NYPL Exhibit A Century of Art: 1926 “What London Wears,” Attributed to Mabel Thérèse Bonney

Thérèse Bonney during WWII, via Library of Congress

On Saturday, I participated in a the first of two panel discussions in support of the wonderful new exhibit at the NYPL, A Century of Art. Part of the larger centenary of the Schwarzman building on 42nd and 5th, this exhibit displays one print or photograph from the collection for each year, from 1911 to 2011. As a scholar affiliated with the Wertheim Study, I was invited to speak on one image and I chose an amazing fashion photograph from 1926. I don’t have permission to show you the picture, but I thought you might be interested in my description of it and of what it signifies. The second panel, in which five additional scholars speak for ten minutes each on five other prints or photographs will be on Friday, December 9, 2011, 2 - 3:30 p.m. It’s a lovely, friendly format, so do you’re your calendars and go!

When Jay Barksdale sent around the list of images to be included in this exhibit, I knew immediately that, if I were to speak, it would be on this image, although I didn’t see it until last week. After all, it’s an image made by a woman, about fashion, from 1926, and my current project is a textual edition of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, a novel about an upper class London woman who goes shopping and throws a party. But when I saw the image, I gasped with shocked delight. Not having known her work before, how could I have guessed that Thérèse Bonney had created an image that captures at once a very specific moment in women’s fashion and, at the same time, would be at home in a window at Sak’s today?

My expertise is not photography or fashion, but literature and history, and, in the brief time I have today, I want to talk about the caption, the photo, and a little bit about the photographer itself. I should say here that, as the prints department is not even 100% sure of the artist, I do not know the source or author of the caption, nor where, if anywhere, this image originally appeared. The full caption is an amazing bit of 1920s fashion writing:
What London wears—The continental way of being economical—Rubbers for legs—fold into a dainty little package and easily left in escort’s coat pocket. Ingenious way of keeping silk stockings clean.
For copywriters in the 1920s, as today, London prides itself on being glamorous, signaled here by the word “continental,” and practical. What London wears is, in fact, not from London at all, but an import from Europe. However, cautious Londoners need not fear—these rubber stocking covers are economical as well. As high fashion as the photograph is, the caption itself brings us squarely into the world of advertising. The rest of the caption flirts with sexuality. “Rubber” as slang for a condom goes back to 1913 but it has been chiefly North American slang. Still, the idea of sex, of the ways in which we clothe our bodies to conceal and reveal possibilities of intimacy, hovers throughout this silly little bit of prose. The caption contains within it the narrative of a date: these removable little stocking covers slip off and into a pocket, but not your pocket, your date’s. The image of a young woman, balancing on one leg, her hand, perhaps, on her escort’s shoulder for balance, as she unclasps the three hooks on each rubber, folds them into their “dainty little package,” and hands them to him for safekeeping would have been impossible before the war. And then, the next line, “ingenious way of keeping silk stockings clean,” implies that the same daring woman who would wear these rubbers is also one who worries about her laundry. This is a modern woman, sexy, confident, and living on her own. She is like T. S. Eliot’s typist, home at teatime, her drying combinations strewn about her flat. She is not like the protagonist of Dorothy Richardson’s 1915 novel Pilgrimage, a young boarding school teacher who worries, in a panic, about how to do her hair, for it’s still wet from having been forced to shampoo it just before dinner.
The idea of galoshes as dangerously contintental, as a French letter for the feet, shows up in a wonderful scene from James Joyce’s 1914 story, “The Dead”:
"O, but you'll never guess what he makes me wear now! … Galoshes!" said Mrs. Conroy. "That's the latest. Whenever it's wet underfoot I must put on my galoshes. Tonight even, he wanted me to put them on, but I wouldn't. The next thing he'll buy me will be a diving suit."Gabriel laughed nervously and patted his tie reassuringly, while Aunt Kate nearly doubled herself, so heartily did she enjoy the joke. The smile soon faded from Aunt Julia's face and her mirthless eyes were directed towards her nephew's face. After a pause she asked:"And what are goloshes, Gabriel?""Goloshes, Julia!" exclaimed her sister "Goodness me, don't you know what goloshes are? You wear them over your... over your boots, Gretta, isn't it?""Yes," said Mrs. Conroy. "Guttapercha things. We both have a pair now. Gabriel says everyone wears them on the Continent."
Gretta Conroy’s last remark—that everyone wears them on the Continent—is the beginning of an end for her husband Gabriel who, over the course of the evening, will be exposed for preferring Europe to Ireland, for being in danger of being left behind, both by his wife’s memories of a boy from the West and by his female colleague’s commitment to the Irish language and the Irish Free state. The rubbers of 1914 are not the same as the ones shown here.

