Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Between the Acts, Woolf

Between the Acts
Virginia Woolf

“And if we’re left asking questions, isn’t it a failure, as a play?”

I can’t help but feel that critics have missed the point of Virginia Woolf’s fiction altogether, and when I think about that I find that I’m not surprised she ended up killing herself. I don’t mean that killing herself was the right thing to do, or that I fully understand why she did it, because of course we should all be brave and carry on, and because of course I am personally not able to write like Virginia Woolf. Still, when I read proclamations like the one on the back of my copy of Between the Acts, I feel deep sympathy for the famous writer: “Miss La Trobe is Virginia Woolf’s burlesque of herself as artist, and through her she states the truth about the artist and his increasing endeavor to make his audience see.” Probably I’m missing a great deal of Walter Allen’s argument because I’ve only read this single sentence on the back of my book, but based on this excerpt I have to wonder if he’s read the book at all, or any of Woolf’s other novels. Surely Allen is correct that Woolf presents aspects of herself as artist through the character of the playwright, Miss La Trobe, but I find the idea of assigning the person of “Woolf” to just one character at best limited, and at worst to miss the point of every Woolf novel I’ve ever read.

A short novel, Between the Acts is set in a single day in 1939. As in all of Woolf’s work however the passage of time and the “spirit” of the various ages play as much of a role as the present moment, giving the reader a broad-lens view of the world as well as a close-up of a variety of characters. On this particular day there is to be a play on the grounds of the country home of the aging brother and sister, Bart and Lucy. The plot consists mostly of these two, along with some friends and family, attending the play. The narration is omniscient, giving us a great deal of insight into the major and minor characters’ thoughts. A second, somewhat more accurate, blurb on the back of my book says that “during the performance the spectators are held together. Unity appears to be triumphant. But not for long. When the play ends they fall apart again. And even between the acts the semblance of unity is lost…” I agree with the essence of this statement, but not the tone. It seems to me here to be presented as a pessimistic message, but it is only gloomy if read without the lens of Buddhism. With “right thinking” in terms of Buddhism, one can observe the truth of reality without judging it. Unity and disunity, pain and pleasure, beauty and ugliness are real, present, and constantly in flux. This book dwells on impermanence but hints that it is not a cause for despair. Instead, Woolf suggests, we should look to the present moment, not the past or future, for our enjoyment of life and all its fleeting charms.

The recurring image of the church is the most conclusive evidence to support my point that Woolf is exploring larger spiritual questions here than merely the role of the artist. The profits raised by the play, we and are told, will be used to install electric light in the church, thus “illuminating” it (i.e. “enlightening” it?). Convention, in this case symbolized by the Christian church, works as a blind which veils reality. Though Woolf questions the church, and its adherents’ unexamined belief in it, she doesn’t ridicule believers. Lucy, in her earnest search for spiritual meaning via her Christian faith, is respectfully and sympathetically rendered. Yet her brother’s thoughts about her - “How imperceptive her religion made her! The fumes of that incense obscured the human heart. Skimming the surface she ignored the battle in the mud.” – also carry weight. And still, again, we must consider that it is the Reverend who, at the end of the play, offers what is (in my opinion) a plausible interpretation not only for the play, but for the novel itself. “…we are members one of each other. Each is part of the whole. […] We act different parts; but are the same.” The Buddha himself can hardly explain interconnection better. And isn’t it lovely that it comes from a man of God in Woolf’s vision? What do you make of that?

For reasons as yet unclear to me, Virginia Woolf was either unaware (partially, perhaps, but surely not totally), or unable to accept or openly acknowledge the teachings of Buddhism, despite the fact that they crop up all over her work: nothing is solid, everything is constantly changing, true reality is hidden, everything ends, the past and the future are no longer with us; all we have is the present moment, and that is often painful. Or maybe the truth is that she understood Buddhism, but also recognized the necessity of finding another, and another, and still another way to convey these truths in order to reach as many audiences, and as much of herself, as possible. Most probably, it is all of these, and more. Between the Acts is conflicting, unclear, momentary, fleeting, weighty, beautiful, and melancholy because that is how life is. It is the work of a brilliant mind trying and, in my opinion, succeeding at inventing a new plot – that of exploring life as it really is: troubling, tense, and full of contradictions.   

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

And I Shall Have Some Peace There, Roach

And I Shall Have Some Peace There: Trading in the Fast Lane for My Own Dirt Road
Margaret Roach

“One must really pay the very strictest attention to all life’s goings-on; there could be clues, and messengers come in many guises.”

