Friday, February 27, 2009

I and Thou - Purity In Love

I decided not to let the Marquis de Sade have the last say on the subject of love. One could almost hear his maniacal laughter ringing on for eternity. Not on my watch, bucko.


I and Thou by Martin Buber. Translated, with an Introduction by Walter Kaufmann. Touchstone Books. ISBN: 9780684717258. 192 pp. $14 (look for used copies at Powell's). Buy it here and support The Devil's Accountant.


So instead I want to offer a couple of extended quotes from Martin Buber's groundbreaking teleological estimation of relationship. Nothing says love like groundbreaking teleological estimations of relationship, right? You know it! Ich und Du (most often translated as I and Thou) is a work of profound sincerity. Martin Buber was as much an enthusiast with an eye for the improvement of his fellow man as he was a rigorous scholar.

He famously remarked about his human first notion of experience and study with the following quote. It provides us a picture of a charming and deeply intelligent person.

I do, indeed, close my door at times and surrender myself to a book, but only because I can open the door again and see a human face looking at me.

His writing is obscure only in its dedication to faith and though not a breezy read in any sense, I and Thou is yet very accessible to most everyone. You may have to work for it but I assure you, it is worth the effort.

The essential view of relations espoused by Buber is one that can be boiled down to two statements, or as he describes them - Words: One of a finite subjective possessiveness (I and It) and one of subjective freedom (I and Thou). To Buber, the I-Thou relationship is one stripped of all terms. The Thou in the relationship has no properties other than the fact of its existence. An observation of a single property, let's say black hair, instantly degrades the Thou to a state of being It. The Thou represents "black hair" and thus it has an impure or possessive relation to the I.

Buber was a Hasidic revivalist. This is a monotheistic philosophy he is describing, one in which faith (in this case a complete removal of desire) is the only way to engage in true love of God. I am agnostic and yet I find this beautiful. In many ways there is a dream here of small special moments in human interaction that could ascend to such pure relationship.

So I give you a secular interpretation, or adjustment rather.

A Thou must be beheld in its totality with respect to no finite individual traits. It must simply be a totality in which the I is in awe of.

This of course is something very difficult for humankind to achieve. We are a species of desires and preferences. I can honestly say that with a rare individual this is all possible to a degree, if only for a fleeting moment. Think of the sense of someone being there, in relationship to you, and yet you feel no particular aspect of their personality. They simply bring you joy by knowing they are there. For a moment they are experienced in totality.

The most important aspect of this is the lack of reciprocity. They cause you joy and yet you did not think to ask for it.

So, now that I've rambled on for far too long allow me two quotes and an image or two. Something inspirational and all that. Who's laughing now, Marquis?


Sleeping Snakes, Amarasi textile patter.

If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I-Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things.

Thus human being is not He or She, bounded from every other He and She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world; nor is he a nature able to be experienced and described as a loose bundle of named qualities. But with no neighbor, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing exists except himself. But all else lives in his light.

Just as the melody is not made up of notes nor the verse of words nor the statue of lines, but they must be tugged and dragged till their unity has been scattered into these many pieces, so with the man to whom I say Thou. I can take out from him the color of his hair, or his speech, or of his goodness. I must continually do this. But each time I do it he ceases to be Thou.

And just as prayer is not in time but time in prayer, sacrifice not in space but space in sacrifice, and to reverse the relation is to abolish the reality, so with the man to whom I say Thou. I do not meet with him at some time and place or other. I can set him in a particular time and place; I must continually do it: but I set only a He or a She, that is an It, no longer my Thou.

So long as the heaven of Thou is spread out over me the winds of causality cower at my heels, and the whirlpool of fate stays its course.

I do not experience the man to whom I say Thou. But I take my stand in relation to him, in the sanctity of the primary word. Only when I step out of it do I experience him once more. In the act of experience Thou is far away.

Even if the man to whom I say Thou is not aware of it in the midst of his experience, yet relation may exist. For Thou is more that It realizes. No deception penetrates here; here is the cradle of Real Life.

It is a paen to God, Buber is describing. Yet in it we find many things that we might share with the inhabitants of this very real world.

Purity is not easy however. In fact, it is impossible.

The It is the eternal chrysalis, the Thou the eternal butterfly - except that situations do not always follow one another in clear succession, but there is a happening profoundly twofold, confusedly entangled.

I think most of us would take confusedly entangled any day of the week.


The Green Lion, wrestling to grasp and devour the Golden Sun. Alchemical artwork. One of the steps to forming the Philosopher's Stone.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Monday 4 - Your Way Or Mine?

Today we encounter two sides of the same coin. On one side there is Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, Marquis de Sade. On the other we have Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch. A Frenchman and an Austrian. Both writers. Both gave us lasting psychological profiles, which in time became archetypical descriptions of…well, certain sexual habits.

Sadism. Masochism. Ah, now we are talking about love. I kid… I play… I torture myself for your love – I want nothing but for your pretty boot heel to be placed squarely on my forehead. Or if you’ll allow me, perhaps just this once, I would like to become a cruel god, dissecting your flesh in hopes to sate my unyielding pleasure. Two sides. One coin. Paid for by others.

This is twisted stuff, no doubt, but it is worth your while. These two men developed a peculiar sexual taste and have left us with lasting, oddly scintillating legacies. More than just mere voyeuristic indulgences, these two writers represent the artistic spirit. Both, through their writings, tested the lines of society through artistic individualism.

Sexual obsession is of course, very different from love. Related, but different. Both of these forms of deviance rely on a coercion of the other. It is a selfish passion. In fact it is doubtful if love actually exists in these writings.

With that crestfallen banner in place, let’s start with Sacher-Masoch. Then we’ll get to the headliner.


Venus In Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Penguin Books. ISBN: 9780140447811. 160 pp. $13. Buy it here and support The Devil’s Accountant.

It was Richard Kreiherr von Krafft-Ebing in his seminal work, Psycopathia Sexualis who first coined the term “masochism.” He stated that so many of the traits of that perversion were to be found on display in the writings/life of the writer, Sacher-Masoch and so the complex must be known for him. This of course is a sort of privilege few get to receive.

Sacher-Masoch is very unlike the other denizen of this post, the purely hedonistic Marquis de Sade. Sacher-Masoch was an early proponent of feminism and argued strongly against anti-Semitism. As a writer and editor he was respected as a first-class humanitarian and in many ways was a visionary in this regard. What he liked to do in his boudoir was, well... somewhat different.

Venus In Furs was the first installment in a series Sacher-Masoch called The Legacy Of Cain. The series was to focus on sociological phenomena like "Love", "Property", "State", "War", "Work", and "Death." I mention this because it shows something of the author's ethos. He was an activist at heart. In the case of women's rights he sought not only equality but also maybe deification. He only completed the first two, of which this odd book represented love.

