Pelucidity from Persepolis

Today’s column is by Barb Goydas. Whether she’s willing to admit it or not, Barb is a constant reader and one of those people who generates literary “buzz” by telling everyone when she finds a great new book. I introduced her to “Maus”. She returned the favor with “Persepolis”

I love how one thing leads to another, although, I don’t like the sense of “no control”.  I like to have a map and predict which road I will take.  To travel without direction can lead to someplace risky.  Still, I often have to remind myself, “with risk comes reward”.  

Three summers ago, my sister sent the book “Maus” when my son was exploring his interest in World War II.  She thought it would be perfect, knowing his affinity for comic books. It arrived at the house, while he was off visiting his grandparents in Florida,  I had the house to myself and was looking for something to read.  Thinking it would only take me an hour or two, I decided to try it out.  I didn’t have high expectations, since it was a “comic book” for goodness sake.  Not only did the book move me emotionally, but it made me realize the power of a graphic novel.

I wanted more.  I found Persepolis.

At the time, I thought it would be an interesting read.  I was not versed in Middle Eastern politics and  Middle eastern history felt like a big subject to research. At that time, I summed up the issues of that region (when the subject arose) with a nod of my head, a roll of my eyes and one word, “oil”.   Reading this book, gave me an attitude adjustment.

Persepolis is a memoir in the form of a a graphic novel.  The author, Marjane Satrapi, grew up in Tehran during the last years of Shah’s regime and beginning of the Islamic Revolution and Persopolis tells how the changes in her country affected herself, her family, her friends and her surroundings.  As I was reading, I realized Marjane and I are about the same age.  I remember 1980.  I still have the images in my mind from the newscast my parents watched every night.  The hostages, the burning effigies, the mobs of angry people. It never crossed my mind that a girl my age was coping and living through that upheaval.  

Majane tells what it was like to have to wear a veil at 10.  She shows how a 10 year-old’s faith in God is shaken.  She gives the reader an insight to what it’s like to have neighbors be whisked away without a reason, and try to make sense of it.  As she grows older, her patriotism becomes stronger.   She feels repressed (like any normal teenager) and her parents fear for her life as well as their own.   She carries through this time with laughter, grace and tears.  Life is hard enough being a teenager, let alone living though a war.

The illustrations are simple, yet explain so much along with the text. The anger and hate that Marjane lived with everyday can be seen in the black and white drawings.  The absence of color provide the sense of seriousness of the situation. 
The book made me realize that the fanatics and fundamentalists seen in the news are only a small part of the country; that those without television exposure were and are a silent majority.  I grew as a person reading this graphic novel. I realized how a “simplistic visual” can help define a complex subject. I refuse to categorize any region now by its exports. Persepolis redefined the world for me.  

Sometimes, following a road to an unknown destination is a very good thing. The risk is worth the reward.

To Live Life on Permanent Vacation

Vacation Season is coming to an end again, leaving  us poorer, happier and (hopefully) a bit less stressed.  It’s amazing how much of the rest of our lives are spent preparing for or dwelling on those limited interludes of time.  And during each holiday, whether it’s in the mountains, at an amusement park or on the beach, someone always muses, “I wonder what it’s like living here.” Of course, the speaker is shouted down by a chorus of “If you lived here, it wouldn’t be special” and “money flows through this place, it doesn’t stay here” (both of which are true) but what the speaker means is, “What would life be like if you were permanently on vacation?” That is something we all wonder about.  What would it be like to live in a beautiful place with enough money to pay for your needs?  According to Anne Rivers Siddons (one of my favorite novelists) a vacation lifestyle will still cost too much in the end.

In Low Country, Caro Venable seems to have hit vacation life nirvana.  As the heiress of Peacock island ( a sunchaser’s paradise with an army of flora and fauna) off the Carolina coast and the wife of a real estate mogul, she lives the kind of life vacationers drool over.  Her husband, Clay, develops pockets of rarefied real estate into gated resort communities and his first development  encompassed the ocean side of their island.  The company’s done well, their marriage is good and Caro has more material assets than most of us can imagine.  So why is this woman so sad?

The death of her daughter accounts for a good part of the answer but that’s not the only reason Caro drinks too much.  Caro knows the success of her husband’s company is driven by the  soul-consuming work of her husband’s executives whose spouses must be willing to sublimate their own ambitions and needs. Part of Caro’s responsibility has been to ease the “company wives” (for the company is primarily men) into accepting this subservient position.  Caro doesn’t like this any more than she likes her life as a dilettante but she accepts that as part of an unspoken truce.  As long as Caro can be left to her grief, art and liquor on the undeveloped part of the island, her husband can have the rest.  Then something upsets the truce.

A financial disaster puts the business on the ropes and Clay believes the only way out is to develop the remaining portion of the island, home to generations of wildlife and Gullah families.  Development would give him the capital to recapture and keep his success but it would ruin the wildlands Caro holds dear.  Eventually Caro has to choose between saving her husband’s dreams or her own and decide what she’s willing to sacrifice . She has to end her isolated life of vacation.

