Just how “scary” is it to live next to North Korea?

 

It’s been a month now since the news of Otto Warmbier’s horrific fate. I was part distraught, part fascinated by the footage of the sturdy-looking college student breaking down in tears before the North Korean authorities. Where the hell were they going to take him? What was he doing all those months afterwards? No photos exist of him in prison. The only photos that came after that dreaded court sentence are of him in a coma, with a breathing apparatus over his mouth.

 

A few days later he was dead.

 

I can understand why a story like this terrifies people – especially Americans – about North Korea. It sounds like a land where those who enter never return, even if they’re supposedly on a guided tour. Like some twilight zone of terror and human trafficking. The mysteriousness that surrounds it makes it all that scarier. It also makes for sensational news stories that people will read.

 

A question I get a lot is, “Wasn’t it scary to live next to North Korea?” My sister who still lives in South Korea today has also gotten this question from concerned people back in the US. Our mom bears the brunt of it. It’s usually her friends and colleagues who are worried. Sometimes it’s even made her worried. Sometimes.

 

Isn’t it scary to live next to a country with a blood bathed regime that is constantly threatening to blow you up?

 

Well, yeah, if you put it that way, it’s a little unnerving. I will admit that reality hung over me at times like a cloud, rumbling just enough to remind me it was there. It was stressful to read American (and British) news and see that North Korea was the headline story. And to tell people, “it’s all okay, nothing will happen” – you have to wonder how much you believe yourself versus how much you are trying to tell yourself, and of course tell them in order to comfort them.

 

But for the most part, I rarely even thought of North Korea while I lived in South Korea.

 

Basically it works like this: Life carries on, and you have to have to carry on with it. Your brain has this marvelous capacity to shut off certain imminent fears that you can do absolutely nothing about. You need to be able to wake up in the morning, go to work, have relationships, laugh, go to the movies, solve mundane problems and cook dinner. You have to think about the future and make plans based on what is rational and what is likely. Writing up a will for if you are blown to bits by North Korea is not as rational as saving money for your next vacation. Because the honest truth is, an attack from North Korea, however possible, is not likely.

 

I’m no whiz at foreign affairs, but you learn stuff by default, by osmosis, when you’re living in a certain country that concerns such affairs. You learn by hearing and observing what your South Korean colleagues are saying (or not saying). You find yourself studying the issue without realizing it because it’s of natural interest to you. You talk to some people in the US military and you get a feel for what’s going on. Not expert knowledge, but at least a feel.

 

And this is basically the answer to the “Aren’t-You-Scared-Of-North-Korea” question I’ve come up with over the last 5 years, of living in South Korea and in the US since:

 

If North Korea attacks the US or vice versa, there will be an ugly war and probably millions of deaths. No one wants that.   So there will be threats, there will be talk, but actual action is unlikely.

 

I know, it’s way oversimplified. I could go into more detail to explain how and what I mean by that – I could go into the dynamics that China and Japan play, or the shadowy world of North Korean politics. But like I said, I’m not an expert at all and that’s stuff you can find out for yourself if you care enough to research. This is simply the most logical conclusion I’ve come to that I have at the ready for when people ask me. Because they keep asking. I lived in South Korea, but in a lot of ways North Korea is more famous. Infamous. Oh well.

 

South Koreans, to put it frankly, are really too enmeshed in their own lives to seem bothered by the North. And they’re not enmeshed in trivial stuff, either. South Korean politics are pretty controversial and there was way more outrage about President Park Gun Hye and all her crooked deeds than there ever was about Fat Boy Kim. South Koreans do care about their neighbors across the border, but they seem to care way more about their own quality of life, political rights and immediate problems.   In my 4.5 years in South Korea I don’t recall a single South Korean person bringing up the situation with North Korea.

 

You have to wonder, though: Even though everyone is carrying on like life is normal, are they really not scared deep down?

 

So I have a confession to make. A year or two ago I got on Quora (always a bad idea if you’re not an professional at something) and I answered a question that went something like this: “Are South Korean people afraid of an attack by North Korea?”

 

I thought I had this one in the bag. I lived in South Korea, surely that gave me street cred, right? So rather arrogantly, without thinking, I wrote something like this: “No one in South Korea is worried about North Korea. They are too busy with their own lives!” I committed the cardinal sin of using an absolute statement.

 

A couple days went by, and a Quora user with equal street cred and a much more genteel background got on and called me out on this. “That is simply not true, how can you say no one cares or is worried…” he responded. I got a little dressing-down that day, in professional Quora-style. I made the most dignified acknowledgment I could and thought twice ever after about every comment I made in the public sphere.

 

Of course that person had a point: how could I know what all South Koreans were thinking deep inside? How could I know that any of them weren’t scared?

 

I would have to meet all 50 million South Koreans to answer that question accurately. I have assume that some of them do have worries. In the end, I can only speak from my own experience, and my experience – for what it’s worth – is that the South Koreans I knew were too busy with their own personal lives and messed up politics too worry about North Korea that much. If they did worry, they never talked about it. Not with me, anyway.

 

In fact, Yun Ho was less worried about North Korea than I was. We started dating in spring of 2013. Shortly afterwards the joint US-South Korea military training procedures began and that year the tensions were high. Every day BBC was featuring stories about the Dear Leader’s wrath and the regime’s hissy fits and threats of, “You had better stop this or else-!

 

It was getting to the point that the US government (overbearingly protective as usual) started suggesting that its citizens consider evacuating in case of an attack. I was distraught at the idea of leaving Yun after we had just started dating. I was even more distraught at the idea of him putting on his uniform and going into the reserve troops to fight. It sort of became this romantic, World War II situation that I was imagining myself a part of – now that I look at it in hindsight.

