Thursday, December 8, 2016

Mary Hunter Austin

Mary Austin, 1906, Huntington Library
Born in Illinois in 1868, it is Mary Austin’s understanding of how people are affected by their environment that endures. As she writes in The Land of Journeys’ Ending [published 1924], “[Man] is all that he sees; all that flows to him from a thousand sources, half noted, or noted not at all except by some sense that lies too deep for naming. He is the land, the lift of its mountain lines, the reach of its valleys; his is the rhythm of its seasonal processions, the involution and variation of its vegetal patterns. If there is in the country of his abiding, no more than a single refluent color, such as the veiled green of sage-brush or the splendid wine of sunset spilled along the Sangre de Cristo, he takes it in and gives it forth again in directions and occasions least suspected by himself, as a manner, as music, as a prevailing tone of thought.”

Mary’s beloved father died when she was ten. Her mother, left with three living children, set to work, giving Mary the housework and the care of her little brother. Mary studied science, especially botany, at a small Presbyterian college, graduating at 20. She was intense and awkward, and felt unloved by her mother. Nevertheless, she joined the family when they moved to the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield, filing homestead claims.

The farming venture failed due to drought, but the stark environment and the presence of the Paiute Indians fueled a perception that guided Mary throughout life. She wrote of herself in Earth Horizon [published 1932] that she sat out in the dunes in the moonlight, apathetic by day: “Her trouble was that the country failed to explain itself. If it had a history, nobody could recount it. Its creatures had no known life except such as she could discover by unremitting vigilance of observation; its plants no names that her Middlewestern botany could supply. She did not know yet what were its weather signs, nor what the procession of its days might bring forth. Until these things elucidated themselves factually, Mary was spellbound in an effort not to miss any animal behavior, any bird-marking, any weather signs, any signature of tree or flower.”

Determined to become a writer, Mary married Wallace Austin, who supported her in this. They moved to the Owens Valley, which Mary celebrated in her most famous book, The Land of Little Rain [published 1903]. “If one is inclined to wonder at first how so many dwellers came to be in the loneliest land that ever came out of God’s hands, what they do there and why stay, one does not wonder so much after having lived there. None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm. They trick the sense of time, so that once inhabiting there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have not done it.”

Wallace Austin’s irrigation schemes were a failure. He and Mary also tried to prevent the attempts of Los Angeles to gain control of the Owens River. Mary visited William Mulholland, who said after the interview, “By God, that woman is the only one who has brains enough to see where this is going.” The Austins had one child, Ruth, who was developmentally disabled. Mary worked as a writer and teacher to support the family, eventually putting Ruth in an institution after the success of The Land of Little Rain.

Mary began to move away from her family, meeting other artists and writers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and living in Carmel, California, during its time as an artists’ colony, between 1904 and 1911. She spent three years in Europe, getting a reputation there as a writer from the American West. When she returned, she lived in New York, but was finally called back to the desert, to a home in Santa Fe, where she died in 1934.

Constantly writing for magazines and speaking until her death, Mary Austin was a well-known figure during her time. Though resentment and egocentrism sometimes mar her writing, much of it is straight observation of natural surroundings. She also sought out people who inhabited the desert, the Indians, miners and other outsiders with whom she felt kinship. Of an Indian woman basket-maker: "But suppose you find Seyavi retired into the privacy of her blanket, you will get nothing for that day. There is no other privacy possible in a campoodie. All the processes of life are carried on out of doors or behind the thin, twig-woven walls of the wickiup, and laughter is the only corrective for behavior."

Mary Austin’s writing feeds my own desert longings. Of the lure of the vast cactus garden between Tucson and Phoenix: “If I should disappear from my accustomed places,” she says, “look for me beyond the last spur of Santa Catalina, where there is a one-armed sahuaro having a hawk’s nest in the crotch. Beyond that there is a plantation of thistle poppies on the tops of whose dusty green stems have perched whole flocks of white, wind-ruffled doves.”

Monday, October 31, 2016

Nedra Berland

Lois Rosenthal, Philanthropist (my image of Nedra)
"Nedra was working in the kitchen, her rings set aside. She was tall, preoccupied; her neck was bare. When she paused to read a recipe, her head bent, she was stunning in her concentration, her air of obedience. She wore her wrist watch, her best shoes. Beneath the apron, she was dressed for the evening. People were coming for dinner.” Thus James Salter begins his description of Nedra in Light Years [1975]. “Who cleans this large house, who scrubs the floors? She does everything, this woman, she does nothing. She is dressed in her oat-colored sweater, slim as a pike, her long hair fastened, the fire crackling. Her real concern is the heart of existence: meals, bed linen, clothing.”

She was born in Altoona, to a nondescript family in about 1930. At 17 she turns into a stunning beauty. When she marries Viri, an architect, he sees her as a woman “condemned to live with him. He could not define it. She had escaped. Perhaps it was more; the mistake she knew she would have to make was made at last. Her face radiated knowledge. … She had accepted the limitations of her life. It was this anguish, this contentment which created her grace.”

