The Last Man

The forgotten “other” book by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, another knockout Gothic tale considered to be her 2nd best after Frankenstein, published in 1826. Made me wonder how much David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress was influenced by Shelley’s vision. I felt like I was re-reading WM especially in the last 2 chapters, where the narrator is leaving hand-painted signs around (“Friend, come! I wait for thee!”), reading books from the libraries in Rome, setting his sights on a boat to float him away.
Some sections of this book quite gripping, others in need of an editor for modern-day attention & taste. Great dramatics of the upswelling of the narrator’s life– born of a nobleman disgraced, raised a sheep herder, rescued by the son of the king, educated, married to the princess, all of this happening 250 years in the future from when Shelley was writing it, 2093 the plague hits. Funny to see “the future” (which is upon us) only consisted of balloon rides, ships, horses, letters carried via post. It was jarring to reconcile Shelley’s intent to have this be a realistic futuristic story with the fact that I’m living less than 80 years from the endpoint of her story and things are vastly different. Another great drama in the narrator’s lowly sister being chosen as a mate by the most powerful and richest man in England, their souls intertwining, he giving up the quest for the crown to marry her but later entering politics and getting sidetracked with a lover (oops!) which estranges them until he goes to Greece to once again be a military hero. He dies there, but she has a good final month with him, after his release from Turkish prison, nursing him back to health, and then he perishes in the final battle over Constantinople.
Then, things get weird. The plague hits, and with it, plaguey writing that’s long winded and excessive. So plague plague plague plague, people die, people survive, finally winnowed down to a straggling bunch of survivors on the island of England ready to flee to southern climes. In France, they splinter into groups, in-fighting, the goal being to get to Switzerland for the summer which somehow defeats the plague. Narrator contracts and beats the plague, but no one else survives. Final scene with other people is narrator & Adrian & Clara, shipwrecked, narrator makes it to shore.

We Should All Be Feminists

More fem-pop-lite, but an easily devour-able 48 page pamphlet from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is better than slogging through the hundreds of pages of Spinster‘s fem-pop-lite. I liked how she started with a personal story about Okoloma, a childhood friend who died in a plane crash, the first to call her a feminist. “It was not a compliment. I could tell from his tone – the same tone with which a person would say, ‘You’re a supporter of terrorism.'” She gets much advice in her journey, having to deflect people who say women who are unhappy are feminists (calling herself a Happy Feminist, then a Happy African Feminist, Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men, and finally Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men).
She calls for us to raise both daughters and sons differently, not to stifle the humanity of boys, allow them to be afraid, weak, vulnerable. The worst thing we do to males is leaving them with such fragile egos, this the source of much of the world’s ills methinks.

Paris France

“Paris France is exciting and peaceful.” Reading Gertrude Stein is a must after coming off my high with Gail Scott’s My Paris. My unformed brain wasn’t ready for Stein a few decades ago when I first wrangled with her, but appreciation blooms anew. This book is essentially her “for those about to die, I salute you,” dedicated to France and England on the cusp of WWII in 1940, trying to capture the essence of France from her forty-year sojourn before it ends up in shambles under Germany’s heel. Knowing little to nothing about Stein, I was surprised to find that she grew up in San Francisco (ages 5-15? and her dad was the director of the Market St. Railway), where there were lots of French people… “A little later in San Francisco there was more french.” French actors came to SF and stayed long, so Stein saw several plays with French spoken. “It was then that I found out quite naturally, that french is a spoken language and English a written one.”

She jabs at Germany’s lack of quality art as a sign of a dying country, she explores why the French love saving money but to spend it is painful: “After the war there was the Americanisation of France, automobiles which kept them from staying at home, cocktails, the worry of spending money instead of saving it, because spending money is always a worry to French people, if they can save life is interesting, if they spend life is dull…” Dipping into the cycles of French cooking, the perfection of simple dishes, “sauces instead of being elaborate became simple and perfect, this was in the beginning of the twentieth century.” There is the mistake of Kiki Vincent (20 year old horse sent off to war), the death of Stein’s dog (Basket) and reintroduction of another dog named the same thing (to Picasso’s horror… “The Frenchman does realise the inevitability of le roi est mort vive le roi but the Spaniard does not recognise the inevitability of resemblances and continuation”), and the tales of Helen Button the village girl living in war-time. Stein worries that a century is not long enough, it does not take up enough generations. She thinks of writing a book that skewers false aphorisms, since familiarity does not breed contempt, “anything one does every day is important and imposing and anywhere one lives is interesting and beautiful. And that is all as it should be.”
Stein praises the respect given to writers and painters in France:

“But really what they do do is to respect arts and letters, if you are a writer you have privileges… I remember coming in from the country to my garage where I usually kept my car and the garage was more than full” but the man in charge takes care of her, “there is a corner and in this corner I have put the car of Monsieur the academician and next to it I will put yours the others can stay outside and it is quite true even in a garage an academician and a woman of letters takes precedence even of millionaires or politicians, they do, it is quite incredible but they do, the police treat artists and writers respectfully too, well that too is intelligent on the part of France and unsentimental, because after all the way everything is remembered is by the writers and the painters of the period, nobody really lives who has not been well written about and in realising that the french show their usual sense of reality and a belief in a sense of reality is the twentieth century, people may not have it but they do believe in it.”

