Bruce Bechdel, lost in his books?

    One chord in Fun Home I find especially heartbreaking, running throughout Alison Bechdel’s relationship with her father, is the detachment that leaves the man more a fictional character to his daughter than the flesh and blood presence he was. By fictional character, I mean that his emotional distance and sudden departure color Alison’s memories of him and that detachment manifests itself in the way Alison recalls him and in the order she presents the narrative. As she says on page 67, “My parents are most real to me in fictional terms.”
    I find it telling that she describes her parents in terms of ill-fated fictional characters of which they are reminiscent. She stresses the literary atmosphere of her childhood, painting her father as a sort of Victorian man of letters living a century and a half too late, but the characters she chooses to relate her parents to are examples of thwarted passions and a sort of settling for the trivialities of daily life. There are the F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque letters her father writes while he’s courting her mother — a tragic precedence of a yearning for a more vivid life, since Fitzgerald burned out so quickly. Her mother is the lead in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, a character yearning for the excitement of an artistic life in Europe, yet winds up trapped in stagnant domesticity. Yet not everything is explained in a literary metaphor: the violent arguments between the elder Bechdels isn’t related to any particular work, but instead shown off panel through speech bubbles while the children listen, frightened. The literary allusions and glimpses of a family cracking apart illustrates Alison’s grim prognosis after her father’s funeral: “Dad’s death was not a new catastrophe but an old one that had been unfolding very slowly for a long time.”
    In light of this long spiral downwards, I don’t believe Alison’s coming out is what caused her father to throw himself in front of the truck with the incongruous smiling Sunbeam girl on the side (an example of her often wry eye for grimly humorous detail). Rather, I’m inclined to believe that if it’s any one cause, it’s the divorce: that the shock of having his life in stasis, surrounded by his Victorian house and Victorian airs, jarred by his wife finally having had enough, is what causes everything to fall apart for him. If Helen Bechdel had stayed, and Bruce managed to keep his same-sex affairs secret, I think the situation would have stayed tense yet stable. In that light, I think he viewed his daughter’s lesbianism as either a phase or a wry coincidence to his own sexuality; while her mother is shocked and disapproving, Bruce Bechdel “seemed strangely pleased” and told her “Everyone should experiment. It’s healthy” (page 77) — an ironic reaction given that his own experiment is what is about to drive his wife out the door.
    This is quickly becoming perhaps my favorite work of this semester, and a key factor in my liking of the book, despite the grim events, is the complex characterization. I’m still not sure whether to feel much sympathy for Bruce. Is he a tragic figure, stuck in a stifling marriage and unrewarding, limited life in a place he hoped to escape; or is he a more reckless character, taking out his frustrations on his family physically and indulging his passions behind his wife’s back? How sympathetic is the prodigal father?

    Also, the green coloring throughout the book brought to mind an unsettling association. With my grandfather in the hospital for heart surgery, the past week I have seen an army of green scrubs, a more vivid version of the same pale green mix floating uneasily with a calming blue that colors the novel. Indeed, I am writing this in a hospital waiting room, breathing in the faint odors of disinfectant and distant disease, the same odors that Bruce Bechdel as an embalmer would be so familiar with. That surgical association is reinforced by the elder Bechdel’s funeral home management, especially the grisly, coolly anatomical panels where Alison gives him scissors while he dissects a man. In my mind, that pale green brings to mind the surgical gowns and their association of illness and examination; so by extension the surgical connotations of the coloring emphasizes that something is deeply at fault in this family, and that it will take deep examination and painful treatment in order to find, and hopefully remedy, what has ailed this family, coloring our narrator’s background.

Dilemmas in Dixie: Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and the changing South