Nedra and Viri live in a house on the banks of the Hudson with their two daughters, Franca and Danny. The book begins as a meditation on their life and their home. They go into New York often, to art galleries, to eat and to shop; they have wonderful conversations with friends at dinner; and they indulge their children with extravagant stories, puppets, pets and Easter egg hunts. In the summer they go to Amagansett. “Summer is the noontime of devoted families. It is the hour of silence when the only sound is sea birds. The shutters are closed, the voices quiet. Occasionally the ring of a fork.”

But Nedra and Viri are both having affairs. Viri is not very successful. Nedra wants to live in Europe. At 16 Franca tells Nedra, “I want to be like everyone else, not like you.” Nedra and Viri do go to London and Kent, finally, in 1970. English friends tell them: “I’m more or less obsessed with the idea of your country which has, after all, meant so much to the entire world. I find it very disturbing now to see what’s happening. It’s like the sun going out.”

Upon their return, Nedra and Viri divorce. By this time Franca at 20 and Danny at 18 both have boyfriends. Nedra leaves immediately for Europe. “She felt confident, a kind of pagan happiness. She was an elegant being again, alone, admired.”

When Nedra returns to the United States, she interviews with an experimental theatre group because she has been taken with their work. They reject her because is already 43, but she becomes the lover of one of the actors, living in a studio among the warehouses in New York. “A breakfast of chocolate and oranges. Reading, falling again into sleep. He said very little. They were deep in contentment; it was full, beyond words. It was like a day of rain.” “Your life,” Nedra’s friend tells her, “is the only real one I know.”

Danny marries. Nedra arrives at the wedding with Viri. Nedra weeps with Danny, wiping tears from each other’s faces. That summer Nedra and Franca live at the beach. “Her [Nedra’s] life was like a single, well-spent hour. Its secret was her lack of remorse, of self-pity. She felt herself purified. The days were cut from a quarry that would never be emptied. Into them there came books, errands, the seashore, occasional pieces of mail. She read them slowly and carefully, sitting in the sunshine, as if they were newspapers from abroad.”

But Nedra did not last much longer. She became ill, taking a small house by the sea. Franca comes to visit her. Nedra believes that the love of one’s children is the best love. “To be close to a child, for whom one spent everything, whose life was protected and nourished by one’s own, to have that child beside one, at peace, was the real, the deepest, the only joy.” She died suddenly, in the fall of the year. “As if leaving a concert during a passage she loved.” Her daughters have a small funeral for her. Viri has been living in Italy. He comes home to walk in the garden of the house by the Hudson where he had been happy. “Those afternoons that would never vanish, all ended. He, resettled. His daughters, gone.”

For some readers, these lives which are blessed with so little to worry them may seem unreal. For me, they seem like some of the last lives to celebrate reality: sensual, joyous and content, without a flicker of television in them. Salter writes in his memoir Burning the Days, “Of those years, the 1960s, I remember the intensity of family life, its boundlessness. It was an art of its own – costume parties; daring voyages in an old sailboat, a leaky Comet, far out on the river; dogs; dinners; poker on Christmas night; ice skating.”

Nedra was a woman James Salter knew, as described here. In Burning the Days he writes: “I loved her, her frankness and charm, the extravagance and devotion to her children. I never tired of seeing her and listening to her talk. … Hers was a singular life. It had no achievements other than itself. It declared, in its own way, that there are things that matter and these are the things one must do.” He has given us an exquisite portrait of a woman, of a life.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Martha Quest

Doris Lessing by Godfrey Argent, 1969
Martha is the main protagonist of a five-novel series called The Children of Violence [published from 1952 to 1969] written by Doris Lessing. It begins in southern Rhodesia where Martha lives on a farm with her parents. Her mother tries to maintain a proper British household, controlling her children. Her father has been maimed by World War I. Rage and bitterness fill the house. Martha spends her time reading everything she can get her hands on. The elemental African landscape also sustains her. In a memorable image, we see Martha in a grass-stained yellow dress, reading and smoking, a gun across her lap.

To get away from home, Martha takes a job in Salisbury. Though she has been reading leftist texts, she is at the mercy of the currents swirling around her and falls in with a careless middle class group. She marries at 19 and has a child, Caroline, right away. But she is full of anger at the colonial attitudes she runs into. Her ideals compel her to take responsibility for them. When she leaves her marriage to again take up work of her own, her husband refuses to let her see Caroline. She tells her child, “I’m leaving to change this ugly world. You must live in a beautiful world with no race hatred or injustice.”

Martha then joins a group of communists, the Left Book Club, who are fiercely opposed to the color bar in Rhodesia. The meetings of the group are a study in personalities, as factionalism dominates. Martha marries the ideologue leader of the group, Anton, rather than the more human Athen. World War II intervenes, but nothing is accomplished. Black people’s struggles are unchanged and the whites have a naïve lack of insight into their lives. Martha’s growth, however, makes her a traitor to the race and class she was born into.

After the war, Martha’s marriage and her faith in the leftist group disintegrate. She is somewhat at sea, though she has an affair with a Polish ex-patriate which brings her some happiness. She begins to look back on her idealism and tries to make sense of things. She leaves Africa for London in 1949.

