Judging/Perving on other people’s bookshelves

I finally got round to reading The Scarlet Letter a few weeks back; it sucked, but a big part of the disappointment was the knowledge that my copy has been sitting on my shelf since Easy A conned me into thinking it might be ok ten years ago; for a decade it’s been touching all my books that don’t suck and during that time there’s also a real possibility that at one point somebody’s looked at my bookshelf and thought that I was a fan.

And yes maybe I’m insane/overthinking it but I personally love having a gander at other people’s bookshelves and getting an impression of what they’re into. I love going to a friend’s home for the first time and seeing which titles they loved enough to keep.

I love that feeling of spotting books on somebody else’s shelf that I’ve also read and realising that we both have another little thing in common.

There’s a David Hume theory that the features of an object are all that exist: there is no object only the features which form to create it. And if you think about seeing a collection of somebody’s books, that they’ve read or are maybe yet to read, has an intimacy to it as you’re seeing little pieces of what makes them who they are. Not to mention seeing how they’ve organised their books (if you’re not putting all you’re penguin classics in the same place you are a stone cold maniac!).

Then there’s William Faulkner who once said that, “a book is a souvenir of a journey, a handhold for the mind”, and I like that too because even though a bookshelf can be proudly on display, when you look at your own, you’re the only one who’ll know where you got each book from and where you were in your life when you read certain books.

My Dad has a large accumulation of books (mainly Ian Rankin, war history and Darwin Awards) and I remember being very impressed when I asked how many of his books he’d actually read and he responded all of them. At best I’ve read 75% of the books I own, but I love the idea of one day being able to look at my bookshelf and know that I’ve read everything on it.

Getting round to eventually finishing everything [or in some cases quitting after 20 pages and judging past me’s purchase decision] is the only way of having certainty that my beautiful collection is not unwittingly harbouring a few shitters in there. But I’m determined, and being in isolation has certainly helped the cause.

Fictional places

Last year my birthday happened to be on the first night of White Night. I’m not a huge fan of crowds so I’d never bothered going before, but my tram heading home goes past Carlton Gardens so I figured why not take myself on an impromptu date around the park and go glorified Christmas light spotting?

It was really incredible though, and thinking about it I can’t believe it was nearly a year ago. There was this ominous ‘oommmm’ sound playing like you were entering a pagan forest and a woman on the Exhibition Building that looked like a god you could ask advice to. Basically it all felt very surreal, like the closest thing I could get to living in a magical fictional place like Wonderland, Macondo or whatever reality the Mighty Boosh takes place in.

So lets talk fictional places in literature given that we’re all currently very boring and restricted to fantasy based travels. I’ll be real with you though, in hindsight majority of the fantasy places I chose for this post are more terrifying than magical.

The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943)

According to this beloved French children’s classic, one of the perks of space travel is that the lifeforms found on other planets are just solitary humans in charge of their one planet. Each space person has a flaw yet they’ll also be keen for a chat, and ultimately you’ll leave their planet feeling as though you’ve learnt something about what’s really important.

The little prince lives on an asteroid known as “B 612”; its notable features include three small volcanoes, the baobab trees which the little prince needs to weed out every day to ensure they do not overrun the whole asteroids surface, and a talking rose – his one companion who’s a bit high maintenance and pretentious but means well.

Although the little prince does love his pain in the ass rose friend, he chooses to explore the universe to see if there are other friendships he can make. Before landing on earth in the desert he visits six other planets, each with just one adult inhabitant (who each need to check themselves).

There’s the elderly geographer who has never seen any of the things he records, a lamplighter who meticulously extinguishes and relights a lamppost every thirty seconds as the days on his planet only last a minute, a drunkard who drinks to forget the shame of drinking (so few children’s book nowadays have drunkards in them it’s a shame), or the alien/starman I relate to most in this book – the narcissist who is very proud of being the most admirable/datable person on his one-man planet.

The Midwich Cuckoos (John Wyndham, 1957)

In the eighties there were these identical adult triplets who were separated at birth that reunited and what they did with that was start a restaurant called Triplets. For some reason it makes me think of Midwich Cuckoos cause all children in that are described as looking eerily alike and them all pooling together for a zany business opportunity would also be a great alternative happy ending.

I so wanted to like this book. In theory the plot sounds well up my alley: everyone in this unnoteworthy (and fictional) isolated English village mysteriously fall unconscious for 24 hours, when everyone wakes up they initially seem unharmed yet after a month they realise every woman is pregnant. There’s a conspiracy, evil mysterious blonde-haired youths who have collective powers, plus there’s a great Simpsons reference to it, what’s not to love?

It isn’t bad but it just would’ve been improved with a lot more focus on the children acting like wrongins’ and a bit less philosophical brooding (the book didn’t even give detail on the village-wide riot the children instigated – I was pretty salty, I wanted details told in real time). Surprisingly though this book gives an interesting perspective on the real stigma a woman would face at that time unexpectedly falling pregnant without a partner, and I like that it wasn’t glossed over as a detail.

The Princess Bride (William Goldman, 1973)

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I read this for the first time a few months back, and I’m so glad I saved this gem for such a dogshit year. It such a magical, light-hearted, wholesome, funny book to get lost in when reality is a touch dull as fuck.

Embarrassingly when I was a kid and saw the 1987 film adaption it wasn’t my cup of tea (I’ve since done a re-watch and clearly younger Ellen’s judgement can’t be trusted).

Goldman presents the book a “good parts version” of a (fictional) book by S. Morgenstern – a fictional author from the fictional country, Florin. His commentary and fictional facts about the history of Florin are scattered throughout the story, and like the film adaption Goldman’s introduction tells of his father reading The Princess Bride to him when he was sick (in reality he wrote it for his daughters).

