Sunday, October 19, 2008

The forest for the trees: Oliver Stone's W.

Oliver Stone’s W. is like a big, delicious cake, ruined by the baker’s haste: the door to the oven has been opened too soon, and the air has rushed out of the middle, and while the ingredients are excellent and it smells good and looks good and even might still taste good, it’s flat.

I went to this film with some reservations. I have utter disdain for George W. Bush but also utter disdain for Oliver Stone. So, in a sense, I was at cross-purposes with myself: My dislike for Bush made me want to like the film, but my dislike for Stone made me convinced that I probably wouldn’t. I haven’t liked a single Stone film in the past 22 years. Platoon is not the greatest Vietnam War film ever made—Apocalypse Now is, with Full Metal Jacket a close second; Wall Street, with its “greed is good” ethos might merit a second look at this particular moment in history, when everything is crumbing around us; Born on the Fourth of July features a fine performance by Tom Cruise, and little else; Natural Born Killers was loathsome on just about every level; Alexander—unwatchable. I don’t mind being tapped on the shoulder; I do mind being bludgeoned with a sledgehammer, and I emerge from every Stone film feeling assaulted and battered. Many would say that there’s something to be said for this, that Stone is utilizing cinema to its fullest, but I’ve long been an admirer of subtlety over force. Stone’s work has always felt bombastic. But I confess that it was exactly this that intrigued me about W. I was working off the assumption that Stone and I would be on the same page this time—in the past, even when I’ve agreed with Stone’s politics, I found the films tiresome—and thus, I thought that this might be the first Stone film where his histrionics would, for once, fit the subject matter. I was mistaken.

W. roughly covers the years 1966 to 2004, and follows George W. Bush—brilliantly played by an unrecognizable Josh Brolin—from his booze-soaked frat-boy days at Yale, through a series of failed business ventures on Poppy’s dime to an eventual bid for the governorship of Texas, a bid—if the film is to be believed—that is strongly opposed by Bush the First (James Cromwell) and Barbara (an incredibly bitchy and bitter Ellen Burstyn), who complain that the simultaneous bid of brother Jeb in Florida would mean exhausting cross-country campaigning. Both W. and the audience know that Poppy and Barbara both feel that W. would never win, and would fail in this, as he’d failed in everything else. This is the center of W.: what you would think would be predominantly a political drama becomes, instead, the story of a son trying to escape his father’s shadow and to live up to the glorious family name. Had this been only one strand of the film’s plot, the movie might have worked. But James Cromwell, an actor I normally admire, makes an unconvincing George H. W. Bush. Not only does he look nothing like the former president, but he makes no attempt to duplicate the voice, the accent, the mannerisms. The real Bush was known to smile on occasion; Cromwell spends the film glowering and shaking his head in disapproval at his son’s antics. When W. supposedly impregnates a girl named Susie and tells his father, “I used a condom. I’m not dumb,” the look of disdain on Cromwell’s face is harsh—I almost felt sorry for W. Almost.

Brolin, on the other hand, turns in a superb performance. It’s an utter transformation. I kept looking for Brolin the actor, and found him nowhere. He nails Bush’s swagger, his voice, and especially his laugh. The aging process, however, is odd: in a scene depicting W.’s 40th birthday, one character comments that Bush doesn’t look a day over 30, when in fact he looks craggy and middle-aged, despite his still-dark hair; in contrast, Bush-in-office, silvery-gray, looks positively spritely. Brolin is at his best when playing Bush in his presidency, particularly in scenes which duplicate public speeches—one assumes this is because the actual footage existed for Brolin to study. Brolin is in nearly every scene in the film, and its success or failure rests on his beefy shoulders. To his credit, he carries the weight admirably—the film has many flaws, but they are not Brolin’s, they are Stone’s.

The other cast members fare differently. The excellent Jeffrey Wright plays Colin Powell, and he does so much good acting, invests the very staid Powell with so much life that the performance actually rang false for this reason. Richard Dreyfuss is unnerving as Dick Cheney, and plays the film’s single most effective moment: in a briefing, Bush and his cronies discuss the proposed invasion of Iraq, and when asked about an exit strategy, Cheney intones, “There is no exit.” It’s at this moment, and for this moment only, that the film comes completely alive, and you see what the movie might have been, had Stone decided to focus on politics instead of the Freudian-lite analysis of the Bush family behind-the-curtain. Scott Glenn looks nothing like Donald Rumsfeld, and is something of a non-presence in the film; Toby Jones, lately of Infamous, where he played Truman Capote, is excellent as Karl Rove, always in the shadows, working his plots; Elizabeth Banks makes a convincing Laura Bush, proving far more interesting than her boring real-life counterpart. Only the normally-good Thandie Newton devolves into pure cartoon: while she looks a great deal like Condoleezza Rice, her performance consists solely of a few grating lines delivered in a voice more nasal and irritating that Rice’s own; there’s even a weird moment where she and W. brush hands briefly while exchanging some papers—a nod to the backstage rumors, perhaps?

