A firm, steady sight on the truth

Revisionist tales can be slippery.  We love them because they tell the tale we already know from a perspective that gives the story new meaning.  Sometimes a revisionist history promotes a fairer review of the past, like The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty.   Wide Sargasso Sea, is revisionist version of Jane Eyre but the new story is brilliant enough to stand on its own.  Most of these tales aren’t that good.  However, Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister brings something new to the table.  It isn’t just a send-up of Cinderella – it’s a meditation on the difference between perception and the truth.

Cinderella is one of the stories that teams beauty with goodness.  The poor, pretty orphan is mistreated by those who should love her, which makes her royal rescue all the more grand.  But Maguire’s Clara is a hostage to her own good looks who chooses kitchen life from spite and agoraphobia.  Her mother preached that a lovely face was in danger if exposed to the outdoor world.  Her father attracted customers with her seldom seen beauty, associating her face with his wares in a painting.  The combination has turned this Clara (this book’s Cinderella) into a unhappy, self-pitying child who seeks the kitchen to avoid being exploited and manipulates people to get what she wants. Beauty doesn’t make Cinderella a good person here; it doesn’t even make her the hero.

That role is for Iris, Clara’s step-sister, a girl obsessed with appearance and vision.  In a way Iris has the same problem as Clara since it’s Iris’s fate to ignored by those who are swayed by the mask of appearance.  Of the three sisters, (Iris, Clara and Ruth) Iris is the most discerning and probably the kindest but her vision is limited.  Iris has the ability to view most objects in terms of form, color and light, but she’s blind to her own value.  According to the rest of the characters, Iris is, at worst, plain but that’s a problem, living next to Cinderella.  Who sees the glow of a firefly when it’s in front of a fire?

The presumption of perspective permeates this novel along with its attendant disaster.  Maguire set his revisionist story in Holland during the “Tulip Mania” phase.   While tulips have become synonymous with Holland, they aren’t an indigenous species – bulbs were imported from Turkey.  The Dutch people became enchanted with the blooms and merchants started signing contracts to buy bulbs in upcoming seasons for specified prices; flower futures, you might say.  The craze for the flowers was so strong, people sold and bought the contracts at ever-increasing prices and drove up the price on the bulbs.  All sight of the intrinsic with of the flowers was lost in the search for wealth and when one buyer finally defaulted on his contract, the tulip market imploded.  Prices on the flowers dropped by a hundred-fold overnight and bankrupt merchants finally remembered the true value of their investments.  They had invested in flower bulbs, something people liked but no one needed to live.  The perception of value eventually surrendered to reality.

An old Russian teacher once told me he gauged the leanings of incoming Soviet premiers by how they reacted to history.  The progressives would refer to a certain Russian prince as “Ivan the Terrible.”  Totalitarians called the same guy “Ivan the 4th.”  So was the prince Terrible or an ambitious leader?  The hero or the goat?  The truth gets lost in the glare of conflicting perspectives.

A Life, Warm and Brief as a Summer’s Day

Not every great writer is a great human being.  We expect the people who touch our souls with their prose to be as wonderful as their words but sadly, that isn’t always the case.  There are some writers whose work I admire, that I wouldn’t want within a mile of me, alive or dead.  On the other hand, I wish I could have met the Oscar Wilde in Richard Ellmann’s biography of that name.  Seldom has literary genius been paired with such a decent, gentle spirit.

It’s hard these days to think of Wilde’s life as anything other than tragedy.  There he is in his early years, telling the customs agent he “has nothing to declare but his genius.” That was an example of Oscar’s hyperbole and humor but it was also a statement of fact for this Oxford educated son of Ireland.  His moral code was based on aesthetics, not just because he believed in in the innate goodness of beauty but because his own instincts usually directed him to be kind.  His observations and plays outraged Victorian society but they were outrageously funny and stylish.  No one before had let the air out of English sails with such a perfectly poised jab of humor.  And, for all of the unconventional things Wilde wrote or said, in public he led a reasonably conventional life.  He enjoyed the luxuries of an upper class existence, including the wife and two small sons he adored.  As far as Victorian society cared to see, Wilde was only wild in thought.  He made them think a little and laugh a lot and they loved him for it. How could this kind, intelligent man, fall apart at the height of his fame?
Some men are ruined by falling for the wrong woman.  Oscar fell in love with the wrong man.  The gentle soul that wrote “The Selfish Giant” had probably always known he was gay although he’d tried to live as a straight husband and father.  Until the 1890’s any man who shared an intimate part of his life understood the need for silence. Then Lord Alfred Douglas appeared, with his beautiful face and mediocre talent.  Oscar was infatuated, although he never quite forgot that his own success lay in his own hands.  Lord Alfred or “Bosie”‘s future was bought and paid for with family money; Oscar knew his future depended on his efforts as an artist and he tried to be as fair as he could to his wife and sons.  Besides, no matter how beautiful he was, Bosie was only happy when he had churned life into a drama.  Oscar often needed a peaceful retreat where he could think and work.

