‘Masterpiece of Catastrophic Love’?
I forgot how to read quite a long time ago.
I mean, sure, I’m not illiterate, per se: I can both read and write more than a hundred words. I can even read words like ‘perpendicular’ and ‘nidificate’ and ‘clitoris’, words that I’ve long forgotten the meaning of. If pushed, I could even read a word like ‘kernostrumaphile’, which I just made up but you just know means something filthy, don’t you?
I can read the first two and perhaps the last two paragraphs of a match report, but only if my team won. I can read entire top 100 lists of things I barely acknowledge the existence of (‘The Top 100 Ways You Can Just TELL Someone’s From Chorlton!!!!!!!!!’), but all I really do is glance at the name next to the number then quickly click onto the next page, only occasionally pausing to garner the writer’s exact reason for seriously suggesting that Bradley Wright-Philips was the seventh best James Bond, before realising how little I care before the end of the first sentence. I read news headlines, and wait to see how John Oliver tells me how to react to them. I look at my Twitter feed, but as I absentmindedly scroll down my feed looking for any updates on the next Let’s Eat Grandma album very rarely actually read it, unless there’s a rather enticing photo of an octopus playing Dark Souls 2 that I’m keen to place in the correct context.
OK, so I’m overexaggerating slightly: if you read this blog you will often be delighted- some would say sexually enticed- by my frequent and ingenious referrals to clever articles and smarty pants think pieces, because quoting clever people is way easier than being clever yourself (or so I’m told. You might want to quote that last line in your next blog post). I do actually read quite a lot, compared to, say, a walrus or a Christian (who read one freaking book, which, despite claims to the contrary, really isn’t that good at all. Christians aren’t much better either*), but all I read is non-fiction. I can only bring myself to move my eyes across words and translate the seemingly abstract shapes into coherent images in my mind if I’m satisfied that I’m learning something. And not just ‘something’: I’ll likely tune out of a book if it’s been longer than three or four paragraphs without a good healthy factpie that I can serve up at my next dinner party.
Eugh, see that green under my eyes? What is that? Cancer?
I can pinpoint the onset of this critical and horrendous shortening of my attention span back to recovering from my suicide attempt. Not long before my heroic and courageous attempt at immortality I had been on holiday with the lovely Hejjy to Kunming for ten days and had managed to read a Salmon Rushdie, a Chuck Palahniuk and a Jung Chang**. I didn’t love reading these books 100% of the time, but I just sat and read them like a proper adult.
After the suicide attempt my brain was pretty scrambled for a while, and I found I could barely finish the end of a newspaper article. I watched my brother’s Netflix. I watched the end of Breaking Bad. I joined Twitter. I eventually joined Facebook. I eventually joined a dating app where 80% of the people on it don’t even bother writing a biography of themselves: “This is 2018, for fuck’s sake!” the images seem to passive aggressively sneer at me “We don’t actually write anymore, Granddad! Do you, or do you not like my bum and my titties??”
I grimace at the sad deterioration of the value of language amongst today’s youth. Then swipe right, because when all’s said and done I really do like her bum and titties.
I can’t read fiction anymore. What chance do I honestly have with passages like: “As he lay there, the window-pane that faced him, growing gradually lighter, inlaid upon the darkness a square of moon suffused sky. A crooked tree branch crossed it, a branch of the apple tree under which, he had sometimes found Mattie sitting when he came up from the mill. Slowly the rim of the rainy vapours caught fire and burnt away, and a pure moon swung into the blue. Ethan, rising on his elbow, watched the landscape whiten and shape itself under the sculpture of the moon. This was the night on which he was to have taken Mattie coasting, and there hung the light to light them! He looked out at the slopes bathed in lustre, the silver-edged darkness of the woods, the spectral purple of the hills against the sky, and it seemed as though all the beauty of the night had been poured out to mock his wretchedness…”
I mean, jeez, is that really the most succinct way you could have said all that. If it was a non-fiction book you might have got one sentence: “At night, Ethan sure felt cheesed off”, if they thought his inner thoughts merited any comment at all! A non-fiction book would outline the precise reasoning behind Ethan’s sullenness and trust the reader to imagine the inner turmoil themselves.
Fiction is so fucking shit!!
