Lock up don’t shut up

“ … they locked themselves up and kept hid till the plague was over; and many families, foreseeing the approach of the distemper, laid up stores of provisions sufficient for their whole families, and shut themselves up, and that so entirely that they were neither seen or heard of till the infection was quite ceased, and then came abroad sound and well.”

(Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, 1722)

“P. 145: Robinson Crusoe called “formulaic, repetitive, boring.” WHAT have you been smoking? BORING? You’re breaking my heart. FORMULAIC? Defoe INVENTED the formula (not the same as previous shipwreck narratives–radically different)–a formula subsequently imitated in tons of fiction. REPETITIVE? For very good & original reasons. See Defoe and Fictional Time. To redeem yourself (maybe), just take it into a room, lock the door, and re-read it, carefully, four times. Make that five. No penance could be easier & more fun, right?”

(from Paul Alkon’s notes on the manuscript for Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder. Email correspondence, 2013)


I have been thinking a lot recently about my friend and fellow dix-huitiémiste Paul K. Alkon, who died suddenly in January. Mostly I’ve been thinking about him because he was my friend and I miss him, but I’ve also been wondering what he would have made of the current moment in which we find ourselves.

Paul had an extraordinary range of passions and fields of expertise, but one of his earliest and abiding interests was in Daniel Defoe, and Defoe’s influence on later science fiction writers. In The Origins of Futuristic Fiction (1987), Paul shows how early nineteenth-century attempts to render “the phenomenology of apocalypse” like Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s 1805 epic poem, Le dernier homme and Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, The Last Man, drew upon Robinson Crusoe as a “saga of isolation” (167, 190).

Of course, it was not only Crusoe but also Defoe’s vivid portrayal of plague-ridden London in A Journal of the Plague Year that left its imprint on fictions like Shelley’s Last Man, which portrays, as Paul describes in his 2002 book, Science Fiction Before 1900, a “devastating plague set in a twenty-first century future” (25). The line of influence here is clear enough; less obvious, perhaps, is the affinity Paul observes between Defoe’s Journal and Horace Walpole’s genre-making gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), both of which Paul characterizes as experiments in historical fiction in the mode later developed by Walter Scott (25).

Paul’s discernment of something gothic in Defoe’s realism also, I think, informs his observation that it was not Defoe’s lunar voyage narratives but rather Robinson Crusoe that gave later writers a compelling account of “alien encounter” (24). As Paul writes, “the print of a man’s naked foot” in the sand that terrifies Crusoe marks the possibility of a presence that is “both human and alien (24).

Paul doesn’t describe this moment as uncanny; but, given that he discusses Crusoe as an instantiation of Darko Suvin’s concept of cognitive estrangement—an effect in which, as in the uncanny, the familiar is made strange—I think he might have allowed that part of what terrifies Crusoe about the footprint is that it is at once alien and familiar. As such, the footprint raises the possibility that the alien that produced the footprint might be Crusoe himself, who owns that he is not in his right mind but “like a man perfectly confused and out of myself … mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man.” [1]

Note, by the way, here, the importance of the simile: what Crusoe admits is not that he is “out of [him]self” but that he is like “a man perfectly confused and out of [him]self.” That like is the only thing standing between Crusoe and madness, and, as such, it operates as the linguistic equivalent of the footprint, which is also a likeness, a delicate similitude that at once aligns Crusoe with and distinguishes him from the specter of the other by which he is haunted.

That iconic footprint in the sand dramatizes what I think of as being the gothic’s most unsettling twist: the barbarians are always already inside the gates. [2] I don’t mean that this idea is unsettling because of the xenophobic fear that the trope of barbarians-at-the-gates stirs up—even though, clearly, that trope is explicitly at play in Robinson Crusoe: the footprint indicates to Crusoe that a foreign other—whose barbarity is presumed—has already set foot on the island. Rather, I’m thinking of the idea that the novel also raises—both in having Crusoe express his own doubts as to his own sanity, and in having him eventually acknowledge Friday as the better Christian—that Crusoe himself is the real barbarian. And if it is Crusoe who is the barbarian who is already inside the gates, he is also a Manfred, that is, a version of Walpole’s usurping king who begins to suspect the jig is up in The Castle of Otranto.

When the barbarians are already inside the gates, the question is only how far inside (see A Stranger Calls, Us, Parasite, and any fiction featuring evil alter-egos from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde onwards). This uncertainty feels particularly palpable at this moment, in which, as in Defoe’s Journal, we feel, all of us, in the impossible position of trying to escape an enemy whose presence we can’t detect until it’s too late. Tell me you don’t relate when you read this passage from Defoe’s Journal:

It was very sad to reflect how such a person as this last mentioned above had been a walking destroyer perhaps for a week or a fortnight before that; how he had ruined those that he would have hazarded his life to save, and had been breathing death upon them, even perhaps in his tender kissing and embracings of his own children. Yet thus certainly it was, and often has been, and I could give many particular cases where it has been so. If then the blow is thus insensibly striking—if the arrow flies thus unseen, and cannot be discovered—to what purpose are all the schemes for shutting up or removing the sick people? Those schemes cannot take place but upon those that appear to be sick, or to be infected; whereas there are among them at the same time thousands of people who seem to be well, but are all that while carrying death with them into all companies which they come into. (Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year).

When I read this passage, I imagine I see something of the affinity that Paul might have seen between Journal of the Plague Year and The Castle of Otranto. As portrayed in this passage, the infected person inadvertently “breath[es] death” upon his own children.” As such, Defoe’s “walking destroyer” embodies the qualities Walpole later personifies in the villainous Manfred, whose capacity for destruction surprises even himself when he mistakenly stabs and kills his own daughter. [3]

It’s a terrifying thought: not the thought that you might accidentally stab your daughter when you were actually trying to stab your daughter in law—that’s on Manfred—but rather the thought of kisses and embraces being unknowingly weaponized. I’m haunted by the idea that we might, any of us, find ourselves turned murderers through some similar act of careless negligence.

I find myself hugging and kissing my children even more frequently and tightly now, somewhat to their bemusement. They are not here this weekend, and the prospect of the days that stretch before me that won’t include any human touch is bleak—though not as bleak, I know, as the prospect facing those of you who live alone full time. But it’s that sense of anticipatory loss and isolation that I think has moved me to write and post this dispatch this weekend. I know no-one can hug me through the ether—which seems deeply unfair, by the way, since apparently the virus can transmit itself through the ether. But still, locked in as we all are, we can’t completely shut ourselves up or off.

I find myself taking comfort in Paul’s mock-stern injunction to me to revisit his 1979 book Defoe and Fictional Time: “just take it into a room, lock the door, and re-read it, carefully, four times. Make that five.” He was being facetious—sort of; he, after all, he had just taken the time to read, very carefully, my own book manuscript—but I also like the way his injunction imagines locking yourself away, not as a retreat from the world but rather as an act of devotion to the particular kind of intimacy that comes from reading and rereading someone else’s words.

Defoe and Fictional Time

I don’t actually own Defoe and Fictional Time, though I have read it before—sort of, meaning, I’ve read it the way I read a lot of books while writing—by browsing the index, scanning the opening chapter, and picking, gingerly, scavenger-like, through the rest. Defoe and Fictional Time is partially available on Google books, and I started reading it today—actually reading it, from the beginning. I turned eagerly to the Acknowledgements—usually my favorite part of any scholarly monograph—sure that Paul’s wit and style would be on display. But his Acknowledgements were disappointingly terse and impersonal and I felt a pang of grief that I wasn’t going to find the Paul I knew in these pages.

Nonetheless I pressed on and kept scrolling past the references and abbreviations and on to the first chapter. And then I started laughing and laughing and almost crying. And then I texted my beloved friend Emily, to whom Paul introduced me it must be 15 years ago now, because I was just pregnant with my now 14-year old son, and she immediately texted back and she and I laughed together over text.

The first sentence of Defoe and Fictional Time is:


“Defoe often mentions time.”


And all of a sudden there he was: wry and deadpan and alive on the page. I’m actually crying as I type this; I think all kinds of grief: old, present, anticipatory, are becoming rolled together; but it’s OK.

