Mina's Typewriter

A literary blog on cultural conundrums, gender benders, and things that go bump in the night

Hiking therapy wih Cheryl Strayed’s Wild

This post has been sitting hiding in the outskirts of my desktop for a while now. Although this is one of my most significant pieces of writing, I haven’t gotten around to finishing it and putting it out there. Read on and you’ll learn exactly why that is.

Let me start at the beginning.

A while back I was looking for some contemporary books to read over the summer. I was feeling a bit lost and I needed to read something that felt a little closer to home than all my Victorian books. That’s when I found Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Since I am located in quiet little Belgium, I hadn’t witnessed the hype around this novel before actually buying it and realizing it was ‘Oprah approved’. Considering this novel was loved by such a huge mass of people, I was a surprised to find out how personal it felt to me.

Wild tells the story of Cheryl Strayed, how she loses herself after the death of her mother, and how she finds herself again when hiking the Pacific Crest Trail y herself. It’s a deeply personal story that censors very little and reveals a lot about the practical side of grieving. The realism that struck is achieved by the details: both concerning the places she visits and the random thoughts that enter her brain while hiking.

Here are the facts about the narrative and what it means to me:

  1. Cheryl Strayed lost her mother to cancer at the age of 22. At that same age, I lost my father to leukemia.
  1. Her mother died 49 days after receiving her diagnosis. My father held on for 104 days.
  1. Around 4 years later, Cheryl leaves to hike the PCT Trail in the hopes of finding herself again. In the aftermath of losing her mother, she became numb. She destroyed her marriage with repeated infidelity, and destroyed herself with heroin. Let’s just say I had I had a hard time ‘dealing’ too.
  1. That 4 year anniversary went by two weeks ago and I am also still feeling lost. Only a month ago, a friend of mine asked if I’m ok now, so many years after. That’s when I had to tell her that “Time heals all wounds” is a lie. You can say that life goes on, but time alone does not have the power to heal a wound. And if it does, it leaves a nasty scar that flares up at the most inconvenient moments and makes you cry every time you look at it. Usually when you’re at a party or somewhere else that’s incredibly public.

Reading Wild actually made me feel both connected to and estranged from my father. I so badly wanted to make him read it!! I knew he would love it, but he would also mock Cheryl Strayed for the amount of stupid decisions she makes on the trail and for her lack of basic survival skills. My father actually had those skills. He could find his way home from anywhere in the world and could splint a broken bone if needed. And that definitely came in handy, because my innate clumsiness meant he had to come to my rescue countless times. I keep thinking how proud he would be that I climbed Mount Kinabalu on my vacation in Malaysia two years ago. Even though I almost passed out at the top from both a painful lack of fitness and the altitude, I know he would have been really impressed (and a little bit jealous).

Back when my father was in hospital, he always asked for more books to read. When checking my book collection for a fresh supply, I put so much effort into giving him a diverse collection so he would always have something to suit his mood. One book he absolutely loved was Gulliver’s Travels. I think he even chastised himself somewhat for not having read it before. What I didn’t expect was his reaction to The Book of Kells, by R.A MacAvoy. It was just a fantasy novel, centred around the famous 9th-century illuminated manuscript. (If you haven’t never heard of it, check my post on my trip to Ireland.) I am ashamed to say I still haven’t read this particular novel, since I only bought it on a whim because it was on sale at my favourite bookstore. When my father was released from hospital for two weeks, he confronted me about this book and said “I feel like I understand you more now.” Remembering these words now truly breaks my heart. On the one hand, I feel like I need to read that book to find out what he meant. But on the other hand, I am afraid of the emotional roller-coaster it will inevitably put me on. But I guess that’s for my next post.

 

Comments on H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau

To say H. G. Wells was the founder of science-fiction is a bit much. To say that The Island of Doctor Moreau contains all my literary interests is spot on. To really do this book justice, I will have to divide this post into themes and work from there:

Pseudo-science.

The reason H. G. Wells is often called the father of science-fiction is all too visible in this particular story. The infamous scientist Dr Moreau uses a number of unusual techniques to change animals into people. He uses blood transfusion, vivisection and an unusual brand of reconstructive surgery as ways to transfer human and animal characteristics into other species. Possible? No. Ludicrous. Yes. Anachronistic? Definitely not. Vivisection was at the time an exciting method of learning about anatomy while watching that anatomy engaged in all its primary functions. Although it’s a highly debated learning method, no one today would consider it possible to physically change one being into another by cutting it open alive. In fact, reconstructive surgery in general would probably be less successful with a conscious patient. Not to mention a lot more traumatic. Now a widely criticized school experiment in American high-schools, vivisection was not yet widely accepted in the Victorian era. It was highly debated, and considered barbaric by the general public even in Victorian times. The use of blood transfusion to transform a person will sound very odd to modern readers. However, this is not the only literary reference to blood transfusion as transferring qualities into another body. In Dracula, Bram Stoker lets Lucy Westenra ‘take the blood of 3 strong men’ and become more sexually powerful because of it. The blood transports the sexual activeness of virile men into her passive bloodstream and changes her.

