Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Dalva Northridge

Dalva, portrait by Jim Harrison
The story of Dalva Northridge is both contemporary and ageless. The main character in two books by Jim Harrison, Dalva [published 1988] and The Road Home [published 1998], Dalva’s is an American story.

When we first meet her, Dalva is 45 and it is 1986. She has just lost her job as a social worker in Los Angeles due to her direct involvement in the case of an abused kid. It would take too long to go through “channels” to help him, so Dalva just took him to a hospital. Having made an enemy of his powerful abuser, Dalva decides to go home.

Home is an inherited ranch in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Her great grandfather Northridge acquired it after failing to help the Sioux (called Lakota among themselves) adjust to their lives after their losses to disease and battle, and the extermination of the buffalo. Northridge imported thousands of trees, made shelterbelts around his land and became nurseryman to the area. He also married a Sioux woman after his Swedish wife died. The son that resulted is Dalva’s grandfather.

Dalva’s mother Naomi has her own homestead nearby. She has been a country schoolteacher for most of her life, a lover of birds and animals as is Dalva. When Dalva’s father died in the Korean war, she and her sister were raised by her mother and grandfather.

Time means very little in Nebraska. The decisive events in Dalva’s life recur again and again for her. Riding around the ranch on her horse, she circles the places where the great love of her life occurred. Duane Stone Horse came to the ranch in 1956 and began to work for her grandfather. Dalva fell in love with him. She slept with him only once, but became pregnant and had a son at 15. Duane disappeared when he was told Dalva is his half sister. His mother, a Sioux woman, had slept with Dalva’s father at a hunting lodge a year before Dalva was born.

Dalva’s baby is given up for adoption at her grandfather’s insistence. We are not given all the details of how Dalva survives this, but she is helped by her close family. She goes to college, gets a master’s degree and works at various jobs. In one page she tells the story of her working history: “I had always worked because nothing whatsoever in my background had prepared me to act like a rich person, a notorious non-profession, the dregs of which everyone has witnessed in life, or in magazines and on television … All of this adds up to a wonderfully undistinguished career, but an interesting enough life.”

She is in New York in 1972 when Duane Stone Horse calls Naomi from Key West. Dalva goes to him. Duane is dying and wants Dalva, and his son if she can find him, to have the benefits accruing from his army career. He has a sackful of medals from having spent a record amount of time in combat in the Vietnam war, but his kidneys, liver, pancreas, stomach are all shot, the trailer where he lives full of medicine bottles. The captain of a fishing boat marries them and Duane and Dalva fall asleep holding each other. In the middle of the night Duane disappears, riding his horse into the ocean. His body is never found.

Dalva never finds a love to equal her love of Duane. She continues to work, but uses her wealth to fuel her uncompromising nature and restlessness. When she comes home to the ranch in 1986, she begins to look for her son, although everyone tells her it is up to the son to look for her. Also the Northridge saga envelops her. At the ranch are Dalva’s great-grandfather’s secret journals, valuable paintings and native American artifacts which many think belong in a museum. A Stanford historian says that “other than southern New Mexico with its remnant Apache and Comanche conflicts at the end of the century, this was the last area in America where the full collision of cultures had taken place.”

The summer Dalva returns to the ranch, Nelse, a young man who “prefers sky to ceilings,” arrives to work on a Breeding Bird Survey of a section of the ranch. He works with Naomi, who knows instantly that he is Dalva’s son because he looks so much like Duane. He has been nosing around Dalva for months, afraid of showing himself. When he finally meets Dalva, he says she doesn’t look old enough to be his mother. “Oh my God I was only a kid when I had you,” she says.

Finding her son helps Dalva in many ways. Nelse is much like Duane and they become, she thinks, the closest of friends. It is also clear he is able to take on the Northridge mantle and inherit the ranch. In May of the next year, Dalva and Nelse go on a camping trip together, but Dalva is ill. She is taking many pills and has an appointment at Sloan-Kettering in New York. When Nelse realizes how ill she is, he pushes up the appointment. Dalva has ovarian cancer, which has metastasized into the rest of her organs. She refuses the radical chemo and radiation offered and goes back to the ranch to say goodbye to her beloved family. She goes to Key West and drowns herself, writing in a final journal that “I hope I am going to join my lover.”

Dalva’s story is embedded in a rich, overlapping narrative told by many characters. The notebooks of the first John Wesley Northridge tell of his life in the late 1800’s. Dalva’s grandfather, mother, uncle and son each tell their own stories, as does Dalva herself. The picture that emerges is of the kind of nobility which results from hard work, luck and inheritance on the dry plains of western Nebraska. “How could this happen, when there’s an ocean?” asks Dalva when she sees what is done to her charge in Los Angeles. Nelse says, “Drugs are vehicles for people who have forgotten how to walk.” Though Dalva has spent much of her life in cities, she is not in sync with civilization, but with the natural world as it still exists in less-inhabited places.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Tina Modotti

Tina Modotti 1924, by Edward Weston
Tina Modotti was at the center of artistic and revolutionary movements in Mexico from 1923 to 1930. She was born in Italy in 1896 and became a fine photographer, before becoming a communist and doing aid work through International Red Aid. Mysterious and provocative, her life gives one answer to the pressing question of how art and life can be integrated. She was 46 at the time of her death.

As a young immigrant to the United States, Tina lived in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles, becoming involved in film and meeting Edward Weston, who financed his photography with a portraiture business. Tina became his favorite model. When Tina decided to move to Mexico, Weston left his family (though taking his eldest son with him) and went with her. Tina apprenticed herself to Weston, learning photography and print-making, and in return, managed the studio they opened in Mexico City.

Mexico was in a cultural renaissance and Weston’s photos of Tina were published ahead of their arrival. They were welcomed everywhere. Their friends included the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco and many others. Tina’s photographs (made with the large format cameras Weston favored) began to be published and shown alongside Weston’s. She became the favorite documentation photographer for the muralists. Rivera met Frieda Kahlo at one of Tina’s parties.

