old age

THE HEARING TRUMPET BY LEONORA CARRINGTON

It was three years ago that my grandfather walked onto the blade of the sword that old age had, for some time, been holding out to him. If we – his family – were honest with ourselves, we would have had to admit to feeling relieved. None of us had known what to do with him, before death had intervened and took control of the situation, with the great authority that only it is capable of. His behaviour had been increasingly erratic, like that of a young bird learning its trade. Sometimes his mental processes were graceful, even though impossible to follow; at others, reality impinged upon his flights, causing him to stumble. He was a once tough and capable man, who had been reduced to a curio; and I sometimes wondered if, or how often, he was aware of his own failings and, worse still, ours.

“You may not believe in magic but something very strange is happening at this very moment. Your head has dissolved into thin air and I can see the rhododendrons through your stomach. It’s not that you are dead or anything dramatic like that, it is simply that you are fading away and I can’t even remember your name.”

The Hearing Trumpet was published in 1976, when its author, Leonora Carrington, was fifty-nine. It is, therefore, perhaps no surprise that, as she approached her sixtieth year, she would make the concerns and experiences of the elderly, specifically elderly women, the focus of her work. Indeed, it is narrated by Marion Leatherby, who, at ninety-two years old, is put in a care home against her wishes by her son and daughter-in-law. However, the book is much warmer and light-hearted, and strange, than that brief synopsis might suggest. Much of that is due to how engaging and eccentric, and funny, the narrative voice is. Marion writes, for example, of having a little grey beard, which ‘conventional people would find repulsive,’ but which she considers ‘rather gallant.’

While Marion could not, of course, be said to be in the prime of life, she refutes the idea that, at such an advanced age, she is mentally and physically incapable. In fact, she highlights, or accentuates, her abilities. So, yes, she is almost completely deaf, but her sight is ‘still excellent’; and although her skeleton has been bent by rheumatics, it does not prevent her from sweeping her room once a week. Likewise, she may be prone to sudden flights of fancy, but her mind wanders ‘never further than I want.’ What one gets from Marion is, then, a picture of a woman who is totally at ease with who she is, and who is, moreover, less sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of others, which is to say that she is accepting of others and their foibles. All told, she is a likeable and charismatic creation.

b20b30e4e4d8ef3c50b9622b7426cbda.jpg

Less likeable, however, is the behaviour of some of those around her. As already noted, her family pack her off to an institution for the senile, without seeking her opinion on the matter. They appear to believe that Marion is at an age, and in a condition, such that she cannot make decisions for herself, an attitude consistent with the idea that being old is a kind of second childhood. In this way, The Hearing Trumpet is, in part, a kind of social commentary or criticism, relating to the perception and treatment of the elderly. This is made clearest when – in the book’s least successful scene, in my opinion – the family discuss Marion, without her being present, or at least without being aware of her presence, in the most disparaging and callous way. She has been, Muriel says, ‘a constant anxiety’ to them. Worse still, Robert, her grandson, declares that she ‘can hardly be classified as a human being.’ She would, he concludes, be better off dead.

“I am never lonely, Galahad. Or rather I never suffer from loneliness. I suffer much from the idea that my loneliness might be taken away from me by a lot of mercilessly well-meaning people.”

Anyone coming to The Hearing Trumpet looking for surrealism such as one finds in Carrington’s paintings would likely be disappointed with the first third of the book. It is, for all its charm, fairly conventional, having more in common with writers like Muriel Spark than Ithell Colquhoun or any of the French novels usually gathered together under that umbrella term. Yet once Marion arrives at the ‘sinister’ Lightsome Hall, the tone of the work changes and it becomes, well, curiouser and curiouser. It is run, first of all, by a couple of religious fanatics, who say things like ‘we seek to follow the inner meaning of Christianity’ and make the residents do strange dances called Movements. Stranger still is the caper involving the winking Abbess, the search for the Holy Grail, and the concluding apocalypse section.

I must say that while I enjoyed the unpredictability, and was particularly engaged by the Abbess’ story, I wasn’t as enthused as I was by the early stages. This may have something to do with not fully understanding, or being all that interested in, the symbolism involved. Certainly, Carrington appeared to want to say something about women, femininity, etc, what with the references to Venus, a Bee Queen, and so on, but I thought she dealt with that more elegantly when Marion imagines herself beautiful, and through the character of Georgina, who, although severely wrinkled, still considers herself attractive and sexually alluring [for which she is mocked]. In any case, The Hearing Trumpet is a fine, and fun, novel, but more than that, it is a comforting one, for, with its gang of rebellious and resourceful pensioners, it makes one feel as though getting old will not be as horrifying as one might think.