The second sentence of Defoe and Fictional Time is: “He makes the reader’s hours interesting.” Now I felt chastened and heard anew Paul’s indignant, “BORING? You’re breaking my heart” as defending not only Defoe’s words, but also Paul’s own words, here.

To make the reader’s hours interesting; isn’t that what we all want, as both writers and readers? We certainly have a lot of hours ahead of us now to fill even as hours are now the largest unit in which I feel confident predicting the future.

Exchanging words feels like one of the few kinds of intimacy left to us now. I’m going to keep writing in the hours and whatever-longer-units-of-time that lie ahead. I hope to keep reading too. Paul, in the person of “Paul K. Anonymous” was this blog’s most avid interlocutor. It saddens me to think that I can no longer look forward to the whimsical and witty responses he would often post in response to my posts.

Where are the bloody rest of you? Don’t tell me you don’t have time: I know you have time. It’s criminal, is what it is, the non-reciprocal nature of this blogging racket.

You’re breaking my heart.

But don’t worry; it’s not too late. To redeem yourself (maybe), just take yourself into a room, lock the door, and write and re-write your musings, carefully, four times. Make that five. And then press “send.” No penance could be easier & more fun, right?



[1] Paul might have allowed this; on the other hand Paul certainly took issue, in his notes on my manuscript, with my sometimes fast and loose invocation of the concept of estrangement: “unless distinctions of degree are made,” he scolded, “saying estrangement is inherent in the phenomenology of reading is about as useful as saying there is always weather.”

[2] It’s not clear where the phrase “barbarians at the gates” comes from; but it’s an image that Edward Gibbon invokes in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89) in reference to the Goths (the northerners who overthrew the Roman empire), the OG barbarians. The sense of Goth meaning “one who behaves like a barbarian” becomes current in the eighteenth century (OED).

[3] Manfred doesn’t mean to kill Matilda; he’s just not paying attention: “I took thee for Isabella,” he explains to her. Oops!


Social distancing, vintage edition

“ … all these Reflections are just History of a State of forc’d Confinement, which in my real History is represented by a confin’d Retreat in an Island; and ‘tis as reasonable to represent one kind of Imprisonment by another, as it is to represent any Thing that really exists, by that which exists not.”

(Daniel Defoe, Preface, Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1720)


The LIfe

Further adventures, forthcoming.



Day 218: a capacity for withdrawal

I was reading a book recently (Helen Thompson’s Fictional Matter (2016)) that cited a line from John Locke I couldn’t stop thinking about: “What sort of outside is the certain sign that there is, or is not such an inhabitant within?”

The line is from Chapter 4 of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), “Of the Reality of Knowledge.” Locke poses this question in the context of considering whether the shape of a body necessarily reflects its essence. Locke does not think that shape is a reliable index of a substance’s essence; but he notes that, in general, we are apt to conflate shape with essence: “people do lay the whole stress on the figure, and resolve the whole essence of the species of man (as they make it) into the outward shape,” he observes. Locke notes that this tendency is particularly pronounced when it comes to making distinctions between species. We assume, falsely, Locke believes, that “these two names, man and beast, stand for distinct species so set out by real essences, that there can come no other species between them.”

The duck-rabbit would seem to perfectly illustrate Locke’s point about the fallacy of such an assumption. The fact that it can switch between two distinct species shows that shape does not determine essence. Moreover, the duck-rabbit’s identity as neither duck nor rabbit but as duck-rabbit vividly illustrates Locke’s point that the range of species concepts available to us does not determine that there might not “be a species of an animal between, or distinct from both.”

Let me now rephrase Locke’s question: if a duck-rabbit is your outward sign, what does that tell you about the inhabitant within?

I don’t know the answer to that question; but I have reflected recently that my insides and outsides feel much more closely aligned than ever before. For much of my life I felt that my insides were just too much—too soft (which, come to think of it, they are, not to mention gooey and bloody), too desirous, too fearful, too selfish, too scattered, too lazy, too sentimental—and that, lest anybody suspect such a frightful mess lurked just beneath the surface it was important to project an outside sign—serene, thoughtful, happy, competent, disciplined, altruistic, hard-working—that might plausibly suggest—and might even conjure?—those traits within.

My midlife crisis (my first midlife crisis?), I realize in retrospect, consisted of the revelation that this exercise wasn’t working out terribly well. I was arranging my life in ways to fulfill the desires I attributed to the person I wanted to be, not the person I was. I began cautiously experimenting with voicing thoughts outside my own head that chipped away at the exterior persona I had built. I remember how truly terrifying it felt to say, haltingly, ashamedly, in my first appointment with the referring psychiatrist I saw, “I’m … not … happy.”

In the past five years, this blog has been one way I’ve experimented with exteriorizing my insides, an experiment that has mostly been deeply rewarding. But lately I’ve also had the nagging feeling that my insides and outsides have become too closely aligned. I feel like a Momus glass, as if everyone can peer in and see the maggots within. I look good stark naked, but still. The line between feeling seen and feeling exposed is a fine one.

One of my favorite essays by Winnicott is “Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites.” (If you would like to read it, let me know, I can send you a pdf.)

Winnicott tells a story in that essay about a patient:

The patient said that in childhood (nine years) she had a stolen school book in which she collected poems and sayings, and she wrote in it ‘My private book’. On the front page she wrote: ‘What a man thinketh in his heart, so is he’. In fact her mother had asked her: ‘Where did you get this saying from?’ This was bad because it meant that the mother must have read her book. It would have been all right if the mother had read the book but had said nothing. Here is a picture of a child establishing a private self that is not communicating, and at the same time wanting to communicate and to be found. It is a sophisticated game of hide-and-seek in which it is joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.

Sometimes this blog has felt like the perfect version of this vision: I write “my private book” and you—a you that includes sometimes my actual mother and other people I know intimately but also those I know less well or not at all—read it but generally don’t ask me about it; and so I can feel seen and hidden at once.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hide and seek lately. I remember how, when I was very young, I believed that if I covered my eyes, whoever was seeking me wouldn’t be able to find me. (I believe this is a common belief among preschool age children). Sometimes I think the same illusion has sustained my writing in this blog; I can’t see you, dear readers, so I have a hard time believing that you can see me.

This relationship between blog-writer and blog-reader is a version of “parasocial interaction,” a term and concept I learned about from Elaine Auyoung’s wonderful book, When Fiction Feels Real: Representation and the Reading Mind (2018). Sociologists coined the term “parasocial” in the 1950s to describe the kinds of non-reciprocal social relationships audiences have with radio or television performers—or, as Auyoung explores (in an application of the concept I find very suggestive), the relationships readers have with fictional characters. I’m interested, in my scholarly work, in thinking more about the parasocial aspect of readers’ relationship with literary characters. But I invoke the concept here for a different reason: because writing this blog can feel parasocial in the opposite way—like I’ve been having a five-year correspondence with an implied reader. I’m teaching A.S. Byatt’s Possession at the moment, and I was struck today by the observation the Browning-like Randolph Ash makes in his correspondence with the Rossetti-like Christabel LaMotte: Browning refers to himself as “an author of Monologues—trying clumsily to construct a Dialogue—and encroaching on both halves of it.” That’s me, that is.

Later in his essay on “Communicating and Not Communicating,” Winnicott observes that, “in the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the coexistence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.” For Winnicott, what is important is that both needs are acknowledged as healthy—which means valuing not only the ability to communicate but also “the acquisition of a capacity for withdrawal.”

What is it, exactly, that I’m trying to communicate in the post? Search me. I’m honestly not sure where I’m going; but I do feel as though I am at a threshold.

I am not sure if I will continue to write this blog or not, but, for the present, at least, I’m going to make Notes From the Duck-Rabbit Hole private, which means you’ll only be able to read it if I add you individually as a “reader.” If you are already subscribed to Notes From the Duck-Rabbit Hole in some fashion, I will go ahead and add you, unless you tell me not to do so. If you are not subscribed, but you are reading this and would like to be able to read any future posts, please let me know, and I will add you before I allow the Notes to sink back into the hole from whence they came.