It’s set in medieval Florin, where the main character Buttercup reluctantly agrees to marry the heir to Florin’s throne, Prince Humperdinck, after her one true love – a poor farm boy, is presumed dead.

Now Florin is a pretty wicked and terrifying fictional place; it has a fire swamp, cliffs of insanity, shark invested water and an underground “Zoo of Death” where Humperdick collects deadly (fictional) animals to hunt. I’d be open to visiting there, even though it’s national mortality rate is likely really high.

The Shadow over Innsmouth (H.P Lovecraft, 1931)

While the decrepit fictional seaport town of Innsmouth isn’t Lovecraft’s most famous fictional city, it is a bus ride away from the one that appears the most in his stories, Arkham. Plus I opted for Innsmouth over Arkham cause its more menacing and dangerous.

Like Arkham, Innsmouth is found in Massachusetts (it is also loosely based on the real city of Newburyport, Massachusetts), and the main character who takes the ill-advised day trip there is a student of Arkham’s Miskatonic University.

The town reeks of fish, and during the day it appears virtually abandoned with its few inhabitants all sharing odd similarities in appearance with ‘queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes’.

Cut a long story short, for decades the villagers have been breeding with aquatic monsters known as the ‘Deep Ones’ with their offspring’s being part human/part amphibian hybrids. Once these offspring’s reach maturity they transform into Deep Ones and leave Innsmouth to live in an ancient undersea city. As with many Lovecraft stories the moral seems to be never go anywhere new.

Catching Dreams with a Trumpet & a Briefcase

“There are good reasons why we don’t want our eyes to be open, what does the world mean ‘How come I am a huge participant in this huge enterprise known as reality?’” 

That quote is from existentialist/debbie downer, Søren Kierkegaard, who believed that the majority of us sleepwalk through our lives. And he has a point really, some days you just do what you have to and internally replay Seinfeld quotes until its finally time you can head home and read your book (my life truly is gripping at the moment).

Then there’s French Philosopher/big-ol’ dandy, René Descartes’ how do you know you’re not just dreaming argument for Dualism (which to me will always sound like a really good name for a belief that duelling is the best form of conflict resolution); this suggests that there are instances where dreams feel so real that when you wake up, for a second you question whether it really happened, and therefore all reality is questionable.

And he has a point too really! Regularly when I’m sleeping in for five more minutes, I’ll dream that I’m not a dropkick and I’ve already made my way out of bed and I’m on the tram, and then I’ll wake up extra shitty with myself that I still have to psych myself out of my comfy-comfy bed.

Because dreams can be all lucid and weird, their origins and meanings – as well as their connection to our reality – is a theme that’s always ripe for fictional exploration. Whether you’re fond of the idea of the BFG roaming the streets of a night and sending nice dreams your way via trumpet. Or you’re re-watching Twin Peaks and you think Dale Cooper’s theory that “dreams come from acetylcholine neurons fire high-voltage impulses into the forebrain, these impulses become pictures, the pictures become dreams – but, no one knows why we choose these particular pictures” has some good points; seeing dreams as representing more than simply something your brain does to entertain itself for several hours of inactivity, makes life seem a bit more mysterious and almost magical.

So let’s talk dreams in literature and then leave feeling slightly jaded that so far your dreams haven’t shown strong signs that they have the power to shift reality or read the future!! I do feel a little ripped off, at the most my dreams are occasionally a laugh.

Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut, 1969)

I learnt a fun-fact a few weeks back, apparently Kurt Vonnegut managed a SAAB dealership in his day; SAAB’s were a underrated car, I respect Vonnegut more knowing he sold a babe magnet car then went home and wrote some classics of 20th century American literature, and he could also draw a tasteful a-hole – what a triple threat that man was!

For a while I didn’t want to read Slaughterhouse Five because the only thing I knew about it was that it references David Irving – a Holocaust denying ‘historian’/all round shithead whose research on the Dresden bombings has since been discredited. And its hard because at the time Slaughterhouse Five was written/published there was no way for Vonnegut to know that Irving would later be best known as a notorious Holocaust denier who exaggerated the death toll of Dresden to militarise historical memory. But it still isn’t great though that new editions don’t point this out to readers.

Anyway I’m side-tracking, I did eventually read Slaughterhouse Five and as a work of fiction it is really good aside from that one thing. In particular I love before the story begins how Vonnegut talks about the promise he made to the wife of an old war buddy that the story he would ultimately write would not glamourize war as the wife felt that books and movies sold a lie to young people by romanticising war.

Based on Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war who witnessed the Dresden bombings and it’s aftermath, the main character, Billy Pilgram, is too an American POW who witnesses the destruction of Dresden. Yet cause this is a Vonnegut book, Billy has this unique problem where he’s become ‘unstuck in time’, and occasionally when he feels asleep he’ll wake up at various different points in his life.

Billy’s presence in his past and future never alters his fate, it’s just something he can do, and I respect Billy for going with it and never really analysing why it is he has this gift.

Watership Down (Richard Adams, 1972)

I’ve written about Watership Down in a previous post so I won’t repeat myself too much here. Basically Fiver is the sensitive member of team. He’s a bit psychic and when he tells you he’s had a dream that the whole warren is in danger and every rabbit needs to leave now, he’s know what he talking about so don’t laugh at him just because he’s a wee bit eccentric.

The Dreams in the Witch House (H.P Lovecraft, 1933)

This one’s a short story belonging to the Cthulhu Mythos (a fictional satanic god who kinda looks like the every villain is lemons bit in Spongebob).

In this tale, a student of mathematics and folklore, Walter Gilman, decides to rent out a very cheap and very cursed attic room in a house known to locals as ‘the witch’s house’ (if the locals say don’t stay somewhere listen to them you fool!!).

