Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 5, 2010
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Time Traveler, Father's Den, Major Pettigrew
It's an odd thing about listening to audiobooks -- especially books downloaded
from Audible.com. Each time I read, I clip on my iPod Nano, hook the phones
over my ears, and then pick up right where I left off. I don't see the title, I don't
see the cover, and I don't see the author's name.
That's why, in listening to Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife and
Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, I didn't remember the
authors' names -- or their gender. The bulk of Time Traveler's Wife is told from
the point of view of a man, and all of Major Pettigrew is. There was never a
speck of a hint of getting the male point of view wrong -- nothing that made me
think, "Oh, that was not written by a man."
However, oddly enough, there were moments where I thought the writer of Time
Traveler's Wife had to be a man, because the main female character is such a
cliche -- a feminine icon of womanly perfection. No woman writer would make
the main female character so exactly like what men wish women were.
Well, Bozo was wrong on that one, wasn't he! It's as if Niffenegger, who wrote
Time Traveler's Wife, had spent so much effort on creating the time traveler
that she gave not a thought to the wife, and pulled her right out of volume 1 of
her cliche collection.
Fortunately, the iconized heroine, Clare, still serves the story well enough, for
the story's moral journey is really that of the time traveler, Henry De Tamble.
(Another drawback to audiobooks is that you never know how the characters'
names are spelled -- I had to look this up online!)
The story is the most twisted, convoluted love story ever created. Henry is a
"chronologically displaced person." He has a genetic ailment that pops him out
of his own time and into some other, usually in the past, and often places that
mean something to him -- but often not. He can't control where and when he
goes. He arrives and returns stark naked, since he can take absolutely nothing
with him, and so he also leaves behind a pile of clothing whenever he jumps.
His mother died in a tragic car accident when Henry was very young. He was
in the car and should have died, too -- except that he reflexively jumped,
leaving behind only his clothes. Plagued by guilt, his life is also deformed by
his father's grief at his wife's death. But Henry grows up to be a librarian and
a bit of a roue, going from one meaningless love affair to another. Until he
meets a marvelous young woman who seems to already know him.
Why? Because she has grown up having magical visits from none other than
Henry de Tamble! From time to time she goes out to a clearing in the woods
near her family's mansion in the Wisconsin woods, and meets with an older
version of Henry. He arrives naked, but she learns to keep clothes for him in a
waterproof box. He helps her with her homework (nothing sexual happens
until she is of age), reads poetry to her, and so on.
Naturally, she falls in love with him -- what woman wouldn't? Creepy older
man arrives naked, has a weird story to tell, then >poof< he's gone; it's a
romantic dream of most young girls, apparently.
So ... she already knew him when he met her for the first time, but he already
knew her -- was already married to her! -- when she met him for the first time.
This makes the story logically circular and, by some views, impossible. Issues
of free will come up constantly, mostly because no matter what he knows about
the future, he can't do anything to change it. He has no choice but to adopt a
stoic, fatalistic worldview -- this is how it happens, I can't change it, I can only
make the best of it.
There's plenty of comedy in it, and also genuine love and pathos and
tenderness. Niffenegger has created a whole life for Henry, and even if Clare is
too perfect, she's usually at least interesting. The philosophy grows naturally
out of the rules of the story, and even if it's not profound, it's fun.
The result is a "whole life" book -- the sense that we have experienced a
strange and wonderful life at first hand. Despite a few missteps, this book
belongs in the company of other tours-de-force like The 13th Tale by Diane
Setterfield and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.
The missteps? It's simply inexplicable that Niffenegger, who gets so many
things right, would have such a leaden ear for obscenity. It's not that people
don't talk the way she has her characters talk, it's that characters we like don't
usually talk that way.
Near the end, after we've already shed tears for unavoidable and wholly
predicted tragedy, we suddenly get a completely unbelievable sex scene in
which Clare uses a grossly obscene term that is so out of character and so out
of the mood of the story at that point that I can't help but think it was only
included because Niffenegger was embarrassed at the sentimentality of the
story, and wanted to "redeem" herself in the eyes of her literary friends.
For a handful of words and a couple of needlessly explicit sex scenes,
Niffenegger made it impossible for me to recommend her book to many friends
who would have enjoyed everything else about it.
Why do writers do this? They needlessly shrink the audience for a wonderful
story; they also make it instantly dated, for such ineptness in word choice and
sexual explicitness are only a temporary aberration and will soon pass out of
fashion (indeed, already are passing out of fashion, giving this book a decidedly
Enough about Time Traveler's Wife; if you're able to overlook needless sex
scenes and pointless words that start with f and c, this book is wonderful
(especially as read by William Hope and Laurel Lefkow in the unabridged
audiobook from Audible.com).
