You lose track of the thing you are beholding, A Review of Hotel Honolulu, by Mario Savioni

Hotel Honolulu

Author: Paul Theroux

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company

Copyright: 2001

ISBN: 0-618-09501-2

List price: $26 (US)

424 pages

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Review Author: Mario Savioni

I have to warn you. At times, as it is with art, you lose track of the thing you are beholding. It triggers memory.

Hotel Honolulu reminded me of where I grew up and throughout this review it is more about me. It is about what I share with Theroux having lived in a Honolulu Hotel. At times perhaps you will see the book coming through but more often than not, as I warn you, these are notes triggered by Theroux’s words and I have been left — being so close to the text — with a random collection of thoughts.

Sex and Relationships

Hotel Honolulu delved deep and involved itself with characters who will brake your heart. It is about how their lives are so inextricably mixed with men who have taken advantage of them and that sex is at the root of human relationships. It is a dance easily exposed for its superficiality when men like Buddy Hamstra pit his children, in absentia, against his newly married wife because she “looks like an angel,” but who was actually brought on because of how she appealed to him in her naked video. Maybe it’s just a desire for intimacy and that sex is a manifestation of that genre that explains how people get together. For “Pinky,” Buddy’s wife, it’s about finding and keeping security after a life of poverty and rape.

Infidelity

By page 157, Theroux reminds us of the sad possibility, unless of course we’ve learned the hard way and taken it to heart, that we are not capable of fidelity. He tells the story of a couple visiting the hotel on their honeymoon. Given the busy lives they lead, one is called away to return to their native city. That evening a local comes on to the woman, and with her honeymoon fresh in mind, she rebuffs him. Still, by the next couple of days she realizes that at some point her husband is going to cheat on her. She wants to be the first.

Architect of One’s Unhappiness

Another story relating to this issue breaks my heart because I understand the injustice. By page 238, you come again to the sad truth of infidelity. A man builds a house for his wife. He must work on the mainland to make the money it is costing him with all the special things she desires. In his absence, her heart grows dimmer. I ask the question: How do you know someone is cheating? You just know. It is a feeling, and if you don’t listen closely it will swallow you. A therapist advised on how you know: “1. Are offering too much help? Instead, you should inspire the other to carryout their goals rather than do the steps for them. 2. Are you sacrificing yourself? 3. Do you see your role as making yourself needed? 4. Do you give the other person money, prestige, and other things? 5. How safe do you feel? Do you become obsessed with tinkering or changing things? 6. You must ask yourself what you bring to the relationship in an attempt to realize your worth.

Most Handsome Man

Quite similar to infidelity is the instinct to think that it is greener on the other side of the relational fence. So we may take to flirtations as through the anonymous vehicle known as the Internet by writing e-mail to strangers and sharing our hopes and dreams. We finally meet that person, who seemed to share our purpose, apparently, as it is with the character on page 246. How odd that perhaps in the venue an ugliness was revealed. In the meeting of the other person, where it was through e-mail, we go so far as to eventually kiss. In this case, Theroux thought the woman blind in not seeing that the man she had been e-mailing was indeed one of the most handsome men he had ever seen. But, by their having used the Internet to met or for some other reason, you knew the woman was correct when she wanted nothing more to do with him.

How Women Can Change Your Life

I never saw Theroux’s “Sweeties” in his life as anyone but island beauties, who never showed interest until I learned at my 20-year reunion that some had crushes on me but I was so religious at the time that they didn’t know what to do. I remarked to Rotina Kiyabu at the Germain’s luau gathering: “If I had only known that you guys liked me, it would have changed my life.”

Corruption

By page 264, the complication is presented to a man who has everything. As one ages, no accumulation diminishes the fact that youth and beauty have their place but to knock down all material certainties many of us believe we must plan.

Infirmity

Royce Lionberg comes into view (p. 358) as a bitter man who insults women and tells shortened pessimistic stories. One involves a man who “indulged himself in sexual fantasies on the phone with his high school sweetheart.” They finally met, Lionberg said, and then “there were no more calls.”

The story reminded me of a friend of his mother’s who practically lives in a wheel chair because of health problems and age. She assumed a telephone conversation with an old school chum, who is married with children. They are giddy with new love and steal phone calls to each other. I expect that they will eventually visit each other and hopefully it is before he destroys his marriage. The old school chum will look at her and find her physical manifestation diminishing his need for her and they too will end their relationship. One person, it seems, cannot satisfy every need. So, do you find a place where we can get along? It is that people we marry have more to offer than the others, who we’ve spent your lifetime learning could never satisfy us?

Beauty as Truth

I agree with the twenty-something, tall, slender, very pretty and self-possessed Rain Conroy as if through her beauty, you knew that she was wise always at the front lines of some man’s best conversation, as a constant seductive taunt or whine. How you had to become a chess champion to survive the interlocutory jibes of men with two earrings and flesh hanging over their belts.

You saw with Conroy, that beauty was truth. It stripped every man to the chase of getting it, like a fine silver coin only few could possess for its obscurity.

Theroux writes of Conroy: “She had no attachment to anything here, and that would have made her seem frivolous except that she was still talking, still going on about her father.”

A reference to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 reveals that Theroux is actually attacking the calm complacency of the older, far more successful Royce (as in “Rolls?”) Lionberg, which to me is the writer’s enemy — someone materialistic, superficial, one who turns a deaf ear to the soul of life and her youth and beauty.

“Sonnet 94,” according to Rex Gibson of the Cambridge School Shakespeare series known as The Sonnets, page 109, Cambridge University Press, copyright 1997, seems to praise powerful people who refrain from doing harm, and who do not show their emotions, but present an “‘Unmoved, cold,’ face to the world.”

Later however, Gibson continues: “The sonnet may be deeply ironic, criticizing those who control their emotions so firmly” until they become corrupt. “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;/Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds” – Shakespeare.

By page 282, you realize that you can’t just touch someone intimately and walk away, you release some human trigger that expels a drug inside that secures a bond that cannot be broken.

On page 285, Lionberg and Theroux are relaying the effects of Conroy, “who was a child,” according to Theroux as Lionberg remarks: “‘Flesh can feel so sad, so mute and helpless. It is so fragile. Flesh can feel like clay. You sense death in it.'”

