Winners and Losers: Kurt Vonnegut on Imaginary Political Parties

On October 13, 2019, I was in agony about my country. I wrote a post called “Does Voting Matter? One Can But Hope.”

I said,

I have felt increasingly ambivalent about the power of my vote. That is to say, I feel powerless. I elected precisely two politicians in the last election (2016). The state has gone red, and my vote no longer counts….

[But] I will vote next year, whether I like it or not.  The world is a mess.   I no longer have the option of not voting.  One votes in case it counts.

And now look what has happened this time! I did vote. And it’s chaos, though my state at least promptly counted the votes. Very late deadlines for some state mail ballots (surely a way of sabotaging voting by mail ), results from some states not expected till next week or later, Biden keeping his cool, Trump not, and the rest of us either eating cookies for three meals a day or trying to breathe deeply (“Be grateful for this moment…”)…

Let me leave you with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s essay,  “In a Manner That Must Shame God Himself,” from Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, a brilliant collection of essays, magazine pieces, and speeches. Vonnegut imagines the thoughts of visitor from another planet on  the American people in 1972.


“The two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers. The people do not acknowledge this. They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, instead.

“Both imaginary parties are bossed by Winners. When Republicans battle Democrats, this much is certain: Winners will win.

“The Democrats have been the larger party in the past–because their leaders have not been as openly contemptuous of Losers as the Republicans have.

“Losers can join imaginary parties. Losers can vote.”

Have a happily bookish weekend!

The Boredom of American Politics

How many times have I clicked on a newspaper today? Who, I wondered idly, will be our next president? This year the election is like Jeopardy, that most boring of game shows: the answer will either be, Who is Joe Biden? or Who is Donald Trump? We know this, because Biden and Trump were the only names we recognized on the presidential ballot, though several other people, it turned out, were also running.

Anyway, we waited edgily on Tuesday night for the final presidential tally. Then Wednesday night. Then Thursday. Still counting…still counting…still counting…

It is all about story, isn’t it? And I am tired of this story. In this particular country at this particular time in history, it is a comedy. Lord, it isn’t a comedy to most people: it is the most important election in American history! I keep reading that. But it’s always the same. One popular guy campaigns against another popular guy, and the two you least expect become the candidates. At least the election is your steady date in November and gets you out of the house. Only this time, we voted by mail.

I tried to distract myself today by reading innocuous articles. All of them are downers. If there is a down side, they will find it. How do you like this headline? “Even if Biden wins, the world will pay the price for the Democrats’ failures.” And the following unpolitical article is even more upsetting: “Denmark to kill 15 million minks after coronavirus mutation spreads to humans.” Your best bet is, “Why are the media reporting different US election results?” Boring but not depressing.

Anyway, I’ve decided to keep a diary about how I feel every time I go online to check the news. Shitty, is the answer today. I borrowed this idea from the fascinating experimental novel, Eleanor or The Rejection of the Progress of Love, by Anna Moschovakis. Eleanor decides to keep a record of her thoughts about being on the internet.

Perhaps this diary will keep me away from the news for a few weeks. Surely someone will tell me if they make a decision!

Meanwhile, have a great day while we wait to know who the next president will be!

November 3, 2020: Diary of a Nervous Voter

You’ve done this before, I tell myself. You don’t need to worry. You voted. You received a letter saying your ballot by mail was received. But you worry because you keep hearing we may not know the winner for weeks. There are different deadlines in different states for mail-in ballots.

“Will it really all come down to Pennsylvania?” my husband wisecracks at breakfast.

I say in that cautious female calming voice that seldom works: “Remember 2000? It can’t be as bad as that.”

I am the only one who remembers 2000. The only one on Earth, it would seem! In 2000, I dragged myself to the polls to vote for Al Gore even though I was sick. I was so sick I hardly comprehended the ensuing internecine struggle for power over the winner of the election.

