Honey Searches The Eyes Of Writers
By Honey van Blossom
(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste.)
Yesterday I reread the last of the Henning Mankell mystery series about a Swedish police detective Kurt Wallender. Wallender is the same age as his creator: sixty-five now, sixty when he wrote the last book. Wallender is often too fat and doesn’t exercise enough. Mankell is often fat.
This is the third time I read the last Wallender. I picked open the seams of Mankell’s book this time instead of reading for pleasure. Threaded through the novel are Wallender’s attempts to disguise Mankell. Underlying the extensive research into Russian/Swedish and Russian/American espionage is Mankell’s fear of death. The character anticipates living to the age of 75 before he descends into the blackness of Alzheimer’s. He looks forward to taking half a sleeping pill to get through consciousness of death.
I looked at the photograph of Mankell on the book’s dust jacket. He looked old at sixty. It’s not a flattering photograph. Although several actors have played Wallender in films, none of them look like Mankell. I have yet to see an actor with writer eyes. Actors could be the subjects of different reflections but they usually have symmetrical faces throughout their lives.
I looked at photographs of Sir Lawrence Olivier. He was beautiful to look at. He never once during his youth exposed his interior mind. He is not beautiful in old age.
Meryl Streep is the only great female actor. Lists of great actresses include Julia Roberts, which I find ridiculous. Bette Davis. They all have symmetrical faces. Obviously highly intelligent, they all could play the role of anyone: stupid people, obsessed people, driven people, evil people. I put the actor face research aside. It doesn’t have much connection to my hypothesis and they are not too interesting to me: I can’t act my way out of a paper bag. I am always me. One of my daughters was a gifted actor I once saw play dryer lint convincingly when she was young, and her daughter shows promise.
Mankell’s right eye looks at the photographer with piercing intensity. This is the eye that sees detail. This is the eye that looks into other people. This is the eye that is itself a camera.
His left eye looks as if he sees inward, into his own perceptions. He allows himself to be photographed with a naked and vulnerable face, and this permission to see the writer as a human being is itself a way of writing. It is also acting. He wrote a lot of plays. He is married to Eva Bergman, also a dramatist and Ingmar Bergman’s daughter. Eva has a pleasant symmetrical face. Mankell’s women characters are always Mankell in drag, so I conclude Eva has not influenced him enough.
My hypothesis was that all outstanding writers have two visions, and that their physical eyes manifest the two visions. I anticipate a difficulty in testing this hypothesis: writers are readers, and big readers are susceptible to myopia, astigmatism and one-eye dominance, possibly beginning when their parents yanked books out of their hands and ordered them to go out to play so they hid in darkness with a flash light.
I looked at a collection of photographs of Tolstoy. His eyes were narrow. It is difficult to see them. Over the course of his life, his eyes became increasingly unbalanced. His right eye shifts downwards as he ages and retains the piercing camera-like eye of his youth. His left eye is gentler. By the time he is very old, his eyes both express profound sympathy and pity. He also looks increasingly insane or like a movie version of a Biblical prophet.
Tolstoy’s wife Sofia’s photographs show humor and gentleness throughout her life. She and Leo had thirteen children, and he fathered a child with another woman during their marriage. She wrote out War and Peace seven times. Tolstoy modeled his female characters on her in Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Her character is the basis in those books of the ideal of family happiness. By his Kruetzer Sonata, the main character, Pozdnyshev, relates the events leading up to his killing his wife; in his analysis, the root cause for the deed were the “animal excesses” and “swinish connection” governing the relation between the sexes. Sofia’s eyes in photographs are always balanced and intelligent although in her last years, her right eye shows increasing cunning.
On Oct. 8, 1862, just two weeks after she wed the 34-year-old novelist Leo Tolstoy, the former Sofia Behrs wrote in her diary: “The whole of my husband’s past is so ghastly that I don’t think I shall ever be able to accept it.” Tolstoy had just let his sheltered, 18-year-old bride read his own youthful diaries, in which he described his gambling, drunkenness and debaucheries. A few days later, Sofia confesses that she doesn’t make her husband happy and that his “coldness will soon be unbearable.” By Nov. 23, she is talking of killing him. Later, she spoke frequently of killing herself and attempted to do so on at least two occasions.