   As I am reviewing Cat On a Hot Tin Roof to catch up after a week-long trip through Tennessee Williams’ home state of Mississippi and his adopted city of New Orleans, a more subtle symbolism to the Pollitt family catches my eye. Besides the issues of sexual identity and the role of sexuality in Brick and Maggie’s relationship and the harsh societal ideals of the 1950s, there is also the role of the location in the deep South, on the eve of the societal struggles of the Civil Rights era, that I find interesting. (Also, I’m going off the whole play here, so reader beware.)
     First off, there are the generational differences. Big Daddy is a product of the old agricultural South, starting out as a field hand and working his way up to own a vast plantation, seemingly the picture of success in a sepia-toned Gone With the Wind way. But he is far richer of a character than that, and we see that he has his personal divides that leave the man and the image he projects as two different people: the patriarch of a family drowning in a web of deceit, made most obvious by the disconnect between how healthy he thinks he is, and the fatal truth that leaves him a moaning wreck at the end, suggesting that he has let reality slip away from him, and the intrusion of the passage of time has disastrous results for him. The rivalry between his sons over the plantation’s future, exasperated by his illness, paints an unsteady future for what he has worked so long to build up, and lends a sense of futility to Big Daddy’s life. He has created this immense, thriving plantation on the surface, yet who does he have to hand it to? Either a scheming couple and their no-neck monsters, focused on money above all else, or the other son who  is conflicted with his own demons. A clear reminder of the play’s setting are the black housekeepers a visual reminder of the deceit larger than any of the characters. In this way, Big Daddy is a sort of symbol of the old, agrarian South of vast plantations and cotton wealth, materially successful but built on shaky moral ground.
    At the time the play was written, this Old South was on its way out, and just as Big Daddy has an uncertain choice for his inheritance, the South of 1955 was facing a future troubled by conflicts. Gooper and Mae are depicted as scheming to gain control of Big Daddy’s fortune, to capitalize on his success for monetary gain. Whereas industrialization came early to the North, the South remained dominated by agriculture well into the twentieth century, and when industry did develop in Dixie, it was often tied to Northern firms looking to exploit the vast resources and manpower of the rural South. Birmingham became the Pittsburgh of the South due to Northern steel mills setting up shop closer to Alabama’s iron deposits; Atlanta became a business hub for the South after Northern railroads founded it as a crossing for their southern extensions. Gooper and Mae’s interest in the plantation strikes me as little more than as a source of financial benefit, to me recalling the industrialization of the early twentieth century that grew in fits and starts off the agricultural wealth of the old South.
    Then, there is the parallel of Big Daddy’s impeding death and Maggie’s desire to have a child to secure her husband’s inheritance. Her husband is wracked by issues that deal with the nature of the societal norms he is a product of, as he re-evaluates how effectively he can hide the duality of his orientation and the image he wants to preserve as a suitable heir to his father. In 1955, the South’s own issues of identity were coming to a head, as the facade of prosperity that its politicians and businessmen promoted were overtaken by the national attention to the burgeoning Civil Rights struggle, as the South’s black population had the political, social, and economic muscle to demand a re-evaluation of the South’s cultural deceits, for change and a new social order to come to the stultified South. Both Brick as a character and the South as a society were deeply troubled as Tennessee Williams was writing Cat, and what could be the outcome? Creating a child with Maggie would require Brick to overcome his nature in an act he has an aversion to, in order to secure his future through the child to secure his bloodline, a child born as the grandfather dies. It is a tantalizing parallel with the South being forced to go through the social turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s, through facing its racial demons head on in order to move on to a steadier future, losing the old South’s culture in the process. However, this is a stretched metaphor; and I understand questioning if Brick and Maggie’s marital dysfunction preventing future familial stability is an appropriate analog for the racial dysfunction of the old South preventing future social stability. But as the landowner grandfather passes away, his conflicted son is forced to confront his personal demons,  with the possibility of creating a child to secure his position. Likewise, as the century-old tradition of the old South slipped away, the culture was forced to confront the ghosts of racial strife, in order to create a new social structure to secure its place in the modern nation.
    What thoughts do others have on this idea? While the streetcars no longer run to Desire, New Orleans is a very thought-provoking, enigmatically romantic city in its history and worn-down atmosphere, and while I was in the Big Easy, I mused over what Tennessee Williams would have taken from his life in such a distinct culture and region.

Edit: Reworded a phrase.

La lumière de ma vie et le feu de mes reins: the French language in Lolita

For this week’s blog post, I’ll touch on something that has piqued my curiosity: the French phrases that appear from time to time in the book. So I’ll likely have a post that stands aside from the others, but I’m curious to see if anyone else has found Nabokov’s toying with languages worth noting.

The language of Lolita is flowery, often dense, and occasionally multi-lingual, with French phrases and occasionally whole sentences scattered throughout the book. These quick jaunts across language barriers both are Hubert Humbert’s way of displaying his European, scholarly roots, and a reminder of the author’s own rich life: for Vladimir Nabokov, English wasn’t a first or even second language, so he approaches word play from a perspective perhaps unavailable to a native speaker.

