FLORENCE HOWE

activist, writer, and founder of the Feminist Press




Florence in Words

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.

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 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.

Memory Take Nine--Kasuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills

November 24, 2015

Tags: memory, reading

Even before I had finished this novel, I knew I had to read it again. I knew I had “missed” something, since I felt confused about the narrator and the friend she had so willingly accepted, who seemed unreliable. But the question I couldn’t answer, even though I had read with my eyes open, focused on the narrator herself: how reliable was she, since every event in this novel hangs on memory, the memory of the narrator, Etsuko. And I want to say right from the start that I recommend the book: it’s memorable, as well as compelling. The setting is Nagasaki, and one of its suburbs, many years after the bomb. Ishiguro’s Japanese parents moved to Britain in 1960, when their son was about four. He went to college in England and usually talks of himself as someone who grew up in a Japanese household. I have not read his six other novels, but I am interested in doing so. His spare, clean prose in his first novel allowed me to read the book a second time with as much pleasure. And in this second reading I found what I was looking for: a clear “clue” to the unreliability of the narrator—on the penultimate page of the novel. I’m sure you will find it for yourselves.

The novel’s subject is the memory of a mother, Etsuko, who has lost a grown daughter to suicide, though we learn that only gradually, incidentally. The novel opens in the present, in a suburb of London, following the separate deaths of the narrator’s husband and the daughter, and focused on a visit from Etsuko’s second daughter, who lives in London, and has not attended either funeral. Then the novel moves back into the past, when the mother was pregnant (I assume) with the now dead daughter. In memory, she is in a suburb of Nagasaki, where she makes a friend who has a distinctly anti-social daughter. She grows attached to the daughter who does not go to school, and often disobeys her mother. She wanders freely, responds little to adults, and seems content only when she has a few kittens to care for. Her mother seems pleased to have the narrator as friend, and willingly accepts various favors, including a loan of money. In return, she lectures the pregnant woman about how important it is to care for one’s daughter, whose existence changes one’s life.

Eventually, since the novel moves between present and past, we learn that the narrator, Etsuko, has had two husbands, one Japanese, one British, and with each of them a daughter. As Professor White put it succinctly, this is a “novel about memory, dark memory, about pieces of life that can’t be restored.” He also described several of the academic debates about the meaning of the novel and especially about the relationship of the narrator to her friend. As the narrator states, “Memory, I realize can be an unreliable thing…colored by the circumstances.”

Memory, Take Eight: Memento, a film

November 16, 2015

Tags: memory, reading

Getting to see the film was itself difficult, for Netflix seemingly could not fill my request, telling me for nearly two months that there was “a long wait.” In some wonderment, I went to Wikipedia where “Memento (film)” rated an entry I printed out at twelve pages, including 81 footnotes and other scholarly apparatus. Ultimately unsatisfied, on the day of class I went to the Honors Office (sponsors of the seminar) and watched the film on an old television set in a small room across from their office, along with another (young) student in the class.

First impression: Yes, it seemed endless, and almost pointless, for what I didn’t understand, even from reading the Wikipedia pages, was that, considering its subject matter, the film was and had to have been endless. I didn’t know what I am revealing now: the film runs backwards from the “end” to the “beginning.” And I have to put those words in quotation marks because they are, in one basic sense, meaningless here. One could argue that the film, in illuminating the central condition of its hero, horrifyingly illuminates T.S. Eliot’s claim that “the end is the beginning.”

I will take you out of the pain I was in for nearly two hours: the subject of the film is the affliction of its main character’s total loss of short term memory. He can retain what is happening while it is happening, but after something else happens, the prior event disappears from his mind. He doesn’t remember people or places; he doesn’t remember what he has done or what has been done to him, at least after the initiating event that created his condition. The initiating event: which we glimpse, but perhaps do not understand at first, is a violent attack on himself and his wife. The attacker rapes and then kills his wife and hits him in the head, causing his condition. He cannot remember anything post the vision of his wife being raped and killed. I’m not sure he remembers his own head being struck.

He spends the rest of his time—and the body of the film—searching for the man who has killed his wife, though he doesn’t remember that he has already killed him. He knows his affliction and tries to keep track of what is happening to him by using a polaroid camera to take pictures of people, mark them with names and with “clues” like “do not believe his lies.” Because he fears losing these, he has also had his body tattooed with some of this vital information. People around him, the manager of the motel, a supposed cop, a woman drug dealer, understand and take advantage of his affliction, cheating him by registering him in two different rooms, and manipulating his murder of one of their enemies by convincing him that the man is the one who killed his wife.