Galoshes do not figure in Mrs. Dalloway, but another kind of tube for the extremities does: gloves. The original first line of Mrs. Dalloway was not “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” but “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself.” And the 1923 short story “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” which began Woolf’s serious return to Clarissa Dalloway as a possible protagonist (She had been a minor character in an earlier work) contains an extended meditation on the decline of gloves since the war. In that story, Clarissa’s preoccupation with gloves is part of the sharper satire on her—she’s a much less sympathetic figure in the story than in the novel—so, she thinks “It would be intolerable if dowdy women came to her party!” and then wonders “Would one have liked Keats if he had worn red socks?” Woolf uses Keats, a great poet revered across England, as a crucial barometer: the notion that one’s opinion of a poet might alter if his socks were not quite so is as shallow to Woolf’s ears as to ours. So when, in the next paragraph, Clarissa forges a connection with the shop girl over the old gloves, “With pearl buttons… perfectly simple—how French!,” we are reminded of how a certain kind of woman still judges others’ value by the correctness of her accessories. 

For Joyce, galoshes are a way that a middle-aged husband protects his wife from a chill. For Woolf, gloves are a sign of a middle-aged wife’s continuing care for propriety. The rubbers that London wears in this 1926 photograph are something else entirely. And to turn from the ways in which Joyce and Woolf ironize the bourgeois preoccupations of the prior generation to Bonney’s photograph is to suddenly feel a breath of fresh air, to feel the breathing room that modernity opened up for women.

If the caption flirts cloyingly, the photograph itself is less shy. It is also art. We see a pair of long, slim legs, crossed just above the ankle, in medium-heeled Mary Janes, with a button strap. The strap and the opening of the shiny black shoes are piped with a thin strip of leather in a paler shade. The spat-like galoshes hook under the heel and fasten three times in the front, leaving large gaps up the shin between buttons. The rubbers hardly look like a practical solution to walking in rainy streets. Surely the splash of a mud puddle is as likely to hit the front of a leg as the back. In Woolf’s short story, Mrs. Dalloway remembers how “old Uncle William used to say” that “A lady is known by her gloves and her stockings” (26). That old saw, still current today, about the telling signs of a woman’s accessories, applies here in ways that might shock Clarissa, for the story that these rubbers tell is not about class or breeding but about modern glamour.

One of the most important facts about these rubbers is how they remind us that this London woman is no longer wearing dresses down to her ankles. Her skirts would have come down just below her knees and her legs are now on display. But the display itself participates in a distinctively twenties aesthetic. The overall effect is glamorous rather than practical. Both sexy and abstract, the rubbers create three additional pale ovals up the white leg, echoing the oval created by the strap itself. If you go to the gallery upstairs, you’ll see that next to this photograph, the Delaunay print, representing 1924, and the Man Ray photograph representing 1925 both feature studies of circles and curved forms. The designer of these rubbers, the model, and Thérèse Bonney have collaborated to create in three dimensions, on a woman’s leg, a design that echoes the clean lines and pure shapes of avant garde art of the period.