Some go for buxom redheads. Others like petite brunettes. Some people like a plump man while others want Johnny Atlas or an emaciated rock prince. People have preferences and this is neither a revelation nor is it particularly strange. Sacher-Masoch’s ideal woman was tall, powerful and blond. He wanted her to be cruel with a perpetual air of superiority. If he had his way, she'd be dressed head to toe in nothing but fur.

Sacher-Masoch actually signed a contract with his real life lover, making him her legal slave for several months. They would travel, her in first class and him in third. The contract stipulated that she should be particularly cruel to him.

In the beginning of Venus In Furs we find two men conversing on the subject of supplication. As one discusses his lurid dream of a Venus clad only in furs the other quietly awaits the chance to enlighten his friend. Seems he has some experience in matters like this.

Enter Severin. Severin offers to his newly Venus-obsessed friend a strange book titled Memoirs Of A Supersensual Man. Like Herman Hesse’s frame story of For Madmen Only in the novel Steppenwolf, this internal text colors much of the narrative (in Venus In Furs it is essentially the story itself). Also like Hesse’s frame story it is also a cautionary tale.

In it we encounter a man named Severin von Kusiemski, clearly a fictionalized version of the Severin offering the text. Both of these Severins are of course fictionalized version of the author himself. Much of Venus In Furs is autobiographical.

The narrative that unfolds is extremely lurid. It has above all a didactic tone, almost like it were a manual of mysticism. Contrary to popular conception, the book is not vulgar. The whipping and bondage is delivered through contemplative filters and this does much to change the tone of otherwise violent sequences. Essentially this is a novel of ideas, almost a prescription for education. Or maybe re-education. This would be in line with Sacher-Masoch's political and social views on the improvement of women.

The woman in the story is Wanda von Dunajew, a Baroness and at first unwilling roleplayer in Severin’s strange passions. She scorns his desires at first but eventually begins to humor him and indulge his wishes. In time she comes to enjoy her role of dominance.

Like all good things, I suppose, this symbiotic relationship must come to an end. She once again returns to contempt for Severin. Her painful ministrations begin to become more sincere. She begins to loathe his weak behavior and in turn begins to gain sadistic pleasure in his humiliation. Eventually she hires three women to punish him to the point of supreme humility. Hilda wants to break Severin and be rid of his sniveling weakness.

The height of his humiliation comes not from Hilda or another woman but at the hands of a man. A strong virile Greek, named Alexis Popadopalis enters Wanda’s life and she falls in love with him. He is a total opposite to Severin, in both esteem for women and approach to love. He seeks to control and obtain power over his lovers. He is a picture of misogyny and in time Wanda begins to lose control of her love for him. She enters a state of perpetual supplication, mirroring Severin's own desires at times, and endures abuses of her own at Alexis' hands. The only difference is in the role of desire. She merely wants Alexis and not the punishment, whereas Severin's pleasure came from a packaging of the both.

This weakness on her part is unbearable for Severin to behold. Soon he learns to disdain her and eventually even loathe her.

He arrives at some startling comparisons between his status as slave and her status as lesser in her relationship with Alexis. It is an oddly logical conclusion Severin arrives at. One that is more uncomfortable to think about than even the tortures he begged for.

The essential trait to masochism is clearly defined by this strange, metaphysical novel. It, like sadism, is a belief that pleasure should be received rather than be shared or given. The total submission of the will, the binding of the body and humiliation through physical pain is in fact a plea for freedom. By the surrendering of the will (a theme common in many lovesick poet’s writings) the masochist is allowed to fully be freed from responsibility or guilt.

The tortured in this rare case believe themselves free from causality and they believe their devotional submission is love. It is a selfish philosophy, even if it seeks to elevate the status of the "other" involved.

Now we shall look at the masochist’s best and most dangerous friend.


The Crimes Of Love by The Marquis de Sade. Translated by David Coward. Oxford World Classics. ISBN: 9780199539987. 342 pp. $15.95. Buy it here and support The Devil’s Accountant.


It was said that my brush-strokes were too forceful and that I gave a far too odious picture of vice. Would you like to know why?
-An Essay on Novels, Marquis de Sade


The quote above has a chilling quality because of the monstrous legend that surrounds the name of de Sade. Would you like to know why? One can almost conjure the chilling visage of the man leaning forward and placing his hand on a thigh or hand and transfixing his prey with such a question. The why is the stuff of nightmares.

The Marquis was a monster. He sexually abused his servants and often hired prostitutes past their “prime” (and therefore more desperate for clients) in order to provide him with his most excessive pleasures. He poisoned, cut and bound people. His treatment of one servant girl lead her father to come to his home at Lacoste and attempt to shoot him. The gun misfired and the Marquis lived to see another day.

Yet the Marquis de Sade is also a fascinating figure. His cruelty and strange sexual avarice are hallmarks of a disturbed individual and yet in his writings we find the clear thoughts and intricate plotting of a well-ordered mind. He was a monster but a thinking monster that could write.

Part of the excitement in reading de Sade is the foreknowledge of his persona. We know something despicable will occur. You know it is there and yet when he’s at his best he can spring it upon you still, heightening the pleasure. There is one such story in this collection.

The Crimes of Love was composed by de Sade in the midst of his incarceration and in it he hoped to argue that he was not insane. He hoped to buy his freedom with this book. In his introduction he lies at multiple points, denying his authorship of works like Justine and deploring their licentiousness. He of course did write Justine and in many ways the writing of that book was the least of the reasons for his imprisonment. The Marquis never quite understood that he had been caged like an animal; that he had become dangerous to his fellow man.

Oxford’s edition includes a lengthy Introduction by the translator and also includes de Sade’s wonderful essay on the writing of novels. In it we find a writer discussing his craft in helpful, practical ways and it is truly an essay that ought to be read by any writer of fiction. In it we find a detail oriented perfectionist, who is willing to indulge in fantasy but only if it is believable. He comes off, somewhat horrible to think about, as a meticulous researcher. The Marquis de Sade was a writer who wants accuracy first and foremost before deciding to slip into the fictional. Well-researched, is certainly a nauseating term for de Sade’s writing. And yet it is just that.

More than anything he could not stand the notion of the professional artist or writer. He believed a writer ought to write to convey their story and not to earn a buck. This is a common theme amongst artists and writers who have strong notions of the individual and the artistic creation must be a pure product of the wellspring of the individual. Here, allow the Marquis himself to explain:

No one forces you to ply the trade you follow. But if you do choose it, then acquit yourself to the best of your ability. And above all, you should not think of writing as a way of earning your living. If you do, your work will smell of your poverty. It will be coloured by your weakness and be as thin as your hunger. There are other trades which you can take up: make boots, not books. Our opinion of you will not be any poorer, and since you will be sparing us acres of boredom, we may even think better of you.

A hard line, no doubt. Tom Clancy and James Patterson surely would have made interesting playmates for de Sade.