“Tina had become increasingly idealistic and was moving towards a deeper commitment to revolutionary art and politics,” writes her biographer Margaret Hooks in Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary. The great love between Weston and Tina eroded due to jealousy. Both of them took lovers as they pleased. When Weston returned to California in 1926, Tina took an apartment which became a center for local communist leaders and political exiles. She also began to photograph social injustice, political rallies, workers and the poor.

In 1927, Tina became a member of the communist party. She was involved with Xavier Guerrero and the Cuban Julio Antonio Mella whose assassination was never solved. A student who knew her at the time writes: “She was a free woman; I mean, she did not have the usual limitations that women in Mexico had. She was very intelligent and quick to express herself, a rapid thinker … extroverted and very sure of herself. What immediately attracted you to her was her great human empathy.” As the political stew thickened around her, she was estranged from Diego Rivera because of politics. She became the victim of sensationalist journalism and police surveillance. In 1930 she was arrested and deported to Europe.

In Europe, Tina was no longer able to support herself with photography. She worked for communist aid organizations and went to Moscow with the nefarious Italian operative Vittorio Vidali. In Moscow, she gave up her camera and photographic work. During the Spanish Civil War, she was in Spain, working in hospitals, sometimes in disguise, for the Republicans. As Spain fell to the Fascists, Tina joined a wave of refugees crossing the Pyrenees into France with no more than the clothes on her back.

When Tina tried to land in New York in 1939, her sister waiting for her, she was turned away. Immigration officials were reluctant to let in Spanish refugees and insisted Tina continue on to Mexico. She traveled under an assumed name, but was terrified Mexico would not take her back. She did get back in to Mexico, however, and spent her time working with aid organizations for the Spanish refugees. Her health grew poor and she stayed home more, typing and translating. She died in a taxi of heart failure three years later.

I first learned about Tina from the Daybooks of Edward Weston. The work Weston did in Mexico depended upon Tina’s friendships and language abilities but when he left Tina in Mexico, I lost track of this intriguing, mysterious woman. In Margaret Hooks’ above-mentioned book the rest of the story is told. The book is filled with portraits of her by Weston as well as her own most famous photographs.

Modotti’s work is the complement of Edward Weston’s. She said at one point, “I cannot solve the problem of life by losing myself in the problem of art.” Weston had said the opposite. Her epitaph was written by Pablo Neruda:

“Pure your gentle name, pure your fragile life,
bees, shadows, fire, snow, silence and foam,
combined with steel and wire and
pollen to make up your firm
and delicate being.”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Aksinia Astakhova

Mikhail Sholokhov’s books, translated as And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea, written 1926-1940, turn on one of the most grounded and passionate relationships in literature. Aksinia Astakhova and Gregor Melekhov are neighbors, their farmsteads on the banks of the Don at the end of the village of Tatarsk.

Kuban Cossack
Still only 20, Aksinia’s husband Stepan doesn’t love her. When Stepan is mobilized, Gregor and Aksinia fight off the feelings they have for each other without success. Soon the whole village knows of their liaison. “After the mowing Aksinia was a changed woman: as though someone had set a mark, burned a brand on her face. … She carried her happy, shameful head proudly and high.” They talk of running away, but Gregor feels there is nowhere to run to. “I’ll never stir anywhere away from the land. Here there is the steppe and something to breathe.” When Stepan gets home, he beats Aksinia savagely. Aksinia lives with him anyway, drowning her thoughts in household duties.

For the sake of honor, Gregor and Aksinia stay away from each other. Gregor’s parents marry him off to Natalia, who loves him. Natalia shrinks from bodily pleasures, however, and Gregor cannot help but think about Aksinia. Gregor leaves his family and goes to work at a nearby landowners’ estate, taking Aksinia with him. When Gregor is called up for military service in 1914, he leaves Aksinia on the estate, with their child. War with Austria begins.

Gregor’s family first receive a message that he died in battle, then a message saying he is alive. Gregor spends a long time in the hospital. He has received the Cross of St. George, but is beginning to see that he is fighting for an upper class which disrespects him. Aksinia’s little daughter dies. Left alone on the estate and in great pain, she allows the landlord to come to her. When Gregor comes back, he punishes both of them and leaves, going back to live with his parents and his wife.

Battles become more confusing. The Russian army fragments as some become Bolsheviks. In a battle, Gregor saves Stepan, Aksinia’s husband. “Strongly Gregor defended his Cossack honor, seizing every opportunity of displaying immortal prowess … but he knew that he no longer laughed as in former days, that his eyes were sunken and his cheekbones stood out sharply. He knew what price he had paid for his crosses and medals.” War turns to revolution and then to civil war. The Cossacks fight on the side of the White Russian army and Gregor is made an officer. Aksinia returns to Tatarsk on the Don when her husband returns from prison in Germany.

The Don area is enclosed on two sides by Red forces in the civil war. Gregor is home on leave now and then. Natalia has given him two children. She reproaches him for drinking and going with women, but he says “I’ve got no pity left for anyone. The war’s dried it all out of me. … Look into my soul and you’ll find a blackness like an empty well.” In fact, he sends for Aksinia, asking her to come to the nearby town where the regiment is stationed. “Occasionally Gregor awoke after a brief, stupefying sleep and saw Aksinia’s attentive eyes fixed on him in the twilight as though she were learning his features by heart … ‘I want to look my fill of you. They’ll kill you; my heart tells me so.’”

Natalia lays hands on herself. Gregor’s family believes his wife went to her death because of Aksinia and do not want anything to do with her. The area around the Don is being fiercely fought over. When the Whites retreat from Tatarsk, Gregor takes Aksinia with him. But she catches typhus and he must leave her. When she is well again, she makes her way home after many days. Gregor’s mother comes to ask after him and from that day on Aksinia and his family are united in their concern for him. That spring, the women of the village sow a little wheat on the parched earth.

Gregor switches sides and fights for the Reds. When the civil war is finally settled and the Reds take over, Gregor returns home, where his mother has now died, his sister has married a Bolshevik and Aksinia is glad to see him. The Reds are suspicious of Gregor, however, and arresting former officers of the Whites. Rather than be punished, Gregor disappears and fights with a rebel band. There is no discipline, however, and he finally can’t stand it. He returns to his village for Aksinia, who joins him, riding off and camping in a lovely dell. “I’ve learned to live like a hare,” he tells her. They are surprised and shot at by a patrol. Aksinia is hit. She never speaks or wakes. Gregor buries her, losing all interest in life until he finally goes back to look for his children.