Reading this memoir was a somewhat unusual experience for me for several reasons, but first and foremost because I know the author, as well as many of the folks she mentions in the book, either directly or indirectly. I was her assistant for one year (before being promoted to a different department and subsequently “dropping out” myself, as she terms her decision to quit the world of corporate publishing and move upstate). What was surprising to me about this memoir was not what the author, my former boss, thought, felt, and did after leaving Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, but how very similar so many of her feelings were to my own when I left. I only worked in the world of corporate magazines for two years, while she had put in 30 plus, yet excerpts like those on pg. 154 could have been ripped from my own journal: “There are other triumphs and trophies in my marathon solo event, like the end to that vague dread of Sunday night that pervades the working wounded, who if they were like I was all those years also want to stay up and eke out some sense of ‘mine-ness’ when they get home from work each weekday evening, despite being all in from the events of the day; the constant tension between the desires of the I and the other – pushing, pulling, pushing, pulling.” Boy, do I know what she means! Having had, for the first time ever, my own apartment to decorate, love, and live in, I too was discovering how very much time I had to devote to someone else’s work, interests, and projects in order to afford it.

Perhaps ironically, I ventured to a bigger city (Bangkok, Thailand) when I left New York to find my inner “peace,” while Margaret fled to her secluded country farmhouse. Though our experiences were different, the amount of similarities I found in reading her book surprised me. The most important aspect of both of our journies was becoming more grounded in the Buddhist practice of mindfulness - constant, vigilant attention to not only what is going on around us, but within us as well. For both of us mindfulness was rooted, at first, in yoga. Margaret talks in her book about losing her yoga when she went to live on her own in the country, while it was precisely her support of my own yoga practice that jump-started my interest in alternatives to the work/money centric lifestyle I was leading in NYC. For me, the way her journey and my own overlapped, intertwined, and were affected by each other was fascinating, and what I took away from reading the book was the idea that everyone’s journey to self-discovery is different, even when they touch and connect and in many ways inspire each other.

In real-life I was motivated by my boss’s obvious unhappiness to leave my job and avoid becoming as stressed out as she was. Perhaps if she’d been better able to fake it, I would have seen things differently, and stayed put longer. I’m inspired now, after reading this moving and entertaining memoir by an intelligent and brave woman (in spite or because of the myriad fears she mentions in the book), who proves with her life and her words that it is never too late to change. And I Shall Have Some Peace There is not a quick, easy read, and it shouldn’t be; it is reflective of its author, a gardener living through the seasons with her land, while trying to calm the snake-like, squirming nature of an active, thinking mind. As with facing life’s difficulties head on, sticking with this book sometimes takes work, but it is effort that is rewarded in ways both immediate and, one suspects, lasting as well.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Housekeeping, Robinson

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

“To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow.”

“Housekeeping” is an intriguing title for a book centering on loss, since loss is the opposite of what we all want/need, which is to have, i.e. to keep. Contrasts are major players in this novel, with mentions of and metaphors about such things as keeping/losing, night/day, dark/light, dreaming/consciousness, fitting in/drifting off, alive/dead, windows/mirrors, snow/ice/water appearing again and again. What Robinson really seems interested in is the space between the dichotomies – the moments when night passes into day, the way, at night, glass can be both a mirror and a window, depending on which side you’re on, ghosts, water’s passage from solid to liquid to gas. As one might guess, bridges play an important role here.

The text follows Ruthie and Lucille as they grow up in their grandmother’s house in the small (Western Idaho?) town of Fingerbone, their mother having died by driving her (borrowed) car into the same lake that had long ago claimed her own father when the train he was working on fell off the side of the bridge. By contrasting the affect of these events on the two sisters, Robinson draws our attention to the differences between people. Some, like Lucille, can move on from tragedy. Others, like Ruthie and her aunt Sylvie, seem unable to recover and pass through to the other side of pain. Having landed on neither the having nor accepting shore of loss, they are left lingering between before and after. It’s as if, over the course of the book, loss seeps into these fragile (yet physically hearty) women’s souls, as dew through blankets left overnight on a covered porch.

Despite the pervasively melancholy mood of the book, the message here is one of compassion. After all, where does day end and night begin? How far can one deviate from societal norms and still be accepted by their community? Perhaps we are not troubled by these subtleties but, this book reminds us, there are those among us who are, and society labels them: crazy, tramp, derelict, hobo, drifter. And yet maybe theirs is just another way of dealing with the world’s cruel realities. Instead of standing in stark defiance against the things they can neither accept nor change, Ruthie and Sylvie allow themselves to blend into them further, so that if not the world, at least they become nearly invisible. As eventual transients, Ruthie and Sylvie cannot keep a house; instead they fall naturally into a life of constant moving, yet never arriving. Ambiguity in all its forms is the essence of the text; no answers, no life philosophies, no edicts can be found here, only keen, focused, compassionate, beautiful observation.

