Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sanctuaries & Antidotes

Looking out the window of the train into work this week at the greening scenery, clenched buds and eager blossom sprays of pink, yellow, white; exultant ivy...wondering is a blog like a book or a story whose writing can just stop, choked off in a cul-de-sac? One wrong turn, one something made to mark it--poem, paragraph, joke--and you're stuck there, nothing else comes. And I did watch the Mets again last weekend, they're just awful; but the point is that it wasn't true, that last renunciation. Delete the Mets post! This was my idea, inspired by the rumblings of a green and pleasant ride. What a strange occupation this is: to write in a notebook about whether or not to erase writing on-line which may or may not be an invisible iceberg. When I could be playing a racing game on my phone (if I had that kind of phone) or reading Madame Bovary.

Meanwhile at work in Les Misérables, the very suspenseful events which have led Jean Valjean and Cosette to the convent garden are behind us. The action has moved to a strange stage marked by the rigors of a women's religious order; they are strict. Perpetual adoration is no picnic--it's a feat of heavy lifting on the grand scale and there is no relaxation. Life in the convent...Les Misérables is such a brilliant book. I will probably repeat this observation many times. Jean Valjean's first view inside the convent, through a window at night into a room lit by a single taper: he sees a figure stretched out on the floor, seemingly wrapped in a shroud with a length of rope trailing from it like a snake which he seems to see moving, snake-like, around this thing which appears to be dead, a horrible dream-like apparition. But this follows what had seemed to be an hallucination too, an auditory one he and Cosette shared, of celestial voices which filled the garden just as Javert and the soldiers were searching the street on the other side of the wall for them. Jean Valjean runs from the vision at the window, shocked and profoundly, profoundly distressed that such a hideous thing shares with such radiance this empty, haunted place. Which, of course, it isn't. It is full of girls--students--and women--sisters of many orders; there's a school, two convents, and a church: Le Petit-Picpus, a real place, not any longer a convent but there's still the cemetery. Part of the convent garden was used to toss the corpses of guillotine victims into, with quicklime, during the later months of the Terror; surviving relatives of dead aristocrats bought and preserved it. This is where Jean Valjean and Cosette have found sanctuary.

The descriptions of the order in charge, of their worship, their rituals; of the school and the school day, the girls' habits and sayings; of the ladies of the world who shelter there, some only briefly, and the nuns of the Little Convent who come from many different dying orders, "relics of cloisters destroyed in the Revolution"--the details! The anecdotes! How to refrain from broken shouting? To describe and describe and describe life in a convent and be so true and so amusing, with so little prurience--really with none at all, that I can see: a marvel of humanity, a high water mark in descriptive prose, not to mention in respect for women, is what this is. Last night I wrote in bed and thought about it as an antidote to Madame Bovary.

Dead and gone, again, she's still making me tired with her rolling eyes, her greedy arsenic-eating mouth, her bad debts, her neglected daughter (Berthe, who ends up an orphaned child worker in a linen factory) and her husband dying in grief from over-fondling a shank of her dead hair. Horrible woman: no sense of humor at all. I'd been carrying around my fat yellowed Norton Critical Edition from college; last night before dinner I browsed the appended essays (all by men), wondering, In what sense were Emma's lovers "unworthy" of her? Another antidote came to mind while I wrote this: Woody Allen's story The Kugelmass Episode. "'My God, I'm doing it with Madame Bovary,' Kugelmass whispered to himself. 'Me, who failed freshman English!'"

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