Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: Thomas Mann's "The Black Swan"

Published in 1954, The Black Swan would sadly be one of Thomas Mann's final works, and in the past few decades, it's garnered significant attention from feminist scholars. The Black Swan is often described as the feminine counterpart to A Death in Venice, but that diminishes the complexity of the slim novella, and most particularly, the radicality of its hyper-frank portrayal of a post-menopausal woman's sexual urges and gynecological medical problems. Though squeamishness about women's reproductive processes, especially menstruation, is less than it was, it's still very much present and it's possible for a modern reader to access the level of shock with which contemporary literary critics, the vast majority male, met Mann's novella. I'm undecided as to whether or not I would classify the novella as feminist, though it is undoubtedly of great interest to feminists.

The Black Swan, in a brief hundred and forty pages, details Rosalie von Tuemmler's post-menopausal infatuation with her son's American tutor. This May-December forbidden romance is what usually draws comparisons with A Death in Venice and that element is important, but it's not preeminent. Or perhaps it's better to say that framing the story in this wise dismisses how radical the actual framing of the novella is. Rosalie is a widow with two children, a grown daughter who is an intellectual abstract artist and a teenage son. In opposition to her daughter's intellectualism and rational approach to life, Rosalie worships at the altar of "Nature," in her eyes a sort of pseudo-deistic concept that is both expressed by the natural world, its trees, flowers, streams, etc. and cultivated by elevated appreciation for itself. Her passion for Ken, decades younger than she, is a renaissance, a reflowering, of her womanhood, which she sees radically expressed as a recurrence of what she believes to be a menstrual period. Both she and her daughter, however, are aware that this passion, though described often as love, is explicitly sexual rather than romantic: "'Oh, Anna, my loyal child, I indulge in lust, shameful and grievous lust, in my blood, in my wishes, and I cannot give it up..." Further, when Anna tentatively points out the obstacles to a marriage between two people that could be mother and son, Rosalie is almost amused, saying, "the idea is new to me... I can assure you that I do not entertain it." It would be disingenuous to say that such a plot was typical in its treatment of an older woman.

The most salient aspect of Rosalie's love is precisely that it actually has very little to do with the man himself. She dwells on his body above all else, though she also indulges him in his interest for European history. Through Anna's eyes, we see how unremarkable a person he is; through Rosalie's, what a desirable male specimen. This is one of the reasons why the novella is radical - because Rosalie is given the latitude, typically granted to male protagonists and much more rarely (though increasingly) to nubile young women, to love passionately and lustfully, objectifying the the man she desires and imbuing him with the qualities she would most like him to have. There is no ridicule, no judgement, no censure - it's eminently natural that Rosalie should feel and express carnal desire. The obstacles are social, but not fundamental. Such an attitude is remarkable for a book written in the 1950s (though it is set in the relative liberality of the Weimar Republic) and even more so coming from a male author.

In fact, Rosalie doesn't know Ken well at all. The vast majority of their conversations and meetings take place in the presence of others and it isn't until the crucial revelatory moment that the two of them actually acknowledge the possibility of a sexual affair. The relationship that is examined most minutely is not between Rosalie and her lover, but between Rosalie and her daughter. This is a radical re-imagining of a woman's romantic entanglements, as one negotiated between two women who are not romantically involved. As a result, female characters are constantly in the foreground, far more fleshed out than any of the male characters.

Menstruation and gynecological health are both treated at length in the book as well. Rosalie sees in her misunderstood vaginal bleeding a resuscitation of her lost youth, a "victory" - "I am a woman again, a whole human being again, a functioning female, I can feel worthy of the youthful manhood that has bewitched me..." Before this bleeding, Rosalie grapples desperately with the feeling of having been discarded, of having been demoted permanently to a worthless existence. This attitude towards middle-aged and older women still has significant currency and it would be utopian to summarily reject Rosalie's intense identification of her menstrual cycle with her value as a human being. In a world in which a woman's value is primarily sexual and reproductive, such an idea is at the very least emotionally valid. Nevertheless, for readers today, this potent identification of menstruation with personhood feels less acceptable and less stringently heeded by the larger, if still patriarchal, culture.