In her recent book Glamour in Six Dimensions Judith Brown argues that the world of glamour and of high modernism are not so far apart. We should not, she insists, see a divide between consumerism and art, but notice instead a shared aesthetic delight in abstract forms and clean lines. The Bonney photograph absolutely participates in the phenomenon that Brown describes and it’s an exciting reminder of how fast the world was changing in 1926: just the year before, Woolf published a novel in which Clarissa laments that her daughter doesn’t care about gloves, but now, that lament is tinged with a kind of pride. At the party, one of Clarissa’s elderly guests notes to herself how the young girls’ gowns are short, tight, and straight, a look she finds unflattering. And the very next year time, in Paris, designers are making rubbers to market to the modern Londoner so she can protect her stockings and show off her legs.

The photographer is presumed to be Mabel Thérèse Bonney (limited access link, sorry) and, as I have learned in the past few days, she is very much worth more of our attention. Bonney was born in Syracuse in 1894. Educated at the University of California, and Harvard, she earned a doctorate at the Sorbonne. During the 1920s, she and her sister published a series of books about French cooking and fashion for American and English readers and this photograph looks to be part of that phase of her career as a photographer: gorgeous editorial fashion work.

She returned to New York in 1935 to become director of the new Maison Française, a gallery in Rockefeller Center dedicated to fostering better cultural understanding between France and the United States. That work sent her back to Europe and, while in Finland in November 1939 to photograph preparations for the 1940 Olympic Games, she instead became the only photojournalist at the scene of the Russian invasion of Finland. Her war photography was exhibited at the Library of Congress and published in books as War Comes to the People (1940) and Europe’s Children (1943). Her concept for a film about children displaced by war became the Academy Award- winning movie, The Search (1948). She died in France in 1978. 

Cura: A new journal of art and action

Late last spring, a group of Fordham students got together with Sarah Gambito, our Director of Creative Writing. They were frustrated that all the work they were doing on the student literary journal resulted in a pretty little booklet that sat in stacks on the radiators of our building, ignored. How could they convey their passion for art and their desire to change the world in ways that would touch other people?

Lots of brainstorming, conversations, coding, and a few visits to Zuccotti Park later, and Cura is the result. I’ve been tweeting about this for a while, but I haven’t written about it here.

Cura is going to be an online magazine, available on Kindle and with a number (how many? we’re not sure yet) of print editions. Four times a year, we’ll publish a prompt, each one related to the theme, and select the best art—fiction, poetry, photography, or any new media that can be displayed on a website—we get in response. The students write the prompt and they’re also writing the Muse, the blog that riffs on that prompt.

Our theme is Home.

Our first prompt is “What does your white picket fence keep out? And what has slipped in?”

Our first deadline is October 17th.

But that’s not all. We are committed to art and action and with the theme of home we’ll be hosting some fundraising events to benefit Covenant House, a nonprofit that benefits homeless youth. Any money we make from sales of the print journal will go to Covenant House, too.

We are so excited about this! I am super proud to play a small role as a faculty advisor. I hope that you’ll pass the call for submissions to all your friends, that you’ll submit your work, and that you’ll come back at the end of the month and read what we’ve put together.

Draft footnote of the day: Lady Bexborough

Lady Desborough

Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed.

9.23 Lady Bexborough The name recalls the Countess of Bessborough (1761-1821; born Lady Frances Henrietta Spencer), a celebrated Regency hostess, confidant of Lord Byron, and mother to Lady Caroline Lamb (1785-1828). It also rhymes with that of Lady Desborough (1867-1952), a prominent Edwardian hostess and intimate friend of many Prime Ministers of the period. Her resemblance, both physically and in manner to an eighteenth-century hostess was widely remarked. Two of Lady Desborough’s sons were killed in WWI (See EN 9.24) See (D 3.37; 20 July 1925): “Sometimes a buttery crumb of praise is thrown me—‘Lady Desborough admires your books enormously—wants to meet you.’”

