Good Evening. I am Virginia Woolf. As most of you know I am a British novelist
who committed suicide at the age of 59 in 1960. What you don't know is that
despite my good works in life, I was sent, with the infinite wisdom and forgiveness
of our God, straight to hell. Upon my arrival, being completely appalled at
the conditions surrounding me, I straightaway set about improving my circumstances.
I asked immediately to see the man in charge and found myself promptly in front
of Satan himself. Startled at the speed with which I arrived but no less determined
in my task, I proceeded to bargain my way to a better position. Upon reflection
I am not sure who ended up with the better position, that old devil or myself.
However, upon further reflection, one supposes that that is exactly the point.
To make myself clearer, the lot that has fallen to me is that I am allowed to
continue my writing provided that I supply Satan with at least one soul per
annum. So, you say, where is the difficulty? A soul a year? How challenging
can that be? Unfortunately that is not my conundrum. There was another tiny,
yet steel-like in its strength, provision to my deal with the devil: the only
way that my writing could continue was through the pen of someone else. Not
just anyone, you understand, but a certain someone. I am forced to channel my
writing through the pen of a simple college student. Not such a bad lot you
say? I have not provided you with the crowning glory: the student is to be....an
Ammu spends her life surrounded by the smell of death and decay, her father's sadistic reign resulting from the delusion of his robbed discovery, the fetid aroma of Baby Kochamma's mouldering passion for her forbidden love (which will serve to become the ultimate downfall of everyone around her), her brother's long-distance, silent indifference to his sister and their parents (his voice heard only once on a visit home, that voice becoming a shout in the aftermath his sister and mother would endure), and her mother, the very woman who loves Ammu's brother with a flowery, girlish beyond reason, shows her only how to withstand the regular, nocturnal, brass-flower-vased beatings and the daily discourse with the untouchables. How can a woman emerge from such conditions?
And yet one does emerge. We see it in the stolen, tender bursts of love she feels for her two children, the sisterly affection for her brother she grudgingly lets slip through the chink in the armour of her "washed-up cynicism." And most especially we see it in her one true love. The man whom she and her children will risk everything to be near, to absorb his quiet, thoughtful strength, to laugh delightedly, shrilly childlike at his outrageous fibs, to come to with any puzzle ever thought up by two seven year old ambassadors but more importantly to Ammu to find the kindred that lurked within him, the man she hoped "under his careful cloak of cheerfulness" and under his smile that "was the only piece of baggage he had carried with him from boyhood into manhood" was "a living, breathing anger against the smug, ordered world that she raged against." In this man, her hardened, class-weary heart had found its home.Unfortunately, the only happiness that Ammu finds will be taken from her in the form of two agonizing and critical events: the loss of one of her twins and the loss of Velutha, her beloved. These events are shaped by the one baby-woman who, if she so chose, could have understood the fire in Ammu's heart, the one who had once tried to break free of the rusted, ill-fitting shackles herself only to become more enslaved by their very iron grasp. Instead as life so often perversely and perpetually chooses to unfold, Baby Kochamma turns against her niece as she was turned against herself and we are left with the hopelessness of these women amidst the ruins of Ayemenem.
Somehow looks as if
touched she would
I see the fear in
Violet eyes? or a
reflection of the flowers
in the pot beside her?
I can't quite capture
I try to observe her
I sense her
almost before it appears
on her person.
She wears it
like a shroud.
What can have occurred to
blur her so?
She seems supernatural only
Moving closer to her, she
senses my presence but
Her eyes (violet? I still can't tell)
dart from side to side.
I retreat into shadow and move
stealthily closer until I can
yes, can actually
A small faint squeak
as she feels
pass through her.
The roaring of time
engulfs my senses.
I fight against the current
I walk on tiptoe,
a blade of grass.