THE EVENINGS BY GERARD REVE

‘The potatoes are very good,’ her mother said making prolonged eye contact with me. I looked down at my plate. The potatoes were fine, but very good seemed like an exaggeration. This thought lay wriggling on my tongue, but I managed to swallow it and instead make an unconvincing noise of agreement. ‘It’s warm in here, isn’t it?’ her father said to no one in particular. ‘It is,’ I felt compelled to reply, and immediately regretted it. Her mother pursed her lips. Should I have said that the temperature was just right? ‘But it’s nice,’ I continued after a long pause, ‘it’s just right, in fact.’ Unnerved by the silence that followed this statement I put more potato in my mouth and tried to arrange my face to give the impression that I really did think that what I was eating was very, very good indeed.

Once the last mouthful had disappeared down my throat I placed my knife and fork on my plate to indicate that I had finished. My girlfriend, whose family this was, tapped my knee affectionately. ‘Do you want some more?’ her mother said. What a question! How does one answer it correctly? ‘Do you want me to have some more?’ I imagined myself asking her. ‘No thank you,’ I said. ‘I’m full,’ I said. And I ought to have left it at that, but I couldn’t help myself; I had to justify my answer, to explain why I did not want another helping of this wonderful food, these divine potatoes; but most of all I needed to do something to put an end to the interminable, dreary small talk. ‘I used to have an eating disorder,’ I said. ‘It was quite bad. My mother threatened to have me put in hospital. I’m ok now, but I’m still not a big eater.’

“I’m only waiting for them to hang themselves or beat each other to death. Or set the house on fire. For God’s sake, let it be that. So why hasn’t it happened yet ? But let us not despair. All things come to those who wait.”

The Evenings by Gerard Kornelis van het Reve was originally published in Holland in 1947, but it wasn’t until this year, this interminable and dreary year of 2016, that an English translation became available. The novel follows Frits van Egters, a twenty-three year old Amsterdammer, through the last days of 1946, days that are, in large part, spent in dismal interaction with his parents and various acquaintances. Indeed, there is no other novel that I know of that features such relentlessly uncomfortable, strained and tedious conversations. There are any number of passages that one could pick out from the text as illustration, but one that has stuck in my mind is the discussion about the pickled herring, the stale pickled herring, that Frits’ mother is intent on serving to her family, but which they are none too keen on.

The relationship between Frits and his parents is, at least for him, one of irritation, at best, and, at worst, outright loathing. Throughout The Evenings one has not only access to the young man’s words but his thoughts also, with the two often running concurrently. So while he may engage in polite[ish] small talk, we know that what he is thinking is invariably something negative. He fixates upon his father’s warts, for example, and wonders why he doesn’t get them removed. When he does give voice to his displeasure he does so in a jocular, passive-aggressive fashion, such that it is not clear whether he is being serious or not. ‘The way you smoke is both incredibly clumsy and ridiculous,’ he says to his mother, while advising himself: ‘make it sound like I am joking.’

It would be easy to characterise Frits as a bully, and there is certainly a sadistic side to him, as evidenced by his desire to consistently highlight other people’s physical and character defects, even though he does so, as noted, in a way that means they do not often take offence. He comments upon their weak hearts; their baldness, or inevitable baldness; their heavy drinking; their unappealing children, whom, he points out, probably won’t live very long. Most mercilessly, he ridicules Maurits for his missing eye, which, he tells him, makes him unattractive to women. In this instance, more than any of the others, it appears as though it is Frits’ intention to provoke his friend into doing something drastic, into perhaps harming himself or someone else; and I think this gives an indication as to what is underlying his cruel behaviour.

hairlossworry.jpg

If one lives a humdrum existence, one that promises no excitement or stimulation, if your conversations are banal, and your environment is drab and wearisome, then it makes sense that one would look to enliven it all somehow, to create for yourself some of the excitement that is lacking. While it may not be a healthy way of dealing with his dissatisfaction, or boredom, one gets the impression that Frits’ provoking of Maurits is a little like poking a big, powerful dog or bungee jumping; which is to say that it is thrill seeking by virtue of dicing with danger. Likewise, when he declares that the death of a child makes him happy, he is of course trying to shock, to create a stir, to cause an outrage, because this too would be exciting, would be something different from what he experiences day-to-day, or would at least put an end to the unbearable chatter he was listening to previously.

Moreover, it is clear that Frits has mortality on his mind. The novel begins, for instance, with him dreaming about a funeral and the decomposition, the ‘thin, yellow mush’, that is the fate of us all. Indeed, this partly explains his obsession with baldness, which is most often a sign of ageing, is, you might say, a kind of decomposition or certainly malfunction of the body. The young man also frequently examines himself, at one stage checking his genitals with a shaving mirror and finding it all ‘very distasteful.’ What this focus on death and the human body suggests is that Frits is aware that he is wasting his life, that precious days are slipping away from him as he potters around doing next to nothing, besides irritating others and being irritated himself. In this way, it isn’t only his parents, his circumstances, etc, that are oppressing him, but time also.

“‘All is lost,’” he thought, ‘everything is ruined. It’s ten past three.’”

