Posts tagged Tristram Shandy
Virtue, and the Doctor's Wife, Revisited

Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romantic, Gothic, Victorian, and Decadent readings behind me, I'm just now diving into the Modernists. Over the next few days, I'll be thinking about Death In Venice, Swann's Way, Ulysses, Orlando, As I Lay Dying, Nightwood, and Ficciones; but because these texts mark such a huge shift from the thousands of pages of (French/Russian) realism and (Gothic/Decadent) psychological realism I've been lost in recently, I want to sort of gather my thoughts here with a post on where I've been and where I think I might be going.

(Also, having copied and pasted this entire blog into a Word doc earlier today, for fear of losing my only record of exam "notes," I horrifiedly share that I've written about 38,000 words, close to 200 double-spaced pages. Yikes, right? I know. Anyway. . . )

One of the most obvious lines of inquiry to develop over the course of my historical reading, from The Odyssey to Anna Karenina, has dealt with representations in literature of wives, mistresses, and whores. Conveniently, these correlate respectively to liminal, marginal, and inferior subject positions of female characters; and common to all three is the significance of their so-called "virtue." Thanks to Mary Wollstonecraft, who often noted that "virtue" comes from the Latin word for "strength," I offer that wives, mistresses, and whores are equally virtuous — equally strong — women: 

Penelope (un)weaves. 

Job's wife stays. 

Sappho rewrites (Homer). 

Nelly Dean orates. 

The Wife of Bath divorces but the Princess of Cleves does not. 

Griselda endures.

Pamela resists but Shamela cons the system. 

Minerva represents us all, especially Maria, Jemima, all three Madame Bovarys, and the Minyades.

Anne Carson eulogizes and Gertrude Stein makes objects subjects.

Tristram's mother labors, Grete joins the labor force.

Emma believes, and Anna leaves.

Emily Brontë punches. 

And the doctor's wife takes charge. In my earlier post, I worried that I'd fooled myself, that she wasn't the strong female figure I'd always thought her to be. I wondered if more than anything else she had resigned herself to 24/7 mothering her husband and a band of strangers. While I am not abandoning those concerns, I acknowledge here that she is an incredible woman. Recognizing that I read Blindness way out of order, and that there are still several decades of history and writers and female characters and speakers ahead of me before she actually appears, I consider her now a tower of a character, a Minerva endowed with the wisdom and strength of all the women in literature who precede her. I've always loved her. I love her still. And not least of all because, in what I am sure is one of the most graphic and disturbing scenes in any of my exam texts, she takes sewing shears and stabs a serial rapist in the throat, while he is raping another woman, after he and his crew have systematically raped every other woman, healthy or infirm — every young woman, every single woman, every sister, every mother, every wife, every widow — in the building. 

A few days ago, I said, we can't look away from the characters we don't like or whom we fear, for instance, rapists and murderers, because they are in the world and we shouldn't ignore (or encourage) evil by turning a blind eye. We shouldn't gawk, curiously, either (like God in the Book of Job). If we need a model for how to proceed, we might look no further than Saramago's Blindness, in which the doctor's wife becomes more than a rape victim and more than a witness; the doctor's wife becomes jury, judge, and executioner. Yes, she becomes a murderer, and whether or not she is acting in self defense and/or to protect the helpless, are her actions justified? Should anyone, ever, under any circumstances, take the law into her own hands? Where do we draw the line for premeditated exceptions? And how does Saramago utilize the third-person narrator's distance to portray the event? Like a defense lawyer's, is his version of events intended to sway us? If yes, how? If no, is he objective and how and why would he have chosen to remain so for this? The ambiguity and the nuances are up to us, the readers, to consider.

And, as writers, if we have any interest in furthering the tradition of those great big sweeping epic social novels of the past, and if we wish to write them for our time, then like them we cannot look away. As Saramago's epigraph commands (from the Book of Exhortations): "If you can see, look. If you can look, observe." We must — we writers — like the doctor's wife who is graced and cursed with sight in a country of blindness, see, look, observe, acknowledge, assist, and, when necessary, with our words, avenge. We must attend. And we would do well to remember, too, what Annie Dillard once said: "Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?"  

Ruined by Reading (Romance Novels)

The first time I read Madame Bovary, a few summers ago, my reaction was basically: Oh! It's readable. (Meaning: it's not written in the archaic language I'd been expecting.) And I liked it. Which is about all I remember now of the experience. 

