When I was a precocious high-schooler, I picked up a copy of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath at my local Borders. (This was back when Borders was still a thriving corporation and had driven all local booksellers in my hometown out of business. Now the locals are making a comeback, and what was once the Borders is now an empty storefront, gazing out at Lake Street with vacant eyes.) I carried my Steinbeck precociously to the checkout, where a young woman slightly older than me appreciated my precocious choice.
"Oh my God," quoth she, "Steinbeck is, like, the most amazing at describing settings. Like, just the first page of this is, like," she brandished the book at me and cast her eyes to the heavens, "pure genius. You’ll love it." She bagged the book and glanced at the register. "$15.99."
Years later, reading the second Steinbeck novel on the BBC List, I remembered Bookstore Lass and her classification of Steinbeck’s settings as pure genius. The fact is, she’s absolutely right. Steinbeck’s novels often depend on his settings, which act like additional characters, controlling the movements of those who inhabit them and influencing the mood of the work as a whole. Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck’s most famous novella, is no exception. In this work, however, Steinbeck’s idyllic settings only call attention to the violent and tragic actions of those who inhabit them.
The book begins with a description of a riverbank to which protagonists George and Lennie will return at the end of the novel. “A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green,” the description reads. “On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees - willows fresh and green with every spring… and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool” (1). The scene is pristine, perfect, yet even here there is evidence of the destruction of humanity. A path “beaten hard by boys… and beaten hard by tramps” winds its way through the trees (1). Steinbeck’s use of the word “beaten” here (twice) calls attention to violence lurking just out of sight, giving this opening scene a foreboding tint the color of the sky just before a storm.
Sure enough, George and Lennie emerge mere moments later. Out of work and down on their luck, the pair is on their way to a new job after Lennie’s indiscretions at their last location got them run out of town. After looking around, George declares their location a kind of safe house, a place to which they can return if anything should happen. In their own private heaven, George and Lennie are safe, yet even here, violence threatens to intrude.
If Steinbeck’s settings are great, his foreshadowing is even better. Violence follows Lennie to his new job and he finds his dreams of owning a small parcel of land with George out of reach again. As he flees to the riverbank, desperate to follow George’s instructions even as he has disobeyed the most important one, Crooks’s taunting words almost echo in the reader’s ears. “Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head” (70). At the end of the novel, Lennie dies dreaming of the heaven he has imagined, that heaven somewhere. “Look down there acrost the river, like you can almost see the place,” George suggests as he places his gun to the back of Lennie’s head (101). Just like the violence lurking at the corners of George and Lennie’s riverbank, the violence in Lennie’s past will make earthly heaven an impossibility for him.
PAGE COUNT: 24,730
BOOK COUNT: 62/100 (I am starting to think I actually might finish this project.)
It’s a lot nicer to go around with a guy you know.John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
"So, what are you reading these days?" a friend will ask me, because my friends know that I’m always reading something - and usually two or three things.
“Lolita,” I have replied and then I brace myself for one of two responses:
Among my Lolita-survivor friends, finishing Nabokov’s novel is something of a rite of passage, a test - not entirely welcome - of one’s mettle and grit. Not only is the story itself disturbing in a fascinating sort of way, but the reactions of people who see you reading Lolita in some public space, brazenly and without shame, surrounded by God-fearing people no less, inevitably make you doubt your choice of literature. Even after I decided to leave Lolita at home and only read her there, I could not escape scrutiny. My friend Walter, stopping by on his way out one evening, lifted the damning little novel from the couch with eyebrow raised.
“Lolita,” he mused, then, softer, taunting me, “Lo-lee-taaahhh.”