 

“Nothing’s going to happen,” Yun told me patiently. “This sort of thing happens all the time. There’s a big to-do, but nothing actually happens.

 

And he was right. Nothing did happen. I and my jittery fellow expats calmed down and got used to the routine.  Years passed and the joint military training started up again each spring. More threats. More talk of nuclear stuff. The factory in Kaesong shut down, DMZ tours would be suspended from time to time but otherwise, everything stayed the same. Yun was much more concerned about democracy in Seoul than in Pyongyang.   The South may look like a utopian paradise compared to the North, but beneath the shiny veneer is a lot of social and political ugliness. I got familiar with that ugliness as time went on and the problems of South Korea and my own personal life were at the forefront of my consciousness. I didn’t have time to also worry about North Korea.

 

Of course, that is still no guarantee that North Korea will not do something horrific. They could. Deep down, every South Korean knows this. Every able South Korean male has to commit to a minimum of two year’s military service to help the country prepare in case such an attack should happen. Above all, the South Korean soldiers are aware of the situation and they, if no one else, have to think about it. It all goes back to that survive and thrive instinct – life goes on. A bomb may go off but you can’t let that stop you from biking along the Han River or heading out the store for more kimchi, or getting married or cramming for the college entrance exam or hanging out in a game café with your friends.   Your brain knows how to be logical about this stuff, even if you don’t. You will go through the motions without even realizing it.

 

Over ten years ago I worked in a candy store. One day an Israeli couple came in. I was picking their brains and asking all about Israel and whether it was safe to go.

 

“Oh not right now!” the guy said. “Way too crazy right now.”

 

“Oh,” I said, a little disheartened. “How about a few months from now?”

 

“More like, two weeks from now.”

 

“But what about you two,” I pressed. “Aren’t you scared of the danger?”

 

They looked at each other and smiled. “No problem for us,” he told me. “You come visit in two weeks, but for us, it’s no big deal. We’re used to this shit.”

 

Now that I’ve lived in South Korea I think I understand what that couple was talking about. Israel is a dicier place than Korea, but the point remains.   Things usually look worse from the outside than they do on the inside. And even though there still is a real threat hanging overhead you have to carry on for sanity’s sake. You get used to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

 

It’s not easy to find novels about North Korea.

A Creative Writing professor from Stanford took a stab at it.  His name – Adam Johnson – is almost as American as apple pie a la mode but he did a pretty good job with The Orphan Master’s Son.

Johnson certainly was going for “epic” and his story sweeps a span of time and space beginning in the humble countryside that no one in North Korea ever sees and ending in the fantastical capital of Pyongyang.  There is love, there is hope, there’s blood and guts and glory, tragedy and horror.  There is also comedy – extremely dark comedy, of course.

Pak Jun Do is not an orphan, but he might as well be.  He works at an orphanage called Long Tomorrows under the management of a cruel and neglectful father.  Even his name Jun Do (“John Doe,” get it?) is a generic name taken from a roster of famous orphans.  The original Pak Jun Do was famed for loyalty.   His namesake, the hero of our story, lives up to it by being one of the most loyal and humble citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Jun Do rises through the ranks pretty quickly.  From professional kidnapper to a spy intercepting radio transmissions aboard a fishing boat he seems to make the most out of life and is uncorrupted by wealth or rewards.  “You’re a guy who doesn’t need much,” one friend remarks, “but when it comes to other people, the sky’s the limit.”

Jun Do’s bold and brave exploits land him a diplomatic mission to Texas to visit a senator and reclaim from the Americans something valued they took from the Dear Leader himself.  The mission takes some unexpected turns, and by the end of it, Jun Do disappears.  When he re-emerges, he is no longer Jun Do.  He is Commander Ga.

This is when the novel gets crazy.  In a mostly good way.   The first part of the novel (“The Biography of Jun Do”) is a straightforward narrative, but the second part (“The Confessions of Commander Ga”) is a series of events and crescendos building on one another with more and more significant recurring themes about identity, truth, and purpose – you know, ultimate issues kind of stuff.  Jun Do, now Commander Ga, has allegedly killed and assumed the identity of one of North Korea’s most formidable men.  He takes his place in the city of Pyongyang and has a chance to be close to the woman he loves: Commander Ga’s widow, the famous actress Sun Moon.  He also has to save Sun Moon before she’s snatched away by the greedy and lustful Dear Leader himself.

(Yes, Kim Jong Il is an actual character in this book.  And he even has a few appropriately outrageous lines, such as the following:  “This is the gui-tar.  It’s used to perform American rural music…It’s also the instrument of choice for playing ‘the blues,’ which is a form of American music that chronicles the pain caused by poor decision making.”)

The story of Commander Ga in Part 2 is interwoven with two other points of view.  The first, rather brilliantly, is a loudspeaker blasting its own propagandized version of Commander Ga’s story, beginning each day like an old time radio show: “Citizens, gather round…!”  It’s an almost theatrical motif you could imagine in a musical production.   The second point of view follows a nameless interrogator who is holding important characters in prison.  His kind and truth-seeking character is a foil to the unspeakably cruel people he works with – particularly a woman named Q-Kee who is the embodiment of the ruthless North Korean version of the Gestapo.