What bothers me most about W. is not that it doesn’t bash Bush. That would be far too easy in this current political climate, and much as I’ve deplored his presidency I don’t think I would have been satisfied with a film that merely made him look stupid. (And don’t be deceived by the ads running on television for the film at the moment, which make it look like a comedy, complete with the Talking Heads singing “Once in a Lifetime”—the film is nothing like that.) I understand that the film is an attempt to understand this much-maligned figure, but the film’s interpretation of Bush’s character seems simplistic in the extreme: the man’s an incompetent buffoon who’s only trying to please his daddy. What’s most striking is that Stone can’t seem to make up his mind as to what the film’s intent is. Is Bush a fool or really a good president who has been misunderstood, and who has had the cards stacked against him? It seems clear that if you think Bush is an idiot, the film will reinforce that; but it’s also clear that if you think he’s a good and decent man, the film will reinforce that too. Stone was on Larry King a week or so ago, and was talking about whether or not the film might affect the current presidential race between McCain and Obama. Now having seen the film, I’m bewildered by Stone’s remark—how could this film do anything but reinforce what you already think about Bush? Given the film’s release date, mere weeks before the election, I would assume that someone—Stone or the producers or the production company or the studio—felt that not only would it make more bucks at the moment, but that it might effect some change. I’d be interested to hear whether or not this film changed anyone’s mind about anything—it plays it safe, and I actually found myself yearning for Stone the bulldog, taking everyone and everything to task.

Stone’s other two films about American presidents, Nixon and JFK, had the advantage of being made long after the events in question. I might be wrong about this, but W. would seem to be the only film about a president to be released during its subject’s term in office. Manohla Dargis, in the New York Times, believes that perhaps we’re just still too close to this subject matter at the moment—a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Stone would have done better, perhaps, to have made this film ten years from now, where we might have had a bit of perspective, and W. himself would have long since lapsed into old age in Crawford, and we might have been better able to reassess these odd, tumultuous, damaging, turbulent eight years. Whatever the case, W. finds Oliver Stone in a restrained mode—and I, for one, never once thought I’d be able to write “restrained” and “Oliver Stone” in the same sentence.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Aspects of Virginia: VIRGINIA WOOLF by E. M. Forster

I recently found at Half Price Books a first edition (with the dust jacket) of E. M. Forster's slim volume Virginia Woolf, which was originally delivered as the Rede Lecture at Cambridge on 29 May 1941, a mere two months after Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse in Sussex. I'd read the essay some years ago, when I first got interested in Woolf and before I'd read all of her novels. Now that I know more (and now that I'm more opinionated about her), I decided it was time to revisit the essay, but thought that at $50.00, Half Price was asking too much for this particular copy. Showing remarkable and rare self-restraint, I waited, and last week the price dropped to $25.00--and they'd removed it from the locked glass case and tossed it among the other books. Armed with an additional 15% off in the form of a coupon, I marched to the counter.

Forster and Woolf had been friends since about 1910, but their friendship was an odd one. When they met, Forster had already published four novels (Where Angels Fear to Tread [1905], The Longest Journey [1907], A Room with a View [1908], and Howards End [1910]) and was considered one of the best and most promising writers of his generation; Woolf was still writing her first novel. While Woolf liked him a great deal, she found him, as Hermione Lee notes, "as timid as a mouse," "erratic, irregular," "a pale blue butterfly." Her diary is full of encounters with him, episodes that are always rather awkward and truncated--she bumps into him at the British Library, and "[w]e shook hands very cordially; and yet I always feel him shrinking sensitively from me, as a woman, a clever woman, an up to date woman." Lee states that "they had circled warily around each other all their lives." There has been a great deal of critical discussion about the fact that her break with the prevailing form of the novel was as much a break with Forster as with anyone else. While he was not in any direct sense her mentor--she never showed him manuscripts or asked for his advice, as she did with her brother-in-law Clive Bell while she was writing The Voyage Out (1915)--nevertheless his influence can be seen in her early work. The Voyage Out owes much, in its depiction of comic English people abroad, to the collection of characters in the Pensione Bertolini in Florence in A Room with a View; the social questions raised by Night and Day (1919) echo those of Howards End. But here the similarities end. E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf were as different from one another--as the British say--as chalk and cheese. And it is perhaps knowledge of these differences that is at the heart of Forster's curious little lecture on his friend.