Gore was declared the winner, and then Bush “challenged” the election over the issue of, yes, “hanging chads” on ballots in Florida. And, yes, George W.’s brother Jeb Bush happened to be the governor of Florida. George W. stole the election.

I do miss those ballots with chads, because it was easier to vote by pushing an instrument through the ballot than it is to color in the bubbles with a pen (my state’s system). A slip of the pen outside the circle and your ballot doesn’t count!

The other day I read a sentimental op/ed piece describing George W. Bush as a president with gravitas. It is so easy to rewrite history, isn’t it? How about W.’s war in Iraq over the nonexistent Weapons of Mass Destruction?

Now George W. Bush is older and wiser–and I like his paintings! But we’re on different sides of history.

Gore won the Nobel Prize in 2007 for his work on Climate Change (deservedly).

We pray that the election results will support the environment, control the spread of Covid, repair our relations with the free world, boost the economy, ensure good health care, restore the gravitas of education…

And let the results be swift!

Eclectic Reading for November

Woman Writing Letter (Afternoon Lights in the Room) by Rezso Balint

Dear Reader,

I have dazedly reset our clocks (fall back!) to standard time, while bloggers reset their internal clocks for November’s group reading events. For years I have heard of two popular events, “Novellas in November” and “German Literature Month.” Of the two, the latter is more appealing to me. If I garner enough team spirit–I’ve been snuffling around with a cold for a couple of days, and feeling very dreary– I’ll read one of my short 20th-century German novels (not short enough to be a novella, though).

As for me, I have no set reading plans for November. I do have a few classics in mind, but we’ll see. Below I have compiled a list of recently published or soon-to-be published books I’d love to read. They all sound so good in their eclectic ways: there is literary fiction, a mystery, a historical novel, a biography, and a biography/history about Caesar’s killers. Let me know if you’ve read any of them. A couple of these may stray onto my e-reader, but of course, as always, I’m trying to buy fewer books.

Eclectic Books on My November TBR

  1. Snow (St. John Strafford #1), by John Banville, winner of the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea. He has also written mysteries, and this is the first not published under a pseudonym. Here is an excerpt from the Goodreads book description:

Detective Inspector St. John Strafford has been summoned to County Wexford to investigate a murder. A parish priest has been found dead in Ballyglass House, the family seat of the aristocratic, secretive Osborne family.

The year is 1957 and the Catholic Church rules Ireland with an iron fist. Strafford—flinty, visibly Protestant, and determined to identify the murderer—faces obstruction at every turn, from the heavily accumulating snow to the culture of silence in this tight-knit community. As he delves further, he learns the Osbornes are not at all what they seem. And when his own deputy goes missing, Strafford must work to unravel the ever-expanding mystery before the community’s secrets, like the snowfall itself, threatens to obliterate everything.

2 Tsarina, by Ellen Alpsten. A historical novel. Here is an excerpt from the Goodreads book description:

St. Petersburg, 1725. Peter the Great lies dying in his magnificent Winter Palace. The weakness and treachery of his only son has driven his father to an appalling act of cruelty and left the empire without an heir. Russia risks falling into chaos. Into the void steps the woman who has been by his side for decades: his second wife, Catherine Alexeyevna, as ambitious, ruthless and passionate as Peter himself.

Born into devastating poverty, Catherine used her extraordinary beauty and shrewd intelligence to ingratiate herself with Peter’s powerful generals, finally seducing the Tsar himself. But even amongst the splendor and opulence of her new life—the lavish feasts, glittering jewels, and candle-lit hours in Peter’s bedchamber—she knows the peril of her position. Peter’s attentions are fickle and his rages powerful; his first wife is condemned to a prison cell, her lover impaled alive in Red Square. And now Catherine faces the ultimate test: can she keep the Tsar’s death a secret as she plays a lethal game to destroy her enemies and take the Crown for herself?