Of Lionberg, Theroux continued: “Feeling sad, he looked back and saw his past as a succession of failures.

“‘When someone says, [Lionberg continued] “If I had my life to live over again,” people laugh. It sounds ridiculous. But I’ve just realized that I want to live my life over. That’s what love is. The vital force that gives you the strength and optimism to do it over again.'”

The Hostess

Theroux relays another story (pp. 303-307) that carries the same tune of unrequited love. It made me cry for it involved dysfunction, survival, and a hostesses’ past that was lost in a downward spiral. That spiral was charged by circumstances beyond her control. The hostess was like Sweetie’s mother, perhaps, or just “the woman.” I knew such women since I knew of my own loneliness and that of others. I knew life through hardened scowls. We, who bore them, were too desperate to open our eyes to truth. When it finally shone on the hostess, for example: “The woman was already hurt, as much as if she had been physically injured.”

Dick for Brains

This was exactly how my last two relationships made me feel. They ripped my heart out and then they moved on. I promised myself that I would never again make these mistakes with infatuation-based appointments and yet once the dust settled and I’d nearly forgot the pain, I saw a new babe in the distance.

Internal Guide

This time I may make it long enough to grasp a connection to someone moving in my direction. This person will have a similar life’s purpose, and in whose eyes I am not necessarily looking but that this person will have been chosen by an internal guide. Only the guide (See: Carolyn Godschild Miller’s Soulmates, page 18, copyright 2000) knows who is good for us. I have let this part of me go. Someday as I have asked for it, it will be obvious and calmly told to me who my wife shall be. Yes, as Theroux has titled chapter 55, “Love is a girl,” but she is also someone who I will have noticed via my soul’s voice and not by my penis’ wink.

With what may seem as an aside, I wanted to note the skills of Theroux. For apart of everything he delivers, you note, for example, the transition between the end of chapter 53 and the beginning of chapter 54. There the transition from one man’s fetishes to another’s indicates a great writer, who moves with grace using a vehicle of words to bring the reader through time and space.

Prodigal Woman

It wasn’t long ago that I discontinued communications with a woman I was seeing. I sensed she had given up on me as I witnessed, she would flirt with every man she came in contact with. When I stopped communicating with her, she went on her way as I had anticipated she would. She found what she was looking for. Then with bittersweetness, she realized that it wasn’t really what she thought. For what she found bored her. She said that she had cried alone after learning that what she had done was wrong. She sought consolation and forgiveness and began to accept herself. It is well described by a remark made by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the Stern Fact, the Sad Self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.”

The woman had been molested by her father. Every relationship with men thereafter was one in which she needed to be the center of attention. She went on crash diets and never ate garlic. She died her hair blond and luckily she was one of the most beautiful women in the world and the attention was always there. But with time, I knew her beauty would fade or alter her ever so slightly. One by one, the men would not look back. She would find her purpose flitting away.

On page 338, Theroux writes about incest: “Though this was unfair, it was logical in a horrible way – the man put on earth to protect you was the one who could do you the most harm, because you trusted him.”

I find in telling you this story, that like her father, I have revealed a secret. In its silence it may have offered protection, but even as she trusted me it would appear I really did not care for her. Instead, as it is with this act of ambition, I am more concerned with myself. I am always perplexed by truth. Is it best to tell so another may have it as fact? Or is it better to have silenced knowledge, so in denying it we will have never known?

Anyone who has read Paul Theroux knows he is dealing with this issue. For his life is an act of fact. He tells you the truth and is often a victim of it. Note his divorce.

Buddy Hamstra told his wife to dance for him (p. 357). “Take your clothes off,” he told her. She put her panties on the chair and danced. As Hamstra watched her in his “breathless” way, he said, “This is my marriage?” You realize the complexity of a man’s needs attempting always to cover the gamut from conversation to lust. Never it seemed could one person cover all the demands brought on them like an octopus. Octopus love is two people trying to find a way to get along. And then you realize that just to love was the key. We are all incapable of perfection.

Uncle David

When I was a child around 10 years old, it was nearly Easter after my parents had been divorced for as long as I could remember, when my father had died. Because my mother claimed to have no friends in the Sacramento area and since my father’s side of the family didn’t like her, she took his sister and him to Honolulu. There, my mother’s brother (Uncle David) (also removed from his ex-wife and the children they shared) lived with a blonde bombshell named Ruth. Uncle David ran a bar and lived on Lewers Street near the Ala Wai Canal, just a few doors down from Kuhio Avenue.

It Wasn’t for the Money

Beach Walk, a street next to and parallel with Lewers sounds like the street where the fictional Honolulu Hotel was situated and where Paul Theroux allegedly went to work. “It wasn’t for material,” he said, “it was [for] the money” and where he wanted to start a new life.

Location, location, location

Funny thing is I assumed all the hotels, with exception to the Outriggers were owned by the Japanese. Buddy Hamstra owned Honolulu Hotel. Hamstra was from Sweetwater, Nevada. It was a quaint little hole in the wall of a hotel with the rest of the hotel in the background. Could it be 250 Lewers, where we lived when I was a child? On page 386, Theroux says two young women jumped to their death from the Outrigger Islander, which is at Kalakaua Blvd. and Lewers Street or next door to my hotel at 250. The Islander is four blocks away from Hotel Honolulu. I can’t tell in what direction.

Inheritance

Anyway, I remember my uncle describing a relationship with the owner of the Outrigger Hotels, like the one Theroux describes and that relationship was probably also built on a favor. This could explain why my uncle lived with his blond bombshell there for more than 30 years and then why my mother also inherited the suite (450 Lewers, 8th floor). There my uncle and his girlfriend lived at the top of the Coral Seas Annex above the House of Hong with its three lanais and a view to the ocean through the trees of the Halekulani and Cinerama Reef Hotels.

Wearing Sunglasses

I remember that first year in the Islands having hated to move from Sacramento and the two-bedroom in the apartment complex, where a group of my relatives came in wearing sunglasses and told me about my father’s death. After crying for hours in the empty tub and after my mother, sister and I said “Good-bye” to my mother’s-then-boyfriend Tom, I took my new Nikes and white shorts and Aloha shirt and we moved deep into the heart of Waikiki.