Part II begins with a charming anecdote laced with philosophy:

When we were having a book printed in France we complained about the bad alignment. Ah they explained that is because they use machines now, machines are bound to be inaccurate, they have not the intelligence of human beings, naturally the human mind corrects the faults of the hand but a machine of course there are errors. The reason why all of us naturally began to live in France is because France has scientific methods, machines and electricity, but does not really believe that these things have anything to do with the real business of living. Life is tradition and human nature.
And so in the beginning of the twentieth century when a new way had to be found naturally they needed France.

The Frenchman’s attitude toward propaganda:

Propaganda is not French, it is not civilized to want other people to believe what you believe because the essence of being civilsed is to possess yourself as you are, and if you possess yourself as you are you of course cannot possess any one else, it is not your business. It is because of this element of civilization that Paris has always been the home of all foreign artists, they are friendly, the French, they surround you with a civilised atmosphere and they leave you inside of you completely to yourself. And their logic makes it impossible to be propagandists. If there is one thing in the world that is not logical it is propaganda, and also it is the one thing in the world that has nothing to do with fashion. The difference between propaganda and fashion is very interesting.

After all everybody, that is, everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves in order to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.

Spinster: Making A Life Of One’s Own

I was looking forward to reading this after enjoying Kate Bolick’s 2011 Atlantic piece, All the Single Ladies. However, in the intervening years, I’ve graduated from bubble-gummish pop-feminism to drinking deeply of the draughts of feminist theory, and her resulting book floats somewhere in the middling range of feminism-lite. This is fine — it ultimately may be the gateway drug for others to get hooked and search further — but was a bit of a let down for my anticipation. She’s more than made up for it by turning me onto Masha Tupisyn by way of Heather O’Neill.
Following Bolick’s progress through social media, I was curious how she’d end up structuring the book. It is a tale of discovery woven around her own life, held up by the five women she calls her coven: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Oddly enough, Maeve was friends with Tillie Olsen toward the end of her life, but isn’t mentioned by Tillie in Silences. There’s a great passage Bolick quotes that Maeve wrote to Tillie:

I have been trying to think of the word to say to you that would never fail to lift you up when you are too tired or too sad to not be downcast. But I can think only of a reminder — you are all it has. You are all your work has. It has nobody else and never had anybody else. If you deny it hands and a voice, it will continue as it is, alive, but speechless and without hands. You know it has eyes and can see you, and you know how hopefully it watches you. But I am speaking of a soul that is timid but that longs to be known. When you are so sad that you “cannot work” there is always danger fear will enter in and begin withering around. A good way to remain on guard is to go to the window and watch the birds for an hour or two or three. It is very comforting to see their beaks opening and shutting.

Bolick ends the book traipsing off to Ragged Island to pay homage to Edna STV Millay, who bought the island in 1933, swimming and wandering the island nude. Bolick brings her oldest friend and her newest boyfriend, and leaves us with a quote from Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I think my distaste for the work stems largely from the overwhelming presence of the author within. Yet this isn’t a satisfactory explanation, since her autobiographical bits were what drove the story along, the thread to lure interest. Maybe a solution would have been to be more “we” instead of “me” — although she strove mightily to achieve a “we” with her coven. Maybe my problem is with the idea that there needs to be this exploration at all– why is it so novel to be a spinster still?
****
Updated to include links to the wonderful evisceration of this book by Briallen Hopper in the LA Review of Books, which includes the line, “I would have enjoyed Spinster a lot more if it had been titled Red-Headed Writers or Dating and Divorce.”

Flying

I didn’t finish this one, but wanted to make note of what I didn’t like about it. Kate Millet wrote Flying on the heels of her stunning success with Sexual Politics. She was thrust into the spotlight, a spokesperson for feminism, made into a “leader” by the media for a movement that shunned leaders. From what I saw in the first 100 pages, Flying is Millet’s return to print, whining about her celebrity and its devastating impact of loss of friends. She bitches about meeting women who say, “Thank God you wrote that book. I don’t have time to work for the cause, but I’m glad you’re doing it.” I wish Millet had written this book and thrown it away, flushing it out of her system without tarnishing her name.