfying it would be to become a sacrifice to the beasts, serving a greater purpose in this than any he could in going on living. After all, “To die, it sometimes occurred to him, was perhaps the one true pleasure life reserved for mankind.”
The final step in his procedure of clandestine disobedience is to stop eating. He consumes just enough for basic energy, nothing decadent, not even his favorite–cake. This form of abdication from the existence laid out before him by his parents, teachers and other caretakers is, he believes, the final nail in his coffin. “It seemed, then, that there were rules for death as there were for life. If living meant being enthusiastic about one’s lessons, loving one’s parents, saving up money, becoming attached to objects, eating, it followed that dying must mean not eating, ridding oneself of all affection both for things and for people, and, above all, sleeping.” Doinel, too, takes on this form of approach to a dissent that others might view as a type of death. Ultimately, his so-called laziness, cheating and thievery is what lands him in a psychologically-oriented observation center for youths.
Just when Luca thinks he’s got his defiance finely tuned, he becomes infatuated with a governess who comes to live in his house with three of his cousins while their mother recuperates from an illness. Even though she’s homely and much older, Luca is incredibly desirous of her, and hates himself for being so. Alas, the burning loins of puberty are hard to ignore for him, which the governess immediately capitalizes on by inviting him to her home after she pursues him during her own version of hide and seek. Battling the struggle within himself to resist or succumb, Luca finally ends up going to her two weeks after her invitation only to find that she is on her deathbed. It is then that his certainty in violently disobeying the norms of life are further confirmed. “And so, he could not help thinking, this was what it meant to live, to go on living–doing, with passion and determination, absurd, senseless things for which it was impossible to find any justification and which continually placed the person who did them in a state of slavery, of remorse, of hypocrisy.”
With this harrowing experience avoided and a lesson fully apprehended, Luca continues going about his means of insurgency, falling ill during a recitation of Dante in his class that leads to him being in a state of delirium for months while on bedrest. When his hallucinations have finished with him, he awakens to find an aged nurse watching over him. She insists, “You’ll get well if you’re obedient and do all the things you ought to do.”
Just as the governess, however, her designs on him are impure, a suspicion made evident by the lecherous manner in which she washes him after he becomes conscious for the first time. Still, when she devirginizes him, Luca can’t help but feel a certain gratitude. “The nurse had given him a second birth when, in his desire for death, he had been already dead. But he knew that his second birth could never have taken place if he had not first desired, so sincerely, so whole-heartedly, to die.” This is also the case with Doinel, who experiences a sort of death when he goes through the catharsis of being imprisoned by the sea and tells his tale of woe to the psychologist before breaking free and at last making it to the shore, where he so long dreamed of going, thereby invigorating within him a renewed sense of gusto for life–even if it does mean existing within the limiting confines of obedience.
Ultimately “He [Luca and Doinel] saw that this was his life; and that now it only remained to him to be patient and live it out to the end.” But it takes a lot of painful hostility and insubordination for an adolescent boy to reach this conclusion.
There is no greater representation of a Sicilian than an olive. At times bitter and at times sweet, it can change its mood depending on the conditions of the land. In Philippe Poloni’s 1999 debut, Olivo Oliva, a vengeful olive carries out its wrath against a wealthy olive orchard owning family by begging the Great Patriarchal Tree it is perched upon to drop it down to the area where Milli Palme, a poor land worker, is penetrating Pina Di Vita, the youngest daughter of the family that controls the majority of the olive groves in town. Her uncle’s intent to get rid of over half the workers with machinery fuels the fire of Milli’s false affections toward Pina, who “didn’t love the girl who cried out during pleasure, and he hated the Great Patriarchal Tree above his head.” It is in this manner that Olivo Oliva is conceived from the seed of an olive that talks its tree into letting it drop to the ground. Into the depths of the vagina, and in general, “The Olive does not recognize black, because it is blackness itself.”
