FLORENCE HOWE

activist, writer, and founder of the Feminist Press




Florence in Words

Ease and Unreliability of Memory

August 16, 2016

Tags: memory

Yes, I was tired as I kept my acupuncture appointment, and I knew I was going to lunch afterward instead of going home and resting. Linda picked me up in a taxi and then told me we were going to Atlantic Grill on Third Avenue. The name meant nothing to me but as soon as we were inside, I knew where I was, but not Atlantic Grill. Up front, I remembered Mariam Chamberlain’s enjoying the young people at the bar, beginning conversations with them, as we stood for a half hour sipping chardonnay and waiting for a table. And I always admired the L-shaped restaurant itself, its distinctive and beautiful brick wall that ended in a glass wall open on a beautiful garden. The restaurant was one of my favorite places, and I spent much of the lunch trying to remember its name.

I was also thinking about an important lunch there with a female member of the City University of New York’s Executive Board whose job it would be to recommend that The Feminist Press become resident at the Graduate Center and I become a full professor. And I could not remember her name, though I could see her face and even the toque-like hat she wore. I remember her first name now—Blanche.

Yes, I was extraordinarily quiet through lunch, did not talk about what I was trying to remember. On the way out, I asked several waiters, including the man seemingly in charge, if he remembered what this restaurant was called before it was bought by Atlantic Grill. No one responded.

At the front desk of my building, I was handed a huge bag of manuscripts I had agreed to review, and as I headed to pick up mail, the postman handed me a few letters, and I walked to the elevator, rooting around in my capacious handbag for my house keys in their usual spot.

By the time I reached my door, I had found no keys. No keys? No keys! No keys? How could that be? I am disciplined about where the keys rest when they are at home, on the end of a small bookcase near the door, from where they go into my handbag. And of course I use them to lock the door behind me.

I rang my neighbor’s bell, and to my relief Renee was at home and she invited me to come in and go through my bag systematically, saying that this happens to her once or twice a year at least. I felt frantic, breathless, anxious. I could not calm down, but I did say that it had never happened to me. As my heart continued to pound, I emptied my handbag onto Renee’s beautiful embroidered tablecloth, dropping cookie crumbs, but finding no keys. Renee urged me to call security, which I did.

Even then, I had no memory of leaving my apartment while my housekeeper was still in the apartment. And so I had left without picking up my keys, since Lucy was there. It’s days later and I still can’t understand not only how I could have left the keys, but as frightening, how could I have not remembered Lucy’s presence?

Health and Writing Again

August 1, 2016

Tags: health, writing

Midsummer has come around quickly, and I’m still optimistic, though I have not had another diagnosis beyond A-Fib, and though I now own two “walkers”—machines on which I can lean as I walk. One of them, a three-wheeler with a bag for some carrying, Elyse Hilton found on Amazon, and set up for me when it arrived. The other was a surprise from my darling and intrepid daughter-in-law, AnnJ, who found a small, two-wheel walker that folds into a small unit that could fit beneath a theater seat. I was set to surprise her with the three-wheeler, but she really knocked me over with the one she had shipped to cousin Lori here in New York to present to me.

My friends know that I’ve been staunchly opposed to moving beyond the cane, seeing walkers as a negative signal one step from a wheelchair. But I was wrong, and now I know it. It was all probably vanity. I want my health (and even my youth)—who doesn’t? And I must learn to deal with reality. Aging is tough, on bodies and minds. It’s not for the faint of heart; it’s not for those who prefer living in delusions.

So, yes, I am grateful for work that interests me: for the volume to be called What I Left Out, I’m making progress on the difficult essay about my brother who committed suicide in 1985, and about whom I had little to say in my memoir. It’s always been difficult even to talk about him, and it’s one of the areas of my life I can honesty claim not to “know” or “understand.” I say that also about a number of things in my life. But of all of them, this is an old and life-long puzzle—and perhaps you have one in your life: How could two children, brother and sister, three years apart, be so different, never become friends, never share any of life’s views or values? I’ve assumed for years—yes, I’ve been trying to write about this for years—that I was probably guilty for not doing something to change the way we grew up and became adults. Hubris? Probably. Not for the first time in my writing life, I am discovering that writing helps to unlock mysteries in one’s own life. I’m discovering once more that writing stirs my memory. August 1 was my brother’s birthday. He would have been 85. He killed himself in 1985, when he was 53.

