Living in The Other House

An affluent womanizer, Tony Bream.  The nicest, sweetest girl, Jean Martle.  A desperate lover abroad too long in China, Dennis Vidal.  The odd Rose Arminger.

They all seem like characters from the famed game Clue. 

Who was the murderer of the little girl Effie Bream; who held this child’s delicate body under the water until she drowned?

In The Other House, Henry James writes an awkward murder mystery vis a vis a  novel of manners that begins with some piquant flavor of the supernatural.  As in many of James’s works (such as The Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age), a child is in grave danger of a horrific and unnameable threat from the adult world.  And as all good fairy tales do, this wayward genre-shifter begins with the death of a damned good mother.

Julia Bream, the ostensibly good mother, experiences a drawn-out death resulting from supposed hysteria (thanks, Dr. Ramage, for your accurate diagnosis) after the birth of her child, Effie.  She becomes obsessed with doing anything in her power to articulate how important it is that her playboy husband Tony not remarry after she dies.  But this request comes with a reason far beyond that of a wife scared of losing the top place in her husband’s heart.  The woman knows that there are many women in her husband’s heart — who doesn’t? — he’s the hottest dish in town.  Her fear is that Effie will have a step-mother, as Julia herself did (what princess hasn’t?).  Her desire is so pronounced that at every turn the reader waits to see a ghost rise up from the bedroom to physically restrain her husband’s phallus, or to encounter a walking Carrie gown dripping with blood and moaning her warning.  Nothing so exciting happens.

Instead, Rose Arminger, Julia’s oldest friend closes Book I with a real struggle of allegiance.  She vows to honor her sister-friend’s wishes, and uphold them at any cost; but to do so, she must keep herself from marrying Tony Bream.

And then, once the alluringJean Martle enters, she must stand between two women marrying Tony Bream.

Arminger, who is so two-faced that she is “awfully plain or strikingly handsome” (13), does what seems a good solution all ’round — murder Effie so that there is no longer any child to protect.

The central action of the plot, the murder of the child, is almost glossed over in the story so that it made its effects so much worse to read.  The only character who genuinely seems upset simply for the loss of an innocent child, is the marginal servant Mrs. Grantham who is said to be wringing her hands and weeping on a bench outside Wilverley, the “other house,” which belongs to Mrs. Julia Beever, while everyone inside juggles around their desires and hopes for the future in a most disturbing way.

Everyone knows that Rose has killed Effie, and everyone knows why.  Tony Bream, the charming dad, steps up and lies that he killed his own daughter so that he could marry Jean, as he knows that he won’t really be punished since, seriously, he is so good-looking that no one will punish him long or hard.  Paul Beever observes at the close of the novel that “they like you too much,” and Tony responds “Oh, too much, Paul!” (324).

Rose gets her punishment by having to marry Dennis Vidal, who seems to have been corrupted by his time in China, by returning with her lover to that country.  Going to live in China is, apparently for James and Tony Bream alike, as good as going to the guillotine.

While reading the back-and-forth love affairs of Tony Bream, which I found immensely fascinating, and all of the triangles that they create, what I wanted to understand most was the function of this “other house,” and of its “queen mother” (89) Mrs. Julia Beever.

Firstly, Wilverly seems important since the novel is named after it (ostensibly).  And secondly Mrs. Beever has Julia Bream’s first name and is also named the “queen mother” early on.  But I am completely perplexed (by a James novel, you scoff?  How unforeseen!).  There doesn’t seem to be any real meaning to be found in Wilverley or in Julia Beever.

To unpack: Beever is mother to Paul who seems like a kind of dud and doesn’t play an overly significant role except to be under his mother’s thumb and to be in love with the evil Rose Arminger.  Beever is not a good mother, but neither is she a bad mother.  I am open to viewing her as the “queen mother” of a dysfunctional family that includes all of the cast of characters.  Sure.  But no one ever goes to her for advice or comfort; no one confides in her — she seems completely on the outside…hence the “other house.”  She and Paul, both, are left out of the mess at Bounds, yet they are bound up in it too. In this way, they are “others.”

