Monday, March 29, 2010

Aprille, with hise shoures soote

Yesterday I decided that nothing less than chocolate chip cookies and W.H. Auden's Collected Poems (to be enjoyed separately) would do.

It's funny to think how few people, Americans at least, read alternative literary forms like poetry or plays or even short stories. I suppose there is something about the generosity of a novel which grabs the attention, invites involvement and requires time and commitment. The time and commitment required by poetry is less popular, and I'll admit to a certain toe-dragging reluctance when it comes to chewing on a book of poetry.

I end up using a book of poetry as a Sortes Virgilianae, the classical lottery practiced by flipping through Virgil's Aeneid at random and reading your future in whichever random paragraph you land on. A bad habit, I will flip through the poems until something catches my eye or seems to fit the moment.

However, I think reading good, sharp poetry and plays can only do good for one's writing. The articulacy required by drama combined with the poetic focus on the sensuous, or at least the artistic. It is a joining of aesthetics with characterization and exaction, and this combination can only make one think very carefully about language and its specifics.

But poetry is more than an intellectual pay-off, more than a food to be mashed up, recycled and put immediately to use. It is - I think - chiefly about pleasure. The pleasure of a well-tuned phrase, a cleverly articulated idea or form, or pure aural languor. It is, says the doomed poet John Keats in Jane Campion's recent film Bright Star, like diving into a lake. The point of diving into a lake is not to swim to the other side, but to be in the water.

So, since April is poetry month (breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ memory and desire...) it is my goal to read as much poetry as I can during the month. I have so much sitting on my shelves - beautiful WASP-y Anne Sexton and sensual, fruity Pablo Neruda and crisp, autumnal Philip Larkin and bubbling, sibilant e. e. cummings and perhaps even Paradise Lost - to read.

I will also make an effort to memorize poetry. So far I've tried Yeats' Leda and the Swan and Donne's holy sonnet, At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners, and stray lines crop up in brain while I'm walking to the grocery store - A sudden blow: the great wings beating still...and Arise/ From death, you numberless infinities...

As I sat on the 71 bus to 65th and 25th, I clutched Auden in my hands and set the plate of napkin covered cookies on my lap. As I stood to disembark and walked to the doors, I noticed the warm, familiar smell of childhood and chocolate-chips spreading out around me. The words followed.

The Puppetmaster

I picked up Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat two weeks ago on the way to the Symphony because it fit in my purse, I’d been meaning to read it, and it was much lighter (physically, topically) than A.N. Wilson’s Victorians.

In the novel, Murdoch creates a closely connected cast of characters who are destined to become even more entangled as the drama ensues. Rupert and Hilda have just celebrated their wedding anniversary; Hilda’s sister Morgan is coming back from the States in a fragile emotional state following the dissolution of her marriage with Tallis and her affair with a scientist, Julius King. Peter, son of Rupert and Hilda, is a college dropout living with Tallis. Simon, Rupert’s younger brother, lives with an older man (and Rupert’s colleague), Axel. When Machiavellian Julius arrives in town and, certain of his power to disprove Rupert’s theory of goodness and love as moral absolutes, decides to play puppet master with the people around him, confusion follows.

It was an absolute page-turner, but not without a beauty of phrase, fiendish plot construction, and the posing of serious ethical questions. I recommend anything she’s written, but found this better than Jackson’s Dilemma (her last novel, generally acknowledged to be average) and tighter than the Green Knight.

Iris Murdoch works on my mind the way that A.S. Byatt does, though differently. They are both intellectuals, both academics, but Byatt is clearly a student of literature and Murdoch a student of logic and philosophy. Both are fearless plumbers of human consciousness and sharp thinkers, with the ability to make me very nervous about my own intellectual abilities.

In Murdoch’s novels, the worst that can be said about one is that one is “muddled.” The biggest sins belong to those who are convinced of their intellectual superiority, but in life are resigned to petty sentimentalism, dramatics, and shoddy dabbling in various occupations.