No matter how accustomed to 50 Shades of Gray our culture becomes, there will always be something taboo about Lolita. First published in the United States in 1958, it has sparked a morbid fascination among readers since that time. Part of the appeal of Lolita, aside from its status as an intellectual’s risqué read, lies in the narrator, Humbert Humbert (an alias, we learn at the end of the novel, that “expresses the nastiness best” ). By having the villain of the story narrate the events, Nabokov establishes empathy between Hubert and the reader. Even though the audience might find his actions repulsive, we must acknowledge the logic behind them. My playwriting instructor used to tell us never to write a character who knew they were crazy. “Crazy people don’t think they’re crazy. Their actions make sense to them,” she said. “In order to write an effective character with an abnormal mind, you have to understand why they’re behaving the way they are, and if you understand it, the audience will, too.” Nabokov creates in Humbert a disordered character whose motivations are completely clear to the reader, creating a sense of complicity between Humbert and his audience.
This complicity is, in fact, crucial to the success of Humbert’s story, and of Nabokov’s novel. Humbert addresses his story to the “ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” placing the audience in the role of impartial judges (9). By labeling his readers as jurors, Nabokov instills in us a sense of responsibility; we are not only morally obligated to hear Humbert’s story, but also to try to understand his motivations before passing judgment. Luckily, Humbert establishes motivation at the very beginning of the novel in the person of Annabel, a girl with whom the young Humbert had a summertime fling while on vacation. They “had had the same dreams… found strange affinities” (14). Humbert feels a deep connection with Annabel. Their relationship is both a sexual and an emotional awakening unlike anything they had ever experienced before. “My darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I have her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion,” Humbert recalls (15). In this passage, he conflates the surrendering of his physical self with an emotional vulnerability that is never quite sure of itself. Drawing away and coming near again, Annabel’s own nervousness sets the tone for the uncertainty in their relationship, so that Humbert feels the need to devour whatever part of her he can for as long as he can. Love for Humbert becomes a thing to be scarfed quickly down before it has the opportunity to flee. When Annabel dies suddenly of typhus, this view of love is only solidified in Humbert’s mind, and Lolita’s uncanny resemblance to his childhood sweetheart suggests to him that he has been given a second chance at claiming the love that eluded him all those years ago.
So Humbert creates for himself another Annabel, secretly nicknaming the child Dolores Haze “Lolita.” By giving her a new name, Humbert can divorce her from her true self, re-imagining her as a character whom he can manipulate. At first, Dolores is willing to play along. Obsessed with the grown-up antics of film characters and actresses in movie magazines, Dolores imitates their behavior. She flirts. She is coy. She advances and retreats - if Humbert is to be believed - with the skill of a grown woman used to men’s attentions. Together, Humbert and Dolores shape the child into Lolita, “another, fanciful Lolita - perhaps more real than Lolita; overlapping, encasing her; floating between [the two of them] and having no will, no consciousness - indeed, no life of her own” (62). This duplicitousness echoes Annabel’s earlier reluctance to engage fully with Humbert, strengthening the comparison between her and Lolita.
As long as the fantasy seems like a game, Dolores is willing to play along. But when Humbert’s ultimate goal is revealed, she realizes that this game has become her life, and that she has lost in the most profound way possible. After the trauma of her rape, Dolores’s development is halted and she is shuttled across the country in Humbert’s endless race to escape the consequences of his crime. During their trip, it becomes clear that Dolores is not a willing participant in what Humbert views as a love affair. “I should have understood,” Humbert muses, “that Lolita had already proved to be something quiet different from innocent Annabel, and that the nymphean evil breathing through every pore of the fey child that I had prepared for my secret delectation, would make the secrecy impossible, and the delectation lethal” (124-125). Moreover, Humbert whines, “I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl” (148). Despite his reservations, Humbert’s lust will not allow him to let her go, and his crime will not release him either. As “Annabel Haze, alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta” struggles desperately to free herself from the prison of Humbert’s assaults, Humbert himself entwines her with the memory of his sweetheart, and thus her history with his own.