According to the Wikipedia entry, the film “was acclaimed by critics, who praised its nonlinear narrative structure and motifs of memory, perception, grief, and self-deception.” Professor White said in his closing remarks about the film, “Memory is an interpretation, not a record. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there.”

Postscript. Two days after seeing the film, I woke up thinking about a summer in Easthampton perhaps fifteen or twenty years ago, when a friend and I took long walks daily, talking about books, one of which, Memory Board by Jane Rule (and published by the ground-breaking lesbian-feminist Naiad Press in 1987). This novel tells the story of two lifetime companions, whose relationship is now marked by the loss of short-term memory for one of the pair. I recommend the novel, but for me there is also a live irony here, for the person with whom I spent many wonderful hours walking and talking about books has had the same kind of memory loss depicted in the book we read together and the film I just saw that vividly reminded me of such losses.

But there is a bit more. Each day that I live I also bear witness to my own diminishing short-term memory. I must write everything down. Of course, people say, we all have to write everything down. But then I used to be different: I never had to write anything down: I simply remembered. It’s hard today to believe that I could memorize a whole poem in German, “Der Erlkonig,” overnight, and recite it in class with no errors. And I can still recite a few of its opening lines. But could I remember all I must do next week?

Memory, Take Seven: Georges Perec, W, or The Memory of Childhood

November 3, 2015

Tags: memory, reading

Like the other books read for this course, this one is also memorable, but unlike the others, this one is built around the missing memory of childhood, and the creation of a dystopic society that functions as a nation valuing athletes. One young student said to me, as we were waiting for our room, that the depiction of women in Perec’s book, forced to run, nude, to escape the rape by also nude male athletes forced to compete for them, was almost more than she could bear to read. So, yes, while I recommend this book for the brilliance of its execution, you will need to bear the pain.

I was so intrigued by the strands of Perec’s plotting, and his insistence that the two “stories” are connected, that I read the book twice: once straight through; and a second time, reading every other chapter as if each made up its own book, which, of course, they do and do not. Every other chapter is printed in italics to distinguish it from the other: as Perec says, there is “history” and there is “story.” Perhaps this is one way to view the book: First, the bare-bones history of the man without a memory of childhood, having lost his father and mother very early, to death and to the holocaust. For some reason we do not understand, this child, now a man, bears the name of a deaf-and-dumb child lost either before or during the crash of a yacht the child’s family had been sailing. Then second, the story as told by the hero, who has lived and fought using the name of this child, and who, urged to go in search of him, finds the dystopia, “W,” the fascist state built on the model of the perfect athlete. I keep coming back to the brilliance of the structure, which, I probably have focused on because the pain of the portrait is, otherwise, so severe.

Professor White described memorably the effect of the author: “Perec is constantly telling us that memory is a house made of sand.” Towards the close of the two-and-a-half-hour class, Professor White showed a film of the opening of the Olympic Games in Germany made in 1938 by Leni Riefenstahl. It just occurred to me to search out the date this book was first published: 1975. Perec’s dates are 1936-1982: he lived for 46 years, escaping death because his parents sent him into what they hoped would be safety. He was two years old at the time of the 1938 Olympic Games. Yes, I want to know more about him.

Memory, Take Six: Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

November 2, 2015

Tags: memory, reading

Umberto Eco’s bulky, unwieldy novel, part history, part comedy, supported by illustrations in color of the covers of books or the interiors of comics and magazines of the thirties and forties, provides another encyclopaedic resource on memory. Yes, it’s a bit overwhelming, perhaps especially to someone who was not a participant. (I never had comics and I saw no magazines. My mother’s interest in such radio programs as “The Shadow” are what I recall of that wartime period, though I do remember something of Superman and Batman.)

Eco’s hero, Yambo, generously autobiographical, suffers at first from almost total memory loss after one stroke, then gains total recall after another, though he appears to his family as comatose. But readers enter his fully recalled childhood and youth, including fascists on the one hand and such heroes as Flash Gordon on the other. Most gripping are several sections on the war, and the way in which a profound tactile memory enables Yambo’s feet to lead a group, including eight partisans, across a dangerous Gorge.