Earlier this summer, I reread it and felt some sort of sisterly affection for Emma. I sympathized with her. But I read her existence mostly as one of three Madame Bovarys, and I thought a lot about "fate" and how, for Emma, there weren't a whole lot of options for what a Madame Bovary could be. Then I met with Rachel and Ed and listened to them talk about the bourgeoise and provincial life and the balcony-and-manure scene. I pretty much always fail to see the humor in anything, so the comic element in their conversation was for the most part lost on me. Alas. After that discussion, though, I went home and reread Madame Bovary and tried to read it as if I, too, thought Emma an empty-hearted, empty-minded joke of a character at whose expense Flaubert had made ironic fun. Even still, I thought more of Emma than that. She's complicated, I believed, really she is! She's a fully realized female character! I left it at that but skimmed one last time, just to mark the passages detailing (those evil) romance novels that ruin her life.

Ever since Don Quixote, my historical list has been a veritable whirlwind of characters ruined by reading: Pamela is accused of having stuffed her head full of romantic novel foolishness, which is the cause of her hysterics; Francesca and Paolo end up in hell for reading about Lancelot and Guinevere; Tristram never lets us forget we're reading his book; Rousseau confesses everything about everything he's ever read, ever; Maria's books are a sort of balm to soothe a hurt, but only because what else is there to do when your husband's thrown you into an insane asylum?; Frankenstein's ruined by his education just as Doctor Faustus was ruined by his; Lockwood reads Cathy's diary and shrieks when her ghost appears, then goes back to Thrushcross Grange and writes in his diary, which in turn ruins us (can you keep it all together by the end?), not to mention Anne Carson; Moby-Dick's infected by about 80+ texts and a sub-sub library before we even get to "Call me Ishmael"; Esther's full of fairy tales she retells on the way to Bleak House; the Underground Man just can't even with Chernyshevsky's crystal palace — because really, what is to be done?; Dorian goes down thanks to the "yellow book," within which Des Essientes goes wild about the Satyricon; the governess's screwy story on those pages turning in hands we never see again is super creepy; young Marcel involuntarily remembers a whole childhood of reading. . . .

And now, also, Anna (Karenina), who wastes no time finding a train after that fateful ball and desperately rushes home (with her red bag! Honestly, Tolstoy leaves no detail to whimsy; even the figurative pistol in I.VII literally goes off in IV.XVIII). And we're told: "At first she could not read" — because she was distracted by all the activity around her. But later:

Anna read, and understood what she read; but the reading, that is, the necessity of entering into the lives of other people, became intolerable to her. She had too keen a desire to live for herself.

At this point, we might be thinking: Ah, she's rejecting books! But no:

She read how the heroine of her story took care of the sick: she would have liked to go with noiseless steps into the sick-room. She read how an M.P. made a speech: she would have liked to make that speech. She read how Lady Mary rode horseback, and astonished everyone by her boldness: she would have liked to do the same. 

Which, basically, she does from that point forward (astonish everyone by her boldness). And now that I've finished Anna Karenina, I can't help but think that Emma Bovary really is empty-hearted and empty-minded. Anna's so full of life. She saves, she reasons, she plays, she flirts, she dances, she runs, she reads, she thinks, she mothers, she lies, she loves, she confesses, she leaves, she lives, she fears, she struggles, she dreams, she dies, etc. And all around her all the characters in all the locales all over the country are all full of life and fully realized, too. Like Bleak HouseAnna Karenina is a sweeping panoramic view of a nation in a revolutionary time, a kaleidoscopic, epic in scope, weaving of the stories of the many lives ruled by blood, marriage, society, government, history, and protest, and the subsequent unweaving and re-weaving of those many lives with necessary births and deaths along the way. Madame Bovary is not. "Manure!" I understand now. 

So what are we to make of all our reading about characters reading and being ruined by reading mostly romance novels? To be honest, I don't really know. I guess, at this point, I just keep thinking: Isn't every novel a romance novel? If not, why do we insist upon asking students: What do your characters want? Desire, longing, yearning, wanting, needing — these aren't limited to "romantic" content or even content period. They're the structural scaffolding on which we build and layer our stories. Our characters either get what they want (comedy), or they don't (tragedy). And everything until the end is romance (a twenty-year journey home, a dance, a game, a nightmare, a dream) filled with obstacles — which is (isn't it?) to say: plot. 

