Arsenic and Chicken Soup

Therese Desqueyroux by Francois Mauriac ~

The average age of members in my parish book club hovers in the sixties, I’d guess. The oldest may be pushing eighty. At forty-six years old and only partly gray, I’m one of the youngsters. We read books together between September and June, meeting once a month. Step into the parish hall with a paperback in hand and someone will point you the right way. There’s cheese, salami, crackers, and cake on a back table, and enough wine to have a bottle to yourself, if you’re determined.

Our first book this season was Mauriac’s Therese Desqueyroux (1927), a short novel about a young woman in the pine country of southwestern France who tries to kill her husband by arsenic poisoning. I’m not giving anything away by telling you this; it’s all made clear in the first few pages. Therese Desqueyroux is standard high school reading in France, they say, and is enjoying a small revival in “Feminist Lit” courses, though written by a man.

The novel was adapted for film twice, first in 1962 (with Emmanuelle Riva in the title role) and more recently in 2012 (with Audrey Tautou of Amelie fame). I haven’t seen either film but I understand that reviews for the second were poor.

I heartily disliked this book. The men in our group all felt the same. It was bleak, hopeless, the characters uniformly unsympathetic, the actions of the protagonist incomprehensible. Most of the women, however, while they wouldn’t dream (well, they might dream a little) of poisoning their husbands, nevertheless felt a sisterly commiseration with Therese’s predicament, her stifling isolation, her need for a communion of souls that her husband Bernard won’t see and therefore can’t meet.

Were all us men just a bunch of Bernards too? Cads and clods, and heartless dullards?

“But she doesn’t even know what she wants. Isn’t there something adolescent in Therese’s rebellion?” I won no friends among the ladies in the room by my comment. But someone observed that unrelenting loneliness can make us adolescent in our behavior, fractured and self-obsessed, with a clearer image of what ails us than of what might heal us.

There are glimpses, just glimpses, of what Mauriac feels might heal Therese. The Corpus Christi procession promises something to her, though she’s not sure what, despite (or perhaps, in a way, because of) the fact that Bernard himself is a participant, bringing up the rear. Earlier in the story, Therese is at her most sympathetic when she imagines Bernard receiving her home again with open arms, forgiving, anxious to understand.

Bernard, in other words, had the chance (and you might say that from Mauriac’s Catholic perspective it was his calling) to be a means of reconciliation for Therese. He failed her.

Driving home from book club, I contemplated the moments and ways in which I had indeed been a Bernard. They were not a few. And yet for twenty years now my wife has kept me around and nobly refrained from poisoning me, for which I am grateful. In fact, she had hot soup on the stove for me when I came in the door, and I spooned it up without any trepidation. No, really.


I’ve been off work, and then busy with work, and soon I’ll be traveling for work, and so this little space gets neglected. I don’t like to publish things I haven’t polished up a bit, but polishing takes time. Then again, the results are never certain and some of the things I’ve published here might have been better left unimproved.

That’s my way of saying that while I have nothing much to say, I’m going to say it anyway, and roughly.

First, I want to recommend canoes. Most folks these days prefer kayaks or stand-up paddleboards (call them SUPs if you want to sound stupid), but I like canoes. We recently bought one and christened it The D’Artagnan. It’s nothing fancy but large enough for our four-person family. We took it out last week on Sauvie Island (America’s largest fluvial island, they say). The highlight of the day was coasting breathlessly on water like glass while a flock of Sandhill cranes passed overhead, their throaty cackles echoing back at us from the trees at the far side of the lake.

I recently finished reading The Last Grain Race, my second Eric Newby title. The first was A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, which I read earlier this year. I enjoyed these delightful, humorous travelogues so much that I’ve resolved to read every Newby title I can get hold of – which isn’t easy, since his books seem to be out of print in the United States. But my children got me a British edition of Love and War in the Apennines for my birthday, which I’m saving to read this winter. Why had I never heard of Newby before? But it’s a joy to discover a new favorite.

Finally, I note that fall is well underway here in the Pacific Northwest, and verily it maketh the heart glad. The trees are rusting and dropping leaves enough to clog the storm drains. Said drains have had a good workout with a September notably wetter than average. Meanwhile, the garden spiders grow fat and lazy. Mushrooms appear. The backyard chickens begin to moult, while the cat thickens his coat. The crows flock in hundreds, the ospreys pack their bags at the riverside, and the geese pass southward, heard but unseen in the fog. Begging Orwell’s indulgence, I feel very much that while all seasons are created equal, some are more equal than others.

Religious, Not Spiritual

I don’t know when the vogue for calling oneself “spiritual, not religious” began but I remember hearing it first in the 1990s. It’s not clear to me what the phrase is supposed to mean but it seems to suggest an openness to vaguely transcendent experiences or forces; it more clearly implies a rejection of the dogmas, rites, and institutions of organized religion – particularly of Christianity.