When Bosie’s father (the Marquess of Queensberry, famous for his boxing rules) described Oscar as “posing as a somdomite [sic]” Bosie insisted Oscar should sue for libel.  Other friends of Oscar argued a lawsuit would be disastrous since the statement was basically true, but Bosie insisted.  So, Oscar “took to the law” and Bosie’s father proved his point with the testimony of some male prostitutes.  The legal bills took all of Oscar’s earnings and the scandal meant no one would produce his plays.  Society’s support for him disappeared.  The transcript of Oscar’s civil suit became evidence in a criminal case against him.  The conviction cost Oscar his family, his health and two years of his freedom.  While Oscar served time in prison, Bosie traveled through Europe.

Ellmann’s biography captures the personal and professional dedication that abided in Oscar Wilde’s life even after his release from prison.  He and Bosie were reunited for a short time but the pressures that undermined their relationship before, undermined it again.  The banished and ruined genius moved to Paris and wrote what he could, correcting copies of his earlier plays and publishing “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”.  He had lost the joy necessary for writing comedy but not his witty nature.  “My wallpaper and I are in a duel to the death” he said during one of his last outings. “One of us has got to go.”  On November 30, at age 46, Oscar went, leaving behind the hideous wallpaper, one or two faithful friends, some brilliant work and two boys who no longer carried his name.  People who love laughter have mourned him ever since.

Several biographies of Wilde dwell on the salacious parts of his life, and a few focus on his Irish background.  Ellmann included those as well as the disciplined artist whose work was the result of toil as well as talent and the gentle human being who could forgive almost any slight to himself.  Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde scooped a Pulitzer as well as a National Book Award and is considered the definitive biography.  It’s a shame the biographer did not live long enough to enjoy the praise this book received.

Ellman’s biography and it’s subject are like a summer itself: warm, generous, and gone too soon.  Still, we can be grateful for their gifts of warmth and, in winter, dream of sun on green leaves.

The Right Book at the Right Time

There’s a theory that people come into our lives to teach us what we need to know.  They may be people we like or dislike and we may not always care for their lessons but the knowledge we gain from them helps move us through our lives.  I like that theory but I think it needs to be expanded to include books.  Along with entertainment and education, the right book at the right time can change a person’s future.  I’m still giving thanks for a book that came my way about twenty-five years ago.  I’ll always be indebted to Pat Conroy for writing The Prince of Tides.

If anyone missed the announcements, Mr. Conroy writes stories about the perennial outsider.  Whether the focus is on a Marine’s family readjusting to a new environment or the English Major in a military college, his people don’t think they fit in the orderly pattern that makes up their world.  Because they don’t fit, Outsiders tend to stay on the defensive. The first lesson in The Prince of Tides  is how defending yourself can cost you everything you care for in life.

Tom Wingo, the coach in The Prince of Tides has had good reason for living life in defense mode.  As a son, he suffered under a physically abusive father and an emotionally manipulative mother.  As a child of a poor family, he experienced the cold-hearted snobbery that exists in so many small towns. As an adult Southerner visiting New York, he now gets a lot of grief about his home.  In response, he’s learned to hide his feelings behind a wise-cracking persona.  The problem is, that persona has walled him away from his wife and the children he loves.  Tom is a miserable, isolated man, in danger of losing his family, when his sister’s psychiatrist asks for his help in understanding the childhood traumas he and his sister repressed.

Silence was part of the pattern of their dysfunctional family, making it hard to uncover the truth.  The silence their mother required meant no child could admit feeling pain or anger after being abused.  Tom’s sister, Savannah, kept her anger inside until she turned it against herself.  Tom’s anger simmers even in his humor, and it conflicts with his feelings of affection but that’s because he still has something to learn.

The biggest lesson in The Prince of Tides is the necessity of forgiveness as a way for letting the anger go.  If silence creates an emotional infection and honesty is the lance, then forgiveness is the medicine that allows an abscess to heal.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting some people are dangerous or giving them carte-blanche to cause more damage, but it does mean the victim is no longer a hostage to injuries or pain they endured long ago.  Forgiveness means living in the present and future by letting go of the sins in the past.

I haven’t spoken of the lyrical beauty in this book’s prose or the riveting plot and dialogue.  I should because I was swept away by these.  I haven’t spoken about the brilliance or “deep Southern magic” that’s present on every page.  I haven’t spoken about a great many things that make The Prince of Tides a wonderful book.  Instead, I’ll say that the book came along at just the right time for me.  For a year, The Prince of Tides became the book I needed until I started to absorb its lessons.  It was the book that helped me understand a conflicted past didn’t have to dictate the future.  That lesson changed my life for good.