In opening the class, Professor White asked—as a little quiz—what the ending signified, what meaning does the author intend to communicate with the sudden question that forms the last words of the novel, “Why is the sun turning black?” Death, of course, is the answer, though it’s hardly the point of this novel. For this course, like Proust, Eco provides a guide to the various kinds of memory humans can call on.

Finally, Professor White showed two bits of film: the first film made of the comic strip in which Flash Gordon is played by Buster Crabbe. Yes, this sophisticated twenty-first century class were left panting for “what happens next,” as the film ended. And then we watch the last eight minutes of Fellini’s “81/2,” as Professor White suggested that Eco was thinking of this film as he wrote his startling, sudden ending of The Mysterious Flame.

Yes, need I say it? I am enjoying the course immensely, both the reading and the class time. Some of the students sparkle and of course Professor White is in tireless motion throughout the hour.

Memory Take Five: Rashomon

October 6, 2015

Tags: memory, reading

As a person who enjoys film, but who has never “studied” film, I realized, even as this class began, that I have much to learn. Professor White opened with a question, “How does the film end?” He called on me and I said, “With a baby’s crying.” “Yes,” he said, "and did you like that?" “No,” I said, “I couldn’t see the point.” He seemed delighted: “We disagree,” he said.

And I learned that one must “read” more than the words on a page when one views film. I had not occurred to me that, to begin with, I should have read much more carefully the two short stories, “In a Grove” and “Rashomon,” by Ryunosake Akutagawa, which provided Akira Kurosawa with material for his film. Had I done this, I might have been able to focus on what it was that Kurosawa chose, and what he omitted. In short, the film was of his own making, and in making it, he could use whatever he wanted to, and he could add as well.

In addition, certain techniques were available to him that I have not learned to think about in a meaningful manner. I am referring here not only to adding something like the appearance of the swaddled baby crying, but also the lighting after the rain has stopped. Indeed, he could have and did stop the rain at the end of his film, and he did have the sun come out, and the baby stop crying. And he had the lying woodcutter say he would adopt the baby whose swaddling clothes he had previously stolen. Thus, the filmmaker was dropping a note of hope into the foregoing turmoil. (I might have noticed as well that the filmmaker chose to omit the misery of the old woman who was making wigs from the hair of dead women.)

Professor White introduced other kinds of questions having to do with the value of eye-witness testimony in a court reviewing a crime, and the curious question of why three people admit to committing the same crime? He reported on research which has claimed that stress may narrow memory, thus making certain eye-witnesses unreliable.

At the end of the class, returning to the film, Professor White said that Kurosawa had been inspired by silent films and with the use only of black and white. He added, at the end, perhaps thinking of his opening question and my response, that the Japanese have problems with the film’s ending.

Memory #4: Proust’s Swann’s Way

October 3, 2015

Tags: memory, reading

As I sat in this, the fourth class I was auditing in an ordinary classroom on the fourth floor of the West Building at Hunter College, I wondered whether I would leave tonight with the same feelings of joy I had last week. I wondered also how anyone could talk about Proust’s seven volumes, or even the 200-pages we had just read, in the space of two and a half hours. Professor White calmly began by saying that he hadn’t finished what he had meant to say last week, and he proceeded to name some twenty kinds of memory, illuminating some of them with reference to Proust, before talking about the author himself.

I wondered how many in the class noted the large green and white paper bags on the Professor’s desk. But I turned my attention to taking notes, and almost an hour passed before Professor White began to talk about Proust’s life, suggesting that we think of him as a contemporary of Thomas Hardy, Andre Gide, George Sand, Arthur Schopenhauer, Gustav Mahler, and a host of other painters, composers, writers, philosophers. It was interesting to me, particularly that Gide, as publisher, offered the first volume of Swann’s Way, turned it down, and when it appeared, admitted that it had been the worst decision he had ever made.

Professor White’s comments on the novel emphasized Proust’s life as his great resource and his use especially of his intense ability to rouse various kinds of memory, kinetic, visual, tactile, olfactory…the whole gamut, which was why the two parts of today’s lecture served each other.

Just before the ten-minute break, Professor White began to unwrap the packages on his desk: he had bought more than two dozen (so there could be second helpings) madeleines and a quart of milk and cups. What a sweet surprise for all, and I led the way not to the goodies but to taking a photo of the Professor distributing them. Yes, it was a lovely, thoughtful gesture, and one reason he is among professors beloved.