You may remember not so long ago I wrote an unashamedly mammoth 6’000 + words entry on Magnetic Fields’ latest masterpiece ‘50 Song Memoir‘ where I ranked each of its (get this) 50 songs. Number 15 was a delightful slice of indie pop called ’88 Ethan Frome, about how enraptured Merrit was with the titular book that he dedicated an entire year of his life to it.
“Ninety-five pages of tragedy/Difficult to put down”? I thought to myself:
So, I bought it from Amazon for about 34p, started reading it yesterday, finished it today (four bus journeys worth) and…
Yeah… yeah, it’s… It’s a lot of things…
I definitely understand the appeal of fiction now. But only when it’s fiction that bears a striking similarity to my own life.
The book’s greatest trick is how it manages to present the events and emotions present in the book without judgement, always staying ambiguous enough to let the reader decide his or her own morals. That’s why it was surprising for me to find out that the book’s main plot- of Mr Frome aching to leave his sickly and mournful wife for her zestful and passionate younger cousin- actually echoes a period in Edith Wharton’s own life when she was once in the Ethan Frome position wanted to escape her own neurotic and demanding invalid husband and run off with far more life affirming lover (the journalist Morton Fullerton. Yeah, I’ve done some research, suck my dick, haterz). It surprised me because I felt nothing but hatred for the character of Ethan Frome, and was shocked that he might have been an avatar of the writer herself. Perhaps because I was once Ethan Frome, and I hate myself to this day for the way I treated my wife.
After I had been married for two or three years, I grew bored of my wife in the same way that Ethan grows irritated and disinterested in the wonderfully named Zenobia ‘Zeena’ Frome. My wife wasn’t sick and bedridden, but I feel that even in the novel Zeena’s sickness is just a metaphor for the growing repulsion fostering within Ethan for the horrendous monotony and dreaded regularity of married life, and her constant medical needs only represent the deeds and favours he’s expected to perform in a committed relationship. To escape what he sees, with predictable male ego, as a life sentence in a high security prison, he switches his emotions to Matty, which was apparently an acceptable girls’ name in 1911, just as I decided to unashamedly chase Karolina Poborsky***.
She was a Czech beauty, so different to Samantha (my ex-wife, do keep up) in every way. She was an amateur philosopher, which I have always endeavoured to be, while Samantha was just extremely intelligent and didn’t really care about showing it off. We would share quotes by Franz Kafka and George Orwell and revel in our insufferable pretentiousness. She was a few years younger than me and gave me a chance to live the life of an ostentatious student that I had missed when I was at university due to copious drug and alcohol use.
Talking of drugs: I took her on a trip to Manchester (Samantha wasn’t invited) and introduced her to MDMA. Here’s a tip for all you groomers out there: MDMA is a surefire way to make someone fall in love with you.
“She had an eye to see and an ear to hear: he could show her things and tell her things, and taste the bliss of feelings that all he imparted left long reverberations and echoes he could wake at will
It was during their night walks back to the farm that he felt most intensely the sweetness of this communion. He had always been more sensitive than the people about him to the appeal of natural beauty. His unfinished studies had given form to this sensibility and even in his unhappiest moments field and sky spoke to him with a deep and powerful persuasion. But hitherto the emotion had remained in him as a silent ache, veiling with sadness the beauty that evoked it. He did not even know whether any one else in the world felt as he did, or whether he was the sole victim of this mournful privilege. Then he learned that one other spirit had trembled with the same touch of wonder: that at his side, living under his roof and eating his bread, was a creature to whom he could say: “That’s Orion down yonder; the big fellow to the right is Aldebaran, and the bunch of little ones—like bees swarming—they’re the Pleiades…” or whom he could hold entranced before a ledge of granite thrusting up through the fern while he unrolled the huge panorama of the ice age, and the long dim stretches of succeeding time. The fact that admiration for his learning mingled with Mattie’s wonder at what he taught was not the least part of his pleasure. And there were other sensations, less definable but more exquisite, which drew them together with a shock of silent joy: the cold red of sunset behind winter hills, the flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow. When she said to him once: “It looks just as if it was painted!” it seemed to Ethan that the art of definition could go no farther, and that words had at last been found to utter his secret soul….”
This could easily describe the feelings that were ignited within me whenever I spent time with Karoline. But Ethan and I were too dumb to realise that these weren’t new feelings, or sensations that were not possible with our wives. It was simply the fact that these things were new to us once again, that we were able to experience that exhilarating rush of young love that was now impossible to encounter again with our boring old wives, bedridden with the debilitating sickness of the everyday.
