Letters Live On

I’ve always been a sucker for the epistolary novel—for letters in general, even of the most mundane sort. I had no idea, when I opened up Natalia Ginzburg’s The City and the House, that I would be treated to a tale told through correspondence, and it was a pleasure to let myself settle in to a world shared by friends and family, held together by their common link to a somewhat aimless emigrant, the never-quite-happy Giuseppe.

Cornelius Gijsbrechts, Quodlibet. Public domain image courtesy Wallraf-Richartz Museum at Wikimedia Commons.

I almost wonder if it’s simply the form this book takes that made me love it so much; whether it was the feeling of being effortlessly pulled into another time, where there was no such thing as group chat, or cheap international (or long-distance) calling to keep everyone apprised of everything at every minute—when anticipation was simply a part of life, and the uncertainty that arose out of the rule of time just something that had to be accepted in ways we’d scoff at today.

But there’s more to it than that, of course; the book and its author were celebrated long before the advent of the wireless world and its dethroning of time’s limitations. Ginzburg manages to capture, I think, the concerns of this close-knit group, their everyday tasks and burdens and hopes, making them come to life while also giving the reader privileged access to the larger themes that connect them all, and which none of them, of course, sees as they live moment to moment. The ways in which we allow little mistakes or irritants to cascade into disaster, whether in terms of relationships or careers; our ignorance, willed or unintentional, about others’ feelings and understanding of ourselves; our tendency to be blind to our own motivations, the same triggers and tugs that are obvious to those who know us best.

And even as all this activity ebbs and flows and ejects some participants and absorbs others, there’s never a clean end or break; there’s never any true resolution to our interconnected lives, because time—apparently thwarted or not—cannot be kept from flowing. There never has been or will be any such thing as “closure,” for the simple reason that events and the interpretation thereof will continue to present additional faces, will continue to be seen and investigated by and live on in new and different people. When Ginzburg ends this book without any sort of finale or grand announcement, it simply feels true to life, and because of that, true in many ways to literature.

It’s a simple book, and a book now obviously from another era, even if another era not that long gone by. Read it for nostalgic purposes if you must—but don’t let such a motivation keep you from seeing the deep, difficult humanity that pulses its way through a present that believes it has nothing to learn from the past.


Deep Reading on Another Platform

Really, I don’t plan for this to be a trend that cuts into my posting on good old WordPress—but I’m going to offer up one more link this week to the writing I do in other places. The excellent Sven Birkerts and his thoughts on deep reading feature in my essay on the value of meaningful, focused attention. (And if you like Simone Weil, and/or ruminations on taxes, you’re in for even more fun. Even more, if you appreciate a footnoted dig at “flow” and positive psychology, there’s another bonus hidden in there for you.)

Highs and Lows of Admiration

Man—why is it that some people who have such an incredible critical eye, and can not only pierce through, but also explain, how any number of social constructions work, often end up being completely blind to the ways in which their own prejudices operate, or don’t even see them as prejudices, but as reality as such? I suppose it’s part of the fallible human condition—but sometimes, the disappointment that washes over you on being exposed to otherwise impressive figures’ frailties is more profound than it is when confronted with the slip-ups of the average human being.

Public domain image courtesy U.S. News & World Report/Library of Congress, on Wikimedia Commons.

And so it was for me on reading Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. I knew he didn’t exactly have an upright past, having engaged in rape as “an insurrectionary act.”(1) And a sort of Lawrencian-type worship of masculinity and talk about his “rod” (and an accompanying and unsurprising love of Normal Mailer) was hardly anything to endear him to me.(2) But as I started in on the book, it seemed that the author had obviously done a lot of thinking in prison, a great deal of trying to figure out who he was and what the world was. And so I was open to and impressed by his examination of how structural racism functioned (and still does) in the US.

Cleaver’s thoughts especially on how black athletes are viewed and used could have been written today and not sounded out of place. Held up as tokens of success that can assuage white guilt; as figures whose views whites will solicit instead of those of black political and intellectual leaders; as admirable examples of what the body can be and do, but never, ever, when those bodies use their mouths to voice an opinion that requires thought: it all sounds terribly familiar. As just one example, look at the ugly reactions black athletes get when they make a silent, well-thought-out and respectful gesture at a football game—when they assert the fact that they have independent and active minds, and not just powerful bodies.

