"Unofficial Englishmen": Arthur and George, Julian and Dan
Over the last twenty-five years, Julian Barnes has written a remarkable array of novels that has established him as one of the leading voices in contemporary fiction in England, indeed, around the world. In work that crosses a gamut of genres and modes-from Flaubert's Parrot (1984) to England, England (1999); from Before She Met Me (1982) to Talking it Over (1991) and Love, etc (2001); from The Porcupine (1992) to Arthur and George (2005)--and not only in novels, but also in short fiction and essays as well, Julian Barnes has addressed themes of identity--national as well as individual--and the ways in which the interplay of time and telling establish and obfuscate the boundaries of self and other or of guilt and innocence.
In his most recent novel, Arthur and George, Barnes explores such dualities by turning to history, and "the case" of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, a lawyer falsely imprisoned for mutilating farm animals in 1903. He gracefully interweaves the disparate histories of both men from their childhoods until the point that their lives intersect, when Arthur, seeking an escape from a feeling of self-doubt and inanition, enthusiastically embraces not only the opportunity of righting a wrong--an English Dreyfus Affair--but also the challenge of solving the crime that three distinct tribunals have laid at George's door.
The pivotal year in both men's lives is rendered with gripping specificity. Both George's trial and Arthur's meticulous investigation into the real perpetrator of the crimes are presented with the minute attention to detail that one might expect from the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but not, perhaps, from an author who, in one work, managed to condense the history of the world into ten and a half chapters--not, that is, until we realize that the autonymic Julian Barnes is also the anonymic Dan Kavanagh, allegedly an itinerant Irishman and the author of four detective novels. Arthur and George is itself a very fine detective story, but I find it to be an even more remarkable historical novel, structured around two fully realized characters, and evoking the tensions of race, sexuality, religion, and nation found in late Victorian and Edwardian England. Doyle is the emblematic Englishman--the good soldier of Ford Madox Ford's novel--whose staunch belief in the chivalric code leads him into sexual and religious conundrums. To Arthur, the code of chivalry is more compelling than "[t]he Christian virtues, [which] could be practiced by everyone, from the humble to the high-born. But chivalry was the prerogative of the powerful. The knight protected his lady; the strong aided the weak; honour was a living thing for which you should be prepared to die. Sadly, the number of grails and quests available to a newly qualified doctor was fairly limited" (25)--so he turns to fiction, first, to historical romances set in the middles ages and then to detective stories leading to closures of epiphanic suddenness and clarity. Barnes's Sir Arthur is a paradoxical figure: the muscular Christian (an avid athlete and soldier--the judge, appropriately enough, of a bodybuilding contest) who becomes the celebrated, if unlikely, advocate of spiritualist beliefs and practices. George Edalji resembles his rescuer only insofar as he, too, is a paradoxical being. Thoroughly conventional in other ways, he also rejects religious orthodoxy, finding in the concept of the law itself the purpose and meaning absent from Christianity--even when his own situation would seem contradict such juridical faith. The law and religion have textual exegesis in common, but in the former, he thinks, "there is not that further leap to be made. At the end, you have an agreement, a decision to be obeyed, an understanding of what something means. There is a journey from confusion to clarity" (70). He turns, however, not to detective stories, but to legal treatises, writing a handbook, Railway Law for the "Man on the Train". Notably, at one point during their discussions, Arthur says: "Perhaps you should try occasionally not to think like a lawyer. The fact that no evidence of a phenomenon can be adduced does not mean that it does not exist" (233).
Edalji's conviction--and the term can be taken in its several senses-threatens the purposefulness that both men seek in life, and the Commission formed as a result of Arthur's efforts does not entirely clarify the situation. For while George is pardoned of the criminal charge, he is still accused of writing the hate letters that were circulated at the time of the maimings. Arthur is incensed by the ambivalent outcome: "In the old days, you were either innocent or guilty. If you were not innocent, you were guilty, and if you were not guilty, you were innocent. A simple enough system, tried and tested down many centuries, grasped by judges, juries and the populace at large. As from today, we have a new concept in English law--guilty and innocent" (334). George, by contrast, continues to defend the status quo and finds in the principle of law the chief hope for justice on this side of the grave: "the teachings of the Bible as the best guide to living a true and honourable life" and "the laws of England [as] the best guide for how society in general may live a true and honourable life" (229).
There are so many wonderful details in the novel: of history (such as the story of Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling painting golf balls red so that they can be found in the Vermont snow), and of imagination (such as Arthur's thoughts upon looking into the eye of dying whale), and of humor, such as the proofs offered to George by Doyle's funeral--a kind of mass séance--that the spirits evoked there cannot possibly exist), and of narrative art (such the disagreement between Doyle and a policeman about whether stories develop from beginning to ending or vice versa--an interesting question for a historical novel and the issue used to structure its four sections--that is to say--there are so many pleasurable elements of the novel that it is hard to know where to begin, where to end.
So I will simply close with the kind of paradox that neither character appreciated. On the occasion of their first meeting, Arthur says: "You and I, George, you and I, we are . . . unofficial Englishmen" (234), understandably puzzling his half Indian, half Scots interlocutor. Now it may be that Doyle refers to nothing more that the fact that he promises "to make a great deal of noise" about the Edalji case, and "the official English . . . do not like noise" (235). Even allowing for Doyle's mixed Scottish and Irish background, readers may be inclined to agree with George that the famous author is "a very official Englishman indeed" (234). George, in silent, therefore polite and officially English, disagreement, further reasons that he, George, is himself "a full Englishman": "He is one by birth, by citizenship, by education, by religion, by profession" (235). George in obvious ways is wrong about himself and right about Arthur, making it is no less the case that Arthur is right about George and wrong about himself. The permutations might proliferate, but the post-modern play is less the point than the possibility that "the Englishman" by the beginning of the twentieth century (if not always already so) is so hopelessly a hybrid that questions of "official or not" should not be tried and cannot be resolved. Guilty and innocent. Fortunately, appeals to this verdict on "The Case of the Unofficial Englishmen" can be addressed to its official author, who--itinerant but as far as I know not Irish--joins us this evening. Please join me in welcoming Julian Barnes.
Randall Craig is a Professor in the UAlbany English Department.
Jarka Burian Memorial Remarks - Saturday, January 28, 2006
At times of loss, we try to soften the blow of death's unwelcome arrival. We try to comfort ourselves with the catalogue of Jarka's immensely full life and the innumerable and profound ways he touched us and thousands of students and readers.
But to be honest, that doesn't help a whole lot. It really doesn't lessen the loss for those of us left behind. Death does come like a thief in the night. We're never really ready for the loss we experience. I know that we were not ready for Jarka to be taken from us. No one could fail to rebel at the loss of a steady and supportive friend, an advisor without peer, a scholar whose grasp of drama and theatre was as comprehensive as it was profound, and a director whose meticulous artistry taught all of us what it meant to pursue the art of theatre with intelligence and passion.
Jarka and Grayce have been part of my life since 1969 when the very persuasive Paul Pettit, then theatre chair at Albany and, like Jarka, a Cornell-educated scholar-director, talked me out of law school and into graduate work in theatre at Albany. Jarka was my teacher, my advisor, my thesis supervisor, a counselor in choosing a Ph.D. program, a referee, and then, in a delightful twist of fate, a colleague and a friend over the last two decades of my service here at the University.
Early in my days as a grad assistant at Albany, I recall Jarka seeking to have me reassigned from the scene shop to serve as his research assistant for a production he was directing of The Measures Taken by Bertolt Brecht. In the full flush of callow youth this seemed to me, in terms of workload, a highly desirable proposition, a happy respite from toil. How wrong I was! Even I, who had taken several of Jarka's demanding and intricate courses, could not have imagined how many quotes, articles, treatises, speeches, critiques, and letters by Marx, Lenin, Brecht, Bentley, and a host of other commentators were catalogued in Jarka's encyclopedic memory. The location of these relevant snippets was somewhat less certain to him however, and that is where I came in. Several hundred trips to the library later, fingers sore from sorting through the card catalogue, we produced 60 legal-sized pages of what seemed the largest, densest, most comprehensive, dramaturgic supplement ever offered to a theatrical audience. And what a wonderful lesson that was. Artistic choice could be informed by rational thought and research. There was salvation in research when a directorial problem seemed insurmountable. There was actually a pragmatic and palpable application of intellectual endeavor to artistic product. And so Jarka became a model for my career as he did for so many people in this hall, and his passing reminds us that in addition to losing his person we are losing the model as well. While we mourn our friend and colleague, our field mourns the loss of the scholar-director as a career ideal. And as paradoxical and difficult as it has always been to actually achieve the career balance that is implied in that model, Jarka showed us not only that it could be done, but that its value to the art form and to its students and practitioners was immeasurable.
It is a rare privilege in life to have a student/teacher relationship grow into a friendship and professional association that stretches over a long period of time in one institution. Jarka never stopped surprising me with new ways to think about theatre, new ways to see productions we had both experienced, new ways to solve old problems of curriculum, teaching and academic leadership. Our memorable dinners with Grayce were just as stimulating and enlightening as our wonderful and detailed examinations of Chekhov, Brecht, O'Neill, and so many others in those wonderful classes 30 years ago. Jarka's profound and far reaching legacy is witnessed by the long list of those moved to speak today, each of whom will struggle to contain and express that legacy within the bounds of speech. The best and most eloquent testimony to that legacy must be the number of his students who,as teachers, artists and scholars, strive to emulate his high standards and in their turn infuse new generations with knowledge of, and passion for, learning and the art of the theatre. Those who did not experience him directly have his scholarship. His writing is classic in its economy, its grace, and its easy synthesis of fact into lucid explication, and his books on Czech theatre will be fitting monuments to his observant and penetrating intelligence. The lecture that Jarka and Grayce established will go on and always remind me of the great pleasure of stimulating conversations with Marvin Carlson, Ming Cho Lee, John Simon, John Lahr, Tina Howe, Mary Henderson and many others, especially in the memorable post-lecture gatherings so admirably hosted by Grayce and brightened by the conversation of a host of friends and colleagues. Those evenings recalled the sparkle of an enlightenment salon. In talking of Jarka and his legacy you cannot fail to notice the inevitable pairing: Grayce and Jarka, Jarka and Grayce. Surely Jarka's legacy and his accomplishments would not have been possible had he not made his most perceptive and visionary choice of all: that of Grayce as his partner. To be able to observe the mutual support, lively humor, creative spark, sometimes frightening honesty and the immense social and professional elegance of this most wonderfully matched of couples has been a felicity beyond measure.