This causes me to fly everywhere at once thinking “She’s right; muddling about is awful; sloppy thinking and poor reasoning is awful” and then start thinking that I should clean the house again, and practice the piano for two hours, balance my checkbook, work on something concrete like languages or trying to read philosophy – and then I realize that what I am doing is muddled. It’s a conundrum. Best to just get on with living.

[I am so angry that this title was dropped from the Lost Booker Shortlist. Furious. Muriel Spark will have to get my vote.]

The letters of Iris Murdoch are being published later this year and I can’t wait to get my hands on them. For one, I would like to access her thoughts more directly and two, I have a sudden mania for reading letters.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


It is spring! (as of last Saturday) and no day so far has shown it more than this one. The birds are out, the hyacinths are blooming alongside our dining room window, the sun is out, and I hear songbirds out-singing the crows.

How else to celebrate spring? I shall make baklava!

As a part of a plan to become a more adventuresome cook and wean myself from my traditional apple pies, I thought I would crack open my beautiful Greek cookbook, Vefa’s Kitchen, and make my culinary maiden voyage with dessert.

I made the filo pastry from scratch, but something must have gone wrong (like my kneading) because it was very hard to roll out and there was not much of it. With one substitution, Earth Balance for butter, this dessert will be fit for my vegans, K and P (who I hope like baklava).

The most time-consuming task was the chopping up of the walnuts and almonds which would form the substance of the baklava which with my very dull knives took over an hour. Fortunately, Terence Malick’s The New World was there to keep me company. (Was there ever such a meditative, aesthetic, yearning film? I could watch it over and over.)

After 2 hours of cooling and a very clean house it was at last time for tasting, accompanied by music from the Turkish cafĂ©. It was good. I mean, anything drenched in syrup can’t be bad, can it? But, sadly for my baking repertoire, it is baklava a la Dutch. It’s thick and sturdy, like apple pie without the apples. Ah well. It’s a start.


I can’t pretend that the baklava and this post haven’t been directly inspired by Molly Wizenberg’s food blog, Orangette. She is a Seattleite, an unfailing bon viveur, and my hero of the day. Her book, A Homemade Life, came out in paperback yesterday, and, strangely, I think I saw her at the Easter service at St. Paul’s last year. I did a double take on the trek to the communion rail, not because she is a local celebrity (which she is now officially) but because I recognized her face from a book signing she had done at the store a week earlier and she was - again - tres chic.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stormy Weather

What does wuthering mean? I asked my co-workers and none of us knew. Of course it sounds a lot like weathering and we said that. But in my mind, I see weathering as water based - rain, seasonal wear, and rust - and wuthering as something blustery, a rough wind over thistles.

Perhaps it was the suggestion of the Yorkshire moors, a mysterious landscape I have never seen, which brings a steady list of associations: Mary Lennox at Misselthwaite Manor waiting for Dickon and his menage of animals; Frederica Potter scowling and naturalists watching snails; three sisters caged up in Haworth parsonage; the recently filmed Brit noir, the Red Riding trilogy. 'Moor' reminds one of the mysterious orient, the Muslims of Spain, inscrutable and dark.

Wuthering Heights, is another one of those books that many people - women especially - have read in high school or college. Though I've read Jane Eyre and all of Jane Austen I don't remember reading, or finishing anyways, Wuthering Heights. It always seemed too grim to me, too too. Too anguished, too blustery, too doomed.

In brief: a man takes a house on the Yorkshire moors and his host is Heathcliff, a grim, proud gentleman that the man likes less and less the more he talks to him. His house is in shambles, his family belligerent. The man's servant, Nelly Dean, tells him the story of the house and the family. Cathy and Heathcliff (a foundling)were childhood playmates, Heathcliff was badly treated and swore revenge, their twisted love and misunderstandings beget further twisted love, revenge, and misunderstandings upon their blighted children.