Is my reluctance to label The Black Swan feminist a sub-conscious prejudice, a disinclination to grant the label to a work written by a man? Or, am I reacting more to the ambiguity and nuance within the work, leery of labeling it so when it is so difficult to parse out where to draw the line between Rosalie's and Mann's views on the wholeness of a woman being dependent on menstruation? I actually think that my reluctance is a result of the novella's conclusion; thus, those who wish to avoid "spoilers" (though I do think it's silly) shouldn't read the rest of this review. In the final part of the novella, it's discovered that Rosalie's vaginal bleeding is in fact a symptom of metastasized uterine cancer and the brutal last pages gruesomely detail, from the surgeon's point of view, the state of her reproductive organs. This revelation - that Rosalie's resurgence of sexual vitality is in fact the sign of her impending demise - was read by critics in the 1950s as a metaphor for the collapse of the Weimar Republic. I think, rather, that what I dislike about the ending is its inability to allow Rosalie her little bit of pleasure. It feels almost as though she were being punished for daring to want to be young again, to have a chance at the sexual satisfaction she didn't get in her marriage. I don't ultimately accept this interpretation however. Utopian narratives that satisfy feminist wishes for what ought to be reality are no more feminist than realistic narratives that place very real obstacles in the way of female protagonists. Despite the misery of such a devastating cancer, Rosalie dies well, and content, for she says, "for me [death] borrowed the guise of resurrection, of the joy of love, that was not a lie, but goodness and mercy." This is a remarkably optimistic ending, a generous and appreciative gratitude for what happiness was granted her. She feels no self-pity, she feels no need to apologize or demur or obscure what she felt for its "unseemliness." I'm inclined to think my reluctance to label The Black Swan a feminist work can be charged to my own prejudice, for it continues to reveal new layers of empathetic understanding for its heroine.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How to Read a Misogynist Novel

The current literary climate demands that a book's politics define its readership. However, this demand is incompatible with reading any but the absolute latest works, as everything else soon passes out of immediate relevance, the acceptable vocabulary changes, and former hot-button issues are superseded by new ones. As such, this strict method of judgement, essentially a device to insulate oneself from opposing or complex viewpoints, should be rejected. That doesn't mean, however, that reading books, no matter how beautifully written, that directly and sometimes viciously contradict one's politics doesn't offer particular challenges. As a feminist, how can I laud novels that display misogyny, by writers that behave(d) in misogynistic ways, have said misogynistic things? More crucially, how can I like, or even love, these books?

Gabriele D'Annunzio is a particularly good example both because of the content of his novels and because of his active political life. He was the ideal Italian fascist and appeared to be, for a short while, a genuine rival of Mussolini. His novels are decadent and sensuous, luxuriating in baroque descriptions of art, music, and sex, and were considered scandalous at the time. His female characters are objects to be adored or vilified; his hero Andrea Sperelli, in Il piacere, explicitly pines for the Ideal Woman, a composite of the many women he's romanced, ultimately rejecting real women for their failure to live up to his imagined paragon. A war hero and aviator, D'Annunzio led an assault on the primarily Italian-speaking city of Fiume, which today is Rijeka in Croatia, in 1919, naming himself the Duce of what he christened the Italian Regency of Carnaro. Although he was eventually ousted by the legitimate Italian government and his attempted colonization ultimately failed, his superficially brilliant exploit won him many admirers among the various Italian nationalist and irredentist factions and symbolically he had enormous import to the Fascist party, establishing dozens of their rituals and defining many aspects of the ideology. (It is worth noting that D'Annunzio was not in sympathy with Hitler and told Mussolini that an alliance with Nazi Germany was a mistake, though that doesn't render his Fascist politics more palatable.) Between his extreme sexual objectification of women and total lack of respect for their autonomy and his staunch Fascist politics, D'Annunzio holds few attractions from a feminist point of view... but I still love his writing.

Then there is John O'Hara, whose sexually promiscuous, boozy heroines were inevitably doomed to a miserable end, while he in his private life was an alcoholic, bitter social climber. Charles Dickens had, with a few exceptions, three varieties of female character: the madonna, the whore, and the laughably desperate spinster; newer research indicates that he behaved as badly towards his long-time mistress as he did to his oft-cheated-upon and yet always pregnant wife. And no one beats Ernest Hemingway when it comes to misogyny. His heroes are macho, tortured, violent, and prone to shooting things, while his women are either doomed or too powerful to be anything but a castrating bitch. He lived his life as he wrote his heroes. Then there's F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Philip Roth, V. S. Naipul (writing by women is "feminine tosh" apparently), D. H. Lawrence, and I could go on at length.