London is still recovering from the war. It is dirty and has no good food or nice clothing. Martha, after wandering around a bit, becomes secretary to Mark Coleridge, an author, and moves into the troubled Coleridge household. Lynda, Mark’s wife, is in an asylum, and his son Frances is joined by Mark’s nephew Paul, whose physicist father has defected to Russia and whose mother has committed suicide. Photographers and journalists surround the house. Martha keeps house. When this crisis dies down, Lynda moves into the basement with her helper Dorothy.

Though at first she tries to leave, Martha becomes the nurturer who holds the household together. She and Mark are lovers, though Mark longs for Lynda, who cannot bear his touch. Martha is wise and restrained, watching the young people as London changes, becoming the swinging city of the 1960’s. All of them participate in the protest marches from London to the Aldermaston atomic weapons research labs each Easter.

As the young people grow up, Martha spends more time with Lynda, exploring her inner space and experimenting with what fasting and not sleeping do to her perceptions. Martha wonders whether people designated mad by society are simply not more aware of what is going on. Evil acts are born of not being self-aware. In the end, the cataclysmic nuclear event which hangs over the narrative, happens. Martha survives, living on the west coast of England, helped by the young people.

Reading the Martha Quest books during my own period of self development and questioning, I was very grateful for Doris Lessing’s honesty and her capacious world-view. At the time, we were all exploring our perceptions, trying to expand our human potential. Though I didn’t have the crushing pessimism which led Lessing to her conclusions, I am not afraid of looking at things squarely, partly because of her example. Her books underscore the fact that one’s personal life is always political.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Lou Bigelow Maytree

Annie Dillard
At 23, Lou Bigelow meets Toby Maytree in Provincetown. He sees her first on a bicycle, “A red scarf, white shirt, skin clean as eggshell, wide eyes and mouth, shorts. She stopped and leaned on a leg to talk to someone on the street. She laughed, and her loveliness caught his breath.” He asks her out to the shack his family owns on the Cape Cod dunes. He is a poet. They talk and eventually marry. Their story unfolds in The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard [2007].

When she was 12, Lou’s father left her mother to live with her mother’s sister and never returned. Her mother moves first to Provincetown, and then away, leaving Lou the house. Her mother “polishes her grudges for the rest of her life.” But Lou is not like her mother.

Maytree loves making Lou laugh. She paints and he does carpentry. Lou wants more to love than to be loved. To Keats’ question, who enjoyed lovemaking more, she replies, “the woman.” They see their marriage as unique. They have a baby whom they name Peter. As a child they teach him to know the constellations which they watch from the dunes. Maytree enlarges the crawl space under the house, putting in furniture and finishing it off by installing many-paned French doors which open onto the beach.

When Peter is 12 and riding his bicycle, a motorist runs into him breaking his leg. Maytree carries Peter home, but then when Peter is settled and asleep, tells Lou that he is moving to Maine. With Deary, one of Lou’s friends. For the next 20 years, he lives on an island, and then in Camden, never seeing Lou, but becoming progressively richer as he works on Deary’s many real estate schemes.

Lou, deeply surprised, is at first calm. Her friends blame Deary. Lou “could persuade no one she was not heartbroken. She had seen her own mother heartbroken, and knew she could do better.” But when Peter goes back to school, Lou has time to think. She “found herself holding one end of a love. She reeled out love’s long line alone; it did not catch. She fell apart.”

She doesn’t speak, but friends begin to notice. Her son gives her a wide berth. Finally she climbs the steep streets of town, trying to work on herself. She understands that “if she ceded that the world did not center on her, there was no injustice or betrayal.” Why are we born into this selfish stew, she wonders. She begins painting again, finding a scheme that she sticks with: “foreground of disturbing beach, middle distance disturbing sea and sky above, disturbing.”

Meanwhile, Maytree realizes he hasn’t stopped loving Lou. “His abiding heart-to-heart with her merely got outshouted.” Peter becomes a fisherman, thinking often about his father and vowing to become a perfected human. At last Peter fetches up in Camden while his boat is being repaired, and visits his father who greets him with tears. Why had they waited so long, they each wonder.

Lou lives mostly out at the beach shack. She wants to hear herself think. “How else might she hear any original note, any stray subject-and-verb in the head, however faint, should one come?” When she works at a nursing home she found people recited received analyses of current events! The patients watched television, “informed to the eyeballs like everyone else and rushed for time, toward what end no one asked.”

Deary has congestive heart failure. She refuses treatment, though she uses an oxygen pump. She wants badly to go back to Provincetown before she dies. Maytree falls, carrying her from the doctor’s office, and breaks many bones in his hands and arms. Unable to find anyone to help him, he takes Deary to Provincetown, goes out to the beach shack and asks Lou if she will help.

Lou immediately makes plans to accommodate them. “Not going to slug me?” asks Maytree? Lou wonders, “Did he think so poorly of her that he fancied his chucking her and Pete for Deary had left her ruined and angry for twenty years? Surely he knew her better than that.” They set up a bed for Deary by the French doors so she can see the sea, the sky and people on the beach. When Deary dies, Maytree plans to go back to Camden, but Lou catches him around the waist one night as he is on the beach looking at the sea. Shame had kept them apart twenty years.

