“Sometimes,…our ignoble desire to read private letters is matched by a letter-writer’s ignoble desire to be read.”

I used to send my first ex-boyfriend postcards from each new city I visited, for quite a while after we stopped seeing each other  – unsigned, of course; a dramatic moment never passes me by.  I’d usually get a coy text message in response, “someone’s been sending me mail, I wonder who that could be…”

Cute, right? Vomit inducing. But I still wonder what happened to those postcards, even now nearly a decade on – are they tucked away in a drawer somewhere? Were they read and chucked straight in the bin? Were they even read, and I mean read, those short lines I’d imbued with so much meaning?

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A postcard I sent to my parents from NY. It still holds pride of place on their fridge.

And there is meaning in hand-written communication; the particular weight that time, thought, and effort offers up, that can’t be replicated by any other means – emails and text messages are but pixels; even a typed, printed letter doesn’t quite have the same power as something hand-written.

imageIt’s this power that John O’Connell explores in his book, For the Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication, published 2012.

I don’t generally like light history books; I tend to find them a bit toothless in both content and analysis, and a bit forced in their attempts to be airily amusing. The blurb on For the Love of Letters’ dust jacket made it sound like just that kind of book, but I’m glad I worked through my initial cringe and read it anyway. O’Connell is not only genuinely witty and deeply knowledgable about the history of letters, but the deeply personal context of the book set it apart for me.

The book opens with O’Connell preparing to pen a reply to a letter of condolence, hand-written and sent by a friend following the death of O’Connell’s mother; and closes as he completes his reply – a copy of which is included as an epilogue, a touch which adds a particular legitimacy to the narrative. What happens between is an agile trip through the history of letters, from the rhetorical theory set out by Isocrates around 400 BC, the origin of the modern postal system, to famous letter writers and styles – love letters, advisory letters, letters confronting death.

It’s light history, light philosophy, and light humour, but it’s the personal and charming elements of the book that make it a satisfying read – it feels far more like having a conversation with an old friend than anything else.

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I’m always interested in how people attempt to shore up their lives against time, the kinds of precautions we all take to safeguard our experiences against the unsympathetic eye of reality and history, so I am likely the kind of reader O’Connell imagined appreciating his book.

…the reason we write letters is the main reason we write anything: to convert the chaos of our lives into solid, time-locked narrative.
The writing of narrative, any kind of narrative, helps us stay sane by convincing us that we are stable, autonomous individuals moving smoothly through the world. (p. 22)

Perhaps I’ll spend this holiday season writing some letters of my own.

“Invite a Jew to the White House (and You Make Him Your Slave)”

imageBruce Gold is a frustrated middle-aged academic who feels unappreciated by the world at large – with an ageing father who constantly bullies him, siblings he struggles to connect with, a marriage long past its honeymoon years, children who neither like nor respect him, a public that doesn’t recognise his authorial genius, and surrounded by peers Gold deems far less capable than himself – but who’ve managed to achieved far greater success. Such is the unpleasant, but very human, protagonist of Joseph Heller’s third novel, Good As Gold. 

Gold has big plans to write one book about the Jewish experience and another on Henry Kissinger, but he finds neither plan easily realised – he doesn’t actually know what the Jewish experience is, and he never gets further with Kissinger than big ideas and a big collection of newspaper clippings. The (fairly pompous) articles he does publish never gain the attention or respect he desires – but instead attracts derision from his teenage daughter, criticism from his peers, mixed deference/apprehension by his family, his sarcasm and seriousness misunderstood in equal measure – until the day a call comes through from the White House. The President has read Gold’s work, was deeply impressed, so how would Gold feel about a cushy Washington position?

Good As Gold is a mix of political satire, class commentary, complex family drama, all laced with a heavy dose of middle-aged anxiety, and while it’s written with Heller’s inimitable touch… I didn’t love it. I really, truly wanted to. His first novel, Catch-22, has been an unwavering favourite of mine for the last decade; I loved his second novel, Something Happened, even though it left me seriously depressed for weeks. I’ve certainly read less enjoyable books than Good As Gold, but I’m so disappointed with how cold this left me.  It’s far more era-dependent and dated than his other novels, and I was frustrated by how much I knew I was missing because I’m not overly familiar with the general state of 1970s US politics or the details of Henry Kissinger’s political and post-political career. Not being Jewish myself, I likewise felt I was missing a lot of the specifically Jewish commentary/jokes. That’s not to say it was all bad – it’s not as tight as Catch-22, but hilariously irrational double-talk and nonsensical situations still abound.

“What are you making?” he’d asked her one time out of curiosity that could no longer be borne in silence.
“You’ll see,” she replied mysteriously.
He consulted his father. “Pa, what’s she making?”
“Mind your own business.”
“Rose, what’s she knitting?” he asked his sister.
“Wool,” Belle answered.
“Belle, I know that. But what’s she doing with it?”
“Knitting,” said Esther.
Gold’s stepmother was knitting knitting, and she was knitting it endlessly. (p. 26)

One of Heller’s strengths is familial pathos, which I’ve always felt is a bit under-appreciated. A lot of the family drama in Good As Gold is absurd verging on frustrating, but that only serves to make the serious moments, Gold’s realisation of his family as fellow humans instead of two-dimensional roadblocks to his personal success, so much more poignant.