The spiritual-not-religious person is usually a Westerner from a Judeo-Christian cultural background, possibly a generation or two removed from religious practice. He often rejects the religious forms of his own inheritance (of which he may have limited understanding or experience) in favor of the symbols and practices of foreign religions, stripped of content.

This kind of cheap borrowing has so far escaped the leftist charge of “cultural appropriation,” though I don’t know why it should. Instead, it confers social status. Hence you’ll find statues of Buddha at the hip garden store and yoga magazines at the Whole Foods checkout counter but no reproductions of the Pietà or paperback copies of the Gospels.

The difference may amount to a tacit acknowledgement that Christianity is still too serious a subject for polite, post-Christian society. Buddha statues and yoga magazines are unthreatening. They offer a tingle of spiritual affirmation without making any specific demands. But the Cross is dangerous.

I recently heard someone use the “spiritual, not religious” phrase and it occurred to me that I am, instead, a “religious, not spiritual” person. I don’t know what might distinguish spiritual experience from any other kind of experience. I am not an otherworldly man. My idea of heaven is a little house, a patch of earth, woods to walk in, a shelf of books, a fireplace, and meals shared with family.

What may disqualify me for “spirituality” fits me naturally for religion – and particularly for traditional, sacramental Christianity. In the School of Gratitude that is the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, lessons are taught, as to children, with the aid of things like water, bread, wine, oil, music, stained glass, and incense, training us to apprehend a Reality that is both elusive and omnipresent.

Is it laughable that I believe a crucified Jew from Roman Palestine, who is also God, is present in the Eucharist? Is it absurd that I confess my sins, recite the Creed with conviction, pray for the dead, ask for the intercessions of the saints and believe that I receive them? Playing the fool may be a necessary part of religious education.

I am a slow learner. As a younger man, I would argue myself into all kinds of muddles, convinced that my objections to this or that point of doctrine were somehow important. You could say now (and not without some truth) that my mind is dulling with the years, but I find that practice is nurturing in me its own kind of understanding.

Macfarlane with Footnotes

~ Underland by Robert Macfarlane ~

I wrote a pretentious review of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways several years ago. I mostly enjoyed the book (a creative survey of old British byways) but complained of the author’s over-earnestness, squishy New Age spirituality, and ready indulgence in purple prose. And yet, I wrote (and here’s where I got pretentious), “I have some hope for his future work.”

Kind of a fool thing to say, isn’t it? These days Macfarlane is considered by more than a few people one of the great British nature writers. He has a significant fan-base, a cult almost. He wins awards, gets interviewed, is taken for an authority and a sort of guru. So, seven years on, I picked up a copy of his latest, Underland, which finds Macfarlane taking a page from John McPhee[1].

Trouble is, he’s still the same old Robert Macfarlane. He’s got a gift for choosing interesting topics, I grant. And he can tell a story (when he isn’t over-telling it). His prose is never boring, though it still smells a bit like a writer’s workshop exercise[2]. But he’s too self-consciously fashionable. He writes like somebody auditioning to give a TED talk.

The book is also too long, too full of needless quotations. And then there’s the Macfarlane squishiness, still there. The man seems to have no hard edges to his personality or point of view. When Macfarlane does deep, it feels remarkably shallow.

I don’t need to be an ass about it, of course. Why should I hope for Macfarlane to be something other or better than he is? Perhaps I shouldn’t. But (note to self) I don’t need to keep reading him either.



[1] Specifically, John McPhee’s Basin and Range and related volumes on geology, often referred to collectively as his Annals of the Former World. Some of Macfarlane’s better passages read like they were lifted from McPhee, though I make no accusations in that direction.

[2]A fair specimen of prose from the Underland chapter on caving in the Mendip Hills:

“Over field and down into bower of elder and old ash, moss plushing rock into soft gold-green. Follow the stream bed through gorse and bracken, setting fieldfares flaring to the west with chatter and crackle. Swallows skimming meadows on the fly, blowy warmth in a northeast wind. On and into the deep-set hollow, a last nod to the sun – to the light falling through leaves in nets, to the buzzards drifting over – and then we are down a hole in the stone-cold soil, worn to a swallet by the run of a stream, into the earth’s gullet, into the black bite of a polished stone-vice set carelessly and wondrously with the spirals of ammonites and the bullets of belemnites, and down into trouble.”

There are some interesting juxtapositions of sounds and images here, but the reader can’t find his footing. It’s like stumbling down a slope of pretty-colored boulders.