Part of the privilege of knowing Jarka over time was seeing the many sides of this complex and fascinating man--from formal restraint in the classroom to casual warmth and a rich, sly sense of humor over one of his favored martinis--from the demanding precision of a merciless editor to the generosity of encouragement on scholarly publication and artistic projects. His uniqueness inspired many imitations by his students, none more memorable than an occasion at the Agnes Futterer award ceremony when three students appeared simultaneously in an improvised skit each playing the role of Jarka Burian. And I will let his memory rest there for now, for I can think of no better tribute to an irreplaceable teacher than such an application by his students of their performance skill to celebrating his unforgettable personna with gentle humor in testimony to the spirit of a great, good, and now sorely missed, colleague and friend.
Langdon Brown is a Program Fellow with the NYS Writers Institute.
E. L. Doctorow's The March
Since the publication of his first novel, E.L. Doctorow has taken his readers on journeys spanning a brilliant spectrum of genres and historic times. Narrating with a cool hand, Doctorow creates characters that are immediate and real. The only perspectives included are those of the characters, and we are granted a complete entry into their thoughts with a nonjudgmental narrative. When reading E.L. Doctorow's masterfully constructed narrative, you'll find that the concerns of Doctorow's characters--the things that drive them, make them real--will absorb you completely. From the beginning, it is as if we have known the characters for a lifetime; it is as if we've existed in their world all along.
Doctorow is an authorial jack-of-all-trades, a writer who has expertly rendered stories in spectacularly diverse genres. Welcome to Hard Times (1960), a western, was Doctorow's first novel; Doctorow admitted to an interviewer that he enjoyed taking "disreputable genre materials and doing something serious with them." Doctorow has also transported readers to the realm of science fiction with Big as Life (1966). The Book of Daniel (1971), focusing on the Rosenberg case, was Doctorow's first work incorporating actual historical figures. Ragtime--published in 1975, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award--immersed readers in American life just before the outbreak of the First World War. Doctorow incorporated historical figures fearlessly into Ragtime: the reader can anticipate meeting J. P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman. In the Washington Post Book World, Raymond Sokolov noted that "Doctorow turns history into myth and myth into history. [He] continually teases our suspicion of literary artifice with apparently true historical description. On the one hand, the 'fact' tugs one toward taking the episode as history. On the other, the doubt that lingers makes one want to take the narrative as an invention." Novelist Anne Tyler described Doctorow as "a sort of human time machine." In his historic fiction, Doctorow delves into the past. He raises philosophical questions about morality, and leaves it to the reader to interpret the events of the story.
The March (2005)--awarded the National Book Critics' Circle award for fiction and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize--takes readers on a magnificent journey through a Civil War-torn southern United States. Following General Tecumseh Sherman's daring march from Altlanta, to Georgia, and through the Carolinas, The March is no exception to Doctorow's indisputable talent to engage readers. We don't merely observe these characters, but we are clued into their personal opinions and emotions, their fears and concerns. Each character in The March--even if their particular narrative is only continued for a few pages--is brought to life.
Doctorow paints the participants of Sherman's March as a society unto themselves. It is a society where atrocities easily go unpunished--a society rife with suffering and misery. But Doctorow writes with a cold unbiased voice: we see the horrors of war as they are; the events aren't painted to be glorious, and the tone is not accusing. The war comes to life because the narrative voice is nonjudgmental and because of that, we trust Doctorow fully. The only opinions we read are those of the characters involved.
Sherman's March has created an environment where death is commonplace--it is something most of the characters become desensitized to. Some characters--characters such as the English journalist, Pryce--are eliminated remorselessly after the reader invests in them through pages of narrative devoted to the character's unique perspective. Doctorow makes us feel the violent bite of conflict. We make connections with these characters because we learn about their most intimate thoughts and fears, and when these characters are snatched away by the unforgiving jaws of the war, we are often the only ones to mourn their loss.
From the opening pages, Doctorow establishes a principal for the novel: the reader should never expect to be outside the action. Always writing inside his characters, Doctorow puts us in the violent heat of the Civil War firsthand through the eyes of Confederate soldiers, Union Soldiers, refugees--black and white--privates, and generals, most notably General Sherman. Through these different perspectives, we grow to understand how this march affected individuals, and society as a whole.
This novel is not restricted to one solid narrative, but it is a conglomeration of multiple narratives that interweave; all the sub-stories are connected by the super-story: General Sherman's March up until the surrender of General Joe Johnston and Lincoln's assassination. The novel opens by plunging the reader into the chaos of a panicking Georgian plantation, witnessed through the eyes of Mattie Jameson, the wife of plantation owner John Jameson. The Union army is coming, and the Jamesons must flee before the looting bluecoats arrive. For those opening pages, we are Mattie Jameson: we share her concerns for her husband and estate, her fears of the union army which is bearing down upon the plantation, and the emotions of desolation about leaving her home. Doctorow gives us an account of the Civil War that no history book can provide. Displaying fearlessness in exerting the horrors of war upon his characters and readers, Doctorow informs us of John Jameson's death; we learn he has been killed by a union solider in Columbia. Merging the narrative seamlessly, we are given multiple perspectives of Mattie's hardships. John Jameson is treated by Wrede Sartorius: a stoic field doctor who is ambivalent to the war around him; his only concern is his surgical work. Pearl--the illegitimate child of John Jameson and a slave named Nancy Wilkins--tries to console Mattie despite her treatment as a slave on the Jameson plantation. In this way, Doctorow pushes the reader to ponder Pearl's benevolence and thus question the morality of a slave/master relationship. Like Mattie, Emily Thompson--the daughter of the deceased Judge Thompson--is a refugee from Milledgeville. Emily, a young woman confused and uprooted by the war, becomes accepted as a field nurse, and we experience the death of John Jameson and Mattie's grief through her perspective as well.
General Tecumseh Sherman is a historical character brought to life: he is not merely a drab historical figure who is written in to validate the authenticity of the novel. General Sherman is imbued with personality--with humanity--in this novel; we understand his fears, his insecurities, we gain a priceless perspective into the mind of a Civil War General. We learn of the grief Sherman has suffered over the death of his sons, William and Charles. When Sherman learns that Confederate General Hardee's son, also named Willie, has been killed, Sherman writes to his enemy, "I can imagine you wishing in your grief that God has spared your Willie and taken you instead, for that is what I wished--I mean, when I lost my Willie. I curse our inverted time, when so many thousands of us, fathers and mothers, have given our children to this damned war of the insurrection." (The March, page 317). In this letter, we are shown that Sherman was more than capable of expressing sympathy, even to the enemy. He is depicted as a vulnerable person who respects his men, expresses fear for them, and enjoys camping out under the stars in the field rather than living in the comforts of a captured city. Colonel Teack--one of the general's close assistants--observes Sherman's actions and thinks, "This is an important part of leadership…knowing when to be human, knowing how, without embarrassing yourself or your men, to represent faith in them. So that, when the time comes, if necessary, they will die for you." (page 321). The reader will understand the complexity of Sherman's thoughts, whereas, if we read a history book, we might seen him only as a man who was driven to win the Civil War, no matter what stood in his path. After the war is won, Sherman reflects, "Yes, your cause was just. Yes, you could drink your flagon of pride. But victory was a shadowed, ambiguous thing. I will go on wondering about my actions. Whereas General Johnston and his colleagues of the unjust cause, now embittered and awash in defeat, will have sublimed to a righteously aggrieved state that would empower them for a century." (page 349). While history might view Sherman as something of a madman for burning the city of Columbia, we understand him differently. As the fires rage through the city, as Sherman's men ravage the people and loot the stores, Sherman joins a group of the city's firefighters. Colonel Teack stops Sherman, states that putting out fires is not proper duty for a general, and mentally notes the soot streaked on Sherman's face. The March does not portray Sherman as the head of an army, a mysterious God-like figure who controls the other characters with the hand of an all-powerful tyrant, but we understand that the march is--at some points--out of his control. As Sherman watches a burning mansion with Colonel Teack, he reflects, "When I was posted here maybe twenty years ago, I fell in love with a girl who lived in this very house. Of coarse it was not to be, but hers were the softest lips I have ever kissed." (The March, 184). Sherman succumbs to a moment nostalgia; he feels responsible for the burning of the city, and while he might accept it as a necessity of the war, he is able to retain fondness for the city. Thinking of the girl he once loved is a way for him to mourn.
General Sherman is the father character in this novel as all the other sub-stories erupt from the event of Sherman's March, but the characters featured in the other branches of narration are just as important as Sherman. One should be aware, however, that these intertwining stories can become hectic to follow at times. Doctorow jumps from sub-story to sub-story without warning, and it can be difficult to remember the history of a particular character when they are again revisited. This confusion is effective in a way: it simulates the confusion and chaos that ran rampant during Sherman's march. With slaves and refugees following in close tow behind an invading army--an army that pillages and burns, creating more refugees--the narrative effectively portrays the chaos these characters are trying desperately to survive.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating characters is Arly Wilcox. Arly's tale begins in a Confederate prison. It is here that he meets Will--a young black man who has been imprisoned for desertion. Taking Will under his wing, Arly convinces Will to once more swear allegiance to the Confederacy. Both men are conscripted into the Rebel army. The two men fight the Union at the Oconee River; it is here that they defect when the opportunity presents itself. Arly, convinced that the rag-tag duo will be more likely to survive elsewhere, scavenges the battlefield; they procure Union uniforms from corpses and defect to Sherman's army. These two serve as comic relief of sorts. I found Arly to be an amiable character; his cunning survival tactics were entertaining to read about. But when Will bleeds to death from a gunshot wound, the dark side of Arly Wilcox surfaces. Arly is transformed from a self-serving man to a conspirator with malicious intentions. The buildup is slow, but gradually Doctorow clues us in to what Arly's plot is. We learn--moments before the event occurs--that Arly has formulated a plot to assassinate General Sherman. If you're a Civil War buff, you already know the outcome, but I won't spoil it for the rest of you.