At different points in my young life, I needed to know about passion: whether it was allowed, whether it could be survived. The Cossacks described by Sholokhov own up to passion. They live with it in close proximity to each other. This is a long tale, in which there is much fighting and discussion of politics. But it is clear that the real passions of the Cossacks involve their land and their families. Aksinia has no allies in this story, nothing but her love of Gregor and the great, fecund steppe. In the end she sits beside Gregor in the grass as he sleeps. “’My dear, Grisha darling, the grey hairs you’ve got!’ she whispered. ‘So you’re growing old? And yet it’s not so long ago that you were a boy.’”

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Kezia Burnell

Katherine Mansfield
The child Kezia Burnell stands in for the writer Katherine Mansfield in her family stories “Prelude” and “At the Bay,” and the delightful story “The Doll’s House,” all set in New Zealand in the 1890’s. It is this little kid, resistant to class and wealth consciousness and fascinated by the world, that makes these family stories incomparable.

Kezia’s family moves from Wellington to a small suburb at the edge of a bay, a beautiful spot where the early morning mist recedes, leaving “the leaping, glittering sea so bright it made one’s eyes ache to look at it.” On the day of the move there is no room in the buggy for Kezia and Lottie, so they are made to stay in town with a neighbor, and go out with the store-man later. The neighbor boys tease them asking them whether they would like strawberries and cream for tea, when all there is to eat is bread and dripping. Kezia “sat with her head bent, and as the tear dripped slowly down, she caught it with a neat little whisk of her tongue and ate it before any of them had seen.”

The girls have never been out so late. Kezia falls asleep in the wagon and when she wakes they are stopping in front of a long, low white house with a verandah where the lights flicker from room to room as someone walks through with a lamp. It is Kezia’s grandmother, come to welcome them. In the morning Kezia explores the garden, finding a tall, mysterious plant, swelling up with cruel leaves and a tall fleshy stem. Her mother says it is an aloe, which blooms once every hundred years. When the cousins come to play the next day, they watch Pat the Irish handyman chop the head off a duck. The children are terribly excited, but Kezia wraps her arms around Pat's legs and demands he put the head back on. At dinner her father slices into the duck with great pride.

Stanley, Kezia’s competitive father, swims early in the morning in the bay. When he goes off to work each morning, the women folk he leaves at home heave a sigh of relief! The children rush to the beach to spend the day with their cousins, Kezia stopping to wait for her younger sister who cannot climb over the stile. Their aunt Beryl bathes with a cold society woman and their mother dreams the morning away in a steamer chair under a manuka tree, beside her latest child, a son. She has little energy and leaves the work of the household to Kezia’s energetic grandmother.

In the evening Kezia and her siblings and cousins assemble in the washhouse, each of them a different animal. Pip, the bull with a pack of cards, explains the game. “It was very exciting, sitting there in the washhouse; it was all they could do not to burst into a little chorus of animals before Pip had finished dealing.” It grows dark and the children wish someone would come to collect them. Finally, Lottie screams when she sees a dark face pressed against the window. It is their uncle, come to take the cousins home.

When the children are given a wonderful doll house so big it won’t fit in the house, it is put on wooden boxes in the courtyard. The side of the house swings back to reveal the rooms inside, carpeted and wallpapered, with furniture. “But what Kezia liked more than anything, what she liked frightfully, was the lamp.” The dolls were too big, looking like they didn’t belong, but the lamp was perfect. The Burnell children are allowed to ask their school friends, two by two, over to see the doll’s house, everyone except the Kelveys who are shunned because they are the daughters of a washerwoman and an unknown father. Kezia wants to ask the Kelveys to see the doll house, but her mother says she may not. When she does sneak them into the courtyard to see it one day, her Aunt Beryl surprises them and drives them off. Upon leaving, the younger Kelvey says to her sister, “I seen the little lamp,” sharing with Kezia reverence for the beautiful little object.

As a young woman Katherine Mansfield couldn’t stand the provincialism of her home and demanded to go live in England. “Prelude” was an early story published by Hogarth Press in 1918. The other two were written somewhat later, when she was no longer able to return to New Zealand due to her deteriorating health. She wrote to her father “the longer I live, the more I return to New Zealand. A young country is a real heritage, though it takes one time to remember it. But New Zealand is in my very bones.” Mansfield died of tuberculosis at 34.

Kezia is a nostalgic look back at a kind, resourceful and courageous little girl sustained by her wonderful grandmother. I doubt Mansfield herself was quite this perfect! But the intuition and the ability to see what was important must have been there. All of the members of the extended Burnell family are wonderfully described in the three stories about them. They each have their personality and their reasons, concisely and vividly rendered. I wanted for a long time to write a screenplay using the stories of this family in their evocative landscape. Mansfield’s stories are rightly celebrated, often feeling as if they were written yesterday. But none are richer than those with the little Kezia at their heart.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Rosa Burger

Rosa Burger, the main character of Nadine Gordimer’s book Burger’s Daughter (1979) is first seen at age 14 outside the prison where her mother has been interned, bringing her a hot water bottle and a quilt. Both her father and mother are white Afrikaner leftists in South Africa during the time of apartheid. They know they will be imprisoned for their beliefs, but continue to do what they can to work toward “the national liberation of the African people, and thus the abolishment of discrimination and extension of political rights to all the peoples of this country,” as her father states in the last speech he is allowed.

Nadine Gordimer
When both of her parents successively die, Rosa is left free, as her friend Conrad says, but wrestling with their legacy. She has work as a physiotherapist, but slips further and further away from the political friends her parents cultivated, seeking a life of her own. But it takes a long time, and she must dig down to understand how conditioned she is to the high-minded political cause which is more important than the individuals who try to perpetuate it.