Homage to Kazuo Ishiguro

July 25, 2016

Tags: reading

I read Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills, as part of the course on “Memory in Fiction and Film” taught by Professor Robert White, last fall at Hunter College. As I’ve noted in other blogs, I’m a very fast reader, and with dense fiction, such rapid reading may cause me to lose significant detail. I get the outline, but I may be, in the end, puzzled because I’ve missed a clue here or there. And so I had to read A Pale View of Hills a second times time more carefully, in order to note, several pages before the end, a clue that firmly establishes the narrator as “unreliable.” She was, herself, responsible for the death of her own daughter. This shocked me as an allegedly reliable reader, and it also made me wonder about Ishiguro as a novelist. What is he really after?

So I bought two other novels. The Remains of the Day, well-known also as a successful film (which I had not seen), also has at its heart another kind of unreliable narrator, one who is so focused on his correct working behavior as butler in an important British house that he closes his mind not only to the politics of his employer, but even to the suffering of his own father. The novel also moves forward through the memory of the narrator, who unevenly understands the import of what he had once closed his mind to.

Never Let Me Go is a dystopian novel, set in a community of children seemingly without parents. given an idyllic education with recreational features, as though to produce well-rounded citizens. They are eventually told that they were being prepared to be organ-donors and the “carers” for other organ-donors. Again, memorable moments in the novel arise from memories of questions left unanswered, or answered partially, the chief of which has to do with the possibility of escaping their chosen fate.

Still unsatisfied, still wanting more, when next in a book store, I picked up When We Were Orphans, and in some ways, this novel may answer some of my questions about Ishiguro’s view of what he is doing. I mean general questions like “What is it that Ishiguro wants his readers to think about, to understand, to gain comfort from, or feel endless pain about?” I have had this sense from the beginning, especially since the first novel I read, A Pale View of Hills, was set mainly in a Japan following the two bombings, and only sideways and most indirectly focuses on a mother’s inability to deal with the suicide of a young daughter. In some ways similarly, in When We Were Orphans, the novel I’ve just finished, the young British boy who grows up in an idyllic Shanghai with idyllic parents and even an idyllic Japanese friend close to his age, becomes a world-famous detective, able to solve important international cases. Can he, in war-torn Shanghai find his parents who disappeared almost two decades ago? Can he find his boyhood Japanese friend? And how much responsibility has to be placed on the British for the destructive opium trade. This novel strikes me as more ambitious both politically and structurally than any I’ve read thus far. I am also certain that the plot pushed me to read too quickly. I am going to read this novel again, for I’m certain I need to.

And I am writing these notes very quickly, in the hope of finding others who enjoy Ishiguro’s fiction and would be willing to write about one or another of his novels, or about a theme. I’d be glad to give space to a brief or several page-long essay about some aspect of Ishiguro’s fiction, or to a comment about what I’ve said here, too quickly and too briefly.

On Absence—and Health at Eighty-seven

July 1, 2016

Tags: Daddy Was a Number Runner, Louise Meriwether, health

I was shocked to realize that I had not written a blog in more than a month. Do I have an excuse? Do I understand why this has happened? My last blog is up: on my dear friend and author Louise Meriwether, who is at work on a film script for her novel, Daddy Was a Numbers Runner, a possibility that came out of the Feminist Press event I wrote about in May, in my last blog. At this end of this blog, I will describe the newest event in Louise’s life. And keep in mind that she is almost ten years older than I.

What I’ve been doing this past month is, once more, attempting to get some medical clarity about why I can’t walk easily or normally. My general care doctor’s response to my being able to walk only very slowly was that that was sometimes an early symptom of Parkinson’s disease. Which made me think of seeing a neurologist, perhaps the very one who had helped Mariam Chamberlain. This man saw me immediately and recommended some tests, one of which indicated that my balance must be somewhat related to the lack of a functioning right ear. This doctor tried to help by prescribing medication which would assuage the balance in some chemical fashion. Good idea perhaps, but my system rejected the medication as causing still more imbalance and dizziness. Then we talked a bit about the fact that I was walking anyway, but only when accompanied by a strong person whose arm stabilized me. I then mentioned that because I was so out of shape, I had to stop frequently to catch my breath. The next thing I was directed to do was to see a cardiologist and I was given a name, a phone number and urged not to waste a moment before calling.

