Nov. 22, 2010

After We Saw What There Was to See

by Lawrence Raab

After we saw what there was to see
we went off to buy souvenirs, and my father
waited by the car and smoked. He didn't need
a lot of things to remind him where he'd been.
Why do you want so much stuff?
he might have asked us. "Oh, Ed," I can hear
my mother saying, as if that took care of it.

After she died I don't think he felt any reason
to go back through all those postcards, not to mention
the glossy booklets about the Singing Tower
and the Alligator Farm, the painted ashtrays
and lucite paperweights, everything we carried home
and found a place for, then put away
in boxes, then shoved far back in our closets.

He'd always let my mother keep track of the past,
and when she was gone—why should that change?
Why did I want him to need what he'd never needed?
I can see him leaning against our yellow Chrysler
in some parking lot in Florida or Maine.
It's a beautiful cloudless day. He glances at his watch,
lights another cigarette, looks up at the sky.

"After We Saw What There Was to See" by Lawrence Raab, from The History of Forgetting. © Penguin Poets, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist George Eliot, (books by this author) born Mary Anne Evans near Nuneaton, England (1819). She was a serious little girl. At a birthday party, an adult asked nine-year-old Mary Anne if she was having a good time and she said, "No, I am not. I don't like to play with children, I like to talk to grown-up people." She spent hours in her bedroom, reading novels — by the time she was eight years old she had read The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, and The History of the Devil by Daniel Defoe. A neighbor lent a copy of Sir Walter Scott's Waverleyto her older sister, and Mary Anne was in the middle of reading it when the book was returned. She was so disappointed that she decided to resurrect it by writing the story out for herself, as she remembered it, beginning with the opening scene.

She had a religious upbringing, and she was sent off to boarding school, where one of her beloved teachers was an evangelical Christian. She was deeply involved in the prayer groups that were all the rage among young women of the time, and no one could find anything to criticize in her — she was serious and pious — but they were a little bit unnerved by how cold she was, unwilling to be swept up in a religious fervor like some of her peers.

After her mother died, she moved back home to keep house for her father. When her brother got married and he and his wife took over the family home, Mary Anne and her father moved to nearby Coventry, and there she became friends with a couple named Charles and Cara Bray, who lived in a house called Ivy Cottage that was a short walk from her new home. The Brays were radical thinkers about both religion and politics, and she began to question her own beliefs during her conversations with them and with some of their dinner guests, people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer, and Harriet Martineau. After meeting Evans, who was 22 at the time, Emerson said, "That young lady has a calm and serious soul." Her family was suspicious of her involvement with these new people, and she began to get depressed, turning to her writing for comfort. After her father died, she moved to London, where she became a successful editor and journalist.

And she was introduced to a man named George Henry Lewes, and they fell in love. Lewes was already married, but had an unusual married life — he and his wife had agreed to be in an open relationship, and she had been living with another man for years. She had given birth to several children with different fathers, but Lewes had let her put his name on one of the birth certificates. Because of this, the court decided that he had openly supported her adultery and wouldn't let him get divorced. So he and Mary Ann Evans lived together for 24 years until his death, and considered themselves married — she called herself Mary Ann Evans Lewes. Her family disowned her, and many acquaintances were shocked by their unconventional arrangement.