This suggests to me that the “mother” figure is the “other” figure in The Other House.  Beever, like the other Julia, watches  over but doesn’t act; she is scared and suspicious but can’t do much to stop what is to come.  These mothers are powerless and contained to their respective homes.  The motherless world is one is which children can be killed simply for reasons of passion.



The Littlest Demon: Pedophilia and Paranoia in Sologub’s The Little Demon

The theatrical nature and content of Sologub’s The Little Demon had me envisioning a play on the stage for the first third of the novel.  Hilarious dialogue, telling imagery, and one of the most paranoid and depraved characters in fiction made visualizing this text taking place physically before me easy.  For much of this novel, I thought that Sologub would surely continue to circuitously loop Peredenov’s mad antics into infinity.  He “loved nothing and no one, and as a result the real world could only have a depressing effect on him.”  Depression surmounts as his extreme paranoia builds and he believes that his friends intend to poison him, his lover wants to shoot him, colleagues are jealous of his success, and children want to have sex with him.

This last revelation in Peredenov’s flight shifted my impression of the novel — perhaps Sologub was, actually, going to say something important.

Sasha appears on the scene of Demon almost out of thin air.  Not surprisingly, his appearance is timed with the sudden coming of “a dimly outlined creature […] a small, spritely, gray demon” to Peredenov during Church.  This demon taunts Peredenov always directly after readers are unapologetically exposed to Sasha’s sexual expose. Sasha, like Peredenov, has an aspect of sadness:

his black eyes, with their long blue-black lashes, full of entreaty and sadness. Dark-skinned and shapely — this was particularly noticeable as he knelt there, calm and upright as if under someone’s strict surveillance, and with that broad, prominent chest — he appeared to Peredenov just like a girl.

Sasha’s perceived sadness is connected  here to three very important aspects of his character: his femininity, dark skin, and the theme of surveillance.  Sasha, a school boy under Peredenov’s care in the district, is carefully watched by not only Peredenov but also by the reader who is subjected by Sologub to every succulent detail of Sasha’s innocent/sexual encounters behind closed doors with a young woman much older than him.  The descriptions that Sologub offers concerning Sasha’s and Lyudmila’s intimacies are some of the most tantalizing sexual encounters that I have ever read in fiction (and I have read some pretty enticing narratives). Firstly, the innocence is undeniable as Sasha and Lyudmila subconsciously move through gestures of love-making without full awareness of their desires.  Sologub posits that Sasha has a ripe sexuality, but lacks a clear awareness of it despite his prolific blushing.  This “ripe sexuality” vacillates between heteronormative and homosocial as Sasha is not only read as a female by certain groups — including Peredenov — but enjoys cross-dressing and performing more feminine roles in public and private spaces. Yet, he relishes his masculinity, too, and is treated as a potent, virile potential sexual partner by girls and women.This nature is eroticized by Sologub and by the adult characters in the novel who, for example, are willing to harm others and Sasha to find out who the sexy “geisha” (Sasha in disguise) is at a costume party.  Yet, Sologub invites readers to objectify Sasha, too, in a way that feels uncomfortable but not extremely dangerous — he is, after all, unaware of his attractive power:

Confused, agonized feelings of shame and attraction disturbed him and fed his imagination with vaguely erotic visions.

The “vague” eroticism of Sasha’s and Lyudmila’s playful, sexual actions comes to drive the plot. With the introduction of Sasha this novel changed direction for me.  The novel confusingly shifted from centering on Peredenov — and his funny, mad descent — to taking the intersection between Sasha’s sexuality and Peredenov’s morbidity as its center.  This change, while (extremely) interesting in terms of examining child sexuality in literature, did not do much to propel Peredenov as a character. To the contrary.  He seems just as mad, perhaps more so (although not enough to really mark).  He seems, in fact, nearly stagnant when his obsession with Sasha enters the scene. The only real change is that others begin to take courage in ousting him from society.

