Maurice by E.M. Forster : Like A Scanner Darkly, which is maybe only a very good novel until Philip K. Dick’s dedication to “people who were punished entirely too much for what they did” makes it a great one, the most affecting thing in Maurice so far is not in the novel itself but in an opening note: Begun 1913. Finished 1914. Dedicated to a happier year. Wikipedia tells me that Forster was himself gay, though not openly and perhaps not exclusively. I wonder then about the efficacy of making Maurice so unremarkable, so unlike Forster, in everything other than his sexuality. Shouldn’t Maurice’s sexuality affect his ordinariness, and what is ordinariness anyway? For the English, I guess it is what they respect in others and fear in themselves. One might think that Maurice would cultivate this so as not to be revealed, but in fact he is just inherently unremarkable. It is interesting though that the only way he and Clive are able to “come out” to their families is to come out as agnostic, atheist, or un-Christian.
So Maurice the character is sort of a bore, but the novel is psychologically accurate in pretty much every way. Some of it is somewhat trite (I’ve been thinking of that God-awful play that helps to ruin Andy Millman’s career in Extras), but many clichés of the literature of forbidden love affairs originate here. There are only so many options when one has to behave in coded ways, and when those are finally overcome, love follows its expected course. There’s one exchange (“Maurice…” “Clive…”) that could have had me rolling my eyes if it wasn’t also sort of sweet. The book makes very clear the pain of living in a place where no one ever tells you that you can love anyone you want. I bet Morrissey likes this book.
Other recent reads:
A Mercy by Toni Morrison : Morrison has earned such a brilliant reputation that I assume she could get away with not even trying anymore, and from A Mercy I was expecting little more than a slight story with a few nice observations, or an appendix of things left unsaid in Beloved. I saw her on Charlie Rose talking about this book and her creative process with inspired vagueness, and thought, “What is she trying to cover? Here’s Charlie Rose once again pretending that something decent is a work of genius.” I guess I should feel ashamed for thinking such things about the great lady. She has put everything into this book, and it’s every bit as good as Beloved. She’s maybe the best writer since William Faulkner at tracing the fallout of intersecting lives, and describing characters who live in what feel like Biblical times. The world of A Mercy is dark, diseased and brutal, so no surprise that it is such a fertile breeding ground for violence, hatred, religion and immorality. I could go on about a million things that make this book great: structure; character; horror (one scene nearly kept me from sleeping); insights about women, what a women’s community might have looked like in 1690, how ephemeral it had to be; the volume of great lines, a trader looking at a slave and hearing “no sound, just the knowledge of a sound he could not hear.” To say more would take more pages than the book is long, and give no sense of its real beauty. A last note: This would not be Morrison if she did not return to the Middle Passage, and the way she describes it in A Mercy, with an emphasis on the fear of cannibalism and Africans jumping overboard, is reminiscent of The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano. It is fitting that she alludes to such an intense account of the passage (if she is so doing), even if the truth of Equiano’s narrative can never be established.
Other Voices, Other Rooms and Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote : I could probably be happy reading nothing but Truman Capote for the rest of my life. I had read his third phase, In Cold Blood, and here are representative examples from what he calls his first and second phases, which prove that he was working at the height of his powers throughout his entire writing career (though he claims it was not until his fourth phase that he exploded the full potential of his material). I still believe that Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding is a better tale of freakish adolescence in the American South than Other Voices, Capote’s first novel. But Capote was a prodigy on the scale of McCullers, and his novel works as a companion to hers with its boy’s perspective on growing up. He treats the delicate matter with the dense language it deserves, not the trite clichéd wisdom that so often frames the “coming-of-age novel.”
That said, Capote could never quite remove himself from his material. The way he describes his early life in the preface gives the impression he was born an adult, and he writes adults better than he writes children. The best part of the novel is Randolph’s first-person account of his own self-discovery, where, in language worthy of Moz, he describes love as natural and real, and mentions those bigots who mistake the “arrow pointing to heaven for the one that leads to hell.” I think Randolph is Capote, which could explain why the section is so effective. His monologue also describes Narcissus as being perhaps not egocentric, but more willing than most to admit his self-love. That line gave me a shock of recognition, as only a few days before, in less eloquent terms, I had tried to write something similar (though I had the benefit, inaccessible to Capote, of that great Mekons line about “lusting for youth in the mirror”).
Other Voices may be the more beautiful work, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s is more immediately satisfying, a perfect miniature. I realize now that all my notions of the ideal writer’s life come from Capote—the novel’s narrator, in his New York apartment upstairs from Holly Golightly, really seems to have the perfect lonely existence. In comparison with the movie, the book suffers from the absence of “Moon River,” but benefits enormously from not having Mickey Rooney in it. And not being a Hollywood production, its characters are able to be more miserable and all-around seedier, and the story does not have to be a straight romance with a happy ending. I wouldn’t want the movie any other way—the movies are made for happy endings—but in the book, it would be impossible for the narrator and the love interest to be the same person. It would kill that sense of loss, of not belonging, searching, loving from afar (all of this reinforced by the frame structure). Holly, in the book, can only be loved from afar—a character like her, endlessly frustrating but taking up all of one’s attention (I’ve known at least one Holly), has become a sort of cliché, but Capote describes her in so many vivid ways it is clear he originated it. Did he have Marilyn Monroe in mind? It is very funny when Holly’s gross Southern origins are revealed—almost as if Other Voices represents the repressed past and Tiffany’s is the superficial present. But what a glorious present; New York has never looked so good.
In the final analysis, the best thing about The Garies and Their Friends is also its greatest shortcoming: its single-minded focus on race as the only obstacle to utopia. In spite of this, Webb writes about identity in such a way that allows for more complex readings: “Coloured” could easily be exchanged for “gay” in many scenes, especially the one in which Clarence despairs of being “found out.” But the book does not challenge Victorian standards of gender and sexuality. Race is its only unstable quantity, where a truly honest book would have more. This all becomes most apparent when the sickening food imagery returns at the end (this time in the form of a wedding banquet), and Webb fails to acknowledge the possibility of anything sinister under the surface (like Frank Norris would). But for Clarence’s demise, the ending feels like a lie—when the issue of race (Clarence and Birdie’s only obstacle) is solved, joyful unity will be possible for all, and everyone can grow old and watch their grandchildren frolic.
If I was more up-to-date in my reading, this might be a good time to celebrate the best books of the year. As it is, I’ve only read three—Wrack and Ruin, Berlin: City of Smoke and A Mercy—and I’ve already described my affection for all of those on this blog. I also have new ones by Steven Millhauser, Rivka Galchen, Richard Price and Dennis Lehane on my reading list, but until I can regale you with the merits of those, here are my favorite movies of 2008 (with many left to see), in descending order of Zen: Milk, Wall-E, Flight of the Red Balloon, Chop Shop, Rachel Getting Married, In Bruges, Paranoid Park, Tropic Thunder, Happy-Go-Lucky, Frozen River, The Edge of Heaven, Be Kind Rewind, The Visitor. See you next year.