Well, we’re way behind our posting schedule, so these are perhaps not going to be super well thought out.
On Beauty, Zadie Smith
Man, so this book and its weird, weird relationship with Howards End. Wikipedia covers the basics, but doesn’t quite capture the level of ~intertextuality~ going on there, because…Wikipedia.
Howards End follows two families and an individual—the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels, and Leonard Bast—with different socioeconomic backgrounds and cultural values; all three are white and British, but the Schlegel siblings are the children of a German and an Englishwoman (which apparently in early 20th century England does mark them as exotic), while the Wilcoxes and Basts are totally English. The Wilcoxes are rich conservatives who made their fortune in the Colonies and own the titular country house; the Schlegels are also well-off, but are more liberal intellectual types; Bast is an impoverished insurance clerk and audodidact who lives with a “fallen” woman.
On Beauty, similarly, mainly follows two families and an individual—the Kippses, the Belseys, and Carl Thomas—from different social strata. The Kippses are a black family living in England, although the Kipps parents, Monty and Carlene, were born in the Caribbean; the Belseys are a mixed-race family living outside of Boston—the father, Howard, is white from a working-class English background, while the mother, Kiki, is African-American from Florida; Carl is African-American and from the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. The Kippses are a wealthy ultra-conservative Christian academic family; the Belseys are a middle-class (upper middle-class?) liberal atheist academic family; Carl is a 20-year-old with no college education who, I guess, works a variety of temp jobs, but does Spoken Word poetry and makes a point of going to free cultural events around the city. So there are pretty clear parallels to the families in Howards End.
It might just be because the Schlegel parents don’t feature as characters in Howards End, but the individual members of the Belsey family feel like they’re drawn more distinctively from each other, in terms of their views and personalities than the members of the Schlegel family. So it feels like there are just many more variables at play than in Howards End, although one wonders if that’s because we’re not reading Howards End as contemporaries and that somehow flattens out some of the social nuances. In any case, On Beauty addresses both the inter-family and intra-family differences in terms of class, politics, race, nationality, education, views on art, etc.
Besides that basic “three families from different backgrounds interacting with each other” set-up, On Beauty recycles and modernizes a lot of Howards Ends plot points, although it’s not, like, a bijection between HE characters and OB characters in terms of who represents whom in what plotline. And the overall plot arc of On Beauty is not, I think, the same as the overall plot arc of Howards End. It’s not really a modern adaptation of Howards End; like, the On Beauty/Howards End relationship is not a Clueless/Emma, West Side Story/Romeo and Juliet, Cruel Intentions/Dangerous Liaisons, or whatever1 relationship. The Howards End stuff kind of feels more like bonus pretension points for the reader of On Beauty who has happened to also read Howards End, but not necessarily an essential connection to understand whatever it is that Smith is saying. I’m curious how the experience of reading On Beauty without knowing anything about Howards End would go.
But yeah, this was super compelling. I mean, it helps that I went to a small liberal arts college, so that setting (and the specific disputes that arise within that setting) is always going to appeal. There’s also just a lot of good specificity in the descriptions of the characters and how they view themselves and each other, as well as a solid ratio of dialogue to narration. Smith differentiates between the characters’ voices in the type of language they use in dialogue, which certainly helps in establishing the characters. I think there might have been some awkwardness in the use of colloquialisms in the American characters’ dialogue that did not seem intentional, but I can’t really remember and, I mean, that would be understandable given Smith’s nationality (i.e. English).
In fact, when she was not in company it didn’t seem to her that she had a face at all…And yet in college, she knew she was famed for being opinionated, a ‘personality’—the truth was she didn’t take these public passions home, or even out of the room, in any serious way. She didn’t feel that she had any real opinions, or at least not in the way other people seemed to have them. Once the class was finished she saw at once how she might have argued the thing just as viciously and successfully the other way round; defended Flaubert over Foucault; rescues Austen from insult instead of Adorno. Was anyone genuinely attached to anything? She had no idea. It was either only Zora who experienced this odd impersonality or it was everybody, and they were all play-acting, as she was.
