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When is the Right Time to Let Go?: Other Men’s Daughters by Richard Stern

The plot of Stern’s novel in which an older man who has a love affair with a younger woman and divorces his wife, could have easily turned into the typical, hackneyed plot that such a book often veers towards.  Stern’s intelligent writing delves into the nuances and complications of marriage, middle age, physical attraction and love.  The story astutely and sensitively makes us aware of the sacrifices and heartache that each party in this complicated, all-to-human situation suffer.  “Love,” Stern writes, “Famous, frozen word concealing how many thousand feelings, the origin of so much story and disorder.”

Dr. Robert Merriwether is a profession of biology and physiology at Harvard in the late 1960s.  He also practices medicine in his free time during the summer and that is when he meets Cynthia, a young college student who has made an appointment to get a prescription for birth control.  When Cynthia starts running into him around Cambridge and eventually admits her attraction to Robert, he realizes how badly he was in denial about the state of his lifeless marriage.  His wife had begun to withhold affections years ago, yet they remained married and functioned as a family for the sake of their four children.  I felt genuine sympathy for this man who, up until he meets Cynthia, has just been going through the motions in his daily routine and in his relationships.  After a weekend spent in the company of Cynthia he has a difficult time settling back into his normal life: “Sunday was difficult for Merriwether. Tomorrow he’d be back in his own rectangle: home-class-lab-club. The boxed life. Though not an empty box.”  Because of Cynthia he starts giving lectures in other cities in the northeast so that he can have getaways with her for the weekend.  He also spends a summer in France with her, another trip and experience that allows to have different adventures that he wouldn’t have previously considered: “They became easier and easier with each other. Her intelligence and wit delighted him.  So many years he had been uncomfortable, sometimes miserable at Sarah’s incomprehension.  Partly, it was that Sarah played the fool.”

As for Sarah, Robert’s wife, we also get her side of the story and the sacrifices which she has made for the marriage and for their family.  She has given up having a career of her own to stay home and take care of the four Merriweather children and to tend to the creaky, old New England house passed down through Robert’s family.:

And he blamed her.  As if her body could be purchased by three daily meals, and this leaky hutch which she alone kept up.  (He couldn’t hammer a nail.) As if he really cared to make love to her.  Frigid? No, no more than any woman with a husband who saw her as an interior broom. By no means frigid.

Contrary to Robert’s interests, Sarah had studied humanities and her Master’s thesis was on Courtly Love.  The impending divorce has caused her to take some classes towards a Master of Arts in Teaching.  She could support herself from the profit of the sale of their house and by teaching French and Spanish in local schools.  She learns of Robert’s affair in a very public way, which is a particular embarrassment in their conservative, New England community.  I especially felt sorry for Sarah because of the physical anguish this causes her.  But she understands that her marriage had been a source of angst for years and the best decision for her is to separate from Robert.  They live in their house together, in separate bedrooms, with their children for a year while the divorce is being finalized and the property is being sold.  During this time they become so bitter and angry towards one another that they can only communicate with terse notes.  The Merriwethers think that by staying together as long as possible that they are doing the best thing for their children, but the tension and fighting that their living situation causes seems to do more harm than good for the family.  Stern’s narrative forces us to contemplate some difficult questions to which there are no easy answers: Why do we stay in a relationship?  When is the right time to let go?

The final person in this triangle is Cynthia who is not the typical seductress that one would expect in such a story.  It is obvious when Stern introduces her into the plot that she has every intention of seducing Robert and these scenes are cringe worthy.  But as the story progresses we learn that Cynthia is a very intelligent young woman who is bored with men her own age; she works hard at her studies and also challenges Robert in ways that his wife never could.  They have interesting discussions, they read together and they encourage one another’s interests.  Cynthia’s relationship with Robert also causes her a great deal of stress and anxiety.  She eventually transfers from Swathmore and moves to Cambridge so that she can be closer to Robert and she spends many hours alone while she waits for Robert to visit when he has free time.  Stern’s makes his story stronger by showing that Cynthia and Robert’s relationship is not perfect, that no relationship is perfect.  Cynthia suffers from bouts of depression and anxiety because of the pressure she puts on herself to achieve academic success and she and Robert often argue over this topic and many others.  Stern surprisingly ends his novel on a positive note—Cynthia and Robert have enough love and kindness and respect for one another to stay together for a while.  But will they know when it will be the right time to let go?