Much of what I have written so far will, I imagine, give the impression that The Evenings is a dour reading experience. Certainly it is slow-paced and bleak; and it is repetitious too, with almost all of Frits’ conversations and activities being essentially the same. What is remarkable about it, however, is that it is also very funny. In fact, the comedy is a consequence of the repetition and the bleakness. For example, the second or third time Frits highlights the impending baldness of one of his friends one might legitimately furrow one’s brow, yet you come to look forward to it, to gleefully anticipate it, the next time he runs into one of them. Likewise, when he meets someone new and one knows that he will find something, some ailment or flaw or deformity, to comment upon. Frits is a cunt, yes, but he is an amusing one, a sympathetic one even, or at least the kind of cunt that I can identify with myself.

WORSTWARD HO BY SAMUEL BECKETT

Second last. Nearly done. Say one. Say none. Till nohow on. At last.

At last. Say done. Say book. Say read. Again. Misread? Again.

A man and child. Holding on. Till end. Till done. Till nohow on.

Hand in hand. Hold and held. Not one. Become one. Then fade.

Old man. Up and stand. Up and done? No. Bit by bit. Old age and done.

Old age and done. On no more. On ground. In ground. In earth. Then done.

In ground. Now gone. Say book. Say read. Say read again. Till nohow on.

HOUSE OF THE SLEEPING BEAUTIES BY YASUNARI KAWABATA

Recently, I have found myself daydreaming about my past partners, specifically the most intimate moments; not for masturbatory purposes, nor because I long to go back and be with those girls, but because I find the openness, the opportunity that was afforded me in those moments, extraordinary. That someone would let me, would want me to caress their bare skin, or kiss their thigh, still stuns me. Then it occurs to me, while wandering through these pointless daydreams, that someday the skin I once caressed will be shrivelled and sagging and old, and I am forced to acknowledge to myself that my own will be too, and that the desire to plant those types of kisses will seem ridiculous, if it even exists within me at all; and that likewise, the desire to be kissed by me will exist in fewer and fewer women.

In House of the Sleeping Beauties Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata explores many of these same feelings, focussing on memory, death, old age, eroticism, innocence etc. Eguchi, a sixty-seven year old man, arrives at a house, that is something like a brothel, where one can pay so as to be allowed to sleep beside a young woman. And by sleep we mean sleep. The girls have been put under before you enter the room, and will not wake no matter what you do. Yet visitors must not engage in any ‘funny stuff,’ such as putting a finger in a girl’s mouth. It is only by behaving yourself that you will become a trusted customer. One of these trusted customers is Kega, who introduced Eguchi to the place, and who he describes as being so old that he is ‘no longer a man.’ It is not made explicit in the text but it is clear that what he means by this, at least in part, is that he can no longer have sex, and so he is of course no threat to the girls in the house, he is no threat to any woman anywhere.

“A poetess who had died young of cancer had said in one of her poems that for her, on sleepless nights, ‘the night offers toads and black dogs and corpses of the drowned.”

Eguchi, although advanced in years, is not quite in the same situation; he is shocked by how beautiful the first girl is, and that shock, you could say, is the stirring of desire, a sign of life, of vitality. Moreover, he wants to violently rouse her, indicating that he isn’t ready yet to give up on life, to settle for a living toy, and get his kicks only in his mind. As is often the case with Kawabata’s work, the natural world could be said to further illuminate the author’s themes and mirror the main character’s emotional and mental state. Once inside the room Eguchi notes that the wind is bringing the sound of approaching winter, and winter is of course the final season of the year, the one that we would most associate with death, with barrenness, with unhappiness. The old man also hears the sound of crashing waves, which, again, suggests life and vitality, and even rage.

Tellingly, Kega confesses to Eguchi that it is only when sleeping beside one of the girls that he feels alive, which hints at the special allure of the house. The girls are not simply there to provide a passive kind of companionship. That could be got in any number of ways. The girls act as a reminder, they ferry the old men back to a time when they were in reality going to bed beside young women or at least when there was the possibility of doing so; they make the men feel young again, helping them to forget that they are eyeballing death…because who can think about the end when there is a beautiful, naked young woman in bed with you? Bearing in mind the emotional and physical state of these men, it is also important that the girls themselves are non-threatening; if they are not awake they cannot judge, even silently, and there can be no awkward conversation, no expectations, and no obvious, embarrassing generational gap. It is only when they are asleep that the fantasy can be maintained.

Baron Raimond von Stillfried - Sleeping Japanese Woman 1870

Had Eguchi been a Kega, had his experience of the house been as entirely positive, the story would not be as interesting as it is. Certainly in the beginning, far from finding peace in the situation, he feels disquieted by it, as indicated by the poem he recites to himself, which references drowned corpses. Moreover, one of the women is referred to as a ‘phantom.’ This could be understood as a reference to her white, unblemished skin, but the real significance of this comparison is in the girls being, like the men themselves, somewhere between life and death. Sleep, which is often called the cousin of death, is a strange intermediary stage between the two states of being, having much in common with both. The sleeping beauties are, in a way, like corporeal, touchable memories or fantasies; they are malleable, supple; they can be manipulated into being anything [imaginatively, not literally]. Sex dolls work in much the same way, in that anything can be projected onto them.

