Even Zelda Fitzgerald Thought Joyce, Lawrence, and Woolf Were a Bit Much

Over the weekend, I picked up a copy of Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at my local library. And while I wouldn’t always call them “love” letters, exactly, the correspondence that makes up the greater part of the book is engaging, well-crafted, and endlessly surprising.

Zelda Fitzgerald initially rose to fame by setting the pace of the ’20s as the consummate Jazz Age socialite, but by the 1930s her talents and ambitions were overtaken by mental illness. Doctors diagnosed her psychiatric struggles as schizophrenia, and she spent years in and out of treatment facilities across France, Switzerland, and the States.

As friends of Hemingway, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, and other celebrated literary figures of the era—and, of course, as writers themselves—the Fitzgeralds naturally expressed some intriguing opinions on their peers and competitors. I laughed out loud reading the following request from Zelda during the spring of 1931, sent to Scott from Prangins Clinic in Nyon, Switzerland:

I have been reading Joyce and find it a night-mare in my present condition, and since my head evaporates in a book-store it would be much easier if you would send something to me. Not in French, since I have enough difficulty with English for the moment and not Lawrence and not Virginia Wo[o]lf or anybody who writes by dipping the broken threads of their heads into the ink of literary history, please—

My takeaway from this solitary letter: Zelda Fitzgerald may have been much saner than we thought. Joyce, Lawrence, and (sometimes) Woolf still write the plot of my own literary nightmares, and I never had to meet any of them in person.

 

(Repost) The Book I’m Saving for Last—and Why

Reposting this soul-baring, teeth-gritting tell-all from April 2016 to mark my arrival on the doorstep of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. Closing out Ulysses last Sunday means I’m just two books away from the end of my book-venture. It’s about to get all War and Peace up in here—my penultimate classic encounter—and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Happy Wednesday, and happy reading!

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For a long time now—years, actually—I’ve known exactly which classic I’ll be reading dead last for The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. And I swore to myself that, one day, I’d reveal the book I’m saving for banishing to #100—and why.

But first, I’m going to tell you about #99.

For my penultimate triumph in The Challenge, I’ve chosen War and Peace. My reasons range from the logical and practical to the emotional and whimsical:

  • I’ve been spreading out the longest reads from The List as I work my way through them, and War and Peace fell to the final rankings in my sloppy algorithm. But I refuse to end The Challenge on a notoriously long and inevitably gratuitous epilogue, so I tucked another book behind it.
  • War and Peace is known to be formidable, an Everest or a Moriarty of a book—but it’s also the most quintessential and iconic of classics. You don’t get any more classic than War and Peace. And as a classic among classics, War and Peace feels like a satisfactory climax to what has been a very long List indeed. (#100—I’ll get to it in a minute—will, I think, serve as a suitable denouement.)
  • Much to my surprise, I enjoyed Tolstoy the first time around and would like to honor him in parting with an (almost-)victory lap.
  • I’ve spent much of the Russian portion of The List with award-winning translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (a married couple—how cool is that?) and am finding it hard to say do svidaniya.
  • Given its reputation, I’m preeetty sure War and Peace is entitled to its shelf space among The 100 Greatest Books of All Time, and I want to end on (or near) a good note.

And, most essentially:

  • I have yet to buy a copy.

And so it is that War and Peace will bow humbly before me at #99. (Or maybe the other way around. The book does have six hundred characters, after all.)

And now, the Big Reveal. The Moment of Truth. The Unmasking of #100. Ladies and gentlemen: My very last book for The 100 Greatest Books Challenge, the crowning jewel on my classic library, just 11 books from now, will be…

Faust.

“Why Faust?” is a perfectly reasonable question with a slightly manic answer. If you’re already bored by this post, and/or disillusioned by what seems like an anticlimactic climax, I can sum up my rationale in one word:

GRUDGE.

For seven long years, I have sustained a heartfelt grudge against Faust. And now I’m here to tell you its origin story.

Many moons ago, a sparky young college student put on a new pair of Toms and walked to the first meeting of what would be her final Literature class ever.

At Purdue University, the class was known as Comparative Literature 267, or “World Literature from 1700 to Now.” It followed the previous semester’s CMPL 266 (“World Literature Until 1700”), taught by a wonderful and engaging grad student who said “Woof” every time his wit went over our heads. In CMPL 266, we read a total of five novels, all of them short, and wrote exactly three papers to finish out the semester. One of our favorite reads, naturally, was Inferno, because who doesn’t love rivers of boiling blood and cannibalistic torture?