Trevor has also written about this title and has an interesting view of the book:  http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/31/richard-stern-other-mens-daughters/

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Angulus Coeli: The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The setting of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s only novel entitled The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a tropical, volcanic island in the Antilles which is dominated by an old, French, aristocratic family that is holding onto their traditional, Jacobean politics.  Not surprisingly, Fermor, most famous for his travel writing, begins his story with a detailed history and geographical description of his fictional island.  He imagines it being occupied by Arawaks and Carib natives and eventually being discovered by Columbus who annexed it for the Spanish crown; he further envisages the island being neglected by Spain and later taken over by the French whose noble families settle on the island and make it as prosperous as Martinique.  Fermor says that his island was little known and that “Cartographer and historian unconsciously conspired to ignore it.”    But he does, however, include an obscure passage, written in Latin, by an Franciscan missionary who is not at all complimentary about this tropical location.  In this addition of the text from NYRB Classics, the Latin is not translated.  I offer my own translation here because it sets up a structure for the important themes and ideas that Fermor explores throughout his narrative:

Insula Sancti Jacobi tantis opibus, tanta copia, tantaque pulcritudine ornata, sicut angulus coeli ipsius videtur, sed, ob mores improbos pravosque incolarum, ob jactanciam, luxuriam et gastrimargiam et Gallorum et nigrorum, insula Sancti Jacobi pessimam insularum aliarum omnium justius, immo, verum angulum Gehennae putanda est.

The island of Saint Jacques, with such wealth and such abundance and adorned with such beauty, seemed as if it were a corner of heaven itself, however, due to the excessive and depraved habits of its populace, due to their boastfulness, the luxury and the gluttony of both the French and the black men, the island of Saint Jacques must be more justly considered, indeed, the worst of all other islands,  a true corner of Hell.

Berthe de Rennes, an elderly woman who now resides on an island in the Aegean, tells the story of Saint-Jacques and the exciting six years she spent there in her youth during the last decade of the nineteenth century.  Her audience is an unnamed Englishman she meets on the beach who visits her over the course of a few weeks while he is vacationing in the Aegean.   Berthe was orphaned, she tells her visitor, and had been taken in by an elderly aunt in France when her cousin, Count Serindan of Saint-Jacques, invited her to come live with his family and serve as the nanny and tutor to his four children.  Fermor beautifully captures the sights, sounds, tastes, textures and smells of this lush, tropical place, and through the descriptions of Berthe’s paintings and drawings of the island we glimpse an angulus coeli (corner of heaven):

The sketch-books covered the entire life of the island.  All of the fine buildings of the capital were there, the statues of Plessis and Rumbold and Scudamore and Braithwaite and Schoelcher; views of savannah and volcanic ravine and stifling forest; punctilious flower-paintings of hibiscus and balisier, of looping lianas, tree-ferns and dark branches where the Night Flowering Cereus grew.  Even the monuments and inscriptions of churches were copied down.  There was an abundance of negroes and negresses in their brilliant village costumes and flamboyantly disguised for carnival.

There is, however, a darker, more sinister side to this island which appears to be a paradise on a merely superficial level.  The Count employs many mulattoes on his estate whose lighter complexions and facial features resemble the Serindans.  Fermor leaves us to imagine for ourselves whether or not the unions between employers and laborers were forced or consensual.  Perhaps the most disturbing instance of debauchery is Fermor’s hint that Gentilien, the Count’s own butler, is the same age as his master and looks enough like the Count to be his brother—a glimpse at the mores improbos (depraved habits) going on for generations on this island.  The Serindan family’s influence over the lives of everyone on the island is eerily described by Fermor as “Olympian” which reference brings to mind the many amorous conquests of the Ancient Greek deity, Zeus.