On Nov. 13, 1863, the young wife describes her existence:
“I am left alone morning, afternoon and night. I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child. I am a piece of household furniture. I am a woman. I try to suppress all human feelings. When the machine is working properly it heats the milk, knits a blanket, makes little requests and bustles about trying not to think — and life is tolerable. But the moment I am alone and allow myself to think, everything seems insufferable.”
When she was his copyist, she wrote in her diary: “As I copy I experience a whole new world of emotions, thoughts and impressions. Nothing touches me so deeply as his ideas, his genius.”
Later, she wrote, “I sometimes search my heart and ask myself what I really want. And to my horror, the answer is that I want gaiety, smart clothes and chatter. I want people to admire me and say how pretty I am, and I want him to see and hear them too; I long for him occasionally to emerge from his rapt inner existence that demands so much of him. . . . I hate people to tell me I am beautiful. I never believed them, and now it would be too late anyway — what would be the point?”
In the film The Last Station, Helen Mirren portrays Sofia when Tolstoy was 83 and Sofia was 67. In the film, in spite of their struggles over Tolstoy’s intention to give away everything they owned, she continues to briefly persuade him through sex to leave his legacy to his family. The film does not illuminate Sofia’s influence over his writing.
Tolstoy’s true face was his own and Sofia’s. There are four eyes to consider.
The tormented Tolstoy marriage is the real face of Tolstoy. His ferocious and penetrating eyes are balanced by Sofia’s humor, intelligence and gentleness. By the end of his life, he separated from her physically but could not separate from her emotionally.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s eyes weren’t balanced. He was really skinny so his eyes look very large in his narrow face. His left eye is a camera: it observes acutely. His right eye shows amusement. His wife Fanny Osbourne Stevenson’s eyes change during her life but there’s no humor in her. She has a manly face, persistent, obstinate and sturdy. She looks like the male of the couple. Hers was the face of someone who got things done.
I have known RLS for most of my life, beginning with a Child’s Garden of Verses, which I read right after my first book Cinder the Cat, which – along with the memorial plaques in Forest Lawn Memorial Park – taught me how to read. Treasure Island followed. RLS wrote it in Monterey, “On a chill September morning, by the cheek of a brisk fire.” The story began when he drew and colored a map of the imaginary island for Fanny’s twelve-year old son but it was a grand book for an eight-year old as well. I was ten by the time I read Kidnapped. RLS gave to me a mental map for adventure.
RLS and Mark Twain continue to give children the idea of life as adventure. RLS’s photographs show the face of a transparent man. He told stories. He didn’t want to do anything but tell stories. He is for me to this day a friend who keeps me for some hours from being alone.
Mark Twain’s eyes were the eyes of two different people. They don’t match. In a photograph from his youth, his left eye is narrow – an eye that shows wit and intolerance. His right eye is round and focuses at some place else and is the eye of an intensely inquisitive boy. He was a rough boy and he appears ready to burst out of his face to grasp the world with his mind. He looked exactly the way I pictured Huck Finn.
In the photographs of Twain in middle and old age, the left eye is round and the right eye narrow –perhaps the photographs were transposed in reproduction. The left eye is introspective later in his life. The right eye judges. At the end of his life both of his eyes are angry.
T.S. Eliot tilts his head in photographs perhaps because one eye gradually dominates and sees better than the other. In a photograph taken of Eliot in his twenties, he faces the camera head on, assured, confident. By late middle age or early old age, his left eye is open, the camera eye taking in everything, and the other calculates.
I then looked at John Steinbeck’s face in photographs. That face disproves my original hypothesis. In his youth, his eyes are balanced. His eyes are a dreamer’s. In middle age, his eyes have grown sadder. By his sixties, he looks happier but the eyes that were once wide-open and dreamy are hooded.