Forster's most striking assertion, and the one with which I have the most trouble, is that "her problem" is that "she is a poet, who wants to write something as near to a novel as possible." There is a measure of truth to that. The thing that gives many readers (including some of my students) fits when they read Woolf is the loose, drifting nature of the material, the "poetic" flow of words. But I would argue that with the possible exception of The Waves (1931), which is more a prose poem than a novel, Woolf consciously wrote fiction rather than poetry, and was compelled by narrative--it just wasn't the kind of narrative that readers were used to. My problem with Forster's argument is that it is essentially a rehash of that made by Arnold Bennett in the 1920s, the one that inspired Woolf's famous retort in the form of the essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1924), which is that Woolf does not create characters who live and breathe, who linger in the reader's mind after the book is closed. For me, Clarissa Dalloway is as real a character as any ever written, as are Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, as is Orlando, for all of his/her improbability. Both Forster and Bennett object to Woolf's work largely because it doesn't resemble their own. And while I revere Forster deeply, he is unable--as are most of us--to see his own flaws. Forster was a gay man who understood little about male-female relations, and thus most of the love affairs in his work ring a bit false. I've always felt that the reason Charlotte Bartlett interrupts Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson in the field in A Room with a View and prevents things from getting hot and heavy is because Forster himself didn't know what the hell Lucy and George might physically do with each other should things be allowed to proceed. (It would take the 1986 Merchant-Ivory film version to inject some actual heat into this romance, embodied as it is by the gorgeous Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands.) I suppose I just find Forster's argument to be twenty years out of date by the time of his lecture, and might have hoped for something a bit more penetrating from the man who wrote Aspects of the Novel. Also, one could point out that Forster's last novel, A Passage to India, was published in 1924; he lived until 1970. Whatever Woolf's faults, I'm pleased by her productivity, by the fact that she did a remarkable amount of work despite various difficulties, and never allowed herself to be stymied.

Forster also misses the mark when he declares that Woolf had no concern for the threat to civilization posed by fascism and war. This is a gross misreading of her most misunderstood book, Three Guineas (1938), one of the most scathing indictments of war and fascism ever written. Forster reduces this book to its feminist elements, with which he has little sympathy; he says that he sees "spots" of feminism all over her work, as though these spots are symptoms of some embarrassing disease. In his defense, Forster could not have known how eloquently Woolf wrote about the horrors of war and fascism in her diary and letters just before her death, but I'm still bewildered that he could miss the ominous shadow of the war in a book that he otherwise praises, Between the Acts (1941). Is it that men--then and still--don't think that women can understand something as big and far-reaching as war, which Woolf herself once called "a preposterous masculine fiction"?

But here I am isolating out Forster's complaints about Woolf. The bulk of his lecture is about her gifts and strengths--her way with words, her delight in sensual details like food (he goes so far as to say that "when Virginia Woolf mentions nice things they get right into our mouths, so far as the edibility of print permits"), the fact that she liked writing and did it for the pure joy of doing it. And while he may have had issues with her work, his stance is ultimately generous. Theirs was a unique friendship, and a rather ambivalent one. Woolf was competitive by nature, and she was never wholly at her ease with other writers. (Her relationship was Katherine Mansfield was even more problematic than that with Forster.) With people in the visual arts, like her sister Vanessa Bell, she was more comfortable--they were not a threat. I get the sense that Forster may have thought of Woolf in the same way. Nevertheless, he is able to write, "Virginia Woolf got through an immense amount of work, she gave acute pleasure in new ways, she pushed the light of the English language a little further against darkness."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Leonard and Virginia in motion: A BOY AT THE HOGARTH PRESS, by Richard Kennedy

I would guess that any reader who has spent a significant period of time studying the life and work of Virginia Woolf must have his or her own "version" of her. In my mind, I have an idea of how she stood, how she walked, the way she moved her head, all culled from photographs and from the many anecdotes and reminiscences I've read about her over the last ten years. There is no film footage of her in motion, and only one surviving recording of her voice, reading an essay called "Craftsmanship" on the BBC in the 1930s: her voice sounds upper-crust, snooty, nineteenth-century, not a bit, in other words, like the fiercely modern voice in her books. While the photographic record is large, it is all those of us who are in love with Woolf (and there is no other phrase which comes close to describing how I feel about her) have in order to create a moving, living portrait in the brain. Thus, each of us must have a personal Woolf, and would probably willingly argue with others about her qualities: "She would never say that!" Or, "She wouldn't wear that kind of dress." This goes a long way towards explaining the problems so many Woolf scholars had with Nicole Kidman's portrayal of Woolf in The Hours--she was simply not their Woolf (nor was she mine, exactly), and so both the performance and the film were dismissed out of hand.