So is spawned an evil half olive/half man whose father ends up disappearing, to which the other Sicilians on the island insist the sea “took him” to America, as it had so many other lost and forgotten residents. With Pina left with the odiousness of her child, eventually named Olivo Oliva for his resemblance to the oval fruit, he grows into a truly contemptible hybrid. After wreaking psychological havoc on his mother, he heads to the promised land, New York City, where he finds himself in the role of contract killer, or as it is referred to more reverently,sicario. As his employer notes, “‘Contract killing is the oldest profession the world knows. It dates back to the birth of Man somewhere in Africa. With the first palisades came the first communities, the first psychologies and the first behaviors, the first ideas and the first cultures, the first policies and the first religions, the first polemics and the first undesirables. Contract killing is, and will always be, a political and cultural act. Without those aspects, the sicario would not exist. There would be only common criminals!'”
And so begins Olivo’s journey toward integration into not just the oldest profession, but the oldest stereotype of Sicilians. Quickly regarded as among the best of his kind, Olivo waits, tick-like as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, to return to his homeland and take back the land he sees as his own, in addition to coming to blows with his old enemy and forebear, the Great Patriarchal Tree. Poloni’s creative concept and execution of it leads the narrative through a series of twists, and perhaps explains why he waited until 2013 to write another novel. As a writer, it is often difficult to surpass oneself in innovation after it is done the first time around.
As Patti Smith notes quite aptly in the first sentence of her latest book, M Train, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” And yet, she manages to do just that with all the poeticism and grace of a gentleman or socialite. Her scattered upbringing in Chicago, Philadelphia and, finally, Woodbury, New Jersey is perhaps what set the tone for her nomadic existence as an adult–both in New York City alone (everyone who isn’t rich is prone to transience there) and throughout Europe. While her life is certainly not one would associate with being characterized by nothingness, Smith does tend to highlight the more monotonous portions of her everyday existence in her follow-up to the highly acclaimed 2011 book, Just Kids.
Where she leaves off there (around the time of her and Robert Mapplethorpe’s ascension to fame) she picks up again in M Train, focusing on her marriage to Fred “Sonic” Smith–yes, having the same last name might have helped with the attraction–of MC5 and her current existence in New York peppered with random and abrupt travels. But, no matter how many times she departs from New York, there seems to be no truer home to her than Cafe ‘Ino on Bedford Street in the West Village. It is there that she curls up into her usual corner on a daily basis and writes whatever stream of consciousness comes to her, often meeting that wall known as writer’s block, but still content to turn to the comfort of coffee and toast with olive oil. This combination is, indeed, one she mentions quite frequently throughout the book, casually and even unwittingly inserting it into her prose as follows: “Cafe ‘Ino looked empty. There were tiny ice formations dripping along the edge of the orange awning. I sat at my table and had my brown toast with olive oil, and opened Camus’s The First Man,” and, elsewhere, “I was looking forward to sitting at my corner table and receiving my black coffee, brown toast, and olive oil without asking for it.”
Her profuse outpouring of ardor and devotion to this West Village haunt makes it clear that M Train is a love letter to the meaning we can imbue a place with, particularly one so enmeshed in our artistic routine. Moreover, Smith’s day to day reminiscences of the most seemingly basic acts, including reading and binge watching TV shows, are made poetic by the way she views them and therefore describes them.
Smith’s rebellion against authority (which, as always, stems from a religious upbringing) has only augmented since her punk rock Horses and Radio Ethiopia days, as indicated by her description of flying to Mexico City to give a speech on Frida Kahlo, during which she states, “We were about to take off. I was reprimanded for not buckling my seat belt. I forgot to hide the fact by throwing my coat over my lap. I hate being confined, especially when it’s for my own good.” But then, the curse of being a world traveler is being subjected to the mercy of flight attendants. Smith’s far-reaching voyages delineated in M Train span from Germany to Japan to England and many places in between, capturing the restlessness of an artistic spirit driven by the need for discovery and to visit the graves of dead authors, Sylvia Plath, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and Osamu Dazai included. The latter two fiction writers represent an especial trip for Smith, who ponders the correlative connection between them, noting, “Both writers took their own lives. Akutagawa, fearing he had inherited his mother’s madness, ingested a fatal dose of Veronal and then curled up in his mat next to his wife and son as they slept. The younger Dazai, a devoted acolyte, seemed to take on the hair shirt of the master, failing at multiple suicide attempts before drowning himself…”
Smith’s familiarity and affinity with great writers is often what drives her romantic nature, as was the case with her purchase of a ramshackle home in Rockaway Beach just months before Hurricane Sandy hit. Her motive in buying the property emerged from a desire to write in seclusion, drinking free coffee to her heart’s content from the coffee shop she invested in nearby. Calling the house “my Alamo,” the edifice lived up to its epithet by withstanding the brutal blows of the storm. Nonetheless, this moment in New York history appeared to signal a shift not only in the city’s history, but Smith’s as well. Shortly after, Cafe ‘Ino closed, and with it, infinite fond memories spent there. The owner, Jason Denton, recognized Smith’s melancholy over the loss and offered to bring her favorite table and chair to her apartment before leaving. Another regular at the cafe snapped Smith’s photograph on the last day, an image that would become the cover for her book.