I am left with the impression that Sasha is really the main character of The Little Demon because he is the titular character.  His eroticized body and nature appear to be the fulcrum of Peredenov’s disposition: a gray longing that never comes to fruition.  The narrative appears to be a silent cry of desire that manifests as baleful paranoia.

The Missing Touch: Rizal’s Immaterial Hero

When I picked up a novel with a stunning title like Noli Me Tangere (Touch me Not), I expected to encounter a work dredged in corporeal, visceral experience and language.  I wanted a novel centered on the function of touch: human interaction, physicality, phenomenology, flesh.  I didn’t get this in Jose Rizal’s incredible text, but I didn’t really feel disappointed in not getting what I wanted — because in some ways I received a more meaningful gift.

Having read Pilipino literature before and not walking away fully satisfied, I struggled to understand fiction from this very underrepresented country.  Rizal’s novel put Pilipino literature on the map for me as a force of exemplary fiction.  Rizal absolutely ATTACKS…well…everything in this work.  In fact, I have rarely seen such blatant and unapologetic interrogation of major social and cultural institutions in a work of fiction.  In Touch, Rizal problematizes it all: medicine, religion and clergy, government, love, education.  There are some moments that had me holding my breath because what Rizal suggests is so unfathomable, so dark, that I couldn’t actually believe I was reading it.  For example, the clergy’s treatment of the two poor brothers was — in a word — unnamable.  I gulped down tears and felt truly angered by the possibility that Rizal was writing from what he knew in the Philippines.  I want to be clear here: I nearly vomited.  There was so much disgusting insinuation in this novel that I couldn’t close my eyes to it: Rizal paints a picture that you hate seeing but that you cannot pull your eyes from.

The novel has a power that I haven’t encountered a long time.  That power doesn’t rest with the narrative style (which vacillates strangely and ineffectively).  It also, for me, doesn’t originate from its hero, Ibarra.  Ibarra is a weak hero who struggles to stand for anything much.  The narrator is actually the hero of Rizal’s tale, and perhaps Maria Clara who refuses to participate when she doesn’t believe in the institution (such as marriage without love).  The relationship between Ibarra and Maria Clara was the triumph of the novel, and I liked that it never comes to fruition.  Unlike so many of the issues Rizal brings to the table, the love story is not problematized as a disgusting enterprise.  It is criticized, instead, as an impossible one.

One reason that the love seems so impossible because, despite the title of this novel, TOUCH is missing from the pages of this fiction.  The institutions seem untouchable; yet, so do the characters — and not in a theoretical way: in a physical way.  There is no (appropriate, loving) touching here.  I craved that.  With so much violence, I longed for it more than anything else in Rizal’s piece. But he is relentless and unkind; he won’t allow that kind of touching.  And by doing so, he touched me.

Masculinity as the “Greatest Darkness” in Sanshiro

Sanshiro by Natsume Soseki is a novel about Japanese masculinity in which Sanshiro, our hero, comes to terms with his role as a college-educated man from the country.  Sanshiro is a Modern(ist) hero who develops a heightened sense of self-consciousness as a result of the industrialized and urbane environment of higher education in the city, a confusing confrontation with “unintelligible” Western literary artifacts that seem important in Japanese education, and from his indomitable fear of women.  In the city, Sanshiro finds himself among flowers with “no fragrance to speak of.”  The lectures that he initially painstakingly transcribes come to “neither cheer nor depress him,” and he is “quite unable to determine whether they were boring or not.”  In fact, he comes to find it “strangely pleasant that he could not understand the lecture.”  This period of Japanese history is referred to as a time in which “a freedom of the mind” is necessary and desirable through education.  For this reason, Sanshiro reads his literature closely but “when he asked himself what he read, there was nothing. There was so much nothing, it was funny.”  His journey to become an academic becomes meaningful due to its meaninglessness. Sanshiro “could not say he felt satisfied, but neither was he totally unsatisfied.”  He is positioned in the lukewarm existence of a Modern hero who straddles — often confusedly — disparate states of being.

