If Only She’d Been Prettier… Charlotte Brontë & The Male Gaze

the_bronte_sisters_by_patrick_branwell_bronte_restoredI never liked Mr. Rochester. His high-handed behavior and moodiness with Jane Eyre. His sneering treatment of his young ward, Adèle. And his final, obscene pretense that he locked away his mad wife for her sake rather than his own convenience (with all that land and money he couldn’t have had a small cottage built where she could have been kept in relative comfort?). Even when I was much too young to understand how different power dynamics play out in relationships I instinctively knew that Rochester was not for me.

I did like Jane, though. I liked that she was small and plain. And that she was also stubborn and honest and brave, but not a goody-goody. She seemed real to me, particularly when I was younger.  I’d imagine us doing our homework together after school. And the more I learned about Charlotte Brontë the more I assumed she was just like Jane.

In her entertaining, very readable but ultimately frustrating biography Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart* Claire Harman does not share my opinions. Her sympathies seem to reside with the Rochesters of the world.

There is very little left to be discovered about Charlotte Brontë.  The vicarage, her childhood home (as well as the home of her two equally famous sisters) is now a shrine dedicated to all thing Brontë – something which occurred within years of the writer’s death.  Friends and acquaintances happily sold their letters from Charlotte and their memories of the family. Mary Gaskell, a friend and fellow novelist, was chosen by Charlotte’s father to write his daughter’s biography.  He did this largely in an attempt to combat the unpleasant rumors being spread across London (rumors which, ironically, Gaskell was in  large part responsible for spreading) about Charlotte after her death.  The resulting book was thorough, if not entirely objective and possibly fraught with factual errors. But it laid the foundation for the dozens of biographies and critical studies that have followed.  

What is left, then, for the modern biographer? Other than curating the known facts in the hopes of gleaning some new insight the answer is: very little.  And so that is what Harman does. She presents her interpretation of the facts, but it is an interpretation which relies heavily on the Gaskell narrative. Where Charlotte is portrayed as a tragic figure – the kind of feminine martyr of which the Victorians were so fond.

Unfortunately, Harman doesn’t acknowledge that those same facts could just as easily form an entirely different picture if viewed from a contemporary perspective.

The centerpiece of Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart is Brontë’s romantic infatuation with her former Belgium teacher and employer, the married Constantin Héger. This is old news to most Brontë scholars. Even Gaskell was aware of it, though she discreetly chose to omit the details from her biography. Charlotte’s letters written to Héger were published in a London newspaper as early as 1912 – having been preserved and passed down by Héger and his wife to their daughter. None of his letters survive. In the end, any romantic feelings appear to have been entirely one-sided and ultimately an embarrassment to all those involved.  By Harman’s own admission this obsession was conducted entirely via post and lasted one year, perhaps two at the most, before Héger firmly put an end to it. 

So it’s hard to understand why, other than the salacious nature of the tidbit, that Harman insists on amplifying the episode’s importance in the writer’s life. It is inarguable that Constantin Héger was the model for the romantic heroes in Brontë’s novels, particularly Mr. Rochester. But it is also a well known fact that Charlotte frequently based her characters on people she knew. Her four novels are filled with portraits of friends and acquaintances, including her talented siblings. Yet they are not given the same prominence as Héger in Harman’s biography.  Neither is the actual inspiration for Jane Eyre, a story Charlotte once heard about a man who locked his wife in the attic, given more than a few sentences.

Instead Harman focuses specifically on those episodes which reflect poorly on her subject.  When she is done with Héger she moves quickly on to Brontë’s publisher, George Smith.  We are told that Charlotte also had a crush on him, – despite his being handsome, several years her junior and clearly (according to Harman) out of Charlotte’s league. This unkindness, this tendency to exaggerate the negative aspects of the novelist’s character as seen through the male gaze, is a weakness of Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart that is difficult to dismiss. Take for example the following passage –  

‘George Smith… seemed puzzled and sorry that his admired author was, in effect, vain, that “the possession of genius did not lift her above the weakness of an excessive anxiety about her personal appearance. But I believe that she would have given all her genius and her fame to have been beautiful. Perhaps few women ever existed more anxious to be pretty than she, or more angrily conscious of the circumstances that she was not pretty.” One would like to hope this was not true for Charlotte, that the creator of Jane Eyre had more faith in herself, but the more she went into society, the more she was worn down by extreme self- consciousness.’