As for the name M Train, it isn’t quite inspired by the MTA subway line–though it does pass through Smith’s West Village neighborhood–so much as a conjured image in the mind’s eye of the author as she states, “The bartender refilled my glass. The tequila was light, like flower juice. I closed my eyes and saw a green train with an M in a circle; a faded green like the back of a praying mantis.”
From the tequila reveries of Mexico City to the awkward speeches made in Berlin to honor Alfred Wegener for the Continental Drift Club, Smith’s global wanderings always lead her back to the town she came to all those years ago in 1967, and prompts her to draw a certain undeniable conclusion about her profession: “All writers are bums.” And even though it’s hard to be a bum in the modern era, Smith’s M Train teaches us all how it’s eloquently and masterfully done.
Among the many Italian authors billed as literary powerhouses, there is still, perhaps, no one who can hold a candle to Alberto Moravia. His most epic work,The Woman of Rome, is all the proof one needs of this. Released in 1949, the political undertones that become more prominent as the novel progresses cover the then recent past, a wartime era that tore the nation apart as a result of fascism.
But before this element comes into play, there is, of course, Adriana, our anti-heroine. Initially innocent, Adriana reflects on her past with a sentimental sort of resignation, starting from the age of sixteen. Remarking on how it was her mother who directed her to model nude for a painter (and also alludes to her mother posing for him–and maybe more), she insists that her only dream was to get married and have a family, rather than trade on her good looks as her mother so often wished she would. Indeed, Adriana’s naive way of describing how “Mother immediately began to talk of when she had been known all over Rome as one of the handsomest models and the harm she had done herself by marrying and giving up her career” is indicative of just how virtuous she was before surrendering to her ultimate profession.
Naturally, taking off her clothes every day for money was bound to lead to a certain awareness of her body. After noticing the desire she arouses in the artists’ friends, Adriana realizes, “These glances, as well as Mother’s veiled allusions, roused my sense of coquetry and made me conscious both of my beauty and of the advantages I might draw from it.” And yet, she is determined to maintain her purity, surrendering only to the man who she loves, which turns out, to her mother’s dismay to be a lowly chauffeur named Gino. Reflecting on her first impressions of Gino, the man she was so determined to marry, Moravia as Adriana employs the distinct technique of foreshadowing for the reader her slow and dramatic downfall from respectable, modest woman to prostitute.
Her first experience with the trade occurs as a result of her so-called friend, Gisella, a fellow model who also uses her body for higher-paying work. She insists that Adriana accompany her on a jaunt to Viterbo with her and her “fiancé,” Riccardo, so that she can be an escort to their friend, Stefano Astarita. Still innocent with regard to her instant trust of people, Adriana agrees to go along, not yet cognizant that Astarita is going to have his way with her whether she wants to or not. When it’s over, he is more obsessed with her than ever, and pays her accordingly. And yet, it is not this moment that prompts her to embrace the profession, but rather, Astarita’s (who is a member of the Secret Police in Mussolini’s fascist regime) unwanted information about Gino being a married man with a daughter. Henceforth, Adriana succumbs to the ease of becoming a whore, waking up late, taking her coffee in bed and making her own schedule. She will no longer bother with the effort at being good or noble, eking by on her meager earnings while her mother sews shirts to the point of blindness.
