Thursday, June 26, 2008

Jewel of My Heart by Rosemary Rogers; Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers

Romance fiction is a billion-dollar-a-year plus industry; over one-quarter of all books sold in the United States are romance novels. Although the romance publishing market seems to be uniquely open to novice writers -- the one market left whose writers need not have a marketable persona themselves, so long as they produce -- there are strict guidelines for drafting a sample of the genre. A conflict-filled love affair between the two main characters must constitute the bulk of the book, and there must be an optimistic ending. I recall one whose epilogue had the hero humbly kissing the heroine's belly as she labored to bring forth their fifth child. They were married, of course.

I have treated myself to three romances lately, on the grounds that it's summer and one wants to relax and have fun. When I was growing up my sister's bookshelves held one or two by Rosemary Rogers, and so I went to the library on purpose to find Sweet Savage Love, first published in 1974. With it I also found Jewel of My Heart, one of Rogers' latest, just published in 2004 and dedicated to her granddaughter. So the queen of romance is still working, and more power to her for it. I think it must be great fun to have a grandma who writes romance novels, and dedicates them to you. On that same trip to the library I also found a romance that takes place in eighteenth-century Scotland, and features a heroine named Madison who has a difficult time with the lovemaking scenes because she has a huge sword cut on her back. I'm sorry I can't remember the title or the author.

It's easy to laugh at these books. They really are soft-core pornography for, presumably, mostly middle-aged women. Reading them, we all have the treat of looking back on ourselves as the young, tempestuous heroine, aroused unto dementia by the perfect but outrageously threatening man, and passing with him, safely and beautifully (because of course it turns out he's a true gentleman), from virginity to glorious satiety and then to marriage. Some of the sex scenes are excellently written, even if it is curious how often they include words like "assault," "insistent," "onslaught," "helpless," and even "raping."

And of course, speaking of formulae and guidelines, certain things about the characters, too, must be just so. The heroine must be young, seventeen is a good age, and she must be a virgin. She must be fiery and independent -- independent in spirit, not necessarily in income, which is what the word would have meant in those previous centuries which are the background to many of the stories. She and the hero must loathe each other at first. Generally he is older, a friend of extended family perhaps, and thinks she's a "chit." An older man is de rigueur because there is little to arouse a girl in a seventeen-year-old boy, and anyway a boy that age would have a different word for a girl who annoyed him. Besides, as the plot thickens the heroine for all her pluck will have to be rescued, preferably three times, from angry sugar plantation workers or Mexican bandits or French soldiers playing cards in the downstairs room, and a boy can't do that. That needs a man. He just shows up, furious and in danger himself because of her. It's all wonderful. Like God, you know he cares, and that he is watching.

Three rescues, nicely paced in the middle of the book, set off by two major sex scenes before and after (one when they hate each other, and one when they are aroused unto dementia by the memory of the first one), and the story is just about done. Some authors put in a heart-rending touch at the end, when the hero breaks down in some meltingly boyish way, because he thinks his beloved is leaving him after all. Rosemary Rogers is capable of creating a hero whose heart bursts with pride as he looks down his rifle sight aiming at the villain who is struggling to subdue the heroine who is herself fighting like a tigress, and getting in the way of the bullet, where some other woman beside her had crumpled up in a corner and begun weeping. All this, after he thought she had left him for good.

And so on. It is easy to laugh at these, and years ago my favorite author did. In Secret Lives E.F. Benson, creator of the immortal Mapp and Lucia novels, wrote of the adventures of the middle- aged authoress Susan Leg, aka "Rudolph da Vinci," living high in London (incognita) off the proceeds of her hideously popular novels, Apples of Sodom, Heart's Queen, and the like. Susan's gifts are gigantic -- a neighbor who sees haloes above everyone's head sees that hers is "corn-colored," and advises her to "do something, Leg, write, go on the films, something" -- and her romances as thrilling as possible. In fact, if they existed and we could read them they would probably be different from, and a bit weightier than, the romances overspilling bookstore shelves today. In Benson's hands, Susan Leg writes about other characters besides pure young American girls who are "smart, passionate, funny, and brave," use twenty-first century idiom in all eras (" 'this isn't about me' ") and give the hero as good as they get. Imagine today's audience desiring to read about "little puny men with great hearts, and plain women with golden ones," or about "the bishop of aristocratic birth who gave up his princely income to the poor and needy," and once beat up a navvy who had been beating his wife. ("Saying, 'Damn it, I can't stand it,' he took off his coat and gave the navvy what for.") No, no. We want the seventeen-year-old, ourselves, safely aroused unto ....