Post-Darwinism.

Yaaaay! In general, The Island of Doctor Moreau can definitely be read within the context of a changing worldview after Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species. The book also mentions Thomas Henry Huxley, often referred to as “Darwin’s bulldog”. On the Physical Basis of Life is probably Huxley’s most well-known work and one of the foundations of a heated ensuing discussion between materialists and anti-materialists. Moreau’s technique of removing and adding part from one being to create a different being is another pure materialist idea. Changing the material of the creature automatically changes its whole character and behaviourisms. When we compare it to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Dr Frankenstein sowed bits and pieces together to create a new man. However, even Frankenstein construed that there had to be a sort of spirit flowing through the body to give it life. In The Island, this is all irrelevant. There is only the material matter of the body.

Moralism

When discussing materialist theories, the topic of morals is always present. This book more than any other explores the materialist notion that animals are made up of solely matter. Since they are constructed as a machine, with parts and bolts, they cannot feel. As a result, there is no moral conflict in experimenting on them. This has actually been a topic of debate in the medical world since the Middle Ages. Although animals are no longer considered emotionless mechanical constructions of bits and pieces, we do still regard animals as “below humans”. Animal testing is something most of us feel uncomfortable with, but the general consensus remains that it is less immoral than performing the same experiments on humans.

Gender

Considering that this story was written in the Victorian era, it’s quite remarkable that the female creatures in the book turn out to be the most sexually aggressive. Can we see this as a way to make the creatures appear more estranging, when they are in direct contrast with the Victorian passive and chaste domestic angel-figure? Or is this an actual criticism towards the rigid notion that women are not sexually aware beings? Either way, it makes for a very interesting read if you are familiar with the sexual position of women in turn-of-the-century Britain. And if you’re not familiar with this theme, I still urge you to read it. Because regardless of everything I mentioned in this post, The Island of Doctor Moreau is also just a good book and a pleasure to read. So go read it now!

There But For The: Racial Prejudice Through the Eyes of a Cleverist

Before I start my analysis of There But For The by Ali Smith and unavoidably go off at a tangent, there is something I need to say:

Read. This. Book.

You won’t regret it. Ali Smith is a wonderful writer and her wit will surprise you. So if you’re looking for a good read that is layered and captivating, and you don’t necessarily crave that epic story with reassuring catharsis, then this is your book. As for the story, the plot is set in motion by an unknown guest at a dinner party who locks himself up in the upstairs bedroom of a couple he only just met. When he refuses to come out, the stories of the other attendees and how they are linked begin to unravel. This results in the narrative becoming an intricate tapestry of lives woven together by chance. The stream of consciousness style reveals clever jokes and wordplay that you need to keep your focus on or you’ve missed them. Definitely a book you should read while locked indoors, away from any disturbances: no trains, no other coffee bar guests, and no playful cats demanding your attention in the middle of a chapter.

While I could go on and on about the narrative style and subtle humour, I am going to do something new and focus on one character named Brooke. Or better yet, one aspect of that one character: the colour of her skin. She is black. Normally speaking, I wouldn’t stop to think about a character’s race, but when you read the following quote, you’ll find out why it’s so important. (This part is told by little Brooke as she is describing her surroundings in Greenwich.)

The girl ran across the park, and unless you add the describing word then the man or girl are definitely not black, they are white, though no one has mentioned white, like when you take the the out of a headline and people just assume it’s there anyway.

And lo and behold: if you google "girl running in park", the girl is in fact ALWAYS white. So let's just look at these racially ambiguous leggings and sneakers instead.

And lo and behold: if you google “girl running in park”, the girl is in fact ALWAYS white. So let’s just look at these racially ambiguous leggings and sneakers instead.

That’s how Ali Smith catches you: you initially thought the captivating little girl was white as well, until the book informed you otherwise. She got me anyway. And I would even argue that she knew that at the very moment I realised Brooke was black, I stopped myself and acknowledged the fact that I do always think they’re white unless I’m told otherwise. And then I wondered, if I were black, would I assume she is too? Is this prejudice? Or does my mind simply transform the character I like the most into my spitting image? I tend to always imagine my female protagonists to be blonde with blue eyes. Does this mean I am writing myself into the stories I read, or am I just tediously unimaginative…?