It is during a ball that the Count throws for carnival that the excess and luxury of the island is fully revealed.  The lavish, overindulgent meal—a reflection of the gastrimargiam (gluttony) noted in the missionary’s Latin passage— that the Count has prepared for his Mardi Gras party brings to mind Trimalchio’s extravagant, Roman cena (dinner) in Petronius’s Satyricon. 

In the kitchen, urchins, sea-eggs and dwarf oysters—the last still clustering in scores on lengths of mangrove-stalk—were heaped in pails.  The snow-white whorls of the conch shells (each of them opening to display a pink internal helix) were arrayed like a tritons’ orchestra announcing, in a silent fanfare, the later delights of Iambi flambe au rhum.  A swarm of little frogs swam agitatedly round their tank; the shell of a turtle had already been evacuated by its lodger.  Horny backed iguanas, trussed like captured dragons, moved restlessly in their baskets.  The Count stopped and gazed at them.

The preparations for this decadent meal are a precursor to the wild and outlandish drama that will occur later on that evening.   Fermor is a master at composing exciting stories and weaves a fist fight ending with a duel challenge, an attempted elopement, a prank involving a deadly, venomous snake, and an appearance by lepers disguised as dominoes into the events that all take place during the Count’s Mardi Gras celebration.  Fermor creates an exciting, intense, romantic plot, the pivotal events of which unfold during the ball and involve Berthe, her favorite cousin, Josephine and the arrogant son of the island’s governor.

Volcanic explosions and imagery of hell and burning all permeate the last part of Fermor’s vivid narrative.  In a final, catastrophic, natural event the island pays its cosmic debt for such opulence and becomes the verum angulum Gehennae (true corner of hell) of the monk’s earlier description.    Saint-Jacques manifests itself as a Caribbean version of Sodom and Gomorrah which Biblical locations, because of their excess, are plunged into a fiery, violent, hellish end.  Fermor’s insinuation in the text that Berthe—who now ironically lives in Mytilene, the capital of  Lesbos—is much closer to Josephine than any of her other family members, augments the image of Saint-Jacques as a nineteenth century version of these profligate cities.

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Ernesto: The Unfinished Novella of Umberto Saba

Umberto Saba’s unfinished novella Ernesto, published this year in a new English translation by The New York Review of Books, is part of an ever-growing body of recent literature that explores the idea that human sexuality is more pliable and fluid than the rigid labels to which we assign it. The latest novels by Bae Suah (A Greater Music), Andre Aciman (Enigma Variations), and Anne Garreta (Sphinx and Not One Day) have also opened up important conversations about experimentation with sexuality. But what sets Ernesto apart and makes it stand out among the works of these other authors is that it was written in 1953, a time in which many considered homosexuality scandalous, or often illegal.

Born in 1883, in the Mediterranean port of Trieste, Italy, Umberto Saba is best known for his deeply personal and honest poetry. Written at the age of seventy when, after suffering one of his many nervous breakdowns, and confined to a sanatorium in Rome, Ernesto tells a loosely autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a boy’s burgeoning sexuality. Estelle Gilson, the translator, writes in her introduction to the NYRB edition, “What he was writing was for himself alone—his adolescent experiences in Trieste as they suddenly welled up within him and demanded release.”

Like his teenage protagonist in Ernesto, Saba was abandoned by his father, raised in Trieste by an aunt and a single mother, worked in a flour factory at the age of sixteen, and had serious questions about his sexuality. Because of the autobiographical and sexual content of Ernesto, Saba showed his drafts to a few carefully chosen confidants. In addition to his doctor at the sanatorium, one of the only other people to read Ernesto was Saba’s daughter, Linuccia, to whom he would send parts of the manuscript with very strict instructions about keeping his writings secret. In his letters to Linuccia, Saba requests that his daughter keep his drafts in a locked container and that she send his writing back to him immediately after reading it. Linuccia took her father’s instructions seriously and didn’t publish Saba’s novella until 1975, nearly twenty years after the author’s death.