Her friend Conrad says, “I am the only person alive.” That is the existential truth for him. But for Rosa, it is not. Rosa reminds him of “the bourgeois fate, alternate to Lionel Burger’s: to eat without hunger, mate without desire.” The Burgers embraced communism because at the time it was the only way to get beyond race. Rosa sees that her parents “had a connection with blacks that was completely personal. … The political activities and attitudes of the house came from the inside outwards, and blacks in that house where there was no God felt this embrace before the Cross. At last there was nothing between this skin and that. At last nothing between the white man’s word and his deed.”

Rosa continues moving outward. She wrests a passport from one of the “new Afrikaners” and, though under surveillance, uses it to go to France. She wants to know what it is like somewhere else. Katya, her father’s first wife whom Rosa has never known, welcomes Rosa to her home in a village near Nice. Rosa is taken in to the frivolous community, in which pleasure, food, sunshine, gardens, pets are the only reality. They are thrilled when she meets a man who becomes her lover, a professor down from Paris, Bernard Chabalier. The paintings of Bonnard crystallize the place for her. In them Chabalier points out, it is as if nothing’s happened. Not the growth of fascism, two world wars, the occupation. Katya and her friends live from day to day.

Rosa and Chabalier travel together, he outlines the life she might live with him in Paris. They are very much in love. But in London, Rosa runs into the black man who had lived in her home when they were children, Baasie. He is angry with her, angry that Rosa’s father is extolled while his, who also died in prison, is forgotten. He refuses to see Rosa again. But the talk with Baasie ignites her. She can no longer live in Europe as if nothing was happening. She returns to South Africa and takes a job in a black hospital.

In 1976 during the Soweto riots, the hospital is filled with victims. Rosa sees that it is the children that are now making the demand for human rights, radicalizing their parents. “The children kept on walking toward the police and the guns.” Rosa is detained on October 19, 1977, like hundreds of others, without charges. In the women’s prison she finds ways to communicate with other women she knows, singing and laughing together. Her lawyer expects that she will get out, though will probably be under house arrest.

Nadine Gordimer, who died this year on July 13, did not consider herself as political as the “white hard-core Leftists” working in the atmosphere of apartheid in South Africa. But she was a member of the ANC and aided the revolutionaries. Lionel Burger is somewhat modeled on Bram Fischer, Nelson Mandela’s defense attorney. In the 1960’s when Mandela and Fischer were imprisoned, Gordimer considered leaving South Africa, but decided not to. “I wouldn't be accepted as I was here, even in the worst times and even though I'm white,” she said. Staying was a political act.

Perhaps none of us believe we have done enough to end suffering, yet all of our daily choices have political consequences. In this book, I saw the powerful contrast between the community in France in which each person looked out for his or her own material advantage, and the high-minded community in South Africa fostered by Rosa Burger’s family, which worked for human rights.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Aline Charigot Renoir

Detail from Luncheon of the Boating Party
Pierre-Auguste Renoir met his wife, Aline Charigot, in 1881 in Paris. She was 19, a dressmaker, and he was 40, an impoverished painter, whose work had hung in the first Impressionist exhibition. All of my knowledge of Aline Renoir comes from the wonderful book Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir, first published in English in 1962. Almost nowhere else have I found such a clear picture of the wholeness of a consciously-created family. It was due in great part to Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s ideas, but in Aline he found the perfect partner.

Aline Charigot had grown up in Essoyes, near Burgundy. Renoir admired her skill. “She had hands that could do things,” he told his son. She is to be seen in a number of Renoir’s pictures. Jean Renoir writes, “From the moment he took up a brush to paint, perhaps even earlier … Renoir was painting the portrait of Aline Charigot.” Since Renoir’s time, his son asserts, the world has seen an influx of little round, plump beings with beautiful red cheeks.

Aline wanted to have children, which didn’t exactly fit in with the requirements of a man who had devoted himself to painting. Due to fears that he could not support her, and the travel he was doing for his work, they did not marry until 1890. But in the end Renoir decided life without Aline would not be complete. “She gave me the time to think,” Renoir told his son. “She kept an atmosphere of activity around me, exactly suited to my needs and concerns.”

In the early years in Paris, the Renoirs gave little dinners for their artist friends serving bouillabaisse or chicken saute with mushrooms; if money was scarce, pot-au-feu. No matter how hard times were, Aline always managed to receive her husband’s friends. Her cooking was quick, uncomplicated, definite and orderly. “She fitted in well with Renoir’s rule of making plenty out of little. ‘Use only the best, but frugally.’”

“By confining her activities to what she knew best, she won the admiration and respect of all who met her.” Jean Renoir writes that one evening at the opening of an exhibition, Degas noticed the simple little dress Aline was wearing and said to Renoir: “Your wife looks like a queen surrounded by mountbanks.”

Aline did not spoil her children. “It’s much easier to let them have their way, but it makes life harder for them later on,” she said. When Jean Renoir was growing up, the Renoirs took a house in Essoyes for the summer holidays, a wine-growing region with vaulted cellars hewn out of rock where the Renoirs would get pitchers of wine. Aline’s talent for management was very important as the household grew larger and she herself became less active. When the Renoir’s last house in Cagnes was purchased, she remained a “peasant to her fingertips,” he son writes, tending olive and orange trees, planting vegetable gardens and vineyards.

Because it was so important to him, Aline organized the household around Renoir’s work. In looking at it so long, she grew to love and understand his painting. He thought that “profound, dramatic or passionate concerns set the seal of the transient on face and body, whereas … art is concerned only with the eternal.” Renoir was “always discovering and rediscovering the world at every instant of his existence, with every breath of fresh air he drew. Whether he painted the same girl or the same bunch of grapes a hundred times, each occasion was a marvelous revelation to him.” Jean Renoir writes: “In his world mind is liberated from matter, not by ignoring it but by penetrating it. The blossom of the linden-tree and the bee sipping the honey from it follow the same rhythm as the blood circulating under the skin of the young girl sitting on the grass … The world is one.”