Flight Attendants

Soon after, I went with the son of a baseball announcer to the top of the stairs of the 10-story portion of the hotel. We peered into a room filled with stewardesses in various states of undress. Finding the image so unbelievable, I laughed and got the flight attendants to disperse with such drama that I and the son ended up running down the sea-green hall toward the elevators.

Beds at an Angle

I remember also necking with one of the baseball announcer’s daughters in a room at the back of the pool full of new and used beds that were leaning against each other but with enough room to get lost in.

Atom Bomb

My uncle’s apartment was filled with electronic gear since he taught at the University of Hawaii in the Physics Department and before that at The University of California at Berkeley, where he taught and helped Edward Teller build the atom bomb. Uncle David provided the electronics expertise. You couldn’t really stay at my uncle’s apartment since there were no seats, just pieces of large electronics equipment and sheets to keep the dust off. There, Uncle David built electronic clocks and computers and programs for weight loss and drawing cowboy hats.

Giant Martinis and Monopoly

We always ended up at “Aunt” Ruth’s. Her place was cozy. We played Monopoly until daybreak and Uncle David drank Black Russians out of giant martini glass-shaped vases, which probably held the equivalent of a bottle of Kalua and a bottle of Vodka with a few floating ice cubes.

Cat got its Tongue

There was a black and white cat named Toby with a giant body and a small head that always had its tongue out and stayed inside one of the many daybed mattresses, where the cat had ripped the sides and crawled in.

Mother’s Pearl

Initially, I lived at 450 and 250 Lewers and then in other places in Waikiki. Toward the end, my uncle left the islands with his girlfriend Ruth and moved to Santa Cruz. After my bad marriage, I moved into the 250 Lewers Suite with my mother. My uncle and Ruth had lived there. It was a four-room suite, including bathroom and kitchen. The common areas were mostly uncluttered. The door to my mother’s room was a cloth-covered lattice. It barricaded the heap of clothes and French Provincial Furniture. Amid the turmoil was a round mother-of-pearl inlaid coffee table. A small trail through the heaps of clothes and things lead to one of two sliding glass doors to balconies stuffed with boxes containing creations (like picnic baskets adorned with artificial flowers) that my mother had made when she was still married to my father. ÊShe carried these things around with her from place to place. After the 25 or so years of her life in the islands, her room was now home to various generations of pigeons and roaches, along the continuum from unhatched to dead. Guano from both species was built up high like adobe huts for the creatures and matted with the fabrics of the contents of the boxes and the smell permeated the suite. Roaches by the thousands ran rampant in those containers and life went on until the manager had asked the long-term residents to leave. By then, I had painted my room turquoise and laid a lemon-yellow carpet, and a loft in his bedroom hallway that was too high and close to the ceiling to sleep in. I built a red desk. I barricaded the sliding glass door and windows with green corrugated fiberglass to block the view of half of the hotel across the street, where Don Ho had his show. I also blocked a view of the Guggenheim Museum-like Sheraton Parking lot at the same time and the back of the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center. I put up the photographs I, and a friend, had taken.

Conversations at the Ice Box

My mother, almost always depressed, suffered migraines. She often slept and came out once in a while and we’d talk. One was inside and one outside of the small kitchen with a refrigerator the size of a 35-inch television.

Crime and Punishment

Funny thing, I never thought of hotel rooms as Theroux did with any erotic tonality. It wasn’t until my relationship with a stewardess that I realized they could be something more than the containers for Crime and Punishment characters.

Fellow Writers and Truth

On page 208, Theroux says that the spoken words of fellow writers can almost make you cry when you realize as those words peeling into the distance are like doves and you are at peace with the craft. “I stared at him,” the autobiographic Theroux relays, “as though at a brave brother voyager from our old planet.”

Leon Edel

The man to whom Theroux refers is Leon Edel, biographer of the great Henry James. Edel is on the beach remarking on the sunset: “‘The red light breaking at the close from under a low somber sky, reached out in a long shaftÉand played over old wainscots, old tapestry, old gold, old color.'”

Hawaii is the Place

The two of them decide that Hawaii is the place to be as on page 210. Theroux remarks to Edel that “‘We’re not crazy. This is the place.'”

The Jewel at the End of the Day

I have often asked myself why I cannot live in Hawaii. It is because it is a jewel that I may not have until I have made a name for myself and a whole lot of money.

Fantasies

Edel is explaining an insight he had of James’ stories. “His stories were his fantasies,” Edel said.

Stranger to Fiction

I never thought to write fantasies. I was always stuck with the weather of what was outside. I never thought to use words as dreams. The recent stretch of films, like Requiem for a Dream or Traffic get closer and closer to reality. For this reason I did not like movies anymore. There was a time when I demanded that movies tell the truth — life is harsh, grim, and sad. We apparently have to learn the hard way. Now, I cannot take it seeing life flashed back as if the screen were a mirror of my loneliness and everyone were a stranger.

Running From Truth

Moreover, as I have espoused since reading Hemingway’s advice, I cannot help but question getting very far from truth since Hemingway advises against it:

“Good writing is true writing. If a man is making a story up it will be true in proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious he is, so that when he makes something up it is as it would truly be. If he doesn’t know how many people work in their minds and actions his luck may save him for a while, or he may write fantasy. But if he continues to write about what he does not know about he will find himself faking. After he fakes a few times he cannot write honestly any more,” – Ernest Hemingway, Esquire, November 1935.

As I try to relay to my ex-girlfriend, to ignore the truth means one must repeat it.

On page 218, Theroux again deals with the issue of staying with the truth because “the alternatives,” he says, “sounded false and fabricated.”

I too have needed to write fact because to not do so is to obscure an already tenuous view. I need to know that I can tell the truth no matter how hard it may be.

