Thursday, August 3, 2017

those fumbling airs that breathe and bend

And through this clear, unstagnant yet unturbulent air there rose the wild yet gentle cry of a multitude of birds. It was not the coarse brave cry of the gull that can breast tempests and dive deep for unfastidious food. It was not the austere cry of the curlew who dwells on moors when they are unvisitable by men. This was the voice of some bird appropriate to the place. It was unhurried. Whatever lived on the plain saw when the sun rose on its edge shadows as long as living things ever see them, and watched them shrink till noon, and lengthen out again till sundown; and time must have seemed the slower for being so visible. It had the sound of water in it. Whatever lived here spent half its life expecting the running of waveless but briny tides up the creeks, through mud-paved culverts into the dykes that fed the wet marshes with fresh wetness; and the other half deploring their slow, sluggish sucking back to the sea. Sorrow or any other intemperance of feeling seemed a discourteous disturbance of an atmosphere filled with this resigned harmony.
Virginia Woolf called the novel "an overstuffed sausage" and stopped reading it halfway through. Certainly the prose threatens to burst at the seams, far more dense writing than Woolf's, who was after all trying for the same psychological effect as West, though Woolf leaned more on the technique of stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative threads writ in that spare pointillist style she had. West was writing out of the Gothic tradition, a tale of an innocent woman trapped in a castle full of spirits and self-destructive secrets. Woolf was doing the same thing, but the castles were all interior to her characters, the ghosts haunting themselves in their own brains.

I think that had Woolf finished The Judge, she'd have possibly admired the structural planning that even looks ahead to that of her own To The Lighthouse, which was published five years later, in 1927. There is a break halfway through The Judge where the narrative ceases to focus on Ellen and turns to the history and interior world of Marion Yaverland, the victim and bearer of destructive societal forces. It becomes a different novel than it was, a strange Gothic novel, similar to the way that To The Lighthouse becomes a different and strange novel in the "Time Passes" middle section, where the prose thickens and becomes symbolic and threatening. Thick for Woolf, that is.
So some random light directing them with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed round bedroom doors. But here surely, they must cease. Whatever else may perish and disappear, what lies here is steadfast. Here one might say to those sliding lights, those fumbling airs that breathe and bend over the bed itself, here you can neither touch nor destroy. Upon which, wearily, ghostlily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers, they would look, once, on the shut eyes, and the loosely clasping fingers, and fold their garments wearily and disappear. And so, nosing, rubbing, they went to the window on the staircase, to the servants’ bedrooms, to the boxes in the attics; descending, blanched the apples on the dining-room table, fumbled the petals of roses, tried the picture on the easel, brushed the mat and blew a little sand along the floor. At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to.
The other thing about The Judge that strikes me right now is the way so much of it is focused on observing, on looking at the behavior of others and judging that behavior, on deliberately matching one's behavior to that of another person, on controlling how one appears, on the duplicity of being aware of and subsequently taking advantage of how we appear to others. It's a book about looking, and being seen, and play-acting and claims of truth. A battle between observer and observed, the battle swallowing its own tail, neither a victory nor an armistice possible.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Forget Amsterdam

Fine, no more posts about Amsterdam or the Netherlands. The conceit of tying my vacation to my reading was wearing thin, and no mistaking. This is just going to be a brief post to declare that I've begun revising, yet again, a manuscript called Go Home, Miss America. I'm going to work over the prose in every other chapter (don't ask; it's a structure issue) and submit it to an independent publisher I found out about this week, one that might actually want such a novel. No, it could happen, really, despite all of our shared doubts. So that's what I'll be doing with my not-so-copious spare time for the next couple of months, rather than actually reading novels. I have not made much progress with the revisions to Antosha!, a novel I'd planned to be submitting to agents this fall. Well, maybe that will happen in the spring of 2018. There is no hurry, as there is nothing at stake.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

served by tram lines 13 and 17

I'm reading the diary of Anne Frank, a true-life dystopian young adult book. The first time I read The Diary of a Young Girl, I was about 15, and the book was a class assignment. I'm reading it now for a couple of reasons, the primary one being that it's set in Amsterdam, where you know we've recently been. We've been to the house where the Franks hid themselves from the Gestapo for two years, so I can picture the house, the street, the canal that the house overlooks, etc. I've heard the bells of the Westerkerk, a church whose tower we saw almost every morning when we left our apartment.


Westerkerk tower in the distance. Photo: Mighty Reader

We did not, however, actually set foot inside the Frank's house. We stood on the pavement in front of the house, confused for a few minutes before we walked on in search of a place to eat breakfast. It turns out that you need to order tickets to the Anne Frank House online, at least a month in advance. So next time, if we remember.

Frank mentions in her diary that the house is served by tram lines 13 and 17. Mighty Reader and I have ridden on both of those trams, which still serve the neighborhood. The public transportation in Amsterdam is pretty good. Frank also mentions bicycles several times, and her sadness that under the Gestapo rules Jews are not allowed to own bicycles (or ride the trams or the ferries or in cars or move about in any way except on foot). Because a Jew on a bicycle is a danger to public order, one assumes.


Typical Amsterdam scene, bikes thick on the pavements. Photo: Mighty Reader

We managed to drag all of our luggage via tram from the apartment to Amsterdam Centraal Station when we traveled by train outside of Amsterdam. The trams are not large but they have reserved areas for luggage, prams, and wheelchairs. People were polite about giving us room for all our junk. In 1943, a person schlepping four pieces of luggage around would've been subject to being stopped and searched on the chance that he was a Jew trying to escape town. A Jew on the loose in Europe was a danger to public order, one assumes.

Without our luggage, we managed to bike just about everywhere. Mighty Reader will tell you that she loves her own bike--a 21-speed hybrid she calls "Bessie"--so much because the bike represents personal freedom, the ability to get up and go wherever, whenever, in a swift, light and maneuverable manner. I don't quite feel that way about my Cannondale (lately dubbed "Bernardo"), but it's always good to be out on the road on our bikes.


Bessie and Bernardo shopping for books in Seattle. Photo: Mighty Reader

The cycling culture in Holland, especially in Amsterdam, is terrific. Everyone yields to bikes, even trams and pedestrians. There are bike racks everywhere, bike paths running parallel to streets and roads, bike shops galore, and the understanding that bikes are not rude intruders into a city whose streets are owned by cars and trucks. It was a little bit of a culture shock to return to the streets of Seattle, where drivers have not quite embraced the idea of sharing the road. We have become more assertive cyclists after our brief visit to Amsterdam, though I'm not sure that's a wise development.

I cannot imagine Amsterdam under the control of the Gestapo, with some of the population's civil rights dramatically curtailed, forced to wear an insignia that publicly identifies them as enemies of the state until the state decides to cart them away to death camps. The prohibition against owning a bicycle was the least of their worries, but equal protection for all under the law helps keep us from objectifying our neighbors, allowing us to maintain our own claims to humanity. Equal protection under the law is the basis for the moral authority of democracy.