To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics; to endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social position; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived; this is to have succeeded.
FRIDAY: My Book World | Winston Groom's A Storm in Flanders
My Book World
Monette, Paul. Last Watch of the Night: Essays Too Personal and Otherwise. New York: Harcourt, 1994.
I’m pretending that you gaze over my shoulder and peruse this piece about you and Last Watch of the Night. On pages 267-8, you discuss your hoarding of books, and I’m so glad to learn that I’m not the only one who does this. In recataloging my library of 1,300 books, a year ago, I realize that 300 of them remain unread, and, until now [during COVID, I am endeavoring to catch up, now having read fifty-six], yours has been one of them. I feel disgusted that I didn’t read it when it came out, but that was the first year of teaching AP English in high school, and my reading tasks were to stay at least one chapter ahead of my five classes of bright bulbs. So now to why I love this book and why it will never be dated.
Your essays, at times, seem long and meandering, but readers, make no mistake, they are ordered; they have organization. I believe it is a nonlinear order in which, for example, in an essay about travel, you mention sojourning with all three of your long-term relationships: Roger, Stevie, and Winston. What I like about this sort of organization is it allows the essayist to discuss bigger pictures, larger topics. In the first essay entitled, “Puck,” ostensibly about yours and Roger’s Rhodesian ridgeback-Lab mix, the piece spans out, in which this “noble beast” (28) is the glue holding you two lovers together until Roger succumbs to AIDS.
In another essay, “Gert,” you bring to light your first relationship with a lesbian, in this case, Gertrude Macy, a “maiden great-aunt” of one of your pupils. After she reads your novel manuscript, Gert asks, “Does it have to be so gay?” You answer:
“Oh, indeed it did. The gayer the better. I launched into my half-baked credo, invoking the name of [E. M.] Forster, the writer to whom I was most in thrall, and the one who had failed me the most as well. When Forster decided he dare not publish Maurice, for fear of the scandal and what his mother would think; when he locked that manuscript in a drawer for fifty years until he died, he silenced much more than himself. He put up a wall that prevented us, his gay and lesbian heirs, from having a place to begin” (43). I tend to agree, but one must think about the consequences for Forster if he had released Maurice. Lost revenue? Loss of a career? His life? Prison time?
A fallen Catholic yourself, in fact a defiant ex-Catholic, you discuss your relationship with several different “priests.” You cover gravesites and “The Politics of Silence.” “A One-Way Fare,” your paean to travel, becomes a metaphor for the one-way trip we all make through life. I love how you move from Mont-Saint-Michel to Noel Coward’s Private Lives, to a ten-line excerpt from that play, and on to Greece, all within a page—yet all connected.
Young gays need to read you, just as we read Forster and Isherwood, our forebears, so that they may know from whence they come. They must realize that the fight for freedom and equality is never over. It just shifts from one opponent to another. You fought to bring AIDS into a national focus, and perhaps the young will see that the COVID-19 battle is much the same: unless we change our national leadership COVID will be with us forever, just like AIDS is still with us. One must thank you for your fight, which ended all too soon. You would just now be enjoying a long-deserved homage at the ripe age of seventy-five.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Byron Lane's Novel A Star Is Bored
My Book World
Tolentino, Jia. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion. New York: Random, 2019.
Jia Tolentino may be one of the most eloquent spokespersons for members of the Millennial generation. These nine essays cover topics, among others, concerning her informed opinions about the Internet and social media. Another essay about her short stint in a Reality TV show is more confessional in nature, and brutally honest:
“Reality TV enacts the various self-delusions of the emotionally immature: the dream that you are being closely watched, assessed, and categorized; the dream that your life itself is movie material, and that you deserve your own carefully soundtracked montage when you’re walking down the street” (44).
My favorite essay may be “Pure Heroines,” one in which Tolentino takes a hard look at how girls and women are treated in literature. She goes deep on this topic, examining books that are from fifty to one hundred years old: writers like Maud Hart Lovelace (whom I read in elementary school), E. L. Konigsburg, Lucy Maud Montgomery. But this discussion is to lay the foundation for her look at more contemporary literature. Tolentino’s observation is that the girl-heroines, who are brave and outspoken in childhood, become hemmed in by the sexism and patriarchy in adulthood.
“Traditionally, male literary characters are written and received as emblems of the human condition rather than the male one . . . [f]emale literary characters, in contrast, indicate the condition of being a woman. They are condemned to a universe that revolves around sex and family and domesticity” (118).
Yet I also enjoyed “The Cult of the Difficult Woman,” and the final essay, “I Thee Dread,” in which Tolentino declares that in her young adulthood (born 1988), she and her partner (she plans never to marry) have attended forty-six weddings, expending over a period of nine years as much as $35,000 to gift their friends, arrange for transportation to the weddings, not to mention the “uniform” and finally hotel accommodations. But if one is spending an average of $30,000 for a wedding why not expect your guests to put out their share, as well, eh? Jia’s primary objection to marriage is the inequity that awaits a woman once she crosses the threshold into wedded unbliss. Here, Tolentino deftly references her title, providing a sort of recap of her entire book:
“I wonder if women today would so readily accept the unequal diminishment of the independence without their sense of self-importance being overinflated first. It feels like a trick, a trick that has worked and is still working, that the bride remains the image of womanhood at its most broadly celebrated—and that planning a wedding is the only period in a woman’s life where she is universally and unconditionally encouraged to conduct everything on her terms” (289).
After that, the bride’s life is over as she splits into two personalities: one who is “large and resplendent,” and one who “vanishes underneath the name change and the veil” (290). Tolentino nails not only this vision of marriage (the thesis is not original) but she does so for her generation of women who still seem to be falling into the trick mirror of self-delusion.
NEXT WEEK: My Book World | TBD
Richard Jespers is a writer living in Lubbock, Texas, USA.
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