Apr. 22, 2012

Everything but God

by Anne Pierson Wiese

In Europe you can see cathedrals
from far away. As you drive toward them
across the country they are visible—stony
and roosted on the land—even before the towns
that surround them. In New York you come
upon them with no warning, turn a corner
and there one is: on 5th Avenue St. Patrick's,
spiny and white as a shell in a gift shop; dark
St. Agnes lost near a canal and some housing
projects in Brooklyn; or St. John the Divine,
listed in every guidebook yet seeming always
like a momentary vision on Amsterdam
Avenue, with its ragged halo of trees, wide stone
steps ascending directly out of traffic.

Lately I have found myself unable
to pass by. The candles' anonymous
wishes waver and flame near the entrance, bright
numerous, transitory and eternal
as a migration: the birds that fly away
are never exactly the same as those that return.
The gray, flowering arches' ribs rise
until they fade, the bones so large and old
they belong to an undetected time
on earth. Here and there people's small backs
in prayer, the windowed saints' robes' orchid
glow, the shadows—ghosts of a long nocturnal
snow from a sky below when we did not yet
exist, with our questions tender as burns.

"Everything but God" by Anne Pierson Wiese, from Floating City. © Louisiana State University Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Henry Fielding (books by this author), born in Sharpham, England (1707). He grew up rich and carefree, studying literature at Eton and flirting with girls. But when he was 21, he found out that his father could not support him any more, and suddenly he had to make a living. So he turned to writing.

He started out writing satirical plays; 25 of them in about 10 years. But his plays were so critical of the government that they were one of the reasons the government passed the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737, which demanded that every play be approved and licensed by the government before it was performed. Like many other writers, Fielding simply stopped writing plays. He became a barrister, and that might have been the end of his literary career, if the novelist Samuel Richardson hadn't published his epistolary novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740).

Pamela is the story of a beautiful 15-year-old maid who resists her rich master's constant attempts to seduce her, and in return he is finally won over by her chastity and decides to marry her. Pamela was a huge sensation in England, and Fielding thought it was terrible. He didn't think the epistolary form worked well, and he thought the morals of the story were questionable — that women should hold on to their virginity because they might get a good deal out of it in the long run. So he wrote a satire called Shamela (1741), in which Pamela is in it for the money. It was published anonymously but widely considered to be the work of Fielding. After Shamela, he wrote the novel Joseph Andrews (1742), about a footman named Joseph who is Pamela's brother. While Fielding was writing Joseph Andrews, he was struggling with gout, his daughter was dying, and his wife was so sick he wasn't sure if she would survive either. Joseph Andrews started out as a light-hearted mocking of Fielding's contemporaries, and although it remained essentially a comedy, it became a serious and ambitious novel in its own right. He went on to write many more novels, including Tom Jones (1749).

It's the birthday of writer Paula Fox (books by this author), born in New York City (1923). Her parents were charming and beautiful and had no interest in being parents. Her mother, Elsie, was a Cuban-born socialite; her father was a frustrated Hollywood screenwriter and a serious alcoholic. They loved drinking and going to parties. A few days after Paula was born, they abandoned her at an orphanage in Manhattan. Her Cuban grandmother was visiting the country for a few months, and she rescued her granddaughter from the orphanage, but she was old and senile, and so the girl was passed from one set of people to the next, many of them strangers. For a time, she was fostered by a clergyman in upstate New York, a kind man who read books with her and treated her like a real daughter. But a few years later, her parents reappeared and demanded her back, then changed their minds, and she spent time with various caregivers in Florida, Cuba, New York, and New Hampshire.

She only attended high school for a few months, and she got married when she was 17, and divorced soon after. She gave birth to a daughter when she was 20, but gave her up for adoption. She spent time in Europe and New York, and was married and divorced a second time. She wrote stories here and there.

Then, in the 1960s, she started writing incessantly, books for children and adults, and she published 15 books in 10 years, including Desperate Characters (1970) and The Widow's Children (1976), for adults, and The Slave Dancer (1974), for children. But her books for adults fell out of favor. The Widow's Children was rejected by 13 publishers before it was finally accepted, and by the early 1990s, all her books for adults were out of print.

That was about the time that the novelist Jonathan Franzen was staying at a writers' colony in upstate New York, working on his second novel. He picked up a copy of Desperate Characters and fell in love. Then he published a famous essay in Harper's called "Perchance to Dream," about the doomed state of American novels. One exception, in his mind, was Desperate Characters. He wrote: "That a book like Desperate Characters had been published and preserved; that I could find company and consolation and hope in a novel pulled almost at random from a bookshelf — felt akin to an instance of religious grace." The writer Tom Bissell was an editorial assistant at W.W. Norton, and he read Franzen's essay and looked up Desperate Characters, and he was surprised to find it out of print. He got his hands on a copy and loved it as well, and he convinced Norton to publish Desperate Characters as a paperback reprint, and then all her other books that had fallen out of print.

Fox has published more than 30 books, including Monkey Island (1991); Borrowed Finery (2001), a memoir of her childhood; and News from the World (2011).

She said, "A good novel begins with a small question and ends with a bigger one."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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