character-building

character-building

This podcast interview of Stephen Colbert heartens me for a number of reasons:

1.) I unsurprisingly had no prior awareness of the song of the summer until they immortalized it as the most joyous, last-minute musical montage of TV history. Thus I will always hold it dear in my head, no matter its earworm status or the loathing with which much of the populous, already well aware-of and fed up with the song before I’d even heard of it, regards it. I’ll associate it with what are admittedly suppositions on my part: of eagerness and good-natured agreement on the parts of  so many people: Bryan Cranston, Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges, Hugh Laurie…Henry Kissinger. (?!) Never having been a part of a production, I can pave over the unvoiced reality with the feel-good generosity I love to imagine exists between these people, and it makes me feel better about the world.

2.) Stephen Colbert makes me feel better about the world, and that the aforementioned feel-good generosity might in fact exist in places you wouldn’t necessarily expect it. I’ve never aligned with him religiously, and have even grown uncomfortable sometimes in places when an opinion seemingly-informed by that religious viewpoint manifests itself without tongue firmly planted in cheek. (See: the May 6th 2010 show’s reference to Sex and the City 2: “Abu Dhabi?! You should remember: You are American materialistic sluts! You should be tramping your way down the streets of Manhattan!” At which point my husband and I turned to each other with twin expressions of “um, what?”) But his instant circumspection and care, when Paul Mecurio brings up the subject of his Catholicism, made me grin, not unkindly. I am, again, reading it in the way that is best for me, but it would seem that he isn’t, in that moment and in the questions that follow, just being protective of himself or his image. There is something he cares about there, very much, and if it happens to be religion in his case and not in mine, fine–but I understand very well the careful barriers we build around those things, letting in the people we love, sometimes, or the people who have to know in that moment, other times, but striving always to keep a kernel of it to ourselves, not because it is fragile but because there is something we wish to remain inviolate:  “that is a part of me” he states, not imperiously or apologetically but as tender fact. I can appreciate that, and I continue to appreciate the people I see around me protecting that part of themselves against the cynicism and scorn that wait always to erode it. I used to try to let people know that I understood that urge in them, but when it became apparent that even a mention of it, from me, someone outside the circle of that belief, was viewed as a kind of blundering attack, I stopped saying anything, and just watched them instead.

3.) When he describes “dialing the character up or down as needed,” meaning his on-screen persona of the same name, I was reminded of the version of me I present at dinner parties and get-togethers with people I don’t really know all that well. This is hardly a revelation, because everyone does it and knows they do it, but “dialing up or down” seems a very apt way of putting it–the characters we make of ourselves, for others. Hearing this phrase I was put in mind of the endearingly naive version of me I used to play when little, deliberately confusing homonyms and words that almost sounded like homonyms to the delight and amusement of my elders, until their pleasure waned and they became exasperated with my apparent cluelessness. Then as a teenager, dialing up–way up, much too far–my penchant for hearty self-denigrating laughter and criticism, which I could see quite plainly would extinguish any delusions of grandeur people thought I might have, but which had the simultaneous and somewhat detrimental effect of making me feel like absolute shit. (“Har har, I know, I’ll be lucky if I get raped, right? What with me being so fat and pasty, that’s probably the only way I’ll end up with any kids!” <– actual thing I said at fifteen.) And the version of me I play now, whose bombast and inflated die-hard positions put me most in mind of the ways Colbert’s stage persona changes on demand. This is a version of me that works better with strangers than with loved ones, because it’s easier to have a handful of strident, outspoken causes you believe in than an endless multitude of convictions that come with caveats and grey areas. But it takes trust and empathy to expose one’s gray areas, and you can’t count on that with people you don’t know so well. Besides, gray areas bore people. They want the vibrancy and the point-and-laugh-at-it blindness of the fervent believer–in democracy, in veganism, in biking-to-work. It doesn’t matter what. So I dial up that bombast, that entertainingly willful ignorance or stubbornness, and resign myself to the occasional accusations that I’ve become the character, see only in black and white, and am really stupid about a whole lot of things. I am really stupid about a whole lot of things, but nine times out of ten it’s not the things people are pegging me for. Because if I really told you what I thought about this or that, it would take all day, and at the end of it you still wouldn’t give more of a shit than you do now.

So anyway, it’s a good interview, if you want to give it a listen.

 

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the hourglass trumps the orcs

“The world was that way, and now it is this way. And it won’t change back and I won’t change into someone who can navigate the new better than the old. And I have to deal with that.”