I've seen dozens of interviews with living writers like Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood, and thus I have some sense of them (however misguided) as people. I can read their books and hear their physical voices in my head; I can see the way they laugh and move. But with Woolf--and indeed with any writer who predates motion pictures--my sense of her exists, for the most part, solely on the page. Perhaps that's where writers should exist most--Lessing certainly thinks so, when she bemoans the interviews and publicity that contemporary publishing demands. The lack of a solid image of Woolf, a voice that can talk in your brain, makes the occasional firsthand account of her all the more valuable. Levenger, the Florida-based company that sells wildly expensive fountain pens, briefcases, stationery, and other "tools for serious readers," recently republished Richard Kennedy's slim 1972 memoir A Boy at the Hogarth Press. As I've been revisiting my dissertation on Woolf's diary in order to expand it into a book, I felt that rereading Kennedy's book was in order, so that I could regain that imaginative grasp of Woolf herself that had begun to elude me in these last months of a very hectic college term.

Kennedy arrived to work at the Hogarth Press, located in the basement of the Woolf's house at 52, Tavistock Square, in 1928, at the age of sixteen, through the auspices of his uncle George, a friend of Leonard Woolf's. At first, he was given odd jobs, but gradually moved up enough in Leonard's esteem (no mean feat!) to begin dealing directly with buyers, "shopping" the books to booksellers in the English hinterlands, etc. A Boy at the Hogarth Press presents itself as a sort of edited diary about his years there, until he leaves after infuriating Leonard by ordering the wrong size of paper for the Uniform Edition of Virginia's novels. In the face of Leonard's wrath, Kennedy quits and enrolls in journalism school, apparently on the sole basis of seeing three attractive young women at University College: "Three pairs of breasts and three laughing faces. They looked so happy and carefree. I thought of that basement prison, and acting on the spur of the moment, I sought out the authorities and learnt that there was a course in journalism starting in the autumn." Despite Kennedy's frequent depictions of Leonard's intolerance and miserliness (he complains about having to shell out money for toilet paper for the office), he maintains that Leonard was in fact a surrogate father for him, and that he learned a great deal in his tenure at the Press.

What is perhaps best about A Boy at the Hogarth Press, at least to my Virginia-obsessed eye, is the light it sheds on Virginia Woolf herself. I've read every biography of Woolf, and am therefore used to having her center-stage. It is always something of a shock to read a biography of one of her relatives or her acquaintances, and see her ambling in from--as Michael Cunningham would put it--her own story. One of things I like most about Frances Spalding's excellent biography of Virginia's sister Vanessa Bell is that Virginia herself is a peripheral figure, and being on the periphery somehow, oddly, makes her come into sharper focus for me. The same is true in Kennedy's memoir. Virginia is glimpsed writing in the back storage room at the Press, setting type, opening packages, and performing other mundane, Press-related activities. During a Bloomsbury evening she is observed in a the corner knitting, "a new occupation for her." One morning she is in a good mood because she spent the previous evening out at a nightclub, and describes "how marvellous it was inventing new foxtrot steps," to Leonard's apparent disapproval. She rolls foul-smelling shag cigarettes that very nearly choke an American lady. Virginia is always "Mrs W" in Kennedy's memoir; she usually calls him "Mr Kennedy." Kennedy appears to have regarded her with a certain degree of awe: by this point she had written Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and during Kennedy's tenure there she published Orlando, which was a huge success--Kennedy remarks frequently about their inability to keep the book in stock. We revere Virginia Woolf for her writing, for what she did alone in a room with pen and paper, and naturally many biographies (most notably Julia Briggs' recent Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life) focus on her intellectual and creative life, despite her immersion in the Bloomsbury Group, whose sexcapades have, on the flip side, received an enormous amount of attention. In Kennedy's memoir, it is precisely his record of her attention to the minutiae of the Press that brings her into sharper focus.

Adding to the appeal of Kennedy's book are his own incredible drawings of Leonard, Virginia, and the other characters who drifted in and out of the Press offices. Virginia never allowed herself to be photographed with her glasses on, and Kennedy's drawings of her, bespectacled, typing and smoking, convey the essence of the woman perhaps better than any photograph. Kennedy became quite well known as an illustrator in later years, and his skill at evoking character and personality through a few mere strokes of pen and ink is stunning. These images, converted in my mind into flesh and blood, add immeasurably to my understanding of how Virginia Woolf simply inhabited a room--an understanding that will undoubtedly help guide my continued work on her diary.