Though we don’t get to live quite like French peasants, Don and I certainly have their tastes.  And we do, as best exemplified by the Renoirs, prefer the real to the romantic. Aline Renoir’s emotional intelligence matched Renoir’s commitment to his work and nurtured in her children an equal love of the real world. Her son Jean Renoir is among the world’s great filmmakers, having made The Rules of the Game and The Grand Illusion in the 1930’s. And then he wrote Renoir, My Father! Aline Renoir exemplifies for me the art of living well.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Sayward Luckett Wheeler

One of the great American heroines hardly anyone knows is Sayward Luckett. At fifteen Sayward walks with her family from Lancaster, Pennsylvania into the Ohio Valley. They carry their few possessions on their backs and set themselves up in a lean-to under the great trees: “a sea of solid treetops broken only by some gash where deep beneath the foliage an unknown stream made its way. As far as the eye could reach, this lonely forest sea rolled on and on till its faint blue billows broke against an incredibly distant horizon.” Sayward is the principal character in Conrad Richter’s trilogy The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), sometimes published together as The Awakening Land. She lives from approximately 1780 to 1860.

Pioneer Courage Sculpture, Blair Buswell and Edward Fraughton

Sayward’s father is a “woodsie” who feeds his family by hunting game. Her mother is consumptive and lives only a few months after they arrive in Ohio. The four younger children look to Sayward to keep the family together, especially after their father starts disappearing. This Sayward does, despite the loss of Sulie (to the Delaware; when she is found later she will not speak to her sisters) and the marriage of her sister Genny to a rogue who really loves her sister Achsa. Her brother Wyitt takes after Sayward’s father and is hardly willing to sleep inside the log house, though he does keep them in meat when their father leaves for good.

When Sayward sees that her brothers and sisters have grown up, she gets lonesome. In their hijinks, a group of townsmen decide they should marry off “the solitary.” “You can bring him to my cabin,” says Sayward. She has noticed that though he drinks heavily, when Portius Wheeler makes a speech on Independence Day, everyone takes note. An educated man, a “Bay State lawyer,” no one knows why Portius is letting himself go to seed in their little pioneer town.

Though Portius lights out the first night when the men try to put him to bed with his new wife, he returns, telling her, “Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.” He and Sayward make a good match and have many children. At first they work together to clear trees and make a farm. As the community grows, more people need Portius’ skill as a lawyer. Sayward, who is illiterate, feels Portius should stick to his books and teach the first school, making use of his education, while she works to enlarge the farm, learning weaving and other skills.

After eight children, Sayward decides she doesn’t want any more and says she won’t sleep in Portius’ bed. She is the last to know when Portius takes up with a schoolteacher who has a child and is married off to Jake Tench, one of the murkier characters of the town. When she does learn of it, Sayward says nothing but goes out, yokes up the oxen and sets herself to plowing. “When this inside of her wore off a little against Portius, she reckoned she’d better move over here for the night … Of course, never had she thought she would sleep in Portius’ off-the-floor bed, and rather she wouldn’t, but you didn’t go on rathers in this life. She better go along quiet as she could now in her cherry yoke and bear her load.” Sayward and Portius soon have two more children, but the child the teacher bears also has a part in the story.

As the book continues, we see more of Sayward’s children. The community is changing. The children listen rapt as Portius tries to talk Sayward into giving up some land for a fine new house that Portius will put up with money from his Bay State family. “Her eyes mutinied and her lips got ropier, but never did she tell her true reason for not wishing to give up this cabin. It was deep down, a part of her flesh and bones, and hardly would Portius understand it, for he was of gentleman stock, used to riding and having things done for him. Now she was of common stock, used to walking where she wanted to go and working with her hands for what she got.”

When Portius runs out of money, Sayward is left to finish the mansion house. It feels strange to her. “She would have given a good deal to be back in the cabin, but she was only thankful she had a kitchen here. It helped her to start a fire and feel her own pots and pans in her hands. Here with the smell of mush and coffee over the fire, she believed she could come when she got homesick and find relief.”

Perhaps I identify with Sayward as the oldest of a bunch of siblings, but I also love her for her balance and sanity. Never for a moment does Sayward forget who she is and who Portius was when she took him as a husband. She has a lot to contend with in life, but she always stands on her own two, and together, she and Portius are enormously productive. In the way of my own family, hardly anything is discussed directly in Sayward’s family, but everyone, through observation and custom, knows how each other feels. Often what happens in a public gathering confirms what everyone knows is happening in private.

Richter acknowledges his use of historical books and manuscripts to develop the speech of the time. “This early, vigorous spoken language, contrary to public belief, had its considerable origin in the Northeastern states … [It should be] a living reminder of the great mother tongue of early America,” says Richter. Though the point of view shifts, it is Sayward’s story which took over the book. It is a wonderful embodiment of the history of the period. Richter was only ten years older than the much-admired Hemingway and Faulkner. I am hard-pressed to find as wonderful a female character in any of their work, however.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Zhenia Luvers

Evgenia, Evgeni and Boris Pasternak
Zhenia Luvers, the protagonist of The Childhood of Luvers, by Boris Pasternak (1918) grows up in a house full of “mournful confusion.” Her parents are well-off, but generally either absent or unhappy. She and her brother are bewildered. Zhenia wants only to understand the names of things, such as the factory her father directs, which looks so strange at night on the bank across the river. His clients give the family bearskins as presents. A white bearskin is purchased for Zhenia. One day she sees spots of blood on the white fur. It is her own. She takes the powder which belongs to the French governess and tries to whiten the stains, but the French governess slaps her. Just at that moment, her mother returns, and amid tears learns the truth. Zhenia is growing up.

Spring comes, and inexplicably, the parents are happy. The father brings jewels as presents, some “resembled drops of almond milk, others splashes of blue water colour … others sparked gaily with the sparkle of the frozen juice of blood oranges.” The family boards a train in the evening and Zhenia sleeps. When she wakens in an upper bunk, she cannot take her eyes off the mountainous panorama that rolls past the window. The man who shares their compartment explains that a signpost with the word “Asia” on it will soon appear. Her brother tells Zhenia that the Ural Mountains are the natural border between Europe and Asia. She is terribly excited that they will cross this frontier. All heads on the train pop out the windows as the signpost appears and they leave “dust-laden, wearisome Europe.”