Yet, as with all great literature, it is possible to see more in the story than the specific situation Kawabata describes. Making my way through it for the second time I was put in mind of Jeffrey Dahmer, who claimed that he zombified his victims so that they wouldn’t run away or refuse him. One could, therefore, interpret House of the Sleeping Beauties as a comment on human neediness, a neediness that isn’t limited to the elderly. Also, more could be made of what I was discussing above, in relation to sex dolls. It is becoming increasingly the case that men [and women too perhaps] don’t want and cannot handle real people; what they want is something perfect, something visually clean and pure, something always obliging. You need only look at the popularity of the dead-eyed, plastic princesses of porn; these women always look great, are never unavailable, and, crucially, do not ask anything from you. In contrast, reality is icky, it is disappointing; real people disagree with you sometimes, they have their own desires and demands.

It has become a cliché to describe Kawabata’s prose as Haiku-like, which, as with many sound bites and blurb-worthy comments, is nonsense. However, his style is economical and unfussy, with the writer preferring short evocative sentences and, for the most part, avoiding metaphors and similes. This goes some way to explaining why his work seems clean and graceful, despite the often unpleasant content. Yet it is also worth noting that with House of the Sleeping Beauties Kawabata’s touch is not as light as in his most well known novels, Snow Country and The Sound of the Mountain, with a greater emphasis on psychologically probing his characters and situations. Indeed, numerous times during my reading I had noted down an idea or interpretation, only for the writer to himself voice that idea a few pages later. This is perhaps why the story appealed so strongly to Yukio Mishima, who thought it one of Kawabata’s best, if not the best of all. In fact, there is a rumour, which I don’t take seriously, that Mishima himself may have written it. In any case, none of this is meant as a criticism. This is, without question, one of the top-tier novellas, as beautifully dreamy, and moving and perfect as Casares’ The Invention of Morel and Turgenev’s First Love.

House of the Sleeping Beauties usually comes packaged with two other stories, One Arm and Of Birds and Beasts, which are much shorter. Both are fine, but I did not feel compelled to write about either of them.

THE LEOPARD BY GIUSEPPE TOMASI DI LAMPEDUSA

The other day I found a grey hair, by which I mean on my own head, of course, not on the floor. If I was in my forties, or upwards, I may have anticipated such a thing, but, in my naivety, I didn’t think it possible at my age. Yet there it was, gesturing to me in an offensive manner; it was like staring at a crowd of people and suddenly spotting, deep in their midst, a child looking my way and insouciantly giving me the finger. I’ve been, it is fair to say, somewhat perturbed ever since; I keep checking the backs of my hands, and around my eyes, for signs of wrinkles, and any slight twinge or ache strikes me as the inevitable, irrevocable, breaking down of my mechanism.

This is, and always has been, my worst fear. Decline, old age, and their tyrannical father: death. How on earth do you face up to that? You haven’t got much of a choice, I guess. How awful! Some people are blasé about it; ‘it’s fine,’ they say, ‘ageing is a positive thing’; ‘I’m not afraid of death,’ they say, ‘I’m more concerned about how I will go.’ I’ve never understood all that. I’m don’t care one bit about the manner of my death, it’s the fact that it is going to happen at all that bothers me; it’s the not-being that terrifies me. ‘But wouldn’t it be terrible to be immortal, to remain young, while all your loved ones, your family and friends, age and pass away?’ No, it’d be glorious! Make no mistake, I’d gaily skip down the street as the last man on earth.

There have been many fine novels about all of this – Samuel Beckett, for example, wrote reams of them – but I think my favourite is Il Gattopardo, or The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. In the opening pages, we are introduced to Don Fabrizio, the Sicilian aristocrat who dominates the book. The imposing, heavy-set, Prince of Salina is an old-fashioned sort, conservative in values where his family are concerned, but more than willing to give himself major leeway. For example, he demands the utmost respect and propriety from his children, and yet brazenly cheats on his wife and, on one occasion, drags Father Pirrone along on one of his amorous escapades, almost as a display of his power. The children are, of course, petrified of him; it is noted that the household cutlery has had to be straightened numerous times, for their father, in moments of anger or irritation, has a tendency to grasp knifes and forks and spoons in his heavy paws and bend them.

“Love. Of course, love. Flames for a year, ashes for thirty.”

In contrast to his outward displays of strength, the domineering Fabrizio is, privately, prone to melancholy and self-pity. He may rule his children and wife with the proverbial iron fist, but this does not stop them from disappointing him; in fact, almost everything disappoints him. His son, Paolo, is referred to as a ‘booby,’ and is less than favourably compared with the Prince’s nephew, Tancredi. Fabrizio appears to have more affection for his daughter, Concetta, but even she frequently irritates him, and is, sadly, no match, in terms of looks, for Angelica Sedara, the daughter of a nouveau riche Mayor, whom Tancredi wishes to marry. His wife, on the other hand, is a woman of strained nerves, who is no longer sexually alluring to him; indeed, her pious reserve [Fabrizio claims to have never seen her navel] is used as justification for infidelity. This disappointment also extends to himself, or at least his own mortality, and to the state of the country.