One would like to hope that the biographer would feel more empathy towards her subject… or at the very least attempt to understand the source of the writer’s (apparently entirely justified based on the above) insecurities. And yet this passage is just one of several which reference Charlotte Brontë’s homeliness. This focus, if nothing else, should call into question the superficiality of Brontë’s London friends – and yet their opinions are reported without judgement or context.

In sharp contrast to Héger and Smith, Harman spends much less space discussing the three marriage proposals Charlotte received (seemingly against all comprehension) and declined. Including one from the man she would eventually consent to marry.

Of her marriage to the Reverend Arthur Nicholls, despite the newlywed couple appearing by all accounts to have been extremely happy and well matched, we are rather preemptively told that it was “not a situation that promised well for her writing” and that “By the end of 1854, Charlotte’s London friendships had all but dried up”as a result of her marriage.  These are rather broad statements to make considering the couple married in June of 1854 and Charlotte would be dead nine short months later (after three months of illness).  To put it in perspective: nine months seems hardly enough time on which to base such dire judgments.

In many ways this is Claire Harman continuing the Brontë legend begun by Mary Gaskell.  That of a love-starved novelist who lived a tragic (even Gothic) existence.  And there is something to this: the Yorkshire moors, the heartbreaking deaths of her mother and five siblings, the strange fantasy worlds the siblings created as children and maintained into early adulthood, the prodigious amount juvenalia which they left behind… all the most dramatic elements of the Brontë mythos, and in Anne, Emily and Charlotte’s novels, had a foundation in the three sisters’  lives.

But a life is many things.

A case can just as easily be made that Charlotte Brontë was remarkably independent, highly educated for her time and strongly opinionated. She keenly followed local politics and current events.  (All this is in a large part thanks to her father, though he also fares poorly in Harman’s and Gaskell’s estimation).  She taught, albeit unhappily, at a girl’s school. She took multiple governess posts though, again, unhappily.  But she also was responsible for organizing her and Emily’s trip to Belgium to further their education. And she would eventually return there, alone, to teach. It was Charlotte who  instigated and organized the publication of her and her sisters’ poetry and novels.  And it was Charlotte who would travel to London with Anne to confront their publisher when she felt they were being dealt with unfairly.

Charlotte would eventually find herself a new publisher, the aforementioned George Smith.  After the success of Jane Eyre she visited London frequently as his guest. London’s literary lights were all fans.

While she seems to never have been comfortable moving in the literary circles of London, in spheres where she was more comfortable Charlotte formed meaningful and enduring friendships – most significantly with two women of equally independent dispositions, Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor.  And then there was her close relationship to her talented siblings, also given short shrift by Ms. Harman.  These relationships, it should go without saying, were as influential as her crush on Professor Héger… if not more so. And while Harman acknowledges these female friendships, she gives them much less page space in proportion to the men in Charlotte’s life.

As for the novels, themselves, they are only discussed in depth as they function as further evidence of Charlotte’s unrequited love for both Héger and Smith.

Claire Harman’s biggest contribution, and the one for which the book will be remembered in my opinion, is that she manages to shed some light on what is perhaps the one remaining mystery of the Brontë family – the tragic cause of Charlotte Brontë’s death. She makes a strong case for hyperemesis gravidarum, a disease which causes “violent and ceaseless disruption of stomach and sense” in pregnant women. Charlotte wrote in a letter to a friend “my sufferings are very great – my nights indescribable – sickness with scarcely a reprieve – I strain until what I vomit is mixed with blood.” It was long believed that her symptoms were related consumption, the disease that took so many members of her family, but Harman’s theory is more than plausible.

This revelation does not excuse the book’s failings.  Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart makes no effort towards reconciling the writer of Jane Eyre and Villette with the awkward creature Harman is intent on depicting. A woman defined almost entirely by her relationships to men – father, brother, romantic infatuations and husband. Our attentions are constantly directed towards her appearance; her romantic and personal failures (both real and insinuated). All at the expense of the woman… the beloved writer…  and her brilliant, revolutionary mind.

