Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This memoir opens with the murder of Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004 by a Muslim outraged by a film Van Gogh had made with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I remember my horror at Van Gogh’s murder, despite my years in Baltimore with its high murder rate, because it happened in Amsterdam.

I had been spending a good bit of time in The Netherlands where I delighted in what seemed to be the nature of Dutch culture: calm, practical, tolerant. I felt that I had found my spiritual homeland. All the more shocking, then, this assassination in a land where reason rules.

The film Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali made was called Submission and explored the treatment of women in Islamic culture in connection with the actual verses from the Quran mandating such treatment. After this introduction, Hirsi Ali goes back to her childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and Ethiopia to show how a devout Muslim girl could grow up to question the beliefs that structure and define her world.

Of course, I have read a good deal about women’s lives under Islam, but the accounts have been inconsistent, even conflicting. In this memoir, Hirsi Ali discusses the differences in the practice of Islam in different countries, and how the more repressive strain from Saudi Arabia came to dominate. Islam is more than a religion; it is a guide to daily life, prescribing men’s and women’s roles.

There are politics here, but in the form of stories: stories about her mother, her sister, her friends. A way of life is built up that is completely foreign to me. There are atrocities here too. I’ve read about female circumcision—excision, as Hirsi Ali calls it—but hadn’t grasped the full horror of it until this first-person account made it impossible to flinch away.

However, the biggest shock for me in this book was the short shrift Hirsi Ali gives to tolerance, that virtue I prize so highly and aspire to in my dealings with others. Having come of age during the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., I try to respect and value differences of culture, ethnicity, appearance, gender, etc. But the latter part of this account, when Hirsi Ali moves into Dutch politics, actually being elected to Parliament, blows away my comfortable—perhaps smug—perspective. She demonstrates that tolerance can become an excuse for inaction. Some things we should not tolerate, such as girls being mutilated, wives beaten at a husband’s whim, women murdered because they have been raped and are therefore impure.

Religious belief does not trump the law, at least not in The Netherlands. Nor in the U.S. But what about in a Muslim country? I struggle now to reconcile my consciousness of the abuse of women with my respect for other cultures. I don’t want to force my religious beliefs on anyone else, nor my form of government. Yet by advocating equal rights for women, including Muslim women, I am doing just that. I don’t have any answers at this point, only questions.

Antonia White: Diaries 1926-1957, edited by Susan Chitty

I found these diaries very difficult to read. I haven’t read any of White’s novels yet, though I know that her Frost in May was one of the initial “lost” women’s masterpieces rescued by Virago Press in the 1970s. Apparently, the diaries were not written to be read by outsiders. Instead, they seem to serve mostly as a place where she can work out just what is going on with her.

She doesn’t use the diaries as a writer’s notebook, with character sketches and plot vignettes. Nor does she use them as a memory box, with descriptions of friends and happenings. She alludes to many friends and lovers. In fact, the number of people cited in these snippets left me floundering, even with the help of the biographical sketches in the back. White certainly knew a lot of interesting people, and I would have welcomed more information about many of them, such as Julien Green, George Barker, and Graham Greene, but they are only mentioned in passing. There are a couple a brief references to World War II starting, but nothing else of the interesting times that she lived through.

Of course, she wasn’t trying to write a narrative with these diaries. Or perhaps she was: the story of her life. More than anything else, she writes in the diaries in order to understand herself and her experiences. Born in 1899 as Eirene Botting, she came of age in the wild years after the Great War, with three marriages and a number of lovers, two daughters, and a nervous breakdown.

The influence of her resulting years of pschoanalysis is evident in these diaries, as she records her dreams and explores her memories of her parents. Even towards the end of this volume, when she is in her fifties, she is still going back over childhood events, trying to work out their effect on her life. There is much about her financial difficulties and writer’s block. She complains about how her pen works, the way the light falls, feeling depressed.

What I valued most was her bluntness. I may have found it hard to like her when she goes on about how much of a burden her children are and how finally, after many years, she might be starting to love them a little bit, yet I appreciated such sentiments much more than a pretense at more conventional maternal feelings.

On the other hand, her reconciliation with the Catholic Church in 1940 made for sticky reading. Between talk of making God the center of her life and breast-beating over the conflict of the church’s teachings with her “over-sexed” nature, I was tempted to put down the book entirely. Then there was the bizarre relationship with another convert, with the two of them trying to out-Catholic each other and fighting over White’s oldest daughter, Susan.

Another difficulty I had with the book is that has been edited by Susan herself. Since much of the second half has to do with Susan—analysing her personality, admitting to jealousy of Susan’s beauty, lamenting their falling out—I began to question the editing that went into producing this volume. There are many ellipses in every passage which appear to mark excised phrases rather than being White’s writing style. I couldn’t help but speculate about what was missing. A comment on the end flap (I always read the end flaps last) leads me to think that the other daughter opposed the book, making me wonder what sort of book might have been produced by a less biased editor.

And what kind of picture of White might have come out of a different selection. This book makes her seem completely self-centered, thinking only of herself and her needs, trying to dominate former husbands and lovers even after leaving them, ignoring her daughters except to complain that they don’t love her enough. Perhaps she was an insufferable egotist, but surely she was also a victim of changing cultural mores, struggling to balance the strictures of her parents and the church against the sexual freedom and spiritualism of the years between the wars. And White, like Elizabeth Smart, another single parent, obviously struggled to find the emotional and intellectual energy, not to mention simply the time, to write. Was it the writing that made her a bad mother, as Alice Walker’s daughter has famously accused? Or is the writing just a convenient scapegoat?

