Envy

January 11, 2011

I did not mention in my last blog post that Nicole Krauss happens to be married to Jonathan Safran Foer, the enormously successful author who completed his first novel, Everything is Illuminated, when he was just 25 years old (and has since gone on to write Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Eating Animals, and, just out in 2010, Tree of Codes).

I have never read an article about one of Krauss’s books that resists the temptation to drop Foer’s name; some have even used it as a headline. Krauss politely refuses to answer questions about her husband’s work in interviews, and for good reason. Her books are valuable in themselves, and hardly in need of endorsement: her first book, Man Walks Into a Room, was the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year, and Great House is a National Book Award Finalist.

Krauss has never expressed bitterness in regards to her husband’s successes, which may have contributed to my former naïvely romantic notions of writer couples (I also blame Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida)—notions that were rightfully startled after reading Kathryn Chetkovich’s essay “Envy.”

Seven and a half years ago, Chetkovich wrote an essay about the gnawing jealously she felt towards “the man” in her life, a man who whose book had just been published with excellent reviews. One can safely assume she was talking about her then-boyfriend Jonathan Franzen, who had just completed The Corrections. Seven years after Chetkovich, a struggling, little-known writer, wrote her essay, Franzen became the first author to appear on the cover of Time magazine in a decade: it seems her jealousy was warranted.

“Envy” is a well-written piece, and Chetkovich’s honesty and vulnerability are deeply admirable. She opens by describing “the stabs of dread familiar to all writers”: that is, reading the work of someone you know, and not only admiring it, but wishing you could claim it as your own. Oh yes. She then goes on to explain how she intentionally distanced herself to get back at Franzen, one of her methods of dealing with his rave reviews:

“As long as he wanted and didn’t quite have me, the logic went, we would be even, and I could stop feeling so outdone by what he had that I wanted.”

Surely Chetkovich’s oversimplification is intentional, emphasizing that this envy of hers is basic to her humanity. And her way of coping with jealousy, like mine so often, resembles  a preschooler’s reaction to a coveted toy spotted in the arms of a classmate. But Chetkovich gives another explanation for her jealousy, one seemingly unique to artists:

“My friends, trying to be helpful, had this to say: ‘I could never do that, be involved with a writer who was that much more successful than I was.’ But really: why not? Partly, I suppose, because a fellow writer’s success makes it that much harder to console oneself with thoughts of what Virginia Woolf called ‘the world’s notorious indifference’. The world, Woolf said, ‘does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them’…So when the man was merely gifted but not particularly rewarded I was comfortable; we were in it together, comrades in a world that didn’t care what we had to tell it.”

Chetkovich’s feelings, then, are not just envious; she is also mourning the loss of the special comradery that comes with shared failure.

I have not yet felt the ache of rejection (only because I have not given myself enough opportunity to), but I undoubtedly will someday soon, and I undoubtedly will have friends who succeed. So how does one deal with envy, that ugly ugly friend we thought we said goodbye to back in middle school?

Chetkovich’s answer is simple and somewhat disheartening:

I have met the circumstances that are larger than my capacity to be gracious, it turns out. I have come up against the limits of my goodness: someone I love has what I want, and he probably always will.

She goes on to share that she no longer bear to look at the covers of her boyfriend’s books, and she accepts her condition as inevitable. Is it?

I don’t want to live in a world where my capacity to be gracious remains stagnant, or where I can ease my troubled heart by calling my failure to love well (which happens every day) the “limits of my goodness.”

Chetkovich’s essay reminds me again of my desperate dependence upon this mysterious and precious promise, my hope in the face of recurring envy:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” – The Apostle Paul, Galatians 2:20

A kind of empathy

January 10, 2011

It has been harder than usual for me to write for the past couple of days; the books I am reading have put me in a melancholy daze that I haven’t been able to escape. I usually try to only read one sad book at a time; my mom taught me to supplement the longer, draining ones with lighter (but not necessarily less profound) ones. Of course, most books are complex, not fairly labeled “happy” or “sad,” but containing isolated moments that pile to evoke a spectrum of emotions. Nevertheless, somehow this week I have found myself in the middle of two very heavy books, and feeling gray.

I briefly mentioned Madeleine L’Engle’s Two-Part Invention in an earlier post: it is the story of her marriage, written as her husband is dying of cancer. (It vaguely reminds me of Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, another wrenching but powerfully-crafted story of a marriage and of grief). Fascinating, but terribly sad.