“As they aged, they grew avid of beauty.” Lou holds nothing back, but Maytree knew he never reached it all. He says, “only now did he reckon beauty itself was the great thing. As a deathbed revelation this required – like most, he suspected – more thought.” Lou lives until 80, spending most of her time out at the dune shack. One day her friend comes and finds she has laid herself out on the bed, no longer alive.

The Maytrees follows the inner lives and development of Lou, Maytree and their son Peter as they are reflected in the actual facts of their lives. Lou’s story is that of the difficult path to becoming a grownup. Dillard shows us exactly how Lou manages to get past her pain. It is not through religion or looking within. Lou had tried that. “It was fearsome down there, a crusty cast-iron pot. Within she was empty.” Instead she uses the earth, the world, living in astronomical, geological time. “She could guy out Orion and spread him like a spinnaker, a chute to fly beyond her own self-love.”

We have surprisingly few stories of people who manage to deflect tragedy and turn it to warmth and love. Lou’s story hovers in a poetic, beautiful language as well. Annie Dillard has said that she wrote more than a thousand pages before condensing the book down to two hundred. For my part, left with the cream of the story, I wouldn’t mind having the many pages it was culled from!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was a luminous presence on the American cultural stage, writing, dancing, acting and speaking from her great belief in language and story. Born in 1928, Marguerite Johnson as a young girl was shunted between her grandmother’s house in Stamps, Arkansas, and her mother, who lived in St. Louis. She loved the store her grandmother kept, a focal point for the Black community, smelling of pickles, ripe fruit, and tobacco.

She was not so happy in St. Louis. She was sexually violated by a friend of her mother. When she told her brother, the man was tried and then killed. Little Marguerite stopped talking, fearing that her action in telling his name had killed him. When her mother couldn’t get her to speak, she and her beloved brother Bailey were sent back to Stamps. While remaining mute, she discovered Dickens, the Brontes, Shakespeare and Paul Laurence Dunbar. She slowly regained her voice, but did not lose the powers of observation she had gained during that time.

At 14 she was sent to California, where her mother was living in Oakland and then San Francisco. Marguerite grew to be over six feet tall, standing head and shoulders above her brother and her mother. At the beginning she felt her mother wasn’t the warm, enveloping person she thought a mother should be. At 15, while living with her father, she was abandoned in a fight and lived alone on the streets of San Diego for weeks, waiting until she recovered from being stabbed to go back to her mother. Taking control of her own life, she got a job as a trolley conductor, but then her thirst for knowledge drove her back to school. She was restless and mature however, and got pregnant. Waiting until she graduated to tell her family, she gave birth to a boy at 17.

In a few years she made a marriage to the Greek Tosh Angelos, who worked as the breadwinner. But Marguerite found him possessive and controlling and they had no support in either the Greek or the Black community. She wanted to be a good 1950s housewife. “I thought that would be heaven. I found it to be sheer hell!” She took dance classes, working with Alvin Ailey in San Francisco, and studying African dance with Pearl Primus. She worked in clubs, and began a calypso cabaret act at the Purple Onion, using her voice, expression and dance. At this time she needed a new name and she chose Maya Angelou. Opportunity began to come looking for her.

She went on a European tour with a company performing Porgy and Bess, leaving her son with her mother. When she returned in 1956, she made a home for herself and her son in Los Angeles. She was also writing songs, poetry and short stories, exploring the power of words. She moved to New York to join the Harlem Writers Guild. She learned that “if I wanted to write, I had to develop a level of concentration found mostly in people awaiting execution. I had to learn technique and surrender my ignorance.”

In New York, Maya worked with the SCLC, her organizational skills quickly becoming apparent. She fell in love with a South African freedom fighter named Vus Make and made a home for them in New York. When asked to play the White Queen in Jean Genet’s play The Blacks, she did it as a favor, even writing songs for the production. But Vus Make was under surveillance and he announced they were moving to Cairo. Needing money in Cairo, Angelou was hired by a newspaper as a journalist. Studying hard to gain the trust of her male colleagues, Angelou turned herself into a journalist, becoming adept at writing and editing. When her son graduated from high school, he intended to go to a university in Ghana, in Accra. She visited him there and when Guy had a serious car accident she felt she couldn’t leave.

Though Angelou felt very much at home in Accra and found work, she missed America. She became friends with Malcolm X when he visited. Soon he wrote offering her a management position in his new Organization of Afro-American Unity. Maya’s son was asserting his independence, and she felt she “had gotten all Africa had to give me.” But before she was able to meet up with him, Malcolm was killed. Devastated, Angelou went to Hawaii when her brother found her a job. She re-settled in Los Angeles, arriving at the time of the Watts riots, where she worked, ironically, as a market researcher.

But New York was calling. She went back to her friends there, especially James Baldwin, writing plays and poems. When Martin Luther King asked her to help with the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, she agreed. But again, before she could begin work, King was assassinated. Ignoring the pain, Angelou threw herself into work, producing ten programs on African American culture, Blacks, Blues, Black! Editors had been after her to write a memoir, but not until one of them told her it was “the most difficult thing anyone can do,” did she begin I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Angelou’s later years were filled with writing, honors, speaking engagements, and wonderful friendships. The depth and breadth of her spirit and creative genius were widely visible. She was married to Paul du Feu for eight years, became a great hostess, bought houses in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and New York and continued to speak and write. At her death in May, 2014, she was widely memorialized in New York, San Francisco and Winston-Salem.