It can get confusing if you don’t read carefully.  The interrogator’s story happens in a different sequence of time from the story of Commander Ga and the propagandized version, of course, may or may not have happened at all.  There are a lot of shadowy characters who pop up and may or may not come back later.   Commander Ga himself does not seem to be sure who he really is or what his destiny is, for that matter.  But the loose ends are more or less tied up at the end, and whatever isn’t is left tantalizingly to the imagination.  If some of the major philosophical themes weren’t so subtle this could be a stunning opera.  Or a Hollywood thriller.   But the subtle and shadowy stuff makes it good.

Perhaps one of the most brilliantly strange things that Johnson manages to do is have a running reference in the story to Casablanca – Commander Ga and the actress Sun Moon are compared to Rick and Elsa falling in love in a dangerous and unstable situation.  Jun Do alias Commander Ga certainly is the melancholic lone wolf type who is bound in the end to do the right thing.  His love for Sun Moon is a bit larger than life and never really explained – but perhaps it’s because she reminds him of his beautiful mother who was a singer kidnapped to Pyongyang.  The haunting loss of his mother is perhaps the only real reason why he is mad enough to stay in North Korea when all his comrades are trying to escape:

How to tell [him] that the only way to shake your ghosts was to find them, and that the only place Jun Do could do that was right here.  How to explain the recurring dream that he’s listening to his radio, that he’s getting the remnants of important messages, from his mother, from other boys in the orphanage…His mother wants to get urgent messages to him where she is, she wants to tell him why, she keeps repeating her name over and over, though he can’t quite make it out.  How to explain that in Seoul, he knows, the messages would stop.

Of course when Jun Do – Commander Ga – meets Sun Moon he has a new reason to stay in North Korea.  But there are still ghosts everywhere in this story.  Ghosts of characters who die and vanish.  Ghosts of characters you never meet, like Jun Do’s mother.  Even living characters can seem ghostly at times.   As the narrator says at one point, “It was easy to make somebody disappear in North Korea.  But making them reappear – who has that kind of magic?”

As bizarre and surreal as the story gets at times, I think Johnson’s “ghostly” vibe running through the Orphan Master’s Son is a fitting one.  As hard as one tries to get the facts on North Korea, to the outside world it remains one of the ghostliest of places.  We can only imagine it’s ghostly on the inside too.

My Long Goodbye to Korea

 

It’s been 6 months since Yun and I returned to the United States.  Seeing my parents outside the Phoenix Sky Harbor gate around midnight, with bleary eyes but smiling faces was a déjà vu experience.  Had I really been living in another country for 4 and a half years or was I just coming back from a trip to Disneyland?    Was this really “home for good,” or was this just another stage in part of a bigger journey?   

There were so many things to look forward to back in Arizona.  Blue skies and Mexican food, for one.  Yun would be able to pursue his career.  I would finally be able to spend Christmas with my family again.  Of course I was happy to be back.  Even so, I’d heard many tales about other expats who had a hard time transitioning out of the life in Korea.  They would often talk of the dreaded “reverse culture shock.”

The comments of these fellow expats raised questions in my mind.  Would I feel like I “belonged” or would my hometown feel alien somehow?    Would I be able to find a job?   Would the food be too greasy and salty?  One expat in some literary article spoke of suffocating isolation in his small hometown and complained that he didn’t like how personal and chatty servers in American restaurant were.  Fine, that was just silly.  But still.

It turned out my fears were mostly in vain.

The confidence I gained while living and working in Korea made my post-Korea experience in Arizona very different.  I got a job, a car and an apartment within one month of being back.  I wasn’t scared to go places and talk to people after almost 5 years of living in one of the most densely populated places on the planet.  Having lots of prior work experience made it much easier to adapt to new demands and situations at my new job.   And there was no language barrier either!

There were other more surprising ways in which Korea made life easier back in Arizona.  Hearing other languages like Spanish or Chinese at the grocery store wasn’t intimidating.  I was used to hearing a language I didn’t (fully) understand and I became much more sympathetic to expats living in the US after knowing what it was like to be one in Korea.  It wasn’t a conscious highhanded decision.  It was a natural reaction after living and traveling in foreign countries for a long time.  The world didn’t seem as big and overwhelming – just different wherever you went, which was part of the fun.

I thought about Korea, but I focused on the present situation and kept my head down and moved forward.  My brain seemed to be compartmentalizing: That was Korea, that’s what you did then – now you’re in Arizona, this is what you do now.  Yun bought some Korean ingredients at an Asian foods market and I bought seaweed crackers from Costco, but otherwise our diet was American.  We talked only once in a while about our memories in Korea.   Yun now spoke English to strangers and co workers.  It was sort of like living in another lifetime.

Sometimes I would remember Korea and it seemed like a dream.  Other times it seemed very real.  At about the 3 month point I began to miss Korea and felt pangs of nostalgia and bittersweetness about the places and people.  Leaving behind expat friends wasn’t as painful because I knew eventually they would leave too.  They weren’t part and parcel of it.  But the mountains, the cherry blossoms, the food, the lantern festivals, the neon lights, the music, and the Korean people were.

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My old route to work.

One of my favorite characters in fiction, Philip Marlowe, said, “to say goodbye is to die a little.”  Appropriately enough that comes from the novel The Long Goodbye.

Leaving Korea felt like a long goodbye.  Yun and I had planned for months how we would apply for his visa, send our things home, and travel Asia on our savings.  I knew Korea wasn’t “home,” but it had still become a part of me.  Even during our planning I couldn’t become detached from Korea.  The time went by faster than I’d hoped.  There would never be enough of it to explore the city, the countryside, and to eat another bowl of haejang gook.  Each year living there went by faster than the last.

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This is one of the things I’ll miss the most.

It seems natural for people to preserve their psyches by not thinking about what’s beyond their control.  If saying goodbye really does kill a little part of you then better not to dwell on it.  But did saying goodbye to Korea kill a part of me?  That sounds so…tragic.