In this collection we have a story that takes a lecherous king on a tour through Hell. We have incestual scandals, murder and rape. We have victims and perpetrators. The one common theme to all these stories is that virtue is not protection. The virtuous lamb has no defense against the powerful desires of the wolf.

As I alluded to before there is one particular story that steals the show. Florville and Courval tells the tale of a gentleman seeking to marry a honorable woman who has yet had her share of scandal. All the scandal was incidental, of course. Florville is 34 years of age and her suitor is in his fifties. They are both good and virtuous people and Courval, the suitor, is willing to overlook the ill string of happenstance that marred Florville’s early life. He and she do not know the half of it.

Florville recounts to him the many various tragedies that have befallen her throughout her life. In each there is maintained in her some form of innocence and for all of these transgressions Courval finds her virtuous nature all the more charming. Each story she recounts is sordid in its own way and with each sordid detail de Sade lulls the reader into lowering their guard. The story plods on and we begin to believe that these transgressions are in fact the dark occurrences we expect of de Sade. We believe that he has shown his cruel hand and that this poor woman’s hardships and scandals are in fact the violence we have been waiting for. Not so.

The plot twists quickly. It is as though de Sade had been politely talking with us of this strangely ill-fated woman’s life and we allowed ourselves as readers to think him not particularly violent this time. The Marquis is giving us a redemptive story this once. Then, to the horrific delight of the reader, de Sade sneers and again we see his cruel eyeteeth.

Charmingly he warns us:

Here my pen falters… I should ask my readers to excuse me, beg their leave to proceed no further…yes, and let them break off now if they have no wish to tremble with horror!… Mankind is so vulnerable in this vale of tears!… Fate is cruel and acts in the strangest ways… Why should the hapless Florville, that most virtuous of women, the sweetest and most sensitive, prove, through an unimaginable concatenation of mischances, to be the most abominable monster ever spawned by nature?

Indeed. Mankind is so vulnerable. The silky smooth lull of this story matches the psychology of the lies told in de Sade’s introduction. He was manipulative and unflinching when he got his way.

This of course is why his approach to life and writing intrigues us to this day. In his tales we are afforded (from the comfort of distance) to enjoy the wolfishness that we might otherwise deplore. One doesn’t tisk-tisk the Marquise de Sade. One either flees in horror or mutely condones.

A lesson of our darker natures for all time…

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Third Thursdays: Victorian Porn Anyone?


Drawing of a flea by Robert Hooke from his Micrographia published in 1665.

Introduction

Every third Thursday the Accountant will take you to a lighter, or at least less serious area of the month’s theme. In the first installment we have something not only less serious but also less virtuous. Today we are going to take a look at a classic of late Victorian era pornography.

This is the Internet after all, and pornography is its most common coinage.



The Autobiography Of A Flea
by Anonymous. The Olympia Press. New Traveller’s Companion Series #24. 168 pp. ISBN: 1596540508. $13.95. Buy it here and support The Devil’s Accountant.

Autumn was not far off, and the chilly climate of England did not appeal to me since I would have been forced to go into hiding or hibernation, limiting my chances of nourishment and also of diversified contact with interesting people. For even a lowly flea may have aspirations to culture, mark that well.

A flea… What more ignoble creature could one find to narrate this most lecherous tale? A fly perhaps. But not all flies require feeding off their interlocutor, which assuredly is a very base trait (I'm trying my dearest to put on Victorian airs here). So I think the flea wins out.

Yet here we clearly have a flea seeking edification through socialization. He is not your ordinary flea. No, he is a tourist who seeks to learn about the places he travels. That, alas, is where such concepts halt.

The Autobiography Of A Flea
was published privately, anonymously (the author is still unknown as far as I have found) and to much success in 1901. The contents are as descriptive as the plot is repetitive.

And how!

Lurid repetition, to borrow Umberto Eco's observation, is essential to the pornographic format. The narrative time required to tell a pornographic sequence is intentionally drawn out as long as possible. After all, the sequence itself is the sole purpose of the entire narrative. But enough of thinking… This is about a filthy little book.

Our little flea is a vehicle for voyeurism, and through his vantage spot (he hides and watches from some interesting places) we are given scene after scene of sensual seduction (que the Snoop Dogg) and often amorous situations bordering on rapine (there is no scene that actually becomes violent). It is the flea’s descriptions (or his actual experiences) that we have the pleasure of reading. The flea’s metaphors are very colorful.

Think man-harpoons and turgid coral points of erotic anticipation. Not bad for a flea.

The metaphors though are essential to the book’s elevation into comedy…

(Flashback harpsichord plays)

I remember my first ironic conception of sex and pornography. It came (I should be more mindful of double entendres in a post like this) courtesy of Naked Gun 2 ½.

I was eleven or twelve years old, so the said movie was an artistic coup in my world. I’d seen Playboys and Hustlers (etc, etc, etc, etc) but was not familiar with the genre of bound printed material known affectionately as adult fiction. The scene I’m thinking of is where a stiff (again - I must get better at this) old professor of physics accidentally reads a brief passage from a bodice-ripping romance story. It was something about the thrusting of a purple-headed warrior into a quivering mound of love pudding.

I giggled and laughed. Yet I knew nothing of the sources for those wonderful metaphors. I was twelve. I had no idea why it was quivering or a mound. The pudding part really confused me. I mean… it didn’t look like pudding in the pictures.

Why am I burdening you with this? Because it sets up an observation of course… Pornography is ironic. That obviously lurid sense of repetition, the thin plots and the wonderfully chintzy metaphors used in literary porn all add up to a special fantastical brand of ironic comedy. That’s what struck me as a twelve-year-old boy. I realized that porn was ironic and funny. The irony. The comedy. I swear.

What makes a book like The Autobiography Of A Flea transcend being merely vulgar (for it is yet assuredly vulgar) is the way in which we approach it. Right down to the fact that the narrator is a flea, the book is clearly begging us to suspend our disbelief. It’s ridiculous and comic. If the plot were more serious and the purpose less direct then the graphicness of the sexual content would render it instead obscene or closer to the other use of a more basic word: pornographic.

In a statement: All pornography is pornographic but not all that is pornographic is pornography.

Don’t get me wrong. This book is “dirty.” Poor Bella, Marisia, Desiree and Laurette all have very sore bottoms by the end of the flea’s wanderings. The antecedent to this consequent is essentially the entire story. The flea is just a comic device to move the plot and entertain the reader.

Don’t fret: Of course I’ll offer you a choice selection.

Please do enjoy it; it so gives me pleasure to share these things with you.

“Never mind, my eager daughter,” Father Lawrence gasped as he renewed his zeal, arching now to meet her wriggling perorations on his manly harpoon, all the while plunging his finger in and out of her quaking nether chasm, “during my sojourn in this charming village, I shall be happy to act as your confessor at any time you choose – always understanding, of course, that my worthy colleague and brother in the faith does not otherwise occupy you at the times you choose to visit me – now, my daughter, the moment is at hand for me as well, let me feel your responding strength!”