That’s it, right there. That’s why Under Heaven, Tigana, Sailing To Sarantium, A Song for Arbonne, and–most magnificently–The Lions of Al-Rassan trump The Fionavar Tapestry, hands-down. Not because of the cultural borrowing from the Ming Dynasty, or Imperial Constantinople or medieval France or Italy. Not because of the religious mirroring he constructs between the sun, moons and stars and the three perpetually squabbling religions of the Middle East. But because the changes in the pseudo-historical novels are greater than the simplistic set-up of good-vs-evil. It’s not one battle, one campaign or one war even, on which the fate of humanity (or whatever mythical creature) is staked. It’s just time, and time’s effects. Whether it’s a war, a coup, a vendetta, climate change–the worlds these characters inhabit are no longer what they once were, and the best characters spend the entire book coming to terms with that.

Or at least trying to.

And that resonates so much more with me than the kneejerk cry of “fight back the orcs!” Don’t get me wrong; I’ve played Lord of the Rings Online since it was in beta, and still return to The Silmarillion for bald escapism in the face of trying times (see: calculus class, cancer scares). But I don’t pick up a Guy Gavriel Kay novel for escapism. He doesn’t drown you in enough cultural details for that. He spends more time with the characters than with their [however colorful] environments, and that’s why these books are so worth your time.

Excepting, again, The Fionavar Tapestry, whose vociferous adherents I do not understand. Competent females, check, generous helping of loss, check, and intriguing cosmological framework, check, but it’s still stuck in the old rut of The Bad Guys and The Good Guys (however flawed). They (it’s a trilogy) aren’t bad books by any means, but his others are so much more powerful. Why anyone would choose The Fionavar Tapestry over The Lions of Al-Rassan baffles me. Unless, I suppose, you really needed that almost total divorce from real-world events and comparable situations.

I really need to get my hands on River of Stars, is what I’m saying.

Dianora di Tigana and the Fantastic Passage of Time

I finished Tigana yesterday, and I know why I didn’t before. Why I quit, maybe 3/4 of the way through, and tossed it aside and never picked it up again. I know, too, why I loved the book so much this time through, read to its conclusion:

Dianora.

I was sixteen when I bought this book. I know because of the Connecticut used-bookstore stamp in the front of it. I was at a writers’ workshop in the Berkshires, at a rather unfortunate political moment in my life and an even worse emotional one. I loathed Dianora. I thought her shallow, weak, a slave to her fickle heart and a traitor to everything she should have believed in. She thinks the same of herself, Kay makes clear, but we are supposed to have compassion for her.

I did not.

To bring you up to speed (hello, spoilers): Dianora’s country was destroyed by Brandin of Ygrath, its name taken away and the very knowledge of its existence expunged from the minds of all those save actual people born there, who were left to carry the knowledge of their own destruction with them to their graves. Her father was killed in the war, her brother driven off by his own fury with the soldiers for destroying his land and with himself for being unable to die for it. Her mother is driven to a quiet numbing madness by the loss of everything and dies. Which leaves young Dianora angry and alone and full of plots: she will charm and sleep her way into the conqueror’s harem and there kill him.

Sounded like a plan to me.

So when she shows up, full of hate, and also terror because, hello, court intrigue up the wazoo, and ends up, over the course of years, putting off her plan first to wait until the right moment and then indefinitely, due to the agonizing appearance of a kind of obsession and eventual love for him, well. I was not impressed. When she heaped herself with scorn and guilt I thought yes, well, you want to do something about this? Try offing the guy who destroyed your life. Try that, hmm? And she did not. And I hated her. So much so that when the last section of the book dawns and we are asked to again return our attention to the king’s favorite concubine, I put the book down. I was done with this lady.

Quitting it when I did, then, I missed this:

“We arrive with a past, a history. Families matter. He was a coward and he fled.”

Alessan shook his head; there was still something strained in his expression. “We have to be so careful,” he murmured. “So very careful when we judge them, and what they did in those days. There are reasons why a man with a wife and an infant daughter might choose–other than for himself–to stay with the two of them and try to keep them alive. Oh, my dear, in all these years I have seen so many men and women who went away for their children.”

“…But it was before the Deisa. He left before the battles. Even the one we won.”

Again he shook his head, wincing at the sight of her distress. “Parents and children,” he said, so softly she almost missed the words. “It is so hard; we are so quick to judge.”