Composed in five “Episodes” with an additional section entitled “Almost a Conclusion,” the strength of Saba’s writing lies in the bold and, at times, brutally honest language that he employs throughout his text. Set in Trieste, in the last few years of the nineteenth century, the sixteen-year-old protagonist is raised by his single mother and his elderly aunt. Ernesto’s world reflects the diversity of Trieste which, because of its location in northeastern Italy between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia, was influenced by Italian, Slavic and German cultures. During this period of time, Trieste is an Imperial Free City within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and had been under Hapsburg rule since the fourteenth century. Although most of its citizens were Italian and loyal to an Italian Republic, Germans controlled the bustling business and commerce of the city and held positions of power.

Ernesto works as an apprentice in a German flour factory where he meets a laborer, a lower-class Triestine, identified as “the man” with whom he has his first sexual encounter. Ernesto’s erotic exploits with the man leave him bewildered, ashamed and confused not only because of the illicit nature of his experiences, but also because he is still sexually attracted to women.  Ernesto’s sexual encounters with the man take place in the first Episode but the emotional consequences linger with Ernesto throughout the narrative. The language of Saba’s Ernesto is candid, especially when describing the titillating and erotic first sexual encounter between Ernesto and the man. The two negotiate the intimate details of what the sex will be like as Ernesto is both excited and scared about this new experience:

“There’s a lot of things you can do in an hour,” the man said urgently.

“And what do you want to do?”

“Don’t you remember what we were talking about yesterday? That you almost promised to do. Don’t you know what I’d like to do with you?”

“Yeah, put it up my ass,” Ernesto replied with quiet innocence.

In an essay entitled “What Remains for Poets to do,” Saba argues that “It remains for poets to write honest poetry.” Saba applies this pursuit of literary honesty to his prose as well when he inserts his own commentary into the text to explain and justify Ernesto’s explicit language. Saba’s interjection of his own voice into the narrative are some of the most beautiful and enlightening pieces of writing in the novella:

With that brief, precise utterance, the boy unwittingly revealed what many years later, after many experiences and much suffering would become his “style;” his going to the heart of things; to the red-hot center of life, overriding resistance and inhibitions, foregoing circumlocutions and useless word twistings. He dealt with matters considered coarse, vulgar (even forbidden) and those considered “exalted” just as Nature does—placing them all on the same level. Of course, he wasn’t thinking of any of that now. He had blurted the sentence (which practically had a laborer blushing) because the circumstance warranted it.

The episode ends with an act that deftly mixes emotions of both tenderness and shame: the man kindly turns over the stained sack of flour at Ernesto’s request so that no one will be suspicious of what happened between them.

Shame is a theme that Saba returns to repeatedly in his narrative as Ernesto attempts to find fulfillment, pleasure and love with a man and a woman. The fact that the man is never given a name is perhaps significant because Saba, likely through his own sense of shame at recalling these events, can’t bring himself to give Ernesto’s seducer a true identity. After two months, Ernesto decides that he can no longer keep having these sexual encounters with the man because they make him feel dirty and keeping such a secret from his mother feels shameful and wrong. After his trysts with the man, Ernesto has the overwhelming desire to prove himself a man and is impatient to have sex, for the first time, with a woman. He is ashamed because all of his friends have bragged about sleeping with women and the only sex he has had is with a man. Shame is what motivates him to seek out sex with a prostitute which erotic scene in the book is equally as tender and explicit as the one with the man. This time, however, he gives the prostitute a name because sex with a woman, even though it is a prostitute, is not as shameful as having sex with a man.   Once Tanda undresses Ernesto, she finds the best position that will give Ernesto the most pleasure for his first time. And after he climaxes she washes him with a disinfectant and his sense of shame and embarrassment cause him to excessively overpay her and leave suddenly.

