Saturday, March 27, 2010

Jewish Fantasy, The Conversation

Michael Weingrad's "Why There Is No Jewish Narnia" has been the gift that keeps on giving for the genre/Jewish blogosphere for the last month.  Counting just those posts that have linked back to my response to the essay, there have been dozens of discussions sparked by it, reaching as far as blogs at The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The National Review.  Here are a couple of later additions which, I think, have really broadened the conversation.
  • coffeeandink's "Religion != Christiany" is more a discussion of the discussion of Weingrad's article, and touches on subjects that she's talked on with some passion before (some of which were also brought up in the 2009 iteration of RaceFail).  Specifically, the tendency to forget the privilege of being Christian in historically Christian countries, and the different levels of privilege that other, non-Christian religions enjoy (as Micole points out, Judaism currently enjoys a significantly more privileged status than Islam).  She also touches on gradations of privilege within Judaism--between white and non-white Jews, assimilated and non-assimilated ones.

    My response to this article is very much an outsider's.  I've grown up utterly disconnected from this experience of Judaism as a minority culture.  As an Israeli, I have Jewish privilege (we will leave aside for the moment the enormously complicated question of inter-Jewish strife, and the way that politics and culture in Israel tends to favor certain streams of Judaism over others), and articles like Micole's invariably cause me to feel incredible gratitude for that fact, for everything from not being bombarded by Christmas carols in November (or December, for that matter) to the fact that this Monday and Tuesday--Passover night and day--are national holidays here.  On the other hand, they also remind me that that privilege (or, more accurately, the ethnic and racial privilege attached to it) continues to make life difficult for non-Jews in my country.

  • Janni Lee Simner writes about the expression of Judaism within literature, and specifically fantasy literature, and raises an interesting point.

    Mostly, though, I found myself thinking about the fact that the author strikes me as looking for "Jewish fantasy" in the wrong place: in the trappings of the worldbuilding. I've only written two clearly Jewish stories ... But of course all my stories are Jewish. It informs my worldview. ... in the draft I just turned in, which is now sitting on my editor's desk, I went around with issues of forgiveness--I have characters who played a direct role in the War that destroyed their world, and who are still living with what they've done almost 20 years later, and those characters also are speaking up a little bit more in this book than in the first book I wrote set in that world.
    So. I'm aware that, in Jewish theology, prayer is a way of repenting for wrongs done against God, but that harm done to another person can only be made right by directly making amends to the person who was hurt--only the individual who was harmed can grant forgiveness for that harm. ...  I became more and more aware, as I wrote this book, how much that influenced how my characters who played a role in the War dealt with the fact, as well as which responses both they and I had sympathy for.
    Which to my mind makes this book about faeries, with little religion on stage, a Jewish book.
  • Finally, a response from Weingrad himself (whose last name, it transpires, I consistently misspelled in my response to his original article.  Gah), again in Jewish Review of Books.  I don't come away from this second article with any clearer a notion of what Weingrad is looking for when he asks for Jewish fantasy, but it does provide a more detailed discussion of some of the more famous Jewish writers of fantasy who had been left out of the original article, including Neil Gaiman and Guy Gavriel Kay.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In Good Company: Thoughts on Persuasion

Some way into Jane Austen's Persuasion, heroine Anne Elliot is deeply distressed when she overhears a conversation between her former fiancé, Captain Wentworth, and the girl he has been flirting with, which makes it clear that Wentworth considers Anne weak-willed, and holds her in disdain for breaking off their engagement eight years ago, when he was a penniless lieutenant with no prospects, on the advice of her mentor Lady Russell.  Mind churning, Anne is glad when the three are joined by the rest of their group, thinking that "Her spirit wanted the solitude and silence which only numbers could give."  That line seems to me to sum up Anne, and indeed the whole of Persuasion, perfectly.  Anne Elliot is exactly the sort of person who is always most alone in a crowd.