I followed instructions, made an appointment, and then thought about it. I felt silly because, within the last six months, I had had two or three examinations by my general practitioner and had asked him about my heart and had heard him pronounce my heart excellent. So why was I incurring more expense and spending more tax dollars? But then I thought about a recent walk with Don Thomas four or five short blocks to the AT&T computer store on 72nd Street. Yes, it was a hot day. But we had to stop every few steps, and in the middle we sat down on a bench I had spotted.

So I called again and requested the appointment on Tuesday of this week. And the examination was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Two different brief procedures, the first resulting in a page the doctor could hold in his hand when he came in to do a further test which appeared on a computer in the room as he moved his “wand” around my heart. The result: indeed something is “wrong,” though the doctor claimed it was not “terribly serious.” I have A-Fib for short. The atrial or top part of my heart doesn’t seem to be working, which has resulted in the bottom working harder than ever. At least that’s my way of thinking about it.

So, yes, I need more tests: I’m to go to the doctor’s office next Thursday to be strapped to a small machine for the following 24 hours, which will produce a printout that will describe how my heart copes with various things I might do in that time. Yes, will keep you posted.
Note promised about Louise Meriwether. The Feminist Press has announced a fiction contest in Louise’s name. See the website for detailed information about the rules and rewards. http://www.feministpress.org/news/fp-tayo-literary-announce-louise-meriwether-first-book-prize

On Louise Meriwether

May 11, 2016

Tags: Louise Meriwether, Daddy Was a Number Runner, Feminist Press

For Feminist Press author Louise Meriwether's ninety-third birthday this week, the Borough of Manhattan's President, Gail Brewer, declared the day to be Louise Meriwether Appreciation Day, and presented her with a beautifully painted plaque detailing some of her accomplishments, The audience of nearly 100 of Louise's fans, young and older, black and white, enjoyed the party at CUNY's Graduate Center, drank the bubbly, ate the birthday cake, and, most of all, took their places before the audience and the camera, all wanting to say what Louise meant to them. Yes, it went on for hours. And,yes, The Feminist Press at CUNY, who had arranged the party, sold copies of Daddy Was a Number Runner to people who knew the book but were buying for their grandchildren!!! I want to acknowledge Cheryl Hill, the new director of the Harlem Film Company, for inviting me to speak. This is what I said.

Exactly forty years ago, the Feminist Press republished Daddy
Was a Number Runner
by Louise Meriwether, allowing me forever after to call myself Louise’s publisher as well as her friend. I was betting on a winner. In 1970, when it was first published, Publisher’s Weekly said the novel “breathes reality and heartbreak…A rough, tender, bitter novel of a black girl struggling towards womanhood and survival.” Paule Marshall, who reviewed the novel in 1970, praised the novel’s “vitality and force behind the despair.” She continues, “It celebrates the positive values of the black experience: the tenderness and love that often underlie the abrasive surface of relationships…the humor that has long been an important part of the black survival kit, and the heroism of ordinary folk.”

As publisher, I was smart enough to include a short essay by James Baldwin, also published in 1970. He writes: “We have seen this life from the point of view of a black boy growing [up]…[but] I don’t know that we have ever seen it from the point of view of a black girl on the edge of a terrifying womanhood.”

I also decided to invite the black critic and professor, Nellie McKay, who was at the University of Wisconsin, to write an Afterword. It, too, is worth the price of admission. (And it’s one of the great pieces of criticism we have from Nellie, who died young of pancreatic cancer.) Nellie McKay sees the novel not only as “well-crafted,” but also as “captur[ing] the essence of a historical time and place in the experience of black people.” She sees the book as a “tribute to poor, uneducated, black women, who, through centuries of watching their men being ground down by poverty and racism, continue to live each day with the assurance that conditions will improve. Expecting little for themselves, not from lack of self-worth, but because they understand the politics of race, gender, economics, and power, they scrub floors, wash windows, and absorb racist and sexist insults, so that their children can have better lives than their own.”