As Walter is a fan of both maths and folklore (how convenient) he is interested in staying in this house because it once belonged to a woman trialled for witchcraft in Salem for her belief that she knew of lines and curve patterns which could allow one to travel across dimensions. Also as you’d except, the majority of this room’s previous occupants have died in mysterious circumstances.

Every night in this room Walter has strange feverish dreams (and props for Walter for even managing to fall asleep in a room he knows has a two century trend of dead tenants). In these dreams he shifts through ‘inexplicably coloured twilight’ vortexes, and envisions the witch moving closer.

Eventually the dreams reach a point where Walter has signed a mysterious book and he’s trying to stop the witch from abducting a child, and he wakes up in the morning to hear that a child’s actually gone missing.

Long story short the landlord abandons the house and years later, when workmen are demolishing the roof they find the space above the creepy attic is filled with children’s bones and the bone’s of the witch. Basically the moral of the story is never take an interest in maths.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K Dick, 1968)

This is the book Bladerunner is based on. In this dystopia (set in San Francisco, 2021), the earth’s atmosphere is riddled with radioactive dust and the majority of people have relocated to a Mars colony. What’s more as radiation caused mass extinction of animals. protecting what little life remains has become the centre of society’s spiritual beliefs and owning pets has become so fashionable that mechanical animals are commonplace.

An incentive government offers for people willing to move to the mars colony are android servants. These androids are physically identical to humans, and the job of the main character, Richard Deckhard, is to ‘retire’ androids who escape the colony and try to disguise themselves as humans.

Despite having dream in the title, dreams are not a big part of this book’s plot. However, the religion the last earth dwellers follow, Mercerism, does involve plugging your mind into a box and fusing thought in a sleep-like trance, with a character who’s slowly trekking up a mountain to his death; the point being to encourage shared empathy.

The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K. Le Guin, 1971)

A bit like The Butterfly Effect but with aliens; the main character, George’s dreams have the ability to shift reality to the point where the past can be restructured overnight to fit what George dreamt about.

George however hates this overwhelming responsibility his sub-conscious has, and goes to see a sleep therapist, Dr William Haber. Haber is sceptical at first but with the help of Haber’s trusty dream machine he’s been working on, Haber suggests things for George to dream about and becomes the only person who remembers what the reality was like before George fell asleep and changed everything.

The general gist is Haber gets too into having this level of power and attempts to sculpt a Utopian society, while George feels like he’s being used and tries to find a lawyer who’ll believe him. What I like about this book is that while suggestions can be made to George as to what he’ll dream about next, it’s realistic in that he has no control as to what form that idea will take as a dream.

Melbourne’s Ghost Bookshop

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I’d buy a book from that guy. He has a santa/willy wonka vibe going [image via Spencer Shier]

I don’t know if this’ll make a lot of sense but cause I’ve lived in my fair share of rentals, sometimes I start imagining what I’ve looked  like from each of my former houses/flats’ perspectives [and ditto what my current abode thinks of me].

If walls were somehow sentient and could talk, do you think they’d have secret opinions and preferences on all the people who’ve called them home in their lives? Would every share-house remember all the various ways their rooms have been decorated over the years? And like an all-seeing, wise, grandma willow presence – could they give you a definitive and impartial answer to who out of the group, in their humble opinion, is the hardest to live with? 

With older buildings in the city too, occasionally I’ll walk past them and think about their stories and wonder whether there was an era, or identity or business that was their favourite. And whether they’d be pro or anti having a little graffiti on their bones?

Melbourne has so many beautiful older buildings and little traces of its past scattered and hidden in plain sight if you look closely; and since the CBD is currently so quiet it’s  almost a ghost-town, I figure let’s talk about a 137 year old ghost bookshop that I think about every time I pass the glass roof on Howey Place (I mean ghost bookshop as in it doesn’t exist anymore, I’m not talking about an existing bookshop that exclusively sells ghost-themed wares).

From 1883 – 1929, a bookshop two blocks in length, called Cole’s Book Arcade, stood on (what is now) 299 Bourke Street, and it’s founder, Edward William Cole, installed that glass roof illegally when he extended the bookshop to Little Collins Street in 1896. 

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Popularly described as a ‘palace to the intellect’ , in its heyday Cole’s Book Arcade was one of the largest bookshops in the world, with supposedly ‘two million books’ on it’s shelves.

Walking through the rainbow sign archway on the Collins Street entrance; the staff all wore scarlet jackets, and the ground floor had over a hundred chairs with signs everywhere reading, ‘Read for as Long as you Like – Nobody Asked to Buy’ [they did have a massive theft problem though bless them. But this didn’t phase Cole who was quoted as saying: ‘at least the thieves will be reading!’]

Cole’s Book Arcade also boasted the following features:

Basically it sounds so cool that I can’t believe it ever existed (sort of like a less lame Mr Magorium’s Emporium). So who was the eccentric shy-guy behind Cole’s Book Arcade?

Originally from Kent and the eldest of ten, Edward William Cole (1832 – 1918), was the son of a labourer who died when Edward was a baby. At twenty, after living rough in London and South Africa he emigrated to Ballarat during the Gold Rush where he started his first business – a lemonade stand called ‘Cole’s Cordials’ which had a frying pan for its sign.

Eventually, after then working as an itinerant photographer on the Murray, Cole moved to Melbourne where he was able to save enough money to utilise Melbourne’s public libraries for two years and make up for the education he missed out on.

Before opening Cole’s Book Arcade in 1883, Cole ran a pie stall followed by a book stall called Cole’s Cheap Books, then the first Cole’s Book Arcade in 1873 (which was a smaller bookshop, still on Bourke Street but closer to Parliament) until finally opening the bigger Cole’s Book Arcade (the one he is most remembered for) on Melbourne Cup Day a decade later.