Persuasion is an odd entry in Austen's bibliography.  Her last novel, it is the most sober of the six, with very little of the sharp, acidic humor that characterizes most of her writing.  In other Austen novels, characters like Anne's vain father Sir Walter, whose chief enjoyment is reading and rereading his family's entry in the Baronetage, and her sisters, proud Elizabeth and self-pitying Mary, would be figures of, admittedly quite barbed, fun.  In Persuasion, they are grotesques, and their ridiculousness is more often used to evoke horror rather than humor--that the petty concerns and selfish passions of these worthless people should proscribe and direct nearly every decision in Anne's life.  Persuasion is also the most blatantly romantic of Austen's novels.  Its plot is a straightforward Cinderella story--an unappreciated but superior young woman longs for a prince to whisk her away from her unhappy life, and then he does--and the terms in which it is related are earnest and heartfelt.  "You pierce my soul," Captain Wentworth writes Anne at the end of the novel.  The same writer who in her other novels could never seem to write a confession of love without either stepping away ("Elizabeth ... immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change ... as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances.") or poking fun ("exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire."), and usually both, here gives us such protestations as "I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago.  Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death.  I have loved none but you."

What's most unusual about Persuasion, however, is that unlike all of Austen's other novels it doesn't revolve around the protagonist's growth.  Anne Elliot, who is unique among Austen's heroines for being a woman rather than a girl, is a finished person, and one that Austen quite obviously finds admirable.  There is in Persuasion none of the not-so-gentle authorial poking and prodding that Fanny Price--probably the Austen heroine who comes closest to Anne's mixture of self-possession, selflessness, and moral rectitude--endures in her own novel, because Anne has none of Fanny's flaws.  She's mature and confident enough to know her own worth and can hold her ground when it really matters.  Neither does Captain Wentworth undergo a Mr. Darcy-like transformation, though one might very well be in order given that he spends the first two thirds of the book coldly ignoring Anne, insulting her to her face, and flirting with another woman in front of her (and in the process leading that woman on).  Most of this is inadvertent or unwitting, but that's not usually an excuse for an Austen hero.  Persuasion, however, keeps making excuses for, and trying to downplay, Wentworth's behavior, and his journey is mostly about letting go of his anger towards Anne and realizing that he still loves her.  Even this revelation isn't the source of the novel's tension.  There's never much doubt that, if they can only keep from attaching themselves to anyone else (never a great temptation), Anne and Wentworth's reunion will happen--"We are not boy and girl," Anne thinks, "to be captiously irritable, misled by every moment's inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness."

What Persuasion is actually about is Anne's search for a place, a group, in which she no longer has to feel alone.  In one of the novel's most famous exchanges, Anne's cousin Mr. Elliot asks her what her idea of good company is.  Upon hearing Anne's requirements of "clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation," he laughingly replies that "that is not good company, that is the best."  But the best company is exactly what Anne, who is terribly lonely, terribly unappreciated, and terribly under-stimulated, is looking for, and Persuasion is made up of set pieces in which she moves from one social group to another (each time observing how completely the social mores and priorities change, how what seemed vital in one setting becomes a trifle in another), looking for that perfect fit.  She doesn't find it in her father's cold, unloving house, where family pride trumps manners and propriety, nor among her brother-in-law's family, the Musgroves, who though warmly appreciative of her are not on her intellectual level, nor in the stuffy drawing rooms in Bath, where the gossipy, fashion-obsessed chatter rises to a deafening din.  Anne finds her place among the retired officers of the British Navy. 

Persuasion is a book-long paean to the navy, whose officers are described as friendly, courtly, virtuous, loyal, and intelligent.  Anne is struck by these qualities in Captain Wentworth and his brother-in-law Admiral Croft, but upon falling into a whole set of former officers at Lyme, she feels "such a bewitching charm in a degree of hospitality so uncommon, so unlike the usual style of give-and-take invitations, and dinners of formality and display, that Anne felt her spirits not likely to be benefited by an increasing acquaintance among [Captain Wentworth's] fellow officers.  "These would all have been my friends," was her thought".  Of course, Anne can't enter the society of the navy on her own power.  It's her reconciliation with and marriage to Wentworth that achieve this, and so the novel's central romance is actually a means to the end of finally placing Anne in that best company she's been longing for, of finally ending her loneliness.