In the new house, everything is different. The milk is brought by Ulyasha in two pails. In the kitchen there is “less crockery, but there was the wonderful iced butter on the damp maple-leaves.” Once they are settled and summer is over, Zhenia is sent to school. “Life ceased to be a poetical caprice; it fermented around her like a harsh and evil-coloured fable – in so far as it became prose and was transformed into fact.”

Her parents go to the theatre in the sleigh in a snowstorm, while Zhenia withdraws to her room with a book of fairy tales. The snow outside is so bright, she hardly needs light to read by. She goes to bed at midnight, and wakes to shouts, banging and a woman screaming. It is her mother. Zhenia and her brother are sent away to friends.

Zhenia is miserable and wants to go home, but she tries to be a good guest. Alone, she breaks down. She realizes that she is like her mother, that her mother is in her. She asks the friend whose home she is in, “Could you have a child?” “Of course, like every other girl,” is the reply. When she goes home a few weeks later, the doctor tells her what happened. The family horse trampled a man as her parents came home from the theatre and her mother gave birth to a little dead boy. Speaking to her tutor later, she finds the dead man is his friend, a man she has seen. For the first time she is truly aware of people outside her family. The tutor sees that she has changed completely. She had been a child, but now she is a woman.

Pasternak chose to tell this story of a young girl awakening in her perceptions. The story is of one piece with his method, which compresses so many details, so much of the real that it is difficult to read. As we go, we perceive things as a confused young girl might, only slowly piecing them together. She doesn’t understand much of what she is aware of, and the reader doesn’t either.

I’ve read this story many times. I am hampered, of course, by my lack of Russian, but also the vivid details crowd each other, every sentence rich with possible meanings. For me, Pasternak is one of the great writers, showing us that the small, reasonable world we inhabit is actually full of wonders. “So that there shall be no dead branches in the soul, so that its growth shall not be retarded, so that man shall be incapable of mingling his narrow mind with the creation of his immortal essence, there exists a number of things to turn his vulgar curiosity away from life, which does not wish to work in his presence and in every way avoids him … Hence all respectable religions, all generalizations, all prejudices and the most amusing and brilliant of them all – psychology.”

Note to Readers: In English, The Childhood of Luvers is contained in Safe Conduct, An Autobiography and Other Writings, by Boris Pasternak, published by New Directions Paperbook, copyright 1949.

Before I was thirty I had set up a canon of “five books” which were to be my education. The women in each of the books excited me as much as the intellectual adventures detailed in them. One of the five books was The Childhood of Luvers by Boris Pasternak. After meditating on these books for almost fifteen years, I wrote an essay called “Stone Books: An Education,” 1990. In it, it is easy to see the preoccupations of the five books reflecting off one another. Since it is too long to post in a blog (nine pages), I offer it to anyone who requests it (in a .pdf format) from lightlyheldbooks at gmail dot com.

Monday, March 24, 2014


For a few months in 1926, Andre Breton was mesmerized by a young woman whose perceptions were intense, but irrational. He met her on the streets of Paris, idling near the bookstalls. “She carried her head high, unlike everyone else on the sidewalk. And she looked so delicate she scarcely seemed to touch the ground as she walked. A faint smile may have been wandering across her face.”

Leona Camille Ghislain Delcourt
Nadja was a real woman who allowed herself to become part of Andre Breton’s experiments in surrealism, and gave her name to his manifesto Nadja (1928), translated into English by Richard Howard. She had chosen the name Nadja for herself, she said,“because in Russian it’s the beginning of the word hope, and because it’s only the beginning.”

Breton and Nadja meet each day. She tells him stories of “ceaselessly relying on miracle” to get herself from day to day. He tells her about the connections he and his friends are making between their mental perceptions and concrete, actual things and places. Walking around Paris, they attempt to leave their movements entirely to chance, admitting themselves “to an almost forbidden world of sudden parallels, petrifying coincidences, and reflexes peculiar to each individual, of harmonies struck as though on the piano, flashes of light that would make you see, really see, if only they were not so much quicker than all the rest.”

While in a taxi with his wife and a friend, “some sudden vividness on the left-hand sidewalk, at the corner of Saint-Georges, makes me almost mechanically knock on the window. It is as if Nadja had just passed by. I run, completely at random, in one of the three directions she might have taken. And as a matter of fact it is Nadja.”

Traveling together they find that everyone is looking at them. Not just at Nadja, but at the two of them. “They can’t believe it, you see, they can’t get over seeing us together. That’s how rare that fire is in your eyes, and in mine,” Nadja says.

They continue to meet, and Nadja makes several drawings which are reproduced in the text, but she becomes increasingly careless and it becomes more clear to Breton that he can do nothing for her. She is committed to the Vaucluse sanitarium. Breton fears he has aided in her madness, but, he says, “the well-known lack of frontiers between non-madness and madness does not induce me to accord a different value to the perceptions and ideas which are the result of one or the other.” Nadja’s identity has been uncovered by a Dutch writer, Hester Albach, following the clues in Breton’s book and a cache of letters bound up with the manuscript. She was Leona Camille Ghislain Delcourt, who arrived in Paris in the mid-1920’s and died in 1941.

For a long time, I was fascinated by the Surrealists, specifically by their attempt to move from abstract thinking to an understanding of the concrete. As Anna Balakian says in Surrealism: the Road to the Absolute, “one of the basic characteristics of the surrealist mind is its uncompromising will to find a foolproof unity in the universe.” I was looking for that too and I kept returning to the mysterious texts in which Breton and Louis Aragon and others sought, with great honesty, to relate what they were doing.

Balakian pointed out Breton’s vigorous optimism, his protest against Western philosophy’s tendency to rationalize the miseries of the human condition and his intent of world transformation. Breton continued his fight for many years though it may be hard to see today.

Jean Markale, in The Celts: Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture (a book written with perhaps more intuition than scholarship), describes the race which inhabited most of Europe before they were pushed to its western edges by the Romans and the Saxons. They left no writing, but many artifacts. Nevertheless, Markale says: “All the great endeavours of the Western world can be traced back to the Celtic mind, for behind them there is a dynamic force which seeks always to change, to shatter the narrow confines of arbitrary and unmoving reason.”