He met and married his wife, fellow introvert Eliza Frances Jordan, in 1875, after he posted the following want-ad in the Herald Sun:

 A GOOD WIFE WANTED

TWENTY POUNDS REWARD

POSITIVELY BONA FIDE

I, EDWARD WILLIAM COLE OF THE BOOK ARCADE BOURKE STREET

wish to obtain… a wife with the following characteristics: SHE MUST BE good tempered, intelligent, honest… neat, but not extravagantly or absurdly dressy… industrious, frugal…

I am quite sensible that I may be laughed at, but… the best thing a man can have is a good wife, and the worst thing a bad wife, yet in most cases, a very irrational principle of selection is followed, for nineteen out of twenty [marriages] originate from the merest accidents of life…

I have no more hesitation in advertising for… my partner for life, than I should have were I merely advertising for a business partner…

They ended up having six children together who would live in an apartment above the famous Cole’s Book Arcade – the eldest of whom (Linda) would run the bookshop following Edward’s death in 1918.

Ultimately Cole’s Book Arcade couldn’t survive the great depression and it closed in 1929. A David Jones is now located on that address, and all the traces of the once immense cultural institution which stood there are gone – save the glass roof walkway and some original stone work next to it.

Even after seeing a whole bunch of old photos, I can’t picture what that lost bookshop must’ve looked like to walk past or how magical it must’ve felt to browse through those shelves. Plus it’s pretty incredible that you could walk past that the glass roof a billion times and not realise that its not meaningless and in fact it has its own rich backstory. I am glad though that (as far as I know) no respected bookshops keep monkey families anymore!

[A lot of really great independent Melbourne bookshops, like Embiggins and Grub Street in Fitzroy closed down last year. It really sucks and it’s embarrassing cause Melbourne is proud of its City of Literature status but the list of bookshops keeps getting smaller cause of rent hikes.]

Cabin Fever and Forced Isolation in Fiction

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via: tenor

I was on the beach in January when I first heard about COVID-19. My uncle made a stellar joke that the only cure for the coronavirus was a lime, and it would be another few days (after stumbling upon an article amid some mindless scrolling) that I realised it was an actual virus that existed and not a disease my uncle made up for the purposes of cracking a funny. 

Like everyone I’m currently spending majority of time inside – occasionally attempting to get some form of work done, and investing more time than I’m proud of attempting to nail the lyric’s to Joe Exotic’s ‘I Saw A Tiger’.

Right now, the days all feel kind of meshed into one. It’s frightening and it’s uncertain but it’s also making me appreciate so many little things which would’ve barely crossed my mind as a thing to be appreciative of a few months ago. I’m incredibly lucky for the stability I do have and for the friendships and relationships I can rely on despite how notoriously crap I am with checking my phone and responding to messages.

Anyway, if you’re currently on the lookout for some reading material that’s relatable but is also a break from thinking about COVID-19, here are a few literary explorations of ongoing and mundane isolation. 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Ottessa Moshfegh, 2018)

This was Moshfegh’s second novel, and personally I preferred her first book, Eileen, (which I’ve mentioned before) just because this is essentially about an unnamed narrator’s attempts to hibernate for an entire year [and I can always go back to living my own life if I wanna think about someone who takes a lot of day naps and only leaves the house at obscure times to do a coffee run – its greater meaning might’ve been lost on me]. But this book was the first time I found a new release in a Little Free Library so obviously I went for it.

Set in New York city between 2000 and 2001 pre-9/11, the young unnamed protagonist has lost both of her parents and this on top of being fired from her first job out of college, she chooses to put herself into a chemically induced hibernation for a year – hoping the extended rest will mean she’ll no longer feel tired all the time once it’s over.

Attempting to spend as much time as possible asleep, the only contact with the outside world the narrator has is, her incompetent psychiatrist who freely writes her prescriptions, and a best-friend she seems to secretly hate.

It’s an interesting enough concept, given everyone at one point wishes they could dedicate an extended period of time to sleep or skip over some months and wake up somewhere better.

The Memory Police (Yōko Ogawa, 1994)

Although this was originally published back in 1994, the English translation only came out last year. So for people like me who can’t speak Japanese, this is a 25-year-old new release; it reads like it could’ve been written now though, the story has a very timeless quality to it.

Set on an unnamed island – that happens to be detached from a larger unnamed island; the narrator in this one is also unnamed, and like the majority of her fellow islanders once the Memory Police (who dictate the island) choose to erase a particular object, animal, profession ect., all personal memories and feelings attached to that thing instantaneously disappear.

The secret minority who are capable of remembering, face persecution by the Memory Police, as do people who choose to keep or acknowledge forgotten objects; and due to boats being a forgotten object, locals have no remaining contact with life beyond the island. 

The unnamed narrator is a writer whose editor is being targeted by the Memory for his ability to remember. With the help of an elderly man, who is her only close companion left, the narrator builds a secret space under her floorboards for her editor to hide from arrest.

Basically its a good book to read in isolation because it makes you appreciate that at least you’re not living in a sci-fi Orwellian reality where all the potential things that could’ve entertained you like books or Netflix aren’t suddenly going to disappear on you.

Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys, 1966)

So spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read Jane Eyre, but the main twist in that is Rochester – the suave brooding fellow Jane has a crush on/the master of Thornfield Hall/her boss – has kept his ‘lunatic’ first-wife, Bertha (who he was technically still married to), secretly locked away in the attic.

Hearing that juicy twist was the primary reason Jane Eyre was on my to-read list, and so naturally I was bitterly disappointed that, what is arguably the most interesting bit of the story, only has roughly six pages dedicated to it. Hence why I prefer Wide Sargasso Sea (plus it’s a significantly shorter read, so it gets extra points for fewer pages because I’m a lazy shit).

Wide Sargasso Sea is an imagined prequel to Jane Eyre told from Bertha’s perspective that makes you entirely rethink how much you can trust Rochester’s side of things in the original classic.