The Leopard is set in the years 1860-1862, 1883 and 1910, during a period in history known as the Risorgimento, the aim of which was the unification of Italy. It was, then, a time of revolution, change, and unrest. On this basis, one could legitimately call The Leopard a political novel, but the politics feed into the broader and, for me, more important and engaging themes of decline and death. In the most literal way, war or revolution drag death and destruction in their wake, of course, and this is brought into sharp focus when the mutilated body of a soldier is found in the Prince’s garden. But what the Risorgimento really represents, what it brings home to Don Fabrizio, is that the old ways, his ways, are numbered. Indeed, one of the aims of the Risorgimento was a levelling of the classes, so while the rich and powerful Don Fabrizio is not directly involved in the conflict his kind are, in a way, a target, and therefore they are, culturally-socially, on borrowed time.

RV-AC576_MASTER_G_20110428000350

[A still from the 1963 film of the same name]

Unfortunately, the Prince, like all of us, is also on borrowed time physically. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is how the decline of the old ways of Italy are actually mirrored in Fabrizio’s own personal decline; the two reflect each other. Despite being only in his forties, from the very beginning there is a sense that the Prince is no longer at his peak, that he is not staring proudly from the heights of physical perfection, but is steadily making his way back down the mountain. For example, Don Fabrizio’s sensual-sexual nature is frequently alluded to; as noted, he cheats on his wife, and he is struck by, and excited by, Angelica’s attractions [her beauty, her body, etc]. However, he is also fully aware that he is no longer in the running, so to speak, that the vibrant young woman will prefer the charming, and also young, Tancredi. This is not the same, alas, as saying that he is happy about it. Far from it; he feels, rather, a twinge of jealousy, a sexual jealousy that is not particularly admirable, of course, but is understandable.

“To kneel before Angelica would be a pleasure, but what if he found it difficult to get up afterwards?”

To say that the Prince is not as vital as he once was, and that Italy is at war and going through important social-political changes, does not do justice to how deeply ingrained the book’s preoccupations and themes are. I said before that it is perhaps the greatest novel about death and decline, and to understand this one must read it, because these things are present in the text on almost every page. Indeed, Lampedusa’s work is so rich in allusions and references to them that the atmosphere is of a unrelenting gloominess, almost regardless of the main narrated action. For example, it is at one point noted that the Prince’s initials on a wine glass have begun to fade; Bendico, his dog, noses his way through the garden smelling of ‘dead lizards and manure’; Fabrizio goes hunting at Donnafugata, but hardly ever shoots anything, because there are scant targets; as payment for rent he is given slaughtered lambs; stories are shared about poisoned holy water and people cut up into little pieces, and so on.

“As always the thought of his own death calmed him as much as that of others disturbed him: was it perhaps because, when all was said and done, his own death would in the first place mean that of the whole world?”

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, himself a Sicilian aristocrat, only ever wrote one novel; and even this was rejected numerous times and was published only after his own death. If I had to guess as to why it wasn’t instantly appreciated I would perhaps point to the intricate, detailed prose as being something of an acquired taste. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love it; in fact, I consider Lampedusa to be one of the very finest prose stylists; his extended metaphors alone make reading the book worthwhile. But it is decidedly Proustian, perhaps more so than any other that gets lumbered with that tag, and his prose, by which I mean Marcel’s, is also an acquired taste [it seems]. Moreover, Lampedusa’s novel lacks the emotional sturm and drang of certain parts of In Search of Lost Time, is just not as viscerally exciting as, say, Sodom and Gomorrah. The Leopard is a slow book, a deeply ruminative book, with very little action. It is, the author himself claimed, not very good. He was wrong, of course; it’s a masterpiece. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to listen to Frank Sinatra’s It Was a Very Good Year, and then go quietly weep in a corner.

EFFI BRIEST BY THEODOR FONTANE

Throughout my life, the one constant, vis-à-vis relationships, has been that I have always seemed to end up with crazy women. That has both its drawbacks, of course, and its benefits. I say crazy but maybe it would be better to say high-spirited or eccentric; in any case, I absolutely have a type. For a long time I thought that it was simply a coincidence that every person I dated was a little cuckoo, but then I realised that the things that I like, the things I am most drawn to – the spontaneity, the large personality, the artistic impulse, etc – are the consequence of a mind that does not move along the same tracks that most people’s minds do. That was an important epiphany for me, because I knew, then, that if I had to have those things of which I am so fond, those unusual qualities, I had to accept the other side too, the less stable side.