How can feminist women read a work like Il piacere, or Sons and Lovers, or Appointment in Samara, and like them? They don't have to like them obviously, but what if they do? For one thing, anything can be read with a feminist lens. That doesn't mean that every work can be granted an organically feminist interpretation or subtext and it doesn't deny that some works are, incontrovertibly, misogynistic. For another, one can be a feminist and not judge every book one encounters by feminist standards, or, one could simply appreciate the many other facets of a given book, the beauty of its prose, the complexity of its characters, the intricacies of a finely crafted plot, the meticulously evoked milieu, even the finely crafted argument that perhaps you don't agree with - none of those pleasures need be negated by contrary politics.

A failure to read any work that disagrees with one's own politics is a failure to grasp one's own political fallibility. By the same token, a failure to read any work that reflects a state of being other than one's own - whether defined by gender, race, nationality, religion, etc. etc. - is a failure to grasp the limited scope of one's own point of view. This is why many feminists argue that men should make a conscious effort to read books by women and white people should make the same effort to read books written by people of color. And the opposite argument needn't be made because books by white men continue to populate the canon, high school and college curricula, and the larger public consciousness, but - and this is a big but - it doesn't follow that those books should be excluded, either for their politics or because they don't represent "diversity" by its current politicized definition.

Aside from a simple desire to be as open as possible, to read as widely as possible, I do think that there is also a particularly salutary boon granted to those willing to brave the waters of opposing political stances. By so doing, a greater appreciation can be won, a greater respect, not necessarily for an opposing point of view, but for one's own. To underestimate one's opponent is to risk ceding the battle by failing to engage deeply enough. If we are willing to examine these misogynistic works with a keen attention and a willingness to suspend judgement without thorough analysis, then we gain a considerable advantage because we gain profounder, more nuanced, and more subtly accurate political convictions.

Friday, September 11, 2015

9 Books for Fans of "Wolf Hall"

My obsession with the Tudor family predates the much-feted release of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, but just as my interest was waning I picked up the first volume of the Cromwell Trilogy and I am once again well and truly hooked. There are countless volumes of history and biography on the Tudors and other English ruling families, and they are well worth reading, but a good part of the fascination of Mantel's historical fiction is her uncanny ability to breathe life into the most unexpected figures, bringing us to them and their time, rather than they to us. Here are nine books sure to please the fan of Wolf Hall:

The Mists of Avalon - Marion Zimmer Bradley
In this gynocentric rendering of the Arthurian legends, the women - Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar, Igraine, Viviane, Elaine - are at the fore, while the men, so familiar from all other interpretations from Malory to T. H. White to Disney, recede into the background. The question of whether the novel can be considered feminist or not is a complex one, but in either case, the book is an engrossing foray into pagan England as it undergoes the first advances of the Christian juggernaut and a fascinating reevaluation of the standard ideas about medieval society and women's roles within it. Fans of Mantel's painstakingly researched work will appreciate the wealth of period detail, particularly as far as paganism is concerned, and the sheer breadth of spiritual and psychological perspectives.

Catherine, Called Birdy - Karen Cushman
Although this novel was written for young adults (it won the Newbery Honor), its sardonic sense of humor, fantastically accurate and detailed depiction of medieval England, and surprisingly erudite wit make it a a worthwhile read for adults. Written in the form of a diary, the book follows Birdy, the clever and scheming young daughter of an English knight, determined to escape the revolting marital advances of a series of ancient, lecherous noblemen, whether they have social status and wealth or not. The book makes a profound feminist statement, all the more refreshing given that it was written for girls, without refuting the essential realities of the period. For fans of Wolf Hall, Catherine, Called Birdy is a quick, delightful foray into a period as fascinating as that of the Tudors. Equally wonderful, though much shorter, is The Midwife's Apprentice.

Versailles - Kathryn Davis
Kathryn Davis is nothing if not a subtle writer. Her characters dwell in liminal spaces, in the cracks and fissures of the metaphysical tissue of time. Versailles is not a straightforward work of historical fiction; rather, it imagines Marie Antoinette as a figure that exists across time, as though the novel were magically beamed from the shadowy mind of her ghost, still walking the halls of the famed palace. Those looking for a museum-piece rendering of the glory days of Louis XVI will be disappointed, but those open to a more psychologically engulfing and deeply subjective point of view will find riches in this short but profound novel. 