Get a Life

On page 381, Theroux’s wife Sweetie looks at him as he is in a bad way with regard to his decision to take on the job as hotel manager. Theroux thinks he hears people talking about him: “He’s put on weight; you can tell he doesn’t belong here; he’s not a happy camper;” or “Oh, yes, he once wrote books!” While most writers feel that they are doing what they were born to do, they also feel alone in their perceptions of place. Like Gods, they come from an all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful perspective as they write about life. They observe it and seldom do they participate. Most writers, articulate and knowledgeable automatically, are narcissistic. Like Theroux, they have to keep themselves in the fray to keep truth close. They are resentful that they are not greater writers like Tolstoy or Shakespeare. Such writers are never present in their writing. So, when his Sweetie says to him: “You just sit and read booksÉ Get a life,” Theroux is penetrated deeply. Ê “Reading for him,” he said, “was like breathing.” He needs books, as all writers do, to keep the stream of consciousness honed into the articulation of self that is purest when it is given the serum inherent in well-wrought words.

Once a Writer

Beyond this, Theroux meets with Edel to confer with the man who might understand his tossing and turning with regard to his station in life. Edel compliments him: “‘You’re a writerÉ That’s a pathological condition.'” Theroux is having a hard time dealing with his inability to write in Hawaii. “‘When the right moment comes,'” Edel continues, “‘You’ll do it well, precisely because of the difficulties you’re describing.'”

But “‘short stories are hard,” Theroux exclaims. “These are hearsay,” he told Edel.

Edel countered him: “Nothing is hearsay. What you’re talking about will come straight out of your heartÉ You’re in the lap of the actual! (p. 382)”

Theroux describes his writing as “the detailed autobiographical fantasies of his fiction (p. 388).” Because of his openness, I am much enamored by Theroux’s writing. I trust him. When Theroux complains about the assertion of his wife that he is jealous of Steven King, for example, he explains that King is not a true novelist. “Horror is a broken leg,” Theroux argues, “it’s not a dog that gets bitten by a diabolical bat and besieges a mother and sonÉ” Theroux’s daughter agrees with him and comes up with an example of her own “that’s worse than a horror story, because it’s real.”

Summing Up

Toward the end of the book, I get a sense of Theroux’s coming to terms with himself as writer self-exiled to Hawaii. And he confirms this on page 420, where he says: “More than ever I was convinced that I was where I wanted to be.” He is positive and joyful. He talks about Hamstra’s various stumbles, falls, and keeling that gave him the reputation of a clown. Theroux laughs as we all do, when Hamstra says that the “best sex he ever had,” was with his current wife “‘Cause she’s wacko (p. 407).”

A White Man’s South

All the characters seem to have lives of their own and are not interfered with just because Theroux is writing an autobiographical account. This is why I like this book, because he is not the only one we are listening to. Theroux has done his work by listening and writing these things down. We never see him except as a storyteller. Through his generosity as a journalist, our lives are enriched. This is a book that I would highly recommend because it accurately portrays life for a white, educated man in Hawaii. Hawaii is a humbling experience.

Hawaii’s Children

On page 80, Theroux relays information about his daughter Rose. She is the product of a local girl whose grandmother had casual sex with a Kennedy then gave birth to Rose’s mother.

Theroux, is a little-known writer to locals, but not to most of us. This is not to say that many locals did not know of Theroux, it is just that their behavior (as he relays it) toward impractical professions, like writing, was not something they would pay attention to. The incognito role Theroux plays, for example, in his place as a hotel manager testifies to my notification of Theroux’s daughter. At a young age, she could do battle with an ancient columnist for the Honolulu Advertiser paper, who as Rose later reveals is sanctimonious. I noticed growing up that the children of Hawaii are both sarcastic and therefore wise beyond their years. Theroux later reveals that in attempting to read Anna Karenina, Rose manifests the argument posed by David Ruenzel. He said, the SAT did not test the ability to summarize an essay’s argument or paraphrase a poem (See: “The SAT and the assault on literature, The San Francisco Chronicle, p. A21, June 12, 2001). Certainly, Rose was a “scanner of textÉ [She] searched not for the soul of a work, but for the indispensable bit of information.” I error because it would seem that Rose knew well the soul of Madam Ma and yet this intuition was just that, it had no certainty within the innocence of her youth.

Feces

Rose might attack the gossip columnist with: “‘Faces’ sounds like ‘feces,'” and give a throaty laugh. “‘I’m not making feces!'” I don’t know how to describe Rose’s brilliance otherwise. She reminds me of many local children in Hawaii who were keen observers and relentlessly sardonic. I only wonder what it meant from a psychological standpoint. Yet Theroux alludes to the weaknesses of even these wise owls. When you think about it, it is easy to insult someone whose problems are revealed to you. Oddly, perhaps, what we see we have seen in ourselves.

Living White in Hawaii

Not only did I note the sarcasm and hurtfulness of many of my brilliant schoolmates as I was growing up, but as it was from day one until I left the islands, I felt as Theroux that being there one had “the feeling of having looked into the window of a house [one] would never be able to enter” (p. 296).

What Hawaii Is

Hawaii is beautiful but you wouldn’t know it as such. It isn’t the Kodak Hula Show although that is beautiful, it isn’t the palm trees and the balmy winds, although it is. It isn’t the people, either… It isn’t anything but the surface and what’s underneath. It’s like wanting to spend every hour enjoying the natural beauty, but realizing you have to work two jobs just to keep a place to sleep at night, it is that you are living on someone else’s land, where your relatives killed theirs (p. 378).

Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson, a Review

The value of a book, or a work of art, lies in its provocation.

On a rotating stand marked: “Perennial Favorites,” (at Pendragon Books in Oakland, California) the reviewer turns to the book Art [Objects] by Jeanette Winterson. (See: http://www.amazon.com/Art-Objects-Essays-Ecstasy-Effrontery/dp/0679768203)

The reviewer goes into a bookstore by ritual and listens with an intent-intuitive eye and surveys the many texts and one always hits him as important. He begins to analyze why. First, its cover, hard, with a semitransparent sheath and lettering, its smallness in his hands, the fact it is about art, a series of essays against the novels he’s been reading, find him welcoming the possibility. He is often hesitant knowing the implication of taking on the responsibility of reading it and attending to the truth about its message in the context of “the deep understanding of life that people ignore.” This is Tolstoy’s bent on the purpose of art.

Second, Winterson’s other texts, like Sexing the Cherry or Written on the Body come highly recommended.