If someone asks you where you learned such exquisite pillow-talk, be sure to send them our way.

Ahem…

Monday, February 16, 2009

Monday 3 - Destructive Love

Introduction

This Monday we find ourselves, so to speak, before a trio of femme fatales. Love takes a turn for the worse and we readers get to awkwardly shake our heads at the woes of these ill-fated characters. All from the comfortable distance of the ink-stained page. These are three delightfully twisted tales spun by three of the English language's best.

Wealth and status seems to be a common thread. The novelists this week seem to all have taken sadistic pleasure in undoing people who believed themselves impervious to harm. With the exception of Dorothy, who is a sympathetic figure in Mrs. Caliban, the victims of these dangerous loves are all smug, overconfident men. Set up on the highest of pedestals, their falls are amazingly long.

The moral? If you think you’re all that and then some perhaps you should check again. Your wife is probably sleeping with your best friend (or a 6’7” green-skinned monster) and that as you take a new lover you in turn learn that she is also sleeping with the same friend who stole your wife, who also just so happens to be your new lover’s stepbrother. Maybe your brother too.

In the end a bridge comes tumbling down with you on it.

I kid. Sort of. The reality here is that love, for all its manifest splendor, is often an uncomfortably powerful emotion. In its thralldom the character's of these stories become illogical creatures enslaved to its will. Comfort is denied before love's power, diminishing life beneath the banner of love’s purity. In some cases (as in two of the stories below) it is not the love of the other that produces the unraveling but instead one of selfish narcissism. There is a simple warning: That often our beloved does not represent a true love, one that is free of possessiveness, but rather a reflective image of how we would like to seem or be seen.

The loss of the beloved can lead one to questions of attractiveness, virility, intelligence or in the cases below, a questioning of the notion of your life being one of superior success. You can look at yourself in the mirror and celebrate your prowess but when she’s walking out the door with your best friend (who sleeps with his half-sister) well, then the waters of life begin to look troubled or at the very least muddied.

Let’s start with a tale of bestiality and longing. Then we’ll slowly work ourselves towards the pits of a bourgeoisie Hell. I mean, who better to take you through Hell than the man who keeps the ledgers?


Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls. Harvard Common Press. ISBN: 9780876451120. No consistent price - Out of print as of writing this. Buy it here and support The Devil's Accountant.





CALIBAN: Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
-William Shakespeare, The Tempest, III, ii

Anton Chekov once remarked that, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.” So too it must be with the presence of a monster. A monster must be monstrous.
Dorothy is a housewife in her mid to early forties, living an upper income lifestyle in Southern California. Her life has not exactly gone as planned.

Her husband has just begun his second affair, and yet before the backdrop of the rest of life’s cruelties this pales. Dorothy’s only child is dead. Since his death her husband has demanded separate beds and slowly removed his emotions and care for her. By the time the story begins Fred, “Dot’s” husband, has as much consideration for her as he does the gardener.

Enter Larry. It is cliché, but the prize of every lonely housewife is a clandestine lover. For Ingall’s protagonist it is Larry, whose physical presence and quietly polite demeanor make him an ideal lover for the damaged Dorothy. Larry needs her to keep him safe and this is clearly a plus in her book. This is despite the fact that Larry is heavily muscled and stands 6’7” tall. His physicality dwarfs hers and she loves this too.

Larry is impossibly strong and yet his hands are gentle and mindful. He is a careful lover, who at first needs some help in the act of lovemaking. He is always naked, in his early twenties, and can make love as many times as she requires. Never does he initiate lovemaking. Always it is Dorothy. Larry has deep eyes, a small mouth, a broad flat nose, small low set ears, and his skin is green. Larry is a humanoid sea monster who has escaped from an oceanographic institute.

Rachel Ingalls is a rare sort of writer, and it is a shame that her writing has been left to the fringe of readership’s awareness (Mrs. Caliban is out of print and only available used). With one hand Ingalls deftly conjures the image of Larry as loveable, naïve, vegetarian sea creature and yet with her other hand she has been secretly fashioning the eventuality that all the while you suspect but dare not accept.

There is a monster in this story and indeed, like Chekov’s gun, it must fulfill a role. Larry is not Kierkegaard’s ravishing merman (from Fear and Trembling), but rather a product of circumstances. Larry does not understand his strength and in turn, Dorothy who is harboring him, does not understand what she is doing and becoming.

There are few books that are plotted as well as this tiny novella. Additionally there are few with as sophisticated a twist at the end.

That I’ll leave for you to find out. Track it down used. Powell’s has copies. Write to the publisher and demand the book be made available again. There is no reason this book should continue to be out of print.


Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather. Introduction by Bernice Slote. University Of Nebraska Press. ISBN: 0803258631. 138 pp. $9.95. Buy it here and support The Devil's Accountant.


“Then, in the exaltation of love, more than ever it seemed to him to mean death, the only thing as strong as love. Under the moon, under the cold, splendid stars, there were only those two things awake and sleepless; death and love, the rushing river and his burning heart.”

The time is the closing of the Victorian age and Bartley Alexander is a tall, well-built American man of action. The kind of man destined to build the infrastructure soon to define the new century. He is a noted (perhaps the best going) builder of bridges. He is esteemed by men and admired by women. Alexander, like a locomotive, presses ever forward in his personal and societal progress. The future is everything.

His lovely wife, Winifred, is the kind that men covet despite their own successes in love. She is tall, almost as tall as Bartley, and has a formal beauty that awakens notions of the delightful proprieties of the era just bygone. The Alexander’s home is a superb one, whose warmth and giving nature “casts a warmth all its own.” The valuable furniture and paintings demonstrate the success of the man of the house. He is a provider, through and through.

Now enter darkness. This time the dreadful love comes from within. While on a brief vacation in England (where Alexander spent most of his formative years) he encounters an old flame. Perhaps the flame might be a better description. Hilda Burgoyne is now a rising star of the theatre and was once the love of Bartley Alexander’s life. After watching her perform one night his inner life turns to reflect on their somewhat abrupt parting. Alexander had been in Canada then. Working on his first bridge. He had met Winifred, whose propriety “fit” his eventual career. Bartley dumped Hilda via letter.

Almost as classy as original…

Their social circles begin to mingle anew during Bartley’s brief holiday (sans wife). They exchange formal pleasantries and Bartley is delightfully happy to see her career and life doing so well. She in turn still worships his proud American power. After their first meeting Bartley is thrown into a slow burning despair. She reminds him of his youth. She says such delightful things. Not the least of which is this little quote: “I have some champagne for you, too. I don’t drink it myself, but I like to see it behave when it’s poured. There is nothing else that looks so jolly.”