A Room with A View, E.M. Forster
I think I meant to try to analyze what the fuck Mr. Beebe’s deal is here, but now it’s been slightly too long since I read the book for me to recall what I was confused by. He definitely has woman issues; most of it is probably a religiously based disapproval of/discomfort with female sexuality and idealization of virgins, but it’s unclear to me if in addition to that he’s meant to be secretly gay and/or a misogynist. Here are the most relevant quotes in lieu of, like, actual critical thought:
All his life he had loved to study maiden ladies; they were his specialty, and his profession had provided him with ample opportunities for the work. Girls like Lucy were charming to look at, but Mr. Beebe was, from rather profound reasons, somewhat chilly in his attitude towards the other sex, and preferred to be interested rather than enthralled.
“You know Mr. Beebe’s funny way, when you never quite know what he means. He said: ‘Mr. Vyse is an ideal bachelor.’ I was very cute, I asked him what he meant. He said ‘Oh, he’s like me—better detached.'”
After Lucy cancels her engagement to Cecil:
Mr. Beebe did not quite understand the situation; but then, he did not desire to understand it, nor to jump to the conclusion of “another man” that would have attracted a grosser mind. He only felt that Miss Bartlett knew of some vague influence from which the girl desired to be delivered, and which might well be clothed in the fleshly form. Its very vagueness spurred him into knight-errantry. His belief in celibacy, so reticent, so carefully concealed beneath his tolerance and culture, now came to the surface and expanded like some delicate flower. “They that marry do well, but they that refrain do better.” So ran his belief, and he never heard that an engagement was broken off but with a slight feeling of pleasure. In the case of Lucy, the feeling was intensified through dislike of Cecil; and he was willing to go further—to place her out of danger until she could confirm her resolution of virginity. The feeling was very subtle and quite undogmatic, and he never imparted it to any other of the characters in this entanglement. Yet it existed, and it alone explains his action subsequently, and his influence on the action of others. The compact that he made with Miss Bartlett in the tavern, was to help not only Lucy, but religion also.
Mr. Beebe, who loved the art of the past, was reminded of a favourite theme, the Santa Conversazione, in which people who care for one another are painted chatting together about noble things—a theme neither sensual nor sensational, and therefore ignored by the art of to-day. Why should Lucy want either to marry or to travel when she had such friends at home?
When Mr. Beebe finds out the Lucy actually cancelled her engagement with Cecil because she’s in love with George:
“You’re not worthy of their trust.” [said Mr. Emerson.]
“What’s that?” said Mr. Beebe sharply.
“I was saying, why should you trust [Lucy] when she deceived you?”
“One minute, mother.” He came in and shut the door.
“I don’t follow you, Mr. Emerson. To whom do you refer? Trust whom?”
“I mean she has pretended to you that she did not love George. They have loved one another all along.”
Mr. Beebe looked at the sobbing girl. He was very quiet, and his white face, with its ruddy whiskers, seemed suddenly inhuman. A long black column, he stood and awaited her reply.
“I shall never marry him,” quavered Lucy.
A look of contempt came over him, and he said, “Why not?”
“Mr. Beebe—I have misled you—I have misled myself—”
“Oh, rubbish, Miss Honeychurch!”
“It is not rubbish!” said the old man hotly. “It’s the part of people that you don’t understand.”
Mr. Beebe laid his hand on the old man’s shoulder pleasantly.
“Lucy! Lucy!” called voices from the carriage.
“Mr. Beebe, could you help me?”
He looked amazed at the request, and said in a low, stern voice: “I am more grieved than I can possibly express. It is lamentable, lamentable—incredible.”
“What’s wrong with the boy?” fired up the other again.
“Nothing, Mr. Emerson, except that he no longer interests me. Marry George, Miss Honeychurch. He will do admirably.”
Lucy to George after they elope:
“[Mr. Beebe] will never forgive us—I mean, he will never be interested in us again. I wish that he did not influence them so much at Windy Corner. I wish he hadn’t—But if we act the truth, the people who really love us are sure to come back to us in the long run.”
I guess the point is: book!Mr. Beebe is very much not the same character as good-natured, benevolent movie!Mr. Beebe.
