I started reading The Scent of Water, by Elizabeth Goudge, at what I fervently hope was the lowest point of my recuperation from knee surgery, around the two week mark. I’ve had arthroscopic knee surgery three times previously, and before I’ve always been off the crutches at this point. But not this time. I’m heavier, and I’m older, and despite all the exercises and ice, it still hurts.
Like any lifelong yo-yo dieter, having to get around on crutches for a month put the fear into me, and I put myself on a starvation-level diet because that’s the only thing that’s ever worked. So after another week of this, when I was at a very low ebb, my friend Jill came over, bearing flowers, to play some fiddle music with me–we’re both learning to fiddle, and it’s way more fun together than alone. Afterwards, my friend Pamela decided that I was not going to tackle the long, scary path down to the campus theater that I’d wanted but also dreaded to attempt. I was going to stay home, she told me firmly, watch old Supernatural episodes with her, drink margaritas, and eat some of the elaborate spread of food she was bringing over.
As much as her company (Ron had to go to the play; he’s on an awards committee this year), I think the fact that someone thought I deserved to eat something cheered me up. And then the banquet itself—after I’d sampled a fair proportion of everything on the table, I realized that part of my anger and frustration all week was simply being hungry. A person can make herself so miserable that she can’t unravel all the causes, sometimes.
I was feeling quite miserable while reading The Scent of Water, and it made me less able to enjoy the very quiet pleasures of it. I was chafing to be able to go out and do things, and that made the protagonist’s joy in staying home and noticing the little things really irritating.
The protagonist of The Scent of Water is named Mary, the same as an elderly relative’s who has left her a house in the English countryside. Despite a lifetime spent in London, Mary decides to move out to “the deep country, before there’s no deep country left.” There she (of course) meets an eccentric but loveable cast of characters who are eager to clasp her to their bosoms. It’s the same kind of plot as in A Man Called Ove, but with more spiritual overtones, as if to guarantee maximum irritation.
There’s some beautiful description of the kinds of sights and sounds I often enjoy, living in a rural part of the country:
“This morning he had stood at his window at the first light and there had been a lark signing in a sky that still held the shining of the moon, and the owls had been calling as the lark sang. Odd how he’d come to love the country….Through the open window the air blew fresh and cool, like well water. There had been a well behind his grandfather’s cottage…and the water, welling up from a deep spring, had been the purest and coldest he’d ever known. He’d liked to hang over the edge of the well and breathe in the cool scent of the water.”
When multiple characters mention that water has a scent in this part of the country, though, and Mary begins to attribute a spiritual aspect to it, that’s when it all gets so exaggerated as to seem ludicrous:
“The cool breath of the living water, the scent of it, increased the sense of shame that had been with her all the afternoon.” Why? Because she had not told a little girl that’s she’d never been down a certain path before.
Sometimes when Mary is reading a book-within-the-book she stops, making us wait for what comes next in the mystery of the first Mary’s life, because this Mary just wants to sit there. The sitting drove me mad. It seems like she’s always just sitting, waiting for things to happen to her:
“She opened her window in the morning and saw a spider’s web sparkling with light and was aware of miracle. Sitting in the conservatory with her sewing she knew suddenly that the sun was out behind the vine leaves and that she was enclosed within green-gold light as in a seashell. She dropped her sewing in her lap and was motionless for an hour while the light lay on her eyelids and her gratitude knew no bounds.”
Perhaps it’s the sense of gratitude that I’m lacking right now, but the parts of the book where Mary just sits were the parts that drove me around the bend–forced to sit and heal, reading a book in which a character who can move, won’t!
The man that Mary is in love with brings her his writing, because “he had found in her what he had never had, a sympathetic but intelligent critic. She could wield the pruning knife mercilessly yet at the same time she watered the roots.” They carry on a literary friendship, but Mary claims to be content to be left alone while the man’s life improves and he and his wife have a baby.
Even the loveliest passages are spoiled by Mary’s woo-woo spirituality. She ends a conversation with her friend Jean this way:
“’Nothing is ever over,’ said Jean. ‘You thread things on your life and think you’ve finished with them, but you haven’t because it’s like beads on a string and they come around again. And when something bad you’ve done to a person comes around again it’s horrible, for if the person is dead there’s nothing you can do.’
‘I have thought lately that sometimes there is,’ said Mary. ‘When it comes around again, then if it is possible, give what you failed to give before to someone else. You will have made reparation, for we are all one person.’”