Markale notes that Breton saw in his Celtic heritage the light he was trying to pass on. He quotes Breton: “I, too, am part of the moorlands of Brittany. They have often tortured me but I love the will-o-the-wisp light they keep in my heart. Inasmuch as that light has reached me, I have done what was in my power to pass it on: I am proud to think that it has not yet gone out.”

Note to Readers: Before I was thirty I had set up a canon of “five books” which were to be my education. The women in each of the books excited me as much as the intellectual adventures detailed in them. One of the five books was Nadja, by Andre Breton. After meditating on these books for almost fifteen years, I wrote an essay called “Stone Books: An Education,” 1990. In it, it is easy to see the preoccupations of the five books reflecting off one another. Since it is too long to post in a blog (nine pages), I offer it to anyone who requests it (in a .pdf format) from lightlyheldbooks at gmail dot com.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sara Pargiter

Sometimes “something came to the surface, inappropriately, unexpectedly, from the depths of people, and made ordinary actions, ordinary words, expressive of the whole being.” Virginia Woolf’s The Years (1937) is made up of these moments in the lives of a large extended family, showing many ways of being British in the early part of the Twentieth Century, from a titled lady who would rather be a farmer, to an African farmer returned home. Spanning fifty years, it is so full of life it is hard to hold it all at once as you read. Of the characters in it, I found Sara most deeply fascinating.

Sara is the daughter of Colonel Pargiter’s brother Digby. Dropped as a baby, Sara has a slight deformity, a hunched shoulder which doesn’t affect her high spirits. We meet her as a child, dancing wildly around a bonfire in the middle of a London garden with her sister. A few years later we see her at home in her attic room, looking out the window at the people coming and going from parties. “The dotted square of green was full of the flowing pale figures of women in evening dress; of the upright black and white figures of men in evening dress.” She watches a couple and imagines what they are saying to each other. “A fragment of my heart, my broken heart.”

As she grows older, Sara (sometimes called Sally) lives in reduced circumstances, but this doesn't affect her spirits either. Her cousin Martin, seeing her on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral takes her to a chop house and then goes with her to Hyde Park, where they meet Sara’s sister with her sleeping baby at the Round Pond. As Martin and Maggie talk, Sara falls asleep under the trees, “netted with floating lozenges of light from between the leaves.” Martin’s sister Rose is in prison for participating in a suffragette march and throwing a brick.

Sara always seems to be “balancing herself on the arm of a chair, sipping coffee and swinging her foot up and down,” making sharp, incisive comments about what she observes. Or, alternately, spinning what she sees into imaginative stories, usually with the ring of truth. I adored Sara’s insouciance, kept reading the book over and over to try to see her whole. I am sure Virginia was describing her young self in Sara.

But another aspect of Virginia is depicted in Eleanor, the practical eldest of the Pargiter children. Some composite of Vanessa Bell [Virginia’s sister] and Virginia, Eleanor energetically moves about London, working with charitable organizations, hopping on buses and using the telephone in the final chapter. Eleanor, fresh from the country is glad to be back in London, breathing in the soft air, expanding in “the uproar, the confusion, the space of the Strand.” This London, in which many of Virginia’s friends live within walking distance of each other, and of the reading room at the British Museum, is terribly attractive.

In the final chapter of the book, all the Pargiters meet at a party. Eleanor is in her 70’s. She has never married but remains interested in everything. Her nephew North says “Old Eleanor, with all her rambling and stumbling, was worth a dozen of Peggy [his sister who is a doctor] any day.” Sara is attached to Nicholas, a Pole who “loves those of his own sex.” She dances with him and later falls asleep. When she wakes the dawn is breaking. “There against the window, gathered in a group, were the old brothers and sisters. ‘Look, Maggie,’ she whispered, turning to her sister. ‘Look!’”

Virginia Woolf made several attempts to write the book that eventually became The Years. She thought originally that she would set factual essays describing what conditions for women were like beside the stories she envisioned. She soon gave that up, as she believed that the truth of fact and the truth of fiction would “meet and destroy each other.” Her initial attempt, published as The Pargiters, is also wonderful.

In the 1970’s, as biographies of Virginia Woolf began to be written and excerpts from her letters and diaries appeared, I felt her almost as an intimate. In common with her I had powerful parents, a large number of siblings who remain close, and a great love of place. I didn’t suffer the early losses she did, or have the chemical imbalances. But I do feel that when sane, Virginia Woolf was saner than most.

Virginia did not believe artists were different than other people. “In your modesty you seem to consider that writers are of different blood and bone from yourselves; that they know more of Mrs Brown than you do,” she writes. “Never was there a more fatal mistake. It is this division between reader and writer, this humility on your part, these professional airs and graces on ours, that corrupt and emasculate the books which should be the healthy offspring of a close and equal alliance between us.”

Note to Readers: Before I was thirty I had set up a canon of “five books” which were to be my education. The women in each of the books excited me as much as the intellectual adventures detailed in them. One of the five books was The Years, by Virginia Woolf. After meditating on these books for almost fifteen years, I wrote an essay called “Stone Books: An Education,” 1990. In it, it is easy to see the preoccupations of the five books reflecting off one another. Since it is too long to post in a blog (nine pages), I offer it to anyone who requests it (in a .pdf format) from lightlyheldbooks at gmail dot com.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


Komako is the main character in the book Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, first published in 1947 and translated by Eward Seidensticker. We see her only through the point of view of Shimamura, who has come from Tokyo to spend time at a hot springs resort in Komako’s village. Shimamura, a critic of the Western ballet though he has never seen one, is surprised by Komako’s freshness. “It seemed to Shimamura that she must be clean to the hollows under her toes.” She is not a geisha at this time, though she has trained as one. She is just 19.

Nozawa Mountain Shrine, Japan
Shimamura makes several visits to the hot spring resort at different seasons, drawn to Komako. She keeps a diary and studies the samisen, a guitar-like musical instrument having a long neck and three strings, from sheet music as there is no one to teach her. When Komako first plays for him, Shimamura is transported. “The notes went out crystalline into the clean winter morning, to sound on the far, snowy peaks.” He cannot believe she is as good as she sounds, that practicing alone has led her to take on this special power. He feels that her playing, indeed her life, is wasted in this remote mountain village.