If you're interested in Kennedy's book, you needn't buy Levenger's fancy edition (though it is gorgeous)--Penguin published a mass-market paperback edition, including all of the illustrations, some years back. It is currently out of print, but is available used.

As I get more immersed in my own Woolf project, you can expect more postings on books related to her life and work. I am nothing if not single-minded.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The connection between sex and money: Lizzie Borden's WORKING GIRLS

Perhaps it was the unending coverage of Eliot Spitzer's recent hooker shenanigans that reminded me of Lizzie Borden's 1986 film Working Girls. I must have seen this for the first time in the late 1980s, when I was working in a video store and could rent any title for free. I avoided this one for a long time, as I thought that a film about female prostitutes wouldn't particularly appeal to me; this was also just before hookers became Disneyfied in the form of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. But when I finally saw it, I was mesmerized. It has stayed in my mind since, though I did not actually see it again until last night. It had been teased back into my consciousness by a CNN news story about the world of high-class prostitutes in New York, and I began searching for a copy. The DVD is currently out of print, and goes for large sums on eBay; there was however a VHS copy available for $5.00, and this was what I watched last night. I'm happy to report that not only does the film hold up, but it's probably even better in 2008 than it was in 1986.

Working Girls covers one day, late morning to evening, in a fairly upper-class New York City brothel, and is told largely through the eyes of Molly (played by the excellent Louise Smith), a Yale-educated lesbian whose African-American lover (who has a young daughter) doesn't know what she's doing for a living. Molly rides her bike through the streets of Manhattan after a cozy and domestic breakfast with her girlfriend and the child, and after parking her bike in one of the brothel's rooms, dons a slinky but not slutty blue dress, applies makeup, and readies herself for the day's work. She interrupts her colleague Gina (Marusia Zach) inserting a diaphragm; when asked why she doesn't simply use a sponge or the pill, Gina replies, "I'm not screwing up my hormones for two shifts a week." The work in question is depicted in a routine, definitely un-erotic fashion: the men who pay for Molly's services are catalogues of ticks and fetishes and fantasies. One insists that Molly pretend to be blind so that he, the "doctor," can cure her condition by taking her "virginity." Another likes fairly standard bondage, while another gives her a wrapped package containing a beige shirt that Molly had admired on him the week before -- he follows this gift by asking if he can see her "on the outside," a request which Molly routinely turns down. The film admirably and somewhat bravely shows men with less-than-perfect bodies -- in other words, normal men -- and women whose breasts are not perky Playboy images, but real breasts: somewhat saggy, somewhat out of shape. The sex scenes sometimes have a startling pathos and poignancy: the men are all rather sad cases, either because they're smarmy and arrogant, or because they're painfully shy, inept, or so locked into their fantasies that they dare not reveal them to anyone they can't pay. Particularly lovely is a moment where Molly coaches a very nervous guy about how to put his arm around his new girlfriend, how to kiss her, and how to know whether or not the time is right for sex. "What if she wants to have sex with me?" the man asks plaintively, and Molly's kind and compassionate response highlights more than any other moment in the film the skill with which a prostitute makes her customers feel important -- I truly can't tell whether Molly actually likes this man or if it's part of the act.

Far more interesting than the sex is what goes on between the sex. The brothel's main room could be just another office: the girls have lunch, gossip, make fun of Lucy, their horrid boss (played with delirious bitchiness by Ellen McElduff), compare notes on the various "RGs" (regulars), talk about what their lives might have been and still could be. One of the girls is a college student, who has to leave her shift early, this being Thursday -- she has a night class. The film's feminist slant -- the women are all strong in their own ways and have a competence and control in their work that is remarkably out of keeping with the image of prostitution as a slipshod and scattered profession -- was probably something of a novelty for the mid-1980s, a time I remember of appalling backward conservatism. Working Girls is a time capsule in another sense: in a scene that is chilling in hindsight, a john refuses to wear a condom, and Gina informs him that this is okay, but that it will cost him extra -- those were the early days, when AIDS was still a "gay disease." But the true glory of the film is the way in which the mundane routines -- again, this could be your standard office, and just as boring for its workers -- are laid bare for the viewer: the procedures involving the phone, appointments (particularly whether or not the john is a "one" -- one hour -- or a "half"; he can "go" twice in a "one"), showers, towels, and the exchange of money. The girls are instructed to make sure that the customer is "completely comfortable": in other words, naked, so that they'll know he's not a cop. Borden, who wrote the story and the screenplay, introduces a new employee, Mary (Helen Nicholas), so that Molly can show her around the house and teach her the ropes. There's the standard pocketing of a little extra cash on the side, the standard faking of appointment lengths in the ledger, the standard smoking of pot when the boss lady's gone. Lucy, the madam, appears midway through the film and again at the end, and is a gaudy tyrant and former prostitute herself, who is now the mistress of one of her own RGs (all of the other women in the house have slept with him too, declaring him "easy" to work with) and who yammers on incessantly about the panties she purchased that day, the ski trip she's taking to Gstaad, and, above all, "class" and how the other girls don't have it -- all before getting taken out to be screwed by her former john at the Plaza Hotel. It's reassuring to know that even a female pimp leaves something to be desired.

