cyclops cinderella

there are four of us

I have turned aside from everything,
from the whole earthly store.
The spirit and guardian of this place
is an old tree-stump in water.

We are brief guests of the earth, as it were,
and life is a habit we put on.
On paths of air I seem to overhear
two friendly voices, talking in turn.

Did I say two?…There 
by the east wall’s tangle of raspberry,
is a branch of elder, dark and fresh.
Why! It’s a letter from Marina.
November 1962 (in delirium)

Anna Akhmatova (trans. Judith Hemschemeyer)

It would be silly of course to say that men shouldn’t write about women but sometimes ‘their’ approach to ‘us’ in their work can be very difficult for me to look past.  When I read I often bear the gender of the writer in mind – it’s one of those inescapable things about us, that’s all, something too big to opt out of – but that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that it has to get in the way.   The other weekend, however, I read Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy and it was the most jarringly ‘male’ book I had read in a good long while.

I knew what I was in for from the prologue (though the cover was something of a clue..!); twice in the first ten pages or less Hansen draws attention to the characters’ breasts.  At this I sighed inwardly (‘oh dear, it’s one of those…’) but ‘church books’ are one of my biggest weaknesses and you take what you can get.  So I read on, and this didn’t go away; about halfway through, increasingly irritated by Hansen’s fixation on the female body, I started counting; in the last seventy pages he mentions breasts no less than six times.  Thighs and stomachs I did not count, but of these there were plenty also; twice in the space of very few pages, on two separate occasions, does he draw attention to a nun’s skirts pulled up around her thighs while she’s gardening.  Who is this for, exactly?  Why is he showing us this woman, a part of her body often hidden, and what are we meant to gain from it?  Reviews of the book repeatedly draw attention to its ‘eroticism’ , the presence of ‘the sexual’ – yet there is no sex.  Just what is it meant to be doing, and who, when we deal with such passages, is doing the looking?  Often, rather than this action being performed specifically by a character, it is the reader who is made to look; rather than seeing through the eyes of another character (‘so-and-so watched as…’) it is simply given to us (‘In her dream Mariette is pregnant and her great breasts ache with milk’, ‘a short passage of tangled wire […] that is taught enough to ingrain itself in the skin underneath her breasts’).  It’s not a case of ‘x was looking at y’s breasts’, but sometimes quite the opposite (‘Mariette unseeingly washes […] her insignificant breasts’).   If she isn’t looking, who is?

I wonder if this is how certain men think we think, if that’s the logic behind their approach and their descriptions – women are fixated on their bodies, so I must portray them as such.  If this is so, that we are constantly aware of our physical selves, watching them (and it would be dishonest, I think, to say otherwise; I am reminded of John Berger’s words, ‘a woman must continually watch herself…’, etc), then I think it is because of the way this is forced upon us.  Women aren’t occupied with their bodies innately, fundamentally, biologically (such logic might be seen to require a portrayal that reflects that, supports what’s ‘already there’, if that makes sense).  Rather we are occupied with them because we are taught to be, and I think it’s writing such as Hansen’s that does part of the teaching.  When our attention is repeatedly drawn to a character’s breasts, her weight, her thighs, the motion of the fabric of her clothes against her skin (as if these things are relevant to the story..!), they are in a way detached from the whole of herself; and how, when confronted with such writing, can we not begin to turn it on ourselves? Parts of our bodies, separated from us, we are taught to evaluate and appraise with apparent objectivity, as we might inspect goods; a split is forged between the self (the mind, what’s ‘inside’) and the body, which becomes an object attached to us, a home to be occupied, burdening us; we become alienated from ourselves.

It would take an exceptional strength of will to shut such things out.  We read, we internalise, we learn; and so it goes.  Hansen’s words and fixations do not exist in a vacuum but rather remind me of all the other ways in which I am watched, and by whom.

Am I being unfair?  Would Hansen describe his male characters in such a way if there were more of them?  I wonder, but somehow I doubt it, for so rarely in comparison do I see this very specific attention paid to men in other media.  I shouldn’t say any more; I’ve already, by writing all this out, given writer and book too much of my time.