I would hate to credit Twilight with anything literary, and although the frequent mention of Wuthering Heights in Twilight is heavy-handed, Emily Brontë's poetry is too resonant not to stick in the mind. Phrases which are terribly embarrassing when about Bella and Edward -

"If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger."

become simple and undramatic when referring to the carnage that is Heathcliff and Cathy. We can understand why Bella is infatuated with Edward - it's his milky skin and his topaz eyes etc. etc. Why anyone would find Heathcliff a romantic Byronic figure is beyond me. He is a demon, wretched, ungrateful, snarling and unlovable. We can be fascinated that Cathy and Heathcliff are grafted together because their mutual obsession defies reason.

I picked up the beautiful Penguin Hardcover Edition, with its grey cover and light blue roses and thorns. This was a book I read at midnight, curled up on my favorite brown chair next to the light. I stayed up with a haggard, sick fascination. A frequent complaint of readers of Wuthering Heights (gathered on Goodreads at least) is the fact that the characters are despicable and even worse, unlikeable. I find that this is irrelevant because the characters are fascinating in all their sullen and vindictive squalor. Critics were baffled by the book, found it crude but powerful.

This is no love story. This is a vampiric tale of obsession and the satanic bond between Cathy and Heathcliff. It's a remarkably savage and psychological novel for an isolated woman doomed to her own premature death.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


It baffles me how truly hopeless I am at crosswords. When I initially became interested in crosswords, impressed by the intellectuality they endow the cruciverbalist (impressive word to toss into conversations meaning one who does crosswords), I ran out and bought a copy of the New York Times Crosswords standard puzzles. Following the result of my disappointing average of one successful word per page, I decided that I would have to humble myself and set my sights a little lower. So I bought Will Short’s 75 Very Easy Puzzles from the New York Times.

Aha! I thought. Very Easy. I will do this in a jiffy. I will speed through these Acrosses and Downs and in no time at all I will have built up my brain power and I can go back to the standard book and soon, very soon, while I am still young, I will become one of those tweed-wearing-people that do the New York Times crossword every morning. And then - ? I could do anything, anything. Take over the world, join MENSA, etc. Apparently, doing a crossword regularly is one of those things that ward off dementia in old age. So at the very least, I will be less senile for longer.

This, my excellent plan, is foiled by the fact that these Very Easy puzzles are not Very Easy at all. In fact, they are Moderately Challenging for my brain. My friends and roommate are equally as nonplussed. I don’t understand it. I’m not illiterate: I read, I collect facts. But none of these habits have been helpful. I think crosswords require a certain amount of patience and lateral thinking, both of which I am in short supply. I am reduced to cheating every morning, which is a demoralizing habit.

Let’s see 1 Across: “---- upon a time.” That’s quite easy: ONCE. “Star Wars” Princess: That’s once of my favorites. LEIA. “Country north of Namibia”…Hmmm, that’s tricky. With the help of my parents we come up with ANGOLA. “Clinton cabinet member Hazel”? How the hell should I know? And what is this three letter “F.D.R. initiative”? “Suffix with sock”? “Grp. Funding”? “Circular Gasket”? It is quite hopeless. I look around to make sure nobody sees and peak at the answer key at the back. I am hoping that crossword practitioners often hit a plateau, a long bleak stretch of unimaginative striving which suddenly, inexplicably, is changed by a sudden revelation of brain nirvana.

Until then, I will keep shuffling through these Very Easy puzzles, with much dislike for Mr. Will “Bighead” Short.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Last night, E and I went to see the Seattle Symphony pay Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe at Benaroya. It was - breathtaking. We'd had Brahms's Concerto for Violin & Cello in A Minor to whet our appetite. Brahms was very, very good but Ravel absolutely satiated the audience. It's an overwhelmingly scored piece - very heavy on winds and strings and also two harps, a celeste, a wind machine, and a full choir. The timpani made the floor under us shake. We could feel the reverberations of the music vibrating through the strings into our chests (with cheap tickets, we were very close to the stage).

"Well," said the man behind me as we gave a standing ovation, "that just about took every-a-body some-a-where."