A seeming tipping point comes in the book when Ethan declares that he, not the allocated chauffeur, would be driving Mattie to the station, neglecting the duties that his wife required him to perform at home, instead ensuring he spent a precious few more hours with Mattie. My tipping point came when Karoline had invited Samantha and I over for dinner, in an obvious attempt to dispel the lingering (and justified) suspicions that Samantha had about mine and Karoline;s relationship. The evening passed without any massively awkward moment, until Samantha announced that it was time to go home and I (seriously, I’m not making this shit up) instead declared that I would be spending the night with Karoline.
Our marriage actually limped on for a few more years after that, but honestly, how big a fucking cunt am I?
However, perhaps because of my strong identification with Frome, I felt the novel falls off slightly towards the end in search of a denouement with impact. Previously, we only hear Frome’s side of the ‘love affair’, with him reading into the inflexion that Mattie puts on certain words or the way she flutters her eyebrows as stone cold proof that she shares his affections. I was ready for the ending to reveal that Mattie didn’t share Ethan’s infatuation to anywhere near the same level, as in my experience such idiotic desire is almost always unrequited. No really, trust me, I have a lot of experience in this field: I have misread signals and misinterpreted human kindness as obvious signals of uncontrollable lust all my life. It’s kind of my profession. Remember Hilda? I never heard back from her…
Karoline certainly liked me, and it’s very possible that we would have ended up together in different circumstances, but it’s much more likely that she was (understandably) flattered by my infatuation with her, and spending time with me was great for her ego because I was never (and am not to this day) shy about telling her how brilliant and beautiful she was. She didn’t love me though, and certainly didn’t think enough of me to be responsible for the breakup of a marriage. We slept in the same bed several times, but never had sex. I’m not even sure she ever saw my willy.
Or, maybe we fucked loads of times, I’m not sure: I was drinking a lot back then.
In ‘Ethan Frome’ however, not only does…
Oops, best be careful:
In ‘Ethan Frome’, not only does Mattie declare that Frome’s infatuation is requited, but she immediately declares that the best course of action is for them both to commit suicide to ensure their love is rendered eternal. So they commit suicide. By riding a sledge into a fucking tree. This is a book obviously finished when the author realised her deadline was at noon that day.
While the decision to commit suicide (in, it has to be said, one of the most ludicrous ways in fiction. I assume. I’ve only read, like, eight books, and their all by Robin Jarvis) is a little unbelievable in the way it seemingly comes out of nowhere and involves a great leap of judgement in regards to the characters’ decision process, the aftermath of it is what marks the book as a genius piece of misery.
They both survive the suicide attempt. And a disabled and broken Mattie moves in with Frome and his wife. We end the tale with Frome (massvely crippled by his suicide attempt!! Helloooooo!!) having to care for both his sick wife and the younger woman he lusted after who is now even more crippled. The final lines in the novel are a rusty nail thrust into the heart:
““There was one day, about a week after the accident, when they all thought Mattie couldn’t live. Well, I say it’s a pity she did. I said it right out to our minister once, and he was shocked at me. Only he wasn’t with me that morning when she first came to… And I say, if she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.””
It’s the first novel I’ve read, the first piece of fiction I’ve encountered in any medium, that focuses on the morose abjection of a failed suicide bid.
I can kind of empathise with that…
(Is it Better Than ‘The Oaken Throne’?)
It’s a really good book, don’t get me wrong, but ‘The Oaken Throne’ is the best book ever, and ‘Ethan Frome’ just can’t compete. ‘Ethan Frome’ made me feel, like, really sad at some points, but ‘The Oaken Throne’ made me cry every time I read it!
Dunno yet, maybe the new Janelle Monae album will have a song on it called ‘Bravo Two Zero’
I mean, fuck, I’ve not even finished Necessary Evil 2017 yet!
Stay cool, people, Spring is here…
*That line was really funny in my head. What one book does a Walrus read? The Subspace Emissery’s World Conquest. I mean, you can kind of understand: it’s 3’548’615 words long, walruses live for 40 years on average and are notoriously slow readers.
**Yeah, that was non-fiction, but just go with me here, OK?
***Names changed, obviously. Or are they…?