What about the novel? Did I learn anything I valued especially? I liked the ways in which Professor White could separate the complicated—and not often admirable—life of the writer from the work he had produced, even as he noted that the one had emerged from the other’s strengths and weaknesses. He noted, for example, that Proust was a snob, and that he could write about snobbery with special vision, sometimes making it absurd.

And finally, did I come away as ecstatic as I had the week before? One must remember that, at 86, ecstasy is rare. But I came away calmly content with my life. And pleased to have been in class. And ready to read more Proust.

Memory #3:Back to the Greeks and Romans

September 14, 2015

Tags: memory, reading

When I was a junior at Hunter College—in 1948—I took an elective Classics course with Professor Pearl Wilson. I read the Iliad and the Odyssey and a group of plays, including the Orestia. ( I don’t remember the Romans.) Professor Robert White opened this third class on Thursday night by reminding us that the Greeks and Romans were “his” professorial focus, and he was going to talk about the importance of memory for all of them.

First he noted that the transmission of the Iliad and the Odyssey had been oral, that at one point in history one person with a prodigious memory could recite all 12 books of the Iliad, all the books of the Bible, all of Canon Law, 200 speeches of Cicero, and more besides. Such ability, he countered, may clearly not be important in an age of computers. Still, memory had to be essential for the creators of the Iliad and the Odyssey, who probably could not read or write; their talents were oral. Later, the texts of these epics were written down by people who were retelling what they had heard. Would this result in a loss of that prodigious memory?

Then he went on to talk about Plato’s Dialogues, and the relationships between memory and the concepts of truth and beauty and honesty. From Plato’s point of view, one needed to recall what once one knew before birth. I liked especially the idea of memory as writing on a wax tablet inside the mind—is it clear, muddy, hard, soft? Can we hold on to it, or will it disappear?

Aristotle, on the other hand, was interested in memory’s retrieval, in enabling the recall of memory. He thought that the young and the old both have poor memories: As Professor White announced that he disagreed here, he moved quickly on to the Romans, who, like Aristotle, were interested in the kinds of memory that enhanced public speaking, law, oratory. In particular, lawyers needed to remember their opponents’ main points so as to oppose them.

The class was only half over by this point and the rest was as interesting, sometimes funnier, and always memorable. I left with a smile not only on my face but in my being. For whatever complex of reasons, I left feeling almost happy, certainly cheerier than I have been in years. And it was not only the wonderful anecdote about his college friend assumed dead one day, and the next a co-winner of the Nobel for work on the hippocampus (which I knew meant work on memory). It was not only more anecdotes about prodigious memories (I had one of those once). Perhaps it was all of that, and some other essence having to do with taking notes, and, yes, remembering.

Memory #2: A Small Irony

September 9, 2015

Tags: memory, reading

The first class, on Monday evening, August 31, was an Introduction to the course as arranged by Professor Robert J. White, and a depiction of his rather unusual memory. I’ll begin with that opening episode, in which Professor White asked the twenty-six people in the room each to write their names on a piece of paper, and then their “year” at college. Then he asked that we answer two questions: what is it we like best? And what it is we like least?

He did collect these pieces of paper very slowly, beginning in the middle of the room, where I was sitting. And I did notice that he looked at me as he looked at my piece of paper. But I went on to look at the syllabus he had distributed and didn’t pay a lot of attention to him as he was collecting the other pieces of paper.

Once he had them, he went through them as he named the person and made eye contact. He moved around the room as he did this. And it took at least 30 minutes for him to name every person in the room, stumbling a bit only over some Asian names. And then he talked a bit about (his) memory, and noted that his knowing our names may not carry over to the next class, since it was two weeks away, with Labor Day coming in between.

He then went through the syllabus, describing some of the books and films we are to see. The course, described as “Memory across the Disciplines,” might have been called Across the World in Prose and Film. This Thursday, the make-up class, he will discuss Jonathan K. Foster’s Memory: A Very Short Introduction. And then we have ten days before we meet again to read Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, pp. 3-191.

And now I get to the small irony. The only book on the list which I have read, and indeed written about its formation as a novel, is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I can’t be present at that class, on October 5, because that is the evening The Feminist Press will celebrate its 45th birthday at its annual Gala. And I can’t be absent, can I?