Catriona Kelly’s Utopias: Russian Modernist Texts 1905-1940 is my anthology-of-the-week and of what I’ve read so far one of my favourite passages has been a little extract of Bakhtin on Rabelais, translated by Hélène Iswolsky. In particular I like what he has to say about fear – I think his idea of fear being born out of or fuelled by isolation rings true.  I wish I could read more of him on the topic to see if he might elaborate on that question a little more; his words in the extract are relatively few but they are laden with meaning, for the past and the present both, and there’s so much to unpack!

Carnival, with all its images, indecencies and curses, affirms the people’s immortal, indestructible character.  In the world of carnival the awareness of the people’s immortality is combined with the realisation that established authority and truth are relative.

Popular-festive forms look into the future.  They present the victory of this future, of the Golden Age, over the past.  This is the victory of all the people’s material abundance, freedom, equality, brotherhood. The victory of the future is ensured by the people’s immortality.  The birth of the new, of the greater and the better, is as indispensable and as inevitable as the death of the old.  The one is transferred to the other, the better turns the worse into ridicule and kills it.  In the whole of the world and of the people there is no room for fear.    For fear can only enter a part that has been separated from the whole, the dying link torn from the link that is born.  The whole of the people and of the world is triumphantly gay and fearless.

 

то было раннею весной (it was in early spring)

То было раннею весной,
Трава едва всходила,
Ручьи текли, не парил зной,
И зелень рощ сквозила;

Труба пастушья поутру
Ещё не пела звонко,
И в завитках ещё в бору
Был папоротник тонкий.

То было раннею весной,
В тени берёз то было,
Когда с улыбкой предо мной
Ты очи опустила.

То на любовь мою в ответ
Ты опустила вежды —
О жизнь! о лес! о солнца свет!
О юность! о надежды!

И плакал я перед тобой,
На лик твой глядя милый,—
Tо было раннею весной,
В тени берёз то было!

То было в утро наших лет —
О счастие! о слёзы!
О лес! о жизнь! о солнца свет!
О свежий дух берёзы.

To read or not to read War and Peace this summer?  As a treat for myself during an essay-based hell period before Easter I bought myself the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation as motivation so it really must be time soon.  I actually have a good copy now (having previously only owned a really old version where all the names are anglicised; how can I read how many hundred pages of a character called “Prince Andrew” in Napoleonic Russia and take it seriously?), so there should be no more excuses! I now have my own copies of a few other such Great Russian Classics™ that I’d like to read sooner rather than later, all books that I’m rather ashamed to not have read yet – Life and Fate, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov –  and what’s more with every passing day they go unread the risk of having them spoilt for me grows greater, as my studies progress further and everyone assumes that for me to be a Good Student™ I should be familiar with them.  I must get there first!

So it must be soon, then.  And it only makes sense to tackle such a book during the holidays, now that exams are out the way and I have two months before me to just sit down and plough through it.  And the conditions for this most long and arduous of literary voyages are good; I am in a better frame of mind to attempt it now, I think, than past-me, because of the way in which my attitude towards originally serialised books has shifted quite radically (another post for another day).  But there are two things, still –

1) if I am to read it this summer I wonder if I ought to work up to it first.  Since Easter especially I’ve been getting through a lot (having perhaps prior to that been in a reading slump without realising it?) but reading The Piano Teacher a couple of weeks ago I realised that very few of these books have been novels; TPT was my first in a good long while, the rest all having been poetry and essays and anthologies, asking less of me during exam season.  Do I need to ‘get back into’ reading novels – get my mind used to working on something longer, that requires greater devotion and more loyal attention – before launching into one so long? I wonder if that would make things a little easier.

2) That’s my main problem, I think, that I haven’t even picked it up off the shelf and already I’m fretting about my enjoyment of it.  How I want to like it! It is a book so famous and so acclaimed that I can think of nothing worse than beginning it and finding I don’t like it.  To confess “I haven’t read it yet”, while embarrassing, is perhaps less shameful than admitting “I couldn’t finish it” – horror! – or “I hated it!”, and having to defend that.  Everyone else likes it*; and it’s not to fit in with others, necessarily, that I want to like it too, but because it would feel like a personal failing; it’ll be my fault if I do not like it, there will be something about me that has ruined it for my own self.  Not “you should like it to have the right opinion/fit in/look clever” but rather “everyone else has enjoyed it, what’s wrong with you that you don’t?”