 

Title: Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

Author:  Claire Harman

Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2016)

ISBN: 978 0 307 96208 9

 

*published in England with the more dignified title of Charlotte Brontë: A Life

 

A Quick Post On A Day Spent Reading, Fake Fireplaces & Sergio Pitol

I’ve set aside today to read.  My usual routine for days like this is to make prodigious amounts of tea, put the “fireplace” video on the television and pretend I’m stranded in a Scottish Inn. The video operates under the same concept as the Yule Log.  Which, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is played during the holidays on public television – transforming television screens across America into burning fireplaces. Classical music plays as the logs burn down, though why they (by they I am of course referring to the visionaries who recognized the market demand a video of burning logs fills) can’t just use the crackling sounds of an actual fire is beyond me. The particular video I have access to also includes artistic close-ups of portions of the fire, further destroying the illusion of your-tv-as-fireplace.  We can only assume this (along with the music) is a balm to the filmmaker’s artistic integrity, or perhaps a way to pacify the Gas Fireplace Manufacturers of America who might view televised fireplaces as a competing market.

As usual there’s a stack of books I want to get to.  At the moment my focus is on finishing Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight. He has a remarkable authorial voice – and his personality shines through this and the first book of his Trilogy of Memory: The Journey. What I wanted to talk about, though, is the wonderful supplemental material Deep Vellum included with each book.  Two Introductions  – written by Enrique Vila-Matas (for The Art of Flight) & Álvaro Enrigue (for The Journey).  Álvaro Enrigue’s is your standard overview: explaining the author’s work and its importance in an essay called Sergio Pitol, Russian Boy.  Vila-Matas’ introduction is a bit more personal. He draws a wonderful portrait of Sergio Pitol in his own, very brief, essay entitled Pitol in the Rain.  The two men (Vila-Matas & Pitol) are friends; and Vila-Matas mentions the little details, the small quirks of personality, which true friends treasure. Thanks to Vila-Matas we discover that Sergio Pitol is a bit of a hypochondriac and is continuously losing (and recovering) his eyeglasses.

‘I remember the day because there was a pounding rain and Sergio was constantly losing his glasses; the latter was not at all unusual, his penchant for losing and then finding his glasses being legendary. That day he lost them several times, in various bookstores and cafes, as if that were the perfect antidote for not losing his umbrella. I recalled the day that Juan Villoro had found in Pitol’s tendency to lose his glasses a clue to illuminating new aspects of his poetics:  “Sergio writes in that hazy region of someone who loses his eyeglasses on purpose; he pretends that his originality is an attribute of his bad eyesight…”

Pitol in the Rain is only a few pages long, but every word is full of affection and friendship.  Readers are left in no doubt that Pitol is a man much loved by those fortunate enough to know him personally.

How often can biographies, let alone introductions and afterwards, make that claim? I often find that the more I learn about an author the more disillusioned I become.  But, from what I’ve read so far – The Journey in its entirety and a good portion of The Art of Flight – Pitol is far from a bad boy or glamorous member of the Literati.  Though he seems to have come in contact, and frequently developed lasting relationships, with some of the most important writers of the times his writing is amazingly scandal and gossip free.  His anecdotes are amusing because he finds them amusing, and always good-naturedly so. I get the feeling the members of the Algonquin Round Table would find him a bore and he would feel the same of them.  He lacks their sting, yet is as charming as any one of them could wish to be.

George Henson’s translation captures the author’s lightness and guileless enthusiasm for life and literature. He’s also done an admirable job of keeping the strand of Pitol’s prose from becoming tangled in the author’s convoluted labyrinth of memory. Henson, too, seems to have succumbed to Sergio’s charm despite their having never met.  In the translator’s note Henson describes the pressure of translating without an author’s collaboration.  Particularly when the author is a much celebrated translator, himself.   He explains the reason for the absence of authorial input (which I won’t go into) and ends the paragraph with an email he received from Pitol (which I will) – “Your interest in my work fills me with happiness and gratitude. I would love nothing more than to see my Trilogy of Memory translated into English, a language I adore and in which none of my books exist.”