What to do? Probably nothing. Again, there’s a break for two weeks, when Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana will be discussed. So be it, I have to say, though I have read Mrs. Dalloway many times since 1953 when I was a graduate student TA-ing for an Intro to Literature course in which it was on the reading list. Like the students, I was puzzled, but I found some solace in the company of working class and would-be writer, Septimus Smith and his hat-making Italian wife. Mostly the students complained that there were no chapters, and that nothing happened, ignoring the suicide, or not reading that far. And so I can tell myself to enjoy the irony, not fret about it, and remain silent this time.

Summer Reading - Hamilton

August 20, 2015

Tags: reading

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
If anyone had asked me about reading a huge biography of Alexander Hamilton, I would have declined, saying I read fiction. But seeing “Hamilton” on the stage in March changed my mind, and when Don Thomas recently offered the book he had just finished, I grabbed it. I am about three-quarters through, and it’s still thrilling. The author, Ron Chernow, knows how to pace his chapters so that the narrative moves along, attempting to match the remarkable energy of its hero.

And for the past two weeks, I have rearranged my life so that I can read the book mornings, after breakfast with the New York Times and the crossword, when doable. I read for at least two hours into the afternoon, sometimes a bit longer, and I am a rapid reader. Still I have at least another week before me. And though I know the plot, I don’t know the details, despite having seen the dramatic version once.

“Hamilton,” the musical play by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which I saw on March 12, was astonishing not only for its story line, not only for the fact that the founding fathers and mothers were enacted by men and women of color, and not only because the unusual music was a compound of Broadway, rap, and hip-hop, such as had never before been heard. And it all passed my particular test: I could understand every word. Indeed I and the people I went with—the Hunter College High School alumni association had bought out the Public Theatre as a benefit, since Lin-Manuel was one of our very own—were so enthusiastic that we are preparing to see it once more, on Broadway, next November, again as a benefit for the high school.

Reading the biography, I can see Lin-Manuel’s attraction to the abundant energy of Hamilton, his brilliance as a theorist and as a popular writer. And the story itself, of an immigrant born into the squalor of poverty and illegitimacy on an obscure Caribbean island, and rising to be the foremost intellectual founder of this nation, responsible especially for establishing clear monetary policy and the department of the treasury. And all the time, he was a flawed human being, drawn into a degrading sexual affair, and willing to risk its open knowledge in order to clear his name of charges of fiscal or any kind of governmental abuse. It’s impossible not to admire Hamilton, even when he is being most obtuse. (The rhyme appeared in homage to Lin-Manuel.)

New Series on Memory: Take One

August 6, 2015

Tags: memory, reading

As I wrote in my blog on Yoya, I couldn’t remember whether I’d written a blog about her before. And of course the keeper of my website, dear Jen, reminded me that indeed I had, not once but twice. And so I went to look, and of course then I remembered. So what does it mean? After all, I am 86, and my mother was by this age so deep into Alzheimer’s that she knew no one by name, though she knew I came to visit her regularly, and she sometimes was at the elevator waiting for me (or someone, since people came and went from there).

I can’t answer the question, not the one about me or the one about my mother. But I am preparing to learn more about the question. I’m auditing a course at Hunter College called “Memory across the Disciplines,” taught by Professor Robert J. White, of the Classical and Oriental Studies department. The first class meets on August 31, a Monday night, and I am looking forward to it more than I can say. The reading list opens with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, a book that was the subject of a thesis I wrote in the mid-1960s. The thesis was rejected for not being 500 pages and 12 chapters, and for being written on an “unimportant writer.” Perhaps I will read that 100-page essay to check whether I touch on “memory.” Clearly, I don’t remember, which is entirely appropriate for the moment.

So, if you are interested in memory, tune in a bit later on. I’m a bit over-whelmed right now: I traded a fat novel I had enjoyed for a fatter biography. I don’t usually read nonfiction. But I’ve been captured by Hamilton and I’m ploughing through it. Much of the history is entirely new to me, since whatever history I studied was British, alas. But that means that the book is as interesting as a novel whose plot you don’t know in advance. Who knew that New York’s upstate power was greater than the New York City’s and that the Governor would be an enemy not only of Alexander Hamilton but of the colonies becoming a country, a nation? Yes, I’ve a lot to learn in that area.