Adriana likens herself to a doll who is broken inside but goes on looking the same externally, musing, “I compared myself with a doll I had had when I was little–after I had beaten her and dragged her about all day long, I felt a kind of lump inside her, a sinister creaking, although her face was still as rosy and smiling as ever.” It is with this dulling of her dreams that she goes on living, even continuing to have sex with Gino in spite of what she knows about him. As the chauffeur for a wealthy family, he takes Adriana to the villa he works at whenever the family is away. In her haze of not caring about morality anymore, Adriana decides to steal a valuable gold-plated compact with a ruby at the center from the bedroom. She does it not so much because she likes it, but merely to do it–to prove to herself that nothing she does matters anymore.
The consequence of her action, however, ultimately leads to her encounter with Sonzogno, a cold-blooded killer who Gino enlists to sell the compact for money after Adriana gives it back to him. But before Sonzogno gives her too much trouble, Adriana falls in love with a politically-minded student two years younger than her, Giacomo. His apathy toward her only makes her more enamored of him, wanting so desperately to do and say the things that will trigger his ardor in equity. But Giacomo’s only concern, it seems, is rebelling against the government. Adriana can’t help but find the irony in love’s discrepancies, with Astarita passionate about her, though she cares not at all for him, while she’s devoted to Giacomo, who barely gives her any crumbs of emotion.
Like most tales of a golden-hearted prostitute, Adriana’s yields tragic results, but not without a somewhat cushioning outcome. In the end, Moravia has written a love letter to the oldest profession, a thankless one, but an important one nonetheless.
Valeria Luiselli is something of the gamine manic pixie dream girl of the literary world–aesthetically at least. When it comes to her prose, though, there is so much more beneath the surface of her marketable look. Her second novel, The Story of My Teeth, published by Coffee House Press (who also put out the English translation of her first novel, Faces in the Crowd, and essay collection, Sidewalks), offers an altogether unprecedented approach to novel writing in that its creation actually unfolded through a collaborative process.
In conversation with Coffee House editor and publisher Chris Fischbach at McNally Jackson on September 15th, Luiselli discussed the rich and, at times, painstaking technique of working with the factory workers of Grupo Jumex, a juice company whose profits help fund the nearby Galería Jumex, which commissioned Luiselli to write a fiction piece for an art exhibit being held there. This request evolved into Luiselli bargaining to serialize her work (blogs weren’t an option for her, according to her preference), which soon led to her aural back and forth correspondence with the workers.
Although she initially assumed that most of the workers would be men and therefore made her lead character, Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez a.k.a. Highway, a man in order for it to feel more authoritative and “closer” to them, it turned out that by the time she realized many of them were actually women, Highway had already been born and it would have felt wrong to go back to imagining him as a female. And so, the procedure of sending her pages to the factory workers continued, prompting Luiselli to work at a rapid pace so that she could eagerly await their audio file commentary.
Through their critiques, Luiselli developed Highway’s arrogance and semi-delusional self-perception, which is elucidated in most every sentence of his first person narration, as with the opening line, “I’m the best auctioneer in the world, but no one knows it because I’m a discreet sort of man.” Auctioneering is, indeed, an integral aspect of the novel, with Highway’s mentor, Master Oklahoma (naturally a sage Japanese man), teaching him the four types: hyperbolic, parabolic, circular and elliptical.” Highway later adds his own form, allegorical. It is, however, a sequence at a fledgling church involving Highway performing a hyperbolic auction that is his most memorable style of auctioneering, with a tooth from Virginia Woolf, among others, being offered for sale. Teeth play heavily into the neurosis of an artist, after all, and, as a point of reference, Woolf’s therapist believed that extracting her teeth would help alleviate her depression.
Luiselli’s thorough research into every aspect of the auctioneer field (she even filled out a few applications for auctioneer school–yes, that’s a thing–to better understand the vernacular and landscape) is evident in the way that Highway drips off the page as a living, breathing real person. His pompousness and assuredness (primarily due to the former quality) is what makes him one of the most memorable characters to arise in literature of late. And this isn’t all just due to Luiselli’s masterfulness as a writer, but because of the many people in the trenches there to help her verify certain speculations. A case in point: after virtually exploring the area just outside of Mexico City where the art gallery resides, Luiselli wanted to confirm for the purposes of her novel that, as according to Google Maps, there was, in fact, a building with the moniker “Neurotics Anonymous” on it. Thanks to her trusty sources, it has been confirmed this is very true.
