Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Betrothed

Ciao amico! Benvenuti! Vieni con me in Italia bella! …Owl kisses her wingtips, Owl devours platters of spaghetti, Owl has plunged deep into Alessandro Manzoni’s old school epic The Betrothed (Bruce Penman’s translation) and is Italian.

The year is 1628. The place, in case you missed the memo, is Italy. Lucia and Lorenzo are in love and engaged to be married. The end, alla fine.  But no! The evilnous (evil+villainous)  Don Rodrigo happens to see Lucia walking down the road and his man parts go all “Oh hai there” and well, Don Rodrigo has minions and money and Lorenzo doesn’t so there is EPIC FLEEING! Riots! Hiding in nunneries! Famine! The PLAGUE!

Really. The plague.

Involuntary separation
 The best part? All of this is more or less happened because Manzoni wrote the book in 1827, and researched the living daylights out of it. The Betrothed is crissed and crossed with references to the manuals Manzoni consulted, his opinions on the manuals and then his opinion on everything in general. Manzoni has a lot of opinions.


(A) Manzoni as the omniscient narrator. Manzoni is the most crotchety, anal, judgmental, adorable sourpuss of a narrator ever. Whenever Lorenzo goes off and does something stupid (every few moments) Manzoni folds his hands over his stomach, rolls his eyes and goes—“Gentle reader, please don’t be such an idiot.” And when Manzoni approves, he nods his head, pats Lorenzo on the back, and keeps going.

(B) Manzoni as the tangent man. So, sometime Manzoni just totally forgets that he’s got lovers on the run and he stuffs Lucia in a nunnery, gets Lorenzo into heaps of trouble and then leaves them there because he’s busy introducing the newest member of the party, like a nun. Who maybe attempted murder.
And by the time Manzoni’s done talking about his murderess nun, you kinda want to be best friends with her.

(C) Manzoni the psychologist. Ten to one Manzoni’s the sort who sat on the edge of the room during all the big parties, scaring up the courage to ask lovely ladies to dance, or possibly not dancing at all because he was so busy watching people, because his novel is rich with minor human truths.

When a friend, then, indulges in the joy of unburdening a secret onto another friend’s bosom, he makes the latter, in his turn, feel the urge to taste the same joy himself. He implores him, it is true, not to tell a soul; but if such a condition were taken absolutely literally, it would at once cut off the flow of these joys at their very source. The general practice is for the secret to be confided only to an equally trustworthy friend, the same conditions being imposed on him.
Minor quibbles:

(A) Lucia spends most of the book, fainting, trembling, crying, pleading or blushing. Owl gets the idea Manzoni may have been slightly crushin’ on her which is probably why she’s less of a person and more of a symbol of dewy trembling maidenhood. Or head. (…Owl apologizes for crassness.) Ooh, and maybe why Manzoni keeps separating her from Lorenzo. Lucia must be his!

(B) Villainous men who spend their entire lives lopping off the heads of peasants for fun and going bowling with said heads, are not going to suddenly be tortured by guilt when they encounter a tremblingly-bosomy maiden. Yeah, even if she’s Lucia, and even if Manzoni’s crushin’ on her like no other. Owl ain’t buying it. Sorry.

Owl is dimly aware that The Betrothed is an Italian classic that’s the equivalent of a Dickens-Thackery lovechild (she’s quoting from Penman’s introduction), and it should be treated with solemn respect, say a thesis paper littered with buzz phrases like the ‘human condition’ and ‘agency’, but books are written primarily to be enjoyed, books become famous because they are enjoyable. The Betrothed is a carnival. It’s full of bright lights and colors, metaphorical clowns and jugglers, and the king of them all is Manzoni who keeps the plot sparkling and dancing so the reader can’t help turning the page.

The Betrothed is also comforting. It’s a carnival, but it’s the carnival your parents took you to when you were little, which ends with cotton candy on a stick, instead of say, getting eaten by a clown. Manzoni is a devout Christian, and in the end The Betrothed is a commentary on faith. Trust in Providence, Manzoni insists. Providence may kidnap while you’re walking down the street, may lock you in a cellar for no good reason, may decide to label you a criminal because you got drunk in the wrong place at the wrong time, but in the end, if you are good, if you are honest, and if you are pure of intent, despite all your mistakes, despite your complete and total foolishness, all the loose ends will fall neatly into place and Providence will take care of you.

If only Owl could believe this.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Invisible Cities

Sometimes Owl is tempted to wander down the open road with a loaf of bread, a bit of cheese, and a few stamped postcards knotted up in a kerchief. She dreams of cities that sparkle in the sunlight, cities covered in dust, the wide open spaces between cities, and the endless road. Unfortunately whenever she tries, she is plagued with worries about running out of bread, worries about rain because kerchiefs don’t do wet so well, so she turns around and goes home for some strawberry-banana-chocolate sandwiches and a book.

Owl has three modes of reading. In the first mode she drags herself through a book because she wants to impress people with her literary curriculum vitae. (See Mark Twain, see also J.R.R. Tolkien who should be castrated for the Two Towers). Owl admits this is a terrible thing to do, but she reads copious amounts of comic books to atone. In the second mode she’s picked up some delicious escapism, done a serious face plant into the paper and is dead to the world for the next forty eight hours. (See anything by Diana Wynne Jones.) When she emerges she walks into a lot of walls and is woozy. In the third mode, in the third mode, call the cops, put the ambulances on hold and bring out the parachutes because Owl tasted the sublime, Owl’s heart cracked open and spilled across the grass, Owl just hit the sky and is wheeling about in a flaming ball of ecstasy and she’s never, never coming back.