Third, the reviewer feels it is time to try and finish another book, like that of the former Pulitzer prize-winning reviewer of architecture for The San Francisco Chronicle, Allen Temko, whose book No Way To Build A Ballpark was like Winterson’s, in that it had the semitransparent sheath and opinions of essays, which in the case of Temko were redundant and less and less interesting as the pages turned. Truth is a delicate thing. It borders on karma, attention, and knowledge. The reviewer begins the journey with only the probable intuition that it is time he met Ms. Winterson.

By definition, the title Art [Objects] implies the insertion of “Objects” by Winterson to clarify the subject of “Art.” Her “Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery” deal with forms of bliss and audacity, perhaps.

Without turning a page, the reviewer ponders.

Oddly, after the thank yous, Winterson introduces an argument: “If truth is that which lasts, then art…prove[s] truer than any…endeavour. …certain[ly]…pictures and poetry…are not marks in time but…through time…[are] living…[and] exuberantly, untired.” It seems she is interested in truth also. She defines art as truth given its lasting quality. That quality is a living exuberance. She is telling us that art is a positive thing.

Stopped by a painting, Winterson, tells of a canvas with “Renaissance beauty,” but that which also possessed a “modernity.” It was a picture of “a haunted woman in [a] blue robe pulling a huge moon face through a subterranean waterway.” Already, the reviewer imagines a “moon face” pulled by a woman and he cannot get beyond the image, how it might not have stopped him “in Amsterdam one snowy Christmas.” He conceded to the fact of individual tastes long ago or at least to the strength of arguments to convince him of the validity of art works. Having taken studio art courses, the reviewer remembers the eloquence of an idea about works of art. Often there were things he couldn’t possibly have picked out about a work that another elaborated. That was the value of experience in assessing a work of art. Still, he questions the symbol of a moon face. Perhaps in the manner of a Magritte painting, the moon face might have cathartic value. Perhaps in the context of “the quality of the draughtsmanship, the brushstrokes in thin oils,” this painting had artistic merit. Still, the reviewer questions the thousand words that might come from it. Were they worth repeating?

Winterson found consolation in a bookstore as the painting caused her heart to flood away. There, at least, she “knew” books despite their profound power over her. She admitted to not having an interest in the “visual arts.” There she knew nothing and got little from the realm. Then she “had fallen in love and…had no language.” She argues the position of one of the reviewer’s photography professors, who at the time said regarding his assertion, that all people could understand art, that this was not true. The professor said art was sophisticated and all individuals were not endowed an inherent understanding. The reviewer argued that he could describe what the artist was telling him or anyone because of the contents, which could be defined in terms of the English language, drawn from a number of “words” strung into sentences, paragraphs and stories. The world of art can be communicated, he said. In fact, the reviewer gave a talk on “The Definitive Analysis of Photography,” wherein he “read” photographs as if they were articles.

Winterson said the painting’s image represented a foreign country, wherein she could not communicate. She said, “Only a boor would ignore [its customs and language] and blame his defaulting on the place.” She said, “We deceive ourselves when we think [art is] familiar.” The reviewer wondered whether he is deceived or whether he has an insight into the meaning of art and thus his inherent understanding or at least communicative talents separate him.

If the reader can understand Winterson’s response to a work of art, and perhaps a shared difficulty in describing just what it is that makes something beautiful, then Winterson’s argument for the language of art as “not our mother-tongue” forgets that we can describe what we see, perhaps standing side-by-side before a work of art, and freely associating a position that the other person can understand. Here is where the reviewer disagrees with Winterson. For the reviewer, the language of art was the language of the observer responding to the artist’s communication. It’s that old statement: If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear it does it make a sound? According to Tolstoy, art is the deep understanding of life that people ignore. Perhaps Winterson was merely ignoring art and was enlightened through the attention she paid.

She said also that art was “Odd, and the common method of trying to fit it into the scheme of things…cannot succeed.” The reviewer wondered. For him, art was reality. It spoke of the important things, about the depth of the human condition, about balance and character, about subtleties of right and wrong. It proved that there were things one had to do to make a composition work. Art is a perfect metaphor for life, the reviewer realized. Life is a lesson, not a playground.

Winterson does an amazing thing by picking one or two paintings in a museum and spends the afternoon with them. The reviewer remembers reviewing entire shows with abbreviated results. Still, at times, he remembers needing only to say a few things and then that was it. There was always, it seemed, something the reviewer brought with him, an internal-having-experienced-the-external context, a projection that he used to describe the images in a museum or show.

The reviewer is delighted with Winterson’s pact with a painting. She said, “Supposing we…agreed to sit…and look at it, on our own…for one hour.” She asks standard questions, however, that are not necessarily her own and the reviewer wonders. Questions, like, “Is it a landscape…is it a nude” are obvious and unnecessary. The first question, however, about what the painting is about is the essence of an observation.

Winterson relates the work to herself, which the reviewer advocates. Still, she expects something more from the painting – that it “admire” her. After all, she said, “Admire me is the sub-text of so much of our looking; the demand put on art that it should reflect the reality of the viewer.” What the viewer admits in his view of art is that he brings something to the assessment. Perhaps, Winterson is correct in suggesting the observer leave his response at home. A good example of how this debate manifests itself is seen in the differences between a review by Michael Tortorello of the book Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (See: Hungry Mind Review) and a review of the same but by this reviewer (See: Ed’s Internet Book Review). Tortorello’s review relates the character and style of Wallace’s text without the noise of himself in the review. This reviewer however starts his review of Infinite Jest with an unsubstantiated assertion as to the character of the author as seen through his prose, which is a reviewing faux pas because the writer could purposely effect a personae. Tortorello reiterates the look and feel of Infinite Jest, while this reviewer dabbles in a number of “I remember the time…”

In a mere seven pages, Winterson has made this reviewer think about every line. Whether the reviewer agrees or not, she has taken him into the most delicate ache of philosophical contemplation and brought him to intellectual joy. He craves every line and loves holding her…this, her mind and they share the genre of Art [Objects].

Perhaps reviewer and book writer have come full circle when Winterson said in close paraphrase of Tolstoy: “If art, all art, is concerned with truth, then a society in denial will not find much use for it.”

Still, in the next line she said, “In the West, we avoid painful encounters with art by…familiarizing it.” Yet, how else do we feel art unless we relate it? How do we know of its lessons – it is the mirror to our souls – if we do not see it as a parable? We love Cezanne’s and Hockney’s work; we cannot help but love them. No one ruins the artist, as Winterson relates, no one makes it difficult for them.