Time, however, presses forward, no matter how fast or far the pair drives. Blinded by unnatural passion, Humbert finds every move thwarted by Dolores’s growing abhorrence of him, as well as her simple growing up. By the time Dolores is enrolled in school, Humbert has ceased to fixate on her resemblance to Annabel, seeing her instead as she is. “The fog of all lust had been swept away,” he recalls during an argument, “leaving nothing but this dreadful lucidity. Oh, she had changed! Her complexion was now that of any vulgar untidy high school girl… its smooth tender bloom had been so lovely in former days, so bright with tears… A course flush had now replaced that innocent fluorescence” (204). For the first time, Humbert has caught Lolita in a lie, and it taints the way he sees her. He calls her “Dolores” (205). The illusion is shattered.
Humbert then begins his descent into violent madness. Spurred by Dolores’s repeated betrayals, Humbert purchases a gun, carries it around with him, calls it “chum.” When he finally fixes on the victim of his revenge - the playwright Clare Quilty whose exploitation of Dolores rivals Humbert’s own - he begins to obsess over Quilty’s death with the same sexual energy he previously devoted to Dolores. This sensuality comes to the forefront as Humbert loads his gun: “Push the magazine into the butt. Press home until you hear or feel the magazine engage. Delightfully snug. Capacity: eight cartridges. Full Blued. Aching to be discharged” (292). This description, so obviously erotic, marks Humbert’s transition from physical lust to a lust for violence. Now violence, too, is a thing to be consumed quickly, before the impulse or opportunity is taken away.
As the Rolling Stones sing, “Rape, murder: it’s just a shot away.” The most terrifying thing about Nabokov’s novel, however, is that the reader not only understands that shot, but also understands the planning that went into it, and the motivations behind the planning. By positioning us in the mind of the narrator, Nabokov ensures that we are too close to look away, almost complicit in the action. We, too, are just a shot away.
PAGE COUNT: 24,627
BOOK COUNT: 61/100
Here’s some advice: never read Lolita in the summertime. Especially at the beach or the pool. You start to see Humbert Humbert everywhere.
Guys, this was a thoroughly disturbing book. Thank goodness it’s over. Essay to follow, just as soon as I recover my sanity.
…a destiny in the making is, believe me, not one of those honest mystery stories where all you have to do is keep an eye on the clues.Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
(I have many ambitions for the rest of my life. Journalist. Classical singer. Trusted friend. One day, I hope to be a masterful literary critic. But that day is not today. Thomas Pynchon of The New York Timeshas the unequivocally best review of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. I have borrowed it from his original essay, printed on April 10, 1988. None of these words are mine, but I really wish they were.)
Love, as Mickey and Sylvia, in their 1956 hit single, remind us, love is strange. As we grow older it gets stranger, until at some point mortality has come well within the frame of our attention, and there we are, suddenly caught between terminal dates while still talking a game of eternity. It’s about then that we may begin to regard love songs, romance novels, soap operas and any live teen-age pronouncements at all on the subject of love with an increasingly impatient, not to mention intolerant, ear.
At the same time, where would any of us be without all that romantic infrastructure, without, in fact, just that degree of adolescent, premortal hope? Pretty far out on life’s limb, at least. Suppose, then, it were possible, not only to swear love “forever,” but actually to follow through on it — to live a long, full and authentic life based on such a vow, to put one’s alloted stake of precious time where one’s heart is? This is the extraordinary premise of Gabriel García Márquez’s new novel Love in the Time of Cholera, one on which he delivers, and triumphantly.
In the postromantic ebb of the 70’s and 80’s, with everybody now so wised up and even growing paranoid about love, once the magical buzzword of a generation, it is a daring step for any writer to decide to work in love’s vernacular, to take it, with all its folly, imprecision and lapses in taste, at all seriously — that is, as well worth those higher forms of play that we value in fiction. For García Márquez the step may also be revolutionary. “I think that a novel about love is as valid as any other,” he once remarked in a conversation with his friend, the journalist Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza (published as “El Olor de la Guayaba,” 1982). “In reality the duty of a writer — the revolutionary duty, if you like — is that of writing well.”
And — oh boy — does he write well. He writes with impassioned control, out of a maniacal serenity: the Garcímárquesian voice we have come to recognize from the other fiction has matured, found and developed new resources, been brought to a level where it can at once be classical and familiar, opalescent and pure, able to praise and curse, laugh and cry, fabulate and sing and when called upon, take off and soar, as in this description of a turn-of-the-century balloon trip:
"From the sky they could see, just as God saw them, the ruins of the very old and heroic city of Cartagena de Indias, the most beautiful in the world, abandoned by its inhabitants because of the sieges of the English and the atrocities of the buccaneers. They saw the walls, still intact, the brambles in the streets, the fortifications devoured by heartsease, the marble palaces and the golden altars and the viceroys rotting with plague inside their armor.
"They flew over the lake dwellings of the Trojas in Cataca, painted in lunatic colors, with pens holding iguanas raised for food and balsam apples and crepe myrtle hanging in the lacustrian gardens. Excited by everyone’s shouting, hundreds of naked children plunged into the water, jumping out of windows, jumping from the roofs of the houses and from the canoes that they handled with astonishing skill, and diving like shad to recover the bundles of clothing, the bottles of cough syrup, the beneficent food that the beautiful lady with the feathered hat threw to them from the basket of the balloon."
This novel is also revolutionary in daring to suggest that vows of love made under a presumption of immortality — youthful idiocy, to some — may yet be honored, much later in life when we ought to know better, in the face of the undeniable. This is, effectively, to assert the resurrection of the body, today as throughout history an unavoidably revolutionary idea. Through the ever-subversive medium of fiction, García Márquez shows us how it could all plausibly come about, even — wild hope — for somebody out here, outside a book, even as inevitably beaten at, bought and resold as we all must have become if only through years of simple residence in the injuring and corruptive world.
Here’s what happens. The story takes place between about 1880 and 1930, in a Caribbean seaport city, unnamed but said to be a composite of Cartagena and Barranquilla — as well, perhaps, as cities of the spirit less officially mapped. Three major characters form a triangle whose hypotenuse is Florentino Ariza, a poet dedicated to love both carnal and transcendent, though his secular fate is with the River Company of the Caribbean and its small fleet of paddle-wheel steamboats. As a young apprentice telegrapher he meets and falls forever in love with Fermina Daza, a “beautiful adolescent with … almondsshaped eyes,” who walks with a “natural haughtiness … her doe’s gait making her seem immune to gravity.” Though they exchange hardly a hundred words face to face, they carry on a passionate and secret affair entirely by way of letters and telegrams, even after the girl’s father has sound out and taken her away on an extended “journey of forgetting.” But when she returns, Fermina rejects the lovesick young man after all, and eventually meets and marries instead Dr. Juvenal Urbino who, like the hero of a I9th-century novel, is well born, a sharp dresser, somewhat stuck on himself but a terrific catch nonetheless.
For Florentino, love’s creature, this is an agonizing setback, though nothing fatal. Having sworn to love Fermina Daza forever, he settles in to wait for as long as he has to until she’s free again. This turns out to be 51 years, 9 months and 4 days later, when suddenly, absurdly, on a Pentecost Sunday around 1930, Dr. Juvenal Urbino dies, chasing a parrot upon mango tree. After the funeral, when everyone else has left, Florentino steps forward with his hat over his heart “Fermina,” he declares, “I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.” Shocked and furious, Fermina orders him out of the house. “And don’t show your face again for the years of life that are left to you … I hope there are very few of them.”