The film is very low-budget, and sounds as though it was looped in its entirety. But I find something very appealing in that mid-80s film stock in low-budget pictures -- most 80s films feel too slick for my taste, and Working Girls has a tactile feel to it, a texture. It reminds me of the long conversations with my friend Brad in which we would wax rhapsodic about the glories of the graininess of 1970s film stock. Only a few films from the 80s have this feel: Working Girls is one; Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances and Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette are others. For want of a better phrase, this graininess, this texture, gives the viewer something to gnaw on, or something to cling to -- you could slip and slide easily on most of the glitzy films of the decade. I'd actually hate to see Working Girls remastered, for the visual texture matches the subject matter.

Some might find the ending of Working Girls a bit predictable, but it gives the film a nice circular shape, and reinforces the film's latent feminist intent, which is to show that these women are not stupid, not disease-ridden, not perverse. They have fallen into a profession that none of them can claim to enjoy, but one that they stay in from what might best be called a sense of inertia. "The two things I love most in life are sex and money," says Lucy, in a rare moment of honesty. "I just never knew until much later they were connected." Working Girls is probably the only film I've seen that explores that connection in a witty, sad, poignant, smart, raw, unglamorized, and surprisingly honest way.

Monday, March 17, 2008

If absurdity could kill: ANTICHRISTA, by Amélie Nothomb

Amélie Nothomb is a writer of Belgian origin, raised in Japan, and currently living -- I believe -- in Paris. I was introduced to her work by my friend Valerio, who has read all of her books in Italian; only a select few have been translated into English, the most famous of which, Fear and Trembling, was, I believe, once recommended by Oprah, either on the air or in her magazine, and was also made into a film. Nothomb's style might best be described as minimalist, if we used that term anymore. Her novels tend to be brief, pared down, sharp, clear, and focused. Having ingested a steady diet of Doris Lessing of late, who is the polar opposite, stylistically, from Nothomb, Antichrista was something of a shock in the swiftness of its narrative and in the corresponding sharpness of its insights. This is a book on which you can cut yourself.

Antichrista tells the story of Blanche, an aptly named sixteen year old political science student in Brussels who, until the novel begins, has been moderately content with the fact that she has no friends. While she occasionally longs for one in an abstract way, she is actually quite happy to lie in her room, either looking out the window or reading voraciously. When she meets the beautiful and charismatic Christa, also sixteen, also a student, she doesn't think for a moment that this girl could possibly find her interesting. Nevertheless, the two become 'friends' (and when you read the book you'll immediately understand the need for the inverted commas), with Christa insinuating herself into Blanche's home, Blanche's family, even Blanche's bed -- which is not nearly as kinky as I've made it sound: Blanche takes a folding cot while Christa takes the bed. Soon she has Blanche's parents eating out of her hand, and has made Blanche seem even more the wallflower in their eyes. She introduces Blanche to the world of student parties, where Blanche has her first "snog," only to have the prospect of anything further cut off by Christa herself, who at that moment insists on going home. All the while Blanche questions herself obsessively about her need for this girl whose cruelty increases exponentially. Blanche eventually has enough, and decides to rid herself and her parents of this intruder, leading to a grimly satisfying but also highly disturbing ending.

What distinguishes Antichrista is Blanche's voice, which seems to be both a combination of that of an exceptionally bright sixteen year old and Nothomb's own. I've seen many reviewers complain that Antichrista isn't quite up to the prose standards of Nothomb's other books, but I disagree -- I feel that she has placed herself squarely in the mind of a smart teenager, and I find the effect actually quite a bit more convincing than the voice in Nothomb's The Character of Rain (published in French as Métaphysique de Tubes), which purports to depict the consciousness of a pre-verbal toddler. There the effect was merely clever; here it is accurate and authentic. Who cannot relate to the joys and horrors of first kisses, and the realization that you are, at last, a sexual being?:

"In a mental notebook, I jotted down litanies of first names: Renaud -- Alain -- Marc -- Pierre -- Thierry -- Didier -- Miguel...That was the edifying list of boys who hadn't noticed that I suffered from a thousand off-putting handicaps. I'm sure that none of them has the slightest memory of me. But if they had any idea what they represented! Each one of them, with his banal and insignificant behaviour, had made me think, in the space of a kiss, that I was possible."