Elsewhere, the intensive fact checking that went on once Luiselli submitted her manuscript ended up becoming something of a novel in and of itself (Fischback and Luiselli stated at the reading that they would like to add it as a sort of appendix to subsequent editions of the book). What this all boils down to is that novel writing is not necessarily the solitary endeavor it has been touted to be for all these centuries. Undoubtedly, as Luiselli’s method has proved, the art can be elevated to an even higher level when collaboration is involved.
Thomas Hardy has many masterpieces in his oeuvre (Tess of the d’Urbervilles andJude the Obscure are other strong contenders among Hardy’s best), but Far From the Madding Crowd stands out as his most accurate depiction of an attractive woman’s struggle with power. The heroine of the story, Bathsheba Everdene, is confident, proud and very well-aware of the effect she has on men. Over the course of the narrative, she encounters three ardent suitors: Gabriel Oak, William Boldwood and Francis “Frank” Troy.
The first man she meets is Gabriel, a modest farmer who lives in the town of Norcombe Hill, where he has purchased a sheep farm of his own. As he sees her riding into town on her way to her Aunt Hurst’s, he immediately cites that the greatest of Bathsheba’s faults is her vanity. As Hardy puts it, “She simply observed herself as a fair product of Nature in the feminine kind, in which men would play a part–vistas of probable triumphs–the smiles being of a phase suggesting that hearts were imagined as lost and won.” And yet, Gabriel can’t help but be in love with her, both as a result of her beauty and her unique willfulness. Fascinated by her aura and movements, Gabriel often observes her unnoticed (it’s romantic, not creepy, when told in the Hardyan way). His enamor of her is fortified after she saves him from dying of smoke inhalation upon falling asleep in his shepherd’s hut with the hearth still lit. Even so, she still refuses to tell him her name in the wake of her heroic act. After going to the source–her aunt–to find out the details of the girl he learns is Bathsheba Everdene, he asks for her hand in marriage. Bathsheba declines him repeatedly during the exchange, and yet, Gabriel vows to love her for all time in spite of her dismissive treatment.
When next they meet, Bathsheba’s haughtiness has gained even more traction as she has inherited the farm and estate of her wealthy uncle in a nearby town called Weatherbury. Gabriel, on the other hand, has lost his entire flock of sheep thanks to an untrained dog that led them off of a cliff. At risk of pennilessness, Gabriel sells everything he owns just to break even from his losses. He unexpectedly learns of Bathsheba’s new station in life upon helping her farmhands put out a fire as he’s passing through in search of work. When a veiled Bathsheba comes to thank him for his good deed, they are both momentarily caught off guard, but Bathsheba is the first to regain her stoic air and accept him as an employee on the farm.
Bathsheba has little time to worry over Gabriel’s opinion of her between establishing herself as a worthy heir to the farm and dealing with meeting local farmer William Boldwood, an impenetrable man in his forties who is known for his perpetual state of bachelorhood. He comes to visit Bathsheba for the first time to inquire after one of her servants, Fanny Robin, who recently ran away, as he used to look after her when she was younger. Based on Boldwood’s lack of acknowledgement of her “specialness” at a subsequent meeting at the local market, Bathsheba agrees to her confidante and servant Liddy’s playful suggestion to fill out a valentine to Boldwood, in which she inscribes “Marry Me,” assuming it will have no effect on Boldwood’s seemingly apathetic demeanor. In contrast, Boldwood falls in love with Bathsheba upon learning from Gabriel that it is her handwriting. Indeed, this is the most succinct case of Bathsheba’s carelessness with the hearts of men, merely because she is so aware of how desirable she is, and that, in short, she has her pick of any of them. Again, Hardy puts Bathsheba in her place by noting, “Women are never tired of bewailing a man’s fickleness in love, but they only seem to snub his constancy.”
It is not until the third suitor in her life, Sergeant Troy, comes to town that she is given a taste of her own painful medicine. Hesitant to fall for someone so clearly roguish, it is precisely because of this that “Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance. When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never any strength to throw away. One source of her inadequacy is the novelty of the occasion. She has never had practice in making the best of such a condition. Weakness is doubly weak by being new.”