There are two points that mar my enjoyment of Anne's journey from loneliness to the society of her peers.  The first is that, whether intentionally or not, this journey is also one in which Anne rejects relationships with women--which dominate the circles she moves in in her father's house, among the Musgroves, and in Bath--in favor of those with men.  Sisterhood, whether literal or figurative, is never an unalloyed good in Austen's novels.  Even in novels like Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, in which the heroines' relationships with women are often deeper and more significant than even the driving romance, there are negative examples of sisterhood--Lydia, Kitty, and Mary Bennet, or Lucy and Anne Steele--and in novels like Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey positive relationships between women are often drowned out by toxic ones.  In Persuasion, however, there is not a single example of positive, nurturing female friendship, and most of the female characters other than Anne are deeply flawed.  There are wicked, selfish women in the novel--Elizabeth, Mrs. Clay--and foolish ones--Mary and the entire Musgrove tribe--but even those women Anne thinks highly of turn out to be unsuitable as friends and confidantes. 

Lady Russell is the most obvious example--the whole of Persuasion is concerned with Anne establishing firm boundaries between herself and the woman who has been like a mother to her, and whose influence over her she now views as a source of harm.  Lady Russell's attempts to exert a similar influence on Anne in the second half of the novel, by persuading her to marry Mr. Elliot, are met with steely, unbending refusal, as well as a subtle weakening of Anne's regard for her mentor for failing to doubt Mr. Elliot's intentions as she does.  Mrs. Smith, with whom Anne appears to have struck a friendship of equals, and who seems to be acting as Anne's friend when she provides her with concrete proof that Mr. Elliot is a cad, is actually one of the most designing characters in the novel.  Even knowing Mr. Elliot's character, she encourages Anne to marry him in the hopes of advancing her own interests through their marriage, and only reveals the truth once it's clear that she has nothing to gain from lying.  Given her dire straits, it's hard to blame her for grasping at any available straw, but she's hardly a moral character or a good friend.  The only truly admirable female characters in the novel are the ones Anne sees from a distance, from whom she is separated from by the lack of an entry pass into their world--the navy wives, Mrs. Harville and Mrs. Croft (the latter may very well be the coolest female character in an Austen novel--she has sailed as far as the East Indies with her husband, and calmly takes the reins from him when they're out driving in their carriage).  It is, however, significant that even in the absence of that pass Anne manages to strike up an intimacy with a navy man, Captain Benwick (who may be the only character in the novel she considers an intellectual equal), and that the most open, honest and emotional conversation she has with any character in the novel is with another naval officer, Captain Harville.

My second issue with Persuasion is with Anne herself, and with the fact that, at some point over the course of the novel, her loneliness comes to seem less like a predicament and more like a choice.  Anne is, as I've said, a Cinderella heroine, someone who is put-upon and unappreciated.  But Anne is no Fanny Price, an emotionally battered, financially dependent, mousy person who probably can't bring herself to speak out against her mistreatment.  Neither is she Elinor Dashwood, who suffers silently until she's dealt one blow too many and then explodes with anger and frustration.  It's true that her position as a single woman in Regency England means that the choices available to Anne are not so much broader than the ones available to Fanny.  She can't just pick up and leave a setting that doesn't suit her, but I'm not sure that she wants to.  I think that Persuasion wants us to think of Anne as saintly, someone who can put up with her father's vanity, her sisters' pride or dependence, her in-laws' silliness, without losing her patience or composure, but the superiority with which Anne views almost everyone she encounters in the novel belies this approach.  There is something off-putting about being the sort of person who spends their life believing themselves to be superior to everyone else and detaching themselves from their surroundings because of that belief, even if it is entirely justified.  It smacks of not trying hard enough to find one's own level.  Anne seems to enjoy being the smartest person in the room, the one who sees and silently laughs at everyone else's foibles and weaknesses, a little too much, and the novel lets her get away with this.