But Lucy had developed since the spring. That is to say, she was now better able to stifle the emotions of which the conventions and the world disapprove. Though the danger was greater, she was not shaken by deep sobs. She said to Cecil, “I am not coming in to tea—tell mother—I must write some letters,” and went up to her room. Then she prepared for action. Love felt and returned, love which our bodies exact and our hearts have transfigured, love which is the most real thing that we shall ever meet, reappeared now as the world’s enemy, and she must stifle it.
Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined, Stephenie Meyer
Oh man, this was a trip.
First of all: yes, genderbent Twilight is a thing that happened. I love that this is a thing that happened. I love how many future gender studies theses will be written about this thing that happened. For those not in the know, although how can you not be at this point, for the 10th anniversary of Twilight, Stephenie Meyer re-released the book with the genders of every2 single character switched. Part of her motivation for the gender swapping is to prove that Bella was not a damsel in distress but a “human in distress.”
Anyway, Bella and Edward are now Beau and Edythe. Beau’s favorite t-shirt is a “Monty Python one with the swallows and the coconut.” He’s really self-conscious about his height because he has an 8-inch-growth spurt sophomore year. He’s “too quiet” and “too pale” and Not Like Other Boys because he doesn’t know anything about “gaming3 or cars or baseball statistics or anything else [he] was supposed to be into.” What are his interests, then? Apparently, managing his mom’s household, Jules Verne, and maybe soap operas, but only the first one comes across as anything even close to passion. His main character trait is probably that he’s ridiculously insecure about the fact that his skin gets “splotchy” (i.e. he blushes?) when he feels basically any emotion.
Beau is bland, is what I’m saying; I believe that was the case for Bella as well, but Beau comes across as more genially bland than mopey bland. And the big questions there are: is this internalized misogyny on my part or an actual difference in the writing between the two books? And if it is an actual difference in the writing, is it because Meyer has had 10 years to mature as a writer and this is giving her an opportunity to correct mistakes from the first time around? Or is it internalized misogyny on Meyer’s part? Or all of the above? As you can imagine, these questions come up a lot over the course of reading Life and Death.
Edythe, on the other hand, is fucking awesome. This is all going to be super obvious, but: Edward is the real problem in the Bella/Edward relationship dynamic. There is some validity to the “I am a 107-year-old vampire and you are a fragile human, so I am going to make decisions about your safety for you because I know better and am more capable” argument, and in a post-gender society or whatever that’s all it would be. But when it’s coming from a male vampire to a female human in the early 2000s, there are a bunch of gross paternalistic associations with that sort of behavior and the dynamic becomes less of a strong vampire/weak human thing than a strong male/weak female thing, which, you know, sucks. And the whole old-fashioned chivalric aspect of Edward’s treatment of Bella—again, valid from a storytelling perspective, because Edward was born in another time with different values, but perhaps off-putting to modern feminist readers because of the paternalistic associations.
So, there are definitely some tweaks in the characterization of Edythe, since this wasn’t just a search-and-replace all names and gendered pronouns situation, but she’s more or less Edward. And once those paternalistic associations are gone, the power dynamic between Edythe and Beau is kind of subversive and delightful4. This in particular is probably my favorite exchange:
I fumbled for my wallet. “Um, let me—you didn’t even get anything—”
“My treat, Beau.”
“Try not to get caught up in antiquated gender roles.”
She walked away, and I rushed to follow, leaving the stunned waiter behind me with what looked like a hundred-dollar bill on the table in front of him.
Because you know Edythe has seen some shit, living as a beautiful telepathic woman through the entire 20th century, and she is not having Beau’s awkward-ass macho posturing. This book keeps the scenes of Edward giving Bella super-speed piggyback rides, and that is hilarious with tiny, super-strong Edythe and tall, lanky Beau trying not to get a boner.
Also: they talk about sex, and it’s not completely terrible! And everyone’s smart-ass “why can’t Edward and Bella just be more creative with their sex positions, if he’s worried about hurting her?” comments were addressed:
“Sex and Vampires One-Oh-Two, Beau and Edythe.” She sighed again, more slowly this time. “I don’t think… that would be possible for us.”