It is, in fact, this sort of dichotomy in the archetypal powerful female personality that makes Bathsheba one of the most interesting characters in literature. She knows she has been made weak against her better judgment, and that the one thing men found truly attractive about her–her strength–is now cut down to size due to the folly of her formerly excessive self-confidence. Her emotional decimation, however, gives her a new form of courage, a toughness that makes her appeal more than ever to the one man who has ever truly loved her from a pure and non-motive laden place.
For anyone who has ever moved to New York with the sort of romantic idea of struggle that seems to exist only in Susan Seidelman movies, yet was disappointed to find a lack of any grit in a post-Bloomberg era, Ron Kolm is the man to help you find your way back to that time you so desperately wanted to be a part of. His latest book, Duke & Jill, offers tales that now sound folkloric in nature–one would never be able to rent out their apartment and collect multiple deposits from different people without comeuppance in the New York of now.
The harebrained schemes that would make you enough money to get by while still enjoying yourself are all alive in Duke & Jill, as evidenced by the eponymous characters fleeing New York for awhile to lie low after snorting and flushing all the coke they were supposed to sell. To make ends meet, “Jill applied for an American Express card and got her boss to lie about her salary. She’d call around, using the phone at work, and find out which of her friends were about to go on a shopping spree–go to the store with them on her days off–and then get the cash later.”
While it was easier to be poor then, it didn’t mean the financial plight didn’t take its toll. Like most artists/junkies, “Duke was feeling pretty discouraged… He had no money, no job, and no prospects of getting either in the near future.” What makes this quandary worse is having no desire whatsoever to work. Duke and Jill represent the sort of Sid and Nancy archetype synonymous with not giving a fuck, with living simply for the debauched pleasures of it.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is feeling like you’re somehow the only one in New York without any money. As Duke notes to himself while walking through the East Village, “It seemed as if most of the people he passed on the street had more money than he did…”
Yet, somehow, Duke always finds another item to sell–whether managing to allure a passerby with a piece of graffitied metal by passing it off as some sort of “Keith Haring-esque” art or stealing someone else’s mint condition Playboys to pawn off himself. And with each new moneymaking plan comes a new obstacle (rain down-pouring–in typical NYC summer fashion–on the magazines he wants to sell, for instance).
As the narrative draws to a close, presumably sometime at the end of the 1980s, it becomes clear that a paradigm shift is in the air in New York City. Ed Koch wasn’t going to be mayor forever, after all. And now, sadly, “There wasn’t anyone who was going to give [Duke] free food and rent these days, ’cause times had changed.” Granted, the 1990s still had plenty of roguish allure, but it was merely a transition to the corporate-mindedness the city has now suited up in. The art, the drugs–none of it has any heart behind it now. Duke’s not even with Jill anymore. But maybe, one day, they’ll find each other again. Just like finding a glimmer of the old New York in unexpected places.
Self-publishing, although increasingly easy to do with the conveniences furnished by the twenty-first century, still remains, by and large, looked down upon by the literary powers that be. And yet, so many fantastic works have been put forth into the world in this manner. From Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Pastto James Joyce’s Ulysses, the masterworks that have been birthed thanks to the sheer tenacity of these famed authors might never have entered into existence without the so-called gall of self-publishing. Also among this list is Italo Svevo’sZeno’s Conscience, published in 1923.
The semi-unreliable tale of a man driven to record his every thought and memory as a result of adhering to his psychoanalyst’s advice, Zeno’s Conscience is the type of novel that very few publishers at that time (and even now) would have an interest in printing. The reason being, of course, that the neurosis of a veritable madman (though he’s no madder than the average person subjected to the woes of everyday life) is not what most publishers would deem “marketable.”