Up to the word “reparation,” I thought this was a lovely passage.
So, fine. Mary sits and the people of rural England come to her. I’m sure this is soothing for people in the middle of all their usual activities, but not for me, not this fall.
Finally on Saturday I did get out of the house; we went to Oberlin for parents’ weekend. I had to choose this trip over going to Kenyon to see Hilary Mantel speak, because Saturday evening was the only time Walker had free.
We started out by taking Walker and his girlfriend Zoe out to dinner at an excellent Indian restaurant that has recently opened up in town, and then we went to the opera. It was two short operas, actually, and we didn’t know anything about them. The first one was Donizetti’s Viva La Mamma, and from the first moments on stage, it was delighting our ears while giving us belly laughs at the sight gags on stage (including the excellent baritone in a crinoline who played the Mama). When it was over, during intermission, I said that it was a hard act to follow. Well, it was followed by Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tiresias, and this second one was even funnier—featuring balloons and famous surrealist paintings–and just as delightful with the singing. We all particularly enjoyed the introduction, in which the singer declared that this opera could change your life, and the grand finale, in which everyone was on stage singing that we should all have lots of babies while balloons poured down on us from above.
Zoe and Walker and Ron gave me help getting in and out of the car with the crutches (long legs are not an advantage when you have knees that don’t bend all the way), so with the judicious timing of painkillers, I managed the whole trip (2 hours one way by car, quicker by helicopter, many, many days by boat) without being too distracted by knee pain to enjoy it. What I discovered is that opera is one of the best cures for my kind of frustration—it’s big, it’s loud, and everyone makes grand gestures. And, of course, Oberlin does opera very well.
To put the cap on the weekend, on Sunday we went to the movies to see Doctor Strange, and it was exactly what I was craving–the first part of the plot consists of people telling a broken and angry man “give yourself time to heal” and him saying “no.” Then he reads a lot of books, learns how to draw circles in the air, and gets a sentient cloak. It’s all action with only a few tears, which get wiped off by his cloak.
Maybe y’all have some suggestions for books with lots of action?
The reason I put A Man Called Ove on my pile of books to read while recovering from knee surgery was that it seemed everyone who read it raved about it. So I started it, and was surprised to find that I disliked the main character. As I learned more about him, I started to like him better, but everything about him and his situation made me sad. At the end of the book, I was angry. I was angry for the same reason that watching Bill Murray in the 2014 movie St Vincent made me angry—because I too am irascible and can be exacting about things and don’t much like to cook but I don’t have friends and neighbors coming over and becoming like a second family to me, making my life all better. I’m still stuck here in the house on crutches and getting increasingly bitter about it.
I was sympathizing with Ove when he was trying to commit suicide every day but failing because of some damn thing or another, and it also reminded me of the comic timing of the cell phone song that interrupts Drew’s plan to take his own life near the beginning of the movie Elizabethtown.
But I still couldn’t like Ove, because of the way he’s determined to see “the world in black and white” and how unpleasant he is to people. Especially after reading Shrill, this part really rubbed me the wrong way:
“He sees the heavily overweight young man from next door slouching past the garage door in the parking area. Not that Ove dislikes fat people. Certainly not. People can look any way they like. He has just never been able to understand them, can’t fathom how they do it. How much can one person eat? How does one manage to turn oneself into a twin-size person? It must take a certain determination, he reflects.”
Much later in the novel we find out how much Ove and his wife and their friends Anita and Rune have done for this young man, and even a bit about the childhood trauma that might have made him want some padding between him and the world, but I found it hard to forgive Ove for this first impression.
There were a few funny bits that kept me reading, though, like when Ove is trying to hang himself from a hook in his living room ceiling but he puts plastic on the floor because he doesn’t want the ambulance men who will come in to take his body out “scratching up Ove’s floor with their shoes. Whether over Ove’s dead body or not.”
Finding out more about Ove’s life with his wife made me like him a little better, especially when I got to the part about how he plans for car trips, which is a bit like how Ron plans for them:
“When he was driving somewhere he drew up schedules and plans and decided where they’d fill up and when they’d stop for coffee, all in the interest of making the trip as time-efficient as possible. He studied maps and estimated exactly how long each leg of the journey would take and how they should avoid rush-hour traffic.”