The casualness of the affair that unfolds is one that colors the actions of those who believe in their own certainty. This is a tragedy of the egoist, blind to their own self-obsession. Things of weight and importance are done with a total lack of deliberation because, well, as successful as they are they cannot make mistakes (this theme will come up again in the Iris Murdoch book below).

They of course would be wrong. Bartley Alexander is not a man without guilt and as the affair develops so do other bad habits. He begins drinking heavily and neglecting his work. His current project is a dangerously under financed and over-scale bridge whose completion strikes Alexander as being only possible on paper. I won’t describe any more of this novella.

Just know that love, as portrayed in Willa Cather’s first published novel, is not unlike a large bridge.

You can’t divide your attention. It just won’t hold.


A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch. Penguin Books. ISBN: 0140010039. 205 pp. $15. Buy it here and support The Devil's Accountant.

I won’t lie: This book was wonderfully angering. I’ve the type of personality that wants to wring George Costanza’s neck after watching a Seinfeld rerun. He just flat-out pisses me off.

So too do the people inhabiting Murdoch’s dark tragicomedy. A Severed Head awakens a bestial urge in the reader. At least it ought to. Reading over the foppish pseudo-intellectual follies and smug assurance of the denizens of this slender slice of Hell one wants to lash-out and remind them all of the beautiful violence of causality. But causal concerns wash over in this book. There is no release from its prison.

Martin Lynch-Gibbon is a tall, handsome man (see a constant yet?). He is proud of his visage, as he’s inherited the masculine facial lines of the celebrated Lynch-Gibbon men. He is the well to do head of a wine distribution firm and he even has a somewhat respected hobby of being an expert on military history. He is adept in his knowledge of antiques, art and is informed about all the most popular intellectual pursuits, namely that of his friend’s, a popular psychoanalyst named Palmer Anderson.

His brother is an artist and not as seemingly masculine as he himself is. His sister is devoted and perfectly inconsequential. His wife Antonia is a Pre-Raphaelite goddess: all long tresses and haughty, intelligent beauty. His clandestine lover is a petite young professor of economics, half his age. He calls her such sweet names as little imbecile, barbarian and monster. He despises her messy apartment and condescendingly loves her shoddy clothing. She adores him.

Martin prefers clarets and he can’t help but believe that he is the luckiest, happiest man on the planet. He is smugly assured in his British paradise. Angry yet? Well, allow me to make things worse.

His wife Antonia has of course been seeing Palmer. She is fascinated by the new study of psychoanalysis and she is somewhat of a devotee of the profession herself. Of course she is sleeping with Palmer too. Martin is crushed when he finds out and she pleads with him to be reasonable. Palmer adores him, you see, and he’d be crushed if Martin hated him for sleeping with her. Please be reasonable, Martin. She feeds him the canned psychobabble Palmer has given her to explain to Martin why she needs to move on. She calls him things like “her child” and casts her and Palmer’s love for him as the love of parents for a child.

The next seen we find Martin lying on Palmer’s sofa at his office. Upset but listening attentively to the silky words of the man who has cuckolded him. He is a patient. He is comically weak.

Palmer is somehow even more aesthetically composed than Martin. He has a wonderful collection of Japanese bandit paintings. His suits have a wonderful little sprinkling of color, given by silk handkerchiefs and the like. The best way I can describe Palmer Anderson is to create a character. Picture an American Rasputin living life as a head of a midsized college’s psychology department. His thoroughly bourgeois life is filled with only the best things. He commits a thousand crimes and hides behind the demure screen of his trade. Be reasonable. I’m just stealing your wife. Next will be your lover. Please, be reasonable.

Then there is Palmer’s stepsister Honor Klein, who is a noted anthropologist of German heritage. Like an agent provocateur she too slides into the sordid situation and begins to steer and manipulate in her brutally forward sort of way. Honor Klein is the showstopper in this novel. Perfectly cruel. Almost a saving grace.

The escalating absurdities in the plot (which I actually outlined in the introduction) are what make the book enjoyable. A play by play would be a spoiler. I’ve promised not to do that.

A Severed Head is essentially an ironic indictment cloaked in tragic comedy. The indictable offense is that of hiding behind civility and intellectual pretenses in order to commit acts otherwise considered morally unacceptable. They are forging new ground in a sexual revolution yet to be named such, but this too is cheapened by their pseudo-intellectual notions of comportment and psychological well-being.

There is a certain warped perceptiveness that occurs in the cloistered existences led by these bourgeois demons. The irony lies in the fact that they "maturely" believe in their enlightened existence despite the selfishness and emotionally brutal behavior of their daily lives. They use their professions (no longer passions) to justify the sanity of their actions. The conventions they use to justify their behavior becomes the fetters by which they are tethered to their deviance.

This story deserves a cinematic treatment, preferably by the Cohen Brothers.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day


“I can speak only here and there a word about her. I must forget what she wholly is, if I am to speak of her. I must deceive myself into believing that she lived a long time ago, that I knew something of her from hearsay, if her living image is not to seize me so forcefully that I expire in enchantment and in pain, if I am not to die the death of joy over her and the death of mourning for her.”

Friedrich Holderlin, Hyperion, pg. 80


Boy, that Hyperion really doesn't hold anything back.

Since today is the day that inspired this month's theme I figured a selection was in order. I welcome you to post your favorite love inspired quotes in the comments area.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Monday 2 – Unrequited Love

Continuing on our little journey through the literature of love we arrive at the well-stocked storehouse of the unrequited lover. The architecture of this building is wonderfully depressing.

There are many ways to arrive at the station of the unrequited lover. Sometimes there are class concerns. Sometimes there are religious, racial or physiological forces at work. Then there is the sadder, darker brand of unreciprocated love. It is a land populated by the true believer. The person of faith, whose feverish eyes and affection starved bodies hold an impossible line. These last sorts do not always concern themselves with the love of an individual.

It can be a way of life. Think of Willy Lohman (whose belief in a dream-world America was misplaced and deluded) and Don Quixote (whose unrequited love was chivalry). Neither's faith was placed in something that could return favor. Yet there they were. Plugging along the road of life swearing to uphold their visions.

Faith is the essential trait. Faith and duty. The unrequited believe in notions of fate, alignment and the way things ought to be. They remain incredibly loyal to their visions and stubbornly do so despite the failure for the vision to manifest a return.

Though a fool, the unrequited lover is often noble and sometimes finds a special brand of heroic essence in their steadfast world-view. This is the breed of sad hero that can teach us that perhaps their vision isn’t a reality, nor do they exemplify our societal aspirations, but instead they stand in mute accusation. These last sorts aren’t necessarily anti-heroes. They can in fact be expounders of a somber philosophy unrealized by their fellow man. In some cases, it would be a better world if it were.

Let us start with something of that sort.


Last Night At The Lobster by Stewart O’Nan. Penguin Books. $13. ISBN: 9780143114420. 146 pp. Buy it here.