And so it was partly to distance herself from her controversial private life that she chose the pseudonym "George Eliot" when she set out to become a novelist. But even more than that, she wanted her novels to be taken seriously, and she wasn't sure that they would if she published as a woman. In 1856, she published an essay called "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists." In it, she wrote:
"Silly Novels by Lady Novelists are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them — the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic. But it is a mixture of all these — a composite order of feminine fatuity, that produces the largest class of such novels, which we shall distinguish as the mind-and-millinery species. The heroine is usually an heiress, probably a peeress in her own right, with perhaps a vicious baronet, an amiable duke, and an irresistible younger son of a marquis as lovers in the foreground, a clergyman and a poet sighing for her in the middle distance, and a crowd of undefined adorers dimly indicated beyond. Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well-dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues. Or it may be that the heroine is not an heiress — that rank and wealth are the only things in which she is deficient; but she infallibly gets into high society, she has the triumph of refusing many matches and securing the best, and she wears some family jewels or other as a sort of crown of righteousness at the end. […] She is the ideal woman in feelings, faculties, and flounces. For all this, she as often as not marries the wrong person to begin with, and she suffers terribly from the plots and intrigues of the vicious baronet; but even death has a soft place in his heart for such a paragon, and remedies all mistakes for her just at the right moment. The vicious baronet is sure to be killed in a duel, and the tedious husband dies in his bed requesting his wife, as a particular favor to him, to marry the man she loves best, and having already dispatched a note to the lover informing him of the comfortable arrangement. Before matters arrive at this desirable issue our feelings are tried by seeing the noble, lovely, and gifted heroine pass through many mauvais moments, but we have the satisfaction of knowing that her sorrows are wept into embroidered pocket-handkerchiefs, that her fainting form reclines on the very best upholstery, and that whatever vicissitudes she may undergo, from being dashed out of her carriage to having her head shaved in a fever, she comes out of them all with a complexion more blooming and locks more redundant than ever."

She herself was determined to avoid writing anything of the sort, and a couple of years later she published her first fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), under the name George Eliot, which she said was a good "mouth filling name." Even her publisher didn't know her identity at first. The next year, she published her first full novel, Adam Bede (1859), a work of realism in which a young woman is driven to murder her own child. It was incredibly popular with critics and the public. She was surprised — she wrote to her editor, "Neither you nor I ever calculated on half such a success, thinking that the book was too quiet, and too unflattering to dominant fashion, ever to be very popular." In fact, it was so popular that there was constant speculation about the identity of the novelist, and after an imposter named Joseph Liggins came forward and claimed to have written it, Mary Anne Evans admitted to being the author.

She went on to write some of the most respected novels of the Victorian era, books like The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), and Middlemarch (1872).

She said: "No sooner does a woman show that she has genius or effective talent, than she receives the tribute of being moderately praised and severely criticized. By a peculiar thermometric adjustment, when a woman's talent is at zero, journalistic approbation is at the boiling pitch; when she attains mediocrity, it is already at no more than summer heat; and if ever she reaches excellence, critical enthusiasm drops to the freezing point."

She said, "My only desire is to know the truth, my only fear to cling to error."

It's the birthday of the Iranian-French graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, (books by this author) born in Rasht, Iran (1969). She wrote the graphic novel Persepolis, published in four parts, an illustrated memoir of her childhood during the Iranian Revolution and her teenage years in Europe. Young Marjane struggles with having to wear a hijab and understanding why family friends have become political prisoners; she also listens to punk rock in her room and flirts with boys at burger joints. Persepoliswas a New York Times best-seller and has been translated into 32 languages.

She said: "Image is an international language. The first writing of the human being was drawing, not writing. That appeared much before the alphabet. And when you draw a situation — someone is scared or angry or happy — it means the same thing in all cultures. You cannot draw someone crying, and in one culture they think that he is happy. He would have the same expression. There's something direct about the image. Also, it is more accessible. People don't take it so seriously. And when you want to use a little bit of humor, it's much easier to use pictures."

It's the birthday of writer André Gide, (books by this author) born in Paris (1869). He grew up in a remote area of Normandy, and his father died when he was young, so he was brought up mostly by women. He would go on long walks with his Swiss maid, helping her collect flowers and delighting in the beauty of the landscape. He wrote about the first time he saw a eucalyptus tree: "The first one I saw sent me into transports; I was alone, but I ran off at once to announce the event to my mother and Anna and I did not rest satisfied till I had dragged Anna to the spot where the tree of wonders grew."

He published his first novel, The Notebooks of Andre Walter (1891), when he was just 22 years old, and he published many more, including Fruits of the Earth (1897), The Immortalist (1902), Strait is the Gate (1909), and his memoir If It Die … (1924). In 1947, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

He said, "The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes."

And, "Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the second First Lady of the United States, Abigail Adams, born in Weymouth, Massachusetts (1744). She was a great letter writer, and on March 31, 1776, she wrote to her husband: "I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors." Adams wrote back, "I cannot but laugh ... you are so saucy!"

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