The way Ove’s story is told is stark and unrelenting, though. Combined with my mood of frustration over not being able to walk, it became terrible and then overly sentimentalized and unrealistic, and finally it was over and I could throw the book against the wall and indulge in a snit about how in real life, people don’t pay that much attention to lonely old folks and dying isn’t quick and easy and if you leave a cat behind, you can’t be sure anyone else will take care of him.
This is why the novel that charmed everyone made me angry, instead.
I read about Lindy West’s book of essays entitled Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman over at So Many Books, and it sounded so much like my kind of thing that I immediately ordered a copy. This is what I have been doing, in my frustration over not being able to walk–reading and writing and ordering more books to come right to me, here at the house.
Last night I took a few steps and then went up and down the hallway with just a cane, for balance. This morning I tried taking a few more. I’m very wobbly with the cane, but I think I’m just going to have to make myself do it; it’s been so long since I put any weight on my right knee that I think I’m half-afraid to even try. Today I see the orthopedist for a follow-up and I’d be ashamed to walk in there still on crutches. I’d have to admit that I think I can’t put all my weight on the knee yet because there’s so much of it.
Lindy’s essays made me feel better about that.
There are so many little gems in these essays, perfect turns of phrase and expressions of ideas I’ve had but never articulated quite so well. Like this one: “Sincerity is an easy target, but I don’t want to excise sincerity from my life—that’s a lonely way to live.”
And like this diatribe about the use of the word “big” to apply to fat people:
“’Big’ is a word we use to cajole a child: ‘Be a big girl!’ ‘Act like the big kids!’ Having it applied to you as an adult is a cloaked reminder of what people really think, of the way we infantilize and desexualize fat people. (Desexualization is just another form of sexualization. Telling fat women they’re sexless is stil putting women in their sexual place.) Fat people are helpless babies enslaved to their most capricious cravings. Fat people do not know what’s best for them. Fat people need to be guided and scolded like children.”
What she says about one of my favorite books, Fat is a Feminist Issue (published in 1978), makes a lot of sense, too:
“I am my body. When my body gets smaller, it is still me. When my body gets bigger, it is still me. There is not a thin woman inside me, awaiting excavation. I am one piece. I am also not a uterus riding around in a meat incubator. There is no substantive difference between the repulsive campaign to separate women’s bodies from their reproductive systems—perpetuating the lie that abortion and birth control are not healthcare—and the repulsive campaign to convince women that they and their body size are separate, alienated entities. Both say ‘Your body is not yours.’ Both demand, ‘Beg for your humanity.’ Both insist, ‘Your autonomy is conditional.’ This is why fat is a feminist issue.
My favorite essay is entitled “You’re So Brave for Wearing Clothes and Not Hating Yourself!” In it, West points out that “As a woman, my body is scrutinized, policed, and treated as a public commodity. As a fat woman, my body is also lampooned, openly reviled, and associated with moral and intellectual failure.”
She also points out something that I’ve said here on the blog before, except that, of course, she says it better: “Like most fat people who’ve been lectured about diet and exercise since childhood, I actually know an inordinate amount about nutrition and fitness. The number of nutrition classes and hospital-sponsored weight loss programs and individual dietician consultations and tear-filled therapy sessions I’ve poured money into over the years makes me grind my teeth.”
This distinction is wonderfully articulated:
“I hate being fat. I hate the way people look at me, or don’t. I hate being a joke; I hate the disorienting limbo between too visible and invisible; I hate the way that complete strangers waste my life out of supposed concern for my death. I hate knowing that if I did die or a condition that correlates with weight, a certain subset of people would feel their prejudices validated, and some would outright celebrate.
I also love being fat. The breadth of my shoulders makes me feel safe. I am unassailable. I intimidate. I am a polar icebreaker. I walk and climb and life things, I can open your jar, I can absorb blows—literal and metaphorical—meant for other women, smaller women, breakable women, women who need me. My bones feel like iron—heavy, but strong. I used to say that being fat in our culture was like drowning (in hate, in blame, in your own tissue), but lately I think it’s more like burning. After three decades in the fire, my iron bones are steel.”
After five decades in the fire and five knee surgeries, one of my bones is actually made of an alloy of cobalt-chromium and titanium.