With a preface from Zeno’s doctor that states, “I am the doctor occasionally mentioned in this story, in unflattering terms. Anyone familiar with psychoanalysis knows how to assess the patient’s obvious hostility toward me,” we are uncertain of who to trust in this novel. The doctor's immediate undercutting of our narrator makes it clear that he is only releasing this work to the public for the purpose of vengeance (Zeno refused to continue going to his sessions, after all)--yet it's still obvious that Zeno is not totally objective. At this time in the twentieth century, such literary irreverence was not a pervasive trend. People instead preferred the social intrigue and sensationalism of authors like Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The overarching theme of the novel centers around the notion that there is no one better at deceiving oneself than his own mind (which is kind of what it takes to be able to self-publish with any amount of confidence). So able are we to convince ourselves of the reality we want to see that we rarely seem to know anything that’s truly real from a neutral and unbiased standpoint. While, at the time of the book’s publication, psychology was still in its infancy, Svevo brought the tenets of the field to the forefront–particularly in Italy, where psychology is still often balked at. And yet, had he chosen to accept the defeat of rejection and not publish the work with his own money (a gamble that paid off when considering his legacy and the ranking of the work on most Greatest Books of All-Time lists), we would never have glimpsed the inner-workings of Zeno. Of course, not every self-published book is a gem–Fifty Shades of Grey being a case in point–but it iscomforting to know that even some of the most profound novels ever created suffered through some of the same misjudgment and rejection as yours.
The outpouring of interest in and hostility toward Harper Lee’s unpublished first draft (billed as a sequel) of To Kill A Mockingbird raises the question of why it is so generally loathed by enthusiasts of the original. Go Set A Watchman, at its core, is a good novel–one that, at best, far outweighs most of the slop modern writers are putting out today and, at worst, one that is clearly rough-hewn.
So what is it that’s truly plaguing readers? Like Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch, they are grappling with the notion that Atticus Finch, moral compass extraordinaire, is not the man of ironclad principles presented in To Kill a Mockingbird. Now in his seventies, Atticus doesn’t necessarily look different to his daughter upon her return home from New York for a visit, but there is something she automatically inuits as being off kilter. After their longtime housekeeper and caretaker, Calpurnia, has moved out of Atticus’ house and been replaced by his sister, Alexandra, an archetype of the uppity Southern hen, it’s almost as though–at least as far as Jean-Louise is concerned–Atticus has forgotten entirely what she once meant to them. This is evident in his approach to taking on Zeebo, one of Calpurnia’s children, as his client after he accidentally runs over a drunk white man crossing the street in the middle of the night. His reasons for doing so are not out of kindness, but obligation.
Although his protégé (and Jean-Louise’s longtime love interest), Henry “Hank” Clinton (a nonexistent character inTKAM), is the one who will be handling the brass tacks of the case, Atticus’ is still running the show, with his reasoning (and seeming lack of compassion) behind defending Zeebo stemming from his ardent desire to keep the NAACP out of it. Set during the height of the tension spurred on by the Supreme Court decision regarding Brown v. Board of Education, Jean-Louise is appalled at Atticus’ cold statements about the black population. His antiquated views on “Negroes” are summed up with the belittling sentiment, “Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life. They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet.”
And yet, Atticus is not a bad person, just an old school one–and a stickler for doing things that are right not because he feels they are, but because the law deems it so. At one point in defense of his segregationist ways, Atticus tells Jean-Louise, “The only thing I’m afraid of about this country is that its government will someday become so monstrous that the smallest person in it will be trampled underfoot, and then it wouldn’t be worth living in.”
Jean-Louise, who feels that either she’s changed too much after living in New York City or everyone else has transformed into a monster behind her back, can’t believe that both Henry and Atticus are so utterly unemotional about the racism running amok in Maycomb. Indeed the timing of Go Set A Watchman‘s release is eerily apropos to the rampant racial divide that continues to torment the South. Regardless of the allegations against those who published the book supposedly against the wishes of Harper Lee, a sweet, good-natured person who has lost many of her senses in old age, there is something almost kismet about the timing of its release–as though the world needed to be reminded, yet again, of its own prejudices.
As for other shocking revelations about Atticus, well, he was apparently involved with the Ku Klux Klan back in the day, a bomb that Henry drops on Jean-Louise at the height of her rage over the state of Maycomb and one that Henry explains by noting, “A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them.” Jean-Louise, described as a bigot herself by her Uncle Jack because of her dictionary definition actions of “one obstinately or intolerably [being] devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion,” realizes that in cutting Atticus down to size with her verbal lashing, she is the one who has exhibited a closed mind. It is only through killing her ultimate idol–her watchman–that she is finally able to see things as they truly are. As Harper Lee writes, “Sometimes we have to kill a little so we can live.” In destroying the vision of the Atticus she kept on a pedestal, Jean-Louise is finally able to move forward with her own life, her own conscience. And maybe, just maybe, so are the devotees of To Kill A Mockingbird.