Tristram and Gregor

For the most part, my posts have been written in response to the texts I've read as I've read them (in order by date of publication). But after Don Quixote, things started (fittingly?) to get all jumbled up and out of order. First of all, it's so damn long it was slowing down my progress. When the how-to-be-ready-for-exams plan is to read a book a day, it starts to feel impossible when a single book creeps into the three-day mark without an end in sight. So I decided to keep moving forward to trick myself into thinking I was making progress with the rest of my texts while I slowly returned to DQ and read little bits of it here and there.

The next text I should have read was Robinson Crusoe, but because my clearest thematic focus at that point had to do with liminal, marginal, and inferior figurations of women, wives, mistresses, maidens, etc., I chose to skip it and read Pamela instead, which then led to my request to read Shamela instead of Tom Jones, and Moll Flanders instead of Robinson Crusoe. I wrote about Pamela and Shamela but did not write about Moll because I figured I'd have more to say about her down the road in a future post about Molly Bloom. So, then, I should have read Tristram Shandy and Confessions but, again, because I wanted to stick with the ladies I jumped ahead to Maria; or the Wrongs of Woman which led to this long post about Maria, Jemima, Minerva, the three Madam Bovarys, the two Cleises in Sappho's poems, and the Minyades from The Metamorphoses. 

I'd already read Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Moby-Dick, and Bleak House; so at this point I had to decide if I wanted to keep moving forward into the late 19th century or go back and get caught up. I went back and finally read Tristram Shandy and Confessions. I didn't have a lot to say or write about them, so I opted to keep reading and finished Don Quixote and made my way into the Russian golden age with Gogol's Dead Souls, Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (the length of which has turned it into another DQ). After the Russians, and at the height of realism, I dropped down into Huysmans' decadent Against Nature, which I had never before encountered. I still don't know what to think, but I know I will still be thinking about it even as I make my way ever forward. Revisiting Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray was fun, sort of, and reminded me of a class I took a long, long time ago on the fin de siècle. At that time, though, I certainly had no clue about symbolism, deep psychological realism a la James's The Turn of the Screw, which I just now revisited, or dreams/involuntary memories/sexual repressions — which I've been thinking about quite a bit, re: Mann's Death in Venice and Proust's Swann's Way. When these texts made those moves through literary history undeniably clear, I stopped reading for a bit and went back to get my facts straight about the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Gothic, Transcendentalism, Naturalism, and Decadence. Today, after this post, I'll be diving headlong into the modernists, and, I have to say, I'm quite sad to leave behind the bulk of my historical texts and authors. Ulysses is next. And I'm afraid. 

Tristram, that proto-pomo text, derailed me a tiny bit. I love that it's so out of place, that it's such a special snowflake historically, but I haven't yet gotten past my first impression after my first read — that it's a nine-act page performance about penis/castration anxiety and actively deplores women and puts them in their place. At one point, Tristram tells female readers they didn't understand the previous chapter and to go back and read it again while the narrative continues for male readers. Adding insult, one of the book's primary jokes leans on the fact that Tristram's autobiography takes an absurdly long time to finally get around to the event of his birth. So, in all that time, while he's waiting to be born, his mother is upstairs laboring while the men downstairs have important conversations. . . . 


Undeniably, Tristram Shandy is Rabelaisian. And so we can't ignore Gargantua and Pantagruel's treatment of the female act of giving birth or of female genitalia in general: first, there is Pantagruel's mother, Badebec, who instead of giving birth lets loose:

three score and eight tregeneers, that is, salt-sellers, every one of them leading in a halter a mule heavy laden with salt; after whom issued forth nine dromedaries, with great loads of gammons of bacon and dried neat's tongues on their backs. Then followed seven camels loaded with links and chitterlings, hogs' puddings, and sausages. After them came out five great wains, full of leeks, garlic, onions, and chibots, drawn with five-and-thirty strong cart-horses, which was six for every one, besides the thiller.

Then there is Gargantua's mother, Gargamelle, who "began to be a little unwell in her lower parts" and instead of giving birth lets loose a literal shitstorm: "it was her fundament, that was slipped out with the mollification of her straight entrail, which you call the bum-gut . . . Whereupon an old ugly trot in the company, who had the repute of an expert she-physician" glues and sews shut Gargamelle's anus and vagina.