A fellow Gothic-enthusiast (the literature, not the subculture) only recently asked whether people ever ask me if I believe in the mythical characters I study. Or even worse: whether I believe I am that mythical being. (For the record, I don’t believe in vampires, nor do I imagine myself to be one. OK, I might have fantasised about Alexander Skarsgård giving me a monstrous love bite, but who hasn’t?) So this got me thinking… To what extent do we write ourselves into the stories we love? I’m not talking about fan-fiction here, but purely about enhancing similar traits in our protagonists to allow a stronger identification with that fictional character. To give another popular example: Wuthering Heights. I can be incredibly stubborn and uncontrollable at times, but sadly I don’t have Catherine’s wild dark hair and eyes. Therefore, I can’t unify myself with her character and become Heathcliff’s  soulmate. Of course we all visualise the fictional realm differently, which we quickly realise when watching a film adaptation of our favourite book. It’s just never exactly as we pictured it.

So that’s my question: Is thinking Brooke is white until you know she’s black prejudice? Or is it an identification tool? Or just plain lack of imagination?

Stuck in the Middle with You: Between Identification and Estrangement in The Professor

I remember one of my first class discussions in literature studies. We had to discuss reader perspectives and the dichotomy of reader expectations: identification or estrangement? To put things simply, readers who love science-fiction novels or reading about magical realms tend to seek estrangement. Readers who want realistic plots and flawed protagonists read for identification. In my literary life I found that escapism is common for both readers. You can just as easily get lost in an intensely realistic reading experience as you can in fantasy.

One of my latest reads was Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor, which became a strange series of identification. The Professor relates the story of a young man finding his way in the professional world after becoming financially independent from his guardians. After a failed attempt in trade, he has the opportunity to try teaching and that’s when I felt my felt moment of identification. My very first job as a graduate was as a substitute English teacher. Without any experience or training, I had to teach classes of 15 to 20-year olds. Much like the protagonist William Crimsworth, I had to convince a class of 35 students that they should listen to me and be quiet. When William teaches his first class of girls, his experience is so similar to mine that I was shocked by how little has changed over time. A few girls sitting at the front pretend like he doesn’t exist and can’t hear him while they give their undiluted opinion about him. When a dictation follows (easiest way to test students’ knowledge in a calm way), they interrupt every second with exclamations like “What did you say?”, “You’re going too fast”, “I don’t understand any of this” and “What do you call a dot with a comma in English?”, all the while looking around at anything but their paper. This I remember all too vividly from my own experience, together with the frustrating thought that if they would just stop talking and interrupting they would hear what I said. But that was just too much logic to handle. In sum, I understand the disappointment William felt when he realised their will to learn was not as strong as he hoped, and that respect given is not always respect received. (I tried to be the ‘cool teacher’ for about ten seconds until I found that being that bitch was a lot more effective.)

Now, where I had expected to feel identification in this novel, all I found was estrangement. William Crimsworth travels to Belgium to try his luck there. But his account of the Belgians (my own nationality) was unexpected, to say the least. Let’s begin with the first misconception: all Flemish people are stupid and coarse. Hm. Can’t say I agree. His contempt for the inhabitants of the northern half of Belgium was really astounding at times. Actually, the narrator goes even further to insist that Belgians are intrinsically egotistical, hypocritical and amoral, as all Catholics are. Being an atheist myself, as most young people in Belgium are (or so I tell myself), I didn’t quite know how I felt about this statement.

Normally, when I am confronted with a biographical analysis, I am the first to quote Roland Barthes and shout “THE AUTHOR IS DEAD, YOU FOOL!!” However, in this case I feel that an exploration of Charlotte Brontë’s life might be useful. She had in fact spent a while in Belgium, working as a teacher. You can’t help but wonder whether the protagonist’s opinion about the Flemish reflect the author’s own feelings. As someone who grew up under atheist parents, I myself can’t comment on the Flemish Catholic mindset, nor can I provide much insight into 19th century Catholicism in Belgium. However, anyone can tell you that the word “hypocrisy” is often thrown around in heated debates about the institution of the Roman-Catholic church. And let’s be honest: Great Britain is known for its eventful past in relation to Catholicism (and especially Rome). Perhaps these opinions reflect the actual view of our protestant writer, or perhaps she is just reflecting on the complex European interrelations of her time, or even tensions among the different peoples of Belgium themselves. To truly investigate this part of the novel, I’d have to explore the concepts of New Historicism … and that would mean I’d have to relive some university traumas I swore I would never revisit. I promise my next post will be a close reading that would make even my most conservative professors proud! (But not really.)