The Myth of Progress

A month ago, Guernica linked to a blog post from Amy Davidson at The New Yorker. Meditating on the death of nine little boys in Afghanistan, out gathering firewood, she asked us to pause, once again, over this war. “Do we know the costs, or even understand our own losses?” she asks. Reflecting on the testimony of the surviving witness, she offers an aside: “Hemad is eleven years old. (So, as it happens, is my own child.)” 

That aside touched me deeply. When terrible things happen to someone who is just my age or just my child’s age, we feel them more keenly. We can imagine more vividly how great the loss because we are intimately involved in what it is to be eleven or the mother of someone who is.

I thought about how little I’ve done to work for peace in the past year. At other times, I’ve really tried to do my part, but it’s been a long time since I have even blogged about peace, let alone tried to contact congress. I’m deleting emails from progressive groups unread and I’ve barely signed a petition in 2011. So, for the past month, I’ve been wondering what I can do to work for peace.

And I’ve been feeling pretty discouraged about the prospects.

Then, today, I listened to my 8 year old give me the plot summary of the Kit: An American Girl (1934) book from the library, explaining the Great Depression to me and I thought about how much easier it was to imagine having parents who took in boarders in 2011 than it might have been in 2008. I thought about the wars and listened to an interview with a Tunisian activist. I read about the stagnating violence in Libya and the vortex of violence in the Ivory Coast. I saw headlines about tax season and retirement and worried about my daughters’ future. After all this, I heard myself whine to myself, “I thought everything was going to get better, but it’s not better. It’s worse.

Shame on me. All those moments in class when I mock the modernists for how shattered they were when their world didn’t get better, when war turned out to be ugly and ignoble, when bringing women into the workplace proved complicated. Suddenly, I feel so like them. Middle-aged, worried about the future of my children and my students, nostalgic for past times that were really not that good, but are now colored by the knowledge that the gas crisis would abate, the Iran hostages would be released, the Berlin Wall would come down…

The Myth of Progress dies hard. I have yet to kill it.

I need to find new ways to work for peace--and, the Bob Marley fan in me rushes to add--and justice.

Mrs. Dalloway at 85

[Here is the homeless op-ed I mentioned yesterday.]

Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway was published on May 14, 1925. It takes place on a single day in June, 1923, and follows the lives of two Londoners who never meet: Clarissa Dalloway, a society hostess, and Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked WWI veteran who commits suicide. Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus are connected through shared thoughts and through plot: Septimus’ doctor arrives late to Clarissa’s party, delivering news of the young man’s death.

You might not notice it at first, but Mrs Dalloway is an anti-war novel. Woolf was a lifelong pacifist and all of her sympathies are with the veteran, Septimus. Furthermore, Woolf herself suffered from occasional but severe bouts of mental illness, and knew, too well, the cruelty and inefficacy of early-twentieth-century mental health care. One of the novel’s key insights is that war has ongoing effects, years after its conclusion, on both veterans and civilians. At the end of the novel, when Clarissa thinks “in the middle of my party, here's death,” Woolf means us to hear more than just the shallow concern of a hostess; she also means us to hear Clarissa’s empathy.

If this were the book’s only lesson—that war is bad, that its damage spreads beyond the battlefield—we might all agree and congratulate ourselves that we now do slightly better by our veterans than we did a century ago.

Mrs. Dalloway has a much harder lesson to teach us, however. In contrast to Clarissa, two young women in the book take a more sanguine attitude to war. There we can find a lesson about how civilians are complicit in encouraging a culture of war. First, Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth passes a street band and the march she hears bring her thoughts immediately to war and death. Elizabeth imagines a deathbed scene in which an attendant opens the window, lets the music in, and a dying person finds consolation in the “triumphing” march. Elizabeth’s meditation comes just pages before Septimus’s death: there, we see him struggle to open a window to leap to his death. There is no music; there is no consolation.