Such a contradictory journey leads Sanshiro, of course, to a different — perhaps somewhat related — journey of finding love. The novel begins with an embarrassing encounter with a “dark” woman on the train who weasels her way into his hotel room in order to, apparently, have a sexual encounter after much staring-down.  After putting herself in Sanshiro’s way in just about every way imaginable, the woman observes, “You’re quite a coward, aren’t you?”  Sanshiro thinks and over-thinks whether he should approach the willing woman. After an uneventful night together, he reflections that  “He should have tried to go a little farther.  But he was afraid. She called him a coward when they parted, and it shocked him, as though a twenty-three-year-old weakness had been revealed at a single blow.” He comes to the conclusion that “desire is a frightening thing.”  Women, really, are frightening things for Sanshiro as we learn through his similar, unproductive affair with Mineko.

Mineko is a Modern Japanese woman who has the license to wear mismatched sandals, bright kimonos, and to give her money to whomever she pleases. She scares Sanshiro but also attracts him.  For whatever reason, she likes Sanshiro — seems to want to marry him.  Sanshiro wants to marry Mineko the “hypervillain,” too, but doesn’t.  He has things to say but “cannot verbalize them” because “women are terrifying.” Mineko is disappointed and marries a very attractive friend of her brother’s.  Sanshiro is disappointed and returns to his constant awareness of his body, which reflects the observations that he hears from Professor Hirota (a kind of academic hero) on his way to the city:

“‘We Japanese are sad-looking things next to them [Americans]. We can beat the Russians, we can become a ‘first class power,’ but it doesn’t make any difference. We still have the same faces, the same feeble little bodies.’m […] Sanshiro had never expected to meet anyone like this after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war. The man was almost not Japanese, he felt.”

At first disgusted with Hirota’s observations about the Japanese male body, Sanshiro comes to think like-mindedly as he observes “the awareness that he was a youth of the new age had been strengthened […] but nothing else had been strengthened; physically he was still the same.”  This sense of Sanshiro’s physicality is contrasted with Mineko’s eventual husband, who is very attractive. Mineko marries the hot friend. Hirota, that all-admired “Great Darkness” doesn’t get a real position with the university.

Sanshiro ends with Sanshiro’s verdict that “Tokyo is not a very interesting place.”  We are led to believe that Sanshiro, too, is uninteresting despite all the effort he has put in. His journey is disappointing.  He hasn’t changed from the coward that he has been “since childhood.”  We are left to acknowledge the role of the Japanese male — especially in contrast to the progressive Japanese female — is an impoverished enterprise.

Heroics in the Arctic with Satan

The motif of arctic exploration is not unique during the Romantic period in which many authors, such as Mary Shelley and Coleridge, utilize the setting of a sub-zero climate and its  dangers to highlight the macabre and mysterious nature of their plots and characters. In Wilkie Collins’s short story “The Devil’s Spectacles” the artic setting is reminiscent of such Romantic literary locations where characters are confronted with what they fear most — in this case, the devil and the dark nature of humanity.   Septimus Notman propels the tale by admitting on his deathbed to being a cannibal through eating his dead friend during an arctic adventure to save himself from starvation.  Upon his contemplation appears the devil with a pair of spectacles for Notman, which will give him the extra push needed to turn him from borderline sinful to full-fledged brute.  These spectacles allow their wearer to  “read everything in [one’s] mind, plain as print” and must be passed on to a different man before Notman can die.

When Notman dies, Alfred, his rich, empathetic, moralistic caretaker finds interest in the spectacles because he wants to determine whether he’s made the right choice to betroth himself to his poor maid, Cecilia, or if he should have followed his mother’s wishes to marry his young cousin Zilla.  “Cecilia,” which means “blind,” proves to have some indecipherable thoughts running through her mind: either they are very deceitful, or they are completely innocent and benevolent.  Alfred falls under the sway of the spectacles to believe that Cecilia is cheating on him with Sir John — a vague figure who once proposed to her and was refused.  After hiding in the bushes with his mother and eavesdropping on Cecilia’s conversation with a wayward maid, they both learn of Cecelia’s noble heart and Alfred never returns to the spectacles, passing them into Sir John’s hands.