And so Hamilton has knocked me off course for the moment. Without knowing what the course on memory would include, I had been planning to begin to reread Virginia Woolf’s novels from the very first one forward. And indeed, I began with the draft that Louise DeSalvo rescued from oblivion: Melymbrosia, the first draft of The Voyage Out, not an easy read. And, speaking of memory, I thought it much different from the published novel I had first read more than 50 years ago. And yes, I’m reading The Voyage Out right now—in the evening, before bed. Hamilton gets my best morning hours!!

Iris Murdoch’s The Message to the Planet

August 3, 2012

Tags: Iris Murdoch, reading

The 23rd novel read; only Bruno’s Dream and Nuns and Soldiers remain. And I still have no purpose in mind; only the pleasure of each novel, especially in Iris’ ability to surprise even when the reader may know the pattern. While there are patterns—I knew, for example, that the large figure at the center of this novel, has to die before its pages close—they are not easily predictable, if at all. (more…)

More Iris Murdoch: Jackson’s Dilemma and The Red and the Green

May 16, 2012

Tags: Iris Murdoch, reading

Last week, for the first time, I was in the middle of three Iris Murdoch novels at once: The Red and the Green (1965), The Good Apprentice (1975) and Jackson’s Dilemma (1985). I didn’t plan the dates—all was “accidental” (the quotation marks in honor of Iris). Because I was to make two separate train trips to Washington, D.C. within two weeks, I selected two paperbacks I could carry—the ones twenty years apart. And once again I seem to need a useless paragraph to get to the heart of what I want to say about Iris. (more…)

Iris Murdoch Again: The Philosopher’s Pupil

April 25, 2012

Tags: reading, Iris Murdoch

Yes, I’m still stuck on her, still continuing to read novel after novel. I actually bought five used hard covers in the Strand Bookstore (in person), and then decided that I needed them in paperback so that I could take at least four with me to Turkey in June, and so I found those at Powell’s (online). Now I am missing only a few. (more…)

Reading: Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea

February 24, 2012

Tags: reading, Iris Murdoch

I have been reading Iris Murdoch’s fiction since last summer, perhaps before then. I took three novels with me to Vietnam on November 1, and bought another there (which I gave away, for I had a copy at home). I began to read in order, thinking I would stop at novel seven, The Unicorn, when I would read the review I had written in the mid-sixties for the New Yorker, which William Shawn paid for but never printed. But I couldn’t find my old Iris file and simply went on reading those novels I had on my bookshelf.

Why was I reading her at all? For years since my mother’s Alzheimer’s and death, and since Bill Hedges’ similar illness and death, I had avoided all films, books, even television programs focused on Alzheimer’s. I never saw the film about Iris, and though someone gave me Iris, a biography, I never read it. And though I owned a full 13 of her 26 novels, I had not read more than the first seven.

If you have read my memoir you know how I got to Iris Murdoch in the first place. In an effort to please William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, I had agreed to write a book review for the magazine and had chosen The Unicorn. The only thing I remember about that review is that I knew I had to read the first six novels she had written in order to evaluate and analyze the seventh. I then wrote a review in the manner of a graduate student, taught not to retell plot, but to analyze. My review was nine-tenths analysis and one-tenth content, exactly the reverse of what the New Yorker would want to print.

Recently, I found five of Iris’ novels in the Strand bookstore, all of them cloth-bound first editions, each of them less than the price of a new paperback. And yesterday I finished The Sea, The Sea which won the Booker Prize in 1978. It’s a novel in the guise of an autobiography by a London-based actor/producer/director who has retired to a small house on the Northwest English coast to live alone and write a book about one particular relationship with an older woman who was an actress and his first lover. Fairly early on I grew to dislike the main character, and a bit later wrote on a page at the back of the book, “Iris is able to make me believe that this dreadful little man is writing this dreadful little book. The illusion is magnetic and keeps me reading.” I could have added, “very slowly, far more slowly than any volume of hers thus far.” But then I decided to take the day off and read straight through to the end.

I stopped once again at one of those magical/ludicrous/comical moments in an Iris Murdoch novel that only the existence of her prior 324 pages prevent one’s desire to toss the book out the window. Here is the famous retired actor/director/producer in his small house by the sea, having “freed” his long lost love by locking her in his bedroom, even though she wants to go back to her tyrannical husband. He also has to manage four other guests, some of whom arrived for an arranged weekend which he had forgotten about. The local hotel is full and he has but one real bedroom:

That night we slept as follows: I slept in my bedroom,
Hartley [the woman] slept in the middle room, Gilbert [cook]
slept on his sofa. Peregrine slept on the cushions in the bookroom,
James [cousin] slept on a couple of chairs in the little red room, and
Titus [son] slept out on the lawn.