And Blanche remarks that if absurdity could kill, Christa and her parents would have died ages ago -- again, sounds like a convincing sixteen year old to me.

In what might be perceived as a stylistic flaw, Blanche's parents are first depicted as gullible, cruel buffoons who fall for Christa's charms and schemes while hatefully ridiculing their daughter to her face. But by the novel's end, they emerge as more finely drawn human beings, now filtered through Blanche's slightly more evolved consciousness. Some might argue that we never understand Christa's cruel motivations, but I would argue that it's almost impossible to divine the motivations of the young, especially girls. That sounds like a sexist remark, but I don't intend it as one. I mean it with a certain degree of admiration. Boys aren't quite as adept at manipulation, the subtleties of getting others to do what they want. When young boys fight, they often resort to fists or shouting; when girls fight, they often resort to words, to psychology, which, as we all know, are far more damaging than the strongest fists. How often do we truly know the motives of our tormentors? And isn't it just possible that the tormentors often don't know, either? In some ways, Antichrista reminds me of Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, another novel in which the secret lives of young girls are laid painfully bare. As in that novel, Antichrista has a moment in which the lightbulb comes on, the tables are turned, and the tormented becomes the tormentor. What I love about both books is that while one part of me cheers this turn of events, another part of me sinks, for self-knowledge is never all that it's cracked up to be.

Nothomb handles the religious imagery -- and in a book called Antichrista you knew there was bound to be some in there! -- throughout the novel in an extremely deft manner. She doesn't beat the reader over the head, even in the novel's final image, which could easily have become overdone. The whole book has a sense of lightness and swiftness, and at 107 pages, can be consumed in a sitting. It's probably best eaten whole.

"I don't understand why I'm obeying you," Blanche thinks after a particularly humiliating episode with Christa, in which she followed her friend's ever whim. Antichrista captures that drive to belong, that torment, quite beautifully. Mille grazie per la raccomandazione, Valerio -- caro amico mio.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

La bella lingua, and a sad state of affairs

In anticipation of a summer trip, John and I are slowly trying to learn Italian. There are "Learn Italian in Your Car" CDs in my glove compartment; there is Rosetta Stone software on the computer ("So effective it's used by the U.S. State Department"); there are tiny labels affixed to objects throughout the house, telling me that lo specchio is a mirror and il W.C. is a toilet. My colleague Mike, who speaks a number of languages fluently and launches into them like a maestro when you least expect it, believes, quite rightly, that there is nothing like learning a foreign language to teach you the rules of your own. As a teacher of English, I see firsthand, daily, repeatedly, the extent to which native English speakers know so little of the tongue they call their own.

At the moment I am teaching an online grammar course, in which more than half of the students routinely answer more than half of the questions incorrectly. Yesterday, a student thought that "was" was an adjective. Another thought that "but" was a verb. (Perhaps she thought "butt," as in "head-butt"?) Even one of my English majors last week seemed stunned to learn that it's a convention in academic prose to italicize book titles. (She is a senior, by the way.) The college where I teach no longer has a foreign language requirement. It's a sad state of affairs.

One of my dearest friends, Valerio, is Italian, and he is the reason for both the Italian study and the Italian trip. At the risk of embarrassing him, his English is beautiful, and he learned it, he tells me, largely from reading English books and listening to English music. (Enya and Loreena McKennitt have gorgeous lyrics, for those of you non-believers.) We chat twice a week online, and in these chats he is nimble, he is quick. He can crack jokes, he can use puns. He uses punctuation the way one of my favorite professors, Erin McGraw, always said it should be used: like musical notation, telling the reader when to speed up, when to slow down, when to pause, and finally when to rest. Best of all, Valerio asks, when he feels he has made an error, for a correction. (His errors are rare.) When he writes to me, I feel more like a dumb American that at any other point, and I resent my shoddy education. It's too easy to write off Americans' lack of language skills to geography: unless you live in an area with a high percentage of Spanish-speakers, there is no real need to speak a second language in the continental U.S. And yet I feel that this encourages our latent ethnocentricism, as if we need anything else to encourage that. I grew up in Texas, and many of my school friends were Mexican, and I went to their houses and heard their parents' rapid-fire Spanish. Some of it stuck, and still sticks. In high school I took four years of Spanish, and one year of German in graduate school, but I've learned with time that language skills are like muscles: they will atrophy without exercise. Another colleague, Jim, who is in the Psych department and who studies memory, read that one of the best ways to ward off Alzheimer's disease is to learn a language or learn a musical instrument, for these skills utilize parts of the brain that are among the first to go, and it's best to keep them limber. On NPR a few months ago a man said that the human brain is neurologically capable of learning one new language per year, if the person puts in the time.