Anyway, the class kicked ass.

CMPL 267 would be taught by another grad student—but a decidedly less engaging one. Marta (or so we’ll call her), on the first day of the new semester, greeted us all by passing out a syllabus. And as the syllabus arrived on my desktop, my jaw (I think it’s safe to say) literally dropped. It was the longest syllabus I had ever seen. It was ridiculously long, unfathomably long, unjustifiably long. Marta wanted us to read 500 pages of material every week, write up reflective essays for each class period, turn in analyses twice a month, take regular quizzes, give two oral presentations, and submit three 20-page research papers. In four months.

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At least, that’s how I remember it. But even if my memory has distorted the exact size of the workload expected by Marta in CMPL 267, the story’s preface boils down to this: It was my last semester of college, I had seen plenty of syllabi, and this one was a monster.

I had a mild heart attack in my new Toms, went home, reread the syllabus, and had another mild heart attack. It was impossible. It was absurd. It was inhumane, practically—at least, by the privileged standards of a middle class American college student. So the next time the class met, two days later, I raised my hand and asked Marta if the syllabus was negotiable. And when she asked what I had in mind, I told her. “Less… everything” was the gist of it.

And she said yes.

But my moment of #winning did not last long. Marta did lighten the workload by a tree or two, but that still left a hefty to-do list behind. I ground my way through it, reading what I could and writing what I had time for, but the effort was moot from a big-picture perspective. Between the overblown homework and Marta’s lack of teaching experience, the class and the reading material added very little substance to my long-term knowledge stockpile. The only reading assignments I recall from that fateful semester—out of dozens—are “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “A Madman’s Diary.”

Well, and Faust.

Marta assigned Faust on a Wednesday, to be read (and reflected upon, in 600-800 words, double-spaced, with one-inch margins) by Friday. But when I opened up The Norton Anthology of World Literature and saw Faust staring back at me, exhausting from just a cursory glance, I simply said No.

Now, Faust is not long. It’s actually quite short—under 200 pages. But it is long enough to be a preposterous overnight reading assignment. It invalidated my conscious efforts to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and it felt like a slap in the face to the hardworking student I was and always had been. Haven’t I done enough? I thought. Haven’t I devoted much more time and energy to this silly, introductory-level Literature class than reason warrants?

I had. I had. So I refused, on principle alone, to read Faust that night. I didn’t read it the next night, either, and come Friday, I left The Norton Anthology of World Literature at home. I marched to class in my Toms, and I took the 0 for the reflective essay I didn’t write for the play I didn’t read. And I thought that would be the end of it.

But Faust came back to haunt me. Questions about Goethe’s famous drama cropped up on quizzes for the rest of the semester. The subject of each literary analysis was, inevitably, a comparison between Faust and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” or Faust and “A Madman’s Diary,” or Faust and… whatever else we read for Marta. I really can’t remember. We were expected to include references to Faust in two of our three major research papers. Our oral presentations were—you guessed it, you clever thing—Faust-focused.

Still, I refused. Marta couldn’t make me read Faust, not if I didn’t want to, and I DID NOT WANT TO. My stubborn and childish streaks expanded to military stripes, and I wore them proudly. I read just enough of Faust—excerpts here and there—to write my papers and give my presentations. But a grudge was born that bygone semester, never to give up its ghost if I had anything to say about it.

It was only a year or so later that I decided to take on The 100 Greatest Books Challenge and saw, hovering at #94 just inside the bottom rankings, Goethe’s fierce and unforgiving Faust. The grudge is obviously mutual. And while committing myself to The Challenge leaves no room for compromise, I can still relegate it to last place. So even if that means Faust triumphs in the end, at least—at the very same moment—I will, too.

Also, it is pretty short. On the heels of War and Peace, reading Faust will be as easy as selling my soul to the devil.

Oh, wait…

#100 Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

My love for Midnight’s Children was slow-burning. But if a wildfire can begin with a match—and I’m pretty sure they can—then that’s what happened to me.

As it turned out, all my initial struggles to follow the large cast of characters introduced in its early chapters were moot, since Rushdie dumps them all to make way for a new troupe of players right around the time Saleem Sinai is born.