Maya Angelou has written several wonderful memoirs. But My Journey with Maya by Tavis Smiley [published 2015] showed me much about her relationships. In it, Angelou’s thoughts on language, on finding one’s voice and courage are highlighted. She never wasted words. Without courage, she told Smiley, love cannot be activated. “Without it there is no creative life, no spiritual life. Without courage, life is bereft of excitement and wonder.” She was also eloquent on the courage it took to keep one’s language free from vulgarity, though we would like to have the acceptance of our peers. “A decision to elevate one’s language is a decision to draw one closer to God … in the sense that we thank Him for our gift of speech by turning our speech into an ongoing prayer of praise.”

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Juliette de Bairacli Levy

Juliette, born in 1912 of Egyptian and Turkish Jews, in Manchester, England, was brought up in wealthy circumstances. When the puppies her father brought her sickened and died, she decided to become a veterinarian and was sent to the universities in Liverpool and Manchester. But she was horrified at the vivisection and other experiments on animals, so she left. She determined that the best way to learn how to treat animals was to live among those who raised them in natural ways. Like Matthew Arnold’s “Scholar Gipsy,” she “one summer-morn forsook her friends, and went to learn the Gipsy lore, and roam’d the world with that wild brotherhood.”

Juliette began traveling, learning and working, gathering herbal remedies from America, Spain, France, North Africa and Turkey. She loved especially the herbivorous creatures, sheep, goats, cows, horses, camels and wild deer. She was certain that these creatures knew and ate what they needed to stay healthy. She held a distemper clinic for dogs in London in the 1930’s and was credited with curing many sheep of black scour, feeding them herbs, milk and molasses.

From Edmond Szekely, a Hungarian doctor at Rancho La Puerta near San Diego, Juliette learned that, in human health, the whole body must be treated, not just the local symptoms of a disease. Fasting and herbs were often among the remedies. From nomads, Gypsies and peasants, she learned herbal remedies and the “simple laws of health and happiness.”

After much travel and learning, Juliette published a Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable in England in 1952. Before this, knowledge had only been passed down verbally. She met her husband, Francisco Lancha Dominguez in Spain and they had two children, Rafik and Luz. But Juliette found she could not live in cities, whereas her husband “could not get used to the country life. We warred much concerning this. He thought that it was madness on my part to choose to be alone in an old mill in the Spanish Sierra Nevada for the birth of our second child, and not with him in Tetuan,” where he was a journalist.

Juliette with her baby, right
Juliette lived for a while in the New Forest in England, but then returned to the Mediterranean, where she made homes and gardens for herself and her children in abandoned places, protected by beloved Afghan hounds. She wrote several generous books about her travels and mode of living, particularly Traveler’s Joy, which became a beacon of light for people in the 1970’s who were looking for ways of living closer to nature. We knew that Juliette had lived the life of which she wrote. In America, she gave workshops and seminars on herbal medicine, becoming known as the grandmother of the herbal renaissance.

Juliette’s writing is rich with her love of flowers, herbs and animals. She describes the people she meets and lives with, as well as the insects and rodents and salamanders. In the spring, in the Sierra Nevada in Spain she writes: “I could not forgo our walks despite the snow and rain, for all the terraced slopes of the fertile lower areas of the sierra were in blossom. Fruit trees of every kind seemed as multitudinous as the sierra animals, and the blossom lay lovely upon them, of all colors of white and pink, from the ivory of pear flowers to the darker rose hue of quince and almond, to the green-white, most fragrant blossoms of the orange and lemon trees. Trees in blossom, seen against a turquoise sky when the rains clear, are a fair thing. And later, the carmine of pomegranate flowers against the blue was the loveliest of all.”

In the 1990’s Tish Streeten began filming Juliette, making a documentary entitled Juliette of the Herbs. The film tells Juliette’s biography, but also has much footage of her in the home and garden she made on Kythera, an island off Greece. Juliette’s distinctive voice describes what she has learned in a long, brave life. “The main purpose of having a garden is to have the garden as a teacher and friend. If you have a problem then the garden will give you the plants you need. You are always learning from your garden. I’ve had ten gardens and miss them all,” she says. Clips from this beautiful film can be found here.

Juliette died peacefully in 2009 at the age of 96, in Switzerland, where she lived near her daughter. Her legacy has been preserved and most of her books are still in print. Two of my sisters were herbalists and Gypsy lovers, much inspired by Juliette de Bairacli Levy. I myself, though more scholar than Gypsy, cling to the aesthetics of the natural life and the fine example of health and happiness Juliette set before us.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bathsheba Everdene

When we first meet Bathsheba Everdene, she is a spirited country girl, thrilled with the life around her and excited by her own independence. To the amusement of Gabriel Oak, a farmer with sheep and dogs, she takes a looking glass from her bag while waiting for the carter who is taking her to her aunt. The two meet several times and she saves him from suffocation one cold night. But when he asks her, she doesn’t see any reason to marry. She hardly knows him.

