La porte étroite

Appropriately bilious cover art.

You’re familiar with love triangles from at a hundred thousand movies and novels. But la porte étroite is a love quadrangle with God, or rather a very specific version of God, as one of the partners.

That helps make this novel seem to come not only from a different century but from another civilization. The impact of religious zealotry isn’t a common topic these days.  Alternately exasperating, entrancing, frustrating, and finally, moving, this love story explores the effects of religious fervor and burning idealism in an extended French bourgeois family. 

I read it more or less by accident. I bought the book a few years ago, maybe because James Salter recommended it. I thought I knew Gide from a couple of other novels, but it turns how I only had a shallow understanding of his work.

It wasn’t an easy read. First of all, Gide deploys unusual versions of the subjunctive tense very elegantly, but it stressed my fragile French. Secondly, the characters behave in ways that are true to the world of the story, but frustrating to experience from a distance. I’m not usually tempted to want to yell at a given person in a fictional narrative. This time, I wanted to grab a few of them by the shoulders and give them hell. Agonizing, really. 

Still, in the end, I’m happy to have read this with its beautiful passages, its unusual sensibility, its melding of Catholic zeal with romantic yearning, and, finally, its shattering ending.

Essays In Idleness

“The person learning archery takes in this and both arrows the teacher says: ‘Beginners ought not to hold two arrows. They rely on their second arrow and are careless at first. You ought each time to think, without any idea of missing and hitting, ‘This is the shot which counts.’
One may think, ‘Surely, with two errors only, a man will not be careless in the teacher’s presence.’  But the man does not know when his own care relaxes, the teacher does know, and this counsel extends to all things.”

About a thousand years ago, Yoshida Kenko wrote his thoughts down in a random collection, later collected as Essays in Idleness.

“People who are studying think at night, ‘There is tomorrow.’ Tomorrow they think, ‘there is tonight’, and so they go on, always meaning to work diligently. Nay, more – does not the attention relax even in a moment of time? Why is it so hard to do a thing now, at the moment when one thinks of it.”

Kenko was a Buddhist monk and courtier who lived in 14th century Japan. His thoughts range over issues of court etiquette, bamboo, linguistic, and right living. They express the ferocious aestheticism you often find in Japanese books.

Initially, his obsession with etiquette seemed merely fussy and eccentric, especially alongside his more profound philosophical observations. But then, manners could be a form of spiritual discipline, and so worthy of attention.

Just as Kenko’s collection is worthy of yours. 

(Of course, it’s one thing to read a book of wisdom, and another to apply it. It’s a melancholy truth that, in my case even the deepest books have had only shallow effects, but who knows? Maybe something will sink in. Someday.) 

Burr, by Gore Vidal

This was an entertaining read and delightful in every way. Gore Vidal tells the life of Aaron Burr, our great national Satan, with skill and panache.

Using the framing device of having Burr dictate his memoirs to a naive young lawyer/wannabe writer gives Vidal the ability to create a suave, patrician voice for Burr. He also gives a broader context through the point of view of Charlie Schuyler, the man to whom Burr is passing along his memories. Burr gives us an inverted view of the time of the Founding Fathers, who are suddenly more human, fallible and realistic than the marble version we usually get.

Vidal reminds us of the chaos and uncertainty of the early days of the United States. The Revolution was hardly won by us, rather it was lost by the British. Washington was a lousy general. Jefferson, the agrarian, was actually a gifted empire builder, the most successful one of the 19th century. Hamilton comes off better than you’d expect. (Still, it’s a mystery how such a banker-loving monarchist became the hip hop musical star he is today.)

I have no idea how accurate the book is, but I trust in Vidal’s brilliance and work ethic. More importantly, the historical characters make dramatic sense and the story is completely plausible. And it’s a lot of fun from start to finish.