I found those two sentences incredibly touching, – particularly the words happiness, gratitude and adore. The more I read the more it becomes apparent that Pitol possessed a rare and self-effacing intelligence. Those three words are representative of the author, or at least how I’ve come to think of him through the his books. Many things seem to have filled Sergio Pitol with adoration, happiness and gratitude.  We can all be grateful that he took the time to write some of those things down.

Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Sara Meli Ansari

Title: Letter to Jimmy

Author: Alain Mabanckou

Translator: Sara Meli Ansari

Publisher: Soft Skull Press, Berkeley (2014)

ISBN: 978 1 59376 601 6

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There has long been a  tendency in the West to over-simplify African nations. The most obvious example  being the habit of dispensing with identifying the 56 countries which comprise the continent as individual nations and instead referring to them unilaterally as “Africa”.  Or the strange and so obviously condescending insistence in defining these countries by their conflicts and crisis, rather than by their triumphs (or, indeed, the mundanity of day-to-day life).  And so famine, apartheid, genocide, conflict diamonds, civil wars & child soldiers have, each in their turn, dominated our conversations about “Africa”. Western images of African nations has been shaped by National Geographic (on the one hand) and the current news cycle (on the other).   Or, to put it simply – by white Western agendas rather than African self-identification.

Thankfully, a new generation of writers has arrived – writers who are building a more complicated, nuanced picture of the continent and of the effects of diaspora on its citizens; who reject the over-simplification of their countries of origin and, by extension, themselves.

Alain Mabanckou is a featured author at this year’s 2015 Pen World Voices Festival and a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. His latest book – Letter to Jimmy (on the 20th anniversary of your death) – is part memoir, part tribute and something of a departure from  his previous work.  Mabanckou is dealing with the concepts of identity, expatriation and race – all topics he’s explored to some extent in his other works. But in this, his most recent, offering he is in a more reflective mood. The simple premise of the book is that it is an open letter from the author to his hero James Baldwin.

At first the letter (letters, plural, would be more accurate) seem completely banal, as if Mabankou intends only to offer a re-cap of Baldwin’s life & career.  He spends pages establishing facts and timelines, discussing Baldwin’s relationship to his parents, his friendships with other black authors, his participation in the Civil rights movement, his books and his homosexuality – all of which I, a reader with a Baldwin shaped gap in their reading history, found very helpful.  But for those solely interested in a Baldwin biography there are already several of those available.  And Baldwin, himself, was an autobiographical writer (particularly in his essays).   It is only when Mabanckou gets past the foundational portion of his book and begins to draw parallels between Baldwin and himself, compare the world in which Baldwin lived to the world in which we live today, what it means to be African versus African American (and the relationship that exists between the two) that Letter to Jimmy engages.  Mabanckou brings a fresh perspective, one which is probably unique among Baldwin scholars.  The two writers have geography in common.  Mabanckou’s writes:  “I was born in Africa, the land of his ancestors.  I had lived in France, his land of refuge. And now I live in his homeland: America.”  Neither man, Mabanckou tells us, knew their biological father. They share similar views on race, society and the role of the writer.  Mabanckou has obviously spent a lot of time and effort reading and understanding Baldwin’s work.  His admiration and affection are apparent on every page.  Even the form of Letter to Jimmy pays homage to Baldwin’s two essays:  “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation” and “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind” collected in The Fire Next Time.

This, though, is not a collection of essays.  Mabanckou has truly written a long, though somewhat fragmented, letter. He is carrying on a conversation with Baldwin in which Baldwin’s writings form the other half of the correspondence.  And so perhaps the most powerful passages (in light of the riots in the United States and migrants drowning in the Mediterranean) are when he – Mabanckou – discusses the relationship between Africans to African Americans.  When he tries to explain racism as it exists in both America and France, then and now.

On African immigrants in France –

However, the serious error regarding the perception of black communities in France, as Dominic Thomas points out in his essay, Black France, is to underestimate the different forces behind their  emergence.  One must be warned, he insists, against perceiving them as a homogenous community.  This is how, in a novel like The Black Docker, from Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembène, the author can describe a black community in which the West Indian ranks higher than the Senegalese, a term referring to all Africans, regardless of their country of origin, with everything that it implies about France’s attitude toward people of color from the black continent… How many times during my long stay in France do you think, Jimmy, I was asked if I was Senegalese*?