Themes of loneliness, alienation and sadness—demons with which Saba himself wrestled throughout his life—also pervade Saba’s coming-of-age narrative. Ernesto is initially drawn to the man who propositions him with sex because the man loves the boy. Because of the absence of a father in his life, Ernesto wants to please the man who shows him affection and adoration. He likes the prostitute because she is warm and tender with him and this causes him to eagerly anticipate his next visit with her. Ernesto’s mother is stern with him and shows him little affection although affection is something he craves more than anything. Like many young people inexperienced with matters of intimacy and sex he mistakenly equates physical attention with emotional connection and love.

Some of Ernesto’s sadness, alienation and even shame is relieved by the unlikeliest of characters, his dour mother. Ernesto’s mother is a presence that lingers throughout the entire story and even when the man is trying to seduce him, Ernesto mentions his mother and the guilt he feels over keeping a secret from her. The woman, who was abandoned by Ernesto’s father before the boy was born, is overbearing and overprotective of her only child. Yet, she believes that she must be harsh in her rearing of the boy and must not show him very much affection. When Ernesto no longer wants sex with the man, he gets himself fired from the factory so he never has to see him again. The loss of his job devastates Ernesto’s mother and he feels compelled to confess his true reasons for not wanting to return to the factory. When Ernesto tells his mother in great detail about the whole affair with the man, the full force of the emotional connection between mother and son is fully revealed. Saba writes a touching scene that is sympathetic to both the character of Ernesto and his mother:

With his mother’s kiss and the sense that he would be forgiven, Ernesto felt himself reborn. It was one of the few kisses she had ever given him. (The poor woman wanted so much to be, and even more to be seen as, a “Spartan mother.”)

The narrative structure of the novella centers around a triangulation of people—the man, the prostitute and Ernesto’s mother—who provide the boy with affection and comfort.

We can’t help but wonder if Saba’s own sense of shame and loneliness haunted him for the rest of his life and was the reason, at least partially, for his many depressive and nervous episodes for which he was hospitalized. He was married for many years, and although they remained married, the couple’s relationship was troubled and they spent quite a bit of time living apart. It is fitting that Saba writes Ernesto in the last few years in his life as part of his therapy in the sanatorium. But it appears that so many years of shame and hiding who he truly was became too exhausting for the author because he can’t gather enough strength to finish writing Ernesto. Saba writes about his decision to leave his novella unfinished: “Add to those pages Ernesto’s breakthrough to his true calling, and you would, in fact, have the complete story of his adolescence. Unfortunately, the author is too old, too weary and embittered to summon the strength to write all that.”

Even though Saba’s text is incomplete, he gives us enough of a glimpse into pivotal events in the life of Ernesto to make his novella an important, historical piece of gay and bisexual literature. It also helps us better understand Saba’s poetry which writing is equally as personal and intense as Ernesto. To this end, I include a particularly apt final poem of Saba’s called “To the Reader” filled with all the conflict and terror that Saba perhaps felt in composing Ernesto:

This book, Good Reader, though a balm to you,
shames its creator and should go unread.
Although he spoke as a living man, he was
(or should have been, for decency’s sake) dead.

 

(This review first appeared in the July issue of Numero Cinq.)

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Fato Profugus: Teffi’s Memories—From Moscow to The Black Sea

As I was reading Teffi’s memoir about her katabasis from Russia to Constantinople during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, two words from Vergil’s Aeneid kept coming to mind: fato and profugus .   After barely escaping from the burning and destruction of Troy, Aeneas is profugus–“exiled”, “driven forward”, he is essentially a fugitive or a refugee.  The fate of his sea voyage and his various landings are the result of fatum, “fate” driving him along from one place to the next; he rarely, if ever, chooses his next destination.  Like Aeneas, Teffi is a refugee and much of her flight from her motherland is a result of fate and circumstance.  At one particularly dramatic part of her journey in Odessa she reflects, “And then there I was, rolling down the map.  Fate had pushed me on, forcing me wherever it chose, right to the very edge of the sea.  Now, if it so wished, it could force me right into the sea—or it could push me along the coast.  In the end, wasn’t it all the same?”