Oh, yeah, that. Saleem Sinai’s birth coincides to the second with the birth of an independent India in 1947. This becomes sort of important later on, when his entire life mirrors, maps, and modifies the course of Indian history. He also has superpowers, as does every child born between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on the night India gains its independence.

Don’t expect a kind of mid-century X-Men set in Bombay, though. The Midnight’s Children in general play a relatively (and unexpectedly) minor role in the book, and we hear more about their superpowers than we actually observe. If I had to lodge one complaint about the first half of Midnight’s Children, it would be that Rushdie, politician-style, promises much more than he delivers.

That all changes in the second half.

We accompany Saleem through his childhood misadventures, his move to Pakistan, his time at war, his stay in a magician’s slum, the birth of his son, and the writing of his memoir. We meet his friends and enemies, his entire extended family, doctors and soldiers, state leaders and prophets, an actress, a witch, a nanny, and a snake charmer. And even that doesn’t begin to tell this story.

I wish I knew more about Indian history before picking up Midnight’s Children, but I learned plenty along the way. Indira Gandhi actually sued Rushdie for defamation in 1984—a suit that came down, in the end, to a single sentence. Rushdie and his publishers agreed to remove the sentence from future editions of the book, and the case was dropped. He reflects on the incident in his 2005 introduction to the novel:

It was after all an amazing admission she was making, considering what the Emergency chapters of Midnight’s Children were about. Her willingness to make such an admission felt to me like an extraordinary validation of the novel’s portrait of those Emergency years.

Within a few weeks, adds Rushdie, Indira Gandhi was dead—assassinated by her own bodyguards.

This wouldn’t be the only time Rushdie was threatened by the powers that be: In 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwā calling for Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers over controversies surrounding The Satanic Verses (a novel inspired, in part, by the life of Muhammad). All assassination attempts on Rushdie have been unsuccessful, but his Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death in 1991.

But that’s another story for another blog post. If you can manage to read Rushdie’s work without rioting, issuing a fatwā, or assassinating anyone, you’re in for a treat. Midnight’s Children is one of those remarkable books planned so thoroughly and executed so tightly that a thousand and one threads come together not just once, but countless times. The novel’s timeline is vast, and its scope—inevitably—monumental. Thematically, Rushdie bounces back and forth between time, truth, family, politics, religion, sex, and fatalism—and his feat of acrobatics is so stunning that every other writer gymnast today is left feeling a little jealous.

Midnight’s Children is sad but not depressing, beautiful but not pretentious. It’s an iconic work of magical realism, but its merits transcend genre. In other, simpler, better words:

I highly recommend.

And I think I’ll leave it at that.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Yup.

Favorite Quotes:

The children of the hour of darkness were born, I’m afraid, in the midst of the age of darkness; so that although we found it easy to be brilliant, we were always confused about being good.

Padma — did you have, when you were little, a world of your own? A tin orb, on which were imprinted the continents and oceans and polar ice? Two cheap metal hemispheres, clamped together by a plastic stand? No, of course not; but I did. It was a world full of labels: Atlantic Ocean and Amazon and Tropic of Capricorn. And, at the North Pole, it bore the legend: MADE AS ENGLAND. By the August of the nodding signboards and the rapaciousness of the Narlikar women, this tin world had lost its stand; I found Scotch Tape and stuck the earth together at the Equator, and then, my urge for play overcoming my respect, began to use it as a football. In the aftermath of the Sabarmati affair, when the air was filled with the repentance of my mother and the private tragedies of Methwold’s heirs, I clanked my tin sphere around the Estate, secure in the knowledge that the world was still in one piece (although held together by adhesive tape) and also at my feet.

Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each ‘I’, every one of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.

Read: 2016

When Should I Start Worrying About My Pride & Prejudice Obsession?

Guys, I have a sort-of-awkward question to ask you.

Since the start of the New Year, I have consumed over a dozen Pride and Prejudice adaptations, with no signs of slowing down. In addition to listening to the original text on audiobook (beautifully performed by Rosamund Pike), as well as Bridget Jones’s Diary, I’ve watched:

  • the 1995 BBC miniseries,
  • the 2005 Keira Knightley version,
  • (twice),
  • The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,
  • Austenland,
  • The Jane Austen Book Club, and
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

I’ve also read:

  • Eligible, last year’s atrocious modern retelling,
  • Epic Fail, another lousy adaptation set in a Los Angeles high school,
  • Austenland (the book), and
  • The Jane Austen Book Club (ditto).