Nicole Krauss’s Great House is much more difficult to explain. Its sadness is duller, vaguer, and more mysterious. It is one of the most beautifully entangled novels I have read, and, like those of her previous book The History of Love, the characters within Great House are deeply relatable. (Though I think relatable is too casual a word; it is not that their circumstances are particularly relevant, but that their small, insignificant gestures carry such weight… such alarming ability to unite the reader to the characters). To my delight, yesterday I found an interview with Krauss conducted by Jeffery Brown of PBS’s “Art Beat,” in which she expresses this idea of a reader’s empathy well:

“I think I am who I am because of the books that I read, and I think of myself still as first and foremost a reader and then following that a writer…I do feel like I’ve staked my life on this, which is this idea that literature affords us this absolutely unique possibility in no other moment in life. Really, I think again in no other art form can you step so directly, so vividly without any mediation into another’s inner life. You are stepping fully into this stream of what it is to be another person. And I think when you do that, you inevitably form a kind of compassion. It teaches a kind of empathy.”

This “inevitable compassion” is both one of reading’s richest gifts and one of its bitterest burdens. I used to get upset when my mom would refuse to read a book because “it just makes me too sad.” I would retort, “But means it is doing its job!” (Not to say that sadness is the chief emotion a book should evoke…but no one ever complains that a book makes them “too joyful” or “too optimistic”.) And even though I still believe that a book should never be discarded on the basis of provoking an undesirable emotion, it’s just one of those weeks when I understand what my mom meant.

(For the record, I still think Great House is excellent so far. It has been a while since I have been so excited about a new book, and there is something especially exhilarating about reading an author who is alive, who is young, who is possibly writing something new this very moment.)

Literary Confrontation

January 6, 2011

Last night I began reading Nicole Krauss’s new book Great House. I have found that, late at night, reading is one of the only methods that consistently succeeds in lulling me to sleep (ironic, because I am rarely bored by a book). I decided on Great House because the other book on my nightstand, Madeleine L’Engle’s Two-Part Invention, is too sad to read at night.

Well, it was a poor decision. Parts of Great House are told from the perspective of Nadia, a middle-aged writer who recently divorced her husband. And as I read page after page of Nadia’s rambling thoughts, a familiar dread came over me: the dread that comes when I am introduced to a character who is exactly the woman I am afraid of becoming. It is a rare feeling, but a jarring one, and I wonder at what age I will stop worrying about my “future self.” On the infrequent occasion I read a suspense or mystery novel, the sly murderess never evokes this panic in me—it’s always the halfway decent (at least on the outside) woman, the woman with a family and friends and a job. The first time I ever met such a character was about 3 years ago, when I read Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. I was terrified by how much of myself I saw in April Wheeler, the desperately selfish wife and mother who convinces herself that she will be happy if only she can get herself to Europe.

And now, meeting Nadia, I see that same perverse selfishness, but manifested in a seemingly more mature and artistic way:

“And as we spoke a picture of myself emerged and developed…a picture of someone who made use of the pain of others for her own ends, who, while others suffered, starved, and were tormented, hid herself safely away and prided herself on her special perceptiveness and sensitivity to the symmetry buried below things…a picture of someone so selfish and self-absorbed that she had been unconcerned enough about her husband’s feelings to give him not even a fraction of the care and attention she gave to imagining the emotional lives of people she sketched out on paper, to furnishing their inner lives, taking pains to adjust the light in their faces, brushing a stray hair from their eyes.”

As someone who loves writing, I have always been curious about the line between reality and imagination. I have seen how alluring fictitious worlds can be, and much of me is afraid of being so invested in my writing that I fail at living. So now, what to do? How is one to react when coming across a character who is too frightening to simply judge or categorize? When I finished Revolutionary Road, I don’t think I wrote about April Wheeler for weeks, though I remember talking about her with a friend who was similarly shaken by the book. Last night, I was tempted to stop reading Great House, to save Nadia for another time in my life when I had the energy to wrestle her. And then I remembered a sentence I had copied from George MacDonald’s Phantastes earlier this year:

“The best way to manage some kinds of painful thoughts is to dare them to do their worst; to let them lie and gnaw at your heart till they are tired; and you find you still have a residue of life they cannot kill.”

So I have decided to do just that. I will record Nadia’s worst thoughts (“worst” in this case will probably mean those that most closely resemble my own thoughts), and let them gnaw at my heart for a while. I am not sure what the next step will be, but it will probably involve reminding myself that Nadia is not the writer, but a writer. She is not the inevitable end of every young girl who gets lost in books. I suspect my fears might be assuaged simply by re-reading a writer I admire, whether another character or a real author, and letting their words gnaw at me too. Already, Madeleine L’Engle comes to mind—and it’s always an exciting moment when two very different books, both on my nightstand, first begin to interact.