I thought of concluding this post with a drawing of a duck-rabbit leaping back into its hole, cotton tail stuck in the air, webbed feet akimbo. I’ve been drawing and erasing, re-drawing and erasing. The back end of a duck-rabbit is surprisingly tricky to render. I thought I could make it silly and charming but instead, in my sketch, it’s trite and graceless: I see now that it’s best left unseen.



Day 217: the 405 is closed

405 is closed

Recently a series of memories have become threaded together in my mind, like worry beads on a string that I find myself turning over and over.

The first memory is from thirty years ago. Our family was on a summer holiday somewhere in the Mediterranean. We were staying in an apartment. I remember lying on the thin twin bed in the bedroom I was sharing with my brother and sobbing.

All I could say over and over was, “I don’t have any friends.”

This wasn’t really true. I was maybe fourteen—the age my son is now—and had some lovely friends; but I also felt immensely guarded in front of them—in front of everybody—as if the real me was shielded by a carapace and that the jig would be up if I ever let it down. I imagine this to be a fairly universal experience of adolescence.

My Mum had tried comforting me, “You DO have friends!” to no avail.

Then my Dad came in, and he took a different tack. I cried and he sat on the bed next to me. I tried to explain. “I just don’t feel like anybody really knows me. I feel so lonely.”

“You and I are very similar,” he observed, and he caught my attention. I suppressed my sobs to try to listen to what he was saying.

“Do you think I have a lot of friends?” he asked.

Yes …” I said hesitantly.

It was certainly the case that my Dad appeared to me to be enmeshed in a large and close-knit social network. If I picture my Dad in his element, I imagine him sitting at the center of a crowded dinner table, his chin leaning on his hands interlocked together, a wry smile playing on his lips. My parents were friends with lots of couples and I remember observing that, with many of them, it seemed that the initial connection was through my Dad; they were people he knew from his psychotherapy training, or other people he knew through his work.

As a result, what he said next startled me.

“No,” he said, “I don’t.” “And I never have,” he added. “Because I don’t need them.”

I frowned, feeling that this talk was not headed in the direction I had anticipated.

“And I think you’re the same,” he said. “People like you and me, we don’t need other people, we’re loners.”

I frowned again, trying to take in what he was saying.

“I mean, I have Mum,” he added, “but I don’t really have any close friends.”

I reflected to myself then and also later that I didn’t quite understand where he was positioning my mother in this equation.

“But,” I hesitated, “but that’s not what I want. I want friends.”

He nodded, as if he understood, “yes, but people like you and me, we’re special, we’re thinkers, and people are never going to understand us, so we’ll never really have any friends.”

I’ve reflected long and hard and talked many times in therapy about whether my Dad meant what he was saying here and what effect he meant it to have.

I did not react positively. “If that’s true,” I yelled, “then I don’t want to be like you. That’s not what I want.”

He kind of shrugged as if to say you get what you get and you don’t get upset. I started sobbing harder than ever and he left the room.


I was reminded of this exchange by a recent conversation with a friend. I was expressing some version of this same feeling, a kind of cosmic loneliness. Now it manifested as a yearning not for friends, per se, but for some deep sense of connection, a sense of seeing someone and feeling seen in return, a kind of connection that, my Dad’s comments to the contrary notwithstanding, I had always thought was a kind of intimacy I wanted and was capable of but that increasingly seemed to recede from view the more I tried to reach for it.

I confessed to my friend that I felt this gnawing envy of people—like him—who seemed to feel in their bones a kind of sureness about the person they had chosen to make a life with. He agreed that he was very fortunate in this respect—though, of course, it’s not only good fortune, it’s also inhabiting an attitude that I’ve always struggled to muster.

I started talking then, about the many other sources of joy and fulfillment in my life—most of all, the unfolding, intricate relationships I have with my children, these creatures whom I know both more and less intimately every day as their worlds become ever wider. I was talking about those rewards and more, but also how the whole was pervaded by a sense of something missing.

Then my friend observed, quite cheerfully, “Well, maybe this is just your lot in life.”

“My lot in life?” I repeated, a little taken aback.

“Yeah, I mean, maybe you’re just not a person who is ever going find happiness in a conventional monogamous relationship and you have to look elsewhere in your life for other sources of joy and fulfillment,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Hmmm.” I thought about this. “I mean, that makes sense but ….”

I paused and laughed. “There’s just something about that phrase, ‘your lot in life.’ It makes me think, I dunno … governessspinsternun


For the next few days, I would murmur to myself, “it’s just my lot in life,” and crack up. It so vividly summoned a very particular style—both behaviorally and sartorially—of renunciation. I would probably need a plain, high-necked black or possibly dark grey worsted dress, I thought to myself. Possibly a twill. Something that wouldn’t show the dirt. And my hair scraped back in a severe bun. I pictured Miss Hardbroom from The Worst Witch television series (based on the books by Jill Murphy), which I’ve been watching with the younger. I could fancy myself as a strict witchy headmistress resigned to my lot in life of keeping all the young witches in line.

A movie I watched by myself with great pleasure the other week, “The Little Hours,” slyly draws out what I started to think of as the comedy of closure … that is, the comedy of being closed in, closed down, and making do with your “lot in life.”

The movie’s plot is based loosely on the first and second stories from day three of Boccaccio’s Decameron. The main characters are three nuns—Sisters Alessandra, Ginevra, and Fernanda. While Ginevra and Fernanda are relatively content with their vocation, Alessandra, who has joined the convent at the insistence of her wealthy father, pines for a worldly life. In one scene, Alessandra’s father, Ilario (Paul Reiser), comes to visit Alessandra (Alison Brie) at the convent and tries to comfort her.

ILARIO: I know how eager you are to be married, my baby. I know, but maybe it’s … maybe that’s not your calling. How’s your embroidery going? You still doing that?


ILARIO: Good, ‘cause you’re so good, and maybe that’s your calling, you know. Some people, it’s marriage and family and the warmth of a home, and maybe for you it’s … it’s the detailed embroidery. You know, keep … please. Keep your chin up.

and maybe for you it’s … it’s the detailed embroidery. Dads, eh? They always know just how to comfort a daughter.

There’s a passage in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Villette (1853)—a novel that I read when I was about the same age I had that conversation with my Dad—that perfectly captures the soul-crushing effort of striving to be satisfied with your lot in life in a world that feels like it is closing in. Here is Lucy Snowe, Villette’s narrator:

Those who live in retirement, whose lives have fallen amid the seclusion of schools or of other walled-in and guarded dwellings, are liable to be suddenly and for a long while dropped out of the memory of their friends, the denizens of a freer world. Unaccountably, perhaps, and close upon some space of unusually frequent intercourse—some congeries of rather exciting little circumstances, whose natural sequel would rather seem to be the quickening than the suspension of communication—there falls a stilly pause, a wordless silence, a long blank of oblivion. Unbroken always is this blank; alike entire and unexplained. The letter, the message once frequent, are cut off; the visit, formerly periodical, ceases to occur; the book, paper, or other token that indicated remembrance, comes no more.

Always there are excellent reasons for these lapses, if the hermit but knew them. Though he is stagnant in his cell, his connections without are whirling in the very vortex of life. That void interval which passes for him so slowly that the very clocks seem at a stand, and the wingless hours plod by in the likeness of tired tramps prone to rest at milestones—that same interval, perhaps, teems with events, and pants with hurry for his friends.

The hermit—if he be a sensible hermit—will swallow his own thoughts, and lock up his own emotions during these weeks of inward winter. He will know that Destiny designed him to imitate, on occasion, the dormouse, and he will be conformable: make a tidy ball of himself, creep into a hole of life’s wall, and submit decently to the drift which blows in and soon blocks him up, preserving him in ice for the season.

Let him say, “It is quite right: it ought to be so, since so it is.” And, perhaps, one day his snow-sepulchre will open, spring’s softness will return, the sun and south-wind will reach him; the budding of hedges, and carolling of birds, and singing of liberated streams, will call him to kindly resurrection. Perhaps this may be the case, perhaps not: the frost may get into his heart and never thaw more; when spring comes, a crow or a pie may pick out of the wall only his dormouse-bones. Well, even in that case, all will be right: it is to be supposed he knew from the first he was mortal, and must one day go the way of all flesh, “As well soon as syne.”