Perhaps that’s why leisure time has great meaning for us, those days of  our “fun in the sun”.  The days of  decreased responsibility and care are precious to us because they are few.  As unattractive as work may seem at times, it still lends a sense of purpose and structure to our days as well as a paycheck.  Our species thrives on priorities and structure.  We love vacation but we need work.

So,  I hope you’ve enjoyed some holiday time this summer and if you haven’t I hope you’ll see some soon.  Send me snaps of you and your family and friends on the rides or in the park, wherever you like to play.  It’s good to have a holiday.  Then send me tales of your regular life, the one filled with alarm clocks, schedules and 9-5 jobs.  More than a pleasant vacation, I hope you enjoy your work.

A firm, steady sight on the truth

Revisionist tales can be slippery.  We love them because they tell the tale we already know from a perspective that gives the story new meaning.  Sometimes a revisionist history promotes a fairer review of the past, like The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty.   Wide Sargasso Sea, is revisionist version of Jane Eyre but the new story is brilliant enough to stand on its own.  Most of these tales aren’t that good.  However, Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister brings something new to the table.  It isn’t just a send-up of Cinderella – it’s a meditation on the difference between perception and the truth.

Cinderella is one of the stories that teams beauty with goodness.  The poor, pretty orphan is mistreated by those who should love her, which makes her royal rescue all the more grand.  But Maguire’s Clara is a hostage to her own good looks who chooses kitchen life from spite and agoraphobia.  Her mother preached that a lovely face was in danger if exposed to the outdoor world.  Her father attracted customers with her seldom seen beauty, associating her face with his wares in a painting.  The combination has turned this Clara (this book’s Cinderella) into a unhappy, self-pitying child who seeks the kitchen to avoid being exploited and manipulates people to get what she wants. Beauty doesn’t make Cinderella a good person here; it doesn’t even make her the hero.

That role is for Iris, Clara’s step-sister, a girl obsessed with appearance and vision.  In a way Iris has the same problem as Clara since it’s Iris’s fate to ignored by those who are swayed by the mask of appearance.  Of the three sisters, (Iris, Clara and Ruth) Iris is the most discerning and probably the kindest but her vision is limited.  Iris has the ability to view most objects in terms of form, color and light, but she’s blind to her own value.  According to the rest of the characters, Iris is, at worst, plain but that’s a problem, living next to Cinderella.  Who sees the glow of a firefly when it’s in front of a fire?

The presumption of perspective permeates this novel along with its attendant disaster.  Maguire set his revisionist story in Holland during the “Tulip Mania” phase.   While tulips have become synonymous with Holland, they aren’t an indigenous species – bulbs were imported from Turkey.  The Dutch people became enchanted with the blooms and merchants started signing contracts to buy bulbs in upcoming seasons for specified prices; flower futures, you might say.  The craze for the flowers was so strong, people sold and bought the contracts at ever-increasing prices and drove up the price on the bulbs.  All sight of the intrinsic with of the flowers was lost in the search for wealth and when one buyer finally defaulted on his contract, the tulip market imploded.  Prices on the flowers dropped by a hundred-fold overnight and bankrupt merchants finally remembered the true value of their investments.  They had invested in flower bulbs, something people liked but no one needed to live.  The perception of value eventually surrendered to reality.

An old Russian teacher once told me he gauged the leanings of incoming Soviet premiers by how they reacted to history.  The progressives would refer to a certain Russian prince as “Ivan the Terrible.”  Totalitarians called the same guy “Ivan the 4th.”  So was the prince Terrible or an ambitious leader?  The hero or the goat?  The truth gets lost in the glare of conflicting perspectives.

A Life, Warm and Brief as a Summer’s Day

Not every great writer is a great human being.  We expect the people who touch our souls with their prose to be as wonderful as their words but sadly, that isn’t always the case.  There are some writers whose work I admire, that I wouldn’t want within a mile of me, alive or dead.  On the other hand, I wish I could have met the Oscar Wilde in Richard Ellmann’s biography of that name.  Seldom has literary genius been paired with such a decent, gentle spirit.

It’s hard these days to think of Wilde’s life as anything other than tragedy.  There he is in his early years, telling the customs agent he “has nothing to declare but his genius.” That was an example of Oscar’s hyperbole and humor but it was also a statement of fact for this Oxford educated son of Ireland.  His moral code was based on aesthetics, not just because he believed in in the innate goodness of beauty but because his own instincts usually directed him to be kind.  His observations and plays outraged Victorian society but they were outrageously funny and stylish.  No one before had let the air out of English sails with such a perfectly poised jab of humor.  And, for all of the unconventional things Wilde wrote or said, in public he led a reasonably conventional life.  He enjoyed the luxuries of an upper class existence, including the wife and two small sons he adored.  As far as Victorian society cared to see, Wilde was only wild in thought.  He made them think a little and laugh a lot and they loved him for it. How could this kind, intelligent man, fall apart at the height of his fame?
Some men are ruined by falling for the wrong woman.  Oscar fell in love with the wrong man.  The gentle soul that wrote “The Selfish Giant” had probably always known he was gay although he’d tried to live as a straight husband and father.  Until the 1890’s any man who shared an intimate part of his life understood the need for silence. Then Lord Alfred Douglas appeared, with his beautiful face and mediocre talent.  Oscar was infatuated, although he never quite forgot that his own success lay in his own hands.  Lord Alfred or “Bosie”‘s future was bought and paid for with family money; Oscar knew his future depended on his efforts as an artist and he tried to be as fair as he could to his wife and sons.  Besides, no matter how beautiful he was, Bosie was only happy when he had churned life into a drama.  Oscar often needed a peaceful retreat where he could think and work.