I don’t know what Housekeeping means. But I do know that there is little more pleasurable in this world than a book that leaves one with a sense of wonder, and a new set of questions; Housekeeping did that for me. It’s the kind of book you want to talk to others about. Have you read it? What did you think?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov
written 1928-1940, published 1973

“The devil only knows…”

The first novel I’ve read since finishing my Master’s degree in English was, perhaps appropriately, The Master and Margarita. Although I didn’t enjoy every moment of the reading, I do think it is a good book because I keep thinking about it and making connections days later.

The novel is about the devil. His name is Woland. He has a three part retinue made up of Koroviev, Azezello, and a large black cat called Behemoth. These three make up the unholy trinity, except of course it doesn’t quite line up, since God “The Father” is himself a part of the Christian Trinity, and here Woland is separate from it. This troubles me somewhat, as one interested in Christian symbolism, but it’s not, I think, as important as the book’s message, which is (I think) that the devil – i.e. an opposing force to God - is not a horrible tragedy, but necessary.

How can “evil” be necessary? In the Master and Margarita Bulgakov demonstrates that sometimes “bad” can be a force of “good,” and vice versa. For example, in writing a novel about the contentious Christian figure, Pontius Pilate, the Master performs an act of “good.” In loving Margarita he commits “evil,” because Margarita is already married. Yet, both writing and love bring the Master pain and happiness. One action is considered “right” and one “wrong,” but their results do not accord to their supposed moral values. The novel questions what moral value really means – an extremely appropriate and telling approach, considering the climate of censorship in which Bulgakov, in Soviet Russia, wrote.

The fact that the novel begins with and continually returns to Pontius Pilate was a source of confusion and (mostly) enjoyable intrigue for me. Looking back at the book as a whole, I have an idea as to why Bulgakov chose Pilate to make this point. In the Bible, which is more or less populated by characters whose moral status is clear and known (especially in the Old Testament) Pilate stands out as someone both extraordinarily important, and as someone whose morality remains ambiguous. Pilate, of course, was the Prefect of Judaea when Jesus was put to death on the cross. Though the Bible (and the Master’s novel) portrays Pilate as sympathetic to Jesus (Ha-Nostri, in Bulgakov’s text) one feels compelled to cast judgment on him since, however unwillingly, he carries out the public’s request to release another prisoner, and instead crucify Jesus. In the Bible Pilate infamously washes his hands in front of a crowd of onlookers, perhaps attempting to absolve himself symbolically of his role in the death.

According to the characters in Bulgakov’s text, Pilate’s crime is cowardice: he lacks the courage to admit his beliefs and defy the public’s, and the government’s, wishes. So, should Pilate be sent to Hell? Bulgakov seems not to think so. Neither do I. Our reasons, I think, are similar; Pilate’s “bad” action was ultimately an essential cause of the “good” that came out of it –that is, the resurrection of Jesus and his triumph over death. For the premise of the Christianity of the New Testament to work, Jesus must die, otherwise he cannot rise from the dead to “conquer sin” and offer eternal life to his followers. Hence Pilate (or if it hadn’t been Pilate, someone else) had to allow Jesus to be killed. Good and evil are intertwined; one cannot exist without the other. Thus, in a sense, one is in fact composed essentially of the other. The Bible suggests this, though many Christians forget it. If we cannot tell what action is really good, and which is really bad, The Master and Margarita compels one to wonder – does the world have any meaning, order, or logic to it? Or is everything merely a great game of absurdity? What do you think Bulgakov is saying?


Hello friends, family, and fellow book-lovers, and welcome to my new blog - Mostly Novels. I am always reading a book (or 2, or 3...) and I always want to discuss these books with other people, but don't always have the opportunity to do so. My hope is that this blog will serve as a meeting place for people, like me, who want to discuss not only their personal reactions to the books they've read, but also the philosophical, historical, or cultural implications behind those texts. In this kind of modern book club we don't have to read the same books at the same time. Instead, using my tags, you will be able to pop on over to Mostly Novels anytime and look up the books you've just read, peruse my two cents on the matter, and add your own ideas in the comments section. You could also check out what people have to say about the books you're thinking about reading before making the commitment to open that first page. However you decide to use it, I hope that Mostly Novels will enrich your reading experience, and that we can develop a genuine community that encourages intellectual, yet ego-free, discussion. Welcome to Mostly Novels! Let's get started!