The March was a fun read. I have been granted a priceless panoramic view of Sherman's destructive march: I understand the people of the time--their situations, their motivations, their fears and aspirations. I recommend this book to anyone who has a desire to understand American history.
Brian Gillen is a student intern at the Writers Institute.
Introduction for Horton Foote (5/2/06)
The lights go up. A young man stands in a cemetery contemplating three unmarked graves in his family's plot. Which one is his father? Where will he put the headstone to finally complete the ritual of laying his father to rest? A conversation with the town gravedigger turns up no answers but reveals the deadly flu epidemic ravaging their town, Harrison, Texas, in 1918. One of the flu's victims is in the graveyard. Ironically, before dying, the victim had made the final installment payment on a suit he anticipated wearing for Christmas. It dressed him for his funeral and now for eternity. The young man leaves the graveyard and returns home still wondering where his father is buried. Many of you will recognize this opening sequence from Horton Foote's play 1918, one of innumerable examples that come to mind of the exquisite craft of Foote's dramaturgy. In this dramatic instant a cascade of images and possibilities engulf the audience. A story is begun, we are captivated by a character, we sense the potential of the narrative because this one moment captures more of life's polarities than we can catalogue, even in retrospect: individual life versus the collective life and great events of the larger world, life versus death, everyday humdrum versus high ritual, unanswered existential questions versus the non-answer of mortality, the illusion of health and security in a world filled with disease and threat--and all of these polarities roil under the veneer of social grace and economic striving that masks the darker turbulence of the play's universe. This is one tiny glimpse into the detailed and layered dramatic world created by Horton Foote. Likened by many critics to Chekhov, Foote creates an artistic language that renders life's most elemental questions in a voice at once compassionate and unsentimental in a form that is compact and focused but often communicated by loquacious characters. The richness of the work is only partially due to the elegant resolution of contradictions, however. It asks the timeless philosophical questions that Mr. Foote often alludes to in interviews: How do people carry on? Why are they so keen to survive? Why doesn't life break the human spirit? What's the difference between those who survive and those who don't? His art is a quest to explore these questions and a celebration of how humans suffer catastrophic change and soldier on. We all participate in this human dynamic and Horton Foote allows us to appreciate it, observe it, laugh at it, weep over it. It is no wonder that critic Richard A. Blake described The Trip to Bountiful as an odyssey of the human spirit. Where so many in our culture pursue the shameless and the sensational, Horton Foote searches for truth in mythical Harrison, Texas, by subtly examining the intimate details of everyday life with gentle honesty to profound effect.
Horton Foote has written with distinction for television, film and theatre, in addition to penning a novel adapted from one of his plays and two memoirs. His awards are too numerous to completely detail but they include the National Medal of the Arts, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Drama, Oscars for the screenplays of To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, an Oscar nomination for The Trip to Bountiful, the Writers Guild Screen Award for Mockingbird, the Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man from Atlanta, the Emmy for his teleplay, Old Man, and, recently announced, he will be receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Drama Desk Awards when those are distributed later this month. Most remarkable is that simultaneously with the awarding of a lifetime achievement award, his plays are still so central to our repertory that two of them are competing for Drama Desk Best Play Revival Awards. A most unusual and signal achievement.
That is rare, but it is rarer still for someone in this business, at this incredible level of success to be universally acknowledged for his personal grace, compassion, sincerity and generosity towards his fellow artists. He has never lost touch with his own apprenticeship and unfailingly shows his genuine interest in and support for those attempting to follow in his impossibly large footsteps. It is, quite simply, a privilege to be in his presence.
Please welcome Horton Foote.
Langdon Brown is a Program Fellow with the NYS Writers Institute and Professor of English, UAlbany.
Neuroscientist Eric Kandel's new book, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (2006), is many things. It's a memoir of his Vienna boyhood and his American education. It's an explanation for the layman of the physical basis of learning and memory. It's a chronicle of the author's ground-breaking investigations into the cellular and molecular elements of mental functioning. It's an intellectual history of cognitive science, an exciting new discipline that lies at the crossroads of behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and molecular biology. It's a collection of intriguing new answers to some of the "great questions," including the "Mind-Body Problem" and "Nature vs. Nurture." It's also a collection of forecasts about the future of brain science, including discussions of promising new approaches to such infirmities as schizophrenia, depression, and dementia.
Last but not least, it is a record of Kandel's long and productive working relationship with Aplysia, a giant, soft-bodied marine snail that served as his principal research animal. Kandel feels that, in some sense, he is obligated to share his 2000 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Aplysia. Indeed, the new book features a photograph of a proud, erect-looking Aplysia wearing Kandel's Nobel medal around its elongated and squishy neck. His esteem for Aplysia is evident in the following quote about Denise Kandel, the author's beloved wife of many decades, and a professor of sociomedical sciences and psychiatry at Columbia University:
Finally, I had learned something in marrying Denise. I had been reluctant and fearful of marriage, even to Denise, whom I loved much more than any other woman I had ever thought of marrying. But Denise was confident that our marriage would work, so I took a leap of faith and went ahead. I learned from that experience that there are many situations in which one cannot decide on the basis of cold facts alone--because facts are often insufficient. One ultimately has to trust one's unconscious, one's instincts, one's creative urge. I did this again in choosing Aplysia.Also evident from the quote above, is Kandel's belief in the central importance of creative, even irrational impulses in the pursuit of science, a belief that will be discussed more fully below.
Aplysia is a speckled, purple, soft-bodied creature that grows to more than 30 inches in length and several pounds in weight. When disturbed it releases a cloud of reddish-purple goo. In common parlance it is called the "sea hare" because of its ear like protuberances. It has been described by science writer Stephen S. Hall as a "purplish-green baked potato with ears," and by biologist PZ Meyers as a "squirming muscular slug." Kandel himself calls it a "large, proud, attractive and obviously highly intelligent beast."
Kandel began his strange and fruitful symbiosis with Aplysia as a young neurobiologist after considering several animals as research models. He disappointed many of his mentors by selecting a "simple" invertebrate animal, rather than a more "complex" mammal. They believed, with good reason, that the brains of mammals such as cats and monkeys provided better models for the complex processes of the human brain. Kandel, however, sought an animal whose neural circuitry would be simple enough to eventually map in full. The Aplysia possesses only a tiny fraction of the number of nerve cells found in mammals (only 20,000 as opposed to approximately 100 billion). Moreover, it is endowed with some of the largest nerve cells in the animal kingdom. Indeed, many of Aplysia's nerve cells are large enough to see with the naked eye, a rarity, and a great convenience to neuroscientists. Aplysia's simplicity also conferred advantages comparable to Ford's assembly line in the world of industry. While experiments on mammals often took months or years to complete, Kandel and his colleagues often found that experiments on Aplysia could be accomplished in as little as eight hours.
Kandel quotes fruit fly behavior specialist Chip Quinn as saying, tongue-in-cheek, that the ideal experimental animal for biological studies of learning must have "no more than three genes, be able to play the cello or at least recite classical Greek, and learn these tasks with a nervous system containing only ten large, differently colored and therefore easily recognizable neurons." Kandel says, "I have often thought that Aplysia meets these criteria to a surprising degree."
At the time of Kandel's fateful selection of Aplysia in the 1950s, it was considered an exotic animal, studied by only two French researchers. It is now one of the workhorse animals in the field of neuroscience. Since 1996, the National Institutes of Health, in association with the University of Miami, has maintained a major Aplysia breeding and research facility on Virginia Key called the National Resource for Aplysia. The facility publishes a regular newsletter called "Slime Lines."
In choosing a behavior of Aplysia upon which to focus his studies, Kandel initially considered sexual behavior. In Aplysia, however, that behavior turned out to be surprisingly and spectacularly complicated for such a simple animal, involving many nerve cells in several different neural ganglia. Aplysia are hermaphrodites and groups of them, according to Kandel, "can form impressive copulating chains." Kandel settled instead upon the animals simplest behavior: its gill withdrawal reflex. The Aplysia's gill is a delicate external organ. Even when touched lightly, the gill is briskly withdrawn into a body cavity. This simple reflex, Kandel discovered, can be modified by learning. After being touched repeatedly, the Aplysia eventually becomes "habituated" to the stimulus and ignores it.
Study of the gill withdrawal reflex yielded much of Kandel's ground breaking discoveries. One notable example is the discovery that although neural architecture is genetically determined, the strength of individual neural connections is determined by experience and by learning. That is to say, that while "Nature"--the organism's predetermined neurological anatomy--plays a crucial role in what an animal is and how it behaves, "Nurture" actively shapes and sculpts "Nature" by altering and strengthening neural connections. Kandel develops this conclusion further in a later discussion of his findings that prion-like particles activated by experience and learning actually "switch on" genes that must be activated to create long-term memories. That is to say that genes, (representing "Nature" in its most elemental form), are activated or suppressed by environmental input ("Nurture"). More simply stated, the traditional "Nature vs. Nurture" opposition is in fact a two-way street.
Kandel grounds an assessment of his early findings in a discussion of Locke and Kant:
In reviewing our results, I could not help being reminded of the two opposing philosophical views of the mind that had dominated Western thought from the seventeenth century onward--empiricism and rationalism. The British empiricist John Locke argued that the mind does not possess innate knowledge but is instead a blank slate that is eventually filled by experience. Everything we know about the world is learned, so the more often we encounter an idea, the more enduring its impact on our minds. Immanuel Kant, the German rationalist philosopher, argued to the contrary, that we are born with certain templates of knowledge built into the mind. Those templates, which Kant called a priori knowledge, determine how sensory experience is received and interpreted.The passage is characteristic of Kandel's interest in the deep intellectual history of his field, a field that in his view includes the "predecessor disciplines" of psychoanalysis and philosophy. This knowledge is not merely a kind of historical footnote. Rather it frames his inquiry and shapes the entire course of his career as a scientist.