Because there's another book that deals with a borderline creepy relationship
between a middle-aged man and a young girl. Maurice Gee's In My Father's
Den, a gorgeous whole-life novel that is shaped like a mystery, has at its heart
a friendship between a teacher and a student, who happens to be the daughter
of his high school best friend and the fiancee his "friend" stole from him.
Just as Niffenegger was careful to keep her older man/young girl story from
stepping over the line until the girl came of age, Gee also is careful to cope with
hero Paul Prior's occasional sexual attraction to Celia Inverarity. Unlike
Niffenegger, who has Clare constantly eager to have sex with Henry, Gee makes
it clear that Celia is not at all interested in romance with her teacher -- to my
The story is a dark one, and is marred by Gee's fashionable university atheism,
for which he proselytizes throughout the novel. It's odd how nonintrospective
these authors are who make their characters "grow out of" or simply reject
religion; the authors (and therefore the characters) seem blind to how religious
their atheism is, and how bigoted they are in their confidence that their belief
system is "true" and all others are as evil as witchcraft or as debilitating as
However, this is so common in fiction today that it's almost like the air we
breathe, and fortunately the story surrounding the author's constant praise of
his own faith is a powerful and moving one. The story is framed by the murder
of Celia Inverarity at precisely the moment she is about to embark on a very
promising life. The murder is brutal, and since the last thing she did was visit
Paul Prior in his home, he is naturally the first suspect the police look for.
I expected a novel about a frantic attempt to prove his own innocence, but now
-- Gee has something much more interesting in mind. The police do like Prior
for the murder -- but then they quickly clear him. The town is not so quick to
do so, and neither is the girl's father, whose lifelong competition with Prior
makes the reader believe that the murder might be the culmination -- murder
as a bitter "victory" in a male rivalry, though which of them did it is in serious
The possibility that it is Paul Prior himself is raised by his account of a bitten-into apple on a teacher's desk in grade school, for in Prior's memory of it, he
"can't recall" whether he was guilty or not. This inability to not remember (or
unwillingness to confess) the crucial matter of his own guilt leaves wide open
the door that Prior is evading his guilt in the matter of Celia's death.
The largest deception is that this is a murder mystery, for it is not. It is a Life
-- Paul's life -- and it is more about him and his family than about Celia and
hers, or even about the murder. In fact, the actual revelation of and
confrontation with the murderer are almost an afterthought. By the time we
got to it, I felt that I had already received a complete and moving story of a
fascinating and painful life.
Humphrey Bower's narration of the Audible.com edition is flawless, his New
Zealand accent both musical and clear.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is not a whole-life book. We meet Pettigrew in
late middle-age, as he has settled into a quiet retirement in his childhood
home. The book centers around his growing involvement with Mrs. Jasmina
Ali, the widow who keeps a grocery in their small English town.
At first glance, we can be forgiven for assuming that this is going to be a
politically correct case study of overcoming racism. This would be a mistake,
for Simonson -- probably the best writer of the three I'm reviewing today --
takes no easy roads. Yes, there are bits about anti-Pakistani feeling in
England, but the barriers between them are just as much about social class,
religion, and family obligation.
Both of them are tied up in family conflicts that, in Pettigrew's case, can seem
trivial but loom rather large in the characters' lives. Pettigrew is from old, if
small, fortune, and is part of the established upper class in his village.
Modernization threatens the town in several ways, some of which he opposes
(development of a tract of land behind his house) and some of which he
embraces (the presence of an erudite grocer's widow who is caught up in the
expectations of her culture).
Something that all three of these novels have in common is a devotion to
literature. I understand it -- writers almost invariably come from the culture of
book-lovers, and so do readers, so you can get away with it, and even with
making book-lovers something like martyrs in the way that "common" people
just don't understand them.
It becomes a bit circular, though: This inbred book-loving culture embraces
books that explain how book-lovers are always better and deeper and finer and
truer than other people -- an assertion which I know to be patently false, since
book-lovers are exactly as prone to moral perfidy and foolishness as anyone
else. Self-flattery does not lead anyone to a truer understanding of the world.
Helen Simonson, whose first novel this is, seems a bit more aware of the self-delusion in this, and so while it is a love of books that first brings Major
Pettigrew and Jasmina Ali together, this is not a central issue in the story.
Both of them are shown to come from comically absurd -- but also ancient and
gracious -- social groups. Pretension of every kind is skewered; even
Pettigrew's own fondest grudges and self-delusions are revealed as shams to
him and to the reader.