I’m obsessed, also, with the idea of reading books at the right or the wrong time; I realise now that there were books I read at a younger age and didn’t appreciate as fully as I might have had I waited a little, and I fear with any classic I start that it’ll be the same.  Yet I must stop thinking like this!; I used it to put off reading certain books in my early teens, and just as I say it now at twenty I could still be putting off the same works at thirty or forty. Then where are you?

What’s wrong with me?  I don’t know what I’m afraid of; I read Anna Karenina when I was seventeen and I enjoyed it, so why should this be any different? The years and the new knowledge and experiences between then and now will have helped; all this I know, sensibly.  I suppose it’s just that I’ve emerged out the other end of Anna and I simply won’t know about War and Peace until I make a start, and there’s no going back then.  Seven hundred words I’ve spent agonising over all this and such navel-gazing won’t bring me any closer to what I must do.

 

*I said as much to my mother, ‘everyone else likes it,’ and she said, ‘do they? I thought no one could get through it’, so I’m glad that I spend all my time in a little Russianist bubble where everyone knows and loves it.

‘o pre-eminent love!’

I’ve been reading Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men, a book I never would have expected to find in the public library.  It’s a rich and wonderful book to be reading – and how much I admire Faderman for having written it so many years ago! – but there is so much to mourn, also.  The chapter ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ has given me a lot to think about, in particular, most of it unbearably sad.

In particular, I was pained by –

  • The plight of intellectual women: ‘There is hardly a creature in the world more despicable or more liable to universal ridicule than a learned woman.’  I was thinking about this the other day when I read a story by Karolina Pavlova, At the Tea-table; her heroine says, ‘Do you really not know that to praise a woman’s mind is to abuse her? Is everyone not convinced that where there’s cleverness there’s no heart? Has it not been decided that a clever woman is a sort of monster who can feel nothing? Ask anyone, they’ll all tell you so.’ More than a century and a continent divide these words and nothing had changed, and with a other century and a half since passed again I wonder how much has changed again.  Not so much, I don’t think.

 

  • The lack of serious emotional, adult connections granted to women who married men, particularly those much older than they, and who subsequently led separate lives to them –

 

  • – and, for all the connections a romantic friendship might have brought (‘in place’ of marriage, we might consider it today), the inability to act upon it as one might want: the inability to live alone with one’s companion, for example, as is so often expressed in the texts.

 

  • What Faderman quotes of Patricia Meyer Spacks about the suppression of women’s emotions, particularly in England: ‘They were obsessed with innocence, concerned about the danger of passion; they were angry at men, often longed to be males or children.’  This is a generalisation, of course, but I think in my mind that makes it worse;  I know that when I’m given such a broad and relatively vague picture my imagination runs wild with it. Not quite being told as much as I like, I have to picture things for myself as if I were telling a story, and the image becomes more elaborate, more specific, and ever sadder and more unfortunate.
  • But one thing more: the gap between male perceptions of female love and affection and women’s own experiences; the former as largely sexual (something ‘paving the way’ for heterosexual love, ‘practice’), the latter something more spiritual and emotional.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently since I’ve been reading The Lesbian Body, which is centered so much on the physical (and which, not very far in to, I’m already finding rather repetitive!); that physicality is something I find difficult to get used to and perhaps that says more about me than it does about Wittig’s words.

Yet I have been able, I think, to try and turn this last idea – of women’s love being ‘different’ – into something more positive; reading Faderman and the letters and lives of these women tells me that women’s love does not have to take one form. It can be more complicated, it does not have to be what we are told it should be (something so sexualised and fixated upon by others); it can take on any number of shapes and ways of being to fit our realities and our circumstances.  There are as many ways of ‘doing’ female love, female friendship, as there are women.  Even if the women whose lives Faderman recounts did not get to retire together and live in peace with just one another, as so many expressed the wish to do, they are still able to keep it, their love and affection, and protect and nurture it.  We will find a way, we will find a way, we will always find a way.

 

It’s a marvel, to me, the amount of choice there is for young LGBT readers nowadays in comparison to the time when I had greatest need of it.