On the United States –

And when riots erupt on March 19, 1935, after the murder of a black man by a white police officer – several thousand men take it out on white-owned businesses, causing a good portion of the middle-class to flee the neighborhood – you see that, despite the widespread indignation, political figures merely make endless speeches, set up committees, and tear down a few hovels to replace them with housing projects.

(80-years later and the headlines are eerily similar. Mabanckou warns ‘If you return to this world, Jimmy, you will judge your homeland even more severely than you did when you were alive. Inequalities are now more subtle, and more hidden, in a society which has not yet resolved the issue that had been so important to you: redefining American identity, or, in your words, addressing integration through the “power of love.” ‘)

On race & racism  –

Instead of seeking out the definition of one’s status, one is better served by interpreting and untangling the meaning of works, what they convey, what they imply, for the destiny of the person of color. In the end, definitions imprison us, take away from us the ability to create ourselves endlessly, to imagine a different world. As long as these definitions appear absolute, the question of the other remains acute. It is in this vein that I understand your warning: “And, in fact, the truth about the black man, as a historical entity and as a human being, has been hidden from him, deliberately and cruelly; the power of the white world is threatened  whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.”

And again quoting Baldwin’s own words back to him –

“… the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion.” **

 


 

This is obviously not a traditional narrative and Sara Meli Ansari does an excellent job keeping the casual tone of the conversation and even capturing the  subtle idiosyncracies of Mabanckou’s English.  She also transitions nicely between the story that bookend’s the letter – Mabanckou’s fascination and eventual meeting with a homeless man on the Santa Monica beach to whom he dedicates Letter To Jimmy – somehow capturing the difference between the author’s anecdotal and epistolary voice.  But, I feel its my duty as a reviewer and Mabanckou fan to say that if you haven’t yet read his novels then this may not the book to judge him on. There is an energy and humor in his fiction that doesn’t find an outlet in his letter. He quotes Baldwin heavily, and a large portion of the book is an examination of Baldwin’s work and life.  What I am trying to say, poorly, is that his nonfiction is not what I would call indicative.

Still, I loved this book. And Letter To Jimmy might ultimately be judged as one of the more important books in Mabanckou’s oeuvre.  It is a frank discussion of race and racism, globally contextualized.  It is also an examination of a great 20th century author’s work; his historical importance and his relevancy in our own twenty-first century world.

 

*Alain Mabanckou was born in the Republic of Congo.  Senegal is located 3,709 km, or 2,305 miles away.

**The last two Baldwin quotes are both from “The Fire Next Time”

 

 

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia by Julio Cortázar (translated by David Kurnick)

Title:  Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia

Author:  Julio Cortázar

Translator:  David Kurnick

Publisher:  Semiotext(e), Los Angeles (2014)

ISBN:  978 1 58435 134 4

 

00-HS3--Julio-Cortazar-FantomasOne problem with coming to a book without any useful prior knowledge is that your risk being blindsided.  For example:  sometimes you pick up a novella (Say by  Julio Cortázar, an author with whom you’ve had enjoyable experiences in the past. An author who writes playful, Escher-esque short stories and is known for the novel Hopscotch, in which the chapters can be read straight through or mixed up in an entirely non-linear way) seduced by the way the author has used visual images as part of the narrative rather than in the supportive role of illustration only to suddenly, inexplicably, find yourself reading a political tract on the evils of global capitalism. Surprise!

Cortázar is a genius. Fantomas was a comic book hero from the 1970’s written by Gonzalo Martré and drawn by Víctor Cruz Mota.  All the comic book pages featured (and commented on by the narrator) are from the actual issue entitled Fantomas, la amenaza elegante: La inteligencia en llamas (Fantomas: The Elegant Menace and The Mind on Fire).  The premise behind Cortázar’s book is that the narrator, Cortázar, finds himself reading the Fantomas comic book while on a train ride home after attending the Second Russell Tribunal in Brussels – (we’ll get back to the Tribunal later).  As he reads he discovers that he, Alberto Moravia, Octavio Paz & Susan Sontag are all characters in the comic book.  The lines between the comic book story and the “real world” of the novella begin to blend and merge until the readers finds themselves immersed in a marriage of the two.  Books around the world are disappearing.  Libraries are being burned. Intellectuals are being alerted and expressing suitable horror.  Our hero Fantomas leaps into action (and through several windows) in order to stop the villain responsible.