So did this reader feel identification or estrangement? We will have to settle on a strange mixture of both. On the surface, there were many elements I felt exactly corresponded with my own experiences. On the other hand, it was a different time then and the historical context of this book was very far from my own world. Nevertheless, I would argue that reading this book reminded me yet again that we treat the past as a strange place with strange customs. Compared to us today, the people from the past don’t really have that same complex emotional life as we do: they toiled, they married, and they died. They were oppressed by the age they lived in in that they wouldn’t even have understood the concept of the notion of freedom. To me, the biggest anachronism is this odd belief that the past didn’t have the same feelings and experiences as our present day. As if people in the past were somehow underdeveloped in their emotions and thoughts by simply being born in an earlier time. Literary identification helps fight this type of anachronistic prejudice. On that note, let’s end with one my new favourite quotes by L.P. Hartley: The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Mina’s favourites

A while ago, numerous facebook tags persuaded me to make a list of my 10 most influential reads. Though it was clear that this shouldn’t be a top ten of your ‘favourite’ books, I found that a solitary list without any background gave me little insight into the reading patterns of my friends and acquaintances. No one seemed to ask Why? Today I’d like to elaborate a little on my own list and explain in what way these works influenced me.

1) The diary of John Polidori:

This might seem like a strange first choice. However, anyone who studies the Gothic will understand why this one is so important. As Lord Byron’s personal physician,
Polidori travelled along with him on his many journeys. When Percy Bissche and Mary Shelley (back then still 2 eloping adolescents) came to visit Byron in Switzerland, Polidori even witnessed the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein during a midnight ghost story session. How cool is that??

2) The Kalevala:

Kalevala is Finland’s grand epos, relating the genesis of the Finnish people. It was written down by Ellias Lönnrot who travelled through the country collecting stories from the oral memory of the people he met. What makes this mythology so special compared to f.e. the Scandinavian Edda is that these stories are even more estranging than the Norse apocalypse story of Ragnarök. The world was born from a couple of duck eggs that hatched on the earth mother’s knee. All that because she was impregnated by the wind. Oh, and weird Finnish names. They rock.

3) Anna Karenina – Lev Tolstoy:

Just the uttter despair of the protagonist makes you feel like you were hit by train after reading this novel. It was my first Russian classic, which seemed pretty revolutionary at the time. Also a great handbook to going mad and killing yourself to stick it to the world!

4) The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde:

Although The Picture of Dorian Gray was my first Oscar Wilde, my first Wilde play stuck with me the most. As a high school senior, this particular branch of humor seemed so innovative (even if it was over a hundred years old). Those extremely quoteable one-liners just made me wish I had his wit.

5) The Raven and The Pit and the Pendulum – Edgar Allan Poe:

That rhythm … holy crap, that rhythm! You could dance to it. Well, maybe like a goa-type swaying or experimental choreo. Anyhoo, The Raven’s rhyme scheme and rhythm still gives me goosebumps. And how Poe’s narrative style supports the swaying of the pendulum in The Pit and the Pendulum: back and forth, getting closer and closer… I had to put the book down or I was going to scream.

6) The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman:

A must-read for anyone that calls themselves a feminist. This story narrates the entrapment of a woman who cannot make decisions about her own body because she is continuously overruled by male authorities. And it’s actually surprisingly subtle until you reach the story’s ending.

7) The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostojevsky

I read this novel when I was having a rough time, so it served as a distraction from my own worries. I am actually grateful for this book coming into my life. The combination of the realistic and theatrical events is somehow strangely soothing. I think it has something to do with the focalisation (should research this more).  At times I wish I could read this book again for the first time.

8) Doktor Glas – Hjalmar Söderberg

A novel by one of my favourite Swedish authors, read in the original. (No, I’m not Swedish but I am skilled enough in the language to read fiction.) It is written as the diary of a general physician in Sweden, when abortion was still illegal. The historical context and insane intertextuality make this a very interesting read for any literature, anthropoly and history student. Sort of a lighter version of Crime and Punishment.

9) The Derelict – William Hope Hodgson

People who have read my post about William Hope Hodgson will already know why this one made my top ten. I love the masculine imagery, balancing images of male social communities and their intricate regulations with images of pure physical brawniness. Also a recommendation for people studying gender theory.

10) Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

A girl’s book you say? Irrelevant. Anyone adoring Jane Austen has clearly never read the Brontës. This novel explores the less obvious facets of love and passion. One of the few novels I read again immediately after finishing it. Hell, I even kept reading it while crossing the road. Come to think of it, this one might have proved I have an addiction.

So that’s my current list. It will inevitably change within the next few months, but for now it’ll do. To leave you completely bewildered: here is a link to Kate Bush’s song Wuthering Heights. She obviously got it…or maybe not.

Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights

Madame Bovary: A Framework for Literary Boredom

I found myself strangely disappointed by Madame Bovary. Every literature class I ever took seemed to mention this novel at some point. This gave me the impression I had a serious case of “Bovarism”, without even having investigated the source of the term. While reading Flaubert’s famed novel, I was surprised that I couldn’t truly identify with the title character. Apart from one thing: I was bored. I read this book while recovering from the flu. Having only rest on the agenda, the cabin fever made me turn to my trusty E-reader for a copyright-less classic. Little did I know that boredom would be one of the main themes.

As you may already know, Emma Bovary reads too much. She reads wonderful, exciting, romantic and passionate stories. Her books make her feel like there is a bright and shiny world to discover. However, she soon feels that her gender disables her in this respect, as she cannot be its discoverer. Her world is already planned out for her: by her father, her husband, even her lovers. That world is not at all the literary ideal she had in mind. And as her story progresses, she finds fault in everything and everyone. Instead of being painted with vivid colours, the world turns out to be a grey mess. As a last resort, she tries to surround herself by beautiful things, only to find out that beautiful things come at a price. In the literal sense. When she is about to lose all her worldly possessions and the last bit of her reputation, the disillusionment really hits when the required saviour does not appear. She does get offered the money to clear her debts, but the rich old notary declaring his love to her in exchange only reminds her of the ugly face of real-life passion.

In the end, she gets her wish. She dies a dramatic death, and her husband finally becomes the literary ideal. His intense mourning shows the passion that she always craved.

The Brothers Karamazov: A Freudian epos?

The Brothers Karamazov portrays the individual development of three brothers under the same father, but lacking further family ties. They each struggle with their identification with the Karamazov temperament, an unhappy heritage from their alcoholic, debaucherous father Fyodor Pavlovich. Like his father, the eldest son Dmitri (Mitya) is a ladies man and a short-fused drunk. The second son Ivan is a faithless soldier who professes that “everything is lawful”. And the youngest, Alexei (Alyosha), is an aspiring monk who feels the responsibility to reconcile his family and prevent an unavoidable explosion. Their personalities and positions in life differ greatly, but they all share this ancestral burden. Mitya is clearly shown as the end result of the Karamazov stain, whereas the pious Alyosha has only just begun to feel that he too is receptive to worldly desires and might not be so different from his family as people originally think.

The narrative at first consists of a series of psychological profiles of all the characters introduced. After the climactic murder of Fyodor Pavlovich, the novel’s plot suddenly focuses on the murder mystery as the main attraction for the reader. Although the murderer is unveiled to the reader, the story ends in the conviction of an innocent man (innocent being a relative term.) It’s as if Dostoyevsky acknowledges the importance of an eventful plot and briefly explores the outline of a ‘who dunnit’ but goes back to asserting that the plot is unimportant compared to the character development. Dostoyevsky uses a narrative style that is always wavering between two extremes: a sometimes hysterical theatricality on the one hand, and a very intuitive realism on the other. He implements an insightful psychology to describe the motives, and sometimes lack of clear motives, in the characters’ progression through a series of trying events. However intuitive, the undetermined narrator offers no answers to the questions that both he and the reader ask themselves. Nothing is definite; nothing is resolved.

At an unguarded moment, or so it may seem, Dostoyevsky uses Ivan’s hallucination of the devil as a voice to delare Tolstoy one of the great Russian poet/chroniclers:

“Listen, in dreams and especially in nightmares, from indigestion or anything, a man sees sometimes such artistic visions, such complex and real actuality, such events, even a whole world of events, woven into such a plot, with such unexpected details from the most exalted matters to the last button on a cuff, as I swear Leo Tolstoy has never invented.”

Whether The Brothers Karamazov fits into the genre of a Russian epos, I can’t say. It is the story of many characters, all trying to find their place in a Russia that’s in the heart of a truly liminal period. We see the impoverished upper classes trying to cope with the end of serfdom. We see clerics and non-clerics figuring out where they and their country stand in a rising anti-clericalism. From serfdom to freedom, from riches to rags, from orthodoxy to atheism; this is the Russia that the reader is served. In other words, Dostoyevsky is definitely telling a story here. It’s just not necessarily about the brothers Karamazov.