As an undergraduate, Kandel majored in English and the intellectual history of Central Europe. As a medical student in the 1950s, he became enamored of Freud and psychoanalysis. These interests, in addition to his lifelong personal interests in art, music and literature, broaden his appreciation of scientific phenomena. In passing, he notes that some of his most illustrious colleagues have similar interests in the humanities. During downtime in the lab they share talk of these nonscientific interests. He also mentions that his sometime collaborator and fellow Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Richard Axel is an opera addict, and that they frequently attended the opera together. These interests provide Kandel with useful illustrations of cognitive phenomena, and make his memoir very readable for the nonscientist. More than that, one gets the impression that they are essential in some way to making Kandel the paradigm-shattering scientist that he is. The humanities have helped to foster the creativity that has been the bedrock of his success, and have helped make his work a kind of "unified field theory" of all intellectual endeavors.
In addition, it is interesting to note that Kandel does not in any way devalue the "predecessor disciplines" of neuroscience. For example, though presently at work on the pharmacology of memory-boosting drugs, Kandel often celebrates and champions the work of Freud, a fellow Viennese, and psychotherapy, a field that in this Prozac-happy age has often been devalued and denounced as unscientific. Kandel establishes, on the contrary, the fact that Freud was a "keen student of the anatomy of the brain" and "had written repeatedly about the relevance of the biology of the brain to psychoanalysis." Indeed, Freud's writings about the importance of furthering the study of brain biology helped impel Kandel to take up brain science as his life's work.
Kandel views psychotherapy as a valuable learning experience that can shape the physical brain and help it find health. With regard to this matter, he quotes from An Unquiet Mind by writer and researcher Kay Jamison, a lifelong sufferer of bipolar disorder. Jamison recognizes the value of lithium as a treatment for her affliction, "But, ineffably, psychotherapy heals. It makes some sense of the confusion, reins in the terrifying thoughts and feelings, returns some control and hope and possibility of learning from it all. Pills cannot, do not, ease one back into reality."
From his perspective as a neuroscientist, Kandel envisions a renaissance of psychotherapy, but one enhanced by brain imaging. That is to say, brain imaging can measure the effect of psychotherapy and guide its application to the mental health of a given individual. Kandel also pays great tribute to Freud's notion of the unconscious mind, the areas of the physical brain that normally escape self-awareness but that, nonetheless, play a role in human behavior and, for the creative individual, a productive role. Kandel values irrational, aesthetic impulses as an integral part of his scientific method. He says, "…I learned to trust my instincts, to unconsciously follow my nose. Maturation as a scientist involves many components, but a key one for me was the development of taste, much as it is in the enjoyment of art, music, food, or wine." He does not develop this idea in great detail, but one wishes that he might someday find the time to write an entire book on the subject.
Finally, it is important to consider Kandel's book as a unique entry in the memoir genre. Kandel is, after all, a scientist whose principal work is on the physical basis of memory. His book is thus a fascinating mix of "objectivity" and "subjectivity." He uses personal memories to illustrate the mechanisms of memory on the molecular and cellular level. Related to this is the principle he articulates that the earlier the memory, the earlier its narrative coherence. Presumably the brain prunes away any remembered details (or synaptic connections) that are extraneous or contradictory to the preferred narrative flow of one's clearest childhood memories.
Kandel's childhood in Vienna is colored by the Nazi annexation of Austria, by Kristallnacht which Kandel experienced firsthand, and by the palpable, inescapable atmosphere of Austrian anti-Semitism. The shocking disparity between the refined and brilliant intellectual culture of Vienna, and the widespread Jew-hatred at every level of society, is at the root of Kandel's interest in the dark mysteries of the unconscious mind, he tells us, and is one of the things compelled him to shine a light on the human brain. His visits to Vienna at different points throughout his life, both in memory, and in actual fact, give structure to his discussions of the processes of memory. In the context of his work, the post-Holocaust motto of "Never Forget" takes on a deep and intriguing resonance, as do his investigations of the power of trauma to shape the brain.
Kandel received his B.A. from Harvard University, before pursuing a medical degree at the NYU School of Medicine. He began his research career at the National Institute of Mental Health, where he studied mammalian brain neurophysiology. After finishing a residency in clinical psychology, he joined the staff of the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston, while continuing to conduct research and teaching at Harvard Medical School. He became a professor of Physiology and Psychiatry at NYU in 1965, then joined the faculty at Columbia in 1974, where he founded and directed the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior.
Kandel currently serves as University Professor of Neurobiology at Columbia University, and Senior Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, his many honors include the Lasker Award, the Gairdner Award, the Harvey Prize, and the National Medal of Science.
Mark Koplik is a Program Assistant with the NYS Writers Institute.
Field Notes from a Catastrophe
Elizabeth Kolbert's firsthand look at climate change
Ask the average American when global warming was first discovered and most would say the 1970s. That would be accurate on one level since it was in this decade that the scientific community really began voicing concerns over climate change, and specifically "global warming." This started with early climate modeling research by Syukuro Manabe of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which helped call attention to the impact carbon dioxide emissions had on the atmosphere. Persuaded by initial findings, President Carter commissioned the first substantial study of global warming in 1979. The study was conducted by the National Academy of Sciences and the conclusions were clear: "If carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible…We may not be given a warning until the CO2 loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable" (11).
But the first notion of climate change actually originated in 1895 with the research of Svante Arrhenius. A Swedish chemist, Arrhenius first observed the connection between industrialization--particularly the use of fossil fuels and increased levels of carbon dioxide--and the warming atmosphere. His observation, however, was not humankind's first encounter with climate change. Geological records dating back millions of years confirm that the Earth's climate changes continuously; this is just the first time humans have had the ability to observe and understand the process as it's happening. Unfortunately, this is also the first time humans have had the technology to cause climate change--referred to as "human induced climate change"--and the American public has not been given accurate and comprehensive information about the process nor the impact it's having (and will continue to have) on today's societies.
Elizabeth Kolbert's new book Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2006), meets this problem head on, clearly showing readers how global warming is related to broader social and environmental activities. Publishers Weekly says, "Kolbert's calmly persuasive reporting stands out for its sobering clarity…this unbiased overview is a model for writing about an urgent environmental crisis." Growing out of a three-part series Kolbert wrote for the New Yorker, Field Notes from a Catastrophe explains global warming by charting connections between past climate trends, changes being observed in the environment now, and policy battles that have dominated public discourse. To better understand these broad implications, Kolbert not only interviewed scientists, but traveled to sites all over the world, talking to people who are experiencing the impacts of global warming right now.
The concept of global warming builds on an understanding of the "natural greenhouse effect," a process in which carbon dioxide, water, and a few other gases create the conditions we currently enjoy on earth; the "greenhouse gases" trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere, regulating the planet's temperature. Without the natural greenhouse effect Earth would be frozen. What Arrhenius discovered in the late nineteenth century was that, as the concentration of greenhouse gases increased--such as carbon dioxide--the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere also increased. Recently, scientists confirmed that the level of greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane were the highest they have been in 650,000 years. Other studies indicate that the average global temperature is the hottest it's been in 2,000 years--1998 was the hottest year since they began measuring the global temperature almost 150 years ago. But what's the big deal? So the Earth is getting hotter, that just means lower heating bills for New Yorkers, right?
Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. Many have pointed out that the climate is constantly changing and adjusting. The problem arises with human induced climate change such as when fossil fuels release excessive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Kolbert explains, "The point that's important to keep in mind is that the greenhouse gases we are adding to the atmosphere are overwhelming the natural forces that cause climate variability. In effect, we humans are becoming the drivers of the climate system, and we are doing so without knowing where we are going." As one might imagine, the Earth's climate system regulates and sustains all life, influencing parts of the environment that we rarely, if ever, think about. The general population has been less conscious of this because the areas most affected by climate change are remote, such as the Arctic Circle. Kolbert traveled to these locations to observe the impact first hand.
Some of the most visible effects of global warming can be seen in Alaska where observable environmental changes include thawing permafrost and melting sea ice. The Arctic is largely composed of permafrost, which is soil that has been frozen for at least two years. One of the scientists Kolbert met with was Vladimir Romanovsky, one of the world's leading experts on permafrost. She spent time driving around Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska helping Romanovsky check the electronic monitoring stations he had set up to measure permafrost temperatures. In Alaska, the depth of permafrost ranges from a several hundred feet to a couple thousand feet--in Siberia, permafrost can go as deep as a mile. What Romanovsky has found at some of his sixty monitoring stations is that the permafrost is getting closer to thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit--it's thawing. This is significant for two reasons:
"For one thing, the permafrost represents a unique record of long-term temperature trends. For another, it acts, in effect, as a repository for greenhouses gases. As the climate warms, there is a good chance that these gases will be released into the atmosphere, further contributing to global warming. Although the age of the permafrost is difficult to determine, Romanovsky estimates that most of it in Alaska probably dates back to the beginning of the last glacial cycle. This means that if it thaws, it will be doing so for the first time in more than a hundred and twenty thousand years." (17)Since the early 1980s the temperature of Alaska's permafrost has increased by three degrees, although in some areas it has risen as much as six degrees. These trends are a reliable barometer for gauging global warming because permafrost temperatures are not as variable as air temperature. According to Romanovsky, and many other experts in the field, thawing permafrost in the Arctic Circle is a clear indication of global warming because it requires significant and persistent climatic temperature increases.