And, of course, in Chapter 15, Panurge suggests "a pretty strange, and new way" to build walls around Paris "cheap," which is to say: out of vaginas, which will repel any who come near. To prove his point, he tells the story of the old lady, the lion, and the fox. Basically, the lady falls backward and her skirt flies up, exposing her genitalia. The lion thinks her vagina is a wound and tells the fox to "wipe it lustily well and hard . . . both within and without" while he goes to get moss to stuff it with. The poor fox:

wiped as hard as he could, here and there, within and without; but the false old trot did so fizzle and fist that she stunk like a hundred devils, which put the poor fox to a great deal of ill ease, for he knew not to what side to turn himself to escape the unsavoury perfume of this old woman's postern blasts. And whilst to that effect he was shifting hither and thither, without knowing how to shun the annoyance of those unwholesome gusts, he saw that behind there was yet another hole, not so great as that which he did wipe, out of which came this filthy and infectious air.

This hole smells of "five hundred devils," the fox tells the lion upon his return: "I am almost choked with the smell therof, it is so pestiferous and empoisoning."


Not only, then, is the thought of Tristram's mother's labor abhorrent, and horrific, but the stuttering, fragmentary nature of Tristram's narrative is, as I said, a page performance, which begins with Tristram's parents' coitus interruptus. It's his mother's fault, of course, that his father's pleasure is delayed, because of her apparent idiocy: "Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?" asks Tristram's father at the end of Chapter One. The narrative's constant disruption and the long dashes that mark digressions within digressions are a kind of visual reminder of the penis throughout, the ejaculatory nature of Tristram's life and opinions disrupted by a constant act of narrative coitus interruptus. 

So anyway, yeah, if proto-pomo Tristram gave me a taste of where I'm headed, like I said, well, I'm afraid. And sad to be leaving behind the rise of the novel of the 18th and 19th centuries. 


But none of that is why I wanted to return to this blog after my long absence and write this post. What I really want to write about is my response to Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and "A Hunger Artist," which I read yesterday. What I can say today is that, while I have loved a lot of books on my historical list (Pamela being the most surprising of them), nothing has left me speechless. After reading these two stories, I was stunned. I just sort of sat on my couch in a state of sad, glorious desperation. At last, a writer from my literary family tree. Someone from whom I am clearly and recognizably descended — and not because of form or content but something more elusive, atmospheric, tonal. I don't know why I was so surprised, though. My first great literary influence was Garcia Marquez, who sings Kafka's praises for the same reason I now sing both of theirs: 

One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, "As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, and found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . ." When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories. 

It's bittersweet that the image I used above is of Gregor Samsa in bed reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. What would Kafka have said about it? We'll never know. He died three years before Garcia Marquez was born. In any case, I was stunned, and it's not like I haven't read Kafka before. His Amerika is clearly (well, maybe not clearly, but obliquely) referenced in We Take Me Apart. I wanted Amerika on my list, to have a chance to read it again, but my committee members recommended the stories instead. I'd read them before. I wasn't much interested. So, yesterday, to have the response I did was shocking. I'd opened the book expecting to plod through yet another read of "The Metamorphosis" and to come away with something, at least, to say about Ovid's The Metamorphoses. I thought Kafka could supplement Ovid. Wrong! But what's changed since I first (and last) read "The Metamorphosis"? I think I was in high school the first time a teacher assigned it. I didn't get it. It was weird. And gross. I read it again as an undergrad. By then I'd fallen in love with Garcia Marquez, so the weirdness wouldn't have concerned me. Thinking about it now, all I can come up with is maybe because that same class introduced me to Calvino I forgot all about Kafka and his disgusting bug when I chose to climb up into the trees instead, and onto the surface of the moon, from which I still haven't come down. 

So here we are. "The Metamorphosis," yet again. And this time, it knocked the wind out of me. I got lump-in-throat emotional. I felt things. Unnameable things. Emotions and feelings turned visceral, the precise magic act of transformation that I hope my own writing inspires in readers. I don't cry easily, but I came close in the aftermath of just these two stories. I don't even know what to say about them because they're everything. Throw any question at me about craft and/or literature, and I'll find the answer somewhere in "The Metamorphosis." Throw any question at me about art and entertainment, and the answer is in "A Hunger Artist." I'm not even kidding. A while ago my dad sent me an article about what Kobayashi has been up to since being banned from professional eating. His refusal to sign a sponsorship contract kept him from becoming the caged circus animal that the hunger artist ultimately becomes. His fifteen minutes of fame is the hunger artist's. I could write anything here. My God, Kafka! These stories! I wish I could stop for a few weeks and read all the Kafka and all the criticism from his time to now. I can't, though, because I need to keep moving forward with my lists. But after exams, yes, after exams, I will read everything Kafka wrote and I will cry an ocean.