Elaborating on details about Bertha (or Antoinette Cosway as she’s known in Wide Sargasso Sea) which Jane Eyre briefly mentions; this story starts with Antoinette’s isolated youth in Jamaica, being raised on a dilapidated former sugar plantation by her widowed mother, Annette, who is struggling mentally in isolation and holds a growing resentment for Antoinette.

Here, Annette remarries Englishman, Mr. Mason – the man who eventually ‘cons’ Rochester into marrying Antoinette. The book details Rochester and Antoinette’s (whom he renames Bertha) brief honeymoon together to Dominica, his progressing hatred for his new wife and ultimately settling into Thornfield Hall while keeping Antoinette’s existence a secret. 

Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham, 1951)

So bit of context for this fictional post-apocalyptic society: the triffids are these man-size plants that are capable of moving around and have a dangerous sting, and were just an everyday part of life in this society.

The main character, Bill Masen, was a ‘triffidologist’ before everything went to shit, who was recovering in hospital from being temporarily blinded by a triffid sting. The book begins with Bill feeling salty because he has a bandage over his eyes and everyone else is talking about how incredible and once-in-a-lifetime this meteor shower that’s happening right now is.

The next day, everyone who watched this mysterious meteor shower (so the bulk of mankind) has permanently gone blind, and now Bill’s frightened but also slightly smug and now the triffids suddenly harness the chance to do some evil bidding.

This book is a lot of survival, and the minority who do have sight attempting to create safe communities in the countryside while they wait for news or help from other countries which may never come. It’s an alright book, but be warned there’s like three pages in the middle where Wilfred mansplains why women are terrible and not helpful to the rebuilding effort – go fuck yourself Wilfred! Good luck repopulating by yourself there Wilfred!

Siblings in books

At 28 years old, a blindfolded Fyodor Dostoevsky narrowly avoided execution for anti-government activities, right as he stood in line of the firing squad, instead sent to a Siberian labour camp at the last minute (I swear I am going somewhere with this).

Unbeknown to the young Dostoevsky, this was a mock execution intended to instil fear in dissidents of Tsar Nicholas I. Yet, convinced he was about to die, Dostoevsky’s final thoughts before he was spared were of his brother,

“I remembered you, brother, and all yours; during
the last minute you, you alone, were in my mind,
only then I realised how I love you, dear brother
mine!” 

Despite this likely being one of Dostoevsky’s least favourite moments, I do love this story. It’s incredibly sweet that the future novelist shared that kind of relationship with his brother, and that perhaps it took facing death for him to fully appreciate how strong their bond truly was.

I’m reading Little Women at the moment, and was reminded of Dostoevsky’s ‘final’ thoughts within the ‘Dark Days’ chapter, where it takes Beth being close to death for each of her sisters to reflect on just how much she means to them, and what losing her would mean.*

“Then it was that Jo, living in the darkened room with that suffering little sister always before her eyes, and that pathetic voice sounding in her ears, learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition, to live for others, and make home happy by the exercise of those simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth or beauty.”

[*But I’m also super childish and, in between being sad, the fact that Beth’s doctor is named Dr Bangs is giving me big laughs – I don’t deserve classic literature!]

Sibling’s are interesting; they’re essentially friends your parents assign you for life. Yet despite them looking like you and being raised by the same crowd, there’s no guarantee you’ll hit it off or even like each other (obviously though I lucked out with my sister whose a legend – and I’m not just saying that cause she reads my blog). 

Plus given I only have the one sister, I can only imagine what it’s like to experience multiple siblings (and to see multiple alternative results of your parents’ parenting technique walking around). 

It’s interesting what’s unique and what’s universal about these relationships. So let’s brood over a few sibling relationships found in fiction and memoirs, to see what bits feel comparable to our own complex ties. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson, 1962)

For some reason, I do disproportionately go for American books and/or books written in the 1960’s. I’m not sure why that is, it’s just a pattern I’ve started to notice lately.

Anyway, written by the author of The Lottery (which does not include any tips on how to win the lottery), We Have Always Lived in The Castle tells the story of two ostracised sisters, Merricat (18) and Constance (28) Blackwood.

Both live with their elderly, wheelchair bound, uncle, on the margins of a town that despises them for the suspicious poisoning of the rest of the Blackwood family six years prior.

Although she is eighteen, Merricat is incredibly childlike, to the point where you will flip back at least once to double-check you got the age right. Whereas Constance refuses to leave the house as she is unofficially blamed by the townspeople for her family’s murder despite being formally acquitted.

The good/infuriating thing about this short novel is how many unanswered questions it raises and leaves open for interpretation. I’m into it, but at the same time I’m lazy and I wouldn’t have been against everything eventually being spelt out for me.

Plus from a sibling standpoint, I think it’s touching/miraculous that Constance and Merricat live in such isolation for so long, with essentially only each other for company, yet rarely piss each other off. I love my own sister dearly, but it would take less than a week living in similar conditions for a scrag fight to kick off.

A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams, 1947)

That’s another thing, I generally go for books which are on the shorter side or at least have a bigger font – I think it’s cause I’m impatient and like to get through things fast; and A Streetcar Named Desire is under 100 pages so here we are.

Blanche DuBois is Stella Kowalski’s older sister. It’s presumed that they haven’t been in contact for a while given Blanche hasn’t yet met Stella’s husband Stanley, and Stella wasn’t aware that they’d lost their family property or that Blanche has been fired from her teaching job (for sleeping with a student – Blanche is a bit of a hot mess).

As the family home is gone, what Stella thought was Blanche visiting is now her crashing at their very tiny New Orleans flat indefinitely, and immediately Stanley can’t stand Blanche for being a car-wreck as well as somehow convinced she’s still upper-class.

The feeling is mutual, as Blanche considers Stanley belligerent and coarse, and she regularly make’s it known to Stella that she can’t understand why she chooses to stay with him.