The tale is rather more drab than it pretends to be in the first chapters, but it signals a couple important transformations and continuations between the Romantic and Victorian functions of the artic adventure.  Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, exclaims of his artic trespass: “Prepare! your toils only begin: wrap yourself in furs and provide food; for we shall soon enter upon a journey where your sufferings will satisfy my everlasting hatred.”  It is the scene of hellish retribution.  Frankenstein here comes head-to-head with his creature-ish creation.  There is, perhaps, little less than the sublime element in the arctic, and it brings about deep pain that seems to continue on into infinity.

Collins’s artic is punctuated.  The devil is there — perhaps an ode to Dante’s Inferno in which Satan, weeping from his three colorful faces, is planted beneath a sheath of ice — but he doesn’t permeate beyond the artic; his malignancy is short-lived in England.  England undoes some of his evil work.  Here, the poor, innocent, faithful, and in-love Cecilia comes with a message to be “blind” to the devil’s spectacles; in her is the truth: in woman.

Woman is almost wholly missing from the Romantic confrontation with the arctic.  Where she tries to enter, she is silenced, ineffective.  But in this Victorian landscape we witness some permeability in which saving the tainted man is possible through, of course, the sweet truth of a pure, angelic woman.  That is fodder for another discussion.  But here, the artic, Dante-esque devil meets his foil and one soul has been saved.  The heroic act occurs within the domestic sphere in the safety of the English shrubbery.

The Drought of Time: A Woman’s Plague

Timelessness is the cure for a 10 year drought in Ballard’s novel The Drought, in which Dr. Charles Ransom learns how to navigate the desolate new landscape that surrounds him.  Around him people change into picaresque, circus-like versions of their previous selves: they morph into who they truly are.  For some characters, such as the “grotesque Caliban” Quilter and the wealthy, wayward Lomax siblings, the metamorphosis between presenting a façade and allowing their true natures to appear is like blinking an eye.  For other characters, such as zoologist Catherine Austin, the change takes some extreme close-reading to identify. The world ravaged by a lack of rainfall has pressed humanity to expose itself for what it is.  If humans seemed to exist in a world “like a disaster area” before, then they are pressed to tap into their survival reserves here. In the case of the main character Ransom, being human means that he needs to surrender to the inevitable realization that “time” — especially time past — holds no truth worth remembering.  He must learn to let go of who he believed he was and adapt into what the world demands that he become.

On one hand, Ransom seems willing to transform into a Drought-man — lacking the essential circumfluous camaraderie that is so often associated with humanity — from the first chapter, as he seeks to disassociate himself from others.  He insists that he has consciously stayed behind while families migrate to the shores, because he wants to play with his desire for solitude.  This desolate world might jive with the person that Ransom thinks he is, as he “had at last found an environment in which he felt completely at home, a zone of identity in space and time.”  Yet, throughout the novel, Ballard makes clear that this space is the antithesis of time. The identity with which Ransom associates the apocalypse is not exactly correct.  In a timeless epoch Ransom persists in surrounding himself with other people and even in the deficient “community of the river.”   He struggles to become truly isolated.  He cannot disassociate his mind from the memories of what being “human” has meant for him in his past: “For Ransom, by contrast, the long journey up the river had been an expedition into his own future, into a world of volitional time where the images of the past were reflected free from the demands of memory and nostalgia, free from the pressure of thirst and hunger.” The future for Ransom is tied to his past: as both a doctor and as a heartbroken, deserted husband.