The reviewer agrees with her when she said “true artists, major or minor,” are connected with the past and future. He does not agree with her: “The true artist studies the past,” except that perhaps she clarifies her “studies” as “interest…in the…process…the problem.” She is correct in saying: “Our job is to keep our receiving equipment in good working order.”

The reviewer senses without substantiation that Winterson sees herself, if not consciously then perhaps subconsciously as an artist. She pleads for our understanding and support. We hold her book in our hands and say we do, we have, “We love you.”

We are with Winterson at every line, floating on the air of the artist’s whirlwind, which is to say we are light with philosophical wandering, we step into the inner world of hopes and dreams.

As Winterson relates to “the plain confused” or to an “arrogance of the audience,” we know to what she refers. We have been there, we have ached to be set free from our ignorance, our inadequacy, we have traveled the museum hallways and wanted to run outside yelling: “Enough!” The ambiance is heavy. Few can take it. The artworks are like long, long books or windows into complex dioramas. Everyone knows his limits.

The reviewer both takes exception and agrees with the note that “The media ransacks the arts, in its little tunes and journalist’s jargon,” for example, and smiles because Winterson is more “the media” than most of us who read her.

Winterson said, “To profess a love of painting and not have anything original is as peculiar as a booklover with nothing on her shelves.” This is too easy. She forgets the difference in cost between the genre. We understand her attempt at persuasion.

After 18 pages – the first essay – we have taken a journey and maybe longer than the hour standing before a painting. Winterson is the provocateur of our thoughts on the realm of art and there we have been touched by the art of writing.

Winterson’s second essay Writer, Reader, Words is introduced with an italicized statement: “The writer is an instrument of transformation.”

The writer is an instrument, not a violin. The reviewer does not mean to be smug. He seeks to feel the full effect of her command of the language and depth of her idea. The writer is an instrument – a tool to transform – “to change the nature, function, or condition of; convert.” The reviewer waits. He enjoys the beauty of Winterson’s thoughts – simple, simple beauty of words and ideas.

She reminds the reviewer with her: “How will the artist support herself if she has no private funds?” (page 34), which sounds so much like the statements in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. See page 4, in A Room…, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Winterson is less concerned with the differences in gender than Woolf and rightly so. Woolf inspired the reviewer to write in her pages a response to the statement: “Every penny I earn, they may have said, will be taken from me and disposed of according to my husband’s wisdom.” The reviewer wrote: “Leaving it up to a man, how pitiful, not developing a mind of one’s own, at least attempting some control of one’s life. At least, utter these truths and by virtue of their appointed sounds you might hear them trickle differently upon your ears, whatever you are, whatever those voices, they must be heard and attended to like life’s devices and the winding of the clock; as time is ticking so are your aspirations, like aborted hopes still and bloodied by neglect.” And because of her statement: “Women do not write books about men,” the reviewer pitied Woolf, who was preoccupied with the need to be taken care of.

Winterson, on the other hand, simply acknowledges the equality of great writers and readers as having a connection – a “love of language.” Winterson “can only offer what she has ever offered; an exceptional sensibility combined with an exceptional control over words.” Winterson knew the sacrifice of this work with words. “Writers [not defined as male or female],” she said, “are fighters, they have to be…” Winterson never mentions the need of a place to write. She is too smart for that. It is all about words. Even Woolf states plainly in the end, “that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women…”

Winterson said, “A true writer will create a separate reality and her atoms and her gases are words.”

“Testimony Against Gertrude Stein” is Winterson’s third essay. It interests the reviewer because Gertrude Stein wrote an autobiography, which according to Winterson tried to achieve “a different kind of reality.” Winterson equates biography with portrait and autobiography with self-portrait.

Although, Winterson is revealing the absurdity of the testimony weighed against Stein, the reviewer is drawn to her explanation of Stein’s work in that “Modernism fights against the fixity of form, not to invite an easy chaos but to rebuild new possibilities.” The reviewer wrote a failed autobiography because it proved no one wants to read about real life. Real life is filled with down time, with things mediocre. It plods on with space between major events, which are at times the silent culmination of transition. Winterson is concerned with protecting and advocating Stein’s method of autobiography, which is to “take a genre and smash it.”

She forgets that an autobiography is an account of a person’s life written by that person. How boring, the reviewer knows, but who else fathoms that person as well and wouldn’t the writing reveal the personality of the writer? Still, the reviewer is concerned with this issue of autobiography because, for him the act of describing reality as he recognized it, is a difficult process and certainly undeserving of smashing. The reviewer, frankly, wanted to apprehend the “stream of consciousness,” as an autobiographical element, as opposed to a mere accounting. The stream of consciousness is the still, small voice. It is to speak what is important.

No matter how Winterson gets there, she sets the reviewer at ease with “Against daily insignificance art recalls to us possible sublimity. It cannot do this if it is merely a reflection of actual life.” The reviewer thought he could touch his audience with real life. Apparently, “Our real lives are elsewhere. Art finds them.” Perhaps this is where the realist and romantic can agree or at least come to terms with the deep satisfaction they both get when, with sense of humor, the realist laughs into his mirror and the romantic succeeds with parable.

Winterson asked: “Instead of art aspiring toward lifelikeness what if life aspires towards art, towards a creative, controlled focus of freedom, outside the tyranny of matter?” She said, “We have to be careful not to live in a state of constant self-censorship, where whatever conflicts with our world-view is dismissed or diluted until it ceases to be a bother.” The realist is traveling the same avenue. He wants us to reevaluate the seeming innocence of the cast, to see the subtext, to see that it is not just a view but a message.

As the reviewer watched the movie The Crucible, for example, he remembered with awkwardness that an inattention to love (truth) was to lie. It is the great tragedy of our times, of all times. In every facet of our lives, we have failed when we haven’t gone with what our hearts told us. Love is complicated. In The Crucible it turned out to be the gentleness of Daniel Day Lewis and his wife. What of the passion between Lewis and Ryder? The reviewer knows he misunderstands the evil of Ryder, but in terms of letting ourselves respond to…[art, the reviewer was] clearing a space where new stories [could] root…” He was edgy when he left the theater.