But what I find unsatisfying about these books from the get-go, for as sheer well-done stories they are probably several times more worthwhile than the mewling trauma memoirs earning all those mewling respectful reviews in the newspapers, is that they all stand cowering under the great sweeping anvil cloud that is Gone With The Wind. Rogers' Sweet Savage Love actually begins with a sixteen-year-old heroine, spoiled and pouting in the early years of the Civil War. And she has green eyes. Margaret Mitchell never had the bad taste to pair Rhett Butler with Scarlett O'Hara's mother -- in a shed in the rain, on page 26, "after her first cry of despair, completely satisfying" etc. -- but otherwise, these romances cannot seem to stop recreating the emotional story that Mitchell gave us more than seventy years ago. Fiery young heroine (Scarlett), dark, brooding older man with sardonic eyebrows (Rhett), blond, calm man whom the heroine thinks she loves (Ashley) but who is unworthy of her -- he's just plain weak, if he isn't also dissolute and evil. Yes, yes, we've been through all this before. In fact, Mitchell gave us the treat of breaking all the rules, evidently before they existed. Her heroine is a married mother at seventeen. Her wedding night to a teenaged schlub was a frightening disaster. When it is time for rescues the sardonic hero usually leaves her in the lurch, and in the end, far from the loving pair being united in joy down a rifle sight, he simply leaves her. "Didn't it ever occur to you that even the most deathless love could wear out?" Rhett asks. "Mine wore out." She is twenty-eight; he is forty-seven. Mitchell testified she wrote that chapter first and never gave a thought to Scarlett and Rhett's possible reunion.

In Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell has not written anything to render (insert great Author's name here __________) ridiculous, nor would she have thought she had, but I find that, in it, she has written something to make almost all subsequent American romance superfluous. Perhaps the emotional trio -- young heroine uncertain of where true love lies -- is just a plotline common to the human experience, and so she can't be given credit for inventing it. But the fact that she also wrote a story around these people, about history, about economic change and political problems, and paused to consider a friendship between two women as well, puts her home run (so to speak) far outside the ballpark where her imitators are still playing. And in 1936 she saw absolutely no need to insert the soft porn scenes. We do hear of one night when Rhett, drunk and enraged, "used [Scarlett] brutally through a wild mad night and she had gloried in it ... a real lady could never hold up her head after such a night" (how did she know?). But that is all. It is up to us to interpret "rapture," "the ecstasy of surrender," and "primitive" as we can. The word painting of Mitchell's professional descendants, all that flesh and fingertips, panting and assault, was for some reason in those days unthinkable.

So, when I do look at these romances, I tend to flip through them hunting for the sex scenes. Everybody claims they love the stories, editors insist you've got to give us a great story with believable characters, but I've already read Gone With The Wind so I know the story. The only difference is that now Scarlett and Rhett end up together. And they have flawless sex.

About ten years ago, Rachel Maines wrote a book called The Technology of Orgasm -- published by Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology, no less -- in which she recorded Victorian women's habit of going to spas and physicians' offices in order to be manipulated to orgasm for health reasons. (" 'Mama says I screamed merrily,' " one satisfied young lass reported.) The vibrator was invented, Maines says, precisely to save doctors time and trouble. But then, after the 1920s or so, this little cultural habit died out. Then came Gone With The Wind, and now we have the soft-core porn romance industry, churning out product at the rate of a billion dollars a year. I'm not sure women might not be better satisfied going to a spa, one of those really full-service, old fashioned ones.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana, 2007

It seems appropriate this summer, while we all either marvel at or are revolted by the return of the 17-year cicadas, to dip into a classic of nature writing that is all about bugs. The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre (translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, compiled by Edwin Way Teale), is the kind of book to be dipped into, not read straight through, and probably not read while eating lunch: descriptions of the parasitic midge larvae Microgaster glomeratus feeding on the yellow blood of the cabbage caterpillar do not lend relish to our own meal.