Carey Mulligan, Far From the Madding Crowd 2015
Thomas Hardy, in Far From the Madding Crowd, first serialized in Cornhill magazine in 1874, soon endows Bathsheba with an inheritance that sets her apart and makes her more of a personage in the eyes of her small society. She is only 22, but she dismisses her bailiff for thieving and tells her men, “I shall be up before you are awake; I shall be afield before you are up; and I shall have breakfasted before you are afield. In short, I shall astonish you all.” By this time, Gabriel Oak is among them, having lost his sheep. Their circumstances have changed entirely.

When Bathsheba goes to the corn exchange to sell her corn, the farmers are surprised by her. But one rich neighbor, Mr. Boldwood, ignores her. This piques Bathsheba’s interest. With one of her maids, she playfully sends him a valentine, which she soon regrets. Bathsheba is “a woman with some good sense in reasoning on subjects wherein her heart was not involved,” says Hardy. She values Gabriel Oak’s opinion most, and when she asks him what he thinks of this prank, he tells her honestly. She dismisses him, but when her sheep get into the clover and are about to die of bloat, she is told Gabriel is the only one who can save them. She begs him to come back and he does.

Gabriel no longer expects to marry Bathsheba. Hardy says, “Oak meditatively looked upon the horizon of circumstances without any special regard to his own standpoint in the midst.” When he supervises the shearing, Bathsheba watches. “That his bright lady and himself formed one group, exclusively their own, and containing no others in the world, was enough” for him. He allows himself to be displaced by Boldwood at the shearing supper. Both he and Boldwood are horrified however, when Bathsheba succumbs to the flattery of a young soldier, Frank Troy. Boldwood threatens Troy and Bathsheba goes to the town where his regiment is to break off with him, ending up marrying him instead.

Both Boldwood and Gabriel Oak are aware that Troy meant to marry a young woman named Fanny Robin, who was a maid on Bathsheba’s farm. As the husband of Bathsheba, Troy squanders her money on racing and gets the farmhands drunk at a harvest supper. It is a stormy night and Gabriel Oak is left to try to cover the ricks full of grain. Bathsheba comes out to help him. “Thank you for your devotion a thousand times, Gabriel! Good night – I know you are doing your very best for me.”

When Fanny Robin dies, her coffin is brought to Bathsheba’s farm. Wondering about the stories she has heard, Bathsheba opens it and sees inside the baby that died with her. Troy comes home and finds her, telling Bathsheba that this dead woman is more to him than she will ever be. Troy spends his last money on a large tombstone for Fanny and jumps into the sea. His clothes are found on the shore and everyone assumes he has drowned.

A year later, Boldwood hopes that Bathsheba will again look in his direction and begs her to promise that she will marry him in six years, when Troy is declared dead. But Troy is not dead. He returns the night that Boldwood gives a Christmas party, hoping for Bathsheba’s positive answer. Troy grabs for Bathsheba’s hand, she screams and Boldwood shoots him. Bathsheba buries Troy next to Fanny Robin. Boldwood goes straight to the police, but he is not to be hanged as his neighbors point out his insanity. He will serve a prison sentence “at the Queen’s pleasure.”

At last free of any constraint, Bathsheba notices that Gabriel Oak, who now possesses part of Boldwood’s farm, shuns her. In fact, he tells her he is planning to leave for California. When she asks why, he says it is to protect her good name, as people are beginning to talk about them. In the end they agree together. “Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality.” They marry in the “most private, secret, plainest” wedding.

I love Thomas Hardy. No other writer describes country life so masterfully. In spring he says, “the vegetable world begins to move and swell and the saps to rise, till in the completest silence of lone gardens and trackless plantations, where everything seems helpless and still after the bond and slavery of frost, there are bustlings, strainings, united thrusts, and pulls-all-together, in comparison with which the powerful tugs of cranes and pulleys in a noisy city are but pigmy efforts.” Amen to that! He also provides a thick panorama of country life and a Greek chorus of people to comment on the action.

Most Hardy heroines end up victims of fate or their own passions, or of cruel society. Bathsheba Everdene is a vain beauty, skittish, practical, and impulsive. She makes mistakes, but redeems herself by her steadfast trust in and friendship for Gabriel Oak, who loves her beyond all contrariness. In this story, Margaret Drabble says, Hardy found a way of displaying “the sense of tragic and cosmic grandeur that was to distinguish his mature work.” To my mind Bathsheba is delightfully embodied by Carey Mulligan in the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s 2015 screen adaptation.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet, born in 1911. Her father died when she was a baby and her mother was institutionalized shortly thereafter. Elizabeth lived with her mother’s parents in Nova Scotia, but was soon brought to live with her father’s wealthier side of the family in Worcester, Massachusetts. She was unhappy and developed chronic asthma, so she was sent to live with an aunt in a less well-off, immigrant neighborhood. Often ill, she didn’t get much formal schooling. By the time she arrived at Vassar, however, it was obvious she was a gifted and gutsy young woman, founding a literary magazine with others of her graduating class of 1934.