If you watch this recording (though it's not the conductor we saw) and you'll get a taste of it - the beautiful melodic depiction of the sunrise. But you should hear it for yourself:

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Village Green

Either way, my grandparents are to thank for my introduction to the English village myth. Grandma N lent me Jan Karon’s Mitford series, which with it’s dear Episcopalian minister and quaint North Carolina village collection of local personalities and overblown small issues is the closest current American approximation of the English archetype; and the Thanksgiving I spent at their apartment in Florida was perfected by the watching of several episodes of Midsomer Murders and Inspector Morse.

In his book Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, Peter Ackroyd relates village-isms to the English love of the miniature: “This desire to miniaturize obsessions, or to reduce “grotesques” in size and scale …Could it possibly to related to the pattern of English detective stories…where evil and murderous wickedness were seen to operate in small and cosy country villages?”

What is it about these English hamlets? A small rustic town in the country, where everyone knows each other’s business and nothing is hidden. It is the ideal location for a tweedy mystery or thriller because it becomes a sort of Garden of Eden for many, a place of simple purity where the rough forces of modernity are kept at bay by surprising marriages, regular gardening, and over-the-fence gossiping. It is exactly this purity, along with the small and intimate cast of villagers privy to each other’s affairs, which make the most delicious and ironic setting for the appearance and unmasking of evil. Hence the “Murder at the Vicarage,” etc.

I am utterly seduced by The Village in literature and film from Meryton in Pride and Prejudice and Emma’s Highbury, to “The Archers,” an ongoing BBC radio-drama about a small English farming community. In small (exclusive) villages, we become the invisible newcomers, welcomed in to observe the way society works here, but never quite “one of them.”

Last week, I began E.F. Benson’s Mapp & Lucia series, hailed as the twentieth century’s Cranford, and applauded the likes of Noel Coward, Nancy Mitford, and W.H. Auden. I finished the first book (of six), Queen Lucia (1920), a few nights ago and happily moved on to the second, Lucia in London (1922). In the small town of Riseholme (“Riz-um” for those humored by the English habit of neglecting the alphabet in unexpected ways), Mrs Emmeline Lucas (Lucia), married to “Peppino” and attended upon by Georgie (a duet-playing, embroidering, toupet-wearing, gossiping sort of man), reigns as the empress of culture and society. If you thought Austen’s Emma was a snob – you have yet to meet Lucia.

She may be the be-all and end-all of Riseholme, but we are permitted to laugh at her. With a deep and abiding love for beloved Dante and his bella lingua, beloved Beethoven and the immortal first movement of the “Moonlight Sonata,” and the garden of her Elizabethan home growing only the flowers mentioned by Shakespeare, Lucia’s affectedness is exasperating and endearing. She and Georgie play at babyish language when they interact with truly repulsive phrases that may be said amongst friends but look awful written down, like “Me vewy sowwy! Oo naughty too hurt Lucia!”

She is the commander of the village, and though her friends may attempt a coup every now and then, they are firmly under her mannered rule.

In Riseholme, things are done just so. Which means that any variation from the ordinary – such as gurus, princess/mediums, and visiting operatic divas – provides an excellent opportunity for speculation and occasion. One enjoys the books because the characters are prone to repetition. They have their “bit,” and we can enjoy the feeling of “knowing” the characters and finding the same joys in the little things as the characters do themselves.

Along with finishing the Mapp & Lucia series (Mapp is Lucia’s dowdy nemesis who, I believe, is soon to enter the books), I look forward to reading one of Beverly Nichols’ gardening books, Down the Garden Path, which is full of village life vignettes, and Flora Thompson’s memoir of her Oxfordshire girlhood, Lark Rise to Candleford.

Having never spent much time in an English village - aside from briefly visiting a farm in Witney, Oxfordshire - I am unable to say how the myth lives up to reality. I'm sure that village life in the Lucian/ Midsomerian/ Cranfordian sense rarely exists anymore, if it ever did. I will have to wait to find out.