However, it is always pleasant to contemplate the career of a man who loved what he did. J. Henri Fabre was an impoverished nineteenth-century French schoolteacher who spent his summer vacations studying "my dear insects." He lived on a small piece of barren land in southern France, surrounded by a loving and helpful family but a near-recluse to local villagers. Observing insects in the open air and fields of his property, and not in a lab, Fabre was proud of watching and setting down "the exact narrative of facts observed." His great work was the Souvenirs Entomologiques -- The Insect World is a compendium -- which ran to ten volumes and 850,000 words.

Fabre was no mere backyard enthusiast. Although he did for the most part observe his quarry going about their daily businesses, he interfered with their flights and crawlings, and captured them and brought them indoors, when more controlled experiments were needed to learn the truth about their behavior. His patience and ingenuity were infinite. He was willing to sit all day at a sand bank, watching "my beloved Wasps" hunt grasshoppers and bury them in the sand to feed their young; he tried pinning a dung beetle's precious ball of dung to the ground, to see what the creature would do when it could no longer roll its prize away for safekeeping.

His writing has the leisurely elegance of another era. When he says, "If it is in your power to set up your observatory under a meagre olive tree that pretends to protect you from the rays of a pitiless sun, you may bless the fate that treats you as a sybarite," he means Luckily I worked under a shade tree. And his writing helps create in the reader a new respect for insects. He handled bees, wasps, moths, their prey and eggs and egg cases, without fear, and chronicled the female praying mantis' eating of her mate's head, while mating, with amazement but no disgust.

Fabre perhaps did not know about our 17-year cicadas, but one summer day he had cannon fired under his trees to test ordinary cicadas' hearing. Since the bugs did not stop singing, he concluded they were deaf. Who knows how thrilled he would have been, and what trials he could have invented, for our variety?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I read The Confessions laboring under two handicaps, or compelling Rousseau to labor under them, which I suppose was not fair to him at all. To begin with, I approached it already having read Paul Johnson's book Intellectuals some years ago. Johnson began his study of the influence of secular, usually politically passionate and liberal modern intellectuals with Rousseau, in a chapter entitled "An Interesting Madman." And he generally eviscerates this Enlightenment sage as a veritable psychopath and a liar, responsible for endless future mischief and to be distrusted above all in, and because of, The Confessions.

And I read the book using a method that a professor of mine once said was absolutely vital for graduate school, when one has to "read" three books per week every week, each semester, for years. I am not in grad school nor do I ever intend to be, but the method sounded intriguing, considering how many great books there are waiting to be read in this world. So I read Rousseau's opening chapter, a middle chapter, and the closing chapter. And I flipped through parts of the rest. That part about reading a middle chapter always struck me as risky. Suppose you pick a middle chapter which happens not to be the vital one, especially in a huge book? I chose The Confessions' Book Seven, got a little bored, and moved to Book Eight, at the very start of which the author announces, "With this one starts the long chain of my misfortunes ...."

I did not get too far into the book before I began to agree with Johnson that this man probably was insane. He starts abruptly, with admissions of having been whipped in childhood and liking it, admissions salacious enough to make the reader sit up and think, good God, so he is going to tell the truth. (A short, eerie passage reveals that when his family realized he liked it, they quickly gave up that form of punishment.) And he admits that going to the opera as the guest of a friend, but then sneaking out of the theater, returning his ticket, and pocketing his friend's refund money, was "a disgraceful theft." But he leaves such titillations behind after the second book or so, and instead writes about his beautiful self, about his splendid behavior and the long parade of malicious wretches, originally so loved and so kind, who dragged him into the miseries and corruptions which he will explore in time.

He seems to be incapable of getting any distance from himself. Early on, he records that as a grown man in his thirties, he righteously snubbed an older woman with whom he fancied he had had a rocky affair as an eleven-year-old boy twenty years before. He wasn't joking. As for the disgraceful theft, he reasons that after all he hadn't made use of the money as it was intended, namely to see the opera; anyway, money is absurd. And over and over, he is the glorious soul who, for example, walked six miles in the heat, fainting with exhaustion, to visit the imprisoned Diderot; he is the noble creature who cannot have done wrong in abandoning his five children to the Foundling Home (where, Johnson says, he knew they would die), because -- he was Jean-Jacques. How could he, whose virtues and mind were perfect, do wrong? "No, I feel, and boldly declare -- it is impossible. Never for a moment in his life could Jean-Jacques have been a man without feelings or compassion, an unnatural father." He is the glorious, principled man who in later life refused a pension from some misliked aristocrat, in spite of Diderot's exhorting him to take it if only to support Therese -- the mother of his five children.

