April was a busy month for me, so I didn’t read as much as I’d like. The month began with Easter, continued through my birthday celebrations and finished with a week of rehearsing/accompanying with a local high school choir for their state competition. Yet, this month’s reading is still sufficiently depressing! As last time, these are listed in chronological order of finishing.
Stephen King. Bag of Bones. New York: Scribner, 1998.
I actually didn’t finish Bag of Bones. But, I did read more than two hundred pages of it before deciding that I’d just as soon watch the made-for-television miniseries staring Pierce Brosnan on Netflix. Stephen King isn’t groundbreaking literature, but I don’t mind his style too much. This is not one of his best.
Albert Camus. The Stranger. Translated by Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage, 1989.
After finishing The Stranger, I immediately annotated my copy: “. . . WOW.” (see above) Then, I wanted some cookies and a hug. A few hours later, I called my mother and told her how much I loved her.
Basically, L’Étranger is the story of an everyday Algerian nihilist murdering without remorse and being tried for his crime. Meursault, the aforementioned nihilist, has no emotional attachment to anyone or anything, so the death of his mother at the beginning of the book has little impact. Nor does the fact that he’s found a nice girl who wants marriage. Camus also gives us several memorable characters like the old man with the dog, Meursault’s masochistic friend, and the nameless lady who counts out all her change and stares at him during the trial. Creepy! And y’all know I love creepy!
The book is about a man faced with the absurdity that life is meaningless. The final chapter which details a conversation between Merusault and a Priest almost suffocated me with its insistence on the finality and reality of death. I was moved, to say the least — hence, the ” . . . WOW.” For Sartre, the fact of the meaninglessness of life meant that you were essentially free to find your own meaning. For Camus, life was meaningless and that meant that your own life was meaningless, too. Really, it’s a very happy book.
Consider these quotes, full of sunshine:
- “When I was a student, I had lots of ambitions like that. But when I had to give up my studies I learned very quickly that none of it really mattered.” (41)
- “He said it was impossible; all mean believed in God, even those who turn their backs on him. That was his belief, and if he were ever to doubt it, his life would become meaningless.” (69)
- “Here we have a perfect reflection of this entire trial: everything is true and nothing is true!” (91)
- “He seemed so certain about everything, didn’t he? And yet none of his certainties was worth one hair of a woman’s head. He wasn’t even sure he was alive, because he was living like a dead man.” (120)
(Sometimes, little doodles are a great help with Kierkegaard!)
Soren Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling in Kierkegaard’s Writings, Vol. 6. Translated by Howard V. Hong. Princeton: Press, 1983.
Written under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard treats the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. A critique of Hegelian ethics and the Danish National Church, Kierkegaard boldly proclaims that faith is ultimately a paradox that is understandable only to the believer. He focuses on the moment Abraham hears the message to kill Isaac, to the moment he finds the lamb in the thicket. What did Abraham think about during this time? What kind of angst filled his soul? How did he ignore everything that he knew to be right in order to follow the mad commands of God? Abraham (and thus the women and men of faith) is called to surpass the ethical by doing the will of God and plunge himself into the absurd.
By every ethical judgement, Abraham is a despicable would-be-murderer, yet, we consider him the father of faith. So, Kierkegaard wants to bring all this tension to the fore. In fact, it is in all this tension — all this angst — that faith is to be found. And, if Abraham is indeed the father of authentic faith, then it would seem as if there is little faith left in the world. So, Christians everywhere, don’t claim that you’ve got the faith or that you can “move past it” until you’ve been in Abraham’s shoes.
I was profoundly moved by this dense and difficult text. I would even go so far as to write that this should be required reading for all Christians, especially in our own day when angst is considered mental illness, “community” overrides the individual, and faith is very easy to understand.
- “Faith was then a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that proficiency in believing is not acquired either in days or in weeks.” (7)
- “. . . he can be saved only by the absurd, and this he gasps by faith.” (47)
- “. . . but he who walks the narrow road of faith has no one to advise him–no one understands him.” (67)
- “Faith is this paradox, and the single individual simply cannot make himself understandable to anyone.” (71)
Gore Vidal. The City and the Pillar: A Novel. New York: Vintage, 2003
Written when he was just twenty-two, The City and the Pillar outraged the post-war audience of 1948. It is one of the first novels to have a gay man as a main character who was neither a transsexual nor mentally ill. Vidal goes the opposite route: his gay man is a masculine, good-looking and athletic soldier. He’s to be considered quite normal. Vidal was ahead of its time and most of the outrage against this novel seems laughable today.
Yet, while Jim Willard –the main subject — was not stereotypical, Vidal has no problem surrounding him with cliched characters and surroundings. There’s Ronald Shaw, the barely-closeted movie star who favors kept-men against anyone authentic. Paul Sullivan, a bisexual writer who finds pain beautiful and purposefully sabotages his chances at happiness. And the locations! Virginia, Seattle, Los Angeles, Mexico, Colorado and many more! All of this seemed very contrived to me — mainly for the fact that no matter where one lived, one can always run into a former lover in a gay bar in NYC! Really! Then, in the last thirty pages, the narrative became omnipresently frenetic and sputtered to a shocking end.
It is most certainly an important work. But, when it comes to gay love stories, I much prefer Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America because their characters are not painted with such a wide brush. Charles Ryder and Prior Walter have depth. And, depth is something sorely lacking in The City and the Pillar.
But, maybe that’s the point.