The reviewer appreciates Winterson. “It may be that to understand ourselves as fictions,” she said, “is to understand ourselves as fully as we can.”

In Winterson’s fourth essay, “A Gift Of Wings,” Winterson turns to the debate of women and their harnesses. What fools they are, the reviewer writes. Who knows of life and oneself, Winterson should know by her advice, that no one harnesses another in the sense that they cannot rise up and employ themselves, to practice always that sacrifice that knows life is down and dirty, and almost no one is ever pleased with blows to their complacency. For truth hurts. It is wise. The reviewer knows also that about that which we complain is about which we are guilty.

No one “pretends that God, Nature or the genepool designed [women] lame,” as Winterson suggested. Perhaps, as this reviewer has been known to consider, he cannot understand why a woman would want to have a child. There is nothing more that he would question of a woman’s right. He acknowledges that that need is valid and if he were in part responsible for such a birth, he would follow through and play the role of father. Perhaps there is a social pressure instilled by a “world run by men” that their inherent desires are made manifest, if not consciously than unconsciously. Just as easily, in a society of gentlemen, which should be the case, and should be fought for, women’s rights are equal to that of men’s. Still, do not be deceived, for there have always been women just as there have always been men. Why, the reviewer asks, do women complain at this late date? Learn what men already know that life is as simple as a series of decisions toward a point. There is no one to blame but oneself, for in the end it is only a question of direction and action with constant reminders along the way (as to how far one has gone). Comparisons are always wrong. Why would a woman compare herself to a man? The journey, as someone once said, is no one’s but the person walking. They can slow down if need be and let the world pass. We are not here for any purpose than what we, as individuals, know.

Woolf was not valid when she mentioned “a measure of economic independence, some privacy, some security, freedom to travel alone, freedom from domestic interruption, and a proper education, would release and redirect a woman’s creativity.” On all these counts, a man is just as wishful. No one can guarantee, even the least of these: The “freedom to travel alone.” It was a friend who said a friend of a friend, a male, traveled into Thailand with his camera and was later found dead. When ambitions clash, the stronger usually wins.

We do applaud those women, Winterson, who like men like them “have been setting themselves apart for centuries.” There is joy, even as the reviewer may criticize Winterson because he recognizes the eloquence and the truth of blame.

The reviewer is glad Winterson returns to the words of Woolf, for here is the argument, and the reviewer concurs that Woolf was a “great writer.” Like Woolf and Stein, according to Winterson, however, they may have “perfectly understood the problem;” they were no geniuses of a kind Woolf refers to Shakespeare as “androgynous.” They do not possess, with these arguments as example, “the androgynous mind [that] is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided…the fully developed mind,” Woolf said, “[is] that it does not think especially or separately of sex.” “Why don’t they practice what they preach?” the reviewer questions of Winterson and Woolf when they get to ranting?

Winterson knows “lesser writers,” who with “watery impressionism” cannot “draw the world out, [by] breaking the air with colour and the beat of life.” Or with “the under footman,” Winterson is admitting to a hierarchy of “better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” These are dispositions associated with humans.

Winterson assumes that art is gender-biased, that it is burdened by the vehicle, that Picasso is a household name and Woolf is merely a “screen queen.” For the reviewer, Woolf has always been the greater icon because she has helped hone his writing and Picasso told him, not in so many words, what he shouldn’t make, for fear of copying.

While admitting to the power of art, Winterson assumes that we allow the battering of the media. She forgets that she is the media and in her homeopathic ways, we are reminded of the healing capacity of art. Discretion, even of the philosophical voice-overs must be maintained; while the heart tells of subtle disagreements with assertions, we “have a chance…to discover the true meaning of authority…[which is not] being critical or judgmental… [it is] without haughtiness or cruelty… [To] learn to feel secure within [one]self…and change [from] being an authority to being authentic.” (See: Ralfee Finn’s Cancer astrology for the week of January 3-9, 1997 in The East Bay Express (a San Francisco Area, USA) weekly. Finn advises a week later that to become spiritual leaders we must focus on manifesting our vision by being true to ourselves and recognizing how far we’ve come.)

Winterson’s passage from Woolf’s Orlando (page 67) reveals that Woolf knew the motivations of most men. They were often truthful and valiant or they grew angry that they could be blamed for thinking anything less than to have and to hold, to love and to cherish…when they called on a woman.

Winterson said of D. H. Lawrence that he “could never resist” complaining, or like a woman, who resent[s] the treatment of her sex and plead[s] for its rights.” He was a “working man…who for some reason is conscious of a disability.” There were exceptions, as Winterson showed through a passage by Woolf that, “The genius of Jane Austen and Emily Bronte [for example] is never more convincing than in their power to ignore such claims…” The reviewer concludes that one must not complain to be a great writer but to speak in metaphor, to rise above the petty squabble of one’s place against hope. Winterson said: “Control over…material means control over more than ideas and passions…”

In Winterson’s fifth essay, “A Veil Of Words,” she seeks an answer to the question: “What is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing?” In language, for example, is one’s communication getting through as intended? “Communication,” Winterson said, “depends on more than words.”

“For [the] poet,” Winterson said, “a word carries…an abundance of meanings.” A poet uses words to “accommodate him…inevitably their innovations become the stock of language.” She relates to the need of a poet to avoid the development and practice of a “wholly private language,” which is what Milton and James Joyce erected.

Brilliantly, Winterson explores Woolf’s motivations for stating of Joyce’s Ulysses that “‘a great work of art should not be boring'”. Winterson thought Woolf said this because of “the schoolboy scrum of codes and jokes and back-handers, at once self-advertising and self-obscuring.”

Fascinating is Winterson’s advocacy of Woolf’s book The Waves because in so doing, she exemplifies the need for one not to “play a piece of music at twice the speed of the score…[but] to get used to the writer’s rhythm, to move with a writer’s own beat… A real book needs real time.”

Here, Winterson addresses us with regard to the pace of reading: “Reviewers, who can never waste more than an hour with a book, are the most to blame. Journalism encourages haste; haste in the writer, haste in the reader, and haste is the enemy of art.”