Not my favorite, but the essay that says a lot of what I wish I could say is about flying while fat. It’s entitled “The Day I Didn’t Fit” and in it, she describes what it’s like for a person like me to fly in an airplane:
“If you’ve never tried cramming your hips into an angular metal box that’s an inch or two narrower than your flesh (under the watchful eye of resentful tourists), then sitting motionless in there for five hours while you fold your arms and shoulders up like a dying orchid in order to be an unobtrusive as possible, run, don’t walk. It’s like squeezing your bones in a vise. The pain makes your teeth ache.”
She also describes the lengths a fat person goes to in order to fly anywhere:
“Here’s how I board a plane. I do not book a ticket unless I can be assured a window seat—I will happily sit in the very back row, or change my flight to the buttcrack of dawn—because the window well affords me an extra couple of inches in which to compress my body to give my neighbor as much space as possible. It’s awkward and embarrassing to haul and cram myself in and out of the seat, so I also prefer the window because I’m not blocking anyone’s bathroom access. I’ve learned from experience that emergency exit rows and bulkhead rows are often narrower, so those are out.”
There’s more, but you get the gist… Lindy says she asks for a seat-belt extender when she passes the flight attendants at the front of the plane, but I skip this since I’ve discovered that they don’t really look at a fat person’s lap to make sure she’s buckled up.
As Lindy points out,
“I’m sure some fat people are fat by their own hand, without any underlying medical conditions, but a lot of other fat people are fat because they’re sick or disabled. Unless you’re checking every human being’s bloodwork before they pull up Kayak.com, you do not know which fat people are which. Which means, inevitably, if you think fat people are ‘the problem’ (and not, say, airlines hoping to squeeze out extra revenue, or consumers who want cheap airline tickets without sacrificing amenities), you are penalizing a significant number of human beings emotionally and financially for a disease or disability that already complicates their lives. Ethically, that’s fucked up.”
Her conclusion, again, is better articulated than anything I’ve ever been able to say about it:
“Airlines have no incentive to fix this problem until we, collectively, as a society, demand it. We don’t insist on a solution because it’s still culturally acceptable to be cruel to fat people. When even pointing out the problem—saying ‘my body does not fit in these seats that I pay for’—returns nothing but abuse and scorn, how can we ever expect that problem to be addressed? The real issue here isn’t money, it’s bigotry. We don’t care about fat people because it is okay not to care about them, and we don’t take care of them because we think they don’t deserve care.”
There’s more to these essays, of course, but those are the parts that really spoke to me right now, still doing all my knee exercises but feeling pretty crippled up and wondering if I’m too fat to walk.
My general irritability with convalescence extended itself to the pile of books I had amassed for the occasion (sorry, Kitties—I liked The Passage well enough as airplane reading, but The Twelve irritated me beyond endurance), so I turned to the one kind of book that nearly always distracts me, a children’s book.
I first heard of the existence of Kate Saunders’ Five Children on the Western Front–a fanfiction published in 2016 and based on, of course, E. Nesbit’s 1902 Five Children and It–over at Reading the End. In the author’s note following her story, Saunders points out that the Psammead also makes an appearance in The Phoenix and the Carpet, 1904, and The Story of the Amulet, 1906, and that two of the original five children, as she puts it “were of exactly the right ages to end up being killed in the trenches” of WWI. So you know it’s going to be a tearjerker. Not everyone has liked Saunders’ interpretation of the Psammead or the original five children (she adds a youngest one, and in homage to E. Nesbit, names her “Edie”). I liked them well enough, though. As in the best fanfic, I felt all the time that I was in the presence of such overwhelming love for the original that it simply had to come out in telling more of the story.
As part of her masterful beginning, Saunders reminds readers of the previous adventures:
“Remember when we wished the Lamb was grown up—and he turned into a horrid young man with a mustache?” Jane said.
“I just wish I remembered it too,” the Lamb said.
“And remember when Panther wished we were all divinely beautiful?” Cyril nudged Robert. “You came out looking like the most utter girl.”
“Shut up.” Robert nudged him back. “She had you looking disgustingly wet—with long cow’s eyelashes.”
At the beginning of this adventure, the Psammead seems to have lost his ability to grant wishes, but then comes an evening when Edie is tired and facing a long trek home from London, and says she wishes that they could “just be at home right now” when they find themselves there. That is the start of the kind of accidental wishing that happens without warning in this book. Sometimes it is the Psammead’s own wish, and often the children (and young adults) find themselves not really present in the past or the future, but ghostly onlookers who have no effect on the scene in front of them.