Elizabeth’s naivete retains some charm even as it gives us pause. By contrast, Woolf makes Septimus’ teacher complicit in his death. Miss Isabel Pole “lecturing in the Waterloo Road upon Shakespeare,” as Woolf herself had done as a young woman, encourages Septimus in his ambitions, “Was he not like Keats? she asked … and lit in him such a fire as burns only once in a lifetime.” Here, Woolf depicts something much more dangerous than a crush, for in encouraging Septimus to admire Keats and read Antony and Cleopatra, she is encouraging him towards martyrdom.

When Virginia Stephen taught at a working men’s college, she, too, had an enthusiastic young student to whom she taught Keats. But a 1907 letter describing the scene, is all jest and avoidance: “I can tell you the first sentence of my lecture: ‘The poet Keats died when he was 25: and he wrote all his works before that.’ Indeed—how very interesting, Miss Stephen.” Mocking her inane remark—and her students’ bland acceptance of it—the young Virginia refuses an authoritative voice.

Where Woolf eschewed authority, her character seeks it, down to her very name: Isabel, so queenly, and Pole, so erect. And Miss Pole’s teaching has the desired effect: it creates of Septimus a young patriot, “one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare's plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.” The fire that she has lit in him conflates poetry and a crush on a teacher with England itself. When Septimus returns from the war, traumatized and unable to feel, literature has turned to poison, and all he can think is “How Shakespeare loathed humanity.”

Mrs. Dalloway shows that music and literature can as easily be brought into the service of violence as of peace. The lessons Elizabeth and Isabel Pole draw—and teach—about music and literature feed the culture of war. However, the lesson Woolf asks us to draw, is far different: in a world at war, as animals full of violent impulses, we must refuse to be complicit in encouraging young people to martyr themselves. In 2010, as the United States continues to fight two wars and as each season brings us a new young person, inspired to do violence in the hope of martyrdom, we would do well to reread Mrs. Dalloway, and look again at what we teach and how it can work on behalf of peace.

Multicultural in Seattle

Nguyen’s novel showed me a lot about what it might have been like to be on the other side of some of those fleeting friendships I had with Vietnamese kids growing up in Seattle. It got me remembering the first wave of Southeast Asian immigration to our city.

At the far end of our block in Seattle, on our side of the street, there was a modern ranch house, high atop an ivy-covered hill. Two gay men lived there, with a pool and a solarium full of birdcages with mechanical birds. My parents were proud to be square, but they were—and are—kind, tolerant people. Where others might, in those days, have kept their children away from the queeny gay men down the block, we went there from time to time and thought of them as friends. My sister and I sat in the solarium during their drunken Christmas parties, sipping spiked eggnog and listening to the songs of the mechanical birds.

Across the street from them was a beautiful brick Tudor house, usually vacant, and owned by the Episcopal Church. Next to that, a vacant lot. The vacant lot—really, a very meticulously tended lawn with a cluster of trees in the center and a short hill, perfect for rolling down--belonged to the third house in, but we called it “Green Grass Grows” and it was our favorite place to play. Sometimes, the caretaker would come and yell at us, but as long as we didn’t wreck the grass too badly, he tolerated us.

This was Capitol Hill in the 70s: houses from 1905 up against modern ranches, all rendered affordable because of a Boeing bust and white flight.

In 1975, I was 8, and the church (or someone in the church) sponsored a Vietnamese family: the family’s mom had worked in the American Embassy, spoke fluent French and English, and was, naturally, among the first to have to leave. (In my mind, I picture them on the top of the embassy roof, fleeing by helicopter, but that’s just dimly remembered news footage. Still, there was an intense sense of emergency to their story.) They had four children, our age and younger. Those children, living next door to our play spot, the vacant lot, became our friends. We taught them tag and learned not to play t.v. tag with them till they’d learned some t.v. shows.

We went to their house sometimes, and sometimes—though rarely—they came to ours. This was a fragile neighborhood friendship, made harder by the Do’s pride and dislocation, by language and cultural barriers, but the gay men across the street were shocked. They took my mother aside: “Why don’t you send your children to the private school? I can’t believe you send them to that public school with all those C---ks, N----s, and J---s.”