In perhaps her most important line, Winterson reveals a secret for writers: “Exactness allows intimacy.” If this isn’t enough to shut our mouths even for a moment and wait for the perfect words on a date, for example, then I don’t know what will. She calls it a harmony of form. The reviewer calls it a clarification of the moment, the great drawing in and synthesis, the edification, the verisimilitude, the sigh of good taste and discipline made manifest.

Above all, the reviewer must state that Winterson’s collection of essays is as she speaks of Woolf’s The Waves: “It never tires and it never fades.”

In Winterson’s seventh essay, “Imagination And Reality,” she returns to the issue of art being “much more than the daily life of you and me…the original role of the artist [is] visionary. Perhaps, as the reviewer has concentrated for so long on the difficulty of the mere capture of daily life, he forgets that as Winterson stated earlier: “Art must resist autobiography if it hopes to cross boundaries…” Further clarification reveals that she believes that the writer “must not fall into the trap of believing that…passion, of itself, is art.”

“All art,” Winterson said, “including literature, is much more that its subject matter.”

Still, the reviewer is not lost. “Art is visionary…” Winterson said. “It sees beyond the view from the window… The artist…consider[s] reality multiple and complex.”

Winterson finalizes her condemnation of something the reviewer might have written when she said: “Art is not documentary,” no matter his argument that what he wrote sought to reveal the depth and complexity of real life. Perhaps, to save himself, the reviewer is again consoled by the possibility of his work opening readers to the “dimensions of the spirit and of the self that normally lie smothered under the weight of living.”

The reviewer is pummeled by Winterson’s reference to “People who claim to like pictures and books [by responding only] to those pictures and books in which they can clearly find themselves. This is ego masquerading as taste.” Remembering, for example, a page in the Express, (January 17, 1997, p. 43) the reviewer responded vehemently to a picture called by the paper as representing a “Benchmark” photographic exhibition. Coincidentally, the gallery hosting the work of Alan Blaustein was about a block away from his apartment. He collected his portfolio immediately, stormed down to the gallery with one shoelace broken, quickly surveyed the work, asked how he could “get in here,” and when he was told the earliest was 1999, he huffed that he was better, presented his card and left. The reviewer drafted the following and sent it to the Express:

As if his works were a ship, I could sink him with my own. That you would “benchmark” a series of plain images with merits only of hand coloring, filed negative-carrier manipulation, and places in France, for example, relates to a bleeding heart for exotica depicted in snap shots. It is as if you couldn’t tell the difference between mere documentary and art, which bleeds with metaphor and varying levels of meaning. I am sorry to say my colleague has done nothing graceful with the medium, except to go someplace we wish we could afford and plant his tripod (perhaps he held the camera) and point and shoot. Thoughtless depiction, you, of the “Benchmark” image, for, there were little momentos that transcended place because they were carefully arranged within their frames. It is these little voices of Alan Blaustein’s on view at the Christen Heller Gallery that will take you along a cathartic tour of yourself. As you stand there in love with the prudent compositions, the balance and harmony of form in some of the little frames, you will understand an aesthetic consciousness that seems to govern France. Thus, the transcendence as you will note, is that you take your eyes off the images, in the case of some of the little ones, and you are thinking now of beauty-truth (ah, the paradox), not as with the larger ones, where you question the noise of his coloring or filed negative carrier results, which aren’t bad employments in and of themselves. It is just that they have to add not detract from the total effervescent journey. There is power in the place (France), in the place (Oakland) – in context – that conjures yearning for the eloquence of the idea of the artist’s eye that transmits the beauty, as he sees it, which is a discretionary beauty.

The reviewer thought he was “recognizing the worth of a thing…[rather than merely] recognizing its worth to [him].” He thought he knew from portfolio reviews as a student and the constant comparisons with other “lesser” images that he was bringing wisdom to his stomping to the gallery and stomping back. Still, as the reviewer questions his motivations and sanity, he feels the condemnation apt. He would do it again and argue the validity of his points.

Winterson said, “The act of writing…is an evolution… The unrolling of the secret scroll, the thing suspected but not realized until present.” Perhaps the reviewer realizes as he sits in a room filled with light that “The writer has to have ready the accumulation of what [he] is… The working together of writer and word is a process more confident and more obvious the more the writer learns to trust what it is [he] does…

“To live for art…is to live a life of questioning,” Winterson said. Whereas the reviewer, caught as a waiter and disappointed with what life offers, decides to make “choices that allow [him] to go on working at maximum output and with utmost concentration.” Uncertain as to what that may mean, he waits for Winterson to continue. Luckily, Winterson said she was born to a certain lack of conveniences and she is attracted to a simple fire that she sets ablaze when cold.

The reviewer sits in an apartment – not grand, but similar to places he originated in, and which is within his means. The gas heater there is adequate to fill the room with what has been 30-degree weather. He too goes to movies, not the Opera, and the local shops. He will follow the advice of Winterson, who advises through a quote by Woolf from A Room Of One’s Own that: “If we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think…if we face the fact…that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and…that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”

The reviewer, like Trollope, accordingly can be blamed for the previous insertion (about his works as a ship) since they too prove an “accumulation of detail for its own sake.” But, he does love words, this reviewer, and he seeks an exactness in his statements. He just cannot tell stories.

Winterson said of new writers that they come not with miracles. The reviewer would hope that he possesses “a high degree of technical ability and a distinctive note which has nothing to do with subject matter.” On the issue of discipline, with the insertion as example, he knows when he should not, but he does anyway.

Winterson said of T. S. Eliot that he admired “a sensibility that could absorb awkward ‘unpoetic’ material and render it through fresh images into emotional experience. To do that demands a concentration away from Self, an impersonality that allows other realities to find a voice that is more than reported speech… The space that art creates is space outside of a relentless self, a meditation that gives both release and energy.”

Winterson has written in Art [Objects] a provocation that stands before us as a mirror, for those of us who write, who wannabe, she tells a story of “Style; sensibility and technique distinctively brought together, [to] free the writer from the weight of [his] own personality, [which] gives to her an incandescence of personality, so that…[he] can express…more than, other than, what [he] is.” – Mario Savioni, all rights reserved, less content provided by Jeanette Winterson. First created by Mario Savioni, April 15, 2002.