3 The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar, by Peter Stothard. Here is an excerpt from the Goodreads book description:

Many men killed Julius Caesar. Only one man was determined to kill the killers. From the spring of 44 BC through one of the most dramatic and influential periods in history, Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, exacted vengeance on the assassins of the Ides of March, not only on Brutus and Cassius, immortalized by Shakespeare, but all the others too, each with his own individual story.

The last assassin left alive was one of the lesser-known: Cassius Parmensis was a poet and sailor who chose every side in the dying Republic’s civil wars except the winning one, a playwright whose work was said to have been stolen and published by the man sent to kill him. Parmensis was in the back row of the plotters, many of them Caesar’s friends, who killed for reasons of the highest political principles and lowest personal piques. For fourteen years he was the most successful at evading his hunters but has been barely a historical foot note–until now.

The Last Assassin dazzlingly charts an epic turn of history through the eyes of an unheralded man. It is a history of a hunt that an emperor wanted to hide, of torture and terror, politics and poetry, of ideas and their consequences, a gripping story of fear, revenge, and survival.

4 Inside Story by Martin Amis. Here is an excerpt from the Goodreads book description:

His most intimate and epic work to date, Inside Story is the unseen portrait of Martin Amis’ extraordinary life, as a man and a writer. This novel had its birth in a death – that of the author’s closest friend, Christopher Hitchens. We also encounter the vibrant characters who have helped define Martin Amis, from his father Kingsley, to his hero Saul Bellow, from Philip Larkin to Iris Murdoch and Elizabeth Jane Howard, and to the person who captivated his twenties, the alluringly amoral Phoebe Phelps. What begins as a thrilling tale of romantic entanglements, family and friendship, evolves into a tender, witty exploration of the hardest questions: how to live, how to grieve, and how to die? In his search for answers, Amis surveys the great horrors of the twentieth century, and the still unfolding impact of the 9/11 attacks on the twenty-first – and what all this has taught him about how to be a writer. The result is one of Amis’ greatest achievements: a love letter to life that is at once exuberant, meditative, heartbreaking and ebullient, to be savoured and cherished for many years to come

5 Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck, by William Souder. Here is an excerpt from the Goodreads book description:

Many men killed Julius Caesar. Only one man was determined to kill the killers. From the spring of 44 BC through one of the most dramatic and influential periods in history, Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, exacted vengeance on the assassins of the Ides of March, not only on Brutus and Cassius, immortalized by Shakespeare, but all the others too, each with his own individual story.

The first full-length biography of the Nobel laureate to appear in a quarter century, Mad at the World illuminates what has made the work of John Steinbeck an enduring part of the literary canon: his capacity for empathy. Pulitzer Prize finalist William Souder explores Steinbeck’s long apprenticeship as a writer struggling through the depths of the Great Depression, and his rise to greatness with masterpieces such as The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. Angered by the plight of the Dust Bowl migrants who were starving even as they toiled to harvest California’s limitless bounty, fascinated by the guileless decency of the downtrodden denizens of Cannery Row, and appalled by the country’s refusal to recognize the humanity common to all of its citizens, Steinbeck took a stand against social injustice—paradoxically given his inherent misanthropy—setting him apart from the writers of the so-called “lost generation.”

John Steinbeck just might be the novelist for our time. In his sprawling epic The Grapes of Wrath, he captured Americans’ peculiar yearning for a life not their own, the promise of wealth beyond the veil of desolation and the wretched impossibility of such a promise. Steinbeck’s other…

6 The Wrong Kind of Woman, by Sarah McCraw Crow. Here is an excerpt from the Goodreads book description:

In late 1970, Oliver Desmarais drops dead in his front yard while hanging Christmas lights. In the year that follows, his widow, Virginia, struggles to find her place on the campus of the elite New Hampshire men’s college where Oliver was a professor. While Virginia had always shared her husband’s prejudices against the four outspoken, never-married women on the faculty–dubbed the Gang of Four by their male counterparts–she now finds herself depending on them, even joining their work to bring the women’s movement to Clarendon College.