While it has been some time since I critiqued a novel, the last being my friend E. M. Forster's Howard's End in the November 1927 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, I feel compelled to break my self-imposed drought and comment on Mao II by the American author Don DeLillo. I must admit in preface to my remarks that I find the Americans as a group a rather angst-ridden lot, and Mr. DeLillo appears to be no exception. However I suspect that if one digs deeper than the surface of his writing one would find that Mr. DeLillo actually has a very unique sense of humour about the message of his novel.
Rather obviously the reader is to take away from the book that the title refers to the fact that all over the world we are all just so many doomed sailors following whatever siren symbolizes our own wreck against the rocks of enlightenment and inner peace. Whether this siren be a fanatic in Beirut, a self-proclaimed messiah or less obviously a favorite author, we all feel the need to follow it blindly and without regard to the actual consequences of our actions or even the reality of the cause. We are lemmings, so ardent in our search for utopia that we are willing to scurry over cliffs to find it. "The future belongs to crowds." Indeed, but is this the true thrust of Mr. DeLillo's message?
I am fascinated by the comparison of writers to terrorists. "They make raids on human consciousness." Not that I disagree with this. The power that a writer wields over her reader is formidable; the pen being mightier than the sword is not just a tired axiom. But the idea of my compatriates and I commanding armies of starry-eyed, fresh faced young people desperate to believe in something, in anything that will allow them to "...unburden them(selves) of free will and independent thought" staggers the mind. Can Mr. DeLillo actually believe this or is this a tongue in cheek look at how subservient our culture has become to anyone or anything they believe will give their life its long-sought meaning? Somehow I think that Mr. DeLillo is just a bit too sly for it to be the former.
And what of the main character Bill Gray? Worshipped by many as a kind of literary god, yet such a quivering mass of neuroses the reader wonders how he travels from room to room let alone city to city or across the world. Brita the photographer is so awed by the man that her first thoughts are almost that she is not worthy. "She felt the uneasy force, the strangeness of seeing a man who had lived in her mind for years as words alone - the force of a body in a room. She almost could not look at him." DeLillo has given us the epitome of the tortured writer. He has taken the character past "...the feeling of this is it..." to the level of demi-god. How is it that a person whose life, when stripped down to its barest bones, can be summed up in the phrase "Measure your head before ordering", has become a messianic messenger to the masses. Oh yes, these are definitely the intellectual, literary masses, but does that make them any less desperate or disillusioned than the so-called common folk? As Scott observes, "...even the healthy and well-dressed look afflicted." One imagines DeLillo tapping maniacally away at his wordprocessor cackling with glee as he creates yet another chink in Bill Gray's armour of absurdity.
One comes to believe that the only person rooted in reality in this snide american novel is the true terrorist, Abu Rashid. Every aspect of his life is cut to the barest of bones, the simplest of truths as he sees them. He makes no excuses for his cause or his methods. His is not a life of endless struggles with conscience or a quest for fulfillment. He seeks merely to revenge "...a thousand years of bloodshed...". How interesting that Brita has much more sympathy for Bill's imagined demons than Rashid's real ones. DeLillo again ironically tapping away.
In summation, although Mr. DeLillo proves himself a citizen of New York in the purest sense, his descriptions and ability to feel the very pulse of the city reverberate in the voyage of Karen through the city's underworld of the homeless, one can almost imagine him a subject of the crown in his sardonic depiction of the american masses as blind followers of the endless purveyors of the balm of happiness. Many critics may feel that Mr. DeLillo has written a novel of great perception; a novel which cuts to the very heart of the new mentality of 20th century America. This critic believes that Mr. DeLillo is very perceptive indeed but that not only does he understand his culture very well, he also finds it endlessly amusing.
Red Azalea by Anchee Min flows over the reader in waves. It abounds with the ebb and flow of enemies, loves, faith in self and the favor of women. This remarkable woman, one of the true heros of communist China, takes our minds on a rich journey through a time when fear was the reigning emotion and one's place in society was ephemeral, changing at the whim of the party machine.