After graduation, Bishop settled in New York. She had enough inherited income that she did not need to work. She met Marianne Moore, whose observant poetry influenced her deeply. Ms. Moore insured that Bishop’s poems began to be published. Bishop briefly worked as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress and knew many of the poets working at the same time as she. Robert Lowell once considered proposing to her. They did not see each other a lot, but kept up an affectionate correspondence throughout his life.

Bishop found that travel helped mitigate the restlessness she had developed due to the insecurity of her childhood. This insecurity also led to alcoholism, which Bishop tried to hide, but was never able to conquer. In 1937 she traveled in Europe with Louise Crane. When they came back to the United States, they lived together in Key West. Bishop bought a house there and stayed for nearly ten years.

Because of her love of natural history and Darwin, Bishop used a travel fellowship to go to South America in 1951. She didn’t mean to stay long, but she met the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom she developed a relationship. Soares built Bishop a studio on her property, called Samambaia, outside of Rio. In 1956, on a trip to New York, Bishop and Soares returned to Brazil a month early. “I really can’t bear much American life these days,” she wrote. “Surely no country has ever been so filthy rich and so hideously uncomfortable at the same time.” In Brazil, she said, they lived in a “state of broken-down luxury.” Bishop said she was happier in Brazil than she had ever been.

Bishop’s work centered on observation, accuracy, care. She did not publish a great deal, leaving some things unfinished. “It is a question of using the poet’s proper materials … to express something spiritual. But it proceeds from the material, the material eaten out with acid, pulled down from underneath, made to perform and always kept in order … The other way, of using the supposedly ‘spiritual’ – the beautiful, the nostalgic, the ideal and poetic, to produce the material – is the way of the romantic – a great perversity.”

After the death of Soares, Bishop taught at various American universities, including Harvard, NYU and MIT. She lived and traveled with Alice Methfessel, who acted as her assistant. She died in 1979 of a brain aneurysm. James Merrill said of her work that it was “more wryly radiant, more touching, more unaffectedly intelligent than any written in our lifetime.” He also spoke of “her instinctive, modest, life-long impersonation of an ordinary woman.”

Elizabeth Bishop was a person after my own heart, reticent, observant, classical in her approach and desperately wanting to be a good person despite fighting asthma, depression and alcoholism. Because of her I recently read Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle and doubled-down on my own belief in how deeply spirit is embodied in matter itself.

In her famous villanelle “One Art,” Bishop writes that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Her biographer Brett Millier [Elizabeth Bishop: Life and Memory of It, 1992] points out that “in the writing of such a disciplined, demanding poem lies the mastery of the loss. Working through each of her losses … is the way to overcome them, or, if not to overcome them, then to see the way in which she might possibly master herself.”

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Sachiko Makioka

Few 20th century heroines are as attractive as Sachiko Makioka. Though little happens to her in The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki [serialized in Japan between 1943 and 1948], everything that befalls her sisters is referred to her, as no one else has the understanding and tact which Sachiko has. There is a reason for this. Sachiko is a portrait of Tanizaki’s own beloved wife. Since Tanizaki was a writer of great power, a deep imprint of his wife and her sisters and their complex world view emerges.

The Makioka Sisters, 1983 movie
The Makioka Sisters tells the story of Yukiko, the third sister in the family, who is in need of a husband. The family was once very wealthy and respected, but when their father dies, their fortunes slip. Yukiko is the least modern of the sisters, wearing restrained Japanese clothes. She seems compliant in the search for a suitor, but she can be stiff-necked when it comes to actual acceptance. After meeting them, the family rejects one suitor because they believe his mother has an inheritable disease, and another because he is a widow and Yukiko thinks him unfeeling because he showed her a photo of his wife and children. Another suitor rejects Yukiko because she is so shy.

Finding a husband for Yukiko is complicated by Taeko, the fourth sister, who is at once the most modern and something of a rebel. Very young, she runs off with a male friend. When she is brought back, she settles down, but plans to marry this young man as soon as Yukiko has married. Taeko is very good with her hands and makes dolls, which she sells. She also enjoys sewing and hopes to make money at it. But she becomes entangled with one man after another to the point that she is disinherited by the Makiokas.

Sachiko herself was the favorite of her father. When the three younger sisters go out together, Sachiko appears to be exactly between Yukiko’s old-fashioned restraint and Taeko’s exuberance. Sachiko is sometimes asked not to come when Yukiko is to meet a suitor because her own modern and lively beauty overshadows her younger sister. Sachiko is married to an accountant, who was adopted into the family and took their name. He is very proud of his wife and involves himself in all of the Makioka affairs. The two have a daughter and are saddened when Sachiko has a miscarriage.

The events in The Makioka Sisters reflect Japan’s situation between 1936 and 1941. The book is mainly set in the suburbs of Osaka, where the sisters grew up. For Tanizaki, Osaka’s integration of tradition, beauty and cosmopolitanism compares favorably to Tokyo’s ugliness and disorder. Every sentence in the book describes the fine discriminations the sisters make in their choices and ideas. The Makiokas make friends with both Russians and Germans living near them. They talk to each other on the telephone, take trains to see their eldest sister in Tokyo and go to restaurants. Graphic discussion of several illnesses and hospital procedures increases the sense of utter modernity.