And it’s not just the criticisms themselves that make Cleaver’s writing so engaging; the very way in which (as he said of James Baldwin) he “combin[ed] the alphabet with the volatile elements of his soul” was worth reading in itself.(3) Take a couple of my favorite examples: “all red-blooded Americans who love TV and gentle toilet tissue know that the Negro revolution was conceived in Moscow;”(4) “The war on poverty… is an index of how men actually sit down with slide rules and calculate how to hide bread from the hungry.”(5)

But those earlier strains of hyper-masculinity started kicking in in intolerable fashion beginning with his thoughts on James Baldwin, in “Notes on a Native Son.” He criticizes the author as hating the black community and trying to be white—but it soon becomes obvious that what really bothers him about Baldwin is the fact that he’s gay. This homophobia comes out loud and clear at the end of that essay, where he declares, “Homosexuality is a sickness, just as are baby-rape or wanting to become the head of General Motors.”(6)

That ugliness combines with an unsurprising strain of misogyny, from a seemingly joyful tossing about of “bitch” to describe black women, and violence used to tame them, in “The Allegory of the Black Eunuchs,” to the completely insane “The Primeval Mitosis.”(7) That latter piece reads like a chauvinistic parody of Marxist thought combined with oddly cultish new-age metaphysics about the origins and fixed, appropriate roles of men and women. When I came to the sentence, “If a lesbian is anything she is a frigid woman, a frozen cunt, with a warp and a crack in the wall of her ice,” I had to put the book down and declare myself done with that particular essay.(8) The final piece in the book is a paean to black womanhood, and Cleaver did mention in an earlier letter to his lawyer that he’d become aware of the fact that he spoke about women as “bitches,” and was starting to “fe[el] very ashamed” of it.(9) But it was just all too little, too late, for me, and my ability to believe in grace had come under severe strain.

I don’t know how to wrap up this review, then, other than by saying that I’ll probably be grappling with Cleaver’s legacy for a good while. And in turn, letting it remind me that hardly any of us is purely good or bad, and that it’s a daunting thing—maybe an impossible one—to try to determine where the balance of both lies in each individual.


(1) Eldridge Cleaver, “On Becoming,” in Soul on Ice (New York: A Delta Book, 1968), 14.

(2) Especially Cleaver, “The Allegory of the Black Eunuchs,” 166.

(3) Cleaver, “Notes on a Native Son,” 97.

(4) Cleaver, “Rallying Round the Flag,” 114.

(5) Cleaver, “Domestic Law and International Order,” 136.

(6) Cleaver, “Notes on a Native Son,” 110.

(7) Reading this weird rant, it’s not surprising to learn of all the places Cleaver landed after prison, from participation in offbeat religions to enrollment in the Republican Party.

(8) Cleaver, “The Primeval Mitosis,” 184.

(9) Cleaver, “Prelude to Love—Three Letters,” 50.

* Womanist thinkers, including Rondee Gaines and Sherronda J. Brown, have addressed sexism within the Black Power movement (including on the parts of Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael), and the difficulty of how to react to it—issues that are still far from resolved.

Relevance across the Generational Divide

John Pettie, Two Strings to Her Bow. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


It seems a bit weird these days to talk about a Bildungsroman, much less assume anything that could hold up the weight of such a label would emerge from the contemporary world, with its desperation to leap into the virtual, to shed materiality as hastily as possible.* But nearing the end of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, I realized that was exactly what I was reading. Or rather, I was experiencing a refreshing upgrade of the genre.

At first, I thought this was just a particularly well-written book whose concerns were no longer my own: college kids having very intelligent conversations I never could have kept up with at that age, with the courage to be artistic and part of a recognized scene while also dealing with love-based awkwardness and class assignments. I began feeling grateful that, although I’m far from what you might call a success at adulthood or social interaction, I’m finished with so much of the welter of emotions that comes along with moving into grown-up responsibilities and assumptions.

But then something began to change—a sort of nuance crept in when the protagonist, Frances, and her friend Bobbi begin talking about what they’ll ultimately do with their lives. I wish I had written the page down on which it happens, but Frances suddenly realizes there are “ifs” in Bobbi’s life, possibilities she hadn’t considered. It was an unspoken flash, for this reader, at least, that the inevitable drift that begins to pull close friends apart, or at least substantially change the nature of who they’ve been for each other, has gotten underway. I began to get the sense that I was experiencing a printed variety of Noah Baumbach’s incredible Frances Ha: an unsentimental, yet compassionate portrayal of the ways in which we try to preserve or recreate what can’t be immortalized or reintroduced. I almost jumped out of my seat when, at the end of the book, the friends watch that same movie, although the title isn’t mentioned.