Following that eventful evening at the theatre, came for me seven weeks as bare as seven sheets of blank paper: no word was written on one of them; not a visit, not a token.

About the middle of that time I entertained fancies that something had happened to my friends at La Terrasse. The mid-blank is always a beclouded point for the solitary: his nerves ache with the strain of long expectancy; the doubts hitherto repelled gather now to a mass and—strong in accumulation—roll back upon him with a force which savours of vindictiveness. Night, too, becomes an unkindly time, and sleep and his nature cannot agree: strange starts and struggles harass his couch: the sinister band of bad dreams, with horror of calamity, and sick dread of entire desertion at their head, join the league against him. Poor wretch! He does his best to bear up, but he is a poor, pallid, wasting wretch, despite that best.

Towards the last of these long seven weeks I admitted, what through the other six I had jealously excluded—the conviction that these blanks were inevitable: the result of circumstances, the fiat of fate, a part of my life’s lot and—above all—a matter about whose origin no question must ever be asked, for whose painful sequence no murmur ever uttered. Of course I did not blame myself for suffering: I thank God I had a truer sense of justice than to fall into any imbecile extravagance of self-accusation; and as to blaming others for silence, in my reason I well knew them blameless, and in my heart acknowledged them so: but it was a rough and heavy road to travel, and I longed for better days.

I tried different expedients to sustain and fill existence: I commenced an elaborate piece of lace-work, I studied German pretty hard, I undertook a course of regular reading of the driest and thickest books in the library; in all my efforts I was as orthodox as I knew how to be. Was there error somewhere? Very likely. I only know the result was as if I had gnawed a file to satisfy hunger, or drank brine to quench thirst.


My therapist’s office is on the fifth floor of a high-rise on Wilshire Boulevard. You get a good view of the smoke curling up from the fires up there. The other day I barely made it on time because of the fires’ impact on traffic.

When the Lyft driver had picked me up in Burbank, I’d asked how the traffic was.

“Oh, it’s terrible,” he said.

“Right, because the 405’s closed because of the fire?” I said.

“Oh no, it’s not closed,” he said.

“It’s not?” I was surprised, having been following traffic updates all morning.

“No,” he said.

“Oh, it must have just re-opened then, at least that’s good!” I said, assuming he must have more up-to-date information than I did.

So we took the 5 to the 405 until we had to get off at the 101 interchange, because the twenty-five mile section of the 405 between the 101 and Sunset Boulevard was closed because of the fires.

“Huh, you were right!” he exclaimed. “But it was open last night!” he protested. “What was that you said about a fire?”

“The fire started early this morning,” I explained wearily. “The freeway’s been closed for the last couple of hours.” I didn’t bother stifling a sigh.

For the next hour and a half we crawled along in a line of cars that snaked its way through every inch, it seemed, of Bel Air, the roads so winding you could see nothing ahead, the air growing thicker as we neared the site of the fire.

I was irritated with the Lyft driver for dismissing my information but, more than that, I was angry with myself. I knew the 405 was closed. But I wanted to believe he knew better. So I suspended disbelief and assented to the possibility that my information was wrong. Deep down, though, I think I knew I was right. I knew the 405 would be closed but I didn’t want to argue with him about it, so I just let it play out. As we sat at a standstill in the middle of Bel Air and he cursed under his breath, I wished that I had tried harder to make him understand that things would turn out this way, that I had seen it coming. Maybe we still would have been sitting here stuck, unable to see the road ahead; but our nerves wouldn’t have ached with the strain of long expectancy. I took out my knitting and tried to keep my chin up.


Day 216: movers

I looked at him appraisingly across the restaurant table.

“Are you cold?” I asked, as if neutrally.

“No,” he replied. “Why,” he added, reading my gaze, “do you want me to take my jacket off?”

I shrugged. “I know it’s silly. It just makes me feel as if, even though we just sat down, you’re about to leave.”

He rolled his eyes and took off his jacket.

“Oh, that reminds me of something I wanted to tell you about!” I exclaimed.

It was about something I’d just been writing about: a phenomenon the attachment theorist John Bowlby, in the first volume of his trilogy, Attachment and Loss, calls an “intention movement.” An intention movement is a movement whereby “an animal, unable to express fully one of its tendencies, nevertheless shows an incomplete movement belonging to that tendency; for example, when in a conflict between staying and flying, a bird may repeatedly exhibit most of the behaviour of take-off without actually doing so.” Although Bowlby was a child development specialist, he was strongly influenced by ethology—the science of animal behavior—and his writing on attachment is filled with examples of animal behavior, examples I find oddly poignant.

“I think it explains why it makes me anxious when people don’t take off their outdoor jackets when they come inside,” I explained. “It’s because I interpret keeping the jacket on as an ‘intention-movement’—as an indication that the person is thinking about leaving.”

Later, when the waiter put down our main courses (pasta for him, fish for me), I casually mentioned a trip I was planning to take in October—to go to a conference.

He put down his fork.

“You’re traveling again?” he asked.

I hadn’t actually bought the tickets yet—still haven’t, come to think of it. My declaration, too, had been an intention movement, a wing flutter; and it was he who felt anxious, caught off-guard.

“This is why I’m leaving,” he muttered.

My stomach tightened. I pushed the fish around my plate.

Later we cried and held each other.

“I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing,” he confessed. “What do you think I should do? Should I move?”

“I don’t know,” I said, stroking his hair. “I think it may be the right thing for you to move. It’s sad. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing.” I paused. “But it’s also all right for you to be undecided. Maybe,” I added, “putting down the deposit was an intention movement, like flapping your wings without taking off. It was a way of trying out the idea of moving. Seeing how it felt. That doesn’t mean you have to go. It’s three hundred dollars. You can lose three hundred dollars.”

He nodded.

“Intention movements,” Bowlby writes, “are common in mammals, including man. They afford important clues whereby we judge the motives and likely behaviour of other people.”

The movers come tomorrow.


Day 215: together in electric dreams

Sometimes I feel that my younger child came into being ex nihilo. She seemed to spring into the world fully formed, kicking and squirming, her face in a perpetual half-scowl half-smirk. I don’t have this sensation so much with the older child, with whom I feel a strong temperamental affinity: we are both quiet and studious; we both love reading and cooking and making intricate things with our hands.

But then there are those moments when I see clearly that the younger is indeed, for better and worse, my daughter. One of those moments was while reading this passage from the second-grade report card she brought home in mid-June:

“ … she can sometimes get lost in her daydream (or drawing) and not complete some assignments. This has been particularly true with math. [She] is a very confident and capable reader and she has many good writing skills, so her daydreaming has not had too much of an impact in those areas …”

A confident reader myself, I feel certain that almost identical passages featured in my report cards throughout my school years. I was—am still—a dreamy sort, liable to walk into traffic or miss my stop on the bus because I’m lost in wandering thoughts.

The same week that the report cards came home the second-graders had their spring performance, at which they sang, among other songs, “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” It wasn’t a song I’d ever given much thought to (although its history is quite interesting), but hearing it sung by a stage full of kids to an audience of parents was enough to nudge me into the awareness that, hitherto, I’d thought of it as a song sung by one lover to another: “Stars fading but I linger on dear / Still craving your kiss.”

A bunch of eight-year olds singing about “craving your kiss” was incongruous in the same way that, in the American version of The Office (which I’d never seen before this year but which the kids and I have been watching together for the past few months), it’s incongruous hearing Jan lustily (in all senses) sing Son of a Preacher Man to her newborn.

But the second-grade rendition of “Dream a Little Dream” was jarring also because it was apt, making me note how fine the line is between love songs and lullabies.

“Say nighty-night and kiss me

Just hold me tight and tell me you’ll miss me

While I’m alone and blue as can be

Dream a little dream of me.”

At eight years old, my daughter has only recently started regularly sleeping through the night in her own bed. Although I realize this disclosure may horrify some, I myself slept in my parents’ bed till I was ten or eleven so it seems pretty normal to me. And although I’m glad for both of our sakes that she’s now (mostly) sleeping in her own bed, I also do miss her—maybe because otherwise I sleep alone. I miss the creaturely comfort of her small warm body, having her within arm’s reach so I can stroke her hair when she whimpers in the night during a bad dream.