Without giving too much away, after Blanche and Stanley’s hostility reaches its peak, ultimately Stella chooses denial and her husband over believing her sister, who is too easily dismissable [and I don’t know why I’m so scared about giving spoilers, the play is over 70 years old. But I don’t know though, you might want to read/see it and go in fresh].

One reason Streetcar is considered Williams’ greatest work is its frank portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics. It is very of its time yet its timeless and if you’re going to watch it, try and see it as a play – they change the ending in the 1951 film adaption because it was considered too dark (or alternatively you can always get a not-so-great gist from watching the Streetcar episode of The Simpsons, A Streetcar named Marge – that’s where I learnt prior to reading that there is some bowling in it but no partial nudity).

High School (Tegan and Sara Quin, 2019)

I really wish this book existed when I was a teenager. Rarely do I reread books but I will read this again next summer when its less fresh in my head.

So this one is a shared memoir of Canadian musicians and twin sisters Tegan and Sara, which primarily focuses on high school and their 1990’s adolescence. Starting in grade 10 (when they’re 15), each chapter swaps between which sister is narrating, and begins with Tegan’s perspective and hurt confusion when Sara starts wanting to spend more time alone with their shared best friend.

Unbeknown to Tegan, this becomes Sara’s first serious relationship, and it’s fascinating reading how two people, who are so close and in a lot of ways similar, how their story’s of self discovery and coming out could be so distinctive, as well as reading about two siblings both realising this huge part of themselves, for a long time in secret. 

Each chapter is a fragment story from high school, which lead to the sisters winning their first music competition and getting their first taste of success at 18. It’s touching and relatable no matter what decade high school was for you, and the line that stuck with me the most is close to the end, when Sara remembers her aunt’s response to her shaving her head – “you look exactly like yourself”

[Plus (in a non-creepy way) I’m a huge fan of other people’s family photos, and there’s lots of them in this book]

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers, 2000)

This is the breakout memoir of Dave Eggers, published two years after McSweeneys came into existence (the publishing house Eggers founded), and I’m not going to lie, a large part of why I wanted to read this was how good that title is. 

The title make’s it sound like it’s going to be hilarous, and while there are many little funny moments, the book’s focus is Eggers losing both his parents to cancer at 21 within weeks of each other, and becoming a guardian to his eight year old brother, Christopher “Toph”.

While this divides people, and admittedly the later chapters where he’s starting up Might magazine are weaker than the first chapters, Eggers’ shifting relationship with his younger brother and their experiences creating a new normal after such a heavy loss is uplifting and does make you think about what you were up to age 21 and whether you had your life together enough to handle that level of responsibility.

Behemoth is the original Salem

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Via @shy.witch.yk

According to Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, [which I haven’t read – so maybe this isn’t a fact at all. Maybe someone’s just told me this to make me look like a dickhead – like in Seinfeld when Elaine thought the original title for War and Peace was War? What is it Good For?] Hemingway would regularly let his cat, F. Puss, babysit his firstborn infant son. As in, he’d leave the baby alone in his French apartment with F. Puss in the playpen as company. His faith in the cat to be a reliable guardian was touching. But the kid lived, so maybe Hemingway should’ve written a parenting book all along!

Anyway hearing this little fun fact got me thinking about Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch (the 1990s, cleary-a-puppet, cheeky little trash-talking Salem; not the crappy reboot one that doesn’t talk and is definitely a real cat). Because if I had to choose a trustful cat to keep an eye on a human baby for a few hours, I’d pick Salem – even though he would likely make a few cutting quips refusing to do it.

For those who’ve forgotten, Salem (aka the reason every girl round about my age, wanted a black cat growing up) was a 500 year old warlock, trapped in the body of a cat for 100 years – as punishment for his failed attempt at world domination.

He was pure evil, but we’re all willing to forgive him (and accept him as a prospective babysitter), because he’s sarcastic and clever. Plus all cats naturally give off a slightly evil and snooty vibe; so an imagined reality where a cat can talk and has a human personality feels more realistic with that cat being a bit of a loveable shithead.

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Via @salemthecatfanpage

Salem’s literature equivalent would be Behemoth from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – a fellow talking black cat, who struts around the Russian streets, as part of the Devil’s posse, wearing an adorable bow-tie and bowler hat.

Written in the 1930s, and published 26 years after Bulgakov’s death, The Master and Margarita (which I’ve talked about previously in The Name Game post) is a dark comedy about the devil (who goes by the name Woland) taking over an apartment in Moscow with his buddies, and wreaking havoc across the atheist city.

Like Salem, mischievous Behemoth is known on occasion to take human form* and to drop witticisms into the conversation, such as, “I’d rather be a tram conductor and there’s no worse job than that” (where he’s clearly still holding a grudge about being kicked off a tram at the book’s beginning).

Behemoth is the size of a pig, and tends to be in the background with a vodka in hand, sunbathing at the windows of the apartment and being told to shut-up by the rest of the gang.

His hobbies include chess and arson, and without giving too much away (because you really should read it, it’s pretty wicked), my personal favourite Behemoth moment is that he can make a showdown between himself and a group of armed Moscow police, look effortless – and even make the time to be a wise-ass and pretend they’ve successfully shot him.

While Salem may not share Behemoth’s impressive size, they definitely have enough in common that if their paths did ever cross they would make tight drinking buddies. And on reflection, I’d only trust Salem to babysit if he swore not to invite Behemoth over (cause that little shit would raid your liquor cabinet no question).

[*and like Salem, the reader later learns Behemoth was a human whose cat form is a punishment.]