What did I read when I was thirteen, fourteen, and beginning to seek out in books a reflection of ‘what I was’?  Julie Anne Peters and Annie on my Mind are the things I remember, mostly, because I am a walking cliché.  Was there more? I don’t doubt it.  There were a few other things; Sarah Waters saw me through my GCSEs.  But though there may have been more out there, it was just that – there, somewhere else, not here, never nearby.  Never in my own village library, which was so small; never in any of the other libraries in the borough, where it seemed to take years for newly-released books to trickle down to the shelves; never within my reach.  And so by fifteen I had given up on YA altogether because I felt that there was nothing there for me, nothing of myself (admittedly, there is ‘nothing there’ in Zweig or Singer or Szerb – but I don’t expect there to be – it’s more removed from my life than reading about other young people with lives that could have been mine).

It wasn’t even so long ago that I was reading Keeping You a Secret alone at night, when I was sure I was out of everyone’s way, and relieved at the recent introduction of a computerised system so that I had not had to bring it before the librarian; only some six or seven years.  It’s easy to become disheartened about the way things are, and to feel that all the wrongs we face can never be righted, but I must try and remind myself how fast things are moving; just as I think those younger than me are fortunate, a woman ten years my senior must also think the same thing about me.  I must compare now to my early adolescence and I must try and think of these small changes; I must think of the books that or are on the shelves where in the past I saw none or so few.  You can even, these days, seek out a book because its plot and its characters appeal to you, rather than reading it purely because it’s a ‘gay book’.  So many books for teenagers on such themes have been published this year alone: how many more will the next year bring, and the next?

All these small things I must bear in mind.   Even if things do not improve for me, I must believe that they do and they will for others – and then will improve for those who come after further still.

 

I’ve been slowly working my way through the anthology Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture, and with the worst of my exams over I had some time this weekend to finish it off.  It’s such a rich and rewarding book; the sort that, when I found it, seemed too good to be true; the sort that I had always wanted but didn’t know I could have.  I can’t even remember how I came across it – if I had heard of it somewhere and set out to find it, or just came across it on the shelves while I was after something else – but how glad I am that I did.

One of my favourites from the collection is Svetlana Boym’s essay Loving in Bad Taste: Eroticism and Literary Excess in Marina Tsvetaeva’s ‘The Tale of Sonechka’. There are so many urgent and important things she touches upon, but one of the first things she speaks of is the way in which women’s writing is dismissed and derided, and just why:

Why is it that “women in love” produce what has been often conceived as “bad writing,” or writing in bad taste? What are the aesthetic preconceptions that turn a female lover’s discourse into something akin to kitsch?

We could long think of answers to these (though perhaps there’s no need; Boym answers them excellently herself!), but these questions most of all give me questions of my own: namely, what can being in love add to our writing? In what ways is it enriched?

In some ways we are always associating women with their emotions – women’s writing so often being seen as something sentimental, something silly – but so often do these associations seem to be negative. Writing while in love, or about love, is seen to take away from our work rather than add to it.  I think Chekhov is at his best when he writes about love, for example, but for me to say the same thing about a female writer – what would that invite?  What image would that create of both the writer and of me, as the reader?

What if women’s take on love were appreciated instead? What if men as well as women looked to women’s writing on the matter to find insight and comfort and be guided?

As usual these are questions I don’t have answers for; all this would be another way of being, an alternate world, and we don’t know it.

 

 

‘of course the only part that I want to read/ is about her time spent with me/ wouldn’t you die to know how you’re seen?’

 

Reading Tristia, my second Mandelstam after reading Voronezh Notebooks about a year ago, and I’m doing my best to like it but it’s hard work.  He’s simply too clever for me! It’s just like reading Cavafy; I love them both but I’m always so aware that three-quarters of what they’re saying must just be going over my head, that there is probably so much more to their poems than what appears to me.  Mandelstam is always talking about the past (the classical past, specifically), about mythology, lost cities and dying cities, and making references to the dead, to gods and ghosts and other people I don’t know! And just like Cavafy, these are all themes that I’m interested in, but he speaks of these things and because I don’t know them for myself their full significance is lost to me.  I want to know how Mandelstam approaches and deals with them, the specifics of the questions he’s asking, but I feel like I’m watching from the other side of a glass, or maybe that I’m listening in from the next room; I know there’s a conversation taking place, and I can hear the voices, but I can’t quite make everything out.

If only I’d had a good girls’-school sort of education my whole childhood and I could have done Latin and Greek and all the rest!  If only to better ‘get’ Tristia; for then I would know.