Manny DeLeon is a hero. In the old time sense of a hero being someone who exemplifies the moral aspirations of a society. Manny dots all of our moral i’s.

Manny DeLeon is the manager of a Red Lobster somewhere in a poor New England town. The Lobster is closing due to diminished sales (maybe, he’s not really sure they had a down year). The entirety of O’Nan’s novel is set on his last day.

How many employees will show up for a last shift at a Red Lobster? How many will be willing to work as hard as they normally do? How many will be honest? There is a blizzard too, that Manny will have to reckon with. There is his gentle and sentimental nature as well, that will hinder his abilities as every bit of routine looms before him like the last rites being read at his recently deceased abuela’s funeral. His grandmother was his closest family.

Then there is the matter of Jacquie and Deena. Jacquie, the woman he loves, is a waitress at the Red Lobster and their relationship is all but over. For months they have been separated and yet he cannot let go of her, despite her being newly involved. He can’t let go but he has to because there is Deena to reckon with. Deena is the woman carrying his child.

Jacquie does not love the man she’s with and that allows for too many openings for Manny to cling onto their previous love, and yet he knows he can’t hold on. He doesn’t have the luxury. He must be responsible to Deena. He must do the right thing. Through this wonderful, tender novel Manny always does the right thing despite how absurd it might be considering the circumstances. Yet always, no matter how hard he tries, his love for Jacquie manifests over and over again.

The thing that makes this novel masterful is that it awakens pity in the reader. It makes you feel sorry for Manny and his seemingly declining life. The masterful part is that eventually you come to realize that Manny does not require pity. He is a strong man of principle and despite the aspects of his life that might strike the reader as being “small” he stands taller than many would in any circumstance. Not just when there are chips on the table.

Manny is a leader in every sense of the word.

Love hurts Manny, but he keeps moving. Ever dutiful, Manny stomachs his anguish and trudges on despite the pointlessness of the situations put before him. A job’s a job, after all and he’s being paid to do it. He’s practically a John Henry of the food service industry.

After reading this book you’ll find yourself wanting to stop at a Red Lobster for some Captain’s Biscuits (yes, the cheddar ones) and to take a look for Manny doing his job. Afterwards, you’ll remember why you haven’t been to a Red Lobster in years.


Victoria by Knut Hamsun. Translated with an Introduction by Sverre Lyngstad. Penguin Classics. $13. ISBN: 0143039377. 82 pp. Buy it here.

“What do you want me to do?” she asked listlessly.

O, Victoria… What if Joahnnes had answered this question truthfully? What then would you have done in turn?

This story makes the others on the list blush with guilty decadence. Hamsun is a master and deserving of his Nobel Prize (1920). There are terrible aspects to his biography, namely his being a supporter of National Socialism and Germany in both World Wars. His early writings (Victoria included) contain no hint of these leanings. Instead they are arguably the most psychologically complex novels of the last century and perhaps…ever written. This led Isaac Bashevis Singer to dub him “The father of modern fiction.”

Published over a hundred and ten years ago, this slim offering has lost none of its punch. Dealing with subjects like class distinction, envy, pride and the score of insecurities bred within such concepts, Victoria truly is a pioneering work and its relevance is unsettling.

Like all classic tales of love it centers around two youths. Johannes is the son of a miller and Victoria is the daughter of an impoverished lord whose land the miller and his family live on. The role of servant and master become blurred as Johannes is allowed to join in the upper class children’s play. His loyalty to Victoria, and indeed budding love, is easily hidden behind the nature of his station. He obeys her every whim, both out of propriety and adoration.

The miller’s son grows up tall and strong, much to the chagrin of Victoria’s wealthy suitors from the city. Victoria admires his strong limbs and poetic existence. She is also all too aware of the class distinctions and when pressed by Johannes’ love she lashes out at him, pointing to his lower status. She knows their love would be difficult and so chooses push him away.

Much of the novella goes on like this. Johannes becomes educated and in time he achieves fame as a writer and poet. The two lovers (for they both love each other foremost) meet in passing whenever Johannes comes home from abroad. The walls of society serve as barrier and keep Victoria from being able to express her emotions for Johannes and he in turn honors her requisite distance. Honor essentially keeps them apart. Every word Johannes writes is dedicated to her.

This novella bleeds but does not gush. There is only the occasional “high romantic” outburst and generally they are fully believable because something simply has to be released. The anguish and wounding all happens on the inside, kept out of sight by notions of propriety, honor and class. This only adds to the confusion of the two parties, as the suddenness and volume of the emotion shown is previously unrealized. The confusion leads to deliberation, which too much of can be a bad thing.

This book will not cheer you up. It will teach you about how precious love is. Basically, if you love someone then don't come up with excuses to avoid difficulty. Better to have loved and lost and all that stuff...


Sunflower by Gyula Krudy. Translated from the Hungarian by John Batki. Introduction by John Lukacs. New York Review Of Books. $14. ISBN: 9781590171868. 232 pp. Buy it here.

I’m not really sure if a story with a happy ending can be considered unrequited. Actually, by definition it cannot be considered such, but when 99% of a novel consists of anguished half-steps and quiet love-filled desperation I think there can be an exception. Exceptions, after all, are the bread and butter of the unrequited lover.

Sunflower
was called to my attention at my old bookstore by the writer of the book’s introduction, historian John Lukacs. Lukacs in fact owns what is generally considered the largest collection of Krudy’s works and manuscripts. Many of these works are unavailable in languages other than the author’s Magyar, and Lukacs hinted at the fact that some of them were unavailable even then.

Krudy, like many great European writers of the last century’s first half, is somewhat lost in the English-speaking world. Think of a literary landscape where Kafka was never canonized and you will understand Krudy’s legacy in translation.

The comparison with Kafka ends there. Krudy’s writing closer resembles that of Proust. That is if Proust was a gambling, hard drinking womanizer with an ironically preserved notion of romanticism. In Sunflower we learn of a Hungarian expression that states that, “Every Hungarian man worth anything will at sometime develop the gout.”

Ah, the painful beauty of hedonistic melancholy. Proust never reminisced about the good old days quite like that.

Sunflower
is a dark book. There is nothing sinister about it per se, but at times it can seem strangely macabre, as though it shouldn’t be but somehow is capable of violence. It is a hypnotic work, where sophistication and dignity both wear a double-face of madness and propriety melting passion. Essentially it is a matter of secrets. No matter how reserved the character might seem, Krudy populates their inside with a conflagration of desires that can and will spring forth when given opportunity.

This combination of comportment and passionate longing (both taken to drastic ends) makes for surreal and uneasy humor. The book can literally be dizzying at times and one begins to suspect Krudy capable of actual magic. Sunflower is literally intoxicating.

The protagonist is young Eveline, from a well to do family, who has left city-life to return to the countryside to flee a former lover, the devilish, thieving Kalman. Once in the country she encounters an old friend of her family (who is older than she) who has always carried a torch for her. His name is Almos-Dreamer and he is cut from wonderfully absurd cloth.

