R. R. Reno
Mary VanderGoot’s Broken Glass was my nighttime reading last month. The novel centers on Maggie Barnes, the family matriarch. Through her eyes (and memories), readers see her relations to her children and are privy to her secrets. VanderGoot is a psychologist by training, and the novel serves, in part, as a fictional illumination of the insights to be gleaned from modern psychology. But the central themes are love and death, timeless realities that VanderGoot addresses in a calm narrative voice, but with sympathy and depth. She draws her readers into Maggie's never-resolved tangle of regret, “holding on” with memory, and “letting go” in forgiveness as she becomes more and more aware that she lives toward death.
Alfred Tennyson used to be in the library of every American family that aspired to refinement. Anyone who writes lines like these belonged there:
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
That’s blank verse, but the poet makes it nearly invisible, the voice so flowing and conversational (though in a noble vein) that you forget the prosody and focus only on the character who is speaking.
It’s Ulysses, in a poem of the same name. Tennyson doesn’t get him from Homer, though. We are a few years past the end of The Odyssey, the king of Ithaca now unhappy with his people and bored with his wife. The homecoming Homer left us with has soured, and Ulysses wants to get away.
Tennyson doesn’t explain; the words are all spoken by Ulysses. (Other renowned dramatic monologues of the time include Tennyson’s “Tithonus” and Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” “Fra Lippo Lippi,” and “Andrea del Sarto.”) After everything that happened in Troy and on the long and dangerous journey home, Ulysses finds the duties of king and husband tiresome. Calypso, Circe, the Sirens, Polyphemus, the Trojan Horse, Agamemnon and Achilles . . . they haunt him now, though he mentions only Achilles in the poem. He sighs the fate of a hero who has lived past his achievements:
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
I am preparing to present “Ulysses” to a class of Catholic University of America students. I plan to have the students pair the poem with the passage from which it is derived, Canto 26 of Inferno. Yes, Dante places Ulysses in Hell, not far from Satan, in the circle of false counselors.
The portrait comes from another legend, this one the tale of Ulysses’s death, which Dante considers an altogether unheroic end. The longing for his wife is gone, and so is the desire to rule his people. He is willing to leave his beloved son, too, and the home the suitors had violated and in which he wrought his bloody vengeance.
You may not know what happens to Ulysses in Dante’s account. It’s only a brief episode in the Divine Comedy, and once Ulysses sets out on his final voyage nothing memorable takes place. Tennyson doesn’t tell you, either. The Victorian poet has Ulysses speak at a decisive moment, when he and his comrades are about to set sail from the island home and head out to parts unknown: “To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars, until I die.”
His death and that of all his sailors happens in Dante’s version sooner than Ulysses expects. But Tennyson stops short of that end and leaves us only with the cry of an elderly spirit eager to prove itself once more. Dante judges this a form of anti-Christian hubris, irresponsible and selfish leadership. Tennyson gives it a tragic twist in the famous final lines of the poem:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
This Christmas, I picked up a copy of the Winter 2019 issue of the Paris Review before a thirty-hour-long trip around the globe, and kept my time-addled mind alert by reading the “Art of Fiction” interview with George Saunders. Saunders shows that the writing process can vary drastically from person to person: “I remember years ago, working at Radian, writing CivilWarLand, thinking, Wow, I’ve been working on this same paragraph for five days. Is that normal? And then that wise little voice in my head asked, Well, is it getting better? If so, then yes. It may not be normal, per se, but obviously it’s what you have to do.”
He also gives insight into the mystique that surrounds the act of writing (“I think it’s mysterious, what we end up writing about”) and how it requires a strange abandonment of the self (“There’s something that happens in the moment of creation of a good sentence . . . that feels like the dropping away of self. Somebody else shows up and that person is better than the normal, everyday you”).
The interview kindled my interest, so I picked up Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’s first novel, after I returned to the States. Today, I seem to find myself standing in the place where the young Saunders once stood—disappointed in and wary of contemporary literature (“I refused to read any contemporary fiction. A writer could be comfortably great only if he or she was already dead”)—but Lincoln has broken through my reserve. The novel was inspired by reports that, after the death of his eleven-year-old son, Willie, a distraught President Lincoln returned to the crypt to hold the body. The story dances between fragments of text taken from histories and memoirs, and the “ghost voices” of several characters lingering in limbo. Even the historical accounts are dreamlike, veiling everything in the mist of myth: Was the moon “golden” or “a fat green crescent” or “yellow-red” on the night of a dinner at the White House? Or was there no moon at all? The characters themselves range from lustful and crude to regal and innocent; all are in denial of being dead. Coffins are called “sick-boxes”; their deaths are “not complete.”
Lincoln returns to the graveyard at night, after the funeral. The shape-shifting ghosts—including the young Willie Lincoln—observe the president lifting his son from the coffin, and call it “a miracle.” “The holding, the lingering, the kind words whispering directly into the ear? My God! My God!” says one. A crowd of the dead has gathered outside. They are visibly amazed at how one so alive has come to touch one of the dead, prompting us to ask the age-old question: How do we hold on to the dead? How might we overcome the barrier—the bardo—between the material and immaterial?
The written word seems like a good place to start. Saunders quotes Flannery O’Connor in the interview: “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.” Writing is one way to resurrect the dead, allowing books to become a means by which we can hold the weight of the past in the palms of our hands.