But as the story progresses the intellectuals, with Cortázar and Susan Sontag at the helm, begin to question their priorities. What is the value books when compared to people? And as Sontag tells Julio, “Fantomas realizes now that he’s been tricked, and it’s not a nice thing for him to realize… Now he and many more are realizing that the destruction of the libraries was just a prologue. It’s too bad I’m no good at drawing – if I were I’d hurry up and prepare the second part of the story, the real story. It’ll be less attractive to readers without the pictures”  we all know she’s not just talking about Fantomas.  Cortázar, at least, had a sense of humor.  Because if Susan were truly being forthright she would have explained that the destruction of libraries was actually a distraction, rather than a prologue.  More appropriately: a lure.  Which brings us to the Second Russell Tribunal.

FantomasMost of the following information can helpfully be found in the Appendix of Multinational Vampires.  In January, 1975, the Second Russel Tribunal was held.  The First Russel Tribunal (perhaps better known as the International War Crimes Tribunal) originally took place in 1966 and was organized by Bertrand Russel & Jean Paul Sartre to investigate crimes against humanity committed in Vietnam by the United States of America.*  To date there have been five Russel Tribunals held with the most recent taking place in 2012 on Palestine.  The second, with which we’ll concern ourselves because it is the one on which Multinational Vampires is predicated, dealt with Latin America – instigated by Pinochet’s coup d’etat in Chile.  Ultimately, the tribunal did not limit itself to Chile.  Latin America was the CIA’s playground at the time and many of those attending the Tribunal had Communist leanings, so there was plenty of material for the delegates to work with.  The problem was and remains that the Tribunals are only symbolic.  Those involved had no power in the making of policy. Their goal and hope was that through their participation the atrocities, injustices and economic manipulation would be exposed and brought to the public’s attention.

Which is why Cortázar wrote Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires who, if you haven’t figured it out by now, are the international corporations. The novella is an interesting bit of Cold-War ephemera on the one hand and a neat bit of literary slight-of-hand on the other. My only problem with it is the transition from experimental writing to political pamphlet was so unexpected that the second half of the book became something of a blur as I tried to figure out what had just happened.  Rather like jumping on a subway train expecting to wind up in Park Slope and finding yourself on a platform in Jackson Heights, Queens.  What saves Multinational Vampires, and make it readable, is Julio Cortázar’s dry sense of humor, his clever structure and the way he has his narrator move in and out of the frames of the comic book.  And, not least of all, the realization that there is still some value in Cortázar’s message. Because unfortunately, at least in the case of multinational vampires, the world hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to believe.

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires has been longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. It’s a wonderful translation – the dialogue that propels most of the novella is delivered rapid fire and the transitions I mentioned earlier – between the “main” story, the comic book and the politics – probably weren’t the easiest to execute. Despite all that, and the fact I enjoyed it quite a bit, I’d be very surprised if Fantomas made it onto the shortlist.

 

*Cortázar attended the First Russell Tribunal, as well.

 

What Do Margaret Wise Brown & Georges Perec Have In Common?

At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Title:  An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris

Author:  Georges Perec

Translator:  Marc Lowenthal

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2010)

ISBN:  978 0 9841155 2 5

 

WakefieldExhausting4At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic Goodnight Moon has been a bedtime staple for decades.  If you didn’t have it read to you as a child then you have almost certainly read it as an adult to a child in your life.  I’ve yet to attend a baby shower where there wasn’t at least one copy – if not multiples – unwrapped.  Adults discovering or rediscovering Goodnight Moon often express surprise at the sophistication of this little book.  The rhythm of the prose, the way the room in the illustrations grows darker as the pages are turned, and the insertion of “Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush” (a surreal moment if there ever was one) – these things speak of an author who was interested in non-linear narrative and experimental literature.