The heart’s eternal vow has run up against the world’s finite terms. The confrontation occurs near the end of the first chapter, which recounts Dr. Urbino’s last day on earth and Fermina’s first night as a widow. We then flash back 50 years, into the time of cholera. The middle chapters follow the lives of the three characters through the years of the Urbinos’ marriage and Florentino Ariza’s rise at the River Company, as one century ticks over into the next. The last chapter takes up again where the first left off, with Florentine now, in the face of what many men would consider major rejection, resolutely setting about courting Fermina Daza all over again, doing what he must to win her love.
In their city, throughout a turbulent half-century, death has proliferated everywhere, both as el cólera, the fatal disease that sweeps through in terrible intermittent epidemics, and as la cólera, defined as choler or anger, which taken to its extreme becomes warfare. Victims of one, in this book, are more than once mistaken for victims of the other. War, “always the same war,” is presented here not as the continuation by other means of any politics that can possibly matter, but as a negative force, a plague, whose only meaning is death on a massive scale. Against this dark ground, lives, so precarious, are often more and less conscious projects of resistance, even of sworn opposition, to death. Dr. Urbino, like his father before him, becomes a leader in the battle against the cholera, promoting public health measures obsessively, heroically. Fermina, more conventionally but with as much courage, soldiers on in her chosen role of wife, mother and household manager, maintaining a safe perimeter for her family. Florentino embraces Eros, death’s well-known long-time enemy, setting off on a career of seductions that eventually add up to 622 “long term liaisons, apart from … countless fleeting adventures,” while maintaining, impervious to time, his deeper fidelity, his unquenchable hope for a life with Fermina. At the end he can tell her truthfully — though she doesn’t believe it for a minute — that he has remained a virgin for her.
So far as this is Florentino’s story, in a way his Bildungsroman, we find ourselves, as he earns the suspension of our disbelief, cheering him on, wishing for the success of this stubborn warrior against age and death, and in the name of love. But like the best fictional characters, he insists on his autonomy, refusing to be anything less ambiguous than human. We must take him as he is, pursuing his tomcat destiny out among the streets and lovers’ refuges of this city with which he lives on terms of such easy intimacy, carrying with him a potential for disasters from which he remains safe, immunized by a comical but dangerous indifference to consequences that often borders on criminal neglect. The widow Nazaret, one of many widows he is fated to make happy, seduces him during a nightlong bombardment from the cannons of an attacking army outside the city. Ausencia Santander’s exquisitely furnished home is burgled of every movable item while she and Florentino are frolicking in bed. A girl he picks up at Carnival time turns out to be a homicidal machete-wielding escapee from the local asylum. Olimpia Zuleta’s husband murders her when he sees a vulgar endearment Florentino has been thoughtless enough to write on her body in red paint. His lover’s amorality causes not only individual misfortune but ecological destruction as well: as he learns by the end of the book, his River Company’s insatiable appetite for firewood to fuel its steamers has wiped out the great forests that once bordered the Magdalena river system, leaving a wasteland where nothing can live. “With his mind clouded by his passion for Fermina Daza he never took the trouble to think about it, and by the time he realized the truth, there was nothing anyone could do except bring in a new river.”
In fact, dumb luck has as much to do with getting Florentino through as the intensity or purity of his dream. The author’s great affection for this character does not entirely overcome a sly concurrent subversion of the ethic of machismo, of which García Márquez is not especially fond, having described it elsewhere simply as usurpation of the rights of others. Indeed, as we’ve come to expect from his fiction, it’s the women in this story who are stronger, more attuned to reality. When Florentino goes crazy with live, developing symptoms like those of cholera, it is his mother Transito Ariza, who pulls him out of it. His innumerable lecheries are rewarded not so much for any traditional masculine selling points as for his obvious and aching need to be loved. Women go for it. “He is ugly and sad,” Fermina Daza’s cousin Hildebranda tells her, “but he is all love.”