There is something deeper within every human consciousness that allows him to tap into the desires he suppresses, the memories he wishes he had. In Charles Watkins’ case, those memories are a cocktail of wartime imagery and a Lord of the Flies meets The Beach island experience.
Of course, when we first meet Charles, we are just as clueless about his identity as he is. Found wandering near the Thames in a state of essential catatonia, he is then taken into a mental institution where Dr. X and Dr. Y offer their medical attention–though Charles insists Dr. X isn’t there and blatantly seems to favor Dr. Y. Initially told in a play-like format with dialogue exchanges between the patient and his doctors (Lessing had originally intended the book as a screenplay), the narrative then transforms into a stream of consciousness type of flashback that may or may not have occurred–what’s real and imagined is extremely subjective both in this novel and in life.
One second Charles is on a boat being left behind by his friends who are being beamed up by some sort of Other, the next he’s riding a porpoise to shore and happening upon rat-dogs of a hyper-sexual nature who have dominion over subservient monkeys. From there, we’re taken out of his consciousness and into an epistolary rehashing of just who exactly Charles was before being admitted into the hospital. And who he was, exactly, appears to be a stodgy and infuriating professor of Greek Classics.
By and large, the accounts of Charles’ persona are unfavorable, as confirmed by his longtime colleague and childhood friend, Jeremy Thorne, who notes in his letter to Dr. Y, “I am at this moment in the usual frame of mind when it comes to thinking about Charles–he forces me to ask myself what it means to like or dislike a person? I conclude from all this that we do not know very much about human relationships.” And then there is his mistress, Constance Mayne, who became intimate with Charles while she was one of his students and changed her focus to Greek and the Classics instead of something more practical while at university. In spite of her fervor for him, Charles ultimately drops her coldly, which, of course, inspires within her a need to prove herself to him before she finally ends up hating him completely whilst carrying his child.
Still, there are those who actually quite like Charles, particularly a woman named Rosemary Baines, who caught a lecture of Charles’ that moved her to write him a gushing letter about how much the speech meant to her and how she would be happy to have him visit her anytime in London. Apparently, this is just what he did the night he lost his memory, according to Rosemary’s account in a letter to Dr. Y. He seemed to be acting disturbed while in her house, but she didn’t see the need to call for help as it’s one’s prerogative to act a little loony now and then. Indeed, Rosemary represents a small sect of society willing to accept “abnormality” rather than trying to stamp out any traces of it. Charles’ wife, Felicity, on the other hand, is the very embodiment of societal convention, manifesting that part of Charles’ life that he is so far removed from now that he’s achieved a more elevated metaphysical state of being.
And yet, this is exactly what Drs. X and Y want to get him away from, so that he can again go on as an obedient member of the race. After dosing him with Librium and other sedatives, Charles lapses into a coma and then comes out somewhat more “normal,” but this still isn’t enough for the doctors, who have to have him removed from the facility within a certain timeframe. Thus, electroshock therapy is the next method of treatment recommended for Charles’ “recovery.”
Although he is fully functional and comes across as happy, restoring his memory is key to the doctors deeming him well. He tells Dr. Y that he feels close to recalling the revelation that led him to the Thames in the first place, but this isn’t what Dr. Y wants from him. What he wants is for Charles to go back to being a professor and family man. This is what will allow him to be deemed “mentally stable” in the eyes of the average.
Before Charles agrees to go through with the electroshock treatment, he meets with his friend, Violet, a fellow mental patient who prefers to act like a little girl. Charles tells her, “My sense of urgency is very simple. I’ve remembered that much. It’s because what I have to remember has to do with time running out. And that’s what anxiety is, in a lot of people. They know they have to do something, they should be doing something else, not just living hand-to-mouth, putting paint on their faces and decorating their caves and playing nasty tricks on their rivals. No. They have to do something else before they die–and so the mental hospitals are full and the chemists flourishing.” The next day, Charles’ gets shocked and remembers his old self, never again to return to that outer sense of being that prompted his amnesia.