We are enjoined, of course, from mistaking characters for their author, and lord knows that Jane Austen has suffered from this fallacious tendency far more than most, but it's impossible to know more than a little of her life and not wonder just how much of Austen, or of her idealized image of herself, there is in Anne.  It's easy to imagine Austen as the smartest person in the room, as someone whose superiority over others was a source of both pleasure and loneliness.  Is this why Anne is missing the flaws that makes Austen's other heroines so human and so real?  Is this why she's inhumanly saintly where a real person in her position would be just a little bit wicked?  I'm dipping my toes in forbidden waters and so I'll stop, but whether or not I'm on the right track, the fact remains that there's something not quite right about Anne Elliot, something that stops Persuasion, despite being one of Austen's finest technical achievements, and one of the most romantic stories I've ever read (I swoon at Captain Wentworth's letter.  Every time), from quite working.  In the novel's penultimate chapter, Anne glides through her father's house in Bath, rapturously waiting for Captain Wentworth to formally ask for her hand in marriage, benevolently observing the characters who have imposed on her throughout the novel: "Mr. Elliot was there; she avoided, but she could pity him. The Wallises -- she had amusement in understanding them. Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret -- they would soon be innoxious cousins to her. She cared not for Mrs. Clay, and had nothing to blush for in the public manners of her father and sister."  Ignoring them, she finds a quiet corner, and talks about the past with Captain Wentworth.  It's hard not to think that, instead of finally finding her good company, Anne has found someone with whom she can feel superior, someone to be alone in a crowd with.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Self-Promotion

With the Hugo nominating deadline only a few days away, Strange Horizons is covering some of 2009's short fiction, with a very fine roundup review by Alavaro Zinos-Amaro (who among other things has made me rethink Kij Johnson's "Spar," a story I found impressive, but not to extent that other short fiction reviewers, who have consistently crowned it one of the best short stories of the year, have) and a slightly less in-depth one by myself which covers some of the stories mentioned in my draft Hugo ballot.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters is a novel that has received ecstatic reviews from very nearly everyone who has written about it, including some of my close friends and favorite reviewers.  As you can imagine, this made me both eager and nervous about reading it myself, but I was certainly more the latter than the former after I read Whitfield's first novel, Benighted, a profound disappointment which I found "slow-paced, overlong, rather poorly written, and not doing nearly as much as it should with its excellent premise."  Even assurances by Martin Lewis that In Great Waters represented a huge leap forward for Whitfield didn't allay my concerns, and I nervously left the book for the very end of my Hugo reading.  I needn't have worried.  In Great Waters is not only a very fine novel, it seems to address each and every one of my complaints about Benighted: it is impeccably plotted and paced, very well written, and best of all, fully explores and plays with its inventive premise.

Said premise is that merpeople, here called deepsmen, exist, following the ocean currents in nomadic tribes, vulnerable to human contraptions like fishing nets, but also capable of ripping apart most sailing vessels.  In the 9th century, an alliance was struck between deepsmen and the city of Venice.  A human-deepsman half-breed named Angelica secured the city's naval superiority by directing her tribe's attacks on the foreign fleets besieging it, married the Venetian Doge, and dispersed her children and grandchildren among the royal courts of Europe.  For a seafaring nation, a ruler with deepsman blood, who could secure the protection of their local tribe and direct them to attack the fleet of their nation's enemies, quickly became a necessity.  Whitfield constructs a world in which royalty is less a social or political construct than it is a function of biology, with characters often referring to the physiological attributes of hybrids, such as their vertebrate legs (actually bifurcated tails) as the attributes of royalty.  This simultaneously strengthens and weakens the position of the royal families, who on the one hand can't be ousted by power-hungry but fully human nobles, but on the other hand are vulnerable to attacks from any sailor's bastard (a word which in Whitfield's novel is applied exclusively to non-royal half-breeds), or from hybrids deliberately created by those same nobles.  The conception or concealment of bastards is thus outlawed and punishable by death--a sentence which is also applied to the hybrids--but as the decades and centuries pass the royal houses of Europe become more and more interbred, until a healthy, sane, and fertile royal is the exception rather than the rule, and by the time the novel opens (an exact date is never given, but the setting feels 16th-17th century) are so weak as to be ripe for the picking.