Enter Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, full of twinkling cities and decadent prose. Owl may have teared up reading it. Teared up because it’s good like that first bite of double chocolate cake frosted with an inch of fudge ganache. Yeah. That good.

 Owl isn’t even going to try to write a synopsis. She’ll let Gore Vidal do the talking:

In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo. The mood is sunset. Prospero is holding up for the last time his magic wand: Kublai Khan has sensed the end of his empire, of his cities, of himself.

Marco Polo, however, diverts the emperor with tales of cities that he has seen within the empire and Kublai Khan listens, searches for a pattern in Marco Polo’s Cities and memory, Cities and desire, Cities and signs…The emperor soon determines that each of these fantastic places is really the same place.

Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.

To read Invisible Cities is to visit the most fabulous cities on earth, cities named after beautiful women, cities whose descriptions are one paged prose poems that read like love affairs. Some of them are sweet and frothy, some of the dark and twisted, all of them are glorious. Skim through the descriptions and you will reel from the beauty of the prose. Savor them slowly and you will discover hidden truths about the curious creatures that are cities, about the lone traveler who chooses to wander from place to place.

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses white or black or grey or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave; the houses are dismantled; only the strings and the supports remain.

Invisible Cities ought to be boring, a book of fifty odd cities broken up by dialog between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, and to be honest, reading it is like traveling for a long long time. At first every sight in every city is precious, something to marvel over. Then the details of each city blur together, the cities begin to blur, you only notice what is so novel that it is beyond the scope of your imagination, or what is so familiar you nearly drown in homesickness. In doing this, you will begin to understand the place you came from, and see how it shaped you. This is the only way to learn these lessons of self and homeland.

Read Calvino. Read him to travel to wonderful cities, to dream as you've never dreamed before, and to discover the invisible city that lies inside of you. When you eventually surface in your living room, you will be exhausted and exhilerated, you will be irrevocably changed.

Searching for invisible cities

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Screwtape Letters

Now that all the spare corners of Owl’s mind are no longer filled with vague worries about homework assignments and final exams, she worries about other questions, in particular, the tricky business of how one should live life. Owl stutters and stammers through the minutiae of daily life. Does one help the old lady walk across the street? Yes, of course. But what if Owl is late to work and she is supposed to take meeting notes? Leave the old lady or miss the first part of the meeting and turn in incomplete notes? What if Owl is cranky and does not feel like helping old ladies across the street and will do it with a hint of impatience? Is it better to help an old lady across the street a little impatiently, or to keep out of it all together?
Moral dilemmas

Owl’s expensive college textbooks contain no helpful guidance. Owl is alarmed. She has spent a decade and a half in school, could probably take the derivative of x with regard to y, yet she is ill-equipped to answer such questions. She has no fundamental code of behavior to consult.

Most days Owl suspects that these questions are the important ones, answering them is akin to discovering the secret to living a happy life. However, Owl lives in a city full of up and coming young professionals who talk about how large their salaries are, how much overtime they put in and how very rich and famous they will be one day. When Owl asks them about minutiae they cough politely and offer to buy her a mocha latte to shut her up.

After one or two mochas and a few hours in such company, Owl tends to believe that the real questions of life may have to do more with climbing ladders that lead nowhere instead of asking questions on how to live.

Enter C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, a series of letters from Uncle Screwtape, a high ranking official, advising his young nephew Wormwood, a junior officer, on the finer points of corrupting an average human soul. That’s right. Hell is a bureaucracy, Uncle Screwtape is a devil who works for Satan, and Uncle Screwtape wants to eat your soul.
Owl has her doubts about Lewis. His Narnia books made her feel rather uncomfortable about lions, but the Screwtape Letters is a diabolically clever examination of the foibles of human nature. By writing a how-to manual on corruption Lewis produces a photographic negative of true spirituality that is more powerful than any amount of preaching. It is highly irritating to be told you should aspire to certain ideals. But when someone describes certain human foibles in ridiculous and satirical detail and they sound awfully close to your regular old self…ay yi yi.

For example, Uncle Screwtape on false humility:

You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. Some talents, I gather, he really has. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth.…And since what [he is] trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, [he] cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping [his] mind endlessly revolving on [himself] in an effort to achieve the impossible.

And the photographic negative, (i.e. true humility):

The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.

While Lewis wrote as a practicing Christian, Screwtape goes beyond the scope of Christianity and addresses psychological truths, spirituality, call it what you will. Owl does not have a tidy phrase to explain the manifold social pretensions and affectations that obfuscate ones relationships with the world, with other people, and above all, with oneself. 

She can only say that she struggles with these issues all the time, false humility, pretension, complacence—all issues left out of the college classroom, but issues that religion and philosophy have been trying to address since humans acquired synapses. 

Replace God or Christianity with any other belief—Art, Science, Buddhism, Compassion—and The Screwtape Letters still ring true. Owl personally translated Lewis’s references to God and Christianity to writing. (She's a tad obsessed.)

There are a dozen demons out and about, small demons, tiny little creatures who roost on shoulders and whisper:

Do this. Everyone else does, so it’s alright.

Or, conversely:

Don’t do this. No one else does, so it can’t be right.

They do this every moment of every single day. They are there when you decide whether you really ought to go for the third mocha, if you should dine with people you don’t much like, if you should maybe pretend not to like Harry Potter because you’re forty three and dignified.. Each time you listen, they nibble a piece of your soul. A small piece, not much of a piece, but if you listen often enough, you let enough of them nibble, you wake up one day and there is nothing left.  

Never fear. Uncle Screwtape will tell you how these demons work, and although he purports to be a soul eater working in the bowels of Hell, Uncle Screwtape will save you from sinking into the morasses of petty sins that plague daily life.