The whole point of Rousseau's life and thinking was the search for freedom from the moral constraints of law and society. At the beginning of Book Eight he describes learning of the topic for a literary competition sponsored by the Dijon Academy in 1749: "Has the progress of the sciences and arts done more to corrupt morals or to improve them?" "The moment I read this," he states, "I beheld another universe and became another man."

He seems to be implying that here for the first time he saw the possibility that morals can change and that they can come from fallible, changeable, human sources: the arts and sciences, for instance. And that therefore, a true, free man must guide himself gloriously without reference to them. It's hard for the reader to judge, though, whether here we have a great genius naturally developing his thoughts outward in great and new directions, or whether we have the grown-up version of the dreadful young boy who urinated in the neighbors' cooking pots, and is now thrilled to find a philosophical excuse for doing so all through adulthood. "[I strove] to uproot from my heart all tendencies to be affected by the judgment of men, and everything that might deflect me, out of fear of reproach, from conduct that was good and reasonable in itself." His essay for the Dijon Academy, by the way, won the prize.

Of course, what he never acknowledged was that in order to be the free spirit who denied foolish laws' and customs' hold over men, he trusted the rest of society to hold to those customs and be decent to him while he offended them. When he went for the first time bearded and shabbily clothed to the opera, as a moral statement of freedom, he trusted the rest of the house not to hiss him all the way home, or at least to the barber's. He was perhaps the first hippie. And, on that larger matter which did trouble his conscience permanently, no one ever entered his bedroom in the middle of the night and knocked him on the head for having abandoned five infants in succession to the Foundling Home, announcing "If I begin to pander to opinion over one matter, I shall pretty soon be doing so over everything" while swinging the stick.

In The Confessions we hear comparatively little of his philosophy spelled out. It is strange, when we do, to note the abrupt change in tone, perceptible even through a translation. The same change in tone occurs when he writes about writing. The misty, refulgent maniac vanishes, and a professional adult replaces him, asking hard questions about the origins of politics and how to improve his prose style. We do hear a great deal, especially toward the end, of friendships' blossoming and fading, and of the peregrinations necessary when ancien regime rulers sent out arrest warrants for him upon the publication of a new, freedom-filled book.

This most influential writer of the last two centuries, according to Paul Johnson, seems never to have been in real danger, but rather to have spent much of his life living in charming, secluded homes provided for him by well-fixed admirers, especially women, and writing. Ill-health dogged him, as it dogged everyone. The image of him dressed in his Armenian caftan -- more comfortable considering his medical problems -- and sitting making lace alongside the neighboring women is striking. Emile, The Social Contract, and the Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar all helped create aspects of the modern world that we take for granted, from seemingly minor things like comfortable clothes for children especially, to major assumptions, as that the beauties of nature and the innocence of primitive cultures have always been corrupted by (Western) civilization.

At the time, these thoughts were new. He traveled to Britain, home of liberty, for safety once and there met three great men -- Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and David Hume -- none of whom "thought much of him," according to the preface to this Penguin edition. Most interesting, that.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

She captures it indeed. I Capture the Castle is the journal of young Cassandra Mortmain, who lives with her eccentric family in an old and dilapidated castle (only rented, and the rent much overdue) in Depression-era England. Her father is a once-famed novelist now suffering from his twelfth year of writer's block; her stepmother is the beautiful twenty-nine-year-old Topaz, who likes to "commune with nature" in the nude; her older sister, Rose, " 'hasn't any clothes or any prospects' " and would just about sell her soul to the devil for a chance at either. There is a younger brother and a shy, good-looking farmhand about the place, but the story centers on the two rapidly maturing sisters, and the prospects that open for them when a wealthy American family, including two eligible young men, arrive in the neighborhood.