Which I, reading this yesterday, found it very possible to read as a gentle rebuke to my younger self and her moral viewpoints hewn from stone.

To Kay’s credit, he doesn’t belabor the point of Brandin’s attractiveness. We are not made to swoon along with Dianora; indeed, we aren’t even shown anything about him that is particularly moving–not his voice or sudden kindness, or muscles or cheekbones or anything like that. He doesn’t demean her that way. She loves him, likely, because, like Scelto, he is a rare flowering of attention and affection and knowledge and wit in a very hostile environment. The fact that he’s the whole reason she’s in that environment–that she came here to kill him–well, that complicates things, but it can’t obliterate her stance toward him. Not completely.

Which is why, at the end, we have that beautiful confluence of emotions. Well, beautifully crafted; honestly it felt like your heart was tied to the back of a car which then dragged it down the road. When we are shown the utmost ends of Brandin’s cruelty–when we are shown that in fact he didn’t kill the Prince of Tigana 20 years ago; in fact he systematically tortured, mutilated and artificially mentally handicapped the man he then forced to serve (through, again, the conveniently all-explanatory means of magic) as a kind of footman for all these years, well, we are horrified. As is Dianora, who is rapidly realizing, in the last moment’s of the Prince’s life and his glance at her which is (of all things!) forgiving, that the only course for her is one that ends. But her simultaneous revelations that 1.) her lover committed a formerly unimaginable act upon her one-time Prince, whom she knew personally growing up, 2.) the flicker of consciousness left to the Prince, in order for him to watch as his body acted against his will all those years, recognized her, what she came to do and what she did instead, and 3.) he forgave her for it–even all these revelations can’t trump the simultaneous love she has for Brandin, now dead by the Prince’s hand. So as she exits, in a very Shakespearean fashion, she tells her loyal eunuch “They should know.” They meaning the Tiganans approaching even then from the west. She wants them to know who the Prince was. She takes off to drown herself, the Tiganans show up, and they ask. The son of the Prince, who has believed his father dead these long years, asks. And the eunuch, Scelto, “was so tired. Tired of grief and blood and pain, of these bitter cycles of revenge. He knew what was going to happen the moment he spoke.” And he says the man dead next to the Prince was no one. A man from the King’s own province bound many years ago, no one important.

And my first reaction was fury. How dare you, Scelto?! I thought. His son is right here asking you who this man was, and you don’t tell him?! It ends with:

His eyes swung slowly down again, away from the hard blue sky and the blue-green sea, past the man at the western edge of the hill, past d’Eymon of Ygrath slumped across the King’s chair with his own blade in his breast, and his gaze came to rest on the two dead men beside each other on the ground, so near that they could have touched had they been alive. He could keep their secret. He could live with it.

And here–oh, to know if Kay knew to do this, or if he had to wrestle with an editor!–we are shown that Scelto is the real hero. Because what could his revelation have caused other than crippling pain to everyone involved? Were they to know how close they’d come to the man they all had loved and thought long dead–and how pathetically little difference in their actions could have brought them there in time, to save him? Or earlier–they had the chance earlier, had they known. They could have done something then. And just to know the torture under which their prince–Alessan’s own father, whose assumed death he spends the entire book weighted down under–had in fact lived, for two decades. It would undo him. It would undo them all. And rather than deliver that blow–his own lady’s blow, which she asked him to deliver for her–Scelto takes it upon himself to bear this secret into his grave. One tiny withholding of grief amidst so many griefs already let fly like arrows to the heart.

I should have finished the book when I was sixteen. I was so close. But, perhaps, I wouldn’t have listened to Alessan’s words about care in judgment; I wouldn’t have felt that Scelto was doing the right thing. I certainly wouldn’t have pitied Dianora’s torn position. Not many years ago I was told by a professor to wait to read Remembrances of Things Past until I was forty or so. Even as he described the heightened ability he’d gained, with age, to appreciate the book I felt my backlash rising: you know nothing of me or of my family, how memory is so important to it and gets torn away generation after generation; you know nothing of how we herd memories like doomed shepherds into protective formations; you know nothing of my ability to appreciate this book about memories lost, decaying, transformed over time! But then, even though I didn’t much like the man, or have much reason for trusting him, I stepped back, and thought perhaps I should wait. True, I had already experienced some of the transmogrification of memories over time that he described, but if I’d already experienced some of that in my twenties, how much more powerful would the reflection of that experience be with twenty more years of it under my belt? So I waited. And am still waiting. Despite my ever-haughty resentment of his presumption about my–our–powers of literary appreciation. Because he might be right.