A good example of how additional detail will be put into French, and a possible reason for doing so, is in chapter 14, when he confronts Lolita about her missed piano lessons, sparking off a furious row and Lolita’s first escape attempt. When he confronts her, she “said d’un petit air faussement contrit that she knew she was a very wicked kid” by using the time for the lessons to instead rehearse the play with the coincidental title of The Enchanted Hunter (ah, it would be that title!). From the context, we can guess that Lo is being her usual mockingly sarcastic self with Humbert, and the French confirms this: with a falsely contrite air. But we can guess this already; Lo is a typical tweener. So why put it in French? By slipping in a description of Lolita in another language, is Nabokov emphasizing that Humbert sees Lolita as a foreign entity, not just because of the obvious nationality difference, but the age difference that leaves him frustrated with her childishness?  As well, by putting a small enough section of his thoughts into French to make the reader almost stumble over the linguistic intrusion, Humbert himself seems more foreign to us, like there is this level of connection that the English-speaking audience necessarily must miss out on, to leave a tantalizing sense that there are parts of Humbert the readers cannot understand; just as the American reader has the French phrase in plain sight but not readily decipherable, we have Humbert’s pedophiliac desires clearly shown in the text, but Humbert himself says that we who are not under the nymphets’ spells cannot understand the fire driving him on.

Then there are the literally illusions hidden in French: later in the chapter, Humbert is watching Lolita drink a milkshake when out of the blue he thinks, “J’ai toujours admiré l’oeuvre ormonde du sublime Dublinois.” (I have always admired the Ormond work of the great Dubliner.)  The great literary figure associated with Dublin? James Joyce, whose stream of conscious writings and willingness to write about every aspect of life, even the less polite or downright unseemly, seems to have influenced the rambling, confessional nature of Lolita. Ormonde drives home this reference, for the Ormond Hotel is a location appearing in Ulysses, Joyce’s best known work. Joyce also brings up associations of obscenity trials, with Ulysses being banned for thirteen years after its publication in the United States, and even longer in the United Kingdom. Lolita, as we mentioned in class, was written when the obscenity laws were being relaxed or struck down, yet Nabokov fully expected his own book to face the same legal challenges, challenges that would never come. Yet Nabokov hides a nod to an author regarded as obscene, by way of a sentence in French.

Humbert’s forays with language, both across multiple languages and within the structure of English itself, mirror the author’s own rich experiences. Raised in a wealthy household speaking French and Russian, Nabokov fled the Russian Revolution as a teenager with his family, settling in Paris and Berlin before heading to New York in 1940 – literally weeks before Hitler’s army overran the French capital. Thus English was his third language, and studying English as a non-native speaker could have given him insight into word structure and grammar that native speakers don’t notice at first, due to us having spoken the language since before we could understand such intricacies of word play. There is the therapist/the rapist pun we mentioned in class, for example. In light of Nabokov’s own linguistic adventures it is no surprise that Humbert would have little hesitation about tossing in the occasional European bon mot. In this way, Nabokov’s literary career mirrors Joseph Conrad (the writer of Heart of Darkness) half a century earlier: two authors who had Slavic native tongues (Russian for Nabokov, Polish for Conrad), began writing in French, the international language seen as cultured and elegant, and published their greatest works in English, the language of world superpowers (the British Empire for Conrad, the United States for Nabokov). For both authors, their lives took them through multiple citizenships, from repressive cultures under harsh government, to more open, relatively permissive cultures in the Anglophone world. In a way, this linguistic shift goes back to the allegory of Humbert as Europe and Lolita as the United States: Humbert’s own native language is taken over by the language of the domineering, headstrong youngster that he finds coarsely juvenile and seductively vibrant; as the British Empire faded, its rebellious child, the United States, took its place of power, cementing the linguistic dominance of the English language in world culture, business, and literature. Nabokov’s use of French mostly is there to emphasize Humbert’s disconnect with Lolita beyond their sexual relationship, but it also is an intriguing reminder of the turbulent life of Nabokov himself.

P.S. That title is the book’s famous opening line in French.