The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco
One of my all-time favorite novels, The Name of the Rose is easily the most erudite mystery novel of all time. Its plot concerns a lost and precious book by Aristotle, a labyrinthine library of forbidden books, numerous gruesome murders, and the inquisitional crackdown on heretical sects. In 1327, the Franciscan Guglielmo of Baskerville and his protege Adso of Melk arrive at a Benedictine monastery in the north of Italy to attend a theological disputation; they are met, however, with a curiously marked corpse. Though the plot is as complex and surprising as one could wish, Eco's extensive rendering of the monks' conversations, on subjects ranging from theology and literary theory to optics, are a veritable intellectual smorgasbord. One imagines that such a novel would have thrilled the brilliant, semi-heretical Thomas Cromwell, in many respects a close counterpart to Guglielmo. 

Romola - George Eliot
Set in the turmoil of apocalyptic preacher Savonarola's revolutionary, religiously extreme takeover of fifteenth century Florence, Eliot's novel has as its aim the same project as Mantel's Cromwell Trilogy, that is, to examine in kaleidoscopic detail the intellectual, political, and religious panorama of a fraught and distant historical period; like Mantel, she succeeds with exceptional brilliance. Romola, the intellectually precocious daughter of a widowed scholar, marries the superficially bright, but fickle and shallow Tito. Her burgeoning development as a thinker and the disillusionment of marriage to a man strange to her and deeply entangled in potentially lethal schemes ultimately lead her down a path to near-utopian, feminist enlightenment. To my mind, this is, of all Eliot's works, her most boldly feminist.

Discourse on Free Will - Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther
Readers of Wolf Hall get something of a crash course in the theology and politics of the great schism, but a deeper understanding of the theological conflicts that had such far-reaching, paradigm-shifting, not to mention lethal, effects on European society will significantly heighten (and complicate) one's appreciation of the devious schemes of Cardinal Wolsey and the dark extremism of Thomas More (a rather boastful friend of Erasmus). This volume, essential to students of both theology and European history, consists of Erasmus's "The Free Will" and Luther's "The Bondage of the Will," public discourses on one of the thorniest issues at stake in the schism: whether man is endowed with free will.

You Never Knew Her As I Did! - Mollie Hunter
Like Catherine, Called Birdy, this is a superb young adult novel (despite its melodramatic title) and well worth reading for adults. The book's protagonist is a young page, Will Douglas, whose admiration for, and perhaps infatuation with, the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, impels him to ever more dangerous schemes to free her from Elizabeth I's control. Hunter does a superlative job filtering the complicated power plays and political plottings through the perspective of a young boy on the sidelines, not unlike Mantel's use of Cromwell's perspective to give us access to such figures as Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, and Anne Boleyn.

Redwall - Brian Jacques
The first of a series that would eventually comprise no less than twenty two volumes, Redwall is a thrilling, pseudo-medieval adventure that takes place in a world populated by talking animals. In this first volume, Matthias the mouse sets off on a quest to reclaim the famed sword of Martin the Warrior when Redwall Abbey is besieged by the villainous Cluny the Scourge, a rat. Jacques created an impressively vast and complex world, the political, social, and spiritual dimensions of which bear significant similarity to the fantastic world of chivalric literature, yet achieve a unique richness that stands well outside human history. Though many critics have complained that the series became formulaic once Jacques had established his story-telling structure, one could argue that this reliable composition adds to the pleasures of the series.

The Once and Future King - T. H. White
Comprised of four volumes (a fifth, The Book of Merlyn, is quite slight and perhaps better read as an epilogue), The Once and Future King tells the story of the boy Arthur, student of Merlyn and future king of England, continuing to his ill-fated romance with Guenever and equally ill-fated friendship with Lancelot. T. H. White's interpretation of the Arthurian legend (his principal source seems to be Malory) is my very favorite, its eclectic and very British style an amalgam of medieval, romantic, and thoroughly twentieth century approaches. If Mantel and C. S. Lewis somehow merged and attempted to write Wolf Hall and The Chronicles of Narnia at once, this novel might be the delectable result.