When Bosie’s father (the Marquess of Queensberry, famous for his boxing rules) described Oscar as “posing as a somdomite [sic]” Bosie insisted Oscar should sue for libel.  Other friends of Oscar argued a lawsuit would be disastrous since the statement was basically true, but Bosie insisted.  So, Oscar “took to the law” and Bosie’s father proved his point with the testimony of some male prostitutes.  The legal bills took all of Oscar’s earnings and the scandal meant no one would produce his plays.  Society’s support for him disappeared.  The transcript of Oscar’s civil suit became evidence in a criminal case against him.  The conviction cost Oscar his family, his health and two years of his freedom.  While Oscar served time in prison, Bosie traveled through Europe.

Ellmann’s biography captures the personal and professional dedication that abided in Oscar Wilde’s life even after his release from prison.  He and Bosie were reunited for a short time but the pressures that undermined their relationship before, undermined it again.  The banished and ruined genius moved to Paris and wrote what he could, correcting copies of his earlier plays and publishing “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”.  He had lost the joy necessary for writing comedy but not his witty nature.  “My wallpaper and I are in a duel to the death” he said during one of his last outings. “One of us has got to go.”  On November 30, at age 46, Oscar went, leaving behind the hideous wallpaper, one or two faithful friends, some brilliant work and two boys who no longer carried his name.  People who love laughter have mourned him ever since.

Several biographies of Wilde dwell on the salacious parts of his life, and a few focus on his Irish background.  Ellmann included those as well as the disciplined artist whose work was the result of toil as well as talent and the gentle human being who could forgive almost any slight to himself.  Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde scooped a Pulitzer as well as a National Book Award and is considered the definitive biography.  It’s a shame the biographer did not live long enough to enjoy the praise this book received.

Ellman’s biography and it’s subject are like a summer itself: warm, generous, and gone too soon.  Still, we can be grateful for their gifts of warmth and, in winter, dream of sun on green leaves.

The Right Book at the Right Time

There’s a theory that people come into our lives to teach us what we need to know.  They may be people we like or dislike and we may not always care for their lessons but the knowledge we gain from them helps move us through our lives.  I like that theory but I think it needs to be expanded to include books.  Along with entertainment and education, the right book at the right time can change a person’s future.  I’m still giving thanks for a book that came my way about twenty-five years ago.  I’ll always be indebted to Pat Conroy for writing The Prince of Tides.

If anyone missed the announcements, Mr. Conroy writes stories about the perennial outsider.  Whether the focus is on a Marine’s family readjusting to a new environment or the English Major in a military college, his people don’t think they fit in the orderly pattern that makes up their world.  Because they don’t fit, Outsiders tend to stay on the defensive. The first lesson in The Prince of Tides  is how defending yourself can cost you everything you care for in life.

Tom Wingo, the coach in The Prince of Tides has had good reason for living life in defense mode.  As a son, he suffered under a physically abusive father and an emotionally manipulative mother.  As a child of a poor family, he experienced the cold-hearted snobbery that exists in so many small towns. As an adult Southerner visiting New York, he now gets a lot of grief about his home.  In response, he’s learned to hide his feelings behind a wise-cracking persona.  The problem is, that persona has walled him away from his wife and the children he loves.  Tom is a miserable, isolated man, in danger of losing his family, when his sister’s psychiatrist asks for his help in understanding the childhood traumas he and his sister repressed.

Silence was part of the pattern of their dysfunctional family, making it hard to uncover the truth.  The silence their mother required meant no child could admit feeling pain or anger after being abused.  Tom’s sister, Savannah, kept her anger inside until she turned it against herself.  Tom’s anger simmers even in his humor, and it conflicts with his feelings of affection but that’s because he still has something to learn.

The biggest lesson in The Prince of Tides is the necessity of forgiveness as a way for letting the anger go.  If silence creates an emotional infection and honesty is the lance, then forgiveness is the medicine that allows an abscess to heal.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting some people are dangerous or giving them carte-blanche to cause more damage, but it does mean the victim is no longer a hostage to injuries or pain they endured long ago.  Forgiveness means living in the present and future by letting go of the sins in the past.

I haven’t spoken of the lyrical beauty in this book’s prose or the riveting plot and dialogue.  I should because I was swept away by these.  I haven’t spoken about the brilliance or “deep Southern magic” that’s present on every page.  I haven’t spoken about a great many things that make The Prince of Tides a wonderful book.  Instead, I’ll say that the book came along at just the right time for me.  For a year, The Prince of Tides became the book I needed until I started to absorb its lessons.  It was the book that helped me understand a conflicted past didn’t have to dictate the future.  That lesson changed my life for good.