But the Makiokas also do not miss opportunities for concerts, dances, and rituals. Each spring they go to Kyoto for the cherry blossoms. There are cherry trees everywhere, but Sachiko does not feel she has seen blossoms at all unless she sees them in Kyoto. One spring while they are strolling along the banks of Hirosawa Pond, a photographer asks to take a photo of the three sisters and Sachiko’s daughter. “Ever since, they had made it a point to stand under the same tree and look out over the pond, and have their picture taken … those cherries said to be famous even abroad – how would they be this year? Was it perhaps already too late? Always they stepped through the gallery with a strange rising of the heart, but the five of them cried out as one when they saw that cloud of pink spread across the late afternoon sky.”

As the story of the Makioka sisters continues, Sachiko cannot reject her sister Taeko, who becomes pregnant and then moves in with a bartender. Sachiko feels she must take some of the responsibility for not watching over her sister more closely. When Taeko needs a good talking-to, it is Yukiko who gives it to her. And Yukiko does succeed in making a match with an interesting man, an architect. They meet in Kyoto and Yukiko accepts the proposal. At the end of the story, she is preparing the wig and kimono for her wedding. Sachiko thinks of how still the house will be without her two sisters.

It is Sachiko’s love for her difficult sisters, her husband and child which animates her portrait. The other fascinating thing about this story is the panorama which detailed description of ordinary life presents. It is so open-ended and without precedent. One thing follows another, all of it completely authentic in feel. In translation by Edward Seidensticker, the story of Sachiko Makioka is riveting.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hadley Richardson

Ernest, Hadley, Jack, Austria 1925
Though I have loved Ernest Hemingway’s writing since I was a young person, I have never been able to see any of his female characters as exemplary. I am not sure he was interested in them. It has become clear, however, that the female character he made the most of was Hadley, his first wife. She emerges in A Moveable Feast [1964], the posthumously published story of Hemingway’s early years in Paris. Recently the reality of Hadley has slipped out beyond the mythology, into a history of her own.

Hadley Richardson was born in 1891, eight years ahead of Hemingway, whom she married in 1921. With Hadley’s small inheritance and money from Hemingway’s journalism, the couple moved to Paris almost immediately. The iconic stories of their meetings with other expatriates, their expeditions into the mountains skiing, into Spain and Italy for fishing and bullfighting and Hemingway’s determination to forge an American style of writing form the background of their early years together. “We liked the hurly and burly and it was the best time I had in my life, no comparison,” Hadley told Alice Sokoloff.

Hemingway began to be courted by those who saw his great charisma and the possibility of his fame. Pauline Pfeiffer became obsessed with him. Pauline was aggressive, joining the Hemingways in the mountains and on the Rivera. She was the opposite of Hadley, but Hemingway enjoyed her style and her money. He felt he was in love with both of them. Hemingway’s breakout novel The Sun Also Rises about a trip to Pamplona they all shared in 1925 was written under the influence of this complex love.

After a year of trying to accommodate a difficult ménage a trois, Hadley requested a separation and, in the fall of 1926, a divorce. She was given custody of their son Jack, whom she took back to visit relatives in the United States in the summer of 1927. In accounts of the summer, Hadley said she felt “free as air,” after the previous miserable one. Living with Hemingway was a “great responsibility,” and she was tired of the intensity. “I was not fit for competition,” she says.

Hadley returned to Paris and her many friends, among whom were Julia Child and the journalist and poet Paul Mowrer. She married Mowrer in 1933 in London. During the Second World War, her son Jack Hemingway served with honor and became a prisoner of war. Hadley and Paul went back and forth between Europe and America, but when he retired from journalism in 1949, they lived in New Hampshire where Hadley worked as a part-time librarian.

As he looked back and deconstructed his life, Hemingway believed Hadley had been the love of his life. His idolization of her in A Moveable Feast has recently been confirmed in a book published by A.E. Hotchner, Hemingway in Love, His Own Story. Hemingway tells Hotchner he once ran into Hadley in Paris, telling her, “You’ll be the true part of any woman I write about. I’ll spend the rest of my life looking for you.” His last words to Hotchner, who leaves him in a hospital room in Rochester, Minnesota, weeks before his death are: “How does a young man know when he falls in love for the very first time, how can he know that it will be the only true love of his life?”

Hadley Richardson looked back at things differently. Asked if she would have gone back if she could have, Hadley says “No, I think I wanted something real.” Paul Mowrer made her very happy, she says. The series of interviews conducted by Alice Sokoloff in 1971 and 1972, in which one can hear Hadley’s own voice, are available in clips here.

To me, Hadley Richardson exemplifies the kind of femininity which is a whole-hearted response to the life which comes to her. Sheltered by her family, she is timid when she gets to Paris, but “I was ready to go. I was a very excited young woman. I discovered that I was alive,” she tells Alice Sokoloff. The grace with which she left Hemingway, slipping into the background and a life of her own, also illustrates her fine character. She continued to love Hemingway in her way and was grateful to him for the life they had shared in Paris. As she looks back at her own memories, she hasn’t a bad word for anyone.