So of course I'm not Jewish -- I've made way too many Catholic jokes for many readers to be misled by the title of this here post -- but I was aware this weekend that it was Yom Kippur and I was happy for the cool weather we had on the heels of the most excruciatingly hot, humid days of last week. It meant that an ex-boss who observes the holy day had a much easier time of it. I was happy to be happy because I didn't always like that boss very much. She was one of those people who looked for the weakest impala in the pack and went after them. (Past tense. Maybe she has changed.) Naturally insecure and frightened, I was very often easy prey. She is one of the people that, when I binge, I dream about after. That I nodded to the chilly evening last night and the cool shadows today and sent up thanks for her comfort was something of a victory for me.
Coincidentally, in my ongoing attempt to get rid of Stuff, I'm reading a book by Someone I Used to Know. It was given to me ages ago by his editor, It's a novel, gay fiction. My parting with SIUTK was violent, a long time ago, very painful. I've seen him once since then and I was with two friends at a reading he gave, very drunk, not, I think, a reassuring presence in the back of that small bookstore that once was.
I don't want to pack and move this book across country with my Trollope and Thirkell and Tudors, so, I decided, if I read it, I can donate it or put it out some find weekend day along with all the other books that make their way on to the balustrades and stoops of Brooklyn Heights, a veritable free book fair. I sort of dreaded it. I read his first book and found myself cruelly lampooned in it. I figured it would be a quick read. I was wrong.
About an hour ago, when Daisy needed her walk and I needed to go walk another dog, I dropped the book on my face at page 188 and said about the writer of the book (versus the author, or SIUTK), without thinking, "I don't like this person very much." I had just read a scene in which a professor at a community college mangles a conversation about Adrienne Rich with a male student. It was the third such scene between the professor and a student and I realized something I didn't know about SIUTK and about myself.
The Writer of This Book is a terrible elitist, the very worst kind. The conversations about Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich are the cliches a professor would speak in at a conference with other professors, not the sort one would have with people breaking the molds of their class and racial backgrounds by taking an English feminist theory course. In the conversation about A Room of One's Own, a middle-aged, African American woman (who, of course, wears broken-at-the-heel slippers: sheesh!) complains that Woolf writes in such a snooty way that she is, in the 1990s, is annoyed and repelled. Blah, blah, blah, the professor parrots all the reasons why she should put the essay in context or compare Woolf's late Victorian/Edwardian upbringing to slavery or vegetarianism. The student is unimpressed.
Maybe that was the point -- to have an adult student be so obdurate that she cannot wrap her brain around the concept that a woman needs time and space to become her true self. If one of my students -- who were often versions of this professor's community college students (sans the crappy shoes) -- had been put off by the formality of Woolf's writing, I would have responded that if what you dream of is to write or paint, the way Woolf's sister did, and you were expected to keep house, tend children, take care of your husband and have no time and no place to be free, could you do it? How, in fact, are you managing, with a kid or two, a job, a husband, to go to college? What has happened in the time since Woolf was a young woman and couldn't go to University and you, enrolled in a business school? There are things to be angry about in the comparison. Woolf had private means. Her father was at the flashpoint of late Victorian literature -- she knew Henry James when she was a child. She was hardly without intellectual mentoring. She had lived with her sister until she married and had a husband who did the taking-care-of, including hiring the maid and cook and the nervous breakdowns. My students didn't have that luxury.
But they would understand the need for women like themselves to have time and space to grow.
Is This Writer that out-of-touch with working class students? Is he that elitist? Why does his novel need these adult students' inability to make connections when the same novel has high school students discussing with brilliance a novel not that much harder than that particular piece by Woolf?
There's no answer here except that I don't like the way This Writer regards first generation, third-rate institution, college students. It's the most classist thing I've read since the 1930s or 40s.
When I went to SIUTK's reading so many years ago, I laughed hard at what one of my friends said, flipping through one his novels on the store shelves, "Oh, he's one of those he-flopped-his-penis-on-the-trailer-table writers," but I didn't really get it. I do now. I have a lot of gay friends and maybe they don't talk about penises around me but I have to say, I just don't get why SIUTK worships penises so much. Do men in general worship sexual organs? I guess heterosexual men go on and on about women's bits, but even I think some of those bits are kind of dazzlingly beautiful. Maybe there's something in how gay men can whisk their wanger out on a moment's notice and do it. Like women's breasts, a wand is not a very hidden thing. But if a woman flashed her boobs the way these men flop out their tools, the writer would have to be damn good to make her into anything more than a despicable dumb self-sabotaging slut.
To dress all this worship and degradation up, we have long discourses on Wagner, Schuman, Bruckner, Brahms. Thomas Mann wafts in and out. This Writer wants his readers to be impressed.
Damn. I want my readers to be impressed, too. And all this Deutchophilia is his territory, as I know all too well. Am I hoist on my own petard here? I was the one who wrote a long bit about Stravinsky's Elephant Ballet in my last book. At least I think it was the Elephant Ballet. Definitely it was Stravinsky. And I'm wincing that I can't use either the accent aigu or the umlaut in writing this piece. Am I seeing too many of my own tricks in his?
I'm thinking a lot about forgiving people from my past, forgiving myself, getting over anger as I work on a proposal about the rosary. I am tired of grudge-holding. So he made a mockery of me in his first novel? This novel is better than that even if it's not, really, very good. And I was relieved that one character gets as annoyed about the promiscuous use of the word "tragedy" as I do -- I kind of felt like laughing and sending up a smoke signal to SIUTK to say, "I SO get that! Thanks, buddy."
I find this book to be a kind of reckoning with someone I've carried enormous anger over. He has courage that I don't -- you see no novels under my name on Amazon. He's brilliant in many things.
But SIUTK has faults. He doesn't understand working class students. He worships the Winkie god in a way I don't think is interesting or important -- in a way that pushes the novel to genre rather than general readership. There's an eight-year gap between his last two novels and he seems not to have been kept by his previous publisher. He's a Wikipedia Writer.
But then, I have to admit, sometimes I am too. I'm scrambling to hold on to my current publisher. I'm afraid to write a novel and just finished my first short story in 15+ years and only because it was commissioned. Maybe I admired him so terribly much and to be dropped was to drop from such a height. Twenty floors is hard to forgive. But maybe one or two floors is not a big deal. Maybe, after all these years, this particular SIUTK is just a guy doing his best and betraying his flaws and isn't such a big deal at all.
He's not Jewish either but I hope this cool spell was kind to him.
We supposedly don't negotiate with terrorists -- um...except on the local level...