Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me

Almost two months ago some of my Facebook friends started challenging me to name ten influential books that have stayed with me.  I ignored these challenges because I’ve been reading books for 60+ years of life, 19+ years of school, and 30+ years of teaching literature.  It was just too overwhelming to pick ten books on short notice and have it mean anything significant at all.

I did give it some thought, though, and here are my ten books.

1.        Alice in Wonderland.  My parents read this book to me before I could read it for myself.  More than any other children’s book it stirred my imagination and stoked my love of literature from an early age.  I even remember having childhood dreams that sprang from the characters and episodes of this children’s fantasy.  Only later did I come to appreciate the adult themes.

2.       Silver Pennies (  I remember spending hours as a child poring over this children’s poetry collection, memorizing poems, reciting them, acting them out, even taking notes in the margins.  This little book did more to stimulate and develop the early love of poetry that has stayed with me to this day.

3.        Emily Dickinson’s Poetry.  Having been introduced to Emily Dickinson’s poetry in Silver Pennies, I went on to read her collected poems in depth, mesmerized by both the style and content.  Many of the poems were cryptic riddles, but that only whetted my appetite for the joy of analyzing and interpreting literature, as well as enjoying its sensory and psychological pleasures.

4.       The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I read this in ninth grade English at my all-white high school in Lynchburg, Virginia, where schools were still segregated in 1960.  Having learned about the civil rights movement at the family dinner table, where my father frequently held forth on the evils of racism, Jim Crow, and segregation, I was struck by the bond between Huck, the runaway white orphan, and Jim, the runaway black slave.  Later I came to understand the racist elements of the novel, but at the time I was most impressed by the possibilities for interracial friendship and loyalty.

5.       To Kill A Mockingbird.  I read this novel in tenth grade English at the same white high school and have never forgotten the lesson in social inequality and injustice based on race.  My class at E. C. Glass High School was the last all white class to graduate from the school, as it was integrated in my senior year.

I look back in amazement that I read both these books in a segregated high school in the South at the height of the civil rights movement, and, as we studied these novels, we never once had a classroom discussion of how they related to the history unfolding around us.

6.       Catcher in the Rye.  As a teenager I was captivated by Holden Caulfield’s raw adolescent honesty and aversion to adult “phoniness.”  Although I was fairly conformist in those days, I had a secret admiration for the misfits and rebels of society that has stayed with me to this day.

7.       The Sound and the Fury.  More than anything this novel embodies my sense of southern regionalism, especially in the multiple voices of characters that seemed to echo members of my own family.  Though I have now lived longer outside of the South than in it, I still carry with me that underlying burden of Southern history—the loss, the guilt, the love and loyalty, the shame, as well as the enduring sights, sounds, smells of the South—its food, its climate, its landscapes, its flora and fauna, its accents, all of which are bound to my earliest memories.

8.       The Marble Faun.  Despite my roots in the South, I learned to love the literature of 19th century New England and the mid-Atlantic, going on to write my Master’s thesis on Henry James and my doctoral dissertation on Nathaniel Hawthorne.  The theme of Americans in Europe, the Old World and the New World, has always drawn me in, and in none more hauntingly than The Marble Faun, in which New England Puritanism and Old World Catholicism are strongly bound up together in ways that have led me to an abiding interest in history, religion, philosophy, human psychology, and ethics.

9.       Nature.  When I renounced my Southern Baptist upbringing I rejected religion in general.  My World and English History professor in college did succeed in sparking my interest in Anglicanism, but it was Transcendentalism that really made an impact.  This book-length essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson transcends all Christian denominations and all world religions to achieve a kind of religious philosophy or philosophical religion that eventually led me to Unitarian Universalism.  In addition, while most philosophers would laughingly dismiss Emerson as a philosopher, I think his writings show how philosophy and literature can meet and merge.

10.   Moby Dick.  My love of both literature and philosophy makes me a sucker for the philosophical novel or novel of ideas.  This novel is the ultimate smorgasbord of adventure, drama, poetry, comedy, tragedy, allegory, symbolism, psychology, religion, and philosophy, all somehow tied together by unforgettable characters, an unforgettable narrative, and an unforgettable epic style.

Creating this list has accomplished exactly what I thought it would—made me painfully aware of all I have left out.  So many books that have made me who I am, enriched my life, and opened my eyes to worlds beyond my own paltry experience.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Goldfinch

This 2013 novel by Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year.  It received mixed reviews when it was first published and mixed reviews from my literary friends.  Some gave it a thumbs up, some a thumbs down, and some, like me, a sideways thumb.

The strongest reaction from my friends was that it is too long (784 pages), too heavy on detail, repetitive, etc., etc.  I agree that economy is not the author’s strong point, and especially since a lot of the detail involves copious consumption of drugs and alcohol, I almost didn’t finish it myself.  I stuck with it, partly because I was looking for a good reason to award it a Pulitzer Prize; partly because I was curious how the main character, suffering from multiple psychological wounds, was going to end up; and partly because I was quite mesmerized by the actual Fabritius painting “The Goldfinch” as well as its fictional fate in the novel.

In any case, apart from the suspense surrounding Theo Decker’s life drama, starting at age 13 as a motherless, practically fatherless, unintentional art thief, the novel is worth our time for the complexity, the artistry, and the profundity that makes any work of fiction worth reading, however long and drawn out.