For this all to make sense it’s important to understand that there’s more to Margaret Wise Brown and her books than meets the eye.  She was a product of the modernist period in art and literature.*  In the early 1930’s she worked as a teacher at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City.  At that time this cutting edge school’s focus was on early childhood education & development. She studied how children used rhymes to develop language. Sometimes, as in the case of her “Noisy Book” series, she would use the children as a kind of focus group and adjust some of the words based on their reactions & suggestions.  Toddlers would be shown picture book illustrations and teachers would time how long the pictures held their attention.  The Bank Street School was the epicenter of what became known as the golden age of children’s literature. And most of the ideas in Margaret Wise Brown’s books can be traced back to what she learned there.

 Goodnight Moon tells no story, per se.  There are no character arcs.  No morals explained. No dialogue. At the most basic level Goodnight Moon is a catalog of the items in a single room. And, yet, lovers of the book are as  familiar with the contents of that room as they are of any room in their own home.

What no one ever really discusses (and why should they? This is a children’s book we’re talking about) is the quiet, haunting quality of Brown’s writing.  There is none of the joyful silliness or made up rhymes you find in Dr. Seuss.  Or the reassuring sentimentalism found in many stories written for the very young. Goodnight Moon is poetry – childish, simplistic, naive – but poetry nonetheless.

…goodnight to the old lady

whispering “hush”

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

Goodnight noises everywhere

 

In words a small child can understand Brown describes the line between consciousness and sleep.  The gradual loss of consciousness.  Eyes open in the dark, even after the moon disappears behind the clouds, you can still see the stars. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of your breathing. Then sleep and then silence. This sixty-one page children’s book has been many a child’s first experience with a concrete representation of the forward passage of time, even if the passage spans only 15 minutes.

The charms of Georges Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris are not so far removed from Goodnight Moon as one would think. It is a catalog of the things that the author sees and hears while sitting in place Saint-Sulpice. People and dogs passing, flocks of pigeons, the sound of church bells, changing of streetlights and the endless waves of city buses. It should be boring. There’s no story to speak of. No sense of narrative progression. No dialogue or ideas.  None of the things we are told make literature. And yet, somehow, Perec’s writing moves beyond a catalog of people, animals and things to capture the rhythms of life and time.  When he recognizes the writer Jean-Paul Aron (translated to John-Paul, which seems a bit over-zealous) walking by and then, later, walking by again, you perk up.  Because a name has been assigned to one of the many pedestrians passing by your window.  The buses begin to lose their anonymity – they become the 96, the 87 and the 63 – their appearance jumping out from the text.  And as the day draws to an end the sun sets and the lights in the buildings grow brighter.

The light is beginning to fade, even if this is still barely noticeable; the red of the stoplights is increasingly visible.

Lights come on in the cafe.

Two buses, Cityrama and Paris-VIsion, are unable to get by each other. The Cityrama eventually takes rue Bonaparte, the Paris-Vision would like to take rue du Vieux-Colombier. Policeman no. 5976 (“Michel Lonsdale”), at first confused, eventually grabs his whistle and intervenes – effectively, in fact.

A man walks by with his nose in the air, followed by another man who is looking at the ground.

A man with a can of Ribolin goes by.

people people cars

An old lady with a very beautiful Sherlock Holmes-style waterproof fitted coat

The crowd is dense, almost no more lulls

A woman with two baguettes under her arm

It is four thirty

 

As I said: there is no story in An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris. In place of narrative Perec offers experience. Evokes a sense of place. We inhabit his senses – a brief possession. A windy, rainy day. Fading light. The world waking up on Sunday morning. As I write these things down I can’t help wondering how accurately he described what he saw. How much editing and revising happened afterwards.  Or whether accuracy even matters. Perec accomplished a far more difficult task than simply cataloging a place in Paris. On these pages he captured the relentless, forward progression of time and transformed it into poetry.

 

*In 1936 Méret Oppenheim’s Fur Covered Tea Cup was a part of the “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Brown’s book, Little Fur Family was published ten years later.  The first edition was covered in real rabbit fur.