Almos-Dreamer is a paragon of Krudy’s vision of Hungarian country gentility: nostalgic, listless, romantic and above all, loyal. It is the last two traits that lend the novel its sense of danger. Loyalty and romanticism can lead a man to many dark ends.

Krudy doesn’t leave this point (likely the novels essential point) to implication. He populates the novel’s last half with his most entertaining character, Mr. Pistoli. The ageing Pistoli takes all of the above traits and takes them all to a fevered extreme, where each one could and should be fatal.

The mustachioed old troublemaker is the kind of melancholic figure that seems alone even when he is carousing. He laments the new men of Hungary and how much of the old ways are lost. Pistoli adds a wonderful quixotic element to the book and like Quixote, his true love is “the way” and it shall never return his adoration if for no other reason than it does not exist as he believes it to. Thus his lonely disposition is evident to all who know to look for it.

Sunflower is a strange and beguiling story where foreign archetypes become familiar. It leaves you desirous of Tokay wine and a full moon, coldly awaiting your anguished howls. Okay, so maybe you won’t necessarily desire the last part.

You’re supposed to though, according to Krudy, and the occasional howl feels good. You should try it.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Monday 1 – Romance

Introduction

As I stated in the description of this blog’s format the subject for the month of February is love. I mean, why not? February 14th celebrates a Saint who we know very little about and so why not assist in perpetuating the concept of this being an awkward day/month for lovers.

Got to buy the Mrs. Something (not a vacuum cleaner). I may ask her out to dinner (you will not). I’m going to see if she’ll go to a movie with me (you will ask and she'll say yes). Is she thinking of me? (hard to say) We’ve been together only a few months; do you think jewelry is too much? (no).

Or: Valentine’s Day is stupid (I wish I had a reason to get dressed up). It’s a commercially invented holiday (not true – it’s been around for centuries in a relatively similar format as it exists now). I’m going to rent a movie (always starring Humphrey Bogart) and eat lots of ice cream (something with chunks in it). It was invented by Hallmark (not true). I will sit at a bar and drink her off my mind (does NOT work).

So love is the subject of the month and much of the writing done on the subject of love is not about jewelry, chocolate and dinner at a nice restaurant. In fact, much of it is about the loss of love, the pain of love, the destructiveness of obsession and a healthy fascination for anatomy.

We’ll start more innocently though, and work ourselves slowly to the whips and chains. Today the subject is “Romance.” Next Monday it will be “Unrequited Love,” followed by “Destructive Love” and eventually a little number I’m calling, “Your Way Or Mine?”

Oh, yes. I would make you wait for those noble offerings.

All three of this week’s books concern themselves with forms of romance, whether it be in setting, development or the actual literary movement. I begin with the most innocent of this month’s offerings.



Annam by Christophe Bataille
. Translated from the French by Richard Howard. New Directions. $14.95. ISBN: 9780811217637. Buy it here and support The Devil's Accountant.

This is the first Bataille on our list for the month and really, the one you’d rather get to know. At the age of 21 Christophe Bataille won France’s Prix Du Premier Roman and has had three of his novels translated by Richard Howard for New Directions. All of his books are small in size and photographic in style. “Classically trained” is a phrase rarely used to describe writers but in Bataille’s case it would fit. His prose is perfect and that’s not hyperbole.

In exacting language Annam describes the lives of two French missionaries, a monk and a nun, as well as their fellow compatriots as they journey to Vietnam to spread the word of God. The only problem is that it is 1788 and in just 4 years France will be thrown in to revolution. The king will be overthrown and the church they belong to persecuted.

In three words: they are stuck. They make do however, and slowly begin to adapt to the customs and life of being a peasant in Vietnam. Catherine and Dominic (the afore mentioned nun and monk) are eventually the last of their lot. In time the rigors of living in the jungle and several brushes with death begin to erode the meaning from their vows and church. In time, they find each other beautiful and begin to realize that there is a virtue to life in the living and tasting of it.

They arrive at each other and in this arrival they find a new understanding of such banner concepts as patriotism and religion. The portion of this small book that actually contains a fully realized romance is slim, but just as romance is in the real world it is in the arrival that it is given meaning. The trials, tribulations and near death experiences test their trust in faith and eventually lead them to arrive in a more difficult form of trust to attain.

Trust in each other, which in turn leads to honest and unconditional love.


Hyperion by Friedrich Holderlin. Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin. Archipelago Books. $14. ISBN: 9780979333026. Buy it here and support The Devil's Accountant.

“I had nothing to give her but a soul full of wild contradictions, full of bleeding memories, nothing to give her but boundless love with its thousand worries, its thousand raging hopes; but she stood before me in changeless beauty, effortless, in smiling perfection, and all the longing, all the dreaming of mortality, O! all that the Genius presages of the higher regions in golden morning hours, it was all fulfilled in this one quiet soul.”


Just because a book lands itself here on this list of “Romances” does not mean the love described within is a totally successful one. Or one without pangs and longing.

Hyperion is a novel that bleeds and is not worried about your noticing the red stained cloth or joyful tear-streamed cheeks. It is uninhibited in that wonderful, thoughtful way that marks every superb work of high Romanticism. The “love” of this novel is both the literal woman remembered by Hyperion and the ancient Greek culture that he longs to see returned to his native land.

This is a book that would make Lord Byron get, well, verklemmt.

Completely epistolary in construction, Hyperion is a book that seeks to wrestle with invisible powers that inhabit the awakened mind. Concepts like beauty, truth and above all the relationship between hope and longing. Longing, and its illusive offspring hope, are the driving forces of this most lurid work. It is a visionary book, and like the Oracle at Delphi, Holderlin’s protagonist’s language is feverish and bordering on hallucinatory.

Holderlein sat next to the philosophers Georg Hegel and Friedrich Schelling (maybe not literally – they did share classes though) in college and for some time it must have seemed to him that he inhabited a world of giants. Holderlin never attained their kind of fame in his life but his poetry and writing would find its stride in a romantic philosophy that proved to be incredibly influential. It would be less concerned with idealism and instead find a rugged purpose in romanticism. This sentimental yet fierce classicism would eventually be an important influence to Friedrich Nietzsche and a subject often dealt with by Martin Heidegger.

Essentially this is a book for lovers of language. This unrhymed and unmetered book is arguably the closest to music that language can come without sacrificing communication to become song. As Nietzsche described it, the language is similar to “the beat of the waves of the troubled sea.” He compared it to an “uncanny dirge” and in its sorrowful lamentation of the diminished lives of modern men he found a useful fulcrum with which to set his eventual philosophies as purposeful lever.