Into this world come our two protagonists, Henry and Anne.  Henry is a bastard, raised for the first five years of his life underwater with his mother's tribe, then abandoned on the English shore when he--weaker and slower than full-blooded deepsmen--becomes too troublesome for his mother to protect and care for.  He's found by a scholar named Allard, who brings him to the attention of Lord Claybrook, a high ranking courtier who has his eye on the English throne.  Anne is the youngest princess of the failing English royal house.  Her grandfather Edward, the current king, is old, and though her father William is healthy, the heir presumptive is his brother Philip, a physically and mentally handicapped dead end.  William tries to secure his line's survival by marrying the Romanian princess Erzebet, but their union produces only daughters--Anne and her older sister Mary--and though Mary is entirely healthy and mostly human in her appearance, Anne is a genetic throwback whose face is phosphorescent (later revealed to be an attribute of deep-dwelling deepsmen tribes), and in the atmosphere of panic created by Philip's birth, is soon rumored to be retarded herself.  When William dies, both the court and England's relations with its deepsman tribes are left in Erzebet's hands, and when she dies under mysterious circumstances the responsibility for the latter devolves to Anne and Mary, then only in their early teens, while their grandfather searches desperately for acceptable husbands for them who will ensure England's stability and the continuation of the royal line.

The first two thirds of In Great Waters are spent following the childhood and very quick maturation of its two protagonists in two parallel plot strands.  Like a lot of authors who throw children into settings rife with politics and intrigue, Whitfield makes both of her protagonists much too savvy, observant, and intelligent to be believable, but she rather cleverly draws attention to this fact, and explains it by making it a component of Henry and Anne's inhuman ancestry.  Henry, we're told in the novel's very first sentence, "could remember the moment of his birth," and from that moment until he's abandoned on land it's clear that deepsmen development is much faster than the human kind, that Henry is expected to learn how to fend for himself and function in the tribe much faster than a human would.  It's also made clear that this accelerated development also expresses itself in a chilliness in both Henry and Anne's natures--they are both, quite literally, cold fish, regarding others less with fuzzy mammalian attachment than in coldly utilitarian terms.  Anne's sister Mary is her rival for Erzebet's attentions, and even at four years old Anne calculates whether to accept Mary's friendly overtures or work against her, while five year old Henry plays games of dominance and control with Allard.  (Mary, meanwhile, is a great deal more affectionate but also less ruthless and politically savvy than Anne, and it's one of the novel's few missed opportunities that it does relatively little with her, and doesn't fully mine the differences between the sisters nor explore the suggested correlation between Mary's more pronounced humanity and her more human appearance.)

What's most interesting about In Great Waters is how it stresses that, despite my comments above, the tension between compassion and unsentimental pragmatism doesn't parallel the division between human and deepsman, that though the humans profess to love their fellow man and desire mercy and forgiveness, Anne's civilized background embodies that tension just as much as Henry's savage one.  Deepsmen society, as seen through Henry's eyes at the beginning of the novel, more strongly recalls an animal pride than a human tribe.  Deepsmen have no crafts, agriculture, or animal husbandry, and very nearly no history, art, or culture.  Tribes are run by a strict rule of the survival of the fittest, and the protocols for establishing their hierarchy are clearly modeled on the natural world--males fight in single combat over females or leadership, and excess young men are often driven out of the tribe.  Henry's expulsion from the tribe is an example of these protocols in action, and once on land he continues to act them out, challenging Allard and the other humans he encounters to fights in order to prove his dominance, and reacting with puzzlement when it's assumed that he feels a son's love and attachment to Allard and his wife.  At the same time, Henry recoils in disgust from the political machinations Claybrook sets in motion in order to put him on the throne.  He's more than willing to kill King Edward in single combat, but doesn't understand why an army must be assembled, and perhaps killed, to resolve what should be a simple test of strength, or why another bastard child, discovered several years after Henry is, must be put to a cruel, torturous death even though it is too weak to fight.  The death of the bastard child is the crux of the novel for Henry, but it is also so for Anne.  Raised in the bosom of civilization, her life proscribed by ritual and tradition, her time spent studying languages and rhetoric (while Henry adamantly refuses to learn how to write or speak a second language), Anne nevertheless finds herself struggling with the same questions as Henry when faced with the child's execution.  "Should we be merciful to our enemies?"  She asks Erzebet, and finds no good answer.