Min shows us a communist China peopled by comrades. Comrades whose duty it is to remain on an equal footing with their fellow comrades but who in truth strive to rise above them. Min is plagued by these "strivers." Her first true awareness of an enemy is Lu at the Red Fire Farm. Lu is so eaten up by her ambition that she will stop at nothing to feed it. Min wants nothing more than for things to go smoothly with Lu but realizes that nothing she can do will persuade Lu to accept this fact. This is also true of Soviet Wong. So bitter is Wong that she can no longer be an actress that she lashes out at anyone who displeases her to find a target for her bitterness. No matter how humble Min is or how hard she tries to please she is rejected because of the promise seen in her. But no matter how powerful these enemies, Min somehow manages to dodge their blows and come out on top.
The two loves of Min's life in China teach her much about herself and the party but also about how to deal with loss and how to emerge from it triumphant. Her tempestuous relationship with her Commander at Red Fire Farm and later with the Supervisor of the movie studio allow her to discover her true potential and to believe in herself. Just as she despairs at having lost Yan and is at her lowest point in the studio hierarchy, the Supervisor arrives with means for the renewal of her faith in herself yet again.
Min's faith in herself waxes and wanes in her autobiography. Her spirit is so resilient that we are constantly amazed by the rediscovery of her self-confidence and iron will. Interestingly enough, no matter how hard she tries to adhere to the directives and teachings of the party, her strength always seems to be renewed by glimmers of hope from without the party. Just when she begins to doubt the workings of the party most something jogs her back into a new phase of forging ahead within it. Even though Yan urges Min forward in her acting career by using communist teachings and strategies, the real reason Min succeeds is because of her forbidden physical and emotional connection to Yan. The same is true of the Supervisor. Just when she believes she cannot portray the Red Azalea, he tells her the amazing story of Comrade Jiang Ching and what appeals to her in the story is not the teachings of the party but the very fact that Ching defied the party at every turn and made it love her in spite of her defiance.
However we find in the end of the book just how precarious the position of women was in Red China. Out of favor before the revolution, women were elevated to equals afterward, only to be once again demoted to secondary status by decision of the party. But the Red Azalea would not be crushed and she rose again to be esteemed by the people of China almost to the state of being more powerful than Mao. But as always she was again put down, eventually for good.
Something that the Supervisor said to Min struck me as pulling all of the aspects of the story I have discussed above together. He said, "The life of a true hero is like acrobatic dancers on a tightrope. You can never be fully prepared." Did Min ever believe that her life would end out of communist China, in a country that embodies all that her mother believed in? Even after all her sacrifices and struggles, nothing could have prepared her for this.
I find the conditions here completely deplorable. While the motives of these brave women and men are cloaked in the utmost righteousness, I sense an underlying unrest. This is due, I am sure, in no small part, to the squalid living conditions and lack of nutritious food.
The leaders are the epitome of fanaticism, denying themselves even the smallest comfort in an effort to win the loyalty of their platoons.
I find the intense labor extremely futile. There seems to be no hope of ever producing any surplus of food from the farm; in fact, there is not even enough grown to support the inhabitants of the farm itself. Yet each time a tiny sprout is uprooted from its next of earth, a worker robotically replants it: a never-ending cycle of hopelessness.
There is however, a certain haunted beauty to the landscape - the endless fields, hardy winds swaying shaggy willows, the musical drumming of the rain on the roofs of the barracks, long common sink filled to overflowing again and again. I feel an inner peace here in its simplest and purest form; strange as there is not even the slightest comfort to which I am used. Thank god for the long, solitary walks I am still able to take, tramping my way through the sodden fields, gazing at the blazing sunsets, so few in the rain-soaked eternity of this climate, then scurrying, mouse-like, back to the dreary cluster of huts barely visible on the horizon, trying to reach them before I am swallowed by the starless darkness that approaches. Once at my hut, I am newly disappointed at the fact of having to share these dismal quarters. A room of one's own being the only acceptable way to live freely, I feel stifled by my female companions.