Soon, though, reports of violent protests across the country reach this sleepy New England town, stirring tensions between the fraternal establishment of Clarendon and those calling for change. As authorities attempt to tamp down “radical elements,” Virginia must decide whether she’s willing to put herself and her family at risk for a cause that had never felt like her own.

Is Bitchdom Dead in American Fiction?

An excellent read!

As I read Laura Zigman’s hilarious, poignant novel, Separation Anxiety, I kept thinking, “I love this character, but she should be bitchier.” I mean, Judy is kind of bitchy. She and her anxious husband, Gary, are relentlessly critical of other people. But Judy often back-pedals afterwards, showing her soft side. And yet surely she is entitled to bitchy observations: the poor woman is so anxious that she “wears” the dog in a baby sling for comfort.

Is bitchdom dead in American fiction? Well, that is not my area of expertise. But off the top of my head, I would say American bitchdom throve in the 20th century. Especially memorable are the tough bitches of the 1930s and ’40s.

Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) was everybody’s favorite bitch, as they incredulously watched her claw her way to the top through sex, marriage, and unscrupulous business practices. Then there was James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941), in which Mildred steals her hard-working restaurateur mother’s upper-class boyfriend to get ahead as a singer. In Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes (1939), Regina Hubbard Giddens lets her husband Horace die of a heart attack to get control of the finances. And in Nancy Hale’s unputdownable pulp novel, The Prodigal Women (1943), Leda March, the intellectual daughter of a well-to-do Boston family, betrays one of her childhood friends by stealing her husband, Lambert: since Maizie has become a frump, Leda has no mercy, thinking it is Maizie’s fault that she ends up in a mental hospital. (Actually, Lambert insisted on an illegal abortion in South America, which shattered her health.)

We all love reading about such heroines, or at least my mother and her peers did, perhaps because they themselves were so relentlessly proper, with Bridge club their main outing, and exhausted by the Depression. But what about slightly bitchy heroines? I will jump to 2020. There have been a lot of (slightly) bitchy heroines in American fiction this year.

There is Feron Hood in Gail Godwin’s novel Old Lovewood Girls, a working-class girl who remains competitive with her kind upper-class college roommate Merry Grace, because she wants to be the better writer. And there is Lydia in Robert Hellenga’s Love, Death & Rare Books, an intellectual who prefers Romantic poetry to Gabe, the rare bookstore owner who is in unrequited love with her.

But the winner of Worst Bitch of the Year has to be Glenna in Martha McPhee’s superb family saga, A Fashionable Woman. Glenna is a middle-class teacher who deserts her two daughters in Montana to pursue politics and a career. Tommy, her oldest daughter, sells coyote pelts to support herself and her younger sister. Tommy has issues, yet turns out to be a pretty good mother. Her life is a lie, though. (Honestly, this is one of the most underrated novels of the year, one of my favorites.)

Let me end on a positive note. I recommend Zigman’s Separation Anxiety as perfect weekend reading. Zigman is extremely witty, and you will be fascinated by Judy’s musings on her sad, tangled life, which is complicated by issues of separation from men: she and her anxious husband, Gary, cannot afford a divorce, so he lives in the basement; while her beloved teenage son, Teddy, no longer wants to hang out with her. Judy gets my vote as most original heroine of the year.

But, yes, Judy could be slightly bitchier. And we would forgive her.

Who are your favorite bitches in American literature? We want to know.

A Horrifying Post-Apocalyptic Novel: John Christopher’s “The Death of Grass”

I do not decorate with ugly ghosts and witches. I do not read horror on Halloween. I might read a few ghost stories, a little gentle Le Fanu or Pliny’s ghost stories, but beyond that I do not go.

That is, until now, when I mistook the genre of The Death of Grass.