And García Márquez, straight-faced teller of tall tales, is his biographer. At the age of 19, as he has reported, the young writer underwent a literary epiphany on reading the famous opening lines of Kafka’s Metamorphosis,in which a man wakes to find himself transformed into a giant insect. “Gosh,” exclaimed García Márquez, using in Spanish a word in English we may not, “that’s just the way my grandmother used to talk!” And that, he adds is when novels began to interest him. Much of what come [sic] in his work to be called “magical realism” was, as he tells it, simply the presence of that grandmotherly voice.
Nevertheless, in this novel we have come a meaningful distance from Macondo, the magical village in One Hundred Years of Solitude where folks routinely sail through the air and the dead remain in everyday conversation with the living: we have descended, perhaps in some way down the same river, all the way downstream, into war and pestilence and urban confusions to the edge of a Caribbean haunted less by individual dead than by a history which has brought so appallingly many down, without ever having sopoken, or having spoken gone unheard, or having been heard, left unrecorded. As revolutionary as writing well is the duty to redeem these silences, a duty García Márquez has here fulfilled with honor and compassion. It would be presumptuous to speak of moving “beyond”One Hundred Years of Solitude but clearly García Márquez has moved somewhere else, not least into deeper awareness of the ways in which, as Florentino comes to learn, “nobody teaches life anything.” There are still delightful and stunning moments contrary to fact, still told with the same unblinking humor — presences at the foot of the bed, an anonymously delivered doll with a curse on it, the sinister parrot, almost a minor character, whose pursuit ends with the death of Dr. Juvenal Urbino. But the predominant claim on the author’s attention and energies comes from what is not so contrary to fact, a human consensus about “reality” in which love and the possibility of love’s extinction are the indispensable driving forces, and varieties of magic have become, if not quite peripheral, then at least more thoughtfully deployed in the service of an expanded vision, matured, darker than before but no less clement.
It could be argued that this is the only honest way to write about love, that without the darkness and the finitude there might be romance, erotica, social comedy, soap opera — all genres, by the way, that are well represented in this novel — but not the Big L. What that seems to require, along with a certain vantage point, a certain level of understanding, is an author’s ability to control his own love for his characters, to withhold from the reader the full extent of his caring, in other words not to lapse into drivel.
In translating Love in the Time of Cholera, Edith Grossman has been attentive to this element of discipline, among many nuances of the author’s voice to which she is sensitively, imaginatively attuned. My Spanish isn’t perfect, but I can tell that she catches admirably and without apparent labor the swing and translucency of his writing, its slang and its classicism, the lyrical stretches and those end-of-sentence zingers he likes to hit us with. It is a faithful and beautiful piece of work.
There comes a moment, early in his career at the River Company of the Caribbean when Florentino Ariza, unable to write even a simple commercial letter without some kind of romantic poetry creeping in, is discussing the problem with his uncle Leo XII, who owns the company. It’s no use, the young man protests — “Love is the only thing that interests me.”
"The trouble," his uncle replies," is that without river navigation, there is no love." For Florentino, this happens to be literally true: the shape of his life is defined by two momentous river voyages, half a century apart. On the first he made his decision to return and live forever in the city of Fermina Daza, to persevere in his love for as long as it might take. On the second, through a desolate landscape, he journeys into love and against time, with Fermina, at last by his side. There is nothing I have read quite like this astonishing final chapter, symphonic, sure in its dynamics and tempo, moving like a riverboat too, its author and pilot, with a lifetime’s experience steering us unerringly among hazards of skepticism and mercy, on this river we all know, without whose navigation there is no love and against whose flow the effort to return is never worth a less honorable name than remembrance — at the very best it results in works that can even return our worn souls to us, among which most certainly belongs Love in the Time of Cholera, this shining and heartbreaking novel.
PAGE COUNT: 24,318
BOOK COUNT: 60/100 (I have arrived at the Final 40!)
From the moment I was born… I have never said anything I did not mean.Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
…they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace…Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
…he was desperate to find the hidden road in the past that would bring him relief.Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the TIme of Cholera