“Because I would have to get too… close?” I guessed.
“That would be a problem, but that’s not the main problem. Beau, you don’t know how… well, fragile you are. I don’t mean that as an insult to your manliness, anyone human is fragile to me. I have to mind my actions every moment that we’re together so that I don’t hurt you. I could kill you quite easily, simply by accident.”
I thought about the first few times that she’d touched me, how cautiously she’d moved, how much it had seemed to frighten her. How she would ask me to move my hand, rather than just pulling hers out from under it…
Now she put her palm against my cheek.
“If I were too hasty… if I were at all distracted, I could reach out, meaning to touch your face, and crush your skull by mistake. You don’t realize how incredibly breakable you are. I can never, never afford to lose any kind of control when I’m with you.”
Okay, well done, Edythe. (More relevant to Bella/Edward than Beau/Edythe, but here: Larry Niven’s brilliant Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.)
Also, holy shit, the epilogue of the book fucking destroyed me. I feel like Stephenie Meyer punched me in the face with the ending. She completely changes the ending of the original book and has Beau become a vampire. BUT it means that he has to fake his death and so his last words to his father ended up being really dickish—Bella says the same dickish things, but she has a chance to apologize, I think—and it’s just completely unexpectedly heartbreaking, because like…Twilight? I shouldn’t need tissues to read fucking genderbent Twilight.
Some additional inane thoughts:
- This interaction definitely plays differently between two dudes than it did between two girls:
“You do smell nice, I never noticed before,” she commented, to my extreme embarrassment.
[Alice to Bella]
“You do smell good, I never noticed before,” Archie commented. My face got hot, and then hotter when I thought what that must look like to them, and nobody seemed to know what to say.
[Archie to Beau]
- At one point, Beau does a Google search of the word “vampire” although he is self-aware enough to be like, “this is totally dumb, I know this is totally dumb, and yet I’m still going to place some stock in what is said on this web page called ‘Vampires A-Z.'” Then he goes to school and Edythe isn’t there and he has this moment where he’s like, oh shit did she somehow sense my crazy internet searches? And this happens:
It was just as ridiculous to imagine that someone could read my mind. I needed to stop being so paranoid. Edythe would be back tomorrow. No one had ever found neuroticism attractive, and I doubted she would be the first.
And holy shit, I would like, say, the 30th anniversary edition of Twilight to be rewritten in the style of Philip Roth from the POV of Ben Schwarz. Although maybe it would play better if he’s still Beau Swan because he’s the product of an interfaith marriage and he’s going from living with his Jewish mother in…I don’t know, are there Jews in Phoenix? Or do we want to switch to Los Angeles? to living with his WASP father in Bumfuck Nowhere, Washington with probably one or two Jewish families in the whole city/town. That would certainly help with the whole somewhat irrational feeling like a misfit thing that Beau/Bella have going on. I mean, I don’t know if anti-Semitism would actually still be a thing in Bumfuck Nowhere, Washington. If not, then it’s just another layer to Beau/Bella’s insecurities and Not Like Other Boys/Girls thing, where the reader is like, dude, you’re just obsessing over an aspect of yourself that no one else really notices or gives a shit about (Bella’s clumsiness, Beau’s red splotches, etc.). And if so, I guess it would sort of legitimize their persecution complex, and it might be a totally different book?
We’ll stick with Edythe Cullen, who in addition to being a vampire is now like the Ultimate Shiksa.
Some solid tweets from when this was released (there was a lot of live-tweeting happening, as you can imagine):
Where Angels Fear to Tread, E.M. Forster
Eh, a step on the path to Forster completionism, but not super compelling or remarkable in and of itself.
There is something majestic in the bad taste of Italy; it is not the bad taste of a country which knows no better; it has not the nervous vulgarity of England, or the blinded vulgarity of Germany. It observes beauty, and chooses to pass it by. But it attains to beauty’s confidence. This tiny theatre of Monteriano spraddled and swaggered with the best of them, and these ladies with their clock would have nodded to the young men on the ceiling of the Sistine.