Perhaps it’s the opposite.  Cheesy as it sounds, perhaps there’s a part of me that wasn’t there before thanks to Korea.  I’m a fuller person with a heart that belongs to two places.  Leaving Korea was sad, but it’s cool to know there’s a place on the other side of the world that is now comforting and familiar.  I can’t really imagine never going back.  Perhaps it’s not truly “goodbye” – it may well just be goodbye for now.

The Most Famous Book in the Philippines (and why it’s awesome)

Not many countries have a national hero who wrote good fiction.  

The Philippines got lucky – they have Jose Rizal. Rizal was only 26 years old when he wrote his magnum opus and sowed the seeds of a revolution. 130 years later, 3rd years in Filipino high schools are still reading it.

That book is none other than Noli Mi Tangere.

Imagine if George Washington or MLK wrote a novel describing the current situation in America and the need for justice with the imagination and irony of Charles Dickens.   Or if Gandhi did the same thing in India in the early 20th century. It would be a pretty big deal, right?

I read Noli expecting it would be an “educational” experience. It was that, but it was also entertaining, funny, tragic, operatic, and so many other things I was not expecting.

If there is one “definitive” novel you want to read in, on or about the Philippines, this is it.

Noli begins with a dinner party in the house of Captain Tiago, a wealthy Filipino who enjoys hosting and impressing others:

…at the time Captain Tiago was considered one of the most hospitable of men, and it was well known that his house, like his country, shut its doors against nothing except commerce and all new or bold ideas.

 The most hostile enemies to these “new ideas” are the friars, the de facto rulers of the towns – and the most hostile and tyrannical of these friars is Padre Damaso.   Padre Damaso is one of Captain Tiago’s guests and enjoys being a VIP and having the last word on everything. The tides turn when the captain introduces a special new guest: his future son-in-law, Chrisostomo Ibarra.

Ibarra is a kind and idealistic young man who has been studying in Europe and dreams of opening a schoolhouse. He also looks forward to marrying his lovely fiancée, Maria Clara and settling down to a happily ever after. The fates, of course, have other ideas.

Ibarra learns that there is something sinister behind his father’s death, and that Padre Damaso is a part of it. Padre Damaso happens to also be Maria Clara’s godfather and does not approve of Ibarra’s progressive views. The two are enemies from day one.

Ibarra tries to be a peacemaker and a compromiser, but the more he sees of the Filipinos’ inequality and the oppression under the dominion of the friars, the more conflicted he becomes. A mysterious new friend, Elias, tells Ibarra that bloodshed and revolution is the only realistic answer. Ibarra does everything he can to hold out and hope for a more peaceful path, but he finds himself at a center of controversy and persecution all the same.

If Ibarra is a tragic hero following the old Greek model, his crucial failing would be optimism. “Couldn’t a worthy enterprise make its way over everything, since truth doesn’t need to borrow garments from error?” he asks Tasio, the local sage, at one point.

To which Tasio replies, “Nobody loves the naked truth!”

Ouch. Reality bites.

Is Rizal saying that preemptive bloodshed and violence is the only solution? That would be ironic, because Rizal himself wrote this political novel as an alternative to bloodshed. What’s even more chilling is the fact that in the character of Ibarra Rizal prophesied his own fate. Just a few years after Noli was released, Rizal was accused of plotting and sedition and brought before the court.

The most triumphant aspect of Noli Mi Tangere is not the political dialogue but the variety of memorable characters and the vivid scenes that reveal 19th century Philippine life under the tyranny of the friars.

We visit a belfry where we see two altar boys accused by the sacristan of a crime they didn’t commit, a cock fight where two young brothers gamble their money to escape their poverty, and a bombastic sermon in church by the blustering Padre Damaso that defies his followers to stay awake. We meet victims like the tormented madwoman Sisa , dreamers like Tasio the Sage who writes in a secret code for future generations, and villains like Padre Salvi who lusts after women in spite of his sickly and pompous disposition.

Charles Dickens himself would be hard pressed to outdo characters like the terrible Doña Consolación with her whip and the comical Doña Victorina with her awful fashion statements – and their hapless husbands who get dragged into their hateful rivalry.

If Rizal was exaggerating the virtues, vices and contrasts of his characters, it could not have been by much, because his novel hit a note and sent the country reeling. Noli Mi Tangere means “Touch Me Not,” in Latin, and Rizal said that the contents of his novel were so sensitive and so controversial that no one up until that point in time was willing to “touch” them. The novel was the match that lit the powder keg and inspired the Filipino people to fight for their freedom. Nine years later, Rizal paid for the aftermath with his life in front of a firing squad.

Now that the Philippines is a free and much more prosperous country today, however – and thanks in part to Jose Rizal – there is no reason you shouldn’t touch Noli Mi Tangere.   It’s not every day you find a novel about justice, freedom, revenge, romance and secret identity that also shaped the history of a nation.

Mother-Loving Sons: This May Be the Last DH Lawrence Novel I Read For a While

DH Lawrence was a really weird dude.

I held my breath in reserve over the last two months as I journeyed through three of his most famous novels: The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Sons and Lovers. Now I can finally exhale and release a few spasmodic gas pains as I reel slightly from a head rush.

It’s not that Lawrence doesn’t have talent or interesting things to say. He has plenty of that. He can look at human relationships within the context of a changing culture and at a personal, nitty-gritty perspective at the same time. He can make you uncomfortable. He can make you realize, “Oh, I’ve had that experience too.” He can make you think about politics, God, art, sex, marriage and wonder if you got it right. But man, he is weird.