One of my favorite scenes is when the Psammead, who is, in this story, inclined to materialize briefly in unexpected places, shows up at the theater when the Lamb and Edie have been taken to a performance of Peter Pan:
“Nothing strange happened until the moment Tinkerbell the fairy was dying, and Peter asked the audience to ‘Clap your hands if you believe in fairies!’
Jane, the Lamb and Edie clapped harder than anyone—as the Lamb said in Edie’s ear, ‘Impossible not to believe in fairies when you’ve got one sitting on your foot!’
What happened next almost knocked them out of their seats with shock. A huge voice rang through the theater, loud as thunder: ‘NOT ENOUGH! CLAP HARDER! BELIEVE MORE!”
It is the Psammead, of course, who thinks he dreamed it when they confront him later, at home. He says “it’s made a new fairy of me!” and he looks well afterwards. “He was plump and sleek, his fur shone, and his telescope eyes bounced about like springs.”
The professor (from The Story of the Amulet) writes a book about the Psammead, but his assistant researcher is concerned that he wants to dedicate it to the creature himself, like this:
“This book is worshipfully dedicated to the mighty PSAMMEAD, former god of the Akkadian desert, with humble thanks for all the help he has given to the authors.”
As the assistant points out, “you don’t get books about the Greek gods containing dedications to Zeus, with thanks for all his help, do you?”
This book is a lovely labor of love, well-written, well-characterized, and well-plotted. And yet the only way I can forgive Saunders for what she does in it—what she has to do, really–is to go back and re-read the original E. Nesbit stories. If you loved them, you will be left at the end of this book like me and the professor: “far away in 1930, in his empty room, the old professor was crying.”
Delia Sherman read the first chapter of her new book The Evil Wizard Smallbone out loud at ICFA last March, and it was delightful. I thought the title was going to be ironic, as in that first chapter, the “evil wizard” takes in a twelve-year-old boy who has run away from his cruel Uncle and is “cold and hungry, and not far from being scared.” He brings him into his kitchen and soon enough “the old man whose card said he was an evil wizard was hunched over the stove, frying sausages in a cast-iron pan” for the starving boy.
The “evil wizard” Smallbone tells the boy–whose name is Nick but the wizard is calling “Foxkin instead of the fake name he gave him”—that he will take him on as an apprentice.
After that first chapter, however, Smallbone turns the boy into a spider so he can’t leave. This made me wonder whether the wizard might really be “evil,” and Nick continues to wonder about this throughout much of the story.
While Nick is a spider, we find out about the nearby town, Smallbone Cove, Maine, where Smallbone has set up certain protections for the inhabitants. Five days later, when Nick gets turned back into a boy, he realizes that “he had really been a spider. Magic was real, and Smallbone was just what he claimed to be: a genuine, card-carrying evil wizard.”
Gradually, Nick begins to do all the jobs that Smallbone asked him to do as apprentice: cooking, taking care of the animals, and cleaning the bookshop attached to his house. As he learns how to clean the bookshop (this involves magic), he starts finding books about how to learn magic. He thinks that the evil wizard Smallbone does not know that he can read, but Smallbone continues to treat him as an apprentice, even taking him along on a trip to Smallbone Cove to take care of one of the inhabitants who got turned into a coyote by Smallbone’s nemesis, a much more evil wizard who can take the shape of a wolf and commands a pack of no-good-niks turned into coyotes.
Eventually, Nick finds out that all of the inhabitants of Smallbone Cove are originally seals, as Smallbone informs them that:
“I pulled your ancestors out of the sea and gave ‘em hands and feet and speech and thought they could work for me. In return, I promised to keep ‘em safe from anything that wanted to hurt them, wolves and coyotes included. That’s what them Sentries’re for. It’s on account of your neglect that they ain’t what they should be. So I better hear a little less about how I ain’t holding up my end and a little more about how you aim to hold up yours, unless you want to find out just how evil an evil wizard can be.”
The Smallbone Cove inhabitants soon discover that they can remember how to re-set the magical protections for their town by reciting half-forgotten nursery rhymes and childhood clapping songs. As one of them observes, “can you think of a better way to make sure everybody knows the words to something?”
As he learns more magic, Nick figures out how to transform some of the evil wizard Smallbone’s animals back into humans and discovers they are former apprentices, although he still describes himself as “a boy whose best friend was currently a bookshop.” He and Smallbone transform themselves into foxes to outwit his cruel Uncle, who has aligned himself with the coyote pack and come looking for him.