This does not mean, of course, that all eccentric women will be attractive to me, nor does it mean that all of them will possess the kind of qualities I have so often fallen for. There can and will be exceptions to all theories or ideas about humanity. One such exception was an ex of mine; she was crazy, oh absolutely, but she was also dour and lazy and unaffectionate. It’s a relationship that continues to baffle me, long after it has ceased to exist. Whatever did I see in…not her, but us [for relationships are not, of course, about individuals, but the complex interplay of two people]? We were chronically ill-suited. Was I really so attracted to her that I compromised on everything else? Perhaps. It’s a really strange situation, being with someone who you want to like, but whose entire approach is anathema to you. I was in a constant state of frustration. She must have felt the same way, I am sure. It’s like trying to waltz with someone who wants to do the mazurka.

In any case, although the two personality types involved are not the same, I was put in mind of this old relationship of mine recently when reading Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. Even more than those found in Anna Karenina [Anna and Karenin] and Madame Bovary [Emma and Charles], the central relationship in the novel, between Effi and Innstetten, is, from the very beginning, so obviously, so absolutely wrong for both parties. First of all, there is, of course, the age difference; I have never been with someone decades my junior, because, well, it would be illegal; but, setting that aside, although I can understand a man of forty or fifty being attracted to a girl of, say, twenty it has always struck me as weird that a man of such advanced age could believe that he has anything in common with someone from a completely different generation, that they could have anything to say to each other; I don’t know how, in this situation, these men could not feel a little bit ashamed, and more than a little bit ridiculous. Fontane does not at all indicate that Innstetten does feel ridiculous, but the couple do have so little in common. This is made abundantly clear when, for the Honeymoon, he takes Effi around lots of art galleries and churches, things that she has no idea about, nor real interest in. However, a lack of shared interests is not the only problem, the differences between the couple play out in many ways; for example, the first day after the honeymoon he rises early and she sleeps in. It may seem mundane, and it is, but it is part of showing that they are simply not right for each other.

Effi appears to be frequently disliked by readers, certainly based on the reviews that I have encountered. However, I loved her. It perhaps comes back to my type, for she is, well, a little unconventional. She is seventeen at the beginning of the novel, and we first meet her playing outside with her friends, while dressed in some kind of a sailor suit. One could see this opening scene as the author accentuating her youth, her childishness, and that is undeniably the case, but I feel as though there is more to it than that; Fontane, in my opinion, wanted to say something about Effi’s personality, not merely her age. Later, her mother calls her something like a child of nature and that description gives depth to one’s understanding of the opening of the novel; Effi is, to use a popular phrase, a free-spirit; she has peculiar ideas, and her emotional and intellectual responses are frequently contradictory, often within the space of a single paragraph. She is, in this way, reminiscent of the kind of characters you come across in Russian literature, especially Dostoevsky. I have, in my reviews of his work, called Dostoevsky’s characters, his women in particular, profoundly bipolar, and while that phrase is maybe too strong for Effi she is certainly prone to mood swings.

While the youthful and highly-strung Effi is not like the mature and passionate Anna Karenina, Innstetten is much like her husband Karenin, in that he doesn’t appear to be equipped to deal with what he has got. Like Karenin, Innstetten may love his wife, but he is a failure as a lover. He is too conventional, too reserved to romance or court Effi in a way that would lead to a genuine intimacy between them. Indeed, he tends to treat her as a child, as someone who ought to be given the opportunity to make decisions, and exhibit maturity, where possible, but who ought not to be indulged when showing her immaturity. So, for example, he asks Effi’s opinion about which of the local resident families and households they ought to patronise, and yet when she has a turbulent night’s sleep because she thinks she hears strange, unnerving noises, which she is told is the wind sweeping the bottom of the curtains across the floor, he is resistant to do the small thing it would take to ease her anxiety [i.e. taking up the hem of the curtains].

Those strange, unnerving noises are particularly significant because they are the first suggestion of something sinister in a novel that becomes progressively eerie and odd. As already mentioned, Effi, who hears these noises soon after moving into her new home, is initially told that it is the wind and the curtains. However, they are subsequently attributed to a ghost. Effi, in fact, sees the ghost more than once; the first time it rushes past her bed and out the bedroom door and the second time it looks over her shoulder. Add to this, the story of the severed head, the frequent allusions to death, the old lady and the black hen, and Effi repeatedly, almost randomly on occasions, declaring that he feels afraid, and Effi Briest starts to resemble a Gothic novel. What is most fascinating about all this is how Fontane uses the Gothic to reveal aspects of his character’s personalities. For example, when Effi tells Innstetten about the ghost he does not deny its presence in the house, but rather gives the impression of wanting to convince her of its existence.