When the twelve-year old Francie says she wants to be a secretary, her teacher tells her that she should be setting her sights towards cooking, sewing, or domestic work. Francie has not seen a black secretary or teacher, but the novel makes clear that she sees sex workers, the daughters of neighbors, on the street daily. One more note about this novel that I believe all of you should read, especially if you are concerned about the sexual abuse of children. This is a fact of life Francie has to deal with every day, not only from perverts who follow her into the movies or onto the roof of her building, but even from an occasional Jewish merchant. No, this child does not tell her parents. Somehow she suspects that telling them would result in catastrophe for the family. Somehow, she knows that she must deal with the abuse through wit and ultimately with the aid of a strong kick, and in the novel, she knows that other girls her age do as well.

Still, how can I claim this is a comic novel, and one that will hearten your belief in the strength of humankind, in the strength of what Louise calls, as the subtitle of the novel, “Yoruba’s children?” The sharing from family to family, and from those that have to those that don’t; the grief expressed not only for one’s family but for one’s neighbors; and the strength of all who can sometimes find it possible to laugh rather than cry over their losses. One person who helps Francie’s family is her mother’s sister, who is unmarried and hence could independently decide to take full time employment as a domestic in a white family. She uses some of her money to help her sister and to treat her children when they come to see her. She certainly brightens Francie’s days from time to time.

(Reading the novel again this weekend, I was reminded of my father’s asking me many times about whether I had dreamed a number the night before, and at least once or twice I could remember giving him one and feeling very excited about it. Though I didn’t understand what the dream had to do with anything, I heard my mother’s crying when my father arrived with very little cash, having lost his money on an unlucky number. And I remember also the time he could pull off a $100 dollar bill to pay for a coat he wanted to buy me for my thirteenth birthday.)

I want to conclude by mentioning a screen play Louise has written that would make a fine film. Perhaps there is someone here who has the clout to look at that. And of course there is Louise’s new work. At 90 she began to write a new novel and though I’ve not seen any of it yet, I’m betting on her. She is my role model, and if you are looking for a role model, I may be willing, in the spirit of Francie’s family and other members of Yoruba’s children, to share her with you.

Homage to Kazuo Ishiguro

May 6, 2016

Tags: reading

I read Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills, as part of the course on “Memory in Fiction and Film” taught by Professor Robert White, last fall at Hunter College. As I’ve noted in other blogs, I’m a very fast reader, and with dense fiction, such rapid reading may cause me to lose significant detail. I get the outline, but I may be, in the end, puzzled because I’ve missed a clue here or there. And so I had to read A Pale View of Hills a second times time more carefully, in order to note, several pages before the end, a clue that firmly establishes the narrator as “unreliable.” She was, herself, responsible for the death of her own daughter. This shocked me as an allegedly reliable reader, and it also made me wonder about Ishiguro as a novelist. What is he really after?

So I bought two other novels. The Remains of the Day, well-known also as a successful film (which I had not seen), also has at its heart another kind of unreliable narrator, one who is so focused on his correct working behavior as butler in an important British house that he closes his mind not only to the politics of his employer, but even to the suffering of his own father. The novel also moves forward through the memory of the narrator, who unevenly understands the import of what he had once closed his mind to.

Never Let Me Go is a dystopian novel, set in a community of children seemingly without parents, given an idyllic education with recreational features, as though to produce well-rounded citizens. They are eventually told that they were being prepared to be organ-donors and the “carers” for other organ-donors. Again, memorable moments in the novel arise from memories of questions left unanswered, or answered partially, the chief of which has to do with the possibility of escaping their chosen fate.

Still unsatisfied, still wanting more, when next in a book store, I picked up When We Were Orphans, and in some ways, this novel may answer some of my questions about Ishiguro’s view of what he is doing. I mean general questions like “What is it that Ishiguro wants his readers to think about, to understand, to gain comfort from, or feel endless pain about?” I have had this sense from the beginning, especially since the first novel I read, A Pale View of Hills, was set mainly in a Japan following the two bombings, and only sideways and most indirectly focuses on a mother’s inability to deal with the suicide of a young daughter. In some ways similarly, in When We Were Orphans, the novel I’ve just finished, the young British boy who grows up in an idyllic Shanghai with idyllic parents and even an idyllic Japanese friend close to his age, becomes a world-famous detective, able to solve important international cases. Can he, in war-torn Shanghai find his parents who disappeared almost two decades ago? Can he find his boyhood Japanese friend? And how much responsibility has to be placed on the British for the destructive opium trade. This novel strikes me as more ambitious both politically and structurally than any I’ve read thus far. I am also certain that the plot pushed me to read too quickly. I am going to read this novel again, for I’m certain I need to.