The Past We Leave Behind

I remember a few things about my first trip to Disneyland.  I loved riding the flying elephants with my Dad and I screamed all the way through the Sleeping Beauty castle, terrified that Maleficent would appear.  I don’t recall much more of that day but memories are like overstuffed closets; if you pull out one or two items, you’ll be surprised what you’ll find underneath.
The hero in The Ocean at the End of the Lane  has similar holes in his memories.  He’s driving down roads he doesn’t remember to a childhood home destroyed long ago.  Some neighbor ladies remember him and, at his request, take him to a duckpond  behind their farmhouse.  He stands by the pond, remembers someone called it “an ocean” and the memories crash in like a wave.

Water’s important in this story, as is memory, and all the things we don’t know.  As a child, our hero knows he was lonely but he doesn’t know what makes loneliness bad.  So, other children play with each other while he stays inside and reads books.  What’s wrong with that?  His parents said they’ve lost their money but what he knows is they’ve rented out his bedroom; he’s not really aware of all the stress this puts on the family.  He knows the new babysitter is evil but his parents and sister can’t see that.  Only the neighbor ladies named Hempstock seem to understand everything.  How old these women really are or  or how they tend our fragile world is another unknown but our hero knows they’re the people he needs when he lets an “Other” into our world.  Only the Hempstocks can save him or the world and they’ll need their duck-pond ocean.
Part of the charm of this book comes from the idea that a child may have a truer vision than an adult.  Any adult worth their junior high science classes know there are very few inland oceans and none the size of a duck pond.  Yet, a seven year old has the imagination to see beyond the facts.  Who has the clearer vision, the adult whose memory has been drilled out and re-stuffed with knowledge or the youngster who sees the magic and potential all life conveys?  Does the adult forget because he’s seen so much or because he blocks out what he lost as a boy? 
Gaiman is one of those amazing authors that writes for multiple age groups and in different formats.   The Ocean at the End of the Lane could be read aloud to children but it’s story for adults, at least adults who like a bend in reality.  Read it and see what memories come out of your closet.

Love & Death in a New England Summer

There are stories that pass through your brain and leave, unnoticed and unmissed.  Others are  like summer romances that hold you until there’s a change in the weather.  And there are stories you find by chance that stay with you forever.  I’ve been rereading Bag of Bones for fifteen years now and I believe I’ve fallen in love to stay.  That’s good because love is a driving force in this book, along with death and in a New England summer.

Stephen King turned into a writer sometime while my back was turned.  A first, he was a commercial success and a critic’s nightmare come true.  I couldn’t stand his early prose, so I ignored him.  Then one August day I was combing the shelves, craving a good ghost story.  (Ghost stories and haunted houses are DOCs of mine.)  This book was on the shelf and I was desperate enough to try anything, even a book by Stephen King.  It hit like a tidal wave.

Mike and Joanna Noonan have the marriage we lesser mortals crave.  They like and understand each other and she knows when to deflate his ego.  Not that Mike needs much deflating.  He’s one of King’s Everymen, a decent, sensible guy who happens to write for a living.  These two likeable people should have given each other decades of joy and a couple of kids.  Bag of Bones could have been called, “Lives that Should have been.”

Because Joanna Noonan is dead on page one and Mike is left alone.  His ability to write packs up and leaves shortly after her funeral.  Now, Stephen King published thirty-three novels in the quarter century before Bag of Bones but somewhere along the way he learned about writer’s block.  It’s real and it’s hell and he captures that pain on the pages of this book. Without his wife or the ability to work, our hero is a man without focus.

Luckily, he still has a few things left to love, like his summer home “on the TR” and reading.  If anything, Bag of Bones is a book-lovers book.  It cites authors from Melville to McDonald and is tied, through multiple references to Rebecca (one of my all-time, hands-down, favorites)  After four years of grief, Mike returns to the summer home he and his wife loved so well.  That’s when the bad stuff really starts.

One issue pertains to the nice girl down the road and her toddler daughter, Kyra.  Mike gets caught in the cross-fire of a custody battle between the girl and  her terrible father-in-law.  That’s bad but Mike’s bigger problem are the people in his house.  You could say Mike’s not living alone, except he’s the only one in the house that’s alive.  These problems and others keep him on the place and in the bulls-eye of unending curse.  To survive and save someone he loves, Mike must unearth the secrets that holds the TR in its grip and he’ll find out which forces really survive death.

Lyrical in places and perfectly paced, Bag of Bones turned me into a fan.   If you pick it up now, you’ll read it at the height of the summer, the perfect time for this story.  Read it in the woods, or by the lake but don’t read it when you’re alone.  It’s too easy to believe in ghosts when you’re book-deep in a summer’s night.