Oh, and I bought myself these adorable post-its.

I can’t decide if there’s something deeply wrong with me, or if this is the best use I’ve ever made of my free time. It seems impossible, even to me, that I have not yet tired of this story and these characters—despite the occasional unfortunate rendering. But there’s no such thing as a healthy addiction, even to Jane Austen… and the rest of my TBR is growing resentful.

So, inevitably, my question is this: When should I start worrying? Where is the line between everyday-fan-of-a-beloved-classic and devout-disciple-of-a-new-religion? Is it when I begin referring to my husband as “Mr. Darcy” and asking him to call me “Miss Elizabeth”? Is it when I stop leaving my house? Is it when I start acting out scenes from the book with my Pride and Prejudice post-its?

Because, you know, I’d like to be on the lookout. The moment cannot be long in coming at this point.

P.S. If you have any recommendations for P&P adaptations not listed here, please send them my way. Thank you in advance.

#66 Clarissa, Samuel Richardson

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To my very great surprise, I felt an immediate and intense bond with the fierce but kindhearted Clarissa this book is named for. Granted, no one has ever tried to force me into marriage with a middle-aged prick, or conned me into living in a house above a brothel, or ordered my arrest on false charges just to watch my spirit break. But this book isn’t so much about what happens to Clarissa as how it makes her feel.

And how it makes her feel is pissed.

Published in 1748 on the heels of Samuel Richardson’s enormously popular Pamela, Clarissa is tremendously long, tediously slow, and stiflingly intimate. But it’s also meticulously crafted, remarkably thoughtful, and endlessly moving. By far the most extensive character study of The List, Clarissa is an epistolary novel of epic proportions: 1,499 pages, to be exact. Letters between Clarissa and her BFF Anna, as well as Lovelace and his BFF Belford, make up the bulk of the narrative.

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Yep: Clarissa‘s the one on the bottom.

When the story kicks off, Clarissa is already knee-deep in a sea of drama. Her family wants her to marry the un-marriable likes of Roger Solmes and, when she refuses, locks her up in her own bedroom. Clarissa’s crush, Robert Lovelace—a well-known rake hated by her entire family—tricks her into running away with him. In an apartment above a brothel, lost in the unholy streets of London, Lovelace schemes, manipulates, and harasses Clarissa into marrying him or sleeping with him—whichever comes first.

Clarissa, more than a little resentful at all these affronts to her reputation and integrity, plots her escape(s) with occasional success but too little haste. Lovelace, a practiced sociopath, calls most of the shots—and although Clarissa manages one final getaway worthy of Lovelace himself, his London minions call for her arrest on false charges and see her thrown in jail. This last indignity is too much for Clarissa, who, after her release, fades out in a slow death. In easily the most satisfying moment of the novel, Lovelace is killed in a duel by Clarissa’s cousin, Colonel Morden.

One of the quickest ways to make me hate a protagonist is for the writer to tell me how much I should love them (see: Isabel Archer, Rory Gilmore). I Just Can’t with the whole “look-how-special-and-superior-this-protagonist-is” Festival of Praise that, by the way, only ever seems to follow female characters. I’m convinced it’s a symptom of the Madonna/Whore Complex that terrorizes classic fiction, and let’s just say I’ve never had much patience for Madonnas.

But somehow my opinion of Clarissa survived even this. Yes, it was annoying to hear every character gush uninterruptedly about Clarissa’s consummate perfection. Yes, I lost count of the references to Clarissa’s flawless beauty, unsurpassed intellect, and “angelic” purity. Yes, I resented the implication that there is one right way to be a woman, and that way is Clarissa.

But somehow Clarissa remains, for the most part, utterly relatable. It’s hard not to identify with a character who puts her every thought on paper with such careful precision. She lays out her emotions, her motives, and her logic with charismatic warmth, showing down even Lovelace’s seductive (if warped) arguments. Indeed, you root for her all the more for being surrounded by villains and lunatics.

Because, of course, while Clarissa is an interesting read, it’s also an infuriating one. Lovelace pressures Clarissa into corresponding with him, tricks her into running away with him, coerces her into living with him, guilts her into spending time with him, violates her privacy, gropes her without her consent, and then, ultimately, drugs and rapes her—and still sees HIMSELF as a victim. He curses her virtue as the barrier that keeps him from what he wants most, even though her virtue is the very thing that attracted him to her in the first place. He is regularly occupied by efforts to “punish” (his word) the people women around him for their every minor betrayal doing anything he doesn’t specifically condone/authorize.