(Consider: this was written 73 years before Versace’s first boutique opened.)
The Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood
Solid. I enjoyed Goodbye to Berlin more than The Last of Mr. Norris, probably because it just had more characters and thus more opportunities for detailed, gossipy character portraits. Plus, The Last of Mr. Norris was frustratingly vague to the point where I was not sure if I was just being obtuse or if it was a stylistic choice, since the first person narrator has no idea what the hell Mr. Norris is up to for most of it. But, I mean, in both stories so much is left as euphemism and subtext.
Goodbye to Berlin has the additional appeal of being the source material on which Cabaret is based—pretty loosely, it turns out, since it’s based on a play based on the book. And yet, I’m not sure Sally Bowles is even the most interesting character in the book. Bernhard Landauer5, man.
Selected quote from The Last of Mr. Norris:
He had money enough to last him, according to the standards of social London in the ‘nineties, for at least ten years. He spent it in rather less than two. “It was at that time,” said Arthur, “that I first learnt the meaning of the word ‘luxury.’ Since then, I am sorry to say, I have been forced to add others to my vocabulary; horrid ugly ones, some of them.” “I wish,” he remarked simply, on another occasion, “I had that money now. I should know what to do with it.” In those days he was only twenty-two and didn’t know. It disappeared with magic speed into the mouths of horses and the stockings of ballet girls. It was transformed into wonderful suits of clothes which he presented after a week or two, in disgust, to his valet; into oriental knickknacks which somehow, when he got them back to his flat, turned out to be rusty old iron pots; into landscapes of the latest impressionist genius which by daylight next morning were childish daubs.
Selected quote from Goodbye to Berlin:
Sally’s German was not merely incorrect; it was all her own. She pronounced every word in a mincing, specially “foreign” manner. You could tell that she was speaking a foreign language from her expression alone.
1. Are there any examples of this relationship between two books? Like, there must be, but I can’t really think of any. ^
2. Well, except for Bella’s parents because she didn’t think it would be realistic for a father to get primary custody of an infant in the late 80s. Which, okay, sure? I admire her commitment to realism in the non-vampire aspects of her novel, I guess? I mean, there are probably actually some glaring realism issues in the non-vampire aspects of her novels, although I’m not familiar enough to point them out. In any case, fantasy isn’t necessarily a license to throw away realism in other aspects of the story and I feel like a lot of people don’t understand that (so many dumb internet comments in the vein of, “what, you’re okay with the existence of [idk dragons] but not this [character-based rather than setting-based thing]”?) , so I did legit appreciate that Meyer thought this particular issue through under that light. ^
3. Pft, the dude’s favorite shirt is a Monty Python shirt but he doesn’t know anything about gaming? Seems suspect. ^
4. The power dynamic between Edythe and Bella would be even more subversive and delightful, though, and I’m pretty sure the rest of the Internet agrees. It is hard to read Life and Death and not be overcome with the desire to copy-paste the Bella bits of Twilight with the Edythe bits of Life and Death to create basically canon femslash Twilight, and some people apparently did not fight that desire. Certainly, Bella’s mopey blandness and the intensity of this relationship would feel different if she’s been struggling with her sexual identity and Edythe is kind of her first totally clear sign that yes, she is into girls. And it would just make so much sense for Edythe as well, as someone who has had to listen to dudes objectifying her in their thoughts for 90 years. ^
5. Occasionally I try to collect instances of tropes that I find particularly effective, and right, there’s one of them between Landauer and Isherwood. It’s the thing where two people discuss running away together and they’re both kind of joking and kind of not and neither is willing to show the vulnerability/level of caring to actually seriously commit to the idea. So they play this painful game of emotional chicken and both end up laughing it off, but you know—you know—they’re going to regret it. And inevitably, something horrible happens to at least one of them that wouldn’t have happened if they had run away together. Anyway, that happens in Goodbye to Berlin, and although it’s perhaps a bit more about fleeing Germany before the Nazis fully take over than a big romantic gesture, there’s still a bit of the latter, probably. It’s super painful to read. ^