Somehow, Frances learns little by little to grow into herself, without the author being ham-fisted about that learning, or shoving it in our faces. If Rooney is showing this much sophistication at such a young age (she was born in 1991), and without feeling she has to shed that age or its concerns or general generational m.o. to do so, I can’t wait to read not only her next novel (Normal People), but also whatever she happens to churn out next.


* I’m thinking of trends such as ditching ownership, decreased interest in in-person shopping , or even, for some, embodied interaction itself.

Dabbling in Platforms

So, I mentioned earlier that I’ve been experimenting with Medium as a place to post less book- and reading-related thoughts. My new piece over on that, well, medium, feels like a sort of crossover, so I’ve decided to link to it. Behold, ruminations on being remembered, being forgotten, determination to write in the face of ultimate obscurity, and oh: an appearance as well by Václav Havel.

The Difficulty with Abusive Authors

What do you do when you love an author’s style of writing and the way in which his book makes you feel definitively placed in a particular setting? When you maybe even love the story itself, but absolutely detest the protagonist around whom the whole thing revolves? Detest, maybe, the very author who put the book out, because you’re not sure whether that author isn’t, in fact, channeling his own views through this abusive parasite?

Ivan Vladimirov, The Drunkard, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I finished J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man last night, having to get through a final and most disturbing round of woman-beating to do so. I’m incredibly curious to know whether all the praise and glowing predictions that were heaped upon this product of 1955 in earlier days— “A comic masterpiece” (The Nation); “Brilliant… wildly funny” (Dorothy Parker); an assertion “that readers would come to love [protagonist Sebastian Dangerfield]”*— would have been so easily delivered had they been reviewing the book in the present. Yes, the style of writing is great; yes, the world is stupid, and should justifiably be railed against; yes, relationships between men and women are often ridiculous and needlessly complicated. But a character who rebels against it all by downing as much booze as possible, beating most of the women he latches onto, and seeing most of the remainder of the female population as potential cleaning, cooking, financially supporting providers of tits and ass, is less a rebellion against The Man and more an evil caricature of everything The Man represents. If readers are prone to fall in love with this sort of character, I’m worried about those readers.

I felt an almost instant dislike for Sebastian, who’s too lazy in his dissatisfied dreaming to do anything other that disparage and abuse half the people around him, and have OK buddy relationships with those who don’t complain about, or who actually enable, his ways. And at least his wife finally leaves him, but the women who plead with this jerk to stick around, even after he’s slapped them around or acted piggishly in less violent ways? Well, that makes it all alright, doesn’t it? He’s a good guy after all, and a woman will do anything to keep even a useless, ugly man.

I’m not saying we should grin and bear the inanities and injustices of existence, silently accept the roles and hierarchies and attendant rules the rich and powerful and petty-moral have set up for the world. But I am alleging that not every means of protest is legitimate; I am saying that ugly conditions do not justify abusive responses to others, especially to those who have very little to nothing to do with maintaining the system with which you’re so unhappy, and which you’re doing nothing useful to change or bring down.

I’m aware of the problems of associating an author with his characters—but I get the sense we’re supposed to feel some sympathy for this asshole, have some compassion for his struggles. And if an author wants us to do that, I get the sneaking suspicion he also approves of the same sort of actions he has the character engage in. You’d probably have to ask the people who knew Donleavy whether this was the case or not; this Guardian obituary by James Campell, which mentions the author’s dislike of feminism and “an out-of-date desire to see women as objects of beauty or else cunning foxes,” seems to indicate I’m on the right track. And even though I did, as I said, love the author’s writing style, the how of telling his story, you’d have to come up with a fantastically convincing case for why I should subject myself to any of his other works, if we’re just going to see more of the same views and actions contained in them. In a description of Donleavy’s ouevre that applies perfectly to The Ginger Man, Campbell says in the same article, “Donleavy’s heroes use accent and breeding to get what they want, which is often wealth and women; and when they have those, they use them to take a further step upwards. The comedy of the books comes from the obstacles encountered along the way, but there is usually someone on a lower rung to take a hefty kick at.”

All too often, it felt while I was reading The Ginger Man as if I were being kicked at. It’s not an experience I’d like to repeat.


* J. P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1965), front and back covers.