Kolbert also traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland, to visit the Icelandic Glaciological Society. The organization was founded in 1930 and is run by volunteers who measure the size of Iceland's three hundred plus glaciers. More than ten percent of Iceland is covered by glaciers that have been around for more than two million years. During one visit Oddur Sigurdsson, head of the Icelandic Glaciological Society, showed Kolbert a notebook containing glaciological reports on a glacier named Solheimajokull:
"In 1996, Solheimajokull crept back by 10 feet. In 1997, it receded by another 33 feet, and in 1998 by 98 feet. Every year since then, it has retreated even more. In 2003, it shrank by 302 feet, and in 2004, by 285 feet. All told, Solheimajokull--the name means "sun-home glacier" and refers to a nearby farm--is now 1,100 feet shorter than it was just a decade ago…'You can tell by this glacier what the climate is doing," Sigurdsson said. "It is more sensitive than the most sensitive meteorological measurement." (61)Before Kolbert left Iceland she took a drive out to Solheimajokull. Standing on a ridge, she tried to identify some of the landscape that had surrounded Solheimajokull in pictures Sigurdsson had shown her, but had difficulty because the glacier had receded significantly since the time of the photos. Kolbert tells her readers that, "A raw wind came up, and I started to head down. Then I thought about what Sigurdsson had told me. If I returned in another decade, the glacier would probably no longer even be visible from the ridge where I was standing. So I climbed back up to take a second look" (66).
Not everyone is afforded a "second look." The golden toad of Costa Rica's Tilaran Mountains hasn't been seen since 1989, and is just one of many high altitude species that are disappearing. This has been attributed to decreased precipitation in tropical cloud forests. With the decrease in precipitation, scientists have also observed an increase in the height of the cloud cover over the forest, a development that has been linked to the global atmospheres rising levels of carbon dioxide. Kolbert writes:
"A few years ago, nineteen biologists from around the world set out to give, in their words, a "first pass" estimate of the extinction risk posed by global warming. They assembled data on eleven hundred species of plants and animals from sample regions covering roughly a fifth of the earth's surface…Using a midrange projection of temperature rise, the group concluded that, if the species in the sample regions could be assumed to be highly mobile, then fully 15 percent of them would be "committed to extinction" by the middle of this century, and if they proved to be basically stationary, an extraordinary 37 percent of them would be." (85)More than 5000 miles north of Costa Rica and five miles off Alaska's Seward Peninsula, the island of Shishmaref is also disappearing. The island's highest elevation is just 22 feet above sea level and is home to the village of Sarichef. Each fall, the sea surrounding the island freezes, giving the island protection from storms. But beginning in the early 1990s, the sea ice began to freeze later and thaw earlier. In 2002, after the island had been devastated by storms several years in a row, the residents of Shishmaref decided to move the village onto the mainland. Although relocation will disrupt their lives, remove them from the location where generations have lived, and likely displace traditional ways of living, this was the only option for the residents of Sarichef. Basic science links rising sea levels to global warming, so it's just a matter of time before other islands will face the same problems found on Shishmaref.
The Netherlands is also dealing with the affects of global warming. With a quarter of its country below sea level and another quarter scarcely higher, flooding has always been a problem in the Netherlands. For the last five hundred years, the Dutch have survived using a sophisticated water management system to maintain the land, i.e. prevent flooding. This has included "150 miles of dunes, 260 miles of sea dikes, 850 miles of river dikes, 610 miles of lake dikes, and 8,000 miles of canal dikes, not to mention countless pumps, holding ponds, and windmills" (121). But with rising sea levels, the Netherlands water management system cannot continue protecting inhabitants and property. Water ministry official Eelke Turkstra told Kolbert that in the twenty-first century, sea levels will rise just under two feet-some experts estimate that the rise will be closer to three feet-and will cause considerable problems, not only for islands, but for all coastal residents. In response to these warnings, one of the Netherlands largest construction companies has begun to transform a riverside RV park into "amphibious homes." Continuing the effort to investigate global warming from the ground up, Kolbert visited the new development and talked to some of the residents living there:
"Assuming that all goes according to plan, when the Meuse floods, the homes will bob up and then, when the water recedes, they will gently be deposited back on the land. At the point that I visited, a half a dozen families were occupying their amphibious houses. Anna van der Molen, a nurse and mother of four gave me a tour of hers. She was enthusiastic about life on the river. 'Not one day is the same,' she told me. In the future, she said, she expected that people all over the world would live in floating houses, since, as she put it, 'the water is coming up, and we have to live with it, not fight it--it's just not possible.'" (130)Kolbert doesn't merely report from locations experiencing the effects of climate changes, although these provide critical insights into the current impact of global warming. Fields Notes from a Catastrophe also lays out the scientific explanations for these events, pooling different fields and theories to paint a picture of today's climate change in relation to the planet's history. Undeniably, Earth has reached a state that hasn't been seen in hundreds of thousands of years. Geological records have shown that the planet is just about as warm as it has been in the last 420,000 years: "A possible consequence of even a four- or five-degree temperature rise--on the low end of projections for the end of this century--is that the world will enter a completely new climate regime, one with which modern humans have no prior experience" (127). At the center of these changes is what scientists call "dangerous anthropogenic interference" (DAI), a phrase referring to the hazardous impacts of increasing greenhouse gas levels. Most, if not all of the local and scientific evidence for climate change is connected with DAI. This is where the concept of human induced climate change comes into play.
The last two-thirds of Field Notes from a Catastrophe reviews global, national, and local efforts that are being made to put the breaks on global warming. Scientists and policy makers around the world have proposed initiatives to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The problem is, climate change is a global problem and there are many, large hurdles blocking the way to an "easy" solution. To address the overwhelming and broad nature of climate change, Robert Socolow, director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative has proposed a program based on "stabilization wedges" that would "break the problem down into more manageable blocks" (135). Some of the wedges include transitioning to solar power and wind electricity. None of the stabilization wedges would be achieved easily, and like all greenhouse gas reduction initiatives, Socolow's proposal has had its critics.
But in some arenas, there has been a level of consensus about what needs to be done to address the problem of climate change, and without a doubt, the issue needs to be dealt with globally. The Kyoto Protocol, a United Nations treaty on climate change, was drafted for this very purpose. Countries that signed the treaty pledged to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and five additional greenhouse gases. Many considered the Kyoto Protocol a tremendous success until President Bush withdrew the United States from the treaty in 2001. Despite overwhelming evidence of global warming developments--including national studies that President Bush himself ordered--the current Administration has taken, at best, a skeptical stance towards the issue. But the fact of the matter is, too many people have taken a skeptical stance towards global warming and most of this skepticism derives from a lack of information. When asked in an interview about the gap between expert and lay opinion Kolbert responded:
"I spoke to many very sober-minded, coolly analytical scientists who, in essence, warned of the end of the world as we know it. I think there are a few reasons why their message hasn't really gotten out. One is that scientists tend, as a group, to interact more with each other than with the general public. Another is that there has been a very well-financed disinformation campaign designed to convince people that there is still scientific disagreement about the problem, when, as I mentioned before, there really is quite broad agreement. And third, the climate operates on its own timetable. It will take several decades for the warming that is already inevitable to be felt. People tend to focus on the here and now. The problem is that, once global warming is something that most people can feel in the course of their daily lives, it will be too late to prevent much larger, potentially catastrophic changes."Using scientific evidence, local stories, and first hand observations, Field Notes from a Catastrophe has provided readers with the full story on climate change. Hopefully, by spreading this information, Kolbert's book will inspire a response that is long overdue.
Elizabeth Kolbert's first book, The Prophet of Love: And Other Tales of Power and Deceit (2004), reports on New York civic life, power struggles, and the people that keep the city running. The book profiles public figures including Reverend Al Sharpton, Hilary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Charles Rangel, George Pataki, and Rudy Giuliani. Kolbert had been a reporter at the New York Times for fifteen years before becoming a staff writer for the New Yorker in 1999. She has received both the George Polk Award and Walter T. Brown Award for journalism, and more recently, received the American Association for the Advancement of Science's magazine writing award for the three part New Yorker series on which Field Notes from a Catastrophe is based.
Alison Kenner is a Graduate Assistant with the NYS Writers Institute and a Women's Studies major.
Introductory Remarks for Redmond O'Hanlon, 2/17/06
Reading is generally thought of as a sedentary pursuit characterized by reflective contemplation and meditative calm. Our guest this afternoon is a writer who produces work that positively explodes that generalization. If you have a tendency toward seasickness you might be well advised to take some Dramamine before curling up by the fire in your leather armchair to read his latest book, Trawler, a roller coaster read if there ever was one, recounting a harrowing voyage into hurricane force winds in the dangerous waters north of Scotland. Although the book may be found in the travel section of your local bookstore, it is the antithesis of the general run of travel writing that might find its way, say, into the Sunday New York Times travel section. After all, the Orkney Islands, the Rockall Trough, the Porcupine Abyssal Plain, to say nothing of the Arctic Circle, are a long way from a beach in Tortola or a museum in Florence. And any notion that the reader's intellect may tag along in slothful inertia is challenged at the outset by our scientist guide and former natural history editor of the London Times Literary Supplement who makes us see our watery environment in a an entirely new way. He upsets our unexamined assumption that the oceans are pretty much fished out. After all, he reminds us--two-thirds of the earth is ocean, 90% of that is deep ocean and only 1% of those waters have been explored. Our tour guide is a sharp-eyed researcher with a nose for the unusual and an infectious thirst for discovery. And the physical conditions endured on the voyage give us a pretty good sense of why most rational humans have restrained themselves from personally experiencing any part of the remaining 99% of those deep and daunting waters. For the reader it is the reading equivalent of a rodeo ride on a wild bull. It is a reading experience that pressures the imagination into states of vicarious physical deprivation and mental anguish that one can only describe as breathtaking.
In a remarkably vivid and finally unclassifiable feat of writing, Trawler acquaints us with the boat's crew, taciturn Scots who find their tongues loosened by the sleep deprivation that their work demands, men of the sea who hope that the book their passenger is writing will finally explain to their women what it is that they do when they disappear over the horizon. They cannot have been disappointed. O'Hanlon endures a painful initiation into this hardy brotherhood and the acceptance he finds translates into a rich reward for the reader who also feels some small claim on honorary membership in the fraternity of the sea.