The meetings after the evening meal (which my stomach consistently rebels at, wondering what it has done to deserve such slighting) are encouraging and enlightening. There is a strange sisterhood of self-improvement afoot. Each worker roots out what she fears is the weakness within her. She offers it up to the group as a whole to be dissected and then returned to her to reshape and transcend it. Perhaps there is something to this methodology which I have not considered in my own quest for enlightenment. Is it possible that more than one's own self-introspection is needed to reach the freedom of life and spirit that all women should be striving for? I intend to reconsider the absolutism of my theory on solitude as an instrument for self-exploration.
On the day that my husband arrived for me, precipitation pounding on the rooftops as ever, I felt a strange sadness attached to my elation at seeing him. I would miss the tortured landscape, the tortured souls, the tortured tiny sprouts, all struggling for freedom in their own tortured way.
Riding on the train...Louis has just left Prior in the hospital, Roy has just heard from his doctor that he has AIDS, Harper has just told Joe she will leave him.
There is children's laughter behind me: that exquisite secretive giggling which can only be produced by miniature partners in crime. Muffled only a little by hands with nail bitten fingers pressed tightly against still slightly cherubic mouths in a vain attempt to escape the shushing of an adult.
When was the last time I really giggled with someone? Lights out, flashlight under covers, world full of hope, secrets to tell, and told willingly, offered as a prized perfectly ripe apple picked from a tree in a cranky farmer's orchard "no trespassing" signs as meaningless as the tiny no-see-ums you brush impatiently away, not cloaked in a dripping grey discomfort, a vaguely paralyzing sense of "what if someone knew?"
Secrets abound in Angels in America. Prior, Roy, Joe, Louis and Harper all hide things that gradually come to light and shape the outcome of the play. Ultimately we find that even the "good" Angel of America has something to conceal. And all of these secrets are, unfortunately, the adult kind of secret. The guilty and destructive kind. The kind that these characters hide for fear their very universes will be shattered.
Prior leads the cast in revealing his secret. Early in the play we discover that he has the beginnings of full blown AIDS. Louis, his partner's, reaction is at once one of shock, sorrow, grief, horror and denial. Prior, knowing Louis very well, has predicted this. One of his reasons for not telling Louis until he was sure was that he knew that Louis would be unable to face this reality. Prior also knew that once he told Louis he would have to face the reality himself. "What if someone knew?" Prior seems to feel that if he doesn't say the awful words out loud maybe it will all go away. But if he doesn't tell he is faced with having to struggle with his illness alone.
Roy shares the same secret as Prior but views it very differently. While Prior sees his disease in terms of death, Roy sees it in terms of how it will affect his life. Roy initially has no intention of dying. He will circumvent death in the same manner that he has overcome any obstacle in life. What is important to Roy is keeping his illness a secret. To him, the worst thing that one can be perceived as is a homosexual. In his mind, homosexuals represent weakness. "What if someone knew?" How could Roy Cohn continue to wield his power if people knew that he slept with men and had succumbed to the "gay plague"?
Joe's secret, while not literally life threatening, will end his life as he knows it. Not only will Harper not be able to live with him after this revelation but Roy will react more strongly than Joe could have ever predicted, violently directing Joe to go back to his wife and never mention the fact that he is homosexual again. "What if someone knew?" How could Joe ever tell his mother of his love for another man? How could he betray his Mormon upbringing, his wife and his entire way of life just to be true to himself?
Louis and Harper's secrets are minor ones in the scheme of the play but no less important to them. Louis lives in fear that Prior will discover that not only has Louis left him because of his illness, but he is also involved with someone new. Harper worries that Joe will find out not only about Mr. Lies, but also about how many Valiums she actually takes in a day and the fact that she never leaves the apartment. "What if someone knew?" Both Louis and Harper try to push reality away by creating a diversion. Harper travels to distant lands with Mr. Lies. Louis uses Joe to push his thoughts and guilt about Prior into the background.
The Angel's secret ultimately does good in that it is the thing that sets Prior free: free to focus more on the fact that he is still living as well as dying. But at what cost to the Angel? "What if someone knew?" By revealing that Prior is able to give back the book and renounce his role as prophet the Angel is forced to give up the idea that humanity can stop its progress and just stand still.