Vintage Russian Trash-Talk and Backhanded Complements from The Brothers Karamazov

There’s an old, and quite sexist, quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “If we encounter a woman of rare intellect, we should ask her what book she reads”. And on that note, if I’m in a situation that requires the doling out of some quality, razor-sharp insults – having recently finished The Brothers Karamazov (1880) will definitely work in my favour (or I could just throw the book at whoever’s being lippy – it’s a pretty hefty text and my copy’s a hardback).

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final novel, chronicles the tumultuous family rivalry between the Karamazov’s – and ultimately the murder of their father (also called Fyodor). It usually features on any must-read classics lists quite rightly, for being both: a dense philosophical pondering on morality and Russian culture, as well as a timeless story filled with drama worthy of the Jeremy Kyle Show (Fyodor spends a lot of his time trying to seduce his eldest son Dimitri’s love interest – he’s a bit of a shit-lord).

But what Brothers Karamazov doesn’t get enough credit for, is the incredible extent of sarcasm, bitchiness and witty put-downs it has scattered throughout it’s 800-something pages. Here are a few of my personal favourite moments where some hash insults and delightful vintage trash-talk enhanced the dialogue tenfold:

[Rakitin to Alyosha] “Your brother Ivan declared once that I was a ‘liberal booby with no talents whatsoever’”

[Dimitri, on why he doesn’t suspect Smerdyakov of Fyodor’s murder] “Because Smerdyakov is a man of the most abject character and a coward. He’s not only a coward, he’s the epitome of all the cowardice in the world walking on two legs. He has the heart of a chicken”

“He’s a puling chicken – sickly, epileptic, weak-minded – a child of eight could thrash him”

[a middle aged market woman at Koyla] “You impudent young monkey. You want a whipping, that’s what you want, you saucy young jackanapes!” 

[Ivan to Smerdyakov – this may be my favourite apology in literature ever] “Yes I am sorry I didn’t punch you in the face…I couldn’t have taken you to the lock up just then. Who would’ve believed me and what charge could I bring against you? But the punch in the face – oh, I’m sorry I didn’t think of it. Though blows are forbidden, I should have pounded your ugly face to jelly” 

[Smerdyakov on Grigory] “He is not a man, I assure you, but an obstinate mule”

[Dimitri on Smerdyakov again] “I don’t want to say more of the stinking son of that Stinking Lizaveta” 

[the narrator on the look Mitya’s sporting to his court hearing] “But Mitya made a most unfavourable impression on me. He looked an awful dandy in a brand-new frock-coat”

[Mitya, on hearing about Smerdyakov’s death] “He was a dog and died like a dog”

Koyla’s insults (a thirteen year old character who needs his own section cause he’s the 19th century Russian equivalent of Holden Caulfield)

[A back-handed complement on Ilusha’s mother]’“….I think she is awfully nice and pathetic”

[on Germans] “…sausage-makers, grovelling before authority” 

[Describing an incident where he inadvertently killed some farmers goose at the market and had to to the equivalent of small claims court] “I looked at him, he was a stupid, moon-faced fellow of twenty” …. “we all went off to the justice’s, they bought the goose too. The fellow was crying in a great funk, simply blubbering like a woman”

[to Kartashov (another child – this one’s pretty harsh)] “I beg you most earnestly, Kartashov, not to interrupt again with your idiotic remarks, especially when one is not talking to you and doesn’t care to know whether you exist or not” 

[talking to a doctor (bit of context, Koyla thinks ‘medicines a fraud’)] “Don’t be afraid, apothecary, ….” “And you know apothecary…” (what a little wise arse)

Versatile Insults You Could Easily Pepper into a Debate

  • Flunkey
  • Viper
  • Serpent
  • Trivial
  • Frightfully Stupid
  • Awfully Stupid
  • Snivelling Idiot
  • Mother’s Darling
  • Wanton Woman
  • Blockhead
  • A Repulsive Mug
  • Sheepishly Sentimental
  • Buffoon
  • Rogue
  • A Soft, city-bred rogue
  • A Mountebank
  • A Bernard (I have no idea why this is an insult, but Mitya repeatedly throws this one out there. Maybe Dostoevsky knew someone called Bernard who was just the worst – or maybe he’s referring to the dog breed)
  • ‘Wisp of Tow’ (apparently referring to someone acting cowardly. It’s quite a layered and intelligent insult for a group of schoolboys, it’s impressive really. They must’ve had a sophisticated-type pow-wow to come up with it)

Poe and Other Writers who may have had the French curse

[I’ve just wanted an excuse to use that South Park clip for a while now, it’s got nothing to do with anything beyond our darling lord of darkness featuring in it]

Several months ago I wrote an article (not for this blog) about syphilis amongst bohemian types in the Victorian era; so an extremely handy by-product of this has been that I still have a bunch of syphilis-based trivia etched into my brain (I do have a trivia night tomorrow though, I’m sure this wealth of syphilis fun-facts will make me a real asset to the team!).

I don’t want to brag, but my horror-movie night buddy, Mitch, took us all to see a play last week – in an attempt to bring a touch more class to spooks night – and I guessed one of the characters had syphilis within seconds of them mentioning he’d been hanging out with artistic types in Paris, and that he had a headache (the play was Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen – the ghosts were metaphorical, it was a huge letdown).

By the end of the nineteenth century, it’s estimated that 15% of Paris’s population was infected with syphilis, hence the term ‘French curse’. Yet due to factors such as: the stigma surrounding the disease, the difficulty of diagnosing syphilis in it’s first stage and the long period of remission that untreated syphilis will go into before ultimately reaching the final tertiary stage – generally scholars can only speculate as to whether the death’s of certain notable figures were perhaps connected to the venereal disease.

One theory, concerning Poe’s mysterious surrounding death, for instance, is that the writer had tertiary stage syphilis. This theory, would explain why Poe was in a complete state of delirium in the four days leading up to his death, however it remains unconfirmable.