Although usually the younger appears utterly mortified during school performances, she actually seemed to enjoy singing this particular song and I would overhear her—still overhear her, sometimes—softly singing it to herself. She even deigned to teach it to me; and when she forgot some of the words and I searched for the lyrics, we ended up listening to multiple different versions one night before bed, agreeing emphatically that we liked The Mamas and the Papas’ version the best. (The younger deemed both the Ella Fitzgerald / Louis Armstrong version and the Doris Day version “a bit too jazzy”; and, honestly, I think she’s right.)

Later that night I idly started looking up other songs with the word “dream” in the title, which turned up a treasure-trove of forgotten songs. And so I started making a playlist of songs about dreams. My only criterion was that I liked the song and I had to know it already; there wasn’t any special reason for this latter stipulation except my own whim; but now, as I revisit the decision, I wonder if it was because the fancy struck me that songs, like dreams, are portals though which we revisit certain times and places—and maybe I wanted to use the playlist for that purpose. A lot of the songs I included are either about being a teenager or are songs I first encountered as a teenager, so that they prompt a kind of wistful transportation.

The list grew gradually.

It begins with The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” followed by the Mamas & the Papas’ version of “Dream A Little Dream of Me.”  These two seemed a natural pair because they both begin with mumbly spoken introductions.

Now when I listen to the playlist I often skip past “Daydream Believer,” to which I’m only moderately attached—although I do enjoy gustily bellowing “Cheer up sleepy Jean!” along with Davy Jones, and I have fond memories of watching Monkees reruns on TV throughout the ‘80s. But I never skip Cass Elliot singing “Dream a Little Dream.” I was walking listening to it the other day trying to think how to describe her voice—trying to think of a word that would capture its unadorned quality that brings out something true and melancholy in the song that was always there but that I couldn’t hear before. The word I finally settled on was “limpid”: Cass Elliot’s voice is limpid like clear seawater through which ordinary pebbles become variegated, luminous.

#3 on the playlist is Eleni Mandell’s “Like Dreamers Do,” which is from her children’s album, “Let’s Fly a Kite,” but which, like “Dream a Little Dream” one can imagine being sung to either child or lover. It’s a jaunty, hummable tune; I’ve caught the elder singing it to himself more than once. At #4 is Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” over which I hesitated; but once it was there, I couldn’t get rid of it. The song is insistent, almost irritatingly mesmeric, a quality that echoes the lyrics (“Now here I go again, I see the crystal visions / I keep my visions to myself …”).

Songs 5, 6, and 7, I think of as a Katy Perry sandwich (strawberry ice-cream sandwiched between two meringue cookies, in case you’re wondering). Perry’s “Teenage Dream” nestles between two fifties pop confections, Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” and The Everly Brothers “All I Have to Do is Dream.” Perry’s directness (“you really turn me on”) and concreteness (“put your hands on me in my skintight jeans”) nicely cuts the chaste sweetness of the crooners’ teenage dreams.

Song #8 is the first on this list that I remember distinctly from childhood: “These Dreams” by Heart, first released in 1986, when I was 11, but not, Wikipedia tells me, a big hit in the U.K. until it was rereleased two years later. Either way, I heard it at an impressionable age; the song instantly conjures romantic tresses and gauzy chiffon and soft focus lenses; if the song were a color, it would be dusky rose, with shimmery flecks.

At #9, Mandell makes another appearance, here in a quite different mood in “Just a Dream.” The images in this song feel dream like; woozy, surreal, fragmented.

At #10 is perhaps the song that transports me most powerfully: “Together in Electric Dreams” by Phil Oakey (not Oakley) and Georgio Moroder. I love this song so much. Phil Oakey was the lead singer in “The Human League,” and “Together In Electric Dreams” (which was a hit in the U.K. in 1984, when I was 10) shares the synth-pop style of their 1981 hit, “Don’t You Want Me.” But it’s strange; while “Don’t You Want Me” is explicitly plaintive and “Electric Dreams” ostensibly joyful, it’s the latter that I find deeply sad: perhaps it’s the speaker’s utter resignation to the idea that he will never see his beloved again. The speaker in “Don’t You Want Me” is still in the throes of loss with all of the bargaining and anger and desperation that such loss entails; the second speaker has just given up.

The song is conjoined, in my mind, to a set of images, which, until recently, I assumed were from its accompanying video. The scene I see in my mind’s eye is from a movie. A young woman and man sit in the back of a taxi, which is driving through the city at night. They love each other. But they don’t speak or touch; they just smile at each other and then look away. The woman has short dark cropped hair, the man’s face is indistinct. Then the image cuts to green numbers scrolling on a black screen, the ‘80s visual shorthand for computing-is-happening.

The strange thing about these visuals is that “Together In Electric Dreams” is from the soundtrack to a movie; but it’s not a movie I’ve ever seen and the characters (Virginia Madsen is the female lead) look nothing like the characters who appear in my head as the song plays. (The movie itself looks bananas—like an ‘80s Her.) I seem to have grafted the song onto a set of images from some other ‘80s movie.

#11 is Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams.” I don’t especially like either the images or the tune to this song; but I do like the song’s mood, which, like Mandell’s “Just a Dream,” is noirish, sultry and defiant. And I really like how in the video a giraffe keeps photo-bombing Swift.

Song #12 came to while I was watching “You’ve Got Mail” on the flight to the U.K. (a movie that strikes me, in 2019, as about how writing technologies mediate relationships every bit as much as Richardson or Laclos’s epistolary novels. “You’ve Got Mail” is particular to a historical moment in which there was email but not yet smartphones.) The movie’s soundtrack features a lot of songs about dreams; but it was only The Cranberries’ banshee-wail of a song “Dreams,” released the year my Dad died, that found its way onto the playlist.

At #13, we have The Mamas & The Papas again, with “California Dreamin.’” You know how, with some songs, there are, like, seven perfect seconds and then you listen to the rest of the song just so you can go back and play it again and re-experience that moment? In “California Dreamin’” those seven seconds are between the fifty and fifty-seven second mark, when Denny Doherty’s voice breaks as he sings that he got down on his knees and pretended to pray as the others echo him in chorus. (Not related to this playlist but I was just listening to Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life” (do Americans even know this song??)—which I probably hadn’t thought about since 1989—after hearing it sampled on Little Mix’s “Bounce Back,” and the magical seconds on that track come early: from fourteen to twenty four, I’d say. I probably listened to this song 10 times yesterday just to experience those ten seconds when the beat kicks in. But I digress).

#14. Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams.” I added this song almost reflexively but I always forget how good it is until I hear it again.

#15. Crowded House, “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” I also genuinely love the Miley Cyrus / Ariana Grande version.

#16. ABBA, “I Have a Dream.” The younger and I are Mamma Mia! fans and also Ghostbusters fans. I mention this because, whenever I hear this song now, I picture Amanda Seyfried staring out at the water; but also, when Anni-Frid sings, “I’ll cross the stream,” I reflexively whisper under my breath, “don’t cross the streams. It would be bad.”

#17. Fiona Apple, “Sleep to Dream.” This song transports me back to the attic bedroom of the Somerville house I shared with Louisa and Gina during grad school. I listened to “Tidal” a lot in that room.

#18. Roy Orbison, “All I Can Do (is Dream You).” “You’ve Got Mail” put Roy Orbison on my mind; the soundtrack features his lovely version of the 1944 song “Dream.” There are a lot of songs about dreaming in the Orbison catalog. Maybe that’s why I loved him so much when I was in my teens (which was, to be clear, in the late ‘80s, not in the ‘60s when Orbison had the majority of his hits). Orbison enjoyed a second flush of success in the late ‘80s after David Lynch memorably featured his 1963 song “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet (1986) and Orbison released his final album, Mystery Girl, with which I was obsessed.

Most of Orbison’s songs about dreams (most of his songs, period) are plaintive and yearning. But for the playlist’s final song I chose one that is uncharacteristically upbeat. A bit like “Together In Electric Dreams,” I love the contrast in this song between its catchiness—here not synthpop but rockabilly with a “hey baby” chorus and na-na-na background vocals—and the melancholic lyrics. Also: this video of Orbison performing it live is amazing. Check out K.D. Lang singing backup!