It is at this point that one starts to doubt one’s initial impressions of the husband. At first he seemed nice but dull, yet eventually his behaviour struck me as troubling and I came to regard him as a cold manipulator. It becomes clear that he uses the idea of the ghost to unsettle Effi, to keep her on her toes, so to speak. This is actually a torture technique, although I doubt Fontane was aware of this; the idea is that if you can prevent someone from thinking rationally, if you disturb their sleep and their peace of mind, then they will become more pliant. More than once Innstetten reminds Effi of the ghost, but he does so in very clever ways, so that it seems, on the surface, as though he is being supportive. For example, at one point he says, ‘don’t be afraid, it won’t come back,’ when Effi herself had not even mentioned the subject. Here, it seems Innstetten is bringing up the subject, is trying to keep Effi afraid, as a way of controlling her. He says it won’t come back, but is really suggesting that it will, is actually bringing it back by mentioning it. He engages in this kind of passive-aggressive bullying frequently. he makes apparently innocuous remarks, little sly digs, that mean the opposite of what they appear to mean. And yet, and yet, just when I was convinced of his villainy, I began, towards the very end of the book, to feel sympathy for him. Ultimately, Innstetten is a man lacking imagination and ambition, not in the way that one would ordinarily understand those words, but in terms of appreciating and getting the most out of his life and making himself truly happy.

If the critical essays, and the introduction to this edition, are anything to go by, much is made of Fontane’s subtlety as a writer. Deservedly so. There are times when the author holds back almost to the point of baffling the reader, or this one anyway, in a way I have only come across elsewhere in the work of Henry James. Before I read the book I was aware of Effi’s reputation as an adulteress, and yet it does not, until it actually happens, seem inevitable that she will play her husband false. Indeed, unlike most novels of this sort, I had no inkling at all as to who she would do the dirty with. Not only that, but the cheating, the cheating that we have access to at least, is so minor in form that you wonder whether it can be called cheating at all. It was only with the revelation of the letters, something like seven years after the events, that I became of the opinion that it went beyond a bit of flirting and hand-kissing. I really liked how Fontane dealt with all that. The way that he treats Effi’s ‘affair’ is to allow the reader to imagine all kinds of things by revealing only a little.

However, despite providing plenty of evidence of Fontane’s subtle touch, my one [relatively small] gripe with the novel is that it is, at times, also woefully heavy-handed. The characters are, mostly in the first half, constantly psychologically sizing each other up, and engaging in conversations about each other’s motivations and behaviours. You are seductive, Innstetten tells Effi, while she goes on to explain how he is ashamed of husbandly affection, that he deems it unrespectable. Likewise, the scene where Crampas calls Innstetten a pedagogue, and Effi replies with something along the lines of, do you think he is trying to teach me? Like, duh. The thing is, this is the opposite of what I wrote about in the previous paragraph, in that this kind of stuff gives the reader nothing to do, allows us no opportunity for thinking for ourselves. In fact, it was often the case that I would already have come to the same conclusion as the characters before they voice it, so them doing so seems like overkill. The Japanese writer Kenaburo Oe does the same thing in his work, and I find it maddening.

Having said that, it wasn’t enough to ruin my experience of the book. I found Effi Briest an engaging and moving read; I could, in fact, keep writing about it, but I have just noticed the word count. 2000. Oh dear, no one will read all this. And what about Rollo? I haven’t even mentioned him. Fucking hell. Rollo. That dog broke my heart.

SABBATH’S THEATER BY PHILIP ROTH

I am sure that most of you are aware that over the last couple of days a bunch of celebrities have had their computers and mobile phones hacked, and the naughty pictures found on these devices have been leaked to the general public. Rather hilariously, in my opinion, this leak has been called, by the people benefitting from it, The Fappening. As is always the case with this kind of thing, there has been rather a lot of misguided hand-wringing and hysteria. I am not saying, by any means, that the attack on the privacy of these celebrities is ok, or justifiable, or that they ought not to be upset by it. Hacking anyone’s phone or computer is a criminal offence, and is, indeed, morally wrong too. However, that does not mean that the celebs in question haven’t been stupid. I cannot understand why someone in the public eye, someone who is aware that this kind of hacking has been prevalent in recent years, would not say to themselves and to their partner sure, it would be fun to take some sexy snaps, but it’s not worth the risk. No pictures, no leaks. Yes, in an ideal world they could do what they liked, within the bounds of the law, but this is not an ideal world. In an ideal world women would be able to walk home on their own at 3am, or they would be able to accept a lift from a stranger, without these things being dangerous. I’m not victim-blaming; I am advocating common sense. Anyway, for me, if The Fappening is about anything it is about objectification, both voluntary and involuntary objectification; the most pertinent questions raised by the event, in relation to the author under review here, are why is it that these women felt compelled to take and distribute [not to the general public, of course, but to their partners] these pictures despite the risks, risks greater than any possible rewards, and why do some commentators appear to be so surprised and disgusted that we – men – want to see and own them?

How Philip Roth fits into this is that he is the one author, more than any other, who has been accused consistently of objectifying women, of misogyny, of pornography. His critics claim that he is guilty of creating female characters who exist solely as sex objects. Much of the time I think this is bogus, that his female characters are not empty vessels [they have jobs, have opinions, etc]. In any case, i believe that sexism is levelled at the man because women do not understand how men think or, more commonly, they don’t want to accept it; to this end The Fappening ought to be something of an eye-opener. Thousands, millions probably, of dudes looking at, searching for, discussing etc, a bunch of pictures of naked women. It isn’t a minority who are drawn to this sort of thing, it is men, period. And women? All around the world, every day, they are happily taking these pictures, allowing themselves to be objectified. Yes, even celebrities are doing it. What has been most enlightening is that certain women have decided, in order to show support for one of the victims, to post saucy pictures of themselves on public networking sites, thereby achieving nothing other than further titillating the people they are so eager to disparage. Ah, well, how then can one, in the face of all this, read a Philip Roth novel and denounce it? Is he part of the problem or just telling the truth? Isn’t it simply a fact of life that, yes, women are objectified by men and that, conversely, some enjoy being objectified?