I officially concluded this after finishing his quasi-autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers.

Sons and Lovers starts out as an intimate look into the life of a dysfunctional family: the Morels. Mrs. Morel and Mr. Morel ain’t exactly happy. It seems like they spend more time hurling accusations and pieces of furniture at each other than they do conversing. In spite of this Mrs. Morel finds out she’s pregnant with a third kid and bitterly resigns herself to the fate. The reader wonders, how the hey do people end up in these crappy situations to begin with? Seriously.

This is the brilliant part about Lawrence. He gives his readers the backstory on all his important characters, and over an arc of time we see how their personalities and choices form their eventual lives – for better or for worse.

Just take the Morels as an example. Mrs. Gertrude Morel as a young woman is intrigued by Walter Morel’s affable easy manners and excellent dance moves. Walter Morel is struck by Gertrude’s sophisticated airs.   Unfortunately Gertrude Morel is a serious, intellectual type of woman who expects too much out of her simplistic and even brutish spouse who supports his family as a coal miner while getting tippled on the side as often as he can. Soon Mr. Morel turns abusive. Newly married warm and fuzzies grow cold and brittle.   Poor Mrs. Morel, in early 20th century England, doesn’t have many options at this point.

Enter the chillins’.

Mrs. Morel’s sole joy is life soon becomes her four offspring. She especially has a soft spot for her sons, as she seeks to mold them into the men her husband should have been. Oh the psychological family drama begins in earnest now.

Son #1, William, brings home an uppity city girl who is modern parlance is something of a “poser.” Mom doesn’t approve, but has a fascinatingly diplomatic way of keeping the peace and using her gentle prompting questions to undermine her son’s commitment to his shallow girlfriend. We’re excited to see things play out, but tragedy strikes and Mrs. Morel is forced to shift the bulk of her hopes and affections on Son #2, Paul.   The other two chillins’, Annie and Arthur, get married and begin their own mundane journeys and that leaves Paul to be the center of his mother’s microcosm and the ultimate protagonist of the story.

Now things get angsty.

Paul has a crush on his childhood sweetheart Miriam, but Mrs. Morel doesn’t approve at all. Miriam is what you could call the opposite of down-to-earth: she fancies herself “a princess turned swine girl” and is waiting for the perfect relationship to come along that is all metaphysical and no physical. She and Paul are “lovers” for a number of years, even though they hardly even hold hands.   Paul is sexually frustrated (no kidding) and Mom uses his frustrated outbursts to let her son know she thinks Miriam’s not good enough.

Enter Clara.

It wouldn’t be a DH Lawrence novel without a bit of scandal, and that’s why we have the married suffragist Clara Dawes who is currently exploring life apart from her overbearing husband Baxter. Clara is sexy and beautiful like Miriam, but she’s also sexual and Paul finds this a welcome relief. They enter headlong into a passionate yet sad affair as Mrs. Morel looks on with a reserved sort of knowingness.

So which woman is Paul going to ultimately go for: his eccentric soul mate or the wordly modern woman? Apparently neither one, as long as Mrs. Morel is still alive.

“But no, mother. I even love Clara, and I did Miriam; but to give myself to them in marriage I couldn’t. I couldn’t belong to them. They seem to want me, and I can’t ever give it to them.”

 “You haven’t met the right woman.”

 “And I never shall meet the right woman while you live,” he said.

 Oh, that sneaky, baffling, twisted, sympathetic Mrs. Morel. She might be my favorite character (or least unfavorite character) in the story, if only because of those qualities. Does she truly want her son to be happy with the right girl, or is she reading from a stock script to throw her son off the scent? Is she even aware of her own twisted motives?

I really hate to use the term Freudian. It sounds so cliché and overused and even outdated. But as far as I can tell, Freudian is exactly what we’ve got going on in Sons and Lovers. We get whiffs of it in early childhood when Paul Morel is sad his mom is going to sleep in her husband’s bed after they have a fight. We get a taste of it when we read how Paul and his mother are on a holiday, “feeling the excitement of lovers having an adventure together.”   And even the staunchest deniers can’t help but raise their eyebrows when a distraught Mrs. Morel utters between sobs as she clings to Paul, “And I’ve never- you know, Paul – I’ve never had a husband – not really –.”

Wow.

So, is this a story about incest or what?

Not exactly. DH Lawrence was scandalous by early 20th century standards, but not so much by early 21st ones.   So no, there’s no epic Oedipal tragedy here where Paul sleeps with his mom and stabs his own eyes out (sorry if that spoils things).   But you could say there’s a more subtle tragedy in the way Paul’s over-attachment to his mother affects his relationship with other women.  Ironic family dynamics affecting future generations are something we can all relate to, for sure.

But in true Lawrence fashion, his characters are a bit off the wall. And by that I mean they are almost as weird as he is.

Let’s take Miriam, the “swine girl princess,” Paul’s platonic lover. Even though Paul treats her like crap at times while they’re growing up together Miriam believes they are destined to be together. She’s not interested in sex or even marriage necessarily, but still somehow thinks Paul will come round to her lofty terms and they two will become one in soul as they talk about books and religion all day long.   Sounds romantic, right? And during the times that Paul becomes so frustrated with her that he has to leave for weeks and months at a time she sits around blithely with no inkling of a concern that he might actually never come back! Miriam could stand to read a few self-help books on male-female relationships.

Then there’s Clara, the suffragist. When you first meet Clara you think, “Oh cool, the modern woman who will put her foot down and reign in some of Paul’s wishy-washiness– this is it!”   But Clara ends up as a sideshow, basically to feed Paul’s physical cravings while his spiritual, emotional and metaphysical cravings continue to be all over the place. Clara is “not deep, not a bit,” and Paul likes it that way.

