Gustave Flaubert's Sentimental Education has an unfortunate pertinence to 2023 America, at least to the ranks of the aspiring-to-be-elite. The novel follows a sensitive, handsome, romantic young man from a good provincial family through a stratum of midcentury Paris society—not the aristocrats or the workers, but the class of strivers, young men seeking advancement through law, government, the press, or the arts; young women eager to marry, but sometimes becoming courtesans; married women ignored by their husbands and pursued by other men; and older men worried about losing their lives' earnings to a shaky stock market and political turbulence. (The upheavals of 1848 are tracked closely in the novel.)
Our young man goes with the flow, but not deeply so, not consistently. His passion is for an older woman, dignified and lovely, who is married and has two children. At the beginning of the novel, he spots her on a bench on a steamer and instantly falls for her: “Ce fut comme une apparition.” For the next four hundred pages, he pines and yearns; they meet often and in rare moments kiss, but that's all. Her husband is a lout—he doesn't deserve her. Our hero loans him money, and the man blows it and never repays. Others in the novel don't behave much better. The radicals, it turns out, sell out for a post, while the women turn their affections here and there for selfish reasons. The only steady commitment in the novel is the (mostly) platonic love between the main characters, which produces long-term unhappiness punctuated by brief sessions of ecstatic gazing into one another's eyes. Through it all we have the observant eye of the novelist, whose psychological insight is matched by the clarity of the prose. A masterpiece.
Originally meant for children, but edifying and diverting for all ages, Jacob’s Ladder (published by Faber in 1949 and overdue a reprint) collects forty-eight biblical illustrations from Anglo-Saxon and twelfth-century manuscripts. The images, arranged chronologically from the Creation to the Last Judgment, are accompanied by a commentary both sharply observant and soothingly maternal:
The animals are all in, there is Noah holding the steering oar; only his wife seems reluctant to go on board. I expect she does not like leaving her home and all the things she has been used to, to go into this queer boat when it seems quite unnecessary, for the Flood has not come yet. But that is what we all have to do, because the history of the Flood is more than a story about Noah, it was a foreshadowing of what God was going to do for men. The ark that he told Noah to make and that he looked after so carefully is a picture of his Church, and the Flood is like life. There may be great storms, we may seem alone and adrift but we are safe in the ark and it will bring us to heaven in the end. But we have to be ready to leave the dry land and commit ourselves to the sea and to leave behind whatever God thinks is unnecessary.
The combination of piety, quick intelligence, and art-historical erudition seems typical of the anthologist, Nicolete Gray (1911–97), who raised five children while making major contributions to the history of lettering and helping to introduce abstract and Surrealist art to British audiences. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in later life Gray “regretted the element of kitsch that had infiltrated the devotional images used by the Catholic Church.” Her own artistic creed was both rigorous and open-minded: “I am interested in everything that seems to me to be a true expression of a real feeling or a true statement of a real thing.”
Amidst the noise of modern life, I’ve found myself turning to simple prose for solace and comfort—as well as, curiously, prose light on plot. Everyday life, through the lens of beautiful writing, can take on an ethereal glow—a reminder to be grateful for what we have, which can evaporate at any moment.
Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, first published in twelve parts in a monthly Japanese literary magazine from 1978–1979, follows a single mother recently abandoned by her husband as she goes through the motions of her life. Her mundane work routine is punctured by the pain of betrayal and the demands of caring for her toddler, who is too young to understand her mother’s loneliness and despair. Disasters—deaths and housefires—orbit around the pair. But the daughter’s existence compels the mother to move forward, illuminating her world: “Shading my eyes with one hand, I approached my daughter in the light.” She also transforms the world: A large puddle on the roof, caused by a leak in the water tower, becomes an opportunity for play. The next day, the newly painted roof, through the eyes of her daughter, becomes a “silver sea.” Their home has “windows on all sides,” and is “dazzlingly bright, shimmering around [them] as if the rooms held a heat haze.”
This short but powerful novel beautifully conveys the fears of many unmoored, lonely modern women—fears that, decades later, still hold true, even across vastly different cultures and countries.
I have marched through C. S. Lewis’s works over the last few months, beginning with old favorites—Till We Have Faces, Mere Christianity, and The Screwtape Letters—before progressing to his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, and The Space Trilogy. The great benefit of reading an author’s opus in concert with his autobiography is that the same themes crop up and develop across stories. Besides a startling analysis of homosexuality in British boys’ schools, and the fact that, at the age of six, he began drawing and writing about an imaginary place called Animal-Land, which had its own kings, politics, peoples, history, and wars, and which he would continue to develop well into adulthood, the most captivating part of the autobiography is his slow and mysterious explanation of “Joy.”
For Lewis, Joy is not merely pleasure or happiness. Rather, it is more akin to sadness: that stabbing of unsatisfiable desire awakened in the face of a rich and lovely unknown, something partially obscured but obviously vaster than imaginable. The “idea of Autumn” in Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin first awakens the “thrill” of desire in Lewis as a boy, and the “Pure Northness” in Wagner’s “Twilight of the Gods” arouses it again later. Calling it “The Desirable,” the “Great Goddess,” the “Heartbreak,” he devotes the rest of his life and writing to grasping this elusive Joy, which, naturally, becomes a catalyst for his conversion to Christianity.
Now I see invocations of Joy everywhere in Lewis’s writing: the sudden emergence of Merlin in twentieth-century Britain, the monster bridegroom who haunts the kingdom of Glome, the “Great Dance” at the end of Perelandra. They are all attempts to capture that far-off longing for himself and to transmit it to his readers. Reading Lewis, one cannot help feeling that he spins out your own interior drama in a single winsome phrase.
Have you ever wondered what would happen if your best milker developed summer mastitis? My guess is no. If you’re like me, you also would have no clue what that meant. The problems of the 1930s Yorkshire Dales people are simply not the problems of the 2020s iMac people. And yet, ever since I began reading All Creatures Great and Small, I can’t help but feel that this is exactly the book I needed. While recording the different feats or defeats of animal medicine, the protagonist and pseudonymous author James Herriot reflects on the little things of ordinary life that are worthy of more gratitude: feeling cool wind and warm sun on a sweeping drive through the countryside, inhaling the burgeoning scent of flowers in the garden in springtime, watching little piglets nursing for the first time. The long and short of it is that this book has been an immensely refreshing read, partially because Herriot’s tone is so pleasant and amusing. I think it is also because the book isn’t charged with any agenda. It’s hard to find a read these days from the left or the right that isn’t brimming with subliminal messaging. Herriot, on the other hand, has no agendas outside of his daily to-do list. He is simply an ordinary man going about his daily work with care and attention, seeking to improve his techniques day by day. In that way, this book serves as a provoking reminder that our ordinary tasks are as essential for transforming the world into a place of goodness, truth, and beauty as anything else.
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Image by Karen Arnold licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.