Redmond O'Hanlon has disappeared over the horizon many times in earlier travels to provide us with heart of darkness trips into the remaining mysterious corners of the world. First in his book Into the Heart of Borneo, then with the aptly titled In Trouble Again: Journeys between the Orinoco and the Amazon, named one of National Geographic's One Hundred Greatest Adventure Books of All Time--and more recently the 1997 New York Times Notable Book: No Mercy: a Journey into the Heart of the Congo.
Redmond O'Hanlon is a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, a member of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He is a shrewd observer of all his fellow creatures, a connoisseur of exotic locales, a keen scientific observer with a nose for overlooked phenomena and, most important, a writer unafraid to probe his own vulnerabilities in the pursuit of scientific and humanistic enlightenment.
Langdon Brown is a Program Fellow with the NYS Writers Institute.
Regardless of whether he is searching for the elusive Mokele-mbembe dinosaur in the South American rainforest, or seeking out the supposedly most violent people on earth in the Congo, O'Hanlon describes the day-to-day foibles of life in inhospitable climates with honesty and stark detail. Always beginning with a specific goal in mind, O'Hanlon usually disregards it shortly after his treks begin. In doing so, O'Hanlon reveals that what truly has value in any adventure (in the Congo or otherwise) is not the realization of his often fantastical goal, but the actual process of learning and discovery that his journeys offer. For example, on the outset of Into the Heart of Borneo readers anticipate the discovery of the elusive Borneo rhinoceros, only to become fascinated with how many ants can actually fit in a hiking boot, or O'Hanlon's tense struggle up the highest mountain on the island. Suddenly, the reader's interest in the Borneo rhinoceros fades away and the process of becoming a vicarious part of O'Hanlon's journey becomes the foremost reason to keep reading.
O'Hanlon uses the same technique of shifting the emphasis of his story in his newest travelogue, Trawler. O'Hanlon's most brilliant offering to date, Trawler, combines the wry humor of his past books with a new, more sophisticated concern for the mental and physiological effects of the isolations and fears that come with being a Trawlerman. Perhaps because of the physical circumstances involved, or because of his development as a writer, O'Hanlon's newest offering marks a departure from his usual explorations in both tone and style. Trawler takes place on the high seas in January, a departure from the steamy tropics, the locales of O'Hanlon's other books. O'Hanlon also spends more time exploring his own mind and the minds of the other men aboard than he does the hurricane surrounding the boat or the ecological smorgasbord the Trawler men retrieve from the ocean floor each day. Of Trawler, Kirkus Reviews writes, "…just when you think the storm will be the heart of the tale, the action shifts to the gutting-room floor, where O'Hanlon and his marine biologist friend Luke…will slowly become unhinged by their lack of sleep, engaging in extended, digressive, fascinating conversations." Using his first-rate way with words to describe his surroundings, O'Hanlon takes his readers on a journey of the mind, from the isolation of a few days on a tiny boat, to the near desperation he and the other men face after weeks of fear, cold, and longing for home. As Lynda V. Mapes of The Seattle Times writes, "I've read lots of men-at-sea books but never any like this one, with O'Hanlon's first-person descriptions of the nausea, the close quarters, the funk, the stink, the fear." Trawler is O'Hanlon's newest triumph, an intimate account of the struggles of deep-sea anglers trying to make a living in the most dangerous profession in the world.
But Trawler is not just an exploration of the psychological problems faced by these brave men, it is an intense, riveting tale of the life-threatening lifestyle onboard one of the most deadly workplaces on earth. With half-hour long naps in a thirty-six hour period, rolling twenty-foot waves, and the constant threat of falling overboard, which would result in almost instant death, this book is perhaps O'Hanlon most harrowing adventure to date. Jon Kraukuer, author of such books as Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, and a travel writer himself said of Trawler, "[It is ] a frenzied depiction of an alien, intensely hazardous way of life, Trawler is both edifying and hugely entertaining. O'Hanlon's is a magnificently original voice: manic, scholarly, funny, sumptuously descriptive, and more than slightly deranged." Trawler is also a tale of the bizarre and anomalous creatures who make their home in the frigid, pitch-dark world of the deep-ocean like the jelly cats, hagfish, and wolf fish to name a few. From Luke Bullough, a biologist at the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen, readers get meticulous descriptions of the sea critters, including their everyday habits, often much to the revulsion of our daring author. This, combined with his near-constant seasickness and sleep-deprivation, fulfills the often humorous, though in this case unfortunate, side of every O'Hanlon adventure.
O'Hanlon's first book, Into the Heart of Borneo, is considered by many to be a masterpiece of travel literature. Replete with intelligence and humor, Into the Heart of Borneo represents O'Hanlon's first attempt at extreme travel. O'Hanlon's wit is clear and his passion for exploration so great that even the long list of possible diseases and infections he writes of in the opening of the book do not discourage him from making the journey. O'Hanlon even shows off his ornithological skills, identifying almost every bird known to inhabit the island of Borneo. Time Magazine aptly describes the book and his journey in their review: "Within this intrepid travelogue lies the soul of Monty Python...Every misstep of the way, O'Hanlon employs a dry, self-deprecating style that cannot disguise the team's gift for fresh and arresting description." Besides the adventure O'Hanlon, his companion James Fenton, and three other native guides experience throughout the book, it is the ease of flow within the narrative and the formation of relationships which O'Hanlon beautifully describes that make Into the Heart of Borneo a classic of travel literature.
In Trouble Again: A Journey between Orinoco and the Amazon is O'Hanlon's second travelogue, set in South America. Like Into the Heart of Borneo, O'Hanlon offers amazingly particular and thorough descriptions of his surroundings. During his four-month trip in a flimsy canoe up uncharted rivers, O'Hanlon is so crisp and precise in his descriptions of the many birds and other wildlife, it is as if his aim was to convince his readers that they, too, had been in a canoe, watching Amazonian birds just as he had. When his partner quits the journey, O'Hanlon presses on, risking his life yet again for love of the journey. As Publishers Weekly writes, "O'Hanlon survived the…hazards: poisonous snakes, caiman crocodiles, piranhas, the toothpick fish and even the potent yoppo (a narcotic) used in Yanomami rites." And, happily for us, he lived to tell the story in his typically compelling and droll style.
With his first two books, O'Hanlon concentrated mostly on the natural world that surrounded him and the effects of those surroundings on his partner and him. While his third book, No Mercy: A Journey into the Heart of the Congo is full of O'Hanlon's trademark humor and writing style, it also represents a real shift in interest for the author. No Mercy is O'Hanlon's first travelogue to fully combine the pure adventure of a trip and a more delicate look at the economic and sociological conditions of the area's indigenous populations. No Mercy is perhaps the most difficult to read of all O'Hanlon stories, because much of the vile aspects of the expedition come not from the conditions he experiences, but from the circumstances in which the peoples of the Congo live their lives. In this epic tale, O'Hanlon, along with his travel partner, Larry Shaffer, a biologist from SUNY Plattsburgh, describe the various diseases that consume the Pygmy people, which are all easily curable by Western standards. O'Hanlon and Shaffer show real concern for these people, distributing medicine to the sick and dying when they can. By the end of the book, readers discover that the title refers not to O'Hanlon's experience, but to the daily existence of the people of the Congo.
In 1984, O'Hanlon turned to writing about travel authors rather than his own travels. Joseph Conrad and Charles Darwin: The Influence of Scientific Thought on Conrad's Fiction is a comparative book on Joseph Conrad and Charles Darwin. It is evidence not only of O'Hanlon's extensive knowledge of the relationships between the two men's works, but also his diverse abilities as a writer. O'Hanlon uses these skills to write a book that is suitable for publication in any academic journal as well as appropriate for the casual reader. O'Hanlon looks at the issues from a literary, scientific, historical, and anthropological perspective, making his book one of the best on both Joseph Conrad's writing and the importance of Charles' Darwin's theories on those writings.
Redmond O'Hanlon caught the biology bug at a very early age. He attended Merton College, Oxford, where he wanted to study biology but did not want to take the math classes required. He instead turned to English, which he found an exceptionally easy subject. He is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society of Literature and was the natural history editor of The Times Literary Supplement for fifteen years. O'Hanlon lives with his wife, Belinda, a dressmaker, and their two children in Oxford, England when he is not traveling the globe.
O'Hanlon's adventure stories are exceptional because in them, he exposes the reader to the harsh realities of some of the most remote areas on earth, while at the same time preserving the romantic idea of traveling to these places. For readers, O'Hanlon's tales are both tantalizing and intimidating. There are few undeveloped regions left in our world: places where cities, villages and "civilization" have not seeped in to change the landscape. Capturing the atmosphere of these places is often a harrowing and dangerous way to make a living. But in each of his travel narratives, Redmond O'Hanlon seeks out these isolated, often hostile places, and succeeds every time to capture their atmosphere completely.
Eva Romero is undergraduate student intern at the NYS Writers Institute
Reframing American Politics: Stories of Women Who Fought for Our Rights
Karenna Gore Schiff's Lighting the Way
As a student of Women's Studies I've had the opportunity to learn about the many women who made history in our country. In most cases this history is directly related to social change and political progress. Too often, when we think about political history, we recall moving speeches, legislative victories, military standoffs and international tension. While these aspects are critical and certainly central to United States history, dramatic events can overshadow the equally important work that takes place in daily activities and local communities. Karenna Gore Schiff's new book, Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America (2006), addresses this issue directly by detailing politics that unfolded outside of Washington. As the eldest daughter of Al and Tipper Gore, Schiff found herself immersed in Washington politics as early as three when her father was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Lighting the Way opens with Schiff's memory of her third birthday, which fell on the day after her father's first primary win; as the votes were being tallied, a crowd gathered to sing her happy birthday. Schiff admits that, "more often than not, my exposure to politics has been on this level--a privileged vantage point on conventions, debates, rallies, and nail-biting election nights" (vii). Yet this is a very narrow slice of United States political culture, particularly when considering the role that women have often played. Of course women made historical speeches and pushed through landmark legislation, but the point is that there is more to politics than those events that dominate the public sphere.