I envy my Italian friend many things: the fact that he lives in Europe, the fact that he's musical, the fact that he's cute. But one of the things I envy most is the fluidity with which he cuts back and forth between Italian and English, the same way in which he slices through the water as a swimmer. With Valerio I will see Venice, parts of Tuscany, Florence, and Rome, and while I do not expect to be fluent by July, I would like to be able to do more than ask for directions, or for the nearest W.C. I will doubtless lean on Valerio for the complexities, but between now and then, I will do my best to put in the time. And that's no bugia.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Daylight Saving Time

The time changes tonight, and this reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Annie Dillard's brilliant essay "Total Eclipse," from her 1982 collection Teaching a Stone to Talk:

"What you see in an eclipse is entirely different from what you know. It is especially different for those of us whose grasp on astronomy is so frail that, given a flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and fifteen years, we still could not figure out which way to set the clocks for Daylight Saving Time. Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you."

I feel impossibly stupid when I contemplate the time change for too long. While I understand it on the scientific level (sort of), I find myself spending too much time thinking about where that missing hour tonight will go. I read somewhere recently that Indiana did not use Daylight Saving Time until 2006. Who made that decision? Did people vote on it? I also heard that parts of that state were recently switched from the Eastern Time Zone to the Central. What happens to that time that is lost? Or is it gained? I'm reminded of one my favorite bits from the David Leavitt novel The Lost Language of Cranes (and its film version), in which a character reads a children's book set in a house located on the exact border between two time zones. When it's noon in the kitchen, it's one o'clock in the living room. Easy to miss lunch.

Enjoy the longer days. Spring is coming.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Weather that touches me.

"I can't bear weather that touches me," says Isabelle, one of the protagonists of Gilbert Adair's 2004 novel The Dreamers.

Amen, sister.

Big weather has arrived in Cincinnati today: a few inches of snow on the ground already, with the promise of upwards of ten by midday tomorrow. I've long hated precipitation of all sorts -- weather that touches me. I know there are people who find walks in the rain romantic; I think only of wet hair and fogged eyeglasses. I try to trace my hatred of snow, rain, sleet, and ice, and think of my car crash of fifteen years ago, when an 18-wheeler slid on the icy surface of Fort Washington Way and bashed in the side of my little red Ford Escort. He didn't stop, and as I skidded to a halt against the median, I watched his tail-lights recede as he raced toward I-75 and felt a helplessness I'd never experienced. One of my colleagues at Procter and Gamble saw the accident, followed the truck, took down his license plate number. Months of phone calls with police and insurance adjustors followed. I often think I could have gotten rich from a lawsuit, had I been so inclined, but in those days I was not. What I remember most is the cop who said, smiling, that had I been going any faster the impact would have flipped my car over the median into oncoming traffic. My body remembers this too: when I get behind the wheel in snow and ice, my arms and shoulders tense, my stomach sinks. Best to stay in, as today. Oddly, my first memory, I think, is of snow: my mother is carrying me out the front door of our house in Georgia, towards the car in the driveway. Snow -- rare for Atlanta -- is falling, and just beginning to stick to the grass.

One of my favorite horror movies is Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. I've seen it countless times, and it still terrifies me, not because of the creepiness of the Overlook Hotel, or Jack Nicholson's craziness, or Shelley Duvall's pop-eyed stare, or Danny Lloyd talking to his finger. It's the snow, piling up outside the hotel, sealing them in. I understand that claustrophobia, that itching and twitching, that need to feel as though one could get up and leave if one wanted to.

But today I find the snow strangely comforting. Of course, one of the joys of academia is that colleges, unlike other businesses, actually close in the event of inclement weather. I remember one of the last times Cincinnati received a snowfall like today's, in 1996 or 1997, I suppose. It drifted down my street in such a way that one whole side of my car was obscured. I was chewed out by my hateful manager at Fidelity Investments -- a real battleaxe, she was -- for not making it from Hyde Park to Blue Ash in fifteen inches of snow, while she had driven from Dayton to Cincinnati with virtually no problem. This was not a woman who appreciated psychological weakness: when I tried to tell her about my car crash, she told me to "get a grip."

It's still falling as I write. I've spent considerable time today watching it, safely, from this side of the glass. Perhaps that's the reason I decided to begin this blog today. For there is something in the looking out that enables the looking in.