Komako falls in love with Shimamura. He is someone who can see who she is. By his second visit, she has become a mountain geisha, making money by spending time with resort guests, serving and entertaining them. But she leaves her parties and comes to his room at the hotel again and again at odd hours of the night, often drunk. At first she tries to hide her attraction to this guest, but later gives up. She has her clothes, her samisen brought to the hotel. She and Shimamura bathe together, intimate and domesticated.

Shimamura is entranced by the “strange magical wildness” of this young woman. A sensualist, none of the beauty of the seasons is lost on him. But other than being a connoisseur, he has little life of his own. Komako takes him to her rooms, first a room in which silkworms have been kept, later a room over a candy shop. She explains her geisha contracts, tells him everything. She is connected to the village, to the music teacher and her son, who both die, and to Yoko, whom she feels is her burden. Shimamura falls into the habit of waiting for Komako’s frequent visits, but in the end it becomes clear to Shimamura that he must leave, that Komako belongs to her village, that she will go, as she says, “pleasantly to seed in the mountains.”

The utter strangeness of the world I first encountered in Snow Country has become for me now familiar. Having read it many times, I am always moved by the intimacy of these two very different people, as well as by the startling drama of the natural world Kawabata describes. “High up the mountain, the kaya grass spread out silver in the sun, like the autumn sunlight itself pouring over the face of the mountain. Ah, I am here, something in Shimamura called out as he looked up at it.”

Komako’s passion for Shimamura is expressed very delicately, but clearly. She is delighted to find someone with whom she can share the details of her life, which she has only been able to share with her diary. Komako is a gifted young woman who works for her living in a beautiful village along the west coast of Japan. “Her cheeks still carried the ruddiness of her north-country childhood. In the moonlight the fine geisha-like skin took on the luster of a sea shell.” Because he comes from the city, Shimamura sees Komako as entirely of her place, her home. It is how I see her too. I feel the utter honesty of Snow Country and love what I am able to see of Komako. It has enlarged my concept of who I can be, a woman for whom nature is enough.

Note to Readers: Before I was thirty I had set up a canon of “five books” which were to be my education. The women in each of the books excited me as much as the intellectual adventures detailed in them. One of the five books was Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata. After meditating on these books for almost fifteen years, I wrote an essay called “Stone Books: An Education,” 1990. In it, it is easy to see the preoccupations of the five books reflecting off one another. Since it is too long to post in a blog (nine pages), I offer it to anyone who would like to see it in a .pdf format. Email me at lightlyheldbooks at gmail dot com to request it.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Abelone Brahe

Abelone Brahe, a character in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, by Rainer Maria Rilke, first published in 1910, is the youngest sister of Malte’s mother. Malte is in love with her, but he says that in his notebooks he will say nothing about her. “Only wrong would be done in the telling,” he says. “One cannot say anything about a woman.” But Malte finds himself writing about women a good deal.

Malte Laurids Brigge has lost the Danish ancestral home, the dogs, the inherited things around which he could have lived comfortably. He lives in Paris, a solitary. His dislocation is such that he believes he may be close to madness. He spends his time in the streets, the libraries and museums of Paris, recording the progress of the new individual he is becoming in his notebooks. He is very lonely and he endlessly writes down stories of his family, of the many deaths he has seen and the ghosts that remain.

But he is also certain that solitude is the price he must pay to see reality. “I marvel sometimes how readily I give up everything I expected for the reality, even when the reality is bad.” He notices many young girls drawing in museums, wondering why they too needed to leave home. “They have already begun to look about, to search; they, whose strength has always lain in being found.” But it comes of weariness, Malte thinks. Women have, for centuries, done the whole work of love. He wonders whether men might start to learn this work, now that so much is changing. The notebooks, which begin with the records of many deaths, turn to a meditation on love.

Abelone remains mysterious, seen only in an idyllic description of her in the garden in summer, stripping currants out of their clusters with a fork. She leads Malte to Bettina von Arnim, “whose love was equal to everything,” and whose collected letters to Goethe are among the few books from which Malte never parts. Goethe was not equal to her, Malte thinks. “Is not the whole world of your making? For how often you have set it afire with your love,” he says of Bettina.

Throughout The Notebooks Abelone links Malte to his home. She doesn’t marry. As a young person, her father finds that she too burns a candle early in the morning writing and requests her to take down his memoirs. These chronicle the aristocratic salons of his time, and particularly the German literary circle of Julie Reventlow, though he dies before he can tell Abelone much about this woman whom he considered a saint. Malte tells us no more about Abelone, though he sometimes talks to her. He describes a magnificent tapestry to her. “I think you would understand,” he writes. Hearing a singer in Venice, he thinks, “Abelone.”

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge speak to me of the painful inner process Jung called individuation. This understanding of one’s unique self and destiny, in Jung’s terms, allows one to forge an ego that “does not break down when incomprehensible things happen; an ego that endures, that endures the truth, and that is capable of coping with the world and with fate.” [Memories, Dreams and Reflections, C.G. Jung, 1961]

I was one of those young girls who had left home for the city. For me too, seeing reality was worth the price. I was less worried about love than Malte, steeped in the rich atmosphere of a loving family, Christian in the best sense of the word. But I was determined to become the one my inner self wished to be. The Notebooks celebrate the uniqueness of the individual on his lonely quest. Abelone remains the good angel hovering over Malte, not particularly knowable, but blessing his adventure in modernity with her spirit. Mine too.

Note to Readers: Before I was thirty I had set up a canon of “five books” which were to be my education. The women in each of the books excited me as much as the intellectual adventures detailed in them. One of the five books was The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, by Rilke. After meditating on these books for almost fifteen years, I wrote an essay called “Stone Books: An Education,” 1990. In it, it is easy to see the preoccupations of the five books reflecting off one another. Since it is too long to post in a blog (nine pages), I offer it to anyone who would like to see it in a .pdf format. Email me at at lightlyheldbooks at gmail dot com to request it.