“To think,” says Olga the soprano in Queen Lucia, “that I once thought that it was a quiet backwatery place where I could rest and do nothing but study. But it’s a whirl! There’s always something wildly exciting going on. Oh, what fools people are not to take an interest in what they call little things.”

The allure of the English village is precisely that: the little things. Ackroyd writes in Albion, “In England it is believed that to know one’s locale thoroughly is to understand the forces of the world, or even, of the universe itself.”

Monday, March 15, 2010

Fantastic Things You Learn When You Read a Dictionary

You learn that:

a) a cricket team is called a googly

b) the singular form of graffiti is graffito (which makes sense, but nobody uses it)

c) Houyhnhnms (the race of horses in Gulliver's Travels) is pronounced "win-ums"

Who would have guessed?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

And All for One

I bought abridged versions of the Three Musketeers and the Adventures of Robin Hood when I was eight. Both I ended up putting aside with a queasy feeling after reading them, because they were so obviously not children’s books (being influenced by Disney). The Three Musketeers ends with murder, a trial by peers and a gruesome execution. Robin Hood ends, not with a fox marrying his lady love, but with an old, wounded outlaw begging sanctuary from a convent, bled to death in the night by a vengeful prioress.

So it time to revisit d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis as an adult. The Penguin Classic Deluxe edition was the obvious choice as 1) it was attractive with a marvelous cover by Tom Gauld and 2) it was translated by Richard Pevear who is one half of my favorite translating team (he and his wife Lara Volokhonsky translated Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, along with many other works by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Dumas.)

Thanks to the frequent cinematic adaptations, nearly everyone knows the plot without having read the books. In a time of shifting loyalties and political intrigue of seventeenth century France, a young impressionable, hot-headed provincial, d’Artagnan, comes to Paris with the ambition of becoming a musketeer. After – what else? – a duel or two, our young quixotic hero befriends three musketeers: Athos, the silent deep-thinker sunk into a pervasive mysterious melancholy; Porthos, larger than life, lover of finery and women; and Aramis, the dreamy, poetic temporary musketeer longing to join the priesthood. Of course the novel is called the Three Musketeers not Four, and it is the three friends, their motivations, secret histories and mythic natures, which exert a strong fascination upon both d’Artagnan and the reader. The four friends fight for the King, defend themselves against the Cardinal, attempt to rescue damsels in distress, survive wars and assassinations, and generally run around the countryside in a great hurry.

As a child, I was impressed by the motivation of “honor,” by the knightly virtues, by the desperate claims love exerts in courtly romances. Now, re-reading it in its entirety, I am aware of its ridiculousness. These are characters which take themselves and each other very seriously; but with a love of wit and humor, they keep their spirits up with mockery. I realized that I had missed the farcical nature of the Three Musketeers. This is a swaggering book about men spoiling for a fight who are profligate gamblers, lovers and drinkers, enthusiasts of the sensuous life who are able with glib tongues and quick wit to escape the traps set for them by the scheming Cardinal Richelieu and his demonic femme fatale, Milady de Winter (who, as the only strong female character, does get a bad rap).

This is a rollicking tale full of suspense, danger, and passion – it makes sense why it has been adapted so frequently for film. Though Dumas’s writing is florid, it is not psychologically difficult, peppered with Princess Bride-ish witticisms such as “…I see that, if we don’t kill each other, I will afterwards take real pleasure in your conversation.”

Dumas has done his research; written in the nineteenth century, the novel is set in a France fraught with the wars of religion, where the nobility and royalty are not restrained by government. Let’s remember the Revolution hasn’t happened yet for d’Artagnan, though it has for Dumas.

This is an unmistakable blockbuster. It has cliff-hangers, close-calls, and love affairs - I am convinced that anyone could read this novel and have a good time.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Film Club II

In my freshman year of college, I was enrolled in a class which introduced new students to collegiate academic concepts through a semester-long theme. Our class’ theme was film and our brave professor, Lara Scott, a young, intelligent art professor who had studied at Yale, had the grueling task of teaching seventeen relatively conservative young adults to move beyond the accessible blockbuster films they enjoyed and to evaluate worldview, character and narrative in films they might never have chosen by themselves.