I picked up a used copy, not because I wanted a post-apocalyptic SF novel (not in these times!), but because I had read John Christopher’s Tripod trilogy repeatedly as a child. As a fan, I was interested in his adult work. And I thought The Death of Grass would be along the lines of John Wyndham’s cozy catastrophe, The Day of the Triffids, a post-apocalyptic classic about a group of humans who, after some adventures, comfortably survive the invasion of killer plants that stalk them.

John Christopher’s The Death of Grass is a terrifying novel. There is no coziness or comfort. It focuses on a virus that kills all grasses, including crops of rice, wheat, oats, etc. The Wung-Li virus begins in China and spreads through Asia and finally Europe and England. There is famine, and governments topple. At the time communications shut down in England, the U.S. is still untouched, still sending grain ships to China. But we know America will not be immune.

And the virus sounds only too realistic, and the naive English characters too like you and me. The hero, John Custance, an engineer, and his kind, charitable wife Ann do not believe the virus will come to England. Ann feels terribly sorry for Hong Kong, which is besieged by the starving Chinese. She wishes there were something she could do. But later, she is told repeatedly by her husband that pity is a luxury of the middle class.

“No Blade of Grass” was the American title.

John’s brother, David, a farmer, is the only one who knows what may happen. He has seen patches of the virus-ridden rice grass on his land, and has appropriately followed the government guidelines to kill it. His farm is fortified on three sides by mountains and a river, and he is building a fence on the open side in case of trouble. He asks John, Ann, and their two children to stay and work on the farm. They of course long to return to London.

The background of the virus is mostly told in dialogue. John asks David if he’s heard any news about Peking.

“Nothing official. It’s supposed to be in flames. And at Hong Kong they’ve had to repel attacks across the frontier.”

“A genteel way of putting it,” John said grimly. “Did you ever see those old pictures of the rabbit plagues in Australia? Wire-netting fences ten feet high, and rabbits–hundreds of thousands of rabbits–piled up against them, leap-frogging over each other until in the end either they scaled the fences or the fences went down under their weight. That’s Hong Kong right now, except that it’s not rabbits piled against the fence but human beings.”

Horrifying! And yet I thought I was reading a cozy catastrophe. If I’d stopped right here… on page 12… I would have saved myself dread and trepidation. This is one of the most violent novels I have ever read.

If you like plot, there is a lot of action. I won’t say it is well-written, but it certainly moves. The Custance family’s government PR friend Rodger tips them off that the English government plans to bomb London and other cities so there will be enough food for the ruling class. The Custances and Rodger’s family decide to head for David’s farm. Along the way, they pick up a gun shop owner, Pirrie, and his wife. They make their way out of London, with a lot of violence, since there is a travel ban.

Style-wise, there is very little here. Christopher is a blunt writer, filling the pages with ideas and explanations. Almost everything is explicated through dialogue.

There is also much blood. Ann questions the out-of-control violence wrought by John and his thuggish friend, Pirrie, who really is the one running things.

This is not a cozy catastrophe. I don’t even think this is science fiction. It reads like horror mixed with brutal realism.

But it is not a good novel, by any stroke of the imagination.

All I can say is: only cozy catastrophes will be read here in the future! This was not for me.

Does Everything That Can Go Wrong Go Wrong?

I promised you an end to negativity. That was last week: Ms. Positivity Week. After the results of my blood work, I was ready to become a co-op vegan junkie who hails home-baked beet chips as the new chocolate cookie. At my local (cartoon) food co-op, I would do gentle dumpster-diving for soy yogurt past its expiration date. Then I would join the silent, socially-distanced, socially-conscious vigil in front of the Capitol. Signs scream, “End Homelessness!” “Green Energy Now!” “Black Lives Matter!” “I’m Pro-Choice and I Vote!” How much gentler than the slogans we were raised on. I distinctly remember, “Power to the People! Smash the State!”