“Didn’t you mind having to take care of me?” Gold asked softly. “…Sid, it’s okay to say yes. People in a family often dislike each other for much less than that.”
“No, I didn’t mind.” Sid spoke with his face partially averted from Gold’s fascinated gaze…. “Pop was crazy about you when you were small. We were the ones he was mean to. we were the ones who couldn’t stand you.”
“Then you did dislike me.” Gold pursued the point doggedly. “You just admitted you couldn’t stand me.”
“Oh, no,” said Sid softly. “I never disliked you. I was always very proud of you.”
Pity cast a shadow of restraint over Gold, and he ceased trying to untangle the hazy conflicts in Sid’s repeated aversions. He felt fifteen years distant from his older brother, and a thousand years wise. And perhaps, for the moment, equally repressed. There was more to Sid indeed, very much more, but whatever lay secret in him would remain occluded forever beneath the shield of denials Gold would not again make the effort to penetrate. (p. 311-313)

While Catch-22 skips along frantically and quite joyfully, Good As Gold is more densely plodding. If books were drinks, Catch-22 would be shots at the bar with your best friends; Good as Gold a pint of guinness after a big meal.

I’m ambivalent on how to rate this one. It’s not terrible – I wish I’d ~gotten~ more of the jokes, and I’ll probably read it again one day down the line. Read it if you’re committed to Heller. Read it if you know lots about 1970s political machinations. Read it if you don’t really have anything else on your to-read list. I don’t regret reading it, but my frank recommendation would be that you read Catch-22 instead, then read it again.

“Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct…”

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Lord, what a fantastic opening line. I’ve had Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway sitting unread on my shelf for far too many years, so with all this unemployed time on my hands and a dear friend who references it with some frequency (Alex, of Town&Cooking fame – proving he has excellent taste in writing and also writes excellently about taste), I decided it was high time to get the damn book read.

All I knew going in was that it follows Clarissa Dalloway during a single day in June 1923, as she prepares for a party she’s to throw that evening. I was so surprised once I finally got into it to find that it is so, so much more than that (obviously that’s a lie – I’ve read other of Woolf’s books, so I knew what I was getting myself into, but… you know what I mean.)

Clarissa’s narrative is closely shadowed by that of Septimus Warren Smith, a decorated World War I veteran suffering severe shell shock, with their paths crossing throughout the day, both characters haunted by the same Shakespere quote from Cymbeline, their troubles with unarticulated homosexual desires, their mental health at serious stake.

Clarissa on p. 6 -“She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged… she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. … Did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?”

cf. Septimus on p. 81 – “The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes. But why should he kill himself for their sakes? Food was pleasant; the sun hot; and this killing oneself, how does one set about it, with a table knife, uglily, with floods of blood, – by sucking a gaspipe?…Besides, now that he was quite alone, condemned, deserted, as those who are about it die are alone, there was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know.”

I always try to read a handful of reviews or reflections on books as I finish them, and while I loved some of the tidbits on Mrs Dalloway at 88, I don’t think I agree with the claim that “[Woolf] shows us that Clarissa is a shallow, silly woman who has little to show for her fifty-two years,” – I think it’s quite a disservice to both Clarissa and Woolf to minimise and dismiss her at such.  Clarissa at the time of the book is deeply self-conscious of her social role, of her intellect, of both her public and self-image – but this self-consciousness is not a new thing, with her recalling, “…the perfect hostess [Peter] called her (she had cried over it in her bedroom), she had the makings of the perfect hostess, he said.” (p. 5). Clarissa is being treated for depression and dealing with unarticulated and unrequited love – for her husband, for the returned Peter Walsh, and “the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally… not like one’s feeling for a man.” (p. 28)

Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it – a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling! – when old Joseph and Peter faced them:
“Star-gazing?” said Peter.
It was like running one’s face against a granite wall in the darkness! (p. 30)

There’s very few breaks within the book, frustrating when trying to find a convenient spot to stop to go to sleep, but which make such delightful sense when you realise that the book is broken into 12 sections, one section for each hour of the day the book covers.

The book is written in seamless stream of consciousness, weaving the internal thoughts, reflection on past and present of about 20 characters. Internal speech interests me a lot, and Woolf does it very, very well. I love reading about projects on internal speech, so it was quite fun to find Mrs Dalloway referenced in this article about Andrew Irving’s internal speech projects.

The book is lovely, tense, nostalgic, frequently sad. In one introduction to the book, Carol Ann Duffy writes that “[Mrs Dalloway] is a vivid reminder to us, should we need one, that some of our best poets have written in prose.” Unnecessary, but wonderful to be reminded anyway.

One might fancy that day, the London day, was just beginning. Like a woman who had slipped off her print dress and white apron to array herself in blue and pearls, the day changed, put off stuff, too gauze, changed to evening , and with the same sigh of exhilaration that a woman breathes, tumbling petticoats on the floor, it too shed dust, heat, colour; the traffic thinned; motor cars, tinkling, darting, succeeding the lumber of vans; and here and there among the thick foliage of the squares an intense light hung. I resign, the evening seemed to say, as it paled and faded above the battlements and prominences, moulded, pointed, of hotel, flat, and block of shops, I fade, she was beginning, I disappear, but London would have none of it, and rushed her bayonets into the sky, pinioned her, constrained her to partnership in her revelry. (p. 143)