Like Poe, here are a few other literary figures whose untimely deaths could have, or were speculated, to have been syphilis-related.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

The last 11 years of German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche’s life were spent in a Swiss asylum following a public breakdown on the streets of Turin, Italy. He had been triggered by seeing a horse being whipped by its master, and became so distraught that he threw his arms around the animal, in an attempt to defend it.

Although in 2003 a medical study by  Dr. Leonard Sax, confirmed that the cause of Nietzsche’s progressive dementia was brain cancer, Nietzsche’s initial diagnosis was tertiary syphilis, and it is still a subject to debate whether Nietzsche contracted syphilis from experiences at brothels. 

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

Wilde’s tombstone in Paris is covered in lipstick marks. I personally think that’s an adorable and wholesome graffiti tradition, but apparently it’s really terrible for stone erosion.

Anyway, following the Irish playwright’s release from his two year prison sentence, he spent the final three years of his life in various hotels across Paris, until his death at age 46 of cerebral meningitis.

The popular belief that Wilde had syphilis was especially perpetuated by Arthur Ransome’s 1912 biography of Wilde. Although, none of Wilde’s doctors recording syphilis as a cause of death, Ransome’s biography stated that the poet’s death was directly due to meningitis, the legacy of an attack of tertiary syphilis’: a claim which subsequent biographers would continue to make despite no definitive evidence or a recorded syphilis diagnosis.

Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891)

Described by Patti Smith as ‘the first punk poet’ and famously by Andre Breton as ‘a veritable god of  puberty’; French poet, Arthur Rimbaud became a legendary figure, for what he achieved during the five years he was a practicing poet, but also for his cheeky trouble-making antics and affairs throughout his tumultuous and poverty-stricken youth.

Rimbaud wrote his first published poem just before he turned sixteen, and quit writing altogether at age 20, choosing to spend his life as a colonial trader in Africa. He died at age 37 after losing his leg to a knee injury. However whether this injury was a complication of syphilis or bone cancer is a subject of debate amongst biographers. 

Graham Robb’s biography Rimbaud (2000) for instance, contends that Rimbaud got syphilis working as a trader, after becoming involved with women. But Rimbaud’s adult and post-poetry life is pretty shrouded in mystery so evidence on that one is quite slim pickings.

The Name Game

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was the first time I’d heard about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language and ostensive definition: or as summarized by Nelson, the idea that ‘the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed’. 

Roughly, this quote is a summary of Wittgenstein’s lifelong pondering’s into language, and how much power words have to effectively represent every nuance of what reality they are attempting to describe.

A name, assigned to define something through language, and the physical entity itself, have two separate existences. Thus leading a name/word to acquire its meaning through the context its used.

Wittgenstein referred to our everyday intermingling of reality and words as ‘the language game’, and its a theory which has me thinking about how much the names that people know us by reflect the individual they’re there to represent.

Personally, I think my own name (selected in 1993 when Mum was watching a lot of Family Ties reruns) does suit my personality and the look I’ve got going. But sometimes I do wonder to what extent – if any – my life or personality might have alternated had I been carting around another title for the last 26 years. Classic literature after all, is peppered with instances where a character’s name, sculpts their fate or defines their reality. Here are a few I could think of,

The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967)

The first time I attempted to read this Russian classic was five years ago. I quit about twenty pages in, and now after revisiting it I can’t believe how quick I was to dismiss it.

It’s such an incredible book and I could’ve so easily never bothered picking it up again.  I’m such a fool! I missed finding one of my favourite books early – why didn’t I stick with it for a few more pages? A book about Satan working in Moscow as a magician and being cheeky and messing with everyone – that’s well up my alley (and I love that Satan is a smoker – of course Satan doesn’t give a shit about lung health of course!!!).

I’m mad at past me but at the same time it’s so exciting to be able to read it for the first time now.

Anyway the reason it’s relevant to a discussion on whether or not names determine your fate is that in The Master and Margarita, the Prince of Darkness holds a ball whenever he’s visiting a city, and his ongoing tradition is finding a girl from that city  whose name is Margarita to be his date. In exchange, for attending what promises to a wicked part-tay for the damned, el Diablo will grant Margarita her deepest wish.

The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde, 1895)

So it’s a play about two rich Victorian socialites who have a weirdly specific type, and are only interested in dating fellows called ‘Earnest’. So naturally two incorrigible gents pretend their names are Earnest to win these fair maidens affections. It’s a comedy, but people were easier to make laugh in Victorian times.

Basically I couldn’t get into it because I just kept thinking, was there ever a point in history where the name Earnest was the ultimate bachelor name? It just makes me think of those of those stupid 1990s flicks where doofus Ernest gets into various jams, like needing to save Christmas or assemble hard furniture.

The delightful twist (and sorry for spoilers) is that the two gents find out their names were Earnest all along so they were technically never liars – isn’t life funny like that?

Tess of the D’urbervilles (Thomas Hardy,  ‎1891)

Tess Durbeyfield is the eldest of John and Joan Durbeyfield – a dirt poor couple, whose hopes go up when they learn that they may be descendants of a noble family the d’Urbervilles.

Tess’ family name is the reason she is sent by her parents to ‘claim kin’ and ultimately work at the d’Urberville estate for Alec d’Urberville. Yet the reason I’m bringing this book up in this post, is for the name she gives her son – the product of Alec’s crime against Tess – baby Sorrow.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Márquez, 1970)

The saga of six generations of the Buendía family, all living within the isolated village  their family founded called Macondo, one reason this book gets progressively more difficult to follow is that names are passed down through the generations. The most extreme example being the second son of José Arcadio Buendía (the first generation’s patriarch), Colonel Aureliano Buendía, who names his seventeen sons (to seventeen different women – the Colonel was a dog!) all Aureliano. 

Here, the consistent repetition of names within the family is part of the novel’s ongoing point that history is a cycle repeating itself.