And I am writing these notes very quickly, in the hope of finding others who enjoy Ishiguro’s fiction and would be willing to write about one or another of his novels, or about a theme. I’d be glad to give space to a brief or several page-long essay about some aspect of Ishiguro’s fiction, or to a comment about what I’ve said here, too quickly and too briefly.

Depression Gone Swimming and Politics

April 11, 2016

Tags: election, Alice, depression

This has been the shortest span of depression I can remember, and though I don’t feel completely free, I recognized the moment when the depression began to slip away. Paul Pombo was here, to deliver my tax return, and, yes, that had something to do with the relief I felt physically, especially since he coupled his remark that I don’t owe anything with another that I ought to go to Mallorca. And as if that were not enough, my daughter Alice Jackson called soon after Paul left to tell me that she’d booked us into a resort in Florida (formerly a navy base, since Alice was once in the navy) for a week in May. “You need to get out of New York’s weather for a bit,” she said.

So is that the solution? Movement? Or is it the water promised, the swimming and the snorkeling? And what does it all mean? Or is asking for meaning a waste of one’s energies? Why not just learn to live and enjoy the act of living, yes, despite infirmities, limitations, and the loss of independence and especially the loss of being able-bodied. Would that I could. Would that I were physically stronger, even as I was two or three years ago before the knee surgery and all that followed it.

I’ve left out for the moment my metaphysical connections to the world and so let me comment on what I did Sunday and review what the day’s politics have to do with my depression. I attended a fine panel of political commentators gathered together at Roosevelt House by the Board of the Hunter College High School Alumni Association (on which I sit as secretary). They were all our own alumni—graduates from classes mainly in the 1990s: two people from the New York Times, Ian Trontz and Aaron Retica, who was a brilliant chair of the panel; Amy Davidson of the New Yorker; Jamal Greene, professor of law at Columbia University; and perhaps the best known, Chris Hayes of MSNBC. (A niggling point I will mention only is that of attire: the token woman and the token Black professor were dressed formally. The three white men might have just gotten out of bed to romp with their kids in a park. So nothing has changed in that regard: women and blacks are still expected to show up looking appropriate. White menfolks can arrive in any condition and they are accepted for the brilliant light they shine.)

And I’m not taking anything away from them: the panelists were all fine. The chair was particularly effective; Amy Davidson and Chris Hayes talked the most. And Ian and Jamal were called on for their particular expertise. And there was much talk about the impact of “movements” upon the “rules” of the two political parties, especially with regard to decisions about whether they were “free” or “locked in,” and how an electorate might respond to unseating Trump, for example, or to seating Clinton rather than Sanders.

On the other hand, I was not easy with the discussion about young women choosing Sanders over Clinton, saying that gender had nothing to do with their choice. More important, I was more than annoyed by several in the audience emphasizing that Hillary Clinton was not the “last chance” for a woman to lead this country, that Elizabeth Warren “could get a nomination in a second,” and that there were more than a dozen women in the senate with more experience and acumen than Cruz, or even than Obama had eight years ago.

All this makes me very sad. I wish I could say “energized” and ready to go work for Hillary’s election. I am convinced intellectually and emotionally that we need Hillary Clinton now, and that there is no one who combines her quality of experience, knowledge, and heart. And she clearly has the energy for the job. I would not call Bernie Sanders a windbag, though his speeches are by now tedious repetitions that anyone could offer. But he’s had no experience that matches hers not only in foreign affairs, but in the politics of a large state like New York, and in spending eight years in the White House working on many issues including health care. Nor can I see him moving his pie-in-the-sky promises into bills that would pass Congress.

I am sorry I didn’t get to say this, but I say it here: We’d be fools not to use the competence and knowledge and heart of Hillary Clinton right now. Yes, other women will follow her, but there is only Hillary right now.

Depression Returns

March 28, 2016

Tags: depression, reading

I cannot remember the last time I was depressed, but here I am back again in that state. And I can’t explain it. Of course I can’t explain it. And I’ve talked only with the two people who are trying to help me physically, and who don’t know me very well, and who are therapists, but not talk-therapists. I must say at once that I chose very well, since both of them told me that they, too, have suffered from depression, and they are never absolutely free of it.