Clarissa, for her part, berates and blames herself for her errors in judgment, views her disobedience as a cautionary tale, and wishes for death. She never gives up hope of making amends with her garbage family, and pities Lovelace almost as much as she loathes him. And then there’s the whole part where she just has to emerge from her final hiding place multiple times a day to go to church, knowing she risks recapture by Lovelace. Just pray at home, Clarissa! Or, better yet, face the fact that God might not be listening anymore.

So, yeah, infuriating. I spent many of Clarissa‘s 1,499 pages with my head in my hands, screaming, What is wrong with you people??? But I know what’s wrong with them. The 18th century is what’s wrong with them. Anna and her mother go from urging Clarissa to prosecute Lovelace in one letter to encouraging her to marry him in the next. Belford excoriates Lovelace for his treatment of Clarissa but doesn’t bother to, like, CALL THE POLICE. All in all, this book is a feminist nightmare: a parade of male entitlement, a showcase of rape culture, and a testament to just how little control women have had, historically, over their own destinies.

Highlights of the novel are the bullshit-intolerant Anna, often referred to as “flighty” or “saucy” (and, on one memorable occasion, “saucebox”), and the darkly hilarious scene in which Clarissa buys her own coffin. Lowlights are everything Lovelace says, does, and thinks, and when Clarissa’s family finally forgives her in a letter that arrives one day too late.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Yes, but I would never recommend it to a friend. This is a book for masochists, written by a sadist.

You’ve been warned.

Favorite Quotes:

I imagined for a long while that we were born to make each other happy: but, quite the contrary; we really seem to be sent to plague one another.

I may venture to say, that many of those who have escaped censure, have not merited applause.

For what are words but the body and dress of thought?

Poor man! He has had a loss in losing me! I have the pride to think so, because I think I know my own heart. I have had none in losing him! 

But love, me thinks, as short a word as it is, has a broad sound with it.

Read: 2016-2017

Everything Proust Ever Said About Love…

…that I wrote down this year.

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Proust said a lot of things about a lot of things, possibly while wearing a monocle. One of those things was love. During my year-long journey across the ridges, slopes, and fertile fields of Proust terrain, I collected this series of quotes and excerpts on love and desire.

Some are definitions, some are confessions, some are reflections on the forms and stages of love and heartbreak. Some are hopeful, and others less so. Some even contradict each other.

But every one is true for somebody, or so I would imagine.

I share them here in the order they appear throughout the six volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Happy reading!

But at the time when I knew Gilberte, I believed that Love existed really outside ourselves; that, allowing us at most to set aside obstacles, it offered its joys within an order in which one was free to change nothing; it seemed to me that if I had, on my own initiative, replaced the sweetness of avowal by the pretence of indifference, I would not simply have lost the joys I most dreamed of, but that I would have fabricated arbitrarily an artificial and worthless love, unconnected to the true love, the mysterious and pre-existed paths of which I would have given up following.

Life is strewn with these miracles for which people who love can always hope.

There can be no peace of mind in love, since what one has obtained is never anything but a new starting-point for further desires.

When we are in love, our love is too big a thing for us to be able altogether to contain it within ourselves.

There is nothing like desire for preventing the things one says from bearing any resemblance to what one has in one’s mind.

Like everybody who is not in love, he imagined that one chooses the person one loves after endless deliberation and on the strength of diverse qualities and advantages.

Love is no more perhaps than the diffusion of those eddies which, in the wake of an emotion, stir the soul.

Love is an incurable malady.

In love, it is easier to relinquish a feeling than to give up a habit.

Love is space and time made perceptible to the heart.

We fall in love for a smile, a look, a shoulder. That is enough; then, in the long hours of hope or sorrow, we fabricate a person, we compose a character.

No doubt it is because memories are not always true that love is not eternal.

We think that we are in love with a girl, whereas we love in her, alas! only that dawn the glow of which is momentarily reflected on her face.

For even if one love has passed into oblivion, it may determine the form of the love that is to follow it.

We read the newspapers as we love, blindfold.

And then, as we have seen, the memories which two people preserve of each other, even in love, are not the same.

If in those early days, as we have seen, the idea of death had cast a shadow over my loves, for a long time now the remembrance of love had helped me not to fear death.