This splendid vegan protester phase of my brief anti-negativity fantasy happened while I struggled to reduce what I call “my numbers.” There is nothing wrong with me. Really, there is not. But my blood pressure, which is usually below normal, is now normal–and I want it to go down. Three electronic thermometers at the clinic said that I HAVE NO BODY TEMPERATURE AT ALL. They knew that couldn’t be right, but they gave up. SO WHAT’S THE FREQUENCY, KENNETH? One wonders!

As for numbers, I mistrust the clinic’s apparently inexact new equipment. One has to go to the doctor when one is sick, but this emphasis on blood work can make one overwrought. My philosophy is essentially Carpe diem.

Since I’m on the subject of medicine, let me recommend five stunning novels about doctors (or at least medicine).

Antonia Saw the Oryx First by Maria Thomas. I The book description says: Though American, Dr. Antonia Redmond is African-born and has lived in East Africa for almost her entire life. With the end of colonialism, like all whites, she faces exile. Only the intercession of an influential lover preserves her visa, but should she leave, she will not be allowed to return. As the inevitable reckoning comes and the white population dwindles, she clings to the land to which she feels a deep connection. Antonia Saw the Oryx First is a profound exploration of personal and cultural identity, love and leave-taking.

The Citadel by A. J. Cronin. Book description: The Citadel follows the life of Andrew Manson, a young and idealistic Scottish doctor, as he navigates the challenges of practicing medicine across interwar Wales and England. Based on Cronin’s own experiences as a physician, The Citadel boldly confronts traditional medical ethics, and has been noted as one of the inspirations for the formation of the National Health Service.

Cider House Rules by John Irving. Book description: Raised from birth in the orphanage at St. Cloud’s, Maine, Homer Wells has become the protege of Dr. Wilbur Larch, its physician and director. There Dr. Larch cares for the troubled mothers who seek his help, either by delivering and taking in their unwanted babies or by performing illegal abortions. Meticulously trained by Dr. Larch, Homer assists in the former, but draws the line at the latter. Then a young man brings his beautiful fiancee to Dr. Larch for an abortion, and everything about the couple beckons Homer to the wide world outside the orphanage .

Doctors & Nurses by Lucy Ellmann. Ellmann was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Ducks, Newburyport, but her earlier novels are satiric. Book description: Nursing is a noble calling. So what the hell attracted Jen, a gigantic nurse with a habit of killing her patients? Now she’s had the temerity, and misfortune, to fall in love with her boss, a dishy dashing doc known throughout the land for his long limbs, grey eyes, cleft chin, arresting bedside manner and other stereotypical attributes. Jen is ready to trample the ever-growing pile of prostrate patients in order to surrender herself utterly to him, but whenever she gets the chance, he’s winched up into the air by helicopter, to attend yet another medical emergency! It’s a prescription for disaster.

Regeneration by Pat Barker (the first of a trilogy). Book description: Regeneration, one in Pat Barker’s series of novels confronting the psychological effects of World War I, focuses on treatment methods during the war and the story of a decorated English officer sent to a military hospital after publicly declaring he will no longer fight. Yet the novel is much more. Written in sparse prose that is shockingly clear—the descriptions of electronic treatments are particularly harrowing—it combines real-life characters and events with fictional ones in a work that examines the insanity of war like no other. Barker also weaves in issues of class and politics in this compactly powerful book. Other books in the series include The Eye in the Door and the Booker Award winner The Ghost Road.

Let me know your favorite novels about doctors!

What to Read While Hunkering Down at Home

IShirley MacLaine “hunkering down” (?) with T.S. Eliot

“I don’t mind the cold. It’s the light I miss.”

I say that every year. I have a partial solution: you feel happier if you use twice as much electricity, i.e., turning on every lamp in the house and using the brightest light bulbs you can find. (And that’s why we need wind energy: 36 percent of ours is powered by wind turbines.)