And yet with all her skewering of this and that, Simonson has written a book
that is about love and respect. The most absurd characters are presented with
compassion, understanding, and respect, from the evil old Muslim woman who
pretends to be deaf to the drunken, lonely society lady who is exactly the sort
that everyone expects Major Pettigrew to end up with in his widowhood. And
Pettigrew's son, whom he finds absurd, turns out to be rather a better person
than his father (or the readers) thought him to be.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is that rare and wonderful thing: A book written
with exquisite taste and with a deep understanding of human nature, loving
and admiring people even as it exposes and, yes, ridicules them. I loved every
minute of Peter Altschuler's narration (again from Audible.com).
What a happy coincidence that Major Pettigrew's Last Stand shares a titular
surname with the brilliant comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which I
thought was the best movie of 2008. I don't know that Major Pettigrew will ever
be a movie, though it certainly could be; but in looking up spellings and
character names on Amazon, I ran across the recording of the novel on which
Miss Pettigrew was based. More reading! I hope it's as good as the film.
Hold next Friday or Saturday night open for a free performance of
Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. I adapted the script for modern
understanding a few years ago, because so many of the funniest lines have
become nearly unintelligible to audiences today. I directed this version first at
Southern Virginia University, where it ran for two weeks to packed houses.
Now I've brought it to Greensboro, with a new cast, mostly of high-school-age
actors, but with a leavening of adults, including a cameo performance by Keith
Taylor, the head of the drama program at Weaver.
In adapting the script, I was responding to John McWhorter's challenge that
English-speakers are the only people who can never see or hear Shakespeare
performed in their native language. Germans, Japanese, Poles, and Spaniards
can all see Shakespearean plays translated into the language they speak today.
But our misplaced respect for Shakespeare's plays leads us to leave his
language exactly as it was published after his death -- even though his puns
and other wordplays are no longer funny, and many of the nuances of his
characters are simply lost.
And yet ... the elegance and grace of Shakespeare's writing are untranslatable.
When we see Shakespeare, we do want to hear the language of the Elizabethan
era (which is why many of us will never accept any Bible translation but the
King James version, despite its many flaws).
So what I do is not a translation. Rather, I look for places where crucial
meanings have been lost -- which happens most commonly in the jokes,
especially the deliberately lame ones -- and instead of translating, I find
substitutes, still in Elizabethan-sounding language, that are instantly
intelligible to modern audiences.
The result is a play that is mostly Shakespeare's original, and sounds entirely
Shakespearean. The play is not shorter by a single line; unlike most directors
today, I cut nothing from Shakespeare's plays. But because audiences
understand everything, the plays can move as quickly as they did in
Most Shakespearean plays today are cut to ribbons so they don't take four
hours or more. Directors leave out many minutes -- and sometimes more than
an hour! -- of the play. This is ironic -- they can't change his language, but
they can remove it willy-nilly!
Why? Shakespeare's plays didn't last four hours when he produced them.
The plays only last four hours when you have to change sets between scenes;
and when actors slow down and declaim their speeches with elaborate
precision, so that some portion of the audience will have some hope of
understanding the unfamiliar language. Shakespeare is usually overacted, too
-- often grossly so -- meaning that vast pauses are left between the lines while
the actors emote. The plays move as if through thick mud.
This is the opposite of how the Elizabethan theatre companies performed. A
rollicking play like Shrew needs to move lickety-split, joke piling on joke. There
are no breaks between the scenes, because there's no scenery to move; when
there's a tricky costume change, they didn't make the audience wait --
Shakespeare wrote a "filler" scene to hold the stage while the actors changed
So ... at full length, including the "inexplicable" Christopher Sly scenes that
open the script, our production runs about two hours and fifteen minutes --
and it never stops being funny. This is far closer to what Shakespeare's
audiences experienced in his lifetime than any of the ponderous, over-scholarly
and over-acted versions you're likely to see anywhere else. (One of the worst is
Zefferelli's interminable film version starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth
Our Katharina (the "shrew" of the title) is more than the usual screamer --
she's smart and witty and funny and snide, the way Shakespeare wrote her.
And our Christopher Sly -- the drunken lout for whom the play is ostensibly
performed as a vast prank -- is used throughout the play in the way that
Shakespeare certainly used him: as a hilarious parody of rude audience
members, both lordly and common.
Admission is free, as always with our productions at the LDS meetinghouse at
3719 Pinetop Road in Greensboro (across the street from Claxton Elementary).
It will be performed on Friday and Saturday, September 17th and 18th, starting
at seven o'clock p.m. (We ask you not to bring children under six; but from six
on up, children are very likely to enjoy the play.)