Relationships and tensions in Passing

For my first post, I’m looking at the interplay we see between the women. We see the novel through Irene’s eyes, so I find the way she reacts to Clare, and the way her reactions shape the novel, quite interesting. This novel is mixing love, the love we see between the women, the love for their families and for their positions in life, and belonging: just where do Clare and Irene belong? Through the first two parts of Passing, we see detailed portraits of these two women and the very different lives they lead on different sides of the racial divide of 1920s America. These two lives are fraught with domestic tensions manifested in their relations with their families, but also, and particularly telling, in the deep social and personal relationship between Clare and Irene.
Clare’s situation is the more exotic, and the more menacing. As a woman with a small portion of Black blood passing herself off as white, and married to a virulent racist, her situation is clearly a fragile equilibrium, where any whisper of her racial background making its way to her husband’s ears, it is implied, would carry dire consequences. Yet Clare is a fascinating character in her reaction to this uneasiness. Instead of letting herself be governed by the need for discretion, she has the opposite impulse, to live in the moment and to exuberantly enjoy the privileges of passing. The author remarks on her lack of emotional discreetness, with Irene noting that “Clare–she had remained almost what she had always been, an attractive, somewhat lonely child–selfish, willful, and disturbing” (73). That last word, disturbing, is a strong word to use about a reaction to a childhood friend, and Irene’s reaction to Clare’s indiscretion is telling. Irene has settled into the role of wife and mother (in a publicly Black family), whereas Clare sees motherhood as a suffocating limitation on her desire to follow her whims (“I think that being a mother is the cruelest thing in the world,” 68). Irene sees Clare’s extroversion as a sign of her self-centered nature, but I also see a shade of jealousy in Irene’s reactions, jealousy at Claire’s material and social success, although I get the sense of questioned directly Irene would deny that jealousy vehemently. For while Irene takes pride in her role as wife and mother, she also sees an exoticness in Clare’s passing, in Clare’s joy de vivre lifestyle, and perhaps that exoticness has a subconscious pull on Irene, the homemaker knowing that she could have passed if she wanted to, Clare being a sort of vision of an alternate, more exciting, more dangerous life. Is that awareness that “I could have gone the way of her,” and a subsequent, subconscious regret or at least curiosity she would rather not admit a reason that Irene has a strong enough reaction to label Clare’s vivaciousness disturbing?
Yet Irene’s own content family life has its own inner struggle with the role of race, manifested in her husband’s desire to flee to the racial openness of Brazil, an impulse that Irene also finds disturbing. Her husband, as a successful physician in the Black bourgeoisie of Harlem, is about as socially acceptable as a Black man could be in 1927 America, yet the feeling of bumping into those racial limits, the sensing that this is as good as it can be, could that be Brian’s impetus for wanting to leave New York and the United States behind, for the more equitable melting pot of Brazil? Irene justifies her fear of this impetus to start again thousands of miles away through her children, that leaving for South America would jeopardize “that security of place and substance which she insisted upon for her sons and in a lesser degree for herself” (61). Her sons first, herself after them: note the contrast to Clare’s exasperation at her motherhood. Whereas Marjorie is a reminder of Clare to her uneasy domestic life with a husband who unwittingly loathes what she is, Irene sees her sons as the great blessing in her life, a soothing domestic tranquility in contrast to her husband’s desire to flee his homeland, or Clare’s seeming impetuosity in passing so willfully.
With this desire to restrain her husband’s wanderlust to preserve her family’s tranquility, it is little wonder that Clare’s desire to reconnect with the race she had left twelve years earlier strikes Irene as disturbing recklessness. Besides the risk of someone recognizing her — which Clare, in her confidant way that suggests a rather threatening level of hubris, literally laughs off — the passing woman also poses a disturbing level of social and sexual attraction. Irene frequently makes allusions to Clare’s “caressing” voice, her “exquisite” mannerisms, and at the NWF dance watches as she dances eagerly with partners of both races. While Irene states that she is “glad that Clare was having the opportunity to discover that some colored men were superior to some white men” (75), I also get the sense that Irene is nervous at Clare drawing so much attention, and while the author states that the dance for the most part becomes a vague blur in Irene’s memory, her sharp recollection of the conversation with Hugh Wentworth about telling whether someone is passing suggests that she is well aware of at least some level of suspicion about Clare, that this is all accelerating too fast to be safe. A sign of the disconnect between the two women’s views of themselves, and their place in straddling the racial divide, comes at the end of the passage, when Clare lets her anxieties burst forth to Irene — and Irene is left without anything easy to say: “She stopped, at a loss for an acceptable term to express her opinion of Clare’s ‘having’ nature” (81). This moment, with Clare showing a rare remorse for her character, and Irene’s uneasiness at this remorse, seems foreboding in the face of the sharp contrast between Clare’s husband, and the race that she once more is becoming drawn to, two great actors in her life that are ominously incompatible.
Passing revolves around the relationship between Clare and Irene, the two childhood friends reentering each other’s lives, to Clare’s delight and Irene’s uneasiness. But there are tensions all around: Irene’s desire to suppress her husband’s flight instinct, Clare’s hidden incompatibility with her husband, the source of her material success, and most of all, the tension between the two women, as their relationship is laid right across the racial line: between the woman passing as white and the woman remaining identified as black, the overtly sexualized, attractive extrovert and the quiet, settled homemaker, the woman playing with her fate and the woman trying to secure hers.