One night, soon after I had finished making the final playlist, I had an intense dream. This was now several weeks ago, but the dream was unusually vivid, and I can still summon the images. I was with the elder in a vast warehouse, which was the setting for a scavenger hunt. We were a team but decided to split up so as to more efficiently search for clues. I went down a metal staircase and was milling around, along with many other clue-seekers, on the ground floor. Then, suddenly, I saw a door ajar under the staircase I’d just descended. My heart beat faster; I somehow knew that I’d spotted a room that no one else had yet seen. I walked towards it and as I got closer saw a sign that said “Fire Door” on the door. I tentatively poked my head in. It was a kind of a broom closet with whitewashed walls, cluttered with cleaning supplies, small and claustrophobic. On the opposite side of the room there was a clothesline and pegged to it was a scrap of paper. I knew right away it was the clue I was looking for.

The door had been propped ajar but when I popped my head in I had dislodged whatever had been holding it open and it now took all of my strength to hold the door open. I knew that if I let go of the door it would lock automatically, leaving me either stuck inside or outside. So, using my foot as a doorstop I stretched, reaching my arm as far as I could to try to unpin the clue from the clothes line. But I couldn’t reach it. I stopped and looked back through the crack in the door. I didn’t know where the elder was and I felt panicked. I wanted to get the clue but if I stretched far enough to reach it I’d have to let go of the door and I’d be locked in and unable to find him. But if I left the room letting the door close behind me the clue would be lost forever. I stood there, my foot in the door, reaching towards the clothes line, while also looking back through the open into the warehouse, scanning the space for Max, who was nowhere to be seen. I felt stretched to my limit and I knew I couldn’t hold the door much longer. Then I woke up.


I played this playlist a lot in the car during the weeks I was driving the kids to and from their respective camps. They both seemed to like it. One night the elder even casually asked if I’d share the playlist with him on Spotify.

“Sure,” I said, trying to act cool.

The next morning I asked him if he’d listened to it.

“Oh yeah,” he said, “but only a few songs. Then I fell asleep.”


Day 214: bag inventory

It’s much easier traveling with the kids now that they are older and more self-sufficient. But sometimes they look more self-sufficient from the outside than they look from the inside. As a case study, on our flight back from London to the U.K., I took an inventory of the contents of the backpack that the younger (aged 8) packed herself for both the outgoing and return trips.

This bag was supposed to contain everything she might need on the trip.

Before we left LA, I inspected the bag, added clothing (which was entirely lacking with the exception of a pair of fingerless gloves) and strongly recommended that she remove a number of items because the backpack was extremely heavy.

She refused and I relented as long as she agreed to carry the bag herself. Perhaps needless to say, she complained a lot en route about the bag’s heaviness (“why did you put in so many clothes, Mom???”) and on the way back I just packed her clothes and most of her books in my own bag and left her to her own devices, my rule being that anything she had amassed while on our travels she had to carry herself. The contents, then, of her backpack on the return journey was as follows:

  • Black fingerless gloves, 1 pair
    • I’m definitely gonna want these in England”
  • Post-it note pads x 2
  • Pencil case containing pencils and eraser
  • Mini stamp set
  • Spiderman magazine
    • Purchased at local newsagent, Highgate
  • Water pistol
    • Came free with Spiderman magazine; was main incentive for purchase of Spiderman magazine
  • Rocks, assorted
    • Amassed at various locales including the Isle of Iona in Scotland and Waterlow Park in Highgate
  • Highland cow stuffed animal
    • Purchased indulgently for her by her mother who did not realize at the time that said cow made loud mooing sound when squeezed
  • Pencil case knitted during trip by her grandmother containing pencil sharpener, pencils, pen
  • Small plastic wallet won in treasure hunt on Isle of Iona
  • Tub of miniature Scottish medieval knights
    • Purchased at Edinburgh castle. Probably the best purchase of the trip. What’s not to love about a tub of Scottish knights?
  • Rubber Tyrannosaurus head
    • Purchased reluctantly by her mother at National Museum of Scotland gift shop. I was churlish about buying it, not because it was just another piece of tat that we didn’t need (which it was) but because it “didn’t seem very Scottish”
  • Copy of Sideways Stories from Wayside School
    • I would have been happy if this book had gone missing during the trip
  • Memory card game
    • I am really good at this game. So good that after a while everyone in the family refused to play it any more. Fun fact: in the U.K. we call this game Pelmanism
  • Crayons
  • Red notebook filled with drawings
  • Bouncy Rubber egg purchased at Camera Obscura gift shop in Edinburgh
    • I won’t lie, there’s something really satisfying about this object. I wouldn’t mind having one myself.




Day 213: a lovely surprise!

Yesterday we arrived home from a day out at the beach to find this sitting on the doormat:


I was immediately suspicious.

“It probably contains a bomb,” I muttered.

On the other hand, it was my birthday recently … so maybe it contained a lovely surprise!

Gingerly, we removed the lid.


The contents included: the entangled, dried up, roots and remains of a dead plant; a polaroid of a kitten; a small gauzy, golden bag filled with coins; what looked like a doll’s pair of underwear; and a tiny Hello Kitty figurine.



Reader, it was terrifying.

“Either a child made this,” I declared, “or else …” I didn’t finish the sentence, but the words going through my mind were stalker; psychopath; serial killer; ghost??? Doll come to life????

A few minutes later, I glanced out the kitchen window and spotted the younger—who was not in my charge that day—on the grassy verge outside my apartment. She and her friend seemed to be settling down for a picnic.

I went out and was greeted with peals of giggles. After establishing that they were there with permission, I went back in, grabbed the box and marched back out.

“Did you two leave this on the doormat?” I demanded.

More peals of giggles.

“But what does it … mean???” I asked, as if there could possibly be a reasonable answer to that question.

The younger shrugged, giggling. “It was just a prank, Mom!”

I shook my head and walked inside, muttering under my breath, leaving them giggling gleefully at how thoroughly they had unsettled me.


Day 212: such devices

The younger is taking a bath while I am brushing my teeth.

“Mom … are we bringing …” she pauses.

I spit into the basin, wipe my mouth and then meet her gaze, raising my eyebrows.

“Are we bringing … ?” I repeat.

She takes a deep breath and raises herself up from under the bubbles majestically. I brace myself.

“Are we bringing the iPad to England?” she asks cautiously.

“Oh …. yeah,” I reply, relieved, and start washing my face.

She doesn’t look satisfied.

“Are we bringing it …” She pauses again.

“Are we bringing it for the purpose of … electronic devices?”

I laugh as I rinse my face. “Umm, yeah, what other purpose would we bring it for? To lean on?”

She makes a face at me from the bath.

“For the purpose of starting conversations about ….”

She starts giggling and adopts a mock-lecturing tone, “… about how, in the eighteenth century, people didn’t have such devices …”

“Oh, come on!” I interject, giggling too, well aware that I am the object of the mockery here.

“And so,” she continues, barely able to speak through her giggles, “they would just have to play in … in the … stables … with … with an old burlap sack.”

We are now both laughing hysterically.

“And … and a potato,” she adds.

I can barely speak because I’m laughing so hard. “A potato!” I squeak out weakly.

When I’ve slightly recovered I add, “and what was the other thing? An old burlap sack? How do you even know the word ‘burlap’”?

She rolls her eyes. “Um, we use burlap sacks for projects? Burlap sacks are common, Mom.”

“Oh … OK,” I murmur meekly.

I hold a towel out for her.

“So …. anyway, the answer to your question is, yes we are bringing the iPad to England. For the purpose of electronic devices.”

I enfold her in the towel, snug, as the saying goes, as an eighteenth-century potato in a burlap sack.



Day 211: Onegin, off again

Recently on Twitter someone posed the question, “why did you pick the 18th century to study?” and I replied, “The 18th century picked me, probably because I’m so constitutionally delicate.”

I was being half silly, half serious (which is my constitution in a nutshell: half silly; half serious; delicate all over).