Pledging Allegiance

When he wrote that “You side with life only when you utter – with all your heart – a banality,” E.M Cioran was not recommending the uttering of banalities. He didn’t want to side with life. He was a bitter nihilist who worshiped suicide as an ideal.

I wonder how much of Cioran’s venom was sincere. “Like every iconoclast,” he also wrote, “I have broken my idols in order to offer sacrifices to their debris.” But where he derides, I applaud. In my bourgeois conventionality, I like the idea that a banal sentiment is a sort of pledge of allegiance to life.

Banality is closely allied to commonness, familiarity, ubiquitous repetition, – and after all life is that which repeats itself. Nature is the most banal thing in the world. The days and seasons turn and return. The chemical composition of most objects suggests cliché. Plants and animals are repeated in their offspring. Novelties, when they occur, end most of the time in extinction.

Therefore, standing upright and with my hand on my heart, I will gladly tell you that the view really is beautiful; that the weather is lovely today; that kids grow up too fast. Again and again I will tell my wife, “I love you.” May I never cease to utter, with all my heart, such banalities.

The Devil’s Due

~ All Gall is Divided by E.M. Cioran ~

You can thank or blame the translator for the title. The French original didn’t work in English, so he borrowed the first line of Caesar’s Gallic War (“Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”) and made a pun. Cioran had plenty of gall. He was a world-class nihilist and misanthropist. He was also an honorary Gaul, an ethnic Romanian born in Austria-Hungary who lived most of his life in France.

I much prefer Cioran’s later volume, The Trouble with Being Born (published the year of my own troubling birth), but there are at least a couple dozen memorable aphorisms here. If that seems few, well, it’s difficult to take very seriously someone who says, “I believe in the salvation of humanity, in the future of cyanide” but delays suicide until he finally dies of Alzheimer’s in his eighties.

While reading All Gall is Divided, I found several passages that seem to offer a commentary-from-a-distance on current affairs. I quote them below in italics, followed by my own reflections. It’s not that I want to talk politics. I believe I’m allergic to politics, but I sometimes indulge when I shouldn’t, like a lactose intolerant kid at an ice cream parlor.

“A philosophical vogue is as irresistible as a gastronomic one: an idea is no better refuted than a sauce.”

Fashions come and, thankfully, fashions go. Then, like mom jeans, the worst of them sometimes come back into style again. Watching old episodes of Seinfeld recently, I was impressed by how quaint and harmless the political correctness of the ‘90s was compared with today’s more virulent kind. Like spoiled meat hidden in a rich béchamel, this too will pass, but not until it’s made us all sick.

“The lamb’s aspiration to become a wolf brings about the majority of events. Those who have none dream of fangs…”

Some would sublimate revenge by calling it justice, but one way or another we will always have sheep and we will always have wolves. I’d rather file down the old wolf’s teeth a bit than trade him for a new one.

“In periods of peace, hating for the pleasure of hating, we must find the enemies which suit us; – a delicious task which exciting times spare us.”

We can’t do without war and must have Nazis at all costs. Better, in some respects, the enemy forced upon us from outside. By threatening us all at once, he shows us that we are still one people. In his absence, the narcissism of small differences begins to work and we suddenly discover that half the families on our block are sieg-heiling an idol of the Fuhrer round the dinner table.

“A statesman who shows no signs of senility is the one I am afraid of.”

The best political leader would nap half the day and putz around in a wheelchair, straining to raise his hand to sign the least piece of legislation. God save us from the young and vigorous champions of tomorrow and their fervent dreams of a better world.

“Whether out of inadvertence or incompetence, he who however briefly halts humanity on its march is humanity’s benefactor.”

Because hell is where we’re going when we all “progress” together. It’s the only place with a big enough ball room to accommodate so large a party.

Hell’s Tourist

Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn ~

Martha Gellhorn was a journalist and the third (and penultimate) wife of Ernest Hemingway. He makes an appearance as U.C. (Unwilling Companion) in the first chapter of this book, but nowhere else. If you ask me, I think Gellhorn is a better writer than her once-husband, but then I’ve never been a great admirer of “Papa” or his books.

The most memorable chapters of Gellhorn’s memoir describe “horror journeys” to China in the early years of WWII, through the Caribbean and upriver in dengue-plagued Suriname, across equatorial Africa for the hell of it, and to Soviet Moscow to visit the widow of poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in exile under Stalin.

Don’t read this book for a peek into the Hemingway/Gellhorn relationship. You won’t get much of one. Read it for Gellhorn’s great prose, her gift for narrating travelers’ miseries (reminiscent of Waugh), and her general spitfire outrageousness. They don’t make ‘em like Gellhorn anymore. She’s what they used to call a real dame: movie star looks, smart as a whip, scared of nothing.