Teffi’s journey begins in Moscow when an impresario named Gooskin approaches her and convinces her to do a series of readings in Odessa: “My Petersburg life has been liquidated.  The Russian Word has been closed down.  There is, it seems, no possibility of anything.  Or rather, there is one possibility; it appears, day after day, in the shape of a squint-eyed Odessa impresario by the name of Goodskin, who is trying to persuade me to go with him to Kiev and Odessa and give public readings there.”   There are many scenes throughout the narrative, similar to this opening paragraph, in which Teffi allows herself to be swept up and carried along the waves of fate and hordes of people and luggage from one city to the next.

The tone of Teffi’s narrative reminded me of Lenora Carrington’s memoir Down Below;  in both memoirs there is strange calm, almost an indifference that pervades the texts.  But I would argue that each woman, writing her memoir in hindsight, is attempting to relate the most harrowing and traumatic experiences they have ever experienced and the only way to revisit such horror is to do it with as little emotion as possible. Both of these narratives also seem to be cathartic farewells for these women: Carrington bids goodbye to her mental illness and her relationship with Max Ernst while Teffi is paying a final adieu to her beloved Russia.

Teffi’s Memories were originally written and published as serials in the Russian language newspaper Vozrozhdenie  between 1928 and 1930.  At that point Teffi had been in exile for ten years and was able to tell her story of chaos, violence and destruction caused by the Bolsheviks as they take over one city after another with a certain amount of detached calm.  The human spirit can only take so much suffering and Teffi gives us a glimpse into her mindset as she escapes one dangerous situation after another.  When she is left almost alone in a desolate hotel in Odessa, unsure of how she will escape that city she writes:

My future was a matter of complete indifference to me.  I felt neither anxiety nor fear.  In any case there was nothing I could do.  In my mind I retraced my strange journey from Moscow, always south, always further south, and always without any deliberate choice.  In the form of Gooskin, the hand of fate had appeared.  It had pushed me on my way.

As  Teffi  narrowly escapes invading forces while making her way south from Kiev to Odessa to Novorossiisk,  she describes her experiences with cramped train journeys, cold and uncomfortable living quarters, food shortages and outbreaks of  Spanish influenza and typhus.  Teffi’s humor and strong spirit, however, prevent the tone of this memoir from becoming horrendously bleak.  As she leaves Odessa she runs into a beauty salon full of women who don’t want to go into exile without getting their hair done; in Novorossiisk she meets a woman who is so proud of her newly made dress that is fashioned completely out of medical gauze.

In addition to her humor and her resilent spirit, there are certain objects that Teffi carries along with her that give her comfort as a refugee.  Her guitar, her religious artifacts and her sealskin coat are dragged along with her from city to city.  One of the most poignant stories in the book was about her sealskin coat that she wraps around her for warmth while traveling by train and she makes us understand that those coats represented the entire, prolonged journey of Russian refugees:

Were there any of us who did not have a sealskin coat?  We put these coats on as we first set out, even if this was in summer, because we couldn’t bear to leave them behind—such a coat was both warm and valuable and none of us knew how long our wanderings would last.  I saw sealskin coats in Kiev and in Odessa, still looking new, their fur all smooth and glossy.  Then in Novorossiisk, worn thin around the edges and with bald patches down the sides and on the elbows.  In Constantinople—with grubby collars and cuffs folded back in shame.  And, last of all, in Paris, from 1920 until 1922.  By 1920 the fur had worn away completely, right down to the shiny black leather.  The coat had been shortened to the knee and the collar and cuffs were now made from some new kind of fur, something blacker and oilier—a foreign substitute.  In 1924 these coats disappeared.  All that remained was odds and ends, torn scraps of memories, bits of trimming sewn onto the cuffs, collars, and hems of ordinary woolen coats.  Nothing more.  And now, in 1925, the timid, gentle seal was obliterated by invading hordes of dyed cats.  But even now when I see a sealskin coat, I remember this epoch in our lives as refugees.

Teffi’s memoir is timely because it reminds us that the many refugees we see on a daily basis in the media are suffering hardships that we couldn’t begin to otherwise imagine.  What objects do these refugees, who are also exiled by fate, carry along with them?  As these refugees are forced to live in camps and not welcomed by other nations we should ask ourselves what would have happened if Teffi didn’t have a place like Paris to welcome her and give her a new home?