My mom told me what he’d said because she had to explain why we were not friends any more: it wasn’t homophobia that kept us from the gay men’s house, it was her rejection of their extreme racism.

That was a mind-blowing lesson of girlhood.

War and Fate

All the work I do on Mrs. Dalloway has had me thinking a lot about war, soldiers, and war writing. I have become convinced that the very minor character in that novel, Miss Isabel Pole, is a character of bad faith, urging Septimus to read Antony and Cleopatra and comparing him to Keats. No wonder he volunteered to fight; no wonder he returns traumatized.

I have been thinking a lot about returning soldiers. Worrying about them and listening intently whenever Paul Rieckoff is on t.v. talking about IAVA and veteran’s issues. He was the guest on one of the WNYC podcasts on my iPhone, so I listened on the plane out to San Francisco. I also checked my email, and there was a message from the academic vice president announcing the creation of a task force on welcoming returning veteran’s back to Fordham.

Then, just to continue the theme, once at the conference, I saw that San Franciscan Dave Eggers was speaking on a panel on war writing. I loved Heartbreaking Work, advised a thesis on McSweeneys. Though I know it’s fashionable to turn up my nose at Eggers, I actually think he’s amazingly cool. I’d love to be the one to have founded 826 Valencia, to have resisted all that rampant snark. At the panel, the moderator interviewed Eggers about What is the What and then six veterans read from the work they had done in Maxine Hong Kingston’s writing group. They spoke about their book, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. It was deeply moving.

They spoke about listening to difficult stories, telling them, and not asking stories to turn out to be inspirational or moving or redemptive. They read a wonderful Tim O’Brien quote to the effect that if you feel redeemed at the end of a war story, you have been lied to.

At the book exhibit, then, I bought A Soldier’s Heart, Elizabeth Samet’s account of teaching at West Point. So far, I find that she capitulates too much to the military perspective for my taste. But she is smart and I’m learning about military culture from it.

All of which to say that I think I’ve found my way in. Maybe nothing will come of it; maybe something will. But I’m going to write to my university’s committee and see if they will think about writing and reading as a piece of the veteran’s program. I don’t know what will come of this, but perhaps this can be a way for me to contribute… We’ll see.

Military women.

Two things: every time I read Mrs. Dalloway, I am struck by something new; today, it is that every woman in the book is, at one point or another, associated with the military. This included Elizabeth Dalloway, who passes a Salvation Army-type band during her walk toward St. Paul’s from Chancery Lane:
“The noise was tremendous; and suddenly there were trumpets (the unemployed) blaring, rattling about in the uproar; military music; as if people were marching; yet had they been dying—had some woman breathed her last, and whoever was watching, opening the window of the room where she had just brought off that act of supreme dignity, look down on Fleet Street, that uproar, that military music would have come triumphing up to him, consolatory, indifferent” (208).

What struck me first here was the pause over music in this passage and how quickly the trumpets become martial. It is likely that these unemployed musicians were wearing some kind of uniform, but Woolf’s having Elizabeth notice the military music and connect it with marching soldier continues a pattern of associating all the female characters, literally or, more often, metaphorically, with soldiers: Clarissa and Miss Kilman carry umbrellas like weapons, Lady Bruton should have been a general, and now, young Elizabeth hears military music.
Elizabeth’s meditation comes just pages before the final scenes with Septimus. (His suicide is on page 224, less than twenty pages later, and we are with him continuously from 210 until his death.) While Elizabeth thinks that a man witnessing a dying woman would look out the window be consoled by the tremendous noise of the brass band playing marches, it is a solider who opens the window, pages later, and, unconsoled, throws himself down to his death. Those watching do not witness an act of supreme dignity and are not consoled. Instead, Dr. Holmes offers Rezia an extra dose of tranquilizer and feels anger and frustration at his failure to save the man whom he thinks a coward.
I’m not quite sure what this tells us about Elizabeth. Is she callous? Wise? Silly about what war means? Does it portend her eventual settling into a life like her mother’s? There is something going on here, too, about courage and cowardice. The soldier who had served bravely is also the only person in the novel who is directly called a coward where women in the book are consistently associated with very traditional patriarchal emblems of courage.