For Schiff, Lighting the Way was more personal than academic. The nine women she chose to profile were less well known then heroines that might first come to mind. The women of Lighting the Way include Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mother Jones, Alice Hamilton, Frances Perkins, Virginia Durr, Septima Clark, Dolores Huerta, Helen Rodriguez-Trias, and Gretchen Buchenholz. In doing so, Schiff hopes to expand on the range of heroines who come to mind when thinking of women in American history. Yale historian Glenda E. Glimore writes that, "in celebrating a varied group of women who changed the course of twentieth century America, Schiff reminds us that the ultimate purpose of politics is public service, not personal gain." Painstakingly detailed, Lighting the Way not only tells us about women who struggled for American rights, but grounds these stories in the social, personal, and political context that inspired the fight to end sterilization abuse, the campaign for labor laws and industrial regulations, and a more effective social system.
When thinking of strong leaders who have been able to move masses and generate energy for change, it's easy to forget that there are always people working behind the scenes, ensuring that rallies are coordinated, money has been raised, and events will draw attention. In many cases these duties have been fulfilled by women who were barred from leadership positions. But even when women have been at the forefront of political movements, their presence hasn't always been recognized. Such is the case with Dolores Fernandez, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW) who has often been overshadowed by Cesar Chavez:
"The fact that her role has faded in the retelling of the account of the movement she cofounded is unfortunate because it misses a more interesting story. Huerta was not only compelling and brave but also an innovator of grassroots organizing skills that are still critical to real social change. Huerta's role was essential: without her, Chavez and the UFW might never have gotten off the ground. As one of Chavez biography describes it, the relationship between Cesar and Dolores was 'symbiotic…he functioned as the catalyst, she was the engine.' (317)
In the early 1960s, Chavez and Huerta were both involved in community organizations and agricultural unions. After recognizing the specific need for a farmworkers organization, they started the National Farm Workers Associations (NFWA), which was the precursor to the UFW. Co-founding this association solidified a working partnership that would underpin the movement until Chavez's death. This is not to say that Huerta and Chavez did not have their differences. In fact there were many, most of which could be rooted in class and educational backgrounds. This was complicated by the fact that Chavez was very traditional, and did not approve of Huerta's flagrant lifestyle choices. Huerta later said that the fiery dynamic between the two speaks of their mutual respect and closeness. Such details are always part of the picture, yet are rarely recounted in history.
As the UFW co-founder, Huerta led strikes and marches, including the 1968 Grape Boycott. She was often found on the front lines, rallying workers who were picketing, going door-to-door to talk to families, and taking the cause to smaller businesses. Like many of the women in Lighting the Way, Huerta felt that recruiting women was key to the larger movement; she subscribed (although did not adhere) to more traditional gender roles that placed women at the center of the family. Huerta did not create the kind of home life that she often came into contact with. A mother of eleven children, she often traveled, sleeping on the ground or in the car, receiving food and clothing by donation. At times, she left her children with others in order to move forward with her organizing work. This was not well received by her family, the farmworkers, or other organizers, and Huerta admits that her children "suffered a lot of neglect" (315). But there was also a profound sense of community and this lifestyle allowed her children to participate in a cause that was important politically, personally, and socially. Bringing family into social justice work can create strong bonds, not only within the family unit, but within the movement itself. This is particularly true for many of the women profiled in Lighting the Way since many of the issues they addressed had an impact on the whole family. Schiff reinforces this point throughout her book, making a strong connection between women's issues, the family structure, and twentieth century American politics.
A critical perspective that Schiff captures extremely well are the personal stories that provide a background for the women's social justice work. A case in point is the story of Helen Rodriguez-Trias, a Puerto Rican doctor who fought for women's reproductive rights. Rodriguez-Trias moved between New York and Puerto Rico several times during her life, finally settling in New York for the later half. She learned about poverty and class divisions as a young girl in Puerto Rico, but it was in New York City that Rodriguez-Trias experienced explicit racism. Despite marked intelligence and hard work, she was held back and denied the recognition that would customarily be given to talented students. Rodriguez-Trias recounted two factors that helped her push forward and confront such injustices: supportive teachers and political organizations. After high school, she returned to her childhood home where she received a full scholarship to the University of Puerto Rico. But at the end of her freshman year, Rodriguez-Trias decided that political activism was her highest priority, leading her back to New York. Years later, Rodriguez-Trias would return to the University of Puerto Rico where she would graduate from medical school first in her class--by then she was a mother of three and pregnant with her fourth. Schiff recounts Rodriguez-Trias' family turmoil, including two marriages, relationships with her four children, and the personal struggles that ultimately lead her to a career in pediatrics and women's health.
Beyond her role as a doctor, Rodriguez-Trias also acted as an administrator within all of her work settings. In fact, a large part of her reputation stems from her efforts to improve public health care in both Puerto Rico and New York, most notably at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. Although Rodriguez-Trias worked in pediatrics, she naturally came into contact with women's health and reproductive issues. Arguably her most pivotal role can be found in the work done to end sterilization abuse, a problem with startling frequency for low income women and women of color:
The more Helen researched sterilization abuse, the more she realized how rampant it was among poor communities of color in the United States. It was clearly an unwritten policy in urban hospitals across the country to recommend sterilization of poor women who gave birth to multiple children. From 1970 to 1974, female sterilization in the United States increased from 192,000 to 548,000. Among women with less than a high school education who were sterilized, 14.5 percent were Caucasian, 31.6 percent were black, and 35 percent were Hispanic. (370)
During this period, several shocking cases of coerced sterilization were made public, included the 1973 Relf case, in which two African American girls, ages twelve and fourteen were sterilized in a federally funded program. Due to the struggle for birth control and abortion rights, the prevalence of sterilization abuse has often been marginalized so as not to detract from the focus on gaining reproductive rights. Schiff thoroughly describes this struggle, documenting Rodriguez-Trias' work with the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA). In addition to her work in pediatrics and the struggle for reproductive rights, she also worked to raise awareness about domestic violence, sexual abuse, and HIV prevention. Schiff shows that Rodriguez-Trias' experiences gave her great insight into the particular barriers women faced in the health care system:
Women make twice as many visits to doctors as men because of their childbearing and child-rearing roles, she often explained, and they are also more likely to be taken advantage of, ignored, or given substandard care. She felt that until any broader changes could be made, poor women needed to be supported on a sustained basis by those who would stand up to the system. "There is no doubt in my mind," she wrote, "that on the spot, knowledgeable and aggressive health advocates who represent a community point of view are deterrents to gross neglect of patients' rights." (377-8)
In the last ten years of her life, Rodriguez-Trias focused primarily on national and international activism, and in 2001 received the Presidential Citizen's Medal "in recognition of her work as an outstanding educator and dynamic leader in public health" (389).
In writing about women who changed modern America, Schiff has insured that we honor women who are fighting for our basic rights today. The last activist profiled is Gretchen Buchenholz, child advocate, founder of the Association to Benefit Children (ABC) and all around mover and shaker in New York City. This last story has a slightly more personal tone, possibly because Schiff has worked with and befriended Buchenholz in her work as the ABC director of Community Affairs. Of course, Schiff would also have first hand knowledge and opinions about the context grounding Buchenholz story, given her parent's political lives. Growing up in the late 70s and 80s, Schiff would undoubtedly feel ties to the events that Buchenholz was involved in: a rise in poverty and homelessness, cutbacks to social programs, and the AIDS epidemic. As she had done in the previous eight stories, Schiff presented the circumstances and climate that Buchenholz worked in:
One of the significant factors in the spread of homelessness was the increase in poverty and the reduction in programs to assist the poor. At the time, the federal government considered a working family of three "poor" if it had an annual income of $9,862 or less, hardly enough for shelter, food, and expenses. The national poverty rate climbed to 15 percent in 1982, amounting to 34.4 million Americans, with an additional 12 million living just barely above the poverty line. Food stamp programs that had been instituted in response to hunger in 1967, and had proved effective, had been slashed in the Reagan budget, along with a litany of other critical elements of the safety net: funds for public school lunches; food programs for senior citizens; child care assistance; the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) feeding program; and many similar programs. (397)
This was the social system that Buchenholz found herself working in when she mistakenly walked into the wrong office in early 1984. Buchenholz was on her way to get a daycare permit for the Merricat's Castle nursery school she had organized but walked into a government office where homeless families waited for openings in NYC's "welfare hotels." The scene at the Emergency Assistance Unit was so horrific and desperate that Buchenholz rushed to a nearby store to get food and supplies for the families. She then made three phone calls to report the situation: first to the Red Cross Disaster Office, then City Hall and the New York Times. At the time, Buchenholz was fully involved in two community projects she had organized, the Merricat's Castle preschool and the Yorkville Soup Kitchen. She also volunteered for the Coalition for the Homeless. The tide turned for Buchenholz when she began to comprehend the "systemic roots" of problems such as hunger, poverty, and homelessness. Meeting these realities face to face on a daily basis catapulted Buchenholz to take direct action. In response to her run in with the Emergency Assistance Unit, Buchenholz and Yale professor of psychiatry Tom Styron initiated their own investigation of homelessness in New York City. They found that government programs were inadequate, often placing families in dangerous and unhealthy environments while wasting precious tax dollars. Compiling transcripts and video footage, Buchenholz went to Congress in 1986, armed with evidence that the system was failing to ensure basic rights for American citizens. In the same year, Buchenholz and Styron founded the Association to Benefit Children, an organization designed to ensure the welfare of children and their families by combating poverty, hunger, homelessness, abuse, HIV, and other problems preventing healthy, full lives. Buchenholz has also been extremely effective in the fight against HIV and crack epidemics, two contemporary crisis that compounded the struggle for basic necessities. Today, Buchenholz continues her work in New York City where she has recently opened a family center in East Harlem.