By the way, at one point the text indirectly defends the excessive detail in the novel, suggesting that no detail in a work of art is wasted.  The artist is trying to tell us something with every brushstroke.  That may be true, but a writer might be wise to attend to her readers’ capacity, lest she lose them.

As for the complexity, The Goldfinch can be read, studied, and appreciated from numerous perspectives.  It is a coming of age story as Theo is initiated into a world of violence, homelessness, drug addiction, petty theft, as well as not so petty theft, and a whole dark underworld of criminal activity.  It is also a conversion/recovery narrative as he eventually meets what he himself calls his Damascus moment, alone and suicidal in an Amsterdam hotel (on Christmas Day no less), and begins to take responsibility for his past misdeeds and heal from the early and sustained effects of his traumatized childhood.

It is also a realistic study of the dark underside of modern civilization in contemporary settings like New York City, the Las Vegas desert, and Amsterdam.  In these settings the disease of modern life is played out with drugs, alcohol, family dysfunction, gambling, deception, , crime, heartbreak, anxiety, pain, loss, and the incessant longing, not only for freedom from our history and circumstances, but also for the love and belonging that could somehow fill the absence of family and romantic fulfillment.

It is a psychological drama of Oedipal conflict, repressed desire, hostility, and relentless anxiety.

And it is a captivity narrative as Theo is trapped by his personal and social circumstances, his own desires, and the painting itself, his “fateful object.”

At another level it is the universal story of human tragedy and redemption—the hero’s entrance under dangerous conditions, his initiation into evil, withdrawal, trial and quest, the encounter with death, rebirth and return.  In this case the mythic promises of redemption and atonement are muted by the compromises of reality, but they are not entirely denied.  Though in the end Theo calls himself a nihilist, he leaves the door open for God and an afterlife. 

What redeems the “cesspool” of life, Theo comes to see, is art, illusory as it may be, for it is in art that reality strikes up against the ideal, and it is in that space that we glimpse a mysterious something that transcends the human tragedy and the “wreck of time.”

And what redeems The Goldfinch, for all its failures, is the way it weaves great works of art through its narrative, reminding us, as Theo comes to see, how beautiful objects can speak to us past the limitations of time, space, and mortality.

Thus in the first chapter, titled “Boy with a Skull,” Theo’s mother shows him Hal’s painting of the same name just moments before a terrorist explosion rocks the museum, killing her, turning Theo’s like upside down, and thrusting him into a future in which his mother’s absence becomes his constant psychological companion.

In that chapter, his mother, an art lover and student of art history, also delivers a commentary on “The Anatomy Lesson,” in which a cadaver, laid out on a table, is being dissected, surrounded by students and doctors in a medical school.  In chapter two, titled “The Anatomy Lesson,” Theo learns the lessons of loss in the immediate aftermath of his mother’s death.  As the painting exposes the stark mortality of every individual life, so Theo continues to be haunted by his mother’s death just as we are all required to live our own lives in death’s shadow.

But the painting Theo’s mother had really come to see that fateful day is “The Goldfinch” by Fabritius, a trompe l’oeil of a goldfinch “chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.”  In the 17th century goldfinches were popular as indoor pets, chained to their feeders in this fashion, instead of being caged as pet birds are today.  (  A trompe l’oeil is a realistic painting that “deceives the eye” into seeing it as an actual object.  Theo’s mother first loved a reproduction of the painting in an art book she had as a child.  These details become significant later when Hobie, a furniture refinisher who becomes Theo’s surrogate father and the one stable point in his chaotic life, reflects on the value of art even if it is a copy or fake, and when Theo reflects on the value of art even if it is an illusion, because it saves us from gross reality.

The painting of the goldfinch also symbolizes Theo himself, chained to his time and place; chained to his life circumstances; chained to his addictions; chained to the painting itself, which he takes from the museum and has to hide and later rescue; chained to the memory of his mother; chained to a “self one does not want” and “a heart one cannot help.”

The painting thus represents layers and layers of reality and layers and layers of illusion.  The reality of a goldfinch chained to a wall is almost repulsive, but somehow the painting, the deceptive copy of reality, redeems that grossness, that “cesspool,” as Theo calls human reality. 

And the painting, which becomes Theo’s burden, also becomes his salvation, as it lifts him “above the surface of life” and teaches him who he is.  Surrounded by secrets and lies the painting becomes the means of Theo’s redemption, and such is the paradox at the heart of the novel—how truth cannot be separated from falsehood, good from evil, beauty from corruption, love from loathing, life from death.

Ironically, Theo’s friend/enemy, Boris, a Russian immigrant who had lived for a while in Indonesia, converted to Islam, and been given the Arabic name Badr al-Dine (“Badr” means “light”), for all his darkness—drug addiction, crime—becomes the means by which the painting is rescued and Theo is saved from punishment for having innocently removed the painting from the museum in the aftermath of the explosion.  And it is the light that draws Theo’s mother to both the paintings that she loves (“that clear pure daylight” in “The Goldfinch”) and those that she hates (that “radioactive” quality of the corpse in “The Anatomy Lesson”). 

No light without darkness, no darkness without light; no imagination without reality, no reality without imagination; no truth without illusion; no illusion without truth.