One of Hermann Hesse’s eyes is higher in his head than the other. Both of his eyes, however, are camera eyes and his glance penetrates. He looks like a television version of a Nazi. His third wife was Jewish, and he opposed anti-Semitism but did not condemn the Nazi regime. In old age his eyes have become large, open and gentle. It is possible to imagine that the man with that face wrote Siddhartha, a foundational text for the Hippies. His face showed a journey through life that was the opposite of the journey shown on the faces of other writers. His was a journey away from irony and judgment towards increasing joy.
Lionel Rolfe wears big eyeglasses so it’s difficult to evaluate his face. I brought up a 2001 photo taken by Bonnie Perkinson without the glasses. He has two different eyes in this photograph. His right eye looks like a judge’s eye. Of course judges all look different from each other, but Lionel’s eye is the eye of someone who has seen a lot of the human condition and is not happy with it. His right eye looks into himself but not deeply; rather, it is the eye of suffering.
In a much earlier photograph – also without eyeglasses — the eyes are balanced; he is just a happy guy. When he was young, his expression is one of glee. When he was young, Lionel — from his photograph – was a fellow who liked everything including letting the fox into the chicken coop. He had anticipated unimaginably wonderful things to happen.
In 2003, Lionel met Boryana. I was weeding the backyard when he said he was going to travel to Bulgaria. My experience of Bulgaria under socialism in the 1960s — if that’s what it was – was unpleasant.
I drove first through Bulgaria in the winter. We couldn’t go through Greece because my husband was a Turk. We had spent the night sitting up on hard benches on the Orient Express out of Haydar Pasha with a Turkish family headed for Germany. The floor was littered with the shells of sunflower seeds and the father brought out a bottle of raki and glasses. Sunflower seeds stick in my teeth, and I once drank one glass of raki and fainted, so I went outside and looked at the moonlight on towns that looked like they came out of Grimm’s fairy stories. I heard the men in our compartment said increasingly bizarre things and laughing uproariously.
A big woman customs official who wore a hammer and sickle lapel pin punched out the window of our car. The entire town of Svilengrad filled the train station where I waited for my husband to come back with a bag of Bulgarian coins. They all watched me. No one said anything.
My husband returned on a bus from the town. He said there was a store and a bank. The store shelves contained seven kinds of pickles and rose jelly. The bank tellers slept in their chairs. One, mystified and curious, rose from his slumber and changed Turkish lira into Bulgarian levi. Turkish money was inflated but the government had paper money. My husband boarded the bus with three grocery bags full of coins.
A man sat next to him and said in Turkish, “How could you marry an American?” Celal lied and said I was German. The man made that sound of disgust that sounds like “Ptui.” Everyone in the village, it turned out, had seen our passports. If I didn’t say anything that involved umlauts and stuck to a basic vocabulary, Turks did not immediately assume I was an American in part because they did not believe America was a real country and partly because, if they did, they assumed Americans were a stupid people unable to learn to speak Turkish, which they considered the real language.
I come across Americans who believe Turkey is a desert and that Turks ride camels. Istanbul’s climate was a lot like San Francisco’s except it sometimes snowed a little in the winter. It was winter when we went through Bulgaria, and it was awfully cold, and I wore clothes that were too thin.
A sign in the railroad station said “Defense de fumer.” I felt that, because they were Communists, they must do everything the opposite of Americans, so I lit one of my husband’s cigars and puffed it furiously to show I defended smoking.
As we drove away, we put a towel in front of the radiator to keep the heat in. I held up a piece of glass on my side, the one the dyke customs official had knocked out. Several hundred people in odd costumes, some of them evidently dating from the First World War, stood silently and watched us drive away.