[It was Prof Scott’s misfortune that nearly every one of those seventeen students became good friends and spent every meal, every evening, every day in each other’s company. We were a many-headed animal which moved in a large, energetic clump of arms and bags and loud voices. The small college community wasn’t sure what to do with this nuclear group which very quickly developed a set of its own behaviors, expectations and routines. We were frequently referred to as a “cult,” a name which at the time offended me, and now seems funny and the only word for the bizarre beginning to my college experience.

[Bleary morning picture before going to Six Flags, which would become a tradition]

This group did not hold together or remain as intimate or intense for all four years of college. The fire burned itself out. Still, it is a spider-web linking us together. I still feel the phantom strings tugging from my friend Alyssa in Brooklyn, and the friend in medical school, the friend in Hollywood, the one I went to England with, the ones that got married. My dearest friends came from that class: Laura, who shares a birthday with me, and Kristin, with whom I share an apartment. Unbelievably, all three of us live in the same city, two thousand miles away from our college. I am a bridesmaid at their weddings this summer.]

[Graduation 2008]

We watched six films that semester: The Iron Giant, Nightjohn, Babette’s Feast, Whale Rider, About a Boy, and the Station Agent. We balked at the slow scenes. The cinematography and the foreignness of Babette’s Feast was painful; Nightjohn conspicuously lacked in Hollywood sparkle; we weren’t sure whether we liked the Station Agent and its random collection of personalities.

About a Boy was the most approachable film. The night we watched it, we had been celebrating Homecoming by dressing up and eating spaghetti at a small restaurant in Highland, Illinois (where Sufjan Steven saw a UFO in his Illinoise album), twenty minutes from campus. Conscious of our professor’s wrath, we drove eighty miles an hour to get to reach the viewing in time, and burst through the door a few minutes late in dresses and tuxes.

All this to say that without Professor Scott’s freshman class, without that exposure to unfamiliar, strange, uncomfortable – and sometimes uncool – films, my experience with film might have always remained narrow. It is slow growing, but under the influence and advising of others who know better, I have begun to watch film with greater risk. Sometimes this goes well (Guillermo Del Torro’s Pan’s Labyrinth) or Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona, and sometimes this goes badly (Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl).

Thank goodness Arts and Faith, an online community allied with Image, has put together the 2010 list of 100 Top Films - a compilation chosen by a group of film critics, professors, writers, artists, parents, clergy etc. (This list features, funnily enough, features Babette’s Feast in the top ten films.) You can be sure I’m going to use this as a source for future meetings of the nascent Film Club.

Spend some time looking at the website, which if I may say so (I helped with the project), is outstanding. Every film has been chosen carefully and offers viewers the chance to go beyond the barriers of their personal taste and customary choice, and to widen the palate with a list celebrating cinematographic excellence.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Elegant Economy

Just finished Cranford last night, sipping coffee and burrowing into my chair (why does my room always seem so much colder before going to bed?). I have previously read Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters (liked it very much) and North and South (didn't like it at all, but have been advised to give it another go), but hadn't thought about reading Cranford until I watched the BBC miniseries.

It was a bit disappointing not to have Dr. Harrison and his newfangled ideas about medicine in Cranford, but I understand the script to have been cobbled together from several shorter fictions. The episodes from the novel included in the script were nearly word for word and very true to the spirit of the book.

In this collection of instances, a narrator visits her friend, Miss Matilda (Matty) Jenkyns, in Cranford on several occasions. We discover her name is Mary Smith, and like most of the inhabitants of Cranford, is a spinster.

"In the first place," the book begins, "Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of the houses, above a certain rent, are women...In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford."