WWI Blog

Regular posting should resume soon, d.v., but I wanted to pop in to make note of an exciting blog project: a British man is posting his grandfather's WWI letters, 90 years to the day after their writing, on a blog. Via the BBC's Newshour.

He--the grandson--isn't giving any clues as to what happens to Harry Lamin. We'll just have to read along.

War, Trauma, and the Real in The Farther Shore

I don’t suppose I’d pick up The Farther Shore if I didn’t have to read it as an assignment, if you will, for the LitBlog Co-op. I’m glad that it crossed my desk and that the prospect of a conversation about it kicked it to the top the pile of books. It’s a moving, lovely, spare book--both fast-paced and elegant. It should be a movie: it’s exciting and violent and dramatic with a simple, straightforward story arc. At 173 pages, it clips right along.

We begin with six American soldiers, all men, working the night lookout on a rooftop in an unnamed coastal African city. Stantz, Zeller, Santiago, Fizer, Heath, and Cooper, staunch off fear and boredom as they look down over a city they don’t understand. It’s a familiar scene. It comes as much from Hemingway and Hollywood as from experience. And even the protagonist, Joshua Stantz, is a familiar type: the sensitive young man, in over his head, smarter than his sergeant and counting the days until he can go home and apply to college through the G.I. Bill.

Things go wrong fast and suddenly a few of the characters you were just trying to keep straight, flipping back to see which one is the medic or the wiseass, are not characters but corpses. We have a situation. It’s serious. And the soldiers have to improvise a plan.

The prose is so elegant and thoughtful that this very familiar structure--of soldiers cut off from the army, working their way back--seems not formulaic but classic.

For example, early in the book Stantz thinks “there were close to a million people out there, and most of them had probably just been scared out of their sleep” (5). That’s just lovely to me: in imagining the people in the city as people, Stantz immediately complicates and humanizes his own presence as an American soldier. What is he doing there?

So sick from the heat he cannot eat for most of the book, Stantz always thinks of the Somalians as people. He’s never condescending and when he fumbles, we blush with him. He asks a man who’d studied in the States if he misses the U.S. Do I miss it? The man is dismissive. Americans always want to know if we miss America, he scoffs. Stantz is hang-dog and we can feel him making a mental note for better behavior on his next encounter. (I’d bet this is an autobiographical moment.)

As I said at the beginning of this post, I started off intending to write about The Farther Shore as a war book but, truth be told, my days of reading Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Tim O’Brien are in the past. Other greats of war literature--Crane, Remarque--are shamefully untouched. I never finished Catch-22. The war book that I know best is Mrs. Dalloway and reading Matthew Eck is like reading a prequel to the shell shock she depicts there. Again and again, Stantz consciously decides not to think about something, stuffing it down, knowing that his survival depends on his not dwelling on this or that horror or bit of grotesquerie. He must continue to run, to hide, to use his wits to move forward. This for me is what makes this beautiful little novel so moving: the pain of watching someone set himself up for a long, hard recovery.

New DeLillo--Falling Man and the Problem of Time

When Bud and I had lunch, we talked about blogging and the future of book blogging and the reasons why it can be hard to get a conversation going on a book blog.

The problem, it seems to me, is the problem of time.

While we all follow the news on the same day, we aren’t--thank God--reading the same books at the same time. That’s why, for lively discussion and a change of pace, I love the success of some of the great reading group blogs like 400 Windmills (Quixote), A Curious Singularity (short fiction), and the LitBlog Co-op (contemporary literature).