There are wild and crazy happenings in all of Iris’s novels. Perhaps she specializes in them. And wonderful dogs as well. I am expecting a dog to turn up here and somehow reorganize the novel, especially since the absent male—the husband of Hartley and the father of Titus has just gone off to acquire a large, full-grown collie. Well, yes, there is at least one scene with the dog, a scene I read with an insight that escapes the autobiographer, who continues to believe that the “old” woman (probably in her sixties) still loves him (and not her brutal husband). As he writes, “…love seeks its own ends and discerns, even invents, its own charms.”

Should you run right out and buy this novel? Possibly, since it won the Booker, and since one might find it a cautionary tale for those who may wonder whether they have sufficient self-knowledge with which to write an autobiography. At the end, Charles confesses that he “cannot now remember the exact sequence of events in those prehistoric years.” He continues, “…that our memory, which is our self, is tiny, limited and fallible, is also one of those important things about us, like our inwardness and our reason. Indeed it is the very essence of both.” Charles, alone at the end, is somewhat wiser, somewhat kinder. He’s given up the dangers of the sea and the small house to return to life in London.

If you’ve read this novel, I’d enjoy hearing from you.

Reading: Doris Lessing’s Geography

February 20, 2012

Tags: Doris Lessing, reading

The Cleft, a novel of Lessing’s nineties, is portrayed both as a gigantic rock edging the sea on one side and a noxious cavern on the other, and the distance between male and female. It is also descriptive of female sexuality. Lessing has always been free to speak her mind about the sexes and to refuse to be labeled either feminist or anti-feminist. Here, she speaks from the persona of an aged Roman man, who is trying to write a history out of bits and pieces of recently recovered, and often incomplete, records of people called Memories. The early humans he writes about seemingly have no conception of time, nor does their land seem seasonal. At first the women bear babies from some mysterious concatenation of ocean and moon, and all babies are female. Then a baby, born with different sex organs, is placed on the Cleft to die, but is rescued by a giant eagle and taken somewhere. That place, which intrepid females uncover holds “monsters” the narrator knows were men, and from that time forward the two groups couple both for sex and for procreation, though they continue to live separately.

What drives the brief novel is the tension between the male’s desire to explore new territory, even to risk venturing out on a rough sea to reach perhaps another shore, and the female’s desire for the safety of the babies and small children. Possibly as interesting is the Roman narrator, who considers his world the best and most enlightened possible, and here Lessing cannot resist writing from an allegedly Roman point of view that resonates loudly for a twenty-first century British or American (or Chinese) reader. Here is a piece of that passage (p. 216):

I sometimes imagine how all the known world will be Roman, subject to our beneficent
rule. . . . Truly we make deserts bloom and the lands we conquer blossom. . . . Some
greater power than human guides us, leads us, points where our legions must go next.
And if there are those who criticize us, then I have only one reply. Why, then, if we lack
the qualities needed to make the whole earth flourish, why does everyone want to be a
Roman citizen? All, everybody, from any part of our empire and beyond, wants to be a
free man inside Roman law, Roman peace.


Do I recommend this book to you? Yes, if you are a Lessing addict as I am and have somehow missed it. Yes if you like imaginative recreations of the two sexes, and life without the New York clutter of the Glass apartment where Franny and Zooey live.

Yesterday I had lunch with an 86-year old sociologist who lives in my building and who was reading a copy of Lessing’s The Grandmothers, another recent volume I have missed, but will gather up soon and write about here. Yes, the blog is unleashing me.

Reading: Serendipity Stirs the Imagination

February 19, 2012

Tags: reading, Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Literary bits and pieces

For many months I have been reading Iris Murdoch “from the beginning,” which has been my habit since retirement. I settle on an author, and read in order the whole ouvre, or, in her case, the body of fiction. During the past several years I read through Jane Austin, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Doris Lessing, Marilyn French, Naguib Mahfouz, J.M. Coetsea, Willa Cather, E.M. Forster. But I avoided Iris Murdoch, not to mention Virginia Woolf, though I won’t explain my reasons here, but in a later blog. What I want to write about here is serendipity: an accident that may happen in a bookstore (as long as we have bookstores) one especially endearing, mind-teasing, and yes, so full of pleasure, if you are a reader like me. (more…)

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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