Finally, Nick is promoted. Smallbone tells him:
“You’ve passed all the tests, young Foxkin, outwitted the evil wizard, and slain the ogre—or at least made him mighty sick. You belong to yourself now, fair and square. You can go out into the world and seek your fortune, like them other young fellers who escape evil wizards. But,” he went on stiffly, “I’d take it kindly if you stayed with me. Only if you want to, though.”
“I want to,” Nick said.
In the end, Nick learns “why Smallbone never took off his hat and coat” and “why the Smallbone Mutt and Hell Cat and Ollie [the former apprentices] described was so different from the Smallbone he knew.”
The acknowledgments reveal that Sherman’s book is a retelling of a Russian fairy tale called “The Wizard Outwitted.” It’s a lovely and well-crafted tale for readers of any age. If you read the first chapter, I predict that you’ll be hooked, as I was.
Three weeks on crutches and I am so annoyed by not being able to walk without them yet that I’m about to go out of my mind. This is what my brother and I used to call the “couch grouch” stage of recovery. It is no fun for anyone. Just as well that Ron has meetings all day and into the night for the next few days, and that most of my local friends are similarly busy with big events on campus.
It’s exhausting to walk with crutches. I keep hoping that I am at least developing big biceps, or something. Monday night I walked what felt like the length of a football field to get to symphony rehearsal, and by the time I got to my seat and got the violin out, my arms were trembling and so tired that it was hard to play.
Everyone has been so helpful and sympathetic and I feel ungratefully irritable at continuing to have to ask for help with the essentials, while I sit around and watch the plants go unwatered because I can’t carry the can and it’s not that important to water the last of the mums before frost comes, anyway.
Walking anywhere with crutches becomes a performance, like in John Sutherland’s poem “Convalescent:”
His first steps echoed his plans perfectly.
Exactly when his shadow nudged the door
The trees’ applause began; beside the drive
The martial pines stood stiffly at attention.
Later there was the moment when he posed
Gazing into the river. In that hush
The sky flexed like a shutter; like a lens
The water clutched at his undying image.
But heavy, even as he climbed the hill,
Tugging at progress like a regal train,
The hard road twisted heaving after him;
Heavy as hail upon the sweating leaves
The dust shook like a storm behind the car
Whose windows peopled all the grove with eyes.
You’ve got to be plucky and brave when you’re convalescent and go out in public. Anything less could turn into a spectacle.
For the last week, I’ve been reminding myself of the man with one pants leg pinned up who passed me on crutches, going out of a local restaurant as I was going in. He looked up at me, grinned, and said “I’ve been looking for someone to race!” However hard my road is, his is probably harder. I try to keep thinking about that and be grateful.
Yesterday a package arrived, sent by a friend who lives in another state, containing all the ingredients for afternoon tea. So I’m trying to look forward to that, and other sedentary pleasures.
Inside, though, I’m an ungrateful grouch, tired of reading, tired of writing, tired of mostly sitting still while everyone races about, even when they’re doing really nice things for me.
My brother sent me flowers with a note that read “”hope you are up and kicking soon. You kneed to get better. For now you can be kneedy.”
Yep, he knows me.
One of the books I saved for reading while recovering from last week’s knee surgery is Jo Walton’s Necessity, the conclusion to her Platonic trilogy that began with The Just City and continued in The Philosopher Kings.I enjoyed it even more than the first two, and the main reason is that it has even more aliens and spaceships. Plus, an alien god!
Zeus has moved the five cities to the planet Plato, where we meet Marsilia, a descendant of Simmea’s, and her daughter Alkippe. Marsilia is consul and in her spare time she fishes with her friend Jason and Hilfa, who is of the alien race called the Saeli. Jason is attracted to Marsilia’s sister Thetis, while Marsilia is attracted to Jason. Each of the main characters take turns narrating, so that we get multiple human, alien, “worker,” and god’s-eye points of view.
The action of the novel centers around two events: the death of Pytheas and the arrival of a spaceship from earth. Of course, Pytheas immediately comes back as the god Apollo and pursues the mystery of where Athene has disappeared to, while debates on how to interact with the strange humans and the robots they have brought with them on their spaceship occupy the inhabitants of Plato.