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Review: Blindness by Henry Green

Blindness is the first of Henry Green’s nine novels and has elements of autobiography woven into the character sketch of seventeen-year-old John Hayes, a student attending British public school in the early twentieth century.  The first part of Blindness is written as a series of diary entries by John who is attending Noat, a school that closely resembles Green’s alma mater, Eaton.  John’s diaries are filled with entries about his keen interest in writing, stories of his silly friends, anecdotes about public school life and the various duties of his important role as the secretary of the Noat art society.  During one of his trips home, John is injured in a horrendous, freak accident and he is permanently blinded.  Forced to leave school and live at Barwood with his stepmother and old Nanny, John’s carefree life comes to a dramatic end.  In Green’s unique presentation of a Bildungsroman, young John must reexamine the world through the use of his other senses and learn to deal with his new version of reality as he moves forward with his life.

Green’s use of  diary entries for part one of his book, the single chapter of which is aptly called “Laugh,”  is a subtle way of showing us the humor and quirks of John’s easy existence but without turning his protagonist into a ridiculous caricature of a British school boy.   John’s entry for October 1 reads:

Brown, a friend of mine, has hit Billing, who keeps the food shop where you get rat poison, in the stomach so that he crumpled up behind the counter: the best thing that has happened for years.

Billing had apparently hit Brown previously, and had sent him to the Headmaster for being rude, and he, instead of backing Billing up, had asked Brown why he had not hit back: so when Billing hit Rockfeller today, Rockfeller being with Brown was rude to Billing, who attacked Brown, who laid Billing out.  Meanwhile Brown has gone to his House master to ask that Billing’s shop may be put out of bounds, and Billing presumably is going to the Headmaster.  There will be a fine flare-up.

John’s diary is replete with these seemingly mundane stories that Green’s writing style manages to make witty and charming.   John takes his role as secretary of the Noat art society very seriously and is oftentimes stressed out because of the various shows and lectures the he helps to organize.  Social ostracism, wearing the right clothes and hats, thoughts on his favorite books and his interest in a writing career are topics that fill up the pages of this entertaining diary.  We also get a glimpse of John’s fussy stepmother who is consumed with running her household, fighting with the Town Council and making certain that everyone in the village is behaving properly.  John thinks that she doesn’t really understand him on any kind of a deep level, but he acknowledges that she is a concerned and loving mother figure to him.

Although the rest of the book is not written in diary form, Green continues to narrate the actions through the intimate thoughts of various characters.  Green’s strength as an author begins in this first book with his ability to allow his audience to experience the events and images of the book right alongside with his characters.  For example, we learn through her rambling thoughts that Nanny has raised John since he was born and that she is completely distraught over the accident; Mamma is concerned that John will never have anything to do with his life and will be in danger of staying a bachelor.  Mamma dearly misses her husband, John’s father, whom she is certain would have know the right courses of action to deal with this tragedy.

Parts two and three have a marked change of tone from the humorous to the more serious.  But Green manages to do this without turning the story into a banal tragedy.  What ties the three parts of this book together is John’s optimism even when he can no longer see.  As he learns that there is no chance that he will ever have his vision back, he absorbs this bad news with a stoicism that developed in him while he was a student at Noat.  He tries to console his mother and his nanny who seem much more distraught at the news of his blindness than John himself.  While he is getting used to the darkness that has permanently set in we see the first glimpses of his optimism:

But he was blind, everyone would be sorry for him, everyone would try to help him, and everyone would be at his beck and call; it was very nice, it was comfortable.  He would take full advantage, after all he deserved it in a conscience.  He would enjoy life.  Why not?  But he was blind.