Yes, that was not only surprising; it was comforting. I expect that they would like their privacy maintained and so I won’t even use their first names. My goal here is to explain my absence and perhaps to tell “you”—whoever you are reading these blogs—why I’ve been silent. And perhaps say something about what I’ve been doing.

I did a long proofreading job for Feminist Press—a WSQ volume on the theme of Survival, and, yes, with many depressing pieces. And yes, as a news-junkie I continue to fear the craziness of the current stream of political chatter. Only hearing Hillary calms me. I don’t often listen to Bernie, since he doesn’t change his speech enough to make this anything but a chore. But I did hear him out as he spoke to a few thousand young people in Oregon last night, and he’s still talking in generalities about a world that he couldn’t produce even in two terms in the White House, and even with Congressional partners. And people cheer and seemingly believe him. I find this so disheartening, especially since no one can comment on the absence of the emperor’s clothes, not Hillary, of course, and not other Democrats who are in awe of the young, enthusiastic crowds who chant “Bernie, Bernie,” as though he were a media rock star.

And I’ve been avoiding the Republican chatter these past few days. The less said about them the better. They seem to be in need of shooting themselves in the foot. And perhaps the glow is fading from Mr. Trump’s hairpiece, if that’s what it is up there.

But I have one or two things to report that are cheery. First, Helene’s surgery went well and she (who has not as much as a single depressed bone in her body) is already going to parties. What a lucky duck she is!

Second, I’ve been reading Marilynne Robinson again, this time Home, which for some unknown reason I had skipped over—went from Housekeeping to Gilead to Lila. And now I’m two-thirds through Home, and finding it splendid. Yes, cheering, amazing. I have put it down today only because I need to finish assembling the material for my income taxes so that they can be sent off with my dear friend/accountant on Monday morning. No, I won’t talk with him about depression.

But it has been helpful to talk with people who know what it’s like and who are in the helping professions. As a teacher many years ago, I could sometimes talk with a student about her feelings, or convince her to write about them. And perhaps I’ll try more directly in the next few days to describe how I feel. No, there’s no quilt wrapped around me, not this time.

Memory Take 12: Philippe Grimbert’s Memory

January 19, 2016

Tags: memory, reading

I’ve been unusually slow about writing the last two blogs about the course that is now history in my life. And I’m glad I waited, for I can now see the course’s curve more clearly. The course moves from a focus on individual memory—from an individual’s unusually gifted memory to the total loss of a person’s memory, and various shades in between—to collective or communal memory, what we also call history. And I feel particular admiration for Professor White as he not only reminds the class of the international history of individual words, but as he also remembers the recent history of the Holocaust. Perhaps for that reason the final book was Philippe Grimbert’s Memory, and the final class was devoted to communal memory, including a film about Paris’ famous cemetery, and a host of images on a screen that many in the class could identify selectively.

I will begin with the book that I have read twice, in part because it is the kind of brief, easy read that a fast reader like me can skim and thereby lose details. And indeed, when I read the 154 pages for the second time, I saw that I had skipped over the sentences mentioning “President Laval,” at the end of the volume, the French collaborator with the Nazis, of whom Grimbert writes, “President Laval, who in his defense hearing said that he had encouraged the deportation of children under sixteen so as not to separate families.” Coincidentally, just a few weeks earlier I had seen a brilliant performance of Arthur Miller’s lesser-known play, “Incident at Vichy,” which documents in vivid drama the treatment of a dozen French Jews, ranging in age from youths to the elderly. Professor White outlined Laval’s nefarious history of collaboration with the Nazis, including the remark that “not one Jewish child will survive in France.” Laval was, in the end, brought to justice and executed in 1945.

In the novel, Grimbert, who is also a psychoanalyst, is writing part of his own family history. As an only child, he invented an older brother, not knowing that, indeed there had been one he was not to learn about until his own fifteenth year. I won’t spoil the novel for you by saying much more about its plot. But I will say again that I enjoyed the spare prose style of Polly McLean, the translator. And from Professor White I learned that Grimbert wrote the novel 20 years after the double suicide of his parents, in part to make sense of their lives. The result, Professor White insisted, is fiction, not memoir. He wrote the book, the professor said, “as an act of love for his parents and [his brother] Simon,” who died in the gas chamber at the age of eight, accompanied by his mother.