Now to the main attraction. Paul Morel is probably the most confusing person in the whole book, and since he also gets the most stage time, that makes for some rather confused readers. Does he want to get married? Does he want to live with his mom forever? Does he have any healthy relationships with men at all, and is that part of the problem? Poor Paul doesn’t seem quite able to figure himself out, and that accounts for some of his crankiness towards other people. Some, mind you. He seems to “hate” a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, and in fact…

I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel full of so much hatred

I counted the word “hate” in Sons and Lovers over 110 times.   The swordsman Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride comes to mind: “You keep using that word – I do not think it means what you think it means.”

At some point in Sons and Lovers, almost every character hates someone else. Mrs. Morel hates her husband and her sons’ girlfriends. Paul hates Clara’s husband and he hates Paul. Paul has momentary feelings of hatred for Clara and vice versa. But no one hates anyone as much as Paul hates Miriam – and of course that’s because Miriam knows Paul better than anyone. Paul hates Miriam when she’s gathering flowers, when she makes his mom jealous, when she struggles to learn algebra, when she’s being his “conscience.” There’s basically not a time that Paul is not hating Miriam.

“Frequently he hated Miriam. He hated her as she bent forward and pored over his things. He hated her way of patiently casting him up, as if he were an endless psychological account.

Half the time he grieved for her, half the time he hated her. She was his conscience; and he felt , somehow, he had got a conscience that was too much for him. 

There was a long battle between him and her. He was utterly unfaithful to her even in her own presence; then he was ashamed, then repentant; then he hated her, and went off again. Those were the ever-recurring conditions.

 I could go on but I think you get the point.

Understandably, we can forgive Miriam when she in turn has a few moments of hating Paul.

But why, why all this anguish?! Is what I was subconsciously asking over and over as I neared the end of the novel but the characters hadn’t neared the end of their own struggles. I seriously want to whip these people in the face with their own soiled handkerchiefs. I know, I’m not being sympathetic enough. If I came from a dysfunctional family I would understand, and I don’t.

I do understand illuminating passages like this, where Lawrence shines the spotlight on human nature at its core:

The pity was, she (Mrs. Morel) was too much his (Mr. Morel’s) opposite. She could not be content with the little he might be; she would have him the much he ought to be. So, in seeking to make him nobler than he could be, she destroyed him.

Oh snap, remember the famous adage that women think they can change men? Perhaps this is where it all began to go wrong, and the battered Mrs. Morel is in some ways the perpetrator.

Sons and Lovers is a great novel if you’re looking for “Freud Lite” and want a closer glimpse at – and understanding of – tortured human relationships. This is one of those books, in fact, where the conversation (or even memory) afterwards might be more memorable than the reading itself.   If tortured human relationships and the gratuitous use of the word “hate” are not your thing, then consider Elizabeth Gaskell or anyone else pre-1890’s and definitely stay away from DH Lawrence.

For me, reading DH Lawrence is like cooking with cayenne pepper powder: it gives some great startling sensations and wakens my faculties, but if I eat (read) too much at once I’ll burn out. I know because I learned that the hard way.

7 Things to know about Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell is not exactly a household name, but perhaps it should be. Wives and Daughters is a great novel and personally, more enjoyable than anything I’ve read by Charles Dickens who happens to be much more famous. (I know, let the flame wars begin). So, if like most people you know nothing about “Mrs. Gaskell,” or if you are interested in learning more, here are 7 fascinating details.

1. Her childhood was a bit like Cinderella’s.

 

That’s right – the start of her life, not so much the end. She was the last of a series of children who had nearly all died in infancy. Her poor mother died herself of exhaustion soon after giving birth to her. Her father, perhaps out of resentment or pained memory, kept his distance and married again. To make it worse, her stepmother wasn’t exactly warm, either.

 

Things took another tragic turn when Elizabeth was 18. Her brother John was lost at sea, and her father also passed away. Luckily, she had an optimistic disposition and a foundation of happy childhood memories with her aunt.  She would go on to marry a handsome but rather austere minister, Mr. William Gaskell – not quite Prince Charming. Things started looking up after that, but Elizabeth’s trials weren’t over yet.

2. She started writing novels because her son died.

 

Who says housewives can’t write novels? That’s “all” Elizabeth Gaskell was until her son William died at the mere age of 9 months. Gaskell already had 3 other children, but it was still a devastating blow. She fell into a bedridden state of depression.

 

Mr. Gaskell was a pretty cool husband, luckily. He knew that his wife was good at writing because she had already penned some short stories. He suggested she try writing a novel as a therapeutic way to distract herself. Mrs. Gaskell took her husband up on the challenge, and the result was Mary Barton – her first of many more writings to come.

3. She was good friends with Charlotte Brontë – and she even wrote her biography

 

Gaskell and Brontë are more opposite than alike at first glance. Gaskell was extroverted, sociable and matronly, while her more famous counterpart was introverted and single. In keeping with her sage and matronly nature, Gaskell gave some handy marriage advice to Brontë that led her to eventually wed her suitor, Arthur Bell Nicholls.

 

Apparently Charlotte Brontë’s father, Patrick Brontë also had a high opinion of Gaskell. After Charlotte’s death he approached Gaskell with the hope that she would write Charlotte’s biography. Gaskell did just that, and The Life of Charlotte Brontë is still read and widely studied by historians today. 100% transparent it is not, but it was a singular achievement at the time because it was a famous lady novelist writing about another famous lady novelist. It was also original in that Gaskell chose to focus on Brontë’s character and personal life over her works. The biography created some controversy at the time it debuted but perhaps that’s not surprising. It was about the life of Charlotte Brontë, after all.