Crocus, the sentient “worker” or robot, thinks about what his philosopher friends have conjectured about his soul. “I keep outliving my friends” he says, and “sometimes I wonder if what is cowardly is to refuse to die out of fear that I may have no soul after all, and that death would be the end.” Although the chapters narrated by Crocus were my least favorite ones, being the most abstract and philosophical, I did like the conversation he recounts with Pytheas, about knowledge:
“He would answer some questions about the universe, but not others. ‘I don’t know everything, I certainly don’t know all the answers,’ he said to me. ‘And sometimes I don’t answer because it’s better for people not to know.’
‘Knowledge is good. How can ignorance be better?’ I inscribed on a nearby marble plinth.
‘Certainty closes many doors,’ he replied. ‘It leads to dogmatism. Souls accept what they know and stop striving upwards.’
‘Even among philosophers?’ I asked.
He paused, and his eyes lost focus for a moment. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. True philosophers, who believe the unexamined life is not worth living, are usually very few in a population. Even here, a lot of people want to receive wisdom rather than work on it, even among the Golds.’”
This conversation hit pretty close to home, as the major part of my job each fall is to teach a group of undergraduates how to teach writing, and it’s always harder with the ones who are certain they know the best way to do it already and the ones who want to receive wisdom rather than work on it.
There’s a wonderful trickster god theme running through the novel, involving the alien god Jathery, the greek god Hermes, and the question of which one of them fathered Alkippe at a festival. The gods hop about through time, seemingly as they please, but actually constrained by Fate and Necessity. At one point, Hermes takes Marsilia back in time to talk to Kebes and we find out that Hermes is responsible for what happened that allowed Kebes to learn music composed centuries after his death. Hermes says that if Kebes wants to travel through time, supplication must be involved, and he suggests that Kebes pray to him saying “Oh god of riddles and play, master of shape and form, you that I see before me, please take me to Mars.” Kebes believes it will harm his soul to pray to Hermes, so the god suggests that he say instead “Dear demon that I see before me….”
There’s also a delightful sequence with Sokrates in 18th-century France condemning lace-making as
“an incredibly unnecessary waste of human labor and human souls….Those women should be freed from their bobbins and taught reason. It would be a useless frivolity even if Workers made it as fast and unthinkingly as any cloth. Nobody needs dangling frills like this.”
When Ikaros asks “what if it’s somebody’s vocation, to make lace….Their art?” Sokrates replies:
“It is a normal part of these people’s clothing….Far too much for it to be made as somebody’s art. Look at these paintings, everyone has it. If somebody wanted to make it as their art, it might be a harmless decoration, like the borders some people embroider on their kitons. It’s this volume of it that’s wrong. Close work like that? Women must be compelled to make it from economic necessity.”
The potential love triangle with Marsilia, Jason, and Thetis is all worked out by the end of the novel, when Hilfa suggests that they form the kind of family group that all Saeli join as adults, a “pod” of five. Circumstances lead to the inclusion of Sokrates, transformed back from a gadfly, as the pod’s fifth member.
Jason is my favorite narrator, and it’s partly because he says things like this about his own happy ending:
“If this were a space human kind of story, one of the “classic” works of fiction from their culture they traded us in return for copies of all the things Ficino rescued from the Library of Alexandria, the end would be that I, the virtuous hero, had to choose between the two sisters, who would represent ugly wisdom and beautiful vice. How I chose would determine my fate, whether happy or unhappy. No wonder their culture is so strange and twisted. We think of romantic love as a primarily negative force, one we would do better to resist. They elevate it to being the most significant thing humans do, apart from making money—which, as far as I can make out, is a numeric quantifier of prosperity. I can’t understand how anyone reads such twaddle.
If this were a Greek tragedy, I’d be destroyed by my hubris for going against the gods….
If this were a Platonic dialogue, I’d wander away enlightened or infuriated by a conversation with Sokrates. That happens to me on a regular basis, so perhaps that’s what it is.
But no, this is practical Platonism, and real life, where we muddle through and try to pursue excellence while ensuring the latrine fountains work and there’s fish in the pot, as we bring up babies to pursue excellence in their turn.”
I do love it when a character in a novel declares that his life is “real life,” don’t you? And I was glad to have the uninterrupted time to read this book all the way through in one “sitting.” It made me forget, for a little while, my real life circumstances, lying on a bed with fresh holes poked in my knee, waiting to be able to walk again.