We did not have enough American currency to eat when we were in Germany so we bought coffee and filled it with cream and sugar. We couldn’t afford snow tires and my husband attempted to cross a mountain driving backwards. Austrian customs officials laughed, “You Turks like smoke.” We turned astonished eyes to him. “BOOM!” He said. “You Turks like BOOM.” He searched the car and ate a box of our OMO detergent.
On the return trip through Bulgaria, the police stopped us and took the car to a garage and took it apart piece by piece to see what we were smuggling. They screwed the pieces back together. One of them came towards me to search me. I barfed all over his uniform. He let us go.
Ultimately, near the border to Turkey, the police jumped up from behind a log and arrested my husband and put him in a jeep with machine guns pointed at his head. They ordered me to return alone. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw my husband. His face was white with terror.
Their commanding officer spoke Turkish. My husband told him I was a capitalist pig and he was going to divorce me. I told him our children waited for us in Istanbul. He was disgusted with us for leaving our children and ordered Celal to take me back.
I did not know then how to drive a stick shift. At the border customs, we heard a voice saying to be on the look out for a German couple. Celal and I separated. We watched the police escort a confused German couple out of the building. I drove off in our car. My husband caught a ride with smugglers from Pakistan.
Bouncing into Turkish customs, I pulled the car up to be searched. They said no one who drove as badly as I did could have driven from Germany. They pulled the car apart and put it together, telling me in Turkish they were going to rape me. I acted as if I did not understand. I repeated that I was a dietician. (I don’t know why I said that.) I was there for seven hours before they raised the gates and let me go. I drove into a ditch and flagged down a bus load of workers from Turkey who said in Turkish they were going to rape me as soon as we got to Edirne. The bus slowed and I burst out of there and ran like hell to Edirne. This was all before cell phones. All the customs people used telephones they had to crank and yelled SOFIA! SOFIA!
So when Lionel sat in the Silver Lake shade as I worked in the yard and said in a voice that sounded like the voice of God that he was going to Bulgaria, I thought he was out of his mind.
He went. He had a very good time. Boryana eventually came to live with him as a result of that trip, which I have never understood, and for five years he had a reprieve from his suffering. She even got used to his birds. His birds made dial tone sounds and said Hello just like Boryana. His face beamed happily from his photographs from that time. After she left, he returned to his suffering.
I conclude with a different hypothesis from the original one. That is, that the faces of writers are more liable than the faces of those who are not writers. The analogy I’ve come up with is that dancers get arthritis in their knees, artists develop a bump on the side of their finger from holding a brush, tailors who sat cross-legged develop stress fractures in their femurs, and writers’ faces show the work they do in their heads. Writers laugh more. Writers cry more. Fiction is about human beings, and human beings are very funny and their lives are very terrible. The funniest writer I’ve read is Maxim Gorky. After that, Franz Kafka. If they are allowed to live long enough, everything they once believed in turns into something else. If they’re any good, they realize this and either change the way they think and write or suffer more than the rest of us. It shows on their faces.
Today, I arranged to meet one of my daughters, her young lover, my granddaughter and two dogs in San Francisco. The male dog is a rat terrier and shakes all the time. He annoys the female dog with his neurosis and she torments him. Dogs are too much like people. I was to ignore a stranger’s dog on the beach today when she tried to get me to throw a ball and I ignored her so she pissed all over me.
While I waited at an outdoor table of a café on O’Farrell Street, I watched the passersby. San Francisco is grand for people watching. When I was sixteen and sat watching people from a table in North Beach, people dressed well. Women, myself included, wore suits. We wore gloves and high heels and pill-box hats like Jackie Kennedy’s. The men wore well-tailored suits with starched white shirts and immaculate ties.
The tourists from other countries wear good clothing. I particularly admired the citron flannel jacket a German woman my age wore. Americans wear whatever. They probably sleep in their clothes. A few young women had chartreuse hair and wore black leather jackets, tutus and army boots. Two Russian women wore tailored black dresses and stockings.
I prefer that no one notice me so that I can watch people without their seeing me. I could sit all day, day after day, looking at people.