If there is a complaint to be leveled against In Great Waters, it's that sufficient sparks fail to fly when Henry and Anne finally meet, and that the last third of the novel, in which they join forces in order to secure England's future, is a bit of a letdown.  The two clash marvelously against one another in their first few encounters, matching wit for wit and unflappable calm for unflappable calm, but once the obvious alliance is made (for some reason, the idea of marrying Henry to Mary or Anne never occurs to Claybrook) the novel goes a little slack.  One almost suspects that Whitfield was undone by her desire to undermine the romantic expectations that her setup creates--if the bulk of your novel follows the parallel and equally unhappy stories of two chilly, pragmatic young people of opposite genders, it almost seems required for their meeting to result in a searing romance--and though I can understand that desire (and indeed, given how poorly handled the romance in Benighted was, applaud it), I think that Whitfield couldn't quite come up with a suitably exciting substitute for it.  Romantic or not, the final meeting and partnering up of Henry and Anne should have been explosive.  Instead they become slightly nicer and more accommodating towards one another, for no reason other than the same political instincts that have driven them throughout the novel, which now tell them to appease each other.

Still, there is much to enjoy in those chapters of In Great Waters in which Henry and Anne play off each other.  The two see the world in such completely opposed terms that their interactions are almost dizzying.  Anne is devout, and derives much of her morality--which ultimately drives her to save Henry from the stake--from her Christian faith.  When Henry learns about Christianity, however, he is appalled: "The landsmen weren't just strange.  They were stupid, bone-deep stupid.  They were mad."  The same resistance to the Christ story and its inherent irrationality is also what makes it clear to Henry that the story of Angelica's miraculous emergence from the sea just as the people of Venice needed her most is a political fabrication, and unlike humans he lacks both the ability and the desire to overlay reality with narrative.
It struck Henry, listening to Westlake tell his stories, that the nastiness of the landsmen's possessions, the straight lines and enclosing roofs and binding clothing, could be explained by this.  They didn't notice them.  They looked at clothes and thought of ceremonies; they looked at buildings and thought of their owners.  Always the ideas, and never the things themselves.  They couldn't feel what was up against their skin; the world, thriving and struggling and vitally, irrefutably real.
What's best about In Great Waters is how fully in layers these two worldviews--Henry's materialism, Anne's spirituality; the savage, animalistic mindset that sees no purpose in intangibles, in language that is anything more than utilitarian, in social constructs that extend beyond the tribe and beyond the moment, versus the human tendency to create complex, pie-in-the-sky structures, which gives us history and art and culture and science, but also cruelty and war and needless slaughter--until there's no choosing between them.  By the end of the novel all that's left is to accept, as Henry and Anne do, that they are fundamentally of two different species and will never truly understand one another, and yet it's precisely out of that alienness that they manage to find room for the compassion that has eluded them for so much of their lives, each rejecting just enough of the ideas they've grown up with while still remaining true to themselves.  At several points during my reading it occurred to me that In Great Waters, with its emphasis on court politics and its period setting, might appeal more to readers of historical fiction than to genre fans, but it's this ending and the light it casts on the events of the novel that shows how perfectly suited it is to the latter group--it is a pitch-perfect, and utterly persuasive, description of the meeting and coming to terms of humans and aliens.