Cranford is a small provincial English town governed by the strict adherence to a social code, an almost religiously regulated way of life. This is a day and age when Dickens was vulgar and Dr. Johnson was preferred. (Vulgarity is feared above all else. Except Irish washerwomen.)Fortunately for the nearly impecunious residents, in Cranford, "economy was always 'elegant,' and money-spending always 'vulgar and ostentatious'..." I am appropriating the useful phrase for my own circumstances.

The episodic narration introduces characters which come and go, small arguments, old lovers, lost brothers, deaths, gossips, and worries. This is the narrow vacillation of a quiet country life, where changes affect the whole community and might even (horrors!) alter the pecking order.

"It was impossible to live a month at Cranford and not know the daily habits of each resident..." says the narrator. I feel the same way. After watching the delightful series and reading my beautiful hardcover copy, I only wish I could visit in person.

Monday, March 1, 2010

When the Lights Go Out

Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel A Single Man is nothing less than a modern masterpiece and, I have no doubt, will turn out to be one of my favorite books of 2010.

The novel follows George as he struggles through a single day in 1960’s Los Angeles following the death of his lover. George wakes up, goes to the university where he teaches literature, goes to the gym, has dinner with a friend, gets drunk at a dive bar, swims in the ocean, and arrives at the end. George is “three quarters human,” a machine trying to keep himself alive until it is time not to be.

Like an actor, he is absent from humanity. When he looks at his neighbors, at the suburban families, he thinks "They are afraid of what they know is somewhere in the darkness around them, of what may at any moment emerge into the undeniable light of their flash-lamps, nevermore to be ignored, explained away. The fiend that won't fit into their statistics, the Gordon that refuses their plastic surgery, the vampire drinking blood with tactless uncultured slurps, the bad smelling beast that doesn't use their deodorants, the unspeakable that insists, despite all their shushing, on speaking its name."

You can hear his ferocious resentment, his shunting himself to a corner, his self-marginalization (not that it isn't actual), his enforcement of two camps, of "them" and "us."

George looks at his body and at his actions as though he is watching a puppet, a character. He is “outside”; he is removed from the masses by his homosexuality, he is removed by his British-ness. He is removed from ordinary life by his stunned bereavement.

The novel is pessimistic and existential, but never cynical. This character observes his mortality, his bodily destructibility, in the face of the overwhelming unknown, one’s smallness against the large ocean wave. The smoggy, doomed nature of the city, the whole "tiny doomed world," which George knows will expire, reinforces the nature of all things to die, to cease existing.

George’s self-propulsion, his cold dissection, his machine-ly masquerade as a human, caused me re-think the mechanizations of the body, the innards and the outers, the brain, the “skeleton crew” that keep it going; the body’s ability to betray and to comfort. Isherwood has little sympathy for any of characters, and exposes their trivial vanities with alarming insight.

Love is important, companionship is necessary, but it is not irreplaceable. The novel’s pathos provides – even up to the very last line – no opportunity for sentimentality. Isherwood does not mistake moments of catharsis and moments of transcendence for redemptions, large or small.

Still, it is not unmoving to read of George’s running into the "stunning baptism of the surf" and he and Kenny (a student) skinny dipping:

"On the dark hillsides you can see lamps in the windows of dry homes, where the dry are going dryly to their dry beds. But George and Kenny are refugees from dryness; they escaped across the border into the water-world..."

I am dying to see Tom Ford’s adaptation of the novel with Colin Firth as George, but I understand that things are presented differently in a film. There are certain things which can only be verbalized; abstract thought, for instance. George’s inner monologue cannot be shared without a voice over, which feels false in a way that reading it isn’t. Certain motivations, certain events are changed. All the same, it’s on my to-do list. I’m hoping that Firth will win an Oscar next Sunday night.

Without wanting to strip the novel of its potency or specificity, I want to say that this isn’t just a gay story but a deeply human story. I felt it in my chest. I stood, leaning against a bookshelf in the store, reading while everyone else had left for the night. I couldn’t put it down; every sentence thundered like a train coming to the end of its tracks. (And that sounds un-Isherwood-y sentimental, but I suppose I can’t help myself.) Read it.