 

4. She sometimes butted heads with Charles Dickens

 

Imagine trying to balance a work and personal relationship with the most formidable and popular writer in the nation. Somehow Gaskell managed to do so with Dickens, and she was a regular contributor to his magazine, Household Words. In fact, he was impressed enough with her storytelling skills to refer to her as, “My Dear Scheherazade.” Sounds like they were close.

 

That doesn’t mean their partnership was all peaches and cream, though. Apparently Dickens was always wanting to edit and change her writing to suit his own preferences and at one point in total frustration declared, “If I were Mr. G, oh heavens, how I would beat her!”

 

Hopefully Mr. G never got wind of that.

 

      5. She loved people.

 

In 1850 the Gaskells moved into a picturesque Neoclassical home at 84 Plymouth Grove.   In a surviving letter to a friend, a giddy Gaskell gushes about how excited she is to make the place her own.   It seems she did, because soon she had a steady stream of visitors.

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84 Plymouth Grove today.  I would definitely invite people over if I lived here.

 

84 Plymouth became the sight for many parties and entertaining gatherings of luminaries and intellectual folk from near and far. In addition to Brontë and Dickens Gaskell also hosted Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Norton, Charles Hallé and John Ruskin. And for what it’s worth, she was also friends with Florence Nightingale.

6. Her novels became famous because they tackled subjects other authors avoided.

 

Gaskell’s debut novel Mary Barton raised several eyebrows as the subject matter dealt up close and personal with illegitimate childbirth and the inner life of a working class woman. Her novel Ruth was explored the seduction and downfall of a poor seamstress. Such subject matter written from the point of view of a woman was rather new territory at the time and in spite of some critical voices, it helped her books to sell well indeed.

 

Gaskell was very much preoccupied with helping the poorer and lower classes, and made a point of making personal visits to such people often.  She worked hard to represent the situations of the lower classes in her works, and to recreate their different accents and dialects authentically.

7. She lived life to the fullest.

 

When Elizabeth Gaskell moved to 84 Plymouth Grove she took along a cow. I personally think that’s both awesome and inspiring – what animal would you move into your new home after you made it as a bestselling author?

 

If you just look at the bare facts of her history you can see Gaskell was a person who delighted in a lot of different things and had a lust for life. She made a point of traveling often, and usually independent of her husband. She ventured as far as France, Italy, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. She was equally happy in London and absolutely loved to be out of the house and calling on friends.

 

She schemed and dreamed her way up to the end of her life. She became worn out and exhausted from all her writing and other obligations and still she somehow managed to secretly buy a house to surprise her family with(!) It was at this very same house, in fact, where she dropped dead of a heart attack right in the middle of a tea party with friends.

 

If that’s not the way to go then I’m not sure what is.

 

Elizabeth Gaskell created a pattern of life that many of us – especially aspiring writers – could take a few cues from. Her life was not spared from heartache, and in fact it helped to mold her talent. Yet she was incredibly positive and energetic and, if I may venture to say so, an encouraging example among so many more bleak and depressing ones in the world of esteemed literature.

 

Whether or not you like her stuff, you can’t deny that Elizabeth Gaskell made something of her life. And if you haven’t read any of her works yet, perhaps this quick insight into her life and character will motivate you to do just that.

The Other Jane Austen novel

Wives and Daughters may be the most satisfying unfinished novel ever

The subtitle to Wives and Daughters is, “An Everyday Story.” The writer is Elizabeth Gaskell – during her time she was known to fans as, “Mrs. Gaskell,” because, well, she was a proper married lady and that was just the custom.

Meh, you might be thinking right now. Some old fuddy duddy Victorian lady writing boring stories about everyday life. I’ll pass.

 You do so at your loss.

Gaskell is actually one of the coolest under-the-radar Victorians out there. Incidentally, being from the Victorian times does not make you an out-of-touch prude. Gaskell had the stereotypical profile: farm girl grown into a robust beauty, married to a minister and mother to multiple children. The reality is, she was very intellectual, great with people, well traveled and passionate about life. Oh, and she could write a damn good story. About everyday life.

So let’s talk about Wives and Daughters.

Molly Gibson is the daughter of a widowed doctor who is quite respected in his community. The two of them have a very cozy relationship and Molly lives a carefree sort of life with no wish for anything further. Mr. Gibson, on the other hand, feels that he should become even more respectable and thinks of getting a mother for Molly. Enter the eligible, widowed Mrs. Hyacinth Clare Fitzpatrick.

Oh, so it’s going to be a Cinderella story, is it? Not so fast.

It’s true that the new Mrs. Gibson is both vain and self absorbed. [“Marriage is the natural thing,” she declares. “Then the husband has all that kind of dirty work to do and his wife sits in the drawing-room like a lady”). And she does indeed have a daughter of her own, which means that Molly now has a stepsister as well. But unlike what you might expect, Mr. Gibson does not die. And Mrs. Gibson is not wicked. In fact, she treats Molly quite well and favors her over her own daughter, the hotheaded beauty Cynthia. There’s a bit of power struggle, you see. And Molly and Cynthia – why, they become best friends.

So the guy…Prince Charming or whoever. Does he come onto the scene? Are there two Prince Charmings or what?

 In the old town where the Gibson family lives also resides the eminent old Hamley family. “The Hamleys of Hamley” who have been there since time immemorial, as their old fashioned and blue-blooded patriarch Squire Hamley loves to affirm. The Hamleys have two sons. Of course.