We had one more class meeting, and it was to be partly a party. As the students turned in their final papers, they picked up soda or water and some snacks, and eventually settled down to Professor White’s final gift to the class: two films. The first was a depiction of the famous cemetery outside of Paris that holds, among other treasures, the remains of Marcel Proust. We saw the Parisian women who come daily to water plants, arrange fresh flowers, and clean the marble, all in homage to the memories of the artists and other heroes of France. One section of the film depicted a taxi-driver who came often because of his love of music, and in the film, he sings movingly in his native Eastern European language. The second film was a string of photographs of famous men and women from history, film, sports, etc. And the class was called upon to identify the image. I wish I had kept track, for though I could identify all but one athlete, the majority of young people in the class could not. It was interesting to see which photos they could identify, and I regret not having the wit at the moment to take notes. It was just so much fun.

And I must end this saga with that sentence. Few experiences in my life, or perhaps any life, could be concluded with those six words. So I bless the powers that sent me into this course, and I will note that I do hope to have another such experience next fall.

Memory Number 11: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores

January 16, 2016

Tags: memory, reading

On the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, the hero of this novella decides that, as a birthday present, he’d like to give himself a teenage virgin, and he proceeds to ask his favorite madam to find a choice specimen for him. Despicable? That’s only the start of it. His monologue fills over one hundred pages, and reveals him as not only unreliable but egotistical, amoral, and altogether as unpleasant a character that one is likely to meet in fiction. Why did the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, to mention only two of his novels, end his life with this one? I didn’t ask this question of Professor White, but I asked only what has this book to do with the theme of memory, the idea behind this course.

Professor White spent the first hour on Marquez’s biography, his literary achievement (including his admiration for William Faulkner), and his risk-taking left-wing politics, his love for film, and then his illness (cancer and dementia, among other things), and his death at 87. And then Professor White named other novels in this genre—Death in Venice and Lolita, for example. But of course this novella is different because the hero’s desire is, right to the end, unconsummated, despite the fact that he can remember 514 whores, he never touches this young girl who sleeps peacefully in the nude, and beside whom eventually he also sleeps.

In the course of thinking about his life, the hero of this novel tells unflattering things about himself, including turning all women into whores. He claims he has never slept with anyone without paying her. All his tastes are organized for snobbery: theatre rather than film; European culture rather than Latin American, for example. He was unsuccessful as a teacher, possibly because he was a bully. Ultimately, as Professor White put it, “He squandered his talent and inheritance in the brothels.”

He names the young girl Delgadina, and falls in love with her. At first this feeling sends him into remembering other women he loved or nearly loved but abandoned. His only friend is his housekeeper, who has never married, but has kept his house for much of her life. She and the madam urge him not to lose the child he loves, for “There’s no greater misfortune than dying alone.” Near the end of the novella, the hero takes the family jewels to a pawn shop, only to discover that his mother had probably done the same thing, since the jewels were paste. Professor White: “the narrator is just as phony as his mother’s jewels.”

What about memory? As a prelude to the next class, Professor White opened with this question. One theory: “Is this a conversion narrative—about a man who squandered his life?” The time with Delgadina awakens his memory of other women and allows him to think about his life. Professor White asked, “Why did Marquez write this book?” In his opinion, “not on behalf of pedophiles.” Still, “morally, the book is disturbing—desire made to seem like a message from God. Or is this a satire, a joke? Whatever the answer, this is not my favorite book of the course.

Select Works

"Everyone concerned about global feminism, women’s contributions, and humanity’s future will be enhanced and enchanted by A Life in Motion.”—Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume I and Volume II
Lecture delivered by Florence Howe on January 8, 2011, at the Modern Language Association Annual Convention
“It is impossible to imagine women’s studies without Florence Howe. Myths of Coeducation shows her vision and courage, insight and dauntlessness.”–Catharine R. Stimpson, Rutgers University
A revised and expanded edition of the classic groundbreaking anthology of 20th-century American women's poetry, representing more than 100 poets from Amy Lowell to Anne Sexton to Rita Dove.

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