It's a pleasant read for midsummer, if you enjoy reading books that have something to say about the season you are in now. Cassandra and Rose are romantic girls who always celebrate, on Midsummer Night, what they call "the rites" -- " 'I got it from a book on folklore when I was nine,' " Cassandra explains. They go to the top of an ancient mound where the oldest tower of the castle still stands, and there they build a bonfire, wear flower-garlands, eat cake and sip port, and dance, in imitation of what they imagine were pagan saeasonal rituals. They close the ceremonies by shouting the vowels, an act which, strangely enough, other authors besides Dodie Smith agreed was appropriate. (The poet and historian Robert Graves made a case for the significance of the vowels in pagan European myth. His book, The White Goddess, was published the same year as I Capture the Castle.)

Smith's spinning and interweaving of the stories of the Mortmain girls' romantic adventures, the father's recovery from writer's block, and the culture clash between English and American sensibilities is deftly done, if sometimes a bit wordy. Religion slips in, and not just on Midsummer Day: during a long talk the Vicar laughs at Cassandra's grimly facing God " 'as if he were a long wet week.' " The American woman reader will enjoy seeing herself as Mrs. Cotton, mother of the two eligible bachelors. " 'Amazing, their energy,' " Mr. Mortmain says. " 'They're perfectly capable of having three or four children, running a house, keeping abreast of art, literature, and music -- superficially of course, but good Lord that's something -- and holding down a job into the bargain. Some of them get through two or three husbands as well, just to avoid stagnation.' "

And anyone will be struck by what the book becomes on a second reading. Dodie Smith was most competent, and this novel is the only non-mystery I can recall whose ending explains scenes which were so well done to begin with that the reader had not recognized any mystery in them.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


I've been tagged! as bloggers say excitedly when this happens to them.

By sheer luck, Sucharita Sarkar at Why Not Blog It Out was good enough to invite me to play a blog tag game, involving literature, just when I am reading -- no joke -- Rousseau's Confessions. So for the purposes of the game, I can seem much more intellectual than I would if she had tagged me last weekend, when I took it into my head to borrow a couple of bodice-ripper romances from the local public library. Sweet Revenge, anybody? To be fair, one could argue that Rousseau is just as smutty as, and far more genuinely unclean than, the excellent and hard- working ladies who keep the romance industry locomotive on the tracks and roaring by at 90 miles per hour year after year.

The rules of this tag game are like so:
Pick up the nearest book.
Turn to page 123.
Find the fifth sentence.
Post the next three sentences.
Tag five people with this game, and acknowledge the person who tagged you.

Herewith, Rousseau, p. 123:

He knew all the great performers, all the famous works, all the actors, all the actresses, all the pretty ladies, and all the great gentlemen. He seemed familiar with everything that was alluded to. But directly a subject was mentioned he interrupted the conversation with some broad joke, which made everyone laugh and forget what had been said.

Tame and straightforward, by the standards of the book. The "he" in the passage is one Venture de Villeneuve, an impoverished musician who knocked on Rousseau's door in Annecy one cold February night in the early 1730s and, in time, led him on to "fresh follies" after he had been behaving himself for a year.

I must admit that page 123 is farther along in the book than I have actually reached, so I am not sure what happens next or even what follies came before. The Confessions is a difficult book to come at, for me, because years ago I read Paul Johnson's Intellectuals, whose first chapter savages Rousseau as a liar and a psychopath loathed and pitied, in the end, by most of the people who had ever known him. This is not to speak of what Johnson, and other conservative thinkers, regard as his wholly pernicious influence on the modern West.

We'll see if I am able to come to independent conclusions. So far, the anecdotes are not auguring well for the author, who smiles out at us so happily, or so creepily, from Maurice-Quentin de la Tour's sketch on the cover of the Penguin paperback edition. Here was a man who, in his thirties, snubbed an older woman with whom he fancied he had had a lover's quarrel as an eleven-year-old boy. Here also was a man who attended the opera as the guest of a friend, but then, when he saw how crowded the theater was, turned back to the ticket booth, handed in his ticket, pocketed his friend's refund money, and left. This is not to speak of Himself as that eleven year old boy, sneaking into a neighbor's kitchen and urinating in her cooking pot.

Anyway, thanks to Sucharita for tagging me. To finish playing my turn of the game, I have tagged:
Dr. Debs
Farmgirl Susan

Happy reading to all, and I will continue my journey through Rousseau's "enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator."