The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Goethe

Hampl’s search for the sublime led me to thinking about the Romantic Movement. Reacting to the dry rationality of the Enlightenment, artists and young people of the 18th century turned instead to nature and the reasons of the heart. It is perhaps not surprising that such an explosion of youthful energy should, like the 1960s, come after a period of prosperity and the growth of the middle class. Impatient with bourgeois complacency and bored by their parents’ prudence, the new Romantics embraced the passions of the day for blue flowers, brooding heroes, dark ruins and terrible peaks.

I was bit surprised to realise that I had never actually read this classic. Even though today most people would associate the name Werther only with candy, the book was immensely popular in its time, making Goethe perhaps the first literary celebrity. Young people formed Werther clubs and imitated him, even wearing clothes like his. Tie-in merchandise was sold: china figurines, perfumes, fans and gloves with images of Werther and his beloved Lotte. There was even a wave of young people copying Werther’s actions, which led to the book being banned in some cities. Goethe himself compared the book to “a small firing charge . . . needed to detonate a powerful mine” and said that “everyone could now burst forth with his own exaggerated demands, unsatisfied passions, and imaginary sufferings.”

Having heard so much about the story already, I tried to approach it with an open mind. In some ways, it is the oldest story in the world. Vacationing in a rural German village, Werther meets a beautiful young woman as she delays leaving for a dance in order to cut bread for her motherless brothers and sisters. Even though he has been warned ahead of time that she is engaged to be married, he cannot help falling in love with Lotte. She, too, seems aware of the instant connection between them. The tale is told entirely through letters written by Werther to his friend, William, giving us at first hand the young man’s feelings and sensations. And such feelings!

My friend, Chris, has been talking about the two sisters in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility lately, asking who would we rather be, passionate Marianne or serious Elinor. It does often seem that siblings take on opposite roles. If the first child is introverted and quiet, then the second may be reckless and melodramatic. Of course, one wants both: Elinor’s stability enlivened by Marianne’s sense of fun.

In recent years I’ve seen too often the destructive results when people are guided by emotions rather than reason, their willingness to be conned. It is not that I never feel the passions that roiled my youth; rather it is that I don’t have to indulge them. Werther consciously chooses each step in his path. It is not that he is carried away by the strength of his feelings, but that he dwells on them and magnifies them. Even with that element of self-dramatisation, however, his openness compels sympathy. I admit, though, that I also had to sympathise with the young man’s poor employers, each in turn begging him to moderate his passions.

Goethe said that he wanted to write about a man who opens himself fully to the urgings of nature, both inside and out. Werther has a wonderful sense of oneness with the world around him: the linden trees, the stream, the cliffs.

I’m reminded of Jane Eyre, that passionate girl whose story was published 73 years after Werther appeared in 1774. One of the most fascinating things about Jane’s story is how, as she grows older and with only herself to rely on to make her way in life, she learns to contain her feelings. Her control and the banked strength of her passion give her immense power, the power that comes from knowing yourself through and through, a power far more important than what can be conferred by wealth or position. Her dignity and integrity despite her lowly station always inspire me, whereas this young man’s tale simply makes me sad.

Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime, by Patricia Hampl

The last few books I’ve read have made me think about what constitutes a good life. Last week I blogged about Stoner, a quiet and unassuming story which mesmerised me with its honest depiction of a man’s life, an ordinary man, a man of his time and place. Looking back at the book now, I see William Stoner’s similarity to his father, a farmer who toiled year after year with little reward. The worth of his father’s life was in the labor itself. Hard and wearing as it was, the work was the meaning and vision of his father’s life, the doing of it, not the result.

The I read Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, having just seen the man’s photo at the National Portrait Gallery. By comparison, Cather’s story seemed almost a fairy tale. Like Stoner, Father Latour faced hard and unrelenting labor in his New Mexico parishes, strengthened by friendship and his own integrity, but in the end he had measurable results: more and better-run parishes, even a cathedral. Still, what he seemed to value most was a moment in his youth when he helped his friend stay the course. What Stoner and Father Latour have that Stoner’s father does not is a faith in something larger than themselves: religion for Father Latour and art—literature—for Stoner. Making their labor an offering gives them a sense of purpose.

It is this sense of the sublime—something greater than us, perhaps inspiring awe or terror, but filling our spirits and lifting us out of ourselves—that Hampl goes in search of here. In deft, poetic essays she examines what has influenced her as a writer and as a woman, what has inspired her: a painting by Matisse of a woman alone contemplating a bowl of goldfish, his series of Odalisque paintings, the fascination with cloistered life left over from a Catholic childhood, Katharine Mansfield’s journals and letters, the St. Paul of her childhood. She writes about the Côte d’Azur where she is currently staying, visiting the towns where Matisse lived, and Mansfield, and early experimental filmmaker Jerome Hill whose glass bowl of a sunroom she could see from her father’s greenhouse.

Hampl writes as a poet would, talking around the subject, layering images and sensations until they begin to coalesce. She talks about the beginnings of modernism in painting, when a "painting must depict the act of seeing, not the object seen . . . We have wanted to look not at the thing but at the mind beholding and rendering itself in the act of attention." She says of both Hill and Matisse that their real subject "was individual perception: not simply what was seen, but how seeing was experienced." The layering of Hampl’s fragments lets us take this journey of discovery with her.

In these marvelous essays, Hampl examines the creative process itself. The woman alone with her thoughts, Mansfield with her "ardent confusion of art and life": they model for her not what to write or how to write, but who to be. Her inspirations all represent some form of confinement—a goldfish bowl, harems, corset’s, a nun’s cell, illness, early death—yet at the same time they represent freedom, freedom to be yourself, freedom to sit and think. What is the point of a contemplative life? For an artist, it is everything. You must dig deep into yourself, past the point of comfort and self-delusion, in order to do your best work. You must give all of yourself. Hampl says that what spirit, in the sense of a having a spiritual life, does for us is "to breathe its mystery into our fiber so that we might breathe out the bit of meaning it entrusts to us."

I’ve been thinking about this idea of what makes a good life off and on for a few years. We live; we die and are forgotten. The things we collected and treasured are scattered, their significance lost. Our little accomplishments, the things we are proud of, mean nothing to anyone but us. When those who knew us die or forget us, what is left to show that we lived at all? Does it matter if there’s nothing?

What I keep coming back to is the belief that you choose something—anything, as long as it’s not hurting others—and devote yourself to it. It doesn’t matter what you accomplish or who is aware of it. What matters is that you stay the course. What you choose doesn’t even have to be sublime; it can be the red clay farmland that Stoner’s father spent his life working, the students who pass through your classroom, or the elusive women in Matisse’s paintings who will live forever.

Stoner, by John Williams

What a find! Many thanks to NYRB for reprinting this 1965 novel and to my book club for selecting it. My interest was piqued immediately by the cover, which I recognised as a reproduction of a portrait by Thomas Eakins, thanks to the wonderful show of his work that Cynthia and I attended a few years ago. At a recent meeting of the publishers’ association to which I belong, we were talking about the importance of the cover design and some of the principles for different genres. This portrait, from 1900, of a man dressed in black, apparently deep in thought, tells you that the book will be serious, will reflect its time, and will, despite its apparent simplicity, convey deep and complex emotion.

And it’s all true. The very first paragraph gives us a summary of William Stoner’s life: a student and professor at the University of Missouri who is barely remembered after his death. Not a remarkable life, apparently, yet I was completely engaged by this story, drawn in by the author’s honest and compelling depiction of Stoner’s thoughts and emotions. Growing up at the end of the 19th century on a poor clay farm in Missouri, Stoner expects nothing more of life than the unending labor his parents, and even he as a child, expend on their arid, hardscrabble farm. His parents are patient, reticent people, accepting of their failure to do more than get by. “In the evenings the three of them sat in the small kitchen lighted by a single kerosene lamp, staring into the yellow flame; often during the hour or so between supper and bed, the only sound that could be heard was the weary movement of a body in a straight chair and the soft creak of a timber giving a little beneath the age of the house.”

All this changes when the County agent mentions to Stoner’s father that there is a new College of Agriculture at the University. As an agriculture student, Stoner takes a required survey of English literature course which troubles him because it requires more than the rote learning of his science courses, trouble which comes to a head when the professor one day demands that Stoner explain what a particular Shakespeare sonnet means. The discovery, for this man, of the peculiar intoxication of literature moved me profoundly. The author summons my response by talking around this sublime moment, like a mime creating walls and tables out of air, as Jane Hirshfield says, leaving me to fill the space with my own memories and experiences.

I cannot say enough good things about this book. The characters and their lives reflect their cultural context, reminding me about a nearly forgotten time and place when Puritan influence was still strong, making almost a fetish of work. Even as Scott and Zelda were partying across Europe, farmers were fighting day after day to make hard clay yield some kind of crop; assistant professors worked to find ways to pass on their knowledge and love of learning to students; ordinary and obscure men and women struggled to make their lives mean something. Not so different after all, perhaps. I thought about my grandfather, who died when I was a child, a serious and reticent man, and felt I understood him a little bit better.

Stoner’s life may be easily summarised, but the joy of this book is in the detail. Although a stolid and quiet man, Stoner’s thoughts and feelings run deep. Some of the characters seem almost too grotesque, yet of course such people exist. One of my book club members found her own troubles reflected in Stoner’s battles with university politics, and another recognised the portrait of Stoner’s wife. We talked at length about Edith, the wife, trying to understand how her formal and lonely childhood could have yielded such a woman, a woman who had “no knowledge of the necessity of living from day to day”.

My book club disagreed as to whether Stoner’s life was a sad one or whether it was, as the author himself described it in an interview quoted in the Introduction, “a good life”. I’ve mentioned before how depressing it can be to traverse an entire life within one small novel, seeing how disappointingly short the characters fall in achieving the goals they once dreamed of. It is seldom enough in life that we meet the expectations we have for ourselves. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what constitutes a good life. Perhaps it has to do with the trying, with persistence. While it could be said that Stoner ultimately fails at everything he tries, he does not give up. He does not run away. He stays and does his best. And at the end there is a sense of himself, of being his own person. His dreams may be simple, but he is not a simple man.

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

Before starting on the book, I want to mention my process for this blog. As mentioned in the description, I write each week about a book or other story I’ve read that week or possibly earlier. Some books take a while to percolate. I don’t blog about every book I read, but sometimes, as is the case today, I find myself thinking and writing about a book I had no intention of including in this blog. Also, other than a review I might run across in one of the periodicals to which I subscribe, I do not read reviews until after I’ve written about the book; I might then go back and edit if they significantly change my mind.

So I came to this book cold, not having read anything by the author. From the cover I knew that it had won the Booker Prize, often a good indication that I will find the book interesting. The Line of Beauty is the story of Nick Guest, a recent Oxford graduate, who has come to London to make his way in the world, starting with graduate work at University College of London, perhaps a study of style or Henry James. He is staying in the home of the Feddens, the son Toby having been a close friend of his at school. He ends up staying there for over four years, thinking of himself as “the lost middle child” of the family, brother to Toby and to Catherine, who is emotionally (and perhaps mentally) unstable. Their mother, Rachel, a calm, reserved woman, welcomes Nick to their home, a luxurious, art-filled residence in Notting Hill, far different from the suburban home in Barwick where Nick’s parents live, where the only art is on loan from Don Guest’s antique shop.

As the story opens, Gerald Fedden, paterfamilias, has just won an election as a Tory MP. It is the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s heyday, and the book captures well the mysterious reverence toward “The Lady”. Nick is also about to go on a blind date with a man named Leo, whose photo has virginal Nick salivating. Toby, whose “sleepy beauty” haunts Nick, is heterosexual and has never suspected the lust behind Nick’s devotion to him.

For all Nick’s talk of Henry James, the book reminds me most of Brideshead Revisited, a young man adoring and adopting the far wealthier family of his schoolfriend, cautiously accepted by the distant, patrician mother until her so-called disappointment at his perceived betrayal. The difference, of course, is that London is visited, not revisted, unmediated by the veil of memory and nostalgia. Also, Nick remains outside the family because of his homosexuality, rather than Charles Ryder’s anti-Catholicism.

As an outsider, Nick’s view of the hedonistic, Thatcher-mad London of the 1980s is smart and often quite funny. He satirises them mercilessly, even as he hovers between mocking them and begging them to let him in. The clever language and delicious descriptions kept me reading until the end, but I was curiously bored by the book. There is a hollowness at the center of it.

I didn’t care about any of the characters. I neither liked nor disliked them. Nick himself doesn’t seem to care about anyone either. Although Nick is initially bowled over by his sexual encounters with Leo, he doesn't seem to actually know Leo as a person or care about him as more than the source of sexual pleasure. Nick says that his heart belongs to Toby, but we hardly see Toby in the book. Nick seems to retain a sentimental fondness for him even when noting how complacent and fat Toby has become.

I didn’t mind the graphic homosexual encounters, but because of their lack of eroticism, they were a bit boring. Only the first date with Leo has an erotic aura, as Nick walks behind Leo, moved almost beyond bearing by the nape of his neck, the waistline of his jeans. After that, the sex is only hard and fast, often fueled by cocaine. Nick’s emotions, beyond lust, are drawn from a limited palette: desire to be as wealthy and successful as the Feddens, mild embarrassment about his parents. Not until near the end, when AIDS begins to make itself felt in Nick’s world, does Nick seem to feel any strong, genuine emotion.

The book seemed to me all flash and no feeling. Appropriate for the 1980s, I guess, and a cultural artifact like the Byatt books I’ve discussed recently, but I felt cheated. I felt like the judges on So You Think You Can Dance: the performance was technically perfect but I wanted him to leave it all on the stage.

Whistling Woman, by A.S. Byatt

I should have liked this fourth book about Byatt’s Potter family more than I did. After all, the main storyline, although still following Frederica who is not my favorite Potter, is about her life in London as a single parent, trying to work out what of her past to keep and what to throw overboard. These are issues which interest me and with which I have some familiarity.

I think what bothers me about Frederica in this book is how easy everything is for her. The husband who made her life a misery in the last book stays off-stage and causes her no further problems. Her old friends from Cambridge stick by her, finding her jobs and taking her about. She seems to have no financial worries. She’s found a perfect living situation, sharing a house (though they have separate apartments) with another single mother who not only becomes a friend but also helps her with child care and parenting advice.

Like the previous books, this one reflects its time period: the sour, scary trailing off of the 1960s into the twin ego trips of cults and pointlessly destructive protests. I call them ego trips because at their worst both are centered around a charismatic guru whose ego delights in the power he holds over his followers. These leaders, sometimes believing their own rhetoric, drinking their own Kool-Aid, prefigure today’s society where politicians and advertisers direct their appeals entirely to emotion, never to logic or reason, with distressingly effective results.

I was interested in the description of the early days at the BBC. The intentions we see here recall the early promise of television—the excellent dramas, the educational documentaries—to bring culture to all, not just the wealthy in their furs and top hats who have the money for season tickets to the opera and theatre, the education to want them, and the city townhouses close enough to access them.

I was also interested in how the main characters have changed from previous books. One of the great treats of a series like this is the extended length of time we spend with the characters, watching them develop across several decades of their lives. Bill, Frederica’s father and tyrant of her youth, has diminished as he ages, becoming less certain of his righteous anger, beginning to value even old enemies for their familiarity and common memories. Seeing Daniel, Alexander, Marcus and his two friends all mature in expected and unexpected ways makes me appreciate their individual paths and the tiny, almost unnoticed, choices that push us in one direction or another.

Frederica’s is meant to be the life most important to us, but she seems the weakest character to me. Byatt seems to waver between presenting her as the central character and making her transparent so we can see the age through her. Perhaps Frederica just seems too predictable to me. Perhaps it is just that I never particularly warmed to her as a character, and though she’s less abrasive than in the previous books, she still seems so privileged, making me less sympathetic to what she perceives as the great trials of her existence. In the first two books, I was far more interested in her sister and even in Marcus, their younger brother.

This is a familiar dynamic to me: in the few television dramas I watch, I can’t stand the main characters, but watch to see the development of the minor characters. I don’t know if it is because they are played by better actors or because, as minor characters, they are allowed more interesting quirks, but as a result, I prefer ensemble dramas. In these books, too, it is the ensemble that carries them for me. Also, even beyond the enjoyment of the stories themselves, they are cultural artifacts, sources future readers can consult to find out what it was like to live in certain places in England during these decades.