The secrets that come to light in Angels in America are all the "adult" kind; not for these characters the precious, giddy secrets of childhood. But in the end, for good or for bad, there is still the same relief in revealing these secrets as we all had in a time when we held that flashlight under the covers, listening to the urgent assurances of a best friend that our secrets would go no further. A time when "What if someone knew?" was still wrapped in a dreamy blue. When a simple "I'm sorry" would bandage any hurt.
The following is an excerpt from the diary of Virginia Woolf. This entry was written at her home, in her rose garden on a rare sunny and warm day in England in August of 1985. The author's husband has been observing her studiously of late believing her to be on the brink of a downturn in her mental health and has suggested to her that some time outside among her roses might lift her spirits.August 12, 1985
Setting: Bill Gray's "writing room". It is dark. A single light partially illuminates the room. Bill is seated at his typewriter pondering the gray hair accumulated amongst the keys. Virginia Woolf enters. She seats herself on a chair in the far corner of the room in the shadows.
BG: (smiling slightly) I'm not quite sure you're in the right place.
VW: (with a chilly smile) Oh, on the contrary. I believe I'm in exactly the right place.
BG: (drily) Then it must be so.
VW: However, I may be a bit late.
BG: How do you mean?
VW: I mean that I think you've gone quite far enough. Perhaps too far...
BG: I barely leave the house...
VW: Exactly my point. Do you believe that you are the only writer to suffer any sort of mental condition?
BG: I ... mental condition?
VW: I've seen the pills. The cutting and color rituals. Absolutely nauseating.
BG: They comfort me.
VW: "They comfort me" (mockingly) Do you have any idea how many pills I've swallowed? How many ์rest cures' I've taken? How many months I've spent in darkened rooms, warm compresses on my forehead trying in vain to push away true madness?
BG: Well, I, uh....
VW: No. Of course not! Americans! Mollycoddled from the day they are born!
BG: (indignantly) Mollycoddled?! I suggest you remove the silver spoon from your mouth before you speak again lest you choke on it, Madam.
VW: (laughing) Ah! Very good Mr. Gray. At last some spark!
BG: (chuckling) I suppose I haven't had much spark lately.
VW: And the reason for this would be...?
BG: (sighs heavily, shoulders sagging) It's my novel. I...I'm not sure why I'm telling you this...I haven't even been able to tell Scott, although I'm sure he knows...My novel...it's not...what I had hoped it to be.
VW: (nods sagely) ah...and why is that?
BG: (laughs ruefully) Ha! If I knew that....
VW: Well, one would suppose that you have applied the proper principles?
VW: Asked the proper questions regarding your audience?
BG: (nods again)
VW: Chosen your voice, your theme, your structure?
BG: (nods again)
VW: Then there is nothing left but that the problem must lie within.
BG: (confused) within...?
VW: Why, one's self of course.
BG: Oh, I...
VW: Come, come, now! I don't mean to imply anything so drastic as that you are incapable of writing anymore. (smiling slightly)
BG: (sarcastically) What a relief.
VW: (smiles) Quite. What I mean is what I suggested to you at the beginning of our exchange: you barely leave the house. One can only assume that a change of scenery is in order. Also...
VW: (sourly) If one may compare the cobwebs in your head to the size of the ones in this room, I believe I have come none too soon.
They laugh together.
VW: Come then. We shall walk outside. Get your coat. If there anything approaching a body of water in this overgrown thicket you call a wood? A stream? A river?
BG: There's a lake not far from the house.
VW: Splendid. Water can be so relaxing. (smiles cryptically)
They leave Bill's room and exit the house.
After a short walk from the house Bill and Virginia have arrived at the lake. There is a full moon which illuminates the landscape but their faces remain in shadow. The night is unusually still. The only sound that can be heard is the water lapping at the edges of the shoreline which is covered with medium-sized gray stones worn smooth by a lifetime of the waves' caress.
BG: (looking around nervously) I've never been down here at night.