He thinks that he might stay behind in his hometown of Hamilton until the bitter end and die.  But he, like others, is drawn eventually to the shore: “a zone without time, suspended in an endless interval as flaccid and enduring as the wet dunes themselves.”  Here, he again tries to isolate himself and succeeds more than he had in his hometown — except he now has become the chaperon of his ex-wife who has come back for survival purposes.  Ransom finds himself saddled again with his past, which he cannot shake off. Although he knows that “each of them would soon literally be an island in an archipelago drained of time,” Ransom’s “real Odyssey” has yet many more miles.

When he and a small group of friends decide to head back toward Hamilton, he is a changed man.  He has left his wife, reversing the tables on her, separating himself from his feelings of duty.  But when he admits that Miranda Lomax, an “imbecile Ophelia” who had previously threatened him with her female power and hideous appearance, is “attractive” in her new cannibalistic, corpulent body, Ransom’s true reformation is apparent.  He has become monstrous.  He has embraced himself as a shadow.

Once he reaches this initiation into the shadow world, a first drop of rain falls, signaling that Ransom has accomplished a redemptive task.

The redemptive action of this novel seems to rest in the tumultuous characters of Lomax, his sister Miranda, and her disfigured lover Quilter. These characters offer contrast for Ransom, and he eventually joins their ranks.  Miranda, especially, provides a thermometer for measure.  She is what Ransom fears most: she is “frightening.” As a woman, she is presented as man’s “companion” but “an isolated woman is isolated absolutely.”  According to Ransom, no man can be isolated in such a way that a woman can.  For him, this extreme isolation is scary.   He observes that “women’s role in time is always tenuous and uncertain,” suggesting that the timelessness enforced by the Drought is somewhat feminine.  It is a woman’s plague.  It requires a womanly approach.  Miranda’s brother becomes an acidic representation of masculinity, as he transforms into a heinous androgyny who is outcast by everyone in the society.  The “tottering desert androgyny” has a sexuality that is deemed obscene because he “was reverting to a primitive level where the differentiation into male and female no longer occurred.”  The group murders Lomax.  Ransom is faced with two options: submit to femininity or become a shadow.

He apparently makes the right decision for the future of humanity.  There are, evidently, worse fates than becoming nothing.  A man might become womanly.

What Ballard has done is found a way to avert  what we gender theorists would call the real apocalypse.

Shelley’s Prolonged Apocalypse

One overlooked end-of-the-world text is Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man in which a plague invades Europe and, eventually, the world.  This repetitive, cyclical text feels even longer than Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and yet less events occur to move the plot forward.  Shelley’s vision of the end of times is vastly different from any other apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic text I have read as the doom takes years (nearly forever) to come to fruition.  Humanity’s demise is not immediate here.  It involves prolonged suffering and gives characters almost an eternity to reflect and take action.  Taking action is precisely what characters in this novel do not do…unless, of course, running for office and trying to fight the plague with soap-box preaching and parliamentary antics can save the world.

The hero esand survivors are Lionel Verney, a noble-born orphan who begins as a dirty rogue and climbs the social ladder to become an imaginative, intellectual, and moral leader (some say much like Shelley herself), Adrian, Earl of Winsor, a passionate — some may say mad — revolutionary; Clara, Verney’s niece; and Evelyn, Verney’s daughter.  In the last scene of the novel, these survivors abandon France and (not surprisingly for this period, or for Shelley) head toward Switzerland.

What struck me about this novel was that unlike other apocalyptic protagonists, these heroes seems to learn nothing through their jaunt with the plague, and they have had about 300% more time to figure it out than others.  There is never any attempt to figure out where the plague originates or how to cure it.  Likewise, there is no attempt to run from the plague or to protect themselves from it.  In fact, Verney and the Earl see the plague as an opportunity to rise in rank in government and take on more public roles, leading society toward their ideal for humanity.  I have never seen anything like this; it was startling!  Similarly, the same events happen time and again in this novel.  Verney pauses and makes the same observations until I was nearly sick of reading this novel.  Shelley’s vision of the apocalypse was the most unproductive, stagnant read in the genre…which, of course, makes it very important and worthy of a second read.