There’s a kind of a clash going on between the supremely handsome elder son, Osborne– who’s a bit more cosmopolitan and open-minded, shall we say – and his old man. Osborne is looked to as the shining star and the more promising of the two. He’s got a sensitive side and a knack for poetry. Good-natured Roger, on the other hand, loves crawling around in the outdoors and studying bugs. He and Ma Hamley help to mediate when the old Squire and Osbourne don’t see eye to eye.

Then Ma Hamley gets really sick and all of Hamley Hall is in a funk. And of course, Molly and Cynthia are involved as the drama plays out. But things don’t happen quite as you might expect, and Molly discovers a great and shocking secret about one of the Hamley sons that she must keep to herself.

Wives and Daughters, put simply, is a great story with a plot and characters that draw you in. And it translates to any age and any time.

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I know, there’s even something Jane Austen-y about Elizabeth Gaskell’s portrait.

 You know how Jane Austen stories have been adapted into contemporary and even multi-cultural film versions? Wives and Daughters is also one of those laugh-cry-laugh again whirlwind storylines that could translate into an awesome modern adaptation. I wish they would make one.

Mr. Gibson and Hyacinth’s blissful expectations soon turn into dysfunctional reality as they butt heads on how to run the household. I swear Gaskell must have had Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennett in mind when we see Mr. Gibson in the parlor, grumbling behind his newspapers as Mrs. Gibson prattles on.   Yet we never see Mr. and Mrs. Bennett have an uncomfortably real argument beside the fireplace as Gaskell so masterfully shows Mr. and Mrs. Gibson having.

Cynthia may also be vain like her mother, but we sympathize with her history because her mother emotionally neglected her. In front of men she is the stereotypical siren type who wears an “armour of magic” and exercises an “unconscious power of fascination” over those around her; but Molly knows who Cynthia is deep down and that’s how they are such friends.

One of my favorite lines is when Cynthia confesses to Molly:

“But it’s no use talking; I am not good, and I never shall be now. Perhaps I might be a heroine still, but I shall never be a good woman, I know.”

What was that famous phrase about good girls rarely making history?

Anyways, Cynthia is a mess at times, but we feel for her.   And we’re intrigued and a little intimidated by her mysterious suitor, Mr. Preston (yet another great character for the screen).

Molly may be the “good girl” of the story and the foil to Cynthia and her recklessness, but that doesn’t mean she’s drab. Unlike a 1-dimensional Dickens heroine who sits prettily in a chair all day and smilingly acquiesces to everything around her, Molly has a bit of fire in her. She is her father’s daughter, after all. And she’s always ready to save the day:

“He shall not!” said Molly, rising up in her indignation, and standing before Cynthia almost as resolutely fierce as if she were in the very presence of Mr. Preston himself. “I am not afraid of him. He dares not insult me, or if he does, I do not care.   I will ask him for those letters, and see if he dare refuse me.”

 I have a feeling Molly Gibson and Lizzie Bennett would’ve gotten along.

Lest you think this is a female-centric book with male characters as mere props, Mrs. Gaskell does a splendid job with men as well. Squire Hamley is one of her best creations: he’s an old codger, crusty, insular and even xenophobic and suspicious of anything foreign. We might hear a trace of an old red-necked relative of our own when Mr. Hamley says to Roger about his science book: “I should have understood it better if they could have called the animals by they English names, and not put so much of their French jingo into it.” He goes on to brag about how the British defeated the French at the Battle of Waterloo in a way that would make any liberal at the dinner table cringe.

But Squire Hamley is no hard-hearted villain or stock character. Like many fathers we know, he is very tender deep down and terrified of anything that could harm his family. When he is finally forced to face some of his worst fears we see the true Squire Hamley emerge and let’s just say…he just might be my favorite character in the whole book.

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Squire Hamley – you just gotta love him.  (Imagine from TheVillageSmith.wordpress.com).

Finally, Gaskell is just an all-round whiz at understanding human nature.

 I don’t know if it’s a specific attribute of 19th century female authors because women back then spent so much time in close quarters with other people, but Elizabeth Gaskell understood people. And she knew how to write about it – and make it funny.

Just check out this passage, describing a young man who is smitten with a vivacious and charming female:

He was at that age when young men admired a formed beauty more than a face with any amount of future capability of loveliness, and when they are morbidly conscious of the difficulty of finding subjects of conversation in talking to girls in a state of feminine hobbledehoyhood.

 I think, given the nature of this description I am 90% sure I can guess what “hobbledehoyhood” is. What an awesome word. I will need to start using that from now on.

A final thought about Wives and Daughters.

It was left unfinished due to Gaskell’s sudden death. But that doesn’t mean it’s not satisfying.

 You can see where things are going at the close of the novel. Without spoiling things, I will say this: the unexpected perk of the sudden and unfinished ending is that, depending on how you feel about the situation, you can imagine exactly the ending you want. Personally, for me that made it more gratifying. And for all I know, the ideal ending I had in mind is the same one Gaskell had imagined. Maybe not. Ignorance is bliss.

According to Wikipedia, (who is to be trusted about 50% of the time) Mrs. Gaskell was influenced by Jane Austen. The similarities are hard to deny and there definitely is an appeal there. But Wives and Daughters is absolutely worth reading for its own sake.

 

 

*Note:  Although this is a review for the book, the character images are taken from the BBC film adaptation.  This is because, well, photos of real people are nicer to look at than old first edition sketches.  Also, the BBC adaptation is pretty good.  But not as good as the book, let’s face it.