Journals, by John Cheever

Last week I wrote about reading Cheever’s stories and journals at the same time. I’m always curious about how other writers use their journals. I’ve written in this blog about Elizabeth Smart’s journals and how she used them in creating her novels. Based on these extracts, Cheever seems to have used his journal occasionally as a sketchbook for his stories but primarily as a place to have a conversation with himself about himself. And while it was fun to see the original sketches that became characters and bits of plot in the stories, it was far more interesting to see him exploring his experiences and thoughts and emotions in ways that fed into the stories in a more subtle manner.

I was surprised that there not much about writing. Very rarely he would refer to another writer—a brief reference to Phillip Roth or John Updike—but not much beyond a note of praise for that author’s work, no recordings of discussions with any other writers. So it came as a surprise that, when a reporter falsely informs him of Updike’s death, he is shattered by the loss of this (now we find out) close friend.

And there is nothing about his own writing. Once or twice he cites his success at achieving his goal in writing, but never explains what that goal is. Of course, the journals were not written with an eye to publication, so perhaps he didn’t need to state it. I need to keep reminding myself of my goals and what I am trying to accomplish—it’s a method I use to stay on track and not get distracted by all the intriguing branches down which I could wander.

Nor does he, except in the last few months of his life when his mental and physical powers were waning, talk about the physical act of writing, the difficulties and satisfactions of getting words down on paper.

In the early years, he occasionally mentions financial difficulties, but I have to say that this is one area that completely baffled me. I was amazed that he could make a living, a good living, just from writing stories. Yes, it was a different era, and yes, the New Yorker bought a lot of his stories, but how in the world did he maintain a wealthy suburban lifestyle for himself and his family with just his writing? His wife didn’t have a job. Nor did he, apparently, other than writing.

His relationship with his wife dominates these journals, as he tries to puzzle her out or recounts the ways that he has betrayed her despite his best intentions. I was surprised by the consistency of his concerns. He came back again and again to the same preoccupations, fears, and laments year after year. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, because I’m well aware that my own journals circle back over the same ground repeatedly. I like to think that I’ve progressed, but often find that I am having to learn the same lesson over and over.

Beyond the content of these journals, the simple experience of reading Cheever’s prose is delightful. These sentences, presumably dashed off casually before beginning his real writing, are as exquisite as the finely crafted sentences in the stories. Between the journals and the collected stories, I had a sense of an oeuvre, a lifetime’s accomplishment. I thought, as I did walking through the rooms full of Turners at the Tate: This is a person’s life, this body of work.

Stories, by John Cheever

It took me a couple of months to read this book, much longer than normal for me even with a longer work of fiction. What I found was that I couldn’t read more than a couple of stories at a time, and that I needed to take time off to read other things in between.

I’d read a few of Cheever’s stories before, but the experience of reading them in bulk was quite different. What drew me to this collection was the opportunity of reading his journals at the same time, hoping to satisfy my curiosity about how other writers transform their experiences into fiction. Also, of course, about anything he had to say about the experience of writing itself.

The stories, at least those in this collection, were written in the years after World War II through the Seventies and describe a single, small segment of society: the upper middle-class suburban culture where men commuted into New York every day for work and women stayed home to keep house, raise children, and volunteer for worthy causes. At one point, he notes with surprise that men have stopped wearing hats and women gloves. Some stories turn on the isolation of a suburban man or family in a foreign culture, and others on the introduction of someone from another culture (an Italian count, a Jewish family, a brassy lower-class wife) into this world.

This is the world that dominated the entertainment media in those mid-century decades: the Petries, the Cleavers, etc. Cheever’s gift is to show the loneliness, fear, and even violence behind the quiet suburban windows, as Grace Metalius showed the sexual games and musical beds. Cheever demonstrates that lives which seem fixed and certain, even boring, are in fact precariously balanced and can tumble down at the slightest cross-breeze. Death haunts these stories, death of the spirit as well as the body. Occasionally, after reading a few of these stories, I’d be reminded of Fortinbras “knee-deep in Danes”, as the song goes.

A few of the stories venture into the metaphysical, and these seemed to me less successful than those that stayed on a realistic plane. One (“Boy in Rome”) even played with the idea of writing itself, a bit of meta-fiction that impressed me: not overdone, not playing for the sake of playing, just enough.

I particularly liked the stories about the role work plays in our lives, such as “The Ocean”, where a man is eased out of his high-level job with a substantial golden parachute, but wants only to find a place to work, an arena in which he can use his skills. He is reduced to driving to the station to meet the evening train, rejoicing in the sight of all the commuting husbands erupting from it to join their waiting wives.

Most of the stories are, however, about love. And marriages gone wrong. These concerns dominate the journals as well. A few stories allude to the difficulties women faced, confined to the home but wanting to work. Having read many such stories from the women’s point of view, I found a man’s point of view revealing.

While the post-war New York suburban culture is not a world that interests me, Cheever’s prose is mesmerizing. I found myself going back after reading a story and looking at the brief character descriptions, the transitions from one scene to the next, even individual sentences, trying to pick apart where the magic happens, how he manages to convey so much emotion with such straight-forward language. What made me keep putting the book down was the sadness of the stories themselves, their desolate tone and bleak philosophy.