We had our first snow last week, and the nights are getting darker earlier. We have been “hunkering down” at home (as Dr. Fauci and other infectious disease experts suggest) and getting a lot of reading done (which is my interpretation of “hunkering down”).

If you’re tired of hunkering–and there has certainly been a lot of it this year–I know two remarkable books to make the time go faster. This is also a perfect way to catch up on my book entries, which have been fewer lately.

1 Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread, by Michiko Kakutani. This entertaining book would make a great Christmas gift, or in this case, a hunkering-down gift for bibliophiles. You may remember Kakutani as a daily book critic at The New York Times, whose gracefully-written, incisive, tough reviews could make or break a book. She shows a softer side of herself in these enthusiastic short essays about the books she loves. You will madly write down all the books you want to read e or reread.

And so I cannot wait to read Saul Bellow (the only book I’ve read by him was the The Dean’s December, and I dismissed him on the basis of that), the historian Daniel Boorstin’s 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America ( he wote “that images were supplanting ideals [and] the idea of ‘credibility’ was replacing the idea of truth”), Underworld by the great Don De Lillo, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, and so many more.

2 The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. This irresistible meta-Victorian novel is a classic, which I did not realize it when I first read it after seeing the movie with Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. Perhaps I did not recognize its perfection because I read so much in those days that great books blended into each other. One day it was Trollope, the next Elizabeth Bowen, the next Caesar’s Commentaries, and I sometimes blundered when I came upon excellent new books that would prove to be classics. It takes time and comparison to know.

Fowles’s imitation of a Victorian novel centers on Charles, a 32-year-old gentleman, amateur geologist, and Darwinist who is engaged to marry a merchant’s daughter, Ernestina, who is as witty as a character in a George Meredith novel. Unfortunately, Charles begins to doubt his decision when he falls for a mysterious red-haired woman, Sarah Woodruff, who walks along the beaches and cliffs of Lyme every day. . Reputed to have been engaged to–and sexually active with–a French officer who deserted her, Sarah is bolder than women of Charles’s class. And she actively pursues him.

But there is so much more than plot, character, and sex to this novel. Fowles interweaves details about Victorian life and history into the narrative, sometimes in fascinating footnotes, other times in interruptions by an omniscient narrator who comments on the action and sometimes offers alternate versions of an incident.

As a Victorian novel, it is simply stunning. As twentieth-century fiction, it is doubly brilliant. Even if you do not care for meta-fiction, this book will ensnare you and keep you reading. Loved it!

’90 North” by Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrell

After finishing Randall Jarrell’s satiric novel, Pictures from an Institution, I decided to read some of his poetry. I enjoyed and admired the following much-anthologized poem, “90 North.”

“90 North”

At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe’s impossible sides
I sailed all night—till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.

There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff furs knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh: the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end? In the darkness I turned to my rest.

—Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
Of the unbroken ice. I stand here,
The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare
At the North Pole . . .
                                        And now what? Why, go back.

Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world—my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness: all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.

And it is meaningless. In the child’s bed
After the night’s voyage, in that warm world
Where people work and suffer for the end
That crowns the pain—in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

I reached my North and it had meaning.
Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone—

Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge
 
I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me—
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness 
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

Pondering Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures from an Institution”

Jottings on Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures from an Institution”


I am loving Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, a comic novel set at Benton College, which is based loosely on Sarah Lawrence College, a progressive college where Jarrell briefly taught. In this rare video, I speak of my impressions of the book.

Here is a little background: Pictures from an Institution is partly a roman à clef, featuring such celebrities as Mary McCarthy, who, in Pictures, is portrayed as Gertrude, a creative writing teacher who turns all experiences into biting satiric novels. Indeed, McCarthy’s brilliant The Groves of Academe, a hilarious satire of Sarah Lawrence College, was published in 1952, two years before Jarrell’s. Was there some rivalry between the two writers?

Worth reading for all who love satires!