Another strength of Green’s writing that shines through in Blindness is his ability to describe in great detail images that beautifully capture the splendor of the English countryside.  Green weaves these different images throughout his story so that they are fitting for John’s metamorphosis from Caterpillar, to Chrysalis, to Butterfly, as the three parts of the novel are fittingly named.  When John is first blinded he is still trying to experience the beauty of Barwood estate through memories of vision.  Green writes:

So much of life had been made up of seeing things.  The country he had always looked to for something.  He had seen so much in line, so much in colour, so much in everything he had seen.  And he had noticed more than anyone else, of course he had.

But when he had seen, how much it had meant.  Everything was abstract now personality had gone.  Flashs came back of things seen and remembered, but they were not clear-cut.  Little bits in a wood, a pool in a hedge with red flowers everywhere, a red-coated man in the distance on a white horse galloping, the sea with violet patches over grey where the seaweed stained it, silver where the sun rays met it.  A gull coming up from beneath a cliff.  There was a certain comfort in remembering.

As John adjusts to his new world, Green shifts his imagery in the final part of the book from an emphasis on the visual to the aural and the tangible:

He was in the summer house.  Light rain crackled as it fell on the wooden roof, and winds swept up, one after the other, to rustle the trees.  A pigeon hurried rather through his phrase that was no longer now a call.  Cries of rooks came down tohim from where they would be floating, whirling in the air like dead leaves, over the lawn.  The winds kept coming back, growing out of each other and when a stronger one had gone by there would be left cool eddies slipping by his cheek, while a tree further on would thunder softly.

John’s newfound outlook on life coincides with a bizarre relationship he has with a woman named Joan who lives in a dilapidated cottage with her drunken father.  Green’s insertion of this storyline and character has a mixed success in the overall narrative structure of the story.  There is a long interlude at the end of part two that describes Joan and her miserable life with her father who was once the village parson but has been ostracized because of his alcoholism and the rumors that he deceased wife was cheating on him.  The abrupt change from John and his family’s perspective to Joan and her father seemed out of place especially since her story was given no real ending by Green.  At best Joan serves as a catalyst for John to explore the world through other senses as he and Joan take long walks in the woods together.  But it is evident that their different social classes and upbringing is too much of an obstacle for them to have any long-term commitment to one another.

The Joan episode is not completely devoid of its merits within the framework of the book, however.  Green could have been easily turned their story into the cliché blind-rich-boy meets and marries poor-downtrodden-scared girl who live happily ever after.  Even in his first novel Green writes an unexpected ending;  John’s optimism wins over and an unlikely character, who isn’t Joan, helps him embrace a new life and become the adventurous, independent butterfly he is meant to be.

About the Author:
Henry Green was the nom de plume of Henry Vincent Yorke.  Green was born near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, into an educated family with successful business interests. His father Vincent Wodehouse Yorke, the son of John Reginald Yorke and Sophia Matilda de Tuyll de Serooskerken, was a wealthy landowner and industrialist in Birmingham. His mother, Hon. Maud Evelyn Wyndham, was daughter of the second Baron Leconfield. Green grew up in Gloucestershire and attended Eton College, where he became friends with fellow pupil Anthony Powell and wrote most of his first novel, Blindness. He studied at Oxford University and there began a friendship and literary rivalry with Evelyn Waugh.

Green left Oxford in 1926 without taking a degree and returned to Birmingham to engage in his family business. He started by working with the ordinary workers on the factory floor of his family’s factory, which produced beer-bottling machines, and later became the managing director. During this time he gained the experience to write Living, his second novel, which he worked on during 1927 and 1928. In 1929, he married his second cousin, the Hon. Adelaide Biddulph, also known as ‘Dig’. They were both great-grandchildren of the 1st Baron Leconfield. Their son Sebastian was born in 1934. In 1940, Green published Pack My Bag, which he regarded as a nearly-accurate autobiography. During World War II Green served as a fireman in the Auxiliary Fire Service and these wartime experiences are echoed in his novel Caught; they were also a strong influence on his subsequent novel, Back.

Green’s last published novel was Doting (1952); this was the end of his writing career. In his later years, until his death in 1973, he became increasingly focused on studies of the Ottoman Empire, and became alcoholic and reclusive. Politically, Green was a traditional Tory throughout his life.

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