Of all the books in Roth’s oeuvre Sabbath’s Theater is the rudest, is the one that could most legitimately be labelled pornographic; it is, in places, pure filth, although never, by any means, erotic. It is also, I ought to confess, the only one of his novels that made me feel slightly uncomfortable, not because of the content per se, but because I felt, at times, as though I was being let into, exposed to, an old man’s [Roth’s] wank fantasies. For example, there are points in the narrative when Drenka, Micky Sabbath’s ludicrous Polish mistress, delivers unnecessarily lengthy monologues about her sexual endeavours and preferences, and I couldn’t help thinking while reading these monologues that only Roth himself was getting off on them, and no one else. Or perhaps, as Sabbath’s Theater is concerned [amongst other things] with the descent into madness of a dirty old man, and so does of course feature old[er] people talking about and engaging in sexual acts, my reaction is the understandable, yet arrogant, shudder of a young man not ready to confront the truth of, the existence of, a healthy elderly libido.

The stuff that generally tends to gross readers out, or offend them – Sabbath wanking over Drenka’s grave, or to a photograph of a College student while staying with her father – didn’t bother me at all; I found those parts of the novel amusing, vaudeville. That some are offended by the novel is galling, not because I want to tell people how to react, but simply because one only needs to read a single review or even the blurb on the back of the book in order to know what is in store for you; let’s be honest, anyone finding themselves offended by Sabbath’s Theater wanted to be, looked and hoped for it. In any case, Mickey Sabbath is deliberately grotesque, deliberately over-the-top; he is Shakespearean in proportion – he is a Richard III or Hamlet; Mickey is a man on the edge, tormented by the loss of his lover, who was apparently quite some sack artist, and petrified of the prospect of not being able, at his age, to replace her. At least on the most superficial level. Yet, what is interesting about a book so full of sex, featuring a man so seemingly sex-obsessed, is that Sabbath’s Theater is not really about sex at all.

I called Sabbath Shakespearean, and he is, but this is a tragedy, not a comedy, as some would have it. Like Ahab, another Shakespearean character, Mickey Sabbath is fighting against some large, terrible foe: old age and, ultimately, death. Again, like Ahab, it is a one-sided battle; old age and death, like the whale, care nothing about Sabbath: they are indiscriminate. For Sabbath his virility is so important because the loss of it would signal that he is over the hill. Once you understand this it throws the Drenka passages into a new, sharper focus; was she really some nymphomaniac, shit-hot sack artist, or is that how Mickey must remember, and imagine, her in order to console himself that he at least once had something, someone, ideal? Or is it simply that memory is often sadistic, that, without you realising it, it recreates, reinvents, your experiences with greater intensity than they ever actually had, so that the sad times become sadder, the happy become happier and so on? So, Sabbath’s breakdown, his outrageous behaviour, is not really about getting his end away, it is about what not getting his end away represents: that he is old, and no longer vital.

If I have any genuine criticism of the book to make it is that it is, perhaps, too long. For example, even if you want to justify the Drenka passages as I have done in the previous paragraph they still, undeniably, ought to have been edited, cut down; far from being shocking, much of the time they are simply boring, are too repetitious. Also, as with all of Roth’s later work the structure is all over the place and the plot pretty non-existent. That is not, for me, a problem, however. Roth’s 90’s novels are meditations, rants, essays almost, and that is why I like them. I like the passion, the drive, the devil-may-care attitude towards literary conventions, the disregard for what readers might want from a novel. Roth did not care to write the perfect novel [he tried that with The Ghost Writer], he wanted to punch you firmly between the eyes, he wanted to rub your nose, in this instance, in the dirt.

For long time Roth readers, what sets Sabbath’s Theatre apart is that it is the novel where Roth himself is least present, where he was able to obscure whatever there is of himself in the book to the extent that the characters do not feel like approximations of the author. Maybe that is why he rates it so highly. For me it isn’t his best [although I did read it five years ago, so perhaps I would value it more were I to give it another go]; that accolade I would give to The Counterlife, despite its ropey final section, or the previously mentioned The Ghost Writer. Still, Sabbath’s Theater is a great read; it is fun, freewheeling, brave and intelligent; it is challenging and controversial; it makes you confront aspects of humanity, and the human condition, that you might prefer to pretend do not exist. And yet, in a way, we should all admire, rather than loathe, Mickey Sabbath, for he is a man who, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, is raging against the dying of the light, he is someone who categorically will not go gentle into that good night.