More fiercely than that, though, I love the ability to choose to read whatever in the world I want to read next, regardless of what is being talked about.

And the forthcoming DeLillo is a great example of that.

My upstairs neighbor is in the book business. She came by the new DeLillo and passed it on to me. I read it and gave it to a student who’s a huge fan. (JRG: If you read this, maybe you could put the first paragraph into the comments to satisfy the commenters?) So now, a couple months before it’ll start showing up everywhere else, I’ve read it.

And, oddly enough, it’s the only DeLillo I’ve read. So, what can I tell you about it?

It’s a 9/11 novel. It’s wonderful. My guess--confirmed by my student--is that it’s excellent but not the very, very best of his work.

It opens on the morning of September 11, 2001, after the collapse of the first tower, with a dust-covered and bleeding man walking uptown, briefcase in hand. In shock, he steers himself to his ex-wife’s apartment.

From there, we follow him, his wife and son, his wife’s mother & her boyfriend, and the owner of the briefcase, in those dark, confusing weeks after September 11. There are also several interpolated chapters--stunning and moving and deeply upsetting--following the life (and death) of one of the suicide bombers. DeLillo captures the uncertain mood of those days perfectly but this is not a novel about that strange grief-stricken elation, that “we are all Americans now” mood that the war so effectively killed. Instead, it’s a novel about mounting anger, anxiety, and nervousness. Maybe it’s a novel about the mood that led to the war. The children--the son and his friends--are incredibly wonderful, creepily watching the skies with binoculars.

Best, for me, was the brittle anger of the ex-wife, lying next to her husband in bed, wondering if they would ever make love again, washing his clothes separately, and, most chillingly, letting herself think racist thoughts--doesn’t that music sound Arabic? Is that blouse Morroccan? Why is she wearing that blouse in these difficult times? Why is she listening to that music in these sensitive times?

Oh, those poisonous thoughts. Oh, the marvel of watching DeLillo reveal the poisonous thoughts of an ordinary unhappy woman to us.

There is neither hand-wringing nor kumbaya here. Just carefully observed, horrible, limited, and ordinary upper-middle class white Americans burrowing back into the Upper East Side.

So, months from now, when the book comes out, when people start talking about it, perhaps you’ll remember reading this little meditation-cum-review and think to pick up the book. But, by then, where will the comments thread on this post be? You’ll post your reaction on your own blog and our imperfect, ill-timed conversation will carry on imperfectly, at its own lugubrious and erratic pace.

Women Writers, Censorship and War

In my head, I have been writing for days a small piece on women writers, censorship and war. I have been thinking about what it means that many of us--myself included--can live through war untouched by war. I think about Molly Ivins’ death and her call to us to raise hell against this war. I think about Tillie Olsen’s death, too, and her peace work. And Valerie Trueblood’s peace work. And what I means to be able to say that one worked for peace.

In the mean time, I want to draw your attention to two things worthy of commemoration and celebration. First, the incisive and powerful Laila Lalami (of MoorishGirl and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits) had an Op-Ed on censorship in the Times on Saturday.

Progress comes in such babysteps, doesn’t it? There was a time when it would have been nearly impossible to imagine a Morrocan-American woman being a respected writer, sufficiently authoritative to speak out against censorship. And yet, here we are, still speaking against censorship.

And worse. Journalists killed all the time all over the world.

But we must celebrate the lives of those who work for justice. If you’re in the San Francisco area, you might want to join others in celebrating Tillie Olsen. Another of her grand-daughters asked me to spread the word about a memorial service:

Tillie Lerner Olsen
Author, Feminist, Activist
January 14, 1912 - January 1, 2007

Join family, friends, and readers for a Memorial Celebration of Tillie Olsen's Life

Saturday, February 17, 2007

First Congregational Church of Oakland

2501 Harrison Street (corner of 25th and Harrison)
Oakland, CA

1:00 celebration followed by reception.

Parking on site. The church is 8 blocks from the 19th Street BART Station.