VW: (staring over the water into the distance) Morning or evening....it all makes no difference to me now. I see the beauty in any time of the day. I've learned to let go...to trust.
BG: Trust in what? God? Faith? I've never been much of a church-goer myself. Hucksters and charlatans, if you ask me. No, the only altar I worship at is that of the Great Pharmaceutical God. (chuckling) That's what I put my faith in.
VW: But do you believe that's wise, Mr. Gray? I should never wish to presume any knowledge of your sufferings yet I sense a bit of myself in you. I too was once under the spell of your so aptly-named deity. Are you quite certain that this God is not at the root of your distress over your novel? Indeed the very problem itself?
BG: (drily) I had no idea that psychoanalysis existed in the spirit world.
VW: (laughs lightly) Forgive me my Freudian leanings Mr. Gray. I forget myself. Perhaps I'm not as comfortable in my mission as my employer would have hoped.
BG: Your employer? (confused)
VW: (laughs gaily) Quite! Not actually the term he is best known by to say the least.
BG: (chuckling) I understand. He'd probably rather keep a low profile. I'd expect that of him; not wanting to be too visible while his good works are carried out.
VW: (momentarily confused) Good works?
BG: (drily, yet vaguely uneasy) Well, yes...I mean sending his angels to help poor souls in need and all...
VW: (suddenly realizing with a chilly laugh) Oh my dear Mr. Gray! But you've gotten the wrong impression entirely! The only angels my employer sends are the fallen ones.
BG: Fallen...? You mean...?
VW: (impatiently) Well of course, Mr. Gray.
BG: (nervously) But what could he possibly want from me?
VW: (smiling bleakly) I'm sure you know that Mr. Gray. But he is willing to offer you something in return. Something I believe you might have trouble refusing.
BG: (still very nervous) And what would that be?
VW: (businesslike) My employer is prepared to offer you the one thing you desire most: a completely successful novel. The novel you have written will, alas, be your last, but it will also be the best you've ever written. Every reader will adore it and every critic will believe it the best book of its kind ever conceived. You will be lauded as the greatest writer of fiction of your time.
BG: (terrified) But in exchange he wants...
VW: (agreeably) In exchange, how shall I put this delicately? Ah! In exchange, the novel shall be published posthumously. (grins widely)
BG: (faintly) Oh I'm not sure I...
VW: (gently) Take your time Mr. Gray. But remember how I found you, alone with your medications and your unpublished work. Is that how a great writer should live his life? When I found that I could no longer bear the thought of living an alternative such as this was presented to me and I saw the wisdom in reaching out for it.
BG: (reviving slightly) Don't tell me. They sent Freud to persuade you.
VW: (laughing) How ever did you know? Nonetheless, I'm sure that whomever my employer sent would have convinced me. I really needed no convincing. (pointedly)
BG: (alarmed) But I've never contemplated...I mean I don't want to commit...I'm still happy here...happy in my writing...I'm just perfecting, that's all...every writer does rewrites...every writer gets jitters...that doesn't mean...
VW: (mockingly) Mr. Gray. Be truthful. Are you certain you've never contemplated, never considered, never wanted to...honestly?
BG: Well perhaps, but not...not seriously. I don't think anyway. I...(suddenly realizing) Oh, God! I do! This IS what I want! (Holds head in hands)
(lifts his head, resigned) Okay. Let's go.
VW: A wise choice Mr. Gray.
Virginia starts to lead Bill into the lake.
BG: (panicked) Wait! Where are we going...? What are these stones in my pockets? I'll drown if I...Stop...Please!
VW: Mr. Gray...? Remember your bargain (warning)
BG: (visibly resigning himself) Yes. All right. Lead the way, Mrs. Woolf.
Virginia Woolf and Bill Gray walk into the lake. As the water closes over them you hear...
VW: There there Mr. Gray, or shall I call you William? Please call me Virginia. We are sure to be seeing a lot more of each other. There are so many people I must introduce you to...
Back to syllabus
Back to home page