He certainly would’ve been in regard to my sixteen-year-old self. Maybe at forty I’ll be better.

please don’t let me go

I was under the impression, as I think most would be, that after I’d been back home long enough, following my long unloved stay abroad, that the memory of that absence and the desperate joy with which it ended would fade. That’s what these things do.

But there are moments, are there are may of them, where it comes back. And I’m not blind during these moments; I know they occur in circumstances not entirely impressive or undeserving of scrutiny. I came of age and continue to work amidst a deep and abiding skepticism of the media and its messages, and the images seemingly too perfect it distributes us to encapsulate joy, love, sorrow.

But sipping coffee on a Sunday morning, surrounded by dogs dozing in the brilliant sunshine splashing in off the lake, watching the [often deservedly-so] much-maligned local news station cover the last days of a child with leukemia (standing up at his parents’ wedding), the weather as shown from a camera perched on the cornice of a university building, the 50-year career of a news anchor now gone, I ache. Self-consciously so. I haven’t forgotten about Snowden or political gridlock, or the lateness of our arrival to the rights-granting party to any number of poorly- or under-represented groups. I haven’t forgotten any of the things that made my gird myself, when asked where I was from, for a volley of knifing questions upon my answer. Questions to which I had no good answer.

Still. Remember when you were a child, with your arms flung out to either side, spinning wildly, faster and faster, waiting for the earth to pull you close and hold you? And when gravity took its course and you fell, and the world kept on hurtling ’round without you, and you took a fistful of grass in each hand and clung, thinking don’t let me go, please don’t let me go? It’s like that.

tigana

I read most of Tigana before. I think. There was a period when I wasn’t very diligent about finishing one book before starting another, and the problem compounded to the point where I was reading six books at once and retaining next to nothing of any of them.

But, Tigana:

Memory was a talisman and a ward for him, gateway and hearth. It was pride and love, shelter from loss: for if something could be remembered it was not wholly lost. Not dead and gone forever. Marra could live; his dour, stern father hum a cradle song to him. And because of this, because this was at the heart of what Devin was, the old vengeance of Brandin of Ygrath smashed into him that night as if it had been newly wrought, pounding through the vulnerable center of how Devin saw and dealt with the world, and it cut him like a fresh and killing wound.

Spoilers, spoilers, but what Ye Olde Brandin of Ygrath did, via the convenient and all-explanatory medium of sorcery, was to take away the name of a country. From people’s minds and lips–no one not born there, when it was still what it was (Tigana) can say the name, or hear it, or remember it, or know the people from there as having come from there. The name of the country as well as its capital cities, gone. Ripped from the minds of everyone–but left, notably, in the minds of those born there, to give them something to spend their entire lives mourning. The country of Tigana has been reduced, not just politically but in the minds of the populace to a “lower” version of another neighboring (once its own arch-nemesis, it seems) country.

When you try to hear the name, if you were not born there, it slides out of your mind. And while I had forgotten all of this when I decided to “re”read the book, bits of it it rang distant bells as I went through. “Something about a coffin next?” I’d think, and in the next few chapters there would indeed be something about a coffin. “Isn’t that guy possibly the son of that other guy?” And eventually we’d find out he was. But my favorite favorite part is when an already respected character, from Tigana, attempts to say the name so his friend can hear it, at the friend’s request. The friend was born elsewhere and knows he is helping a revolutionary cause, for people he loves and trusts, but for a country whose name he cannot hear. “Tigana,” the Tiganan says, and the other man’s brows knit. He asks for it again. “Tigana,” and the other man sweats and squints and tries so hard to focus on it, but it slips away. Again. “Tigana.” And he can’t hang onto it, and is flustered and ashamed and turns away ultimately.

But what I loved, and anticipated deliciously as soon as vaguely-remembered characters came together in a vaguely-remembered place, was the tenderness with which the Tiganan complied with the request. His commitment to continue saying the name they both know the other cannot hear, his gentleness in allowing a hopelessly futile attempt again and again and again. I don’t know why I love that so much, but as soon as I sensed it coming I skip-jogged down the page to get to it. It wasn’t resolution in the face of overwhelming circumstances that charmed me, but, again, the gentleness with which such resolution was allowed. The anticipation of fury that would come from failure and the allowance of that, too. Between equals, or those who treat each other as such anyway. Beautiful.