All this talk of philosophers has hidden the fact that the majority of Hyperion’s letters are concerning his old flame: the adorable Diotima. She is described by Hyperion in beautiful language as both a vaunted Goddess of Philosophy and the quiet, very domestic love of his life. Hyperion remarks that, “A thousand times I have laughed with joy in my heart at men who imagine that a sublime spirit could not possibly know how to prepare a vegetable.”

The flattering language Hyperion bestows upon Diotima (and other of his acquaintances) is earnest and innocent. He is not offering flattery to them because they are not present. Some no longer exist on the physical plane of existence. He seeks nothing in return and this total lack of reciprocity proves Hyperion’s love as pure.

For all its mystical prose and ecstatic musing, lines like the one above are what allow Hyperion to ascend to greatness as a work. The writer has an equal understanding for the sublime sort of admiration one feels for a kindred soul who is luminous both when in action or at relative stasis. Hyperion can bellow to the heavens of his Love’s keen intellect and then privately confess his admiration for her cooking. Hyperion’s love, mind you, is both Diotima and the dreams he has of his beloved Greece.

One warning I might offer is that this is a novel of highly romantic sentiment. If you do not like life messy and unashamed then you might as well avoid it. Hmph…


The Enchantress Of Florence by Salman Rushdie. Random House. $14. ISNB: 9780679640516. Buy it here and support The Devil's Accountant.

In the waning days of the celebrity writer a master must influence their critics to have a positive view of their personality, much like a perpetrator of scandal must go on Larry King in order to find expatiation. If this is not done the clichés get leveled like lances and the writer’s offerings will have a tough go of it.

Salman Rushdie’s best writing is behind him. He is more interested in celebrity than writing and it shows. He has lost his edge and has become too intoxicated by western power brokers and no longer writes about anything politically important.
I have heard each of these poor comments uttered about Rushdie. I may have made one or two of them not too long ago. I take them back if I did and challenge the critic who believes any of those sentiments above to defend such quickly formed pronouncements.

Rushdie’s newest work is strangely his most accessible and contains elements that should have awakened a broader interest from readers. He has made magical realism his strongest suit and this book is his most outwardly magical. I say “strangely” because it has met with some resistance.

The novel’s concern is essentially about a perverse sort of unconditional love born from romantic obsession. The setting is the plush halls of power in Akbar’s Mughal Empire and the Medici’s Renaissance Florence. Rushdie’s powers of description are on full display and so is his wonderfully didactic conveyance of history as impression. He is a writer that can make the above perversion seem delightful.

Keep in mind that Rushdie is his own creature and so instead of being pedantic or luridly fantastic he adds the realistic aspects of those possessed of tyrannical power, whether issued by decree, upheld by the might of their right arm or kept barely hidden under rustling silks. Few are better than Rushdie at describe the abusive nature of power, since he suffered a great deal from its misuse.

Enchantress is dominated by the politics of love, namely concepts of possession. The story begins with a woman who exists (literally) only in the presence of Emperor Akbar. She is possessed wholly by him. The Emperor is accustomed to having things exactly as he desires them and she is an absolute ideal: something from him for him and involving only him. His world is about to change.

A young Florentine man with fair skin and golden hair works his way into the presence of the Mughal Emperor. His claim is simple: that he is the descendant of a lost sister of the Emperor’s grandfather. He, a white man, is therefore the uncle of the Emperor and he goes by the less than humble title of Mogor dell’Amore. The Mughal of Love.

Typically this kind of temerity would promptly meet with the executioner’s trade. The story told is a fascinating one though, and the Florentine’s claims involve enough history familiar to Akbar and his relatives that it piques the Emperor’s interest. Then there is the matter of the woman involved in the story. The supremely beautiful Qara Koz, a sorceress known as Lady Black Eyes.

The Florentine’s tale sets the court aflame with resentment (the wives of Akbar) and admiration (everyone else). Koz’s beauty and mysterious story places her at points of very real history familiar to the Emperor and even his mother begins to be unable to doubt the verity of the Florentine’s otherwise impossible tale. Add to the story a lovely (nearly equal in beauty) lady in waiting, “The Mirror,” who serves as Qara Koz’s doppelganger lover and servant and you arrive at the total unmanning of the philosophic emperor.

He commissions the greatest artist in his land to illustrate the Florentine’s tales and in time the young painter becomes obsessed with Qara Koz as well. Magically, he paints her in a color and realism that none have seen before. The paintings and painter disappear eventually and a wonderfully Borgesian occurrence follows (I’ll let you read and find out).

In the story Koz changes hands with the tides of war, like some supreme jewel awarded the victor until finally arriving, this time because of love, into the hands of a Florentine warlord, the potent Argalia, slayer of Vlad Dracula and generally fearsome guy. Argalia is described in terms that strike one as being nearer to Japanese legend than Middle Eastern or Florentine. His is a lithe almost feminine form, which he houses in long white robes embroidered with his symbol: the lily. Tattooed from head to two with his symbol as well, Argalia commands a trio of giants named for the three musketeers and wields his blade with unequaled skill. He is a character that seems more like a denizen of a Michael Moorcock fantasy novel than a chief character of a work by Salman Rushdie.

That’s the charming thing about Enchantress. For all its political awareness, philosophical musing about imagination self-justification and understanding of the tyranny of power it has a wonderfully naïve sense of being a work of fantasy. It’s almost as if Rushdie decided to allow the metaphor to live slightly more than its source. The magic Qara Koz wields and the heroic capability of her lover, Argalia, lend the novel a wonderfully romantic aesthetic.

It is all grounded of course, especially by the population of renaissance Florence, which Rushdie paints with a wonderful earthiness. Particularly the charming figure of Niccolo Machiavelli (Rushdie does a wonderful job redeeming this often maligned figure whose name has always been synonymous with plotting, underhanded scheming). Machiavelli comes alive as a stolid genius surrounded by the average. He appears sometimes pitiful and almost always practical.

The entirety of Rushdie’s latest offering concerns itself with attraction, love and the powers held within them. All set before questions concerning reality and imagination. It is as much about the intoxicating nature of imagery as it is about a woman making her way in a world totally dominated by men, which she does very capably. Almost like a poison pill clause, those that objectify her meet with dark and usually bloody ends.

It is a work of romance in every sense of the term and this makes it a special book in Rushdie’s catalogue. His works have always been known for wonderful imagery, whether exotic or homey, but in Enchantress he has allowed himself a little more room to paint pictures for their own sake. Emotion too, seems to play a larger role, particularly a very somber understanding of frustration and desire.

I wonder, though won’t dwell on it, about the situation of this book. It was written so soon the author’s divorce from a beauty (model and actress, Padma Lakshmi) rivaling Qara Koz herself, that some material must have been dredged up from very personal sentiment. This could explain the dominant place of emotion in Enchantress as compared to the typically cerebral humor of his other works.

If you have a bit of a sweet tooth and do not mind the occasional historical obscurity then you will surely enjoy The Enchantress of Florence.


Next week: Unrequited Love. O my.