Schiff also profiles Ida B Wells-Barnett, a journalist who fought Southern lynching at the beginning of the century, including the 1919 Arkansas Race Riot; Mother Jones, an Irish immigrant who was pivotal in the fight against child labor and coal miners campaign, earning the title of "the most dangerous woman in America"; Alice Hamilton, a doctor, Hull House affiliate and the first woman faculty member at Harvard University, Hamilton helped convince both business owners and politicians of the need for industrial regulations and safer work conditions; Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed Secretary of Labor and key figure in the New Deal Era, who aided the passage of labor laws and the 1935 Social Security Act; Virginia Durr, a Southern belle who gave up privilege to fight for the end of segregation; and Septima Clark, who is known as the "Grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement." Underlying all of these stories are the personal struggles and innovative methods used to accomplish social change. More than simply honoring these influential heroines, Lighting the Way gives insight into how challenges can be met and overcome, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable resistance.
Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America is Karenna Gore Schiff's first book. Schiff is a Harvard University and Columbia Law School graduate. As the eldest daughter of Al and Tipper Gore, Gore Schiff became very involved in her father's 2000 presidential campaign. She has worked as a journalist and lawyer, and is currently the Director of Community Affairs for the Association to Benefit Children. She lives in New York with her husband and two children.
Listen up art lovers because there's a new short story collection in bookstores, and you're not going to want to put it down. Susan Vreeland's Life Studies: Stories of Art (2005) is a robust collection of seventeen stories spanning time periods, art movements, and geographic locations. Written over the course of twelve years and in between three bestselling novels, Vreeland firmly grounds Life Studies in biography and art history. The Rocky Mountain News writes:
These stories do not attempt to uncover the brilliance of art but, rather, the humanity that lies just to the side. Vreeland's stories remind us that even the world's most renowned artists have had to endure such worldly trials as the death of a spouse, noisy children, chronic physical pain and temptation. And what the author manages to capture most successfully in Life Studies is a careful blend of reverence for the artistic process and sensitivity to those moments when human emotions are the most raw…"Powerfully touching, each story leaves readers with profound insights and thought-provoking questions. Even if you're not familiar with the works and artists that provide the material for Life Studies, Vreeland's imagery inspires an aesthetic appreciation that will have readers looking for the nearest art museum.
Broken into three parts, the first section of Life Studies focuses on Impressionist, Post-Impressionists, and the lives touched by their work. The first story, "Mimi with a Watering Can," is set in 1876 Paris. Jerome, a melancholy banker, is forced to spend an afternoon at his sister's garden party in Montmartre--a haven for artists and entertainers on the outskirts of Paris. Plagued with depression since the recent death of his father, Jerome perceives his life to be empty because of his inability for artistic expression. The last place Jerome wants to spend his Saturday afternoon is with his sister's bohemian neighbors, with whom he will be forced to make "trivial conversation with some tinsmith or shoemaker or painter Claire might have invited" (3). Sure enough, when Jerome arrives with his wife Elise and daughter Mimi, they are introduced to an Italian frame maker, Cuban painter, as well as Auguste Renoir-known today as one of the great French Impressionists. When Renoir is introduced, he confesses that he will need to leave the party early to work on Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876)-which would later become one of his most famous paintings. He has been waiting all week to work on the painting's final section, which will be filled with a portrait of his friend George dancing with Aline Charigot, a seamstress who Renoir mentions with a shy smile-Renoir and Charigot married in 1890, nearly fifteen years after he finished Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette. As the party gets under way the craftsmen fall into a discussion concerning the mass production of art. Jerome listens, observing their passionate reactions and feeling disconnected because he lacks a craft of his own. The conversation centers on factory production, where parts of a product or painting are "assembled" by different craftsmen:
"That's what I didn't like about painting porcelain in a workshop. Plate after plate, the same design." Renoir screwed up his face.Jerome leaves the conversation to entertain his four-year old daughter, whose endless energy is magnified by the garden surroundings. Watching Mimi brings Jerome both joy and sorrow-joy in watching the life that flows from her being, sorrow because he is unable to capture this on paper or canvas. Renoir joins Jerome, and after watching Mimi play with a watering can, asks if he could paint her the following week. Slowly taking in his environment, Jerome begins to see the world differently, realizing that life is filled with more possibilities than he's allowed for himself.
In Life Studies, the stories are never told from the artist's perspective, but always from characters, such as Jerome, who come into contact with the artist-wives, children, models, gardeners, etc. One painter appearing in several of Vreeland's stories is Claude Monet, an impressionist who focused on painting natural scenes. In "Winter of Abandon," Vreeland muses about the intriguing relationship between Monet and Alice Hoschede. The story begins with the death of Monet's wife, Camille, who had been ill for several years. As a close friend of the family, Alice and her children have spent the last two years living with the Monet family to help care for Camille and her young children. Alice had inherited a large fortune, but lost it due to her husband's mismanagement. With no place for Alice and her children to return, they stay on with the Monet family, a socially questionable decision for the widower and married woman. The winter proves to be exceptionally brutal, and since the household's only income is Monet's paintings-which aren't selling-the families' survival becomes all the more difficult. But despite Camille's death and their financial crisis, Monet and Alice happily manage their shared situation. Although fictional, Vreeland notes that, "Winter of Abandon" is based on careful historical research concerning the relationship between Monet and Alice Hoschede, who eventually married in 1892 after living together for over thirteen years.
Readers will also hear the stories of Berthe Morisot's wet nurse, Edouard Manet's wife Suzanne, a boy who worked for Paul Cezanne, and Jeanne Modigliani. Vreeland has constructed many of these stories by imagining circumstances that could have inspired the works of art now displayed in galleries around the world. Beyond reverence for these paintings, Vreeland explains that her interest in these historical figures largely grew from random details, such as Amedeo Modigliani's last request from his lover and Berthe Morisot's sensitivity to sharp noises. Vreeland writes:
For the most part, I've created the situations of the characters surrounding the artists. Although lying outside the realm of recorded art history, they illuminate the personal space the artists filled. Some of the events are reported in a line or two from scholars, tantalizing me to flesh them out in narratives that might make readers feel the sweep of a large canvas. (http://www.svreeland.com/ls-origins.html)
Vreeland goes beyond art history in her depictions of 19th and 20th century Europe, connecting readers to both the landscape and values that grounded the artists' lives.
In the final, contemporary section of the Life Studies, Vreeland depicts a wide variety of characters and relationships. In "The Things He Didn't Know," a visit to the Museum of Art in Balboa Park divides a young couple. A construction worker feels inadequate as his scholarly girlfriend escorts him through her favorite galleries. Although the couple is able to overlook their differences in background, education and interests, their contrasting responses to several Renaissance paintings dash their long term hopes and dreams. The opposite effect is portrayed in "Respond" when the wife of a workaholic sits as a nude model for a college-level sculpting class. Always second to her husband's work, Cynthia needed to find something that might make her "whole." Yet even as the class comes to an end, her husband is too absorbed in human rights work to take an interest in her new hobby. Feeling as if their marriage has been "put on hold until the world is healed," can Cynthia stay with a man whose wife is the furthest thing from his mind? Can aesthetic appreciation save their union?
Religion enters into several of the stories as well. "At Least Five Hundred Words, with Sincerity and Honesty" is a letter written by a foster child named Josie struggling to fit in at an all-girls Catholic boarding school. The letter is addressed to Sister Wilhelmina, a nun who has previously disciplined Josie for inappropriate artwork--a drawing of Jesus and John the Baptist skateboarding. She begins by explaining her contemporary depiction of the divine characters, grounding its meaning in her environment as well as its religious significance:
You might have noticed that John was doing a kickflip, but Jesus got more air on his ollie. Now just think about it. Jesus was totally airborne, with his knees all bent up to his chest and his long hair flying and his board hanging in the air right below his feet. Airborne. Isn't that a neat way to picture him, spiritual and all? Like the Ascension. Or is it the Assumption? Remember, I'm new here, and I still get things confused. Anyway, it looked way cool. Even better from a distance than close up. Especially with Mary and Elizabeth off to the side cheering like Little League Mothers" (275).Of course, Sister Wilhelmina would have never seen the sketch if Josie's malicious classmates hadn't stolen and posted it for all to see. Josie goes on to critique a painting of the Madonna and Child hanging behind the church altar. In the painting Mary looks miserable and sad, and for Josie, this seems inappropriate: don't "most mothers smile at their kids" (278)? Stylistically different from the other stories, Josie's letter stands out as a matter-of-fact reflection on spiritual dogma, reminding readers that a fresh eye can add great depth to our perspectives.
Vreeland writes that her approach to the contemporary stories differed from the historical ones. Referencing a question raised by John Berger in Ways of Seeing, Vreeland explains that she was interested in the ways that art transforms the individual, "To whom does the meaning of the art of the past rightfully belong? To those who can apply it to their own lives, or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists?" This theme is found throughout the contemporary stories, and if nothing else, will draw readers into thinking about their own experiences with art.
Vreeland's first novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999), was nominated for several awards and became a New York Times Best Seller. Inspired by Johannes Vermeer, a seventeenth century Dutch painter, the novel follows a painting as it passes from owner to owner over the course of three-hundred years. When asked about the idea behind the book, Vreeland confesses that she has always been fascinated by the fact that some "things" live on well after their creator, moving onlookers in ways that may never have been imagined. In Girl in Hyacinth Blue, the painting survives flood, theft, anonymity, and the Holocaust. Ranked as one of the 25 most distinguished novels of 1999, Publishers Weekly praises the novel for its:
Insightful observations about the worth and the truth of art....Elegantly executed, with characters who have the solidity, and the elusive mystery, of Vermeer's subjects....One wants to read these tales at one sitting....Vreeland paints her canvas with the sure strokes of a talented artist.
Susan Vreeland is the author of three novels, including The Passion of Artemisia (2002), and The Forest Lover (2004). Her short fiction has been published in Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, New England Review, Confrontation, Alaska Quarterly Review, Calyx, and Crescent Review. Vreeland launched her writing career after teaching high school English for thirty years. She currently lives in San Diego, CA. For more information on Susan Vreeland, visit her website at http://www.svreeland.com/
Alison Kenner is a graduate student in the Women's Studies Department and NYS Writers Institute.
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