One reason why I instinctively deflect such questions is that although I can tell a story about why I picked the eighteenth century, such stories feel similar to those we tell about falling in love; retrospectively, it’s pleasing to cast the experience as a coup de foudre but in reality it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where, when, how, or why something shifted. Here, I find a rare moment of accord with Fitzwilliam Darcy, who says, when Lizzy presses him to account for what precipitated his fall, “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Volume III, Chapter XVIII).

Another reason why it wasn’t facetious to say that the eighteenth century picked me because I’m constitutionally delicate is that I really am constitutionally delicate! Just a couple of weeks ago I became faint and was given smelling salts—which I didn’t realize were even a thing any more. (They smell awful. I could feel them in my nostrils for days.) When I’m feeling troubled, I cry a lot. The other day I couldn’t stop weeping and wondered: was I drawn to eighteenth-century novels because I’m constitutionally delicate? Or have I become constitutionally delicate because of all the eighteenth-century novels? N.B. Weeping and wondering is, according to Hester Piozzi, precisely the response that eighteenth-century novels induce. [1]

Even before that especially weepy day, I had already become preoccupied by the question of the causal relationship between reading eighteenth-century novels and one’s constitution because of Eugene Onegin. Pushkin’s novel is not an eighteenth-century novel—it was published in serial form between 1825 and 1832—but its lovely, bookish heroine, Tatiana, is an avid reader of eighteenth-century fiction:

“From early youth she read romances,

And novels set her art aglow;

She loved the fictions and the fancies

Of Richardson and of Rousseau.” (Chapter 2, Canto 29) [2]

It seems fair to say that the ideas about love that Tatiana gleans from eighteenth-century novels prime her to fall in love with the caddish Eugene, whom, as Pushkin’s narrator can’t help pointing out, is “ … none the less / No Grandison in Russian dress” (Chapter 3, Canto 10).

Pushkin makes this observation more in sorrow than in scorn. One thing I love about Pushkin’s treatment of Tatiana is that he doesn’t patronize or castigate her as a naïve reader. On the contrary, he evokes how reading allows her to discover her own feelings.

I have always experienced both reading and writing in this way: as experiences that allow me to discover what I think and feel.

A brief digression: I was recently on a committee that had to assess a revision to the university’s writing program, one that placed more emphasis upon writing as a mode of thinking. As the only literature person on the committee I was asked to comment on the proposal; but all I had to say was that it seemed strange to me that writing hadn’t been taught this way before. I know that not everyone experiences writing like this. But I tend to be baffled when people describe doing research or having ideas and then writing. For me, thinking and writing are not usually distinct, sequential activities, but rather intervolved within each other; I write to discover what I think.

Likewise, Tatiana discovers her feelings and fantasies through reading novels.

“She wanders with her borrowed lovers

Through silent woods and so discovers

Her secret passions, and her dreams.” (Chapter 3, Canto 10)


My students and I read Eugene Onegin this quarter on the heels of Pride and Prejudice. Reading the two novels in that order was poignant and illuminating. Eugene Onegin reads like a darker, Russian, Pride and Prejudice. Structurally, the narratives parallel each other. In both, a world-weary young stranger turns up in the countryside, where he immediately alienates everyone with his brusque manners.

In both, the young stranger has an amiable friend. In Onegin, this amiable friend is Lensky, who is basically Bingley if he had taken a gap year in Göttingen. Bingley-Werther takes a shine to a local girl, Olga, who is characterized by the narrator as a generically attractive young woman—i.e., a Jane (or a Betty, as we’d say, if we were talking about Emma). “Glance in any novel,” Pushkin’s narrator advises us, if we wish to know more about her appearance. He adds, “I liked it once no less than you, / But round it boredom seems to hover” (Chapter 2, Canto 23).

Bingley-Werther, keen to introduce Eugene to Olga, invites him to join them at her family’s house one evening. Of course Eugene is like, kill me now, I can’t even with these provincial get-togethers; but he goes along for Bingley-Werther’s sake. At this gathering Eugene and Tatiana, Olga’s older sister, first lay eyes on each other, and, although they don’t exchange a word, each makes a striking impression upon the other.

Tatiana and Lizzy are not the same, temperamentally. Tatiana is dreamy and pensive where Lizzy is playful and wry. (Tatiana is basically a Goth; she dislikes smiling, small-talk, and playing games. She likes gory stories, sentimental novels, and star-gazing.) But Lizzy and Tatiana are both highly intelligent young women who feel keenly constrained by the parameters of the worlds they inhabit—parameters made stark by the limited orbits their respective mothers inhabit.

Both Lizzy and Tatiana are intrigued by the brooding stranger in their midst. But where Lizzy recoils from Darcy, Tatiana falls for Eugene, who is also attracted to her; but for him it’s a passing fancy. For her it’s a life-changing event.

It’s at this juncture in each narrative that the parallels and contrasts between the two novels emerge most strongly. Tatiana has learned from eighteenth-century fiction that she should be open with her feelings and that she should express them in epistolary form. And so she writes boldly to Eugene declaring her love:

“I’m writing you this declaration—

What more can I in candour say?

It may be now your inclination

To scorn me and to turn away;

But if my hapless situation

Evokes some pity for my woe,

You won’t abandon me, I know.” (Chapter 3, Tatiana’s letter to Onegin).

Both Tatiana and Lizzy defy their society’s expectations of how women should behave towards men in order to attract them. As Lizzy observes, her open contempt for Darcy departs from the “civility … deference,” and “officious attention” to which he is accustomed (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). Likewise, Tatiana’s warmth and openness departs from the strategic coldness and reserve—the “inaccessibly serene” air—affected by the society belles with whom Pushkin declares Eugene has become bored (Chapter 1, Canto 42). Lizzy supposes that it is her departure from the norm that attracts Darcy: “I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them” (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). By making Eugene’s propensity for boredom his main character trait, Pushkin primes us to expect that Tatiana’s ingenuousness may move him as Lizzy’s irreverence moves Darcy.

But where Lizzy gains from resisting a prevailing ethos of servility, an ethos that results in Darcy “thoroughly despis[ing]” the women “who so assiduously court” him, Tatiana loses by resisting a prevailing ethos of studied indifference (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). In fact, the same economy of desire seems to operate within both novels: both men are only attracted to women who seem immune to their charms. Although Eugene thinks he’s tired of the performance of inaccessible serenity, it turns out to be the only thing that actually moves him.

Accordingly, both to Tatiana’s dismay and to ours, her letter inspires in Eugene, not a declaration of desire but rather a speech that is rightly described as a “sermon,” and which is, as one of my students observed, essentially a long-winded version of, “it’s not you, it’s me.” Eugene insists, in this speech, that he’d just make her unhappy if they were a couple; he then consoles (“consoles”) her by informing her that she’s young and predicting that she’ll get over him soon and fall in love again. He closes by recommending she exercise a bit more restraint in the future when expressing her feelings.


He’s just awful: cold; condescending; self-righteous, unkind. One could be generous and argue that he is purposefully unkind in a misguided attempt to shift Tatiana’s feelings. But he honestly seems so caught up in his own performance of piety that I doubt her feelings even cross his mind.

Nobody in my class, including me, had read the novel before. Especially coming on the heels of Pride and Prejudice, this turn of events was especially wrenching. After our first class on Eugene Onegin, when it still seemed like things might work out for Eugene and Tatiana, I’d asked the class how Tatiana struck them. One student observed that she seemed like Elizabeth Bennet in her intelligence and discomfort with the strictures governing women’s conduct. We’d already established that cool, detached Eugene was not terribly sympathetic—but then neither was Darcy! Everyone was primed to see our girl Tatiana ruffle his composure. I’d read ahead and knew what was coming but I couldn’t bear to tell them.

The next class, after everyone had read the chapter in which Eugene rejects Tatiana, the change of atmosphere in the room was palpable. There was something about the quotidian nature of Eugene’s bad behavior that seemed to gut us all—but especially the women in the class. The ordinariness of his shortcomings made them all the more believable. He’s not abusive; he’s sanctimonious. He’s not sadistic; he’s thoughtless. He’s not intentionally mean; he’s self-absorbed. He’s not a villain; he’s just really disappointing.

“All I can say,” commented one student, shaking her head, “is that men have not changed.”

