Monday, March 25, 2013
Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker
It is no surprise that a book about a scholar deeply immersed in the work of Emily Dickinson is also about death. The titular ten geese, by the end of this book, number only four. But this book is about deception, too, and perception; love, and relationships; nature, and gardens. We pass two months in Wales but every season is accounted for. Gerbrand Bakker has created a knotty piece of fine art for us to contemplate.
We never learn how old she is, Agnes, or Emily as she liked to be called. We know she is probably at the end of child-bearing age, so desperately had she tried to conceive. She is an intellectual, writing a dissertation on the poems of Emily Dickinson, that poet she must have once admired but grew to resent. She is ill. We learn that early, along with her sense of being stuck, and unsure in which direction to go.
She arrives in Wales alone, escaping the failures of her past. She walks. One day a badger bites her foot as she lies sunbathing on a rock. Not long after, Bradwen, a boy, and Sam, his dog, stumble into her yard and stay. But statements about events are foreplay here, for there is undertone and atmosphere and references and indications which are more of the book than the story itself. Like poetry, perhaps?
After her encounter with the badger, Emily pulls out her copy of The Wind in the Willows, one of the main characters of which is a badger. The book is mentioned again when Bradwen takes it from the house on his departure. That The Wind in the Willows is mentioned more than once cannot be coincidence. But why that book?
Perhaps we are to draw light comparisons between Emily and Toad for she is at her happiest in the bath; makes a mash of her career; alienates and betrays those close to her; is “on the run.” Bradwen might be Rat, for he carried a backpack and simply takes what he needs for his journeys, offering friendship to Toad when he needs it most, and is locked up while Toad makes his escape.
Bradwen is a curious figure whom we can’t see as a reliable character. He lies by omission, as does “Emily.” He never tells Emily who his father is and how he came to stay in this place, but clearly he is at home in it. He is willing to make meals in exchange for a bed. He shares a comforting, unerotic coupling with Emily, filled more with silence than sound, and worries ever after that his generosity might add to her burdens.
Sam the dog might be Mole, who accompanies Rat and finds the badger. A badger is a solitary creature “who simply hates society”--perhaps the reclusive Ms. Dickinson herself?--clever, generous, and welcoming when another comes to visit, but must be sought out. Friendly but fearful and elusive, the badger and doesn’t ever seem to come when called. Dickinson was apparently better known as a gardener while she was living than for writing poetry. Does this draw a line from Bakker to Dickinson, and badgers?
Gerbrand Bakker writes with a clarity and a depth that borders on knowledge—about pain, confusion, hurt, alienation, even sickness unto death—and in the voice of a woman. “I’m a strange man, maybe, but I think there is no fundamental difference between men and women. A lot of people would say otherwise, perhaps.” (NPR interview, 2013) This point of view may come from his training as a gardener. Humans of either sex are the same species: one sex has basically the same wants, needs, desires as the other—our differences don’t define our essential character. That having been said, this was a woman apart and in exquisite pain. I recognize her, but I hope I never meet (am) her.
Ach. Gerbrand Bakker’s book refuses to leave me. In the same seven minute NPR interview mentioned above, Bakker says that the process of writing this novel precipitated in him a great depression. I am not surprised. But literature can make us think about what man is, and Bakker doesn't leave us bereft. We still have The Wind in the Willows.
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