There were general murmurs of assent. I felt slightly bad for the two men in the room, who stayed quiet. [3]

I put it to the class that what made Eugene so disappointing as a person was also what made Eugene Onegin so satisfying as a novel. Like Darcy, Eugene comes across initially as arrogant and condescending. But where Pride and Prejudice makes Lizzy turn out to have been blind to Darcy’s hidden depths, Eugene turns out not to have any hidden depths. He seems shallow from the beginning. And what Tatiana discovers when she looks more closely is that he actually is shallow.

There’s something, I maintain, satisfying about this as a reader.

In both novels, the hero’s character reveals itself more candidly in his own writing and in his empty house than in face-to-face encounters. In both novels, reading the hero’s own words and touring his vacant mansion are transformative experiences for the heroine.

After Eugene leaves the countryside, Tatiana, on impulse, “requests permission / To see the vacant house alone / And read the books he’d called his own” (Chapter 7, Canto 20).

She discovers that his tastes run to

“The bard of Juan and the Giaour,

And some few novels done with power,

In which our age is well displayed

And modern man himself portrayed.” (Chapter 7, Canto 22)

I mean, I love Byron too. But a guy who mostly has Byron—and novels lionizing “modern man”—on his bookshelf? If that’s not a red flag, I don’t know what is. What is telling, moreover, is not only Eugene’s selection of books but also the markings he has made upon them: those places where he has literally impressed himself onto the page:

“Some pages still preserved the traces

Where fingernails had sharply pressed;

The girl’s attentive eye embraces

These lines more quickly than the rest.

And Tanya sees with trepidation

The kind of thought or observation

To which Eugene paid special heed,

Or where he’d tacitly agreed.

And in the margins she inspected

His pencil marks with special care;

And on those pages everywhere

She found Onegin’s soul reflected—

In crosses or a jotted note,

Or in the question mark he wrote.” (Chapter 7, Canto 23)

It’s inspired on Pushkin’s part to have the bookish Tatiana discover Eugene’s character by reading his marginalia. According to Nabokov’s commentary, Pushkin “toyed … with the idea of having Tatiana discover Onegin’s St. Petersburg diary,” before opting instead to have her divine his character from his marginalia. [4]

In a further stroke of genius, Pushkin does not provide any examples of the marginalia that enables Tatiana to see Onegin for what he is: an empty poser. What he shows us instead is her dismayed reaction to what she discovers:

“What was he then? An imitation?

An empty phantom or a joke,

A Muscovite in Harold’s cloak … ?” (Chapter 7, Canto 24)

What. on earth. did Eugene. write. in those margins? [5]

 As one of my students observed, chuckling and shaking her head, “I’d really like to see what he wrote that made her change her mind!”

To be clear, after reading this marginalia, Tatiana reluctantly agrees to go to Moscow, where her mother deems her marriage prospects will be brighter. And, indeed, shortly after she is married off to a wealthy old and seemingly harmless but also possibly armless General.

In other words, reading this marginalia has consequences. [6]

So tantalizing is Pushkin’s withholding of what it is exactly about Eugene’s marginalia that so disillusions Tatiana that I must forgive Nabokov for speculating, in his commentary, about which passages from Byron’s Giaour and Don Juan Onegin might have marked. This, to be clear, is based on no evidence in the text at all[7]

The mood in the class lifted after we discussed the scene in which Tatiana reads Onegin’s marginalia. Why? Perhaps because we felt a little protective of Tatiana earlier, in Chapter 3, Cantos 11-12, when the narrator intimates that the sentimental novels Tatiana adores aren’t fashionable any more and that tastes have moved on to darker, more Byronic fare—the type of stuff that Eugene favors. Even as the narrator sympathizes with Tatiana it’s clear that Eugene would regard himself as having more sophisticated taste than she does.

It is therefore extremely satisfying to have Tatiana discover in this scene that Eugene is a terrible reader. What’s also so economic about this episode is that, at the same time as it reveals Eugene’s character to Tatiana, it also deepens the reader’s sense of Tatiana’s character, supporting Pushkin’s initial characterization of her as intelligent and discerning.

So often, narratives tell us that a heroine is sharp-witted and discerning but then what they show us is her misjudging a man who initially seems pretty mediocre but who turns out to be super underneath. It feels like a form of gaslighting.

I had already confessed to my students that I’d had a lot, like, a lot of trouble adjusting to the idea that Darcy was actually worthy of Lizzy when I first read Pride and Prejudice. More recently, as I now told them, I’d had much the same problem re-watching the Harry Potter films with my kids.

“ … It’s just really upsetting to me because Hermione is so smart and …”

I didn’t need to continue.

One of my students just said “Ron” and shook her head.


Eugene Onegin concludes with a peripeteia or reversal: when their paths cross again after many years, Eugene is immediately drawn to Tatiana, who is now married to her wealthy general and exudes an “inaccessibly serene” aura. Eugene writes to her; she ignores him. He declares his love in person; she rebuffs him. The reversal, however, is not as complete as this account makes it sound. Tatiana, as she freely admits to him, still loves Eugene. Reading his marginalia causes her to perceive his shortcomings, but not to fall out of love with him, because her falling in love was not based in the first place on an estimation of his goodness.

When is it ever? As Lizzy observes to Darcy, “to be sure, you knew no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love” (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). Moreover, although Eugene, at the end, is in love with Tatiana, it’s not clear that this change of heart results from any growth on his part. What has changed is structural: she is no longer accessible to him and so now he desires her. In this respect, their characters seem unchanged even as their positions have shifted.

Eugene Onegin shows us what we know is true about desire but don’t want to believe: that it’s almost always asynchronous; that no-one ever got anywhere trying to talk someone else out of their feelings; and that sometimes it’s just too late.

Pushkin portrait

Cover illustration: detail from “Aleksandr Sergevich Pushkin with his wife, Natalya Goncharova, at the Court Ball,” 1937, by Nikolai Pavlovich Ulyanov. Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

My students seemed to find the end of the novel at once disappointing and cathartic. I asked them what they took from the novel’s conclusion. Someone said something about toxic masculinity. Someone else said that they admired how composed Tatiana is—how perfectly indifferent she is to Eugene when she encounters him in public at the end. I agreed. I’d like to be able to channel her composure. Tatiana is an inspiring example to all of us who are delicately constituted—whether by nature or literary influence—because her example suggests that, with practice, even the most tender hearted among us can perfect the art of affecting indifference.



[1] “Richardson, Rousseau, and Sterne meantime, to whose powers of piercing, or soothing, or tearing the human heart, all imitation of manners becomes secondary—even adventure and combination of STORY superfluous—will continue to be wondered and wept over while language lives to record the names of Clarissa, Julie, and Le Fevre.” (Hester Lynch Piozzi. British Synonymy; or, an attempt at regulating the choice of words in familiar conversation. 1794, p. 446).

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Eugene Onegin are from James E. Falen’s translation (Oxford, 2009).

[3] But only slightly bad.

[4] Aleksandr Pushkin, Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse. Translated by Vladimir Nabokov. 2 vols. Volume II: Commentary and Index. (Princeton, Princeton University Press, Bollingen Paperback Edition Series LXXII, 1990), Part 2, 104.

[5] I would like to try to recreate Eugene’s marginalia. I imagine there’s a lot of “Christ symbol” and !!! and ??? and “note to self: remember not to leave shoes out when hiding in married woman’s bedroom.” If anyone wants to collaborate on this please get in touch ASAP.

[6] In one of Nabokov’s very best notes (which I imagine him composing with his head cocked just so, as if trying to make out if he hears a Sternian resonance or if it’s just his imagination), he observes, of Tatiana’s statement to Onegin that her husband was “maimed in battle”:


[7] See, for example, Nabokov’s note to Chapter 7, Canto 22, which identifies the 1820 French translation of The Giaour by Chastopalli as that which would have been “known to Pushkin and Onegin,” and goes on to quote a particular passage that “Onegin might have marked.” He goes on to suggest, “Tatiana (in June, 1821) might have found the following passage [from Chastopalli’s 1820 translation of Don Juan] marked by Onegin” (Nabokov, Commentary, Part 2, 94).