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The Lingering Taste of Chocolate Ginger

I am not exactly a hoarder, but I have been unable to pitch old books, notebooks and articles, especially evidence of my former life as a teacher. I had finally dragged a pile to the recycling box when I noticed a printed something whose edges did not conform to the rest of the bulk, so I pulled it out.

I discovered a stapled piece that I had no memory of having written: as I transitioned from Oakwood Collegiate as a long term occasional teacher( L.T.O) after five months to Northern Secondary into a contract position in the 1990’s. The move must have been perplexing me because I recorded that I was tossing and turning every night, tiptoeing into bedrooms to rearrange bedcovers at midnight, and I had typed a piece that captured my anxiety at leaving.

My retrieved three pages focused on my Grade 11 dream class, having shed their Grade 10 silliness but not having donned the pseudo- sophistication of Grade 12’s. We had studied a novel entitled Cal, a modern version of Holden Caulfield. For me back then, and even with an interesting backdrop of Protestant and Catholic skirmishes in Ireland, it featured too much teenage suffering and adolescent ennui. But the kids liked it and their comparative essays on books they had chosen demonstrated insight.

Of course, I realized James Grant and Fanny Horowitz skipped class occasionally and Todd had to be told to remove his heavy feet from the desktop, but truly I adored this group. To extend their learning and exhibit their passion in that class, the students had used puppet shows, panel discussions, debates, oral and video presentations to make the period delightful, funny, winsome. As their teacher, I was so proud that I glowed with happiness in their presence, feeling a mutual give and take, particularly with their burgeoning interests into the study of English.

However, my Grade 10’s provided a counterpoint, reducing a supply teacher to ranting, raving and dissolving into a puddle of tears as she raced into the principal’s office to complain. I recall meeting her later and her comment, “ …but you’re so little” ( which I was not), but I harboured images of her being lassoed and tied to my desk while the inmates dissolved into gangs as they played with their gameboys, laughing, or more likely, ignoring her sober attempts to teach the variables of the semicolon or introduce Lord of the Flies.

My reflection on paper had caught the tenor of the class, as every teacher will inevitably meet a class similar to this one,

“ They appear to be a drawerful of mismatched socks…talkative and rude and ill prepared, easily bored and unable to sit still. Their skills are weak…

The fall was not easy. I never knew the mood when I entered the room, and it was not unusual for students to have forgotten books or pens. I tried group work, self- directed work, Socratic lessons…I often thought that my life would be easier without this bunch…

We had begun our study of Romeo and Juliet. Always pondering how best to engage and motivate, I considered that they are the video generation so, of course, Franco Zeffirelli’s film of gangs and gangling awkward love in the film version of Romeo and Juliet would appeal to this group of meagre learners.

Their first assignments based on character examination through speech, dress and interaction was surprisingly good, and incredibly, turned in on time.

We began with the Chorus’s Prologue. The class participated and responded to my questions, answering and understanding those Elizabethan lines. I assigned roles for the next day’s class, really doubting, but always hoping they would practice them.

Maurice as Benvolio was outstanding. Maurice, always bundled in a heavy black overcoat even on the hottest day, rarely handed in his work. Someone must have confused him with commas and periods as he always punctuated his sentences with the former. Arturo as the Prince, stood tall, his dark eyes commanding the attention of his peers, was likewise excellent. And Roberto, who never produced any work at all, had discovered a copy of the text at home and shyly, but proudly transformed himself into the perfect Romeo. Jocelyn wrapped herself in a flamingo pink scarf and crept into the personage of Juliet, eyes large and innocent, overflowing with first love.

Best of all, this group of disparate souls finally melded into a class. They were functioning as one, all part of the same, all week, all involved, and can you believe it?, actually sharing Shakespeare’s dirty puns and enjoying themselves.And so help me, they found oxymorons hilarious.( Well, who wouldn’t?)

Originally, I believed it a fluke and they would revert back to their former selves: the class no one wanted. But the subsequent classes on Shakespeare replicated the success of the original and I caught myself gape- mouthed, incredulous at the progress the group had shown.

On the second last day before my departure, Marnie Chou-Brown gifted me a tiny silver bag. Inside was a morsel of chocolate ginger. For me, like Proust’s Madeleine, that taste will always conjure my Grade 10 teaching experience. When I sucked away the deliciously velvety chocolate , the spicy ginger caught in my throat and made me cough. Long after the contrasting textures faded, the heat remained.

So I leave with some sorrow and regret, the memory of that chocolate ginger providing a metaphor for remembering my students and colleagues in the English department, and like Romeo murmur, “ O heavy lightness.”

Funny, the things we cannot part with, the memories forgotten or subsumed in a pile of rubbish to be discarded. We carry with us the voices, the tactile remembrances from years back when we were caught unawares by an event, a person, an experience that changed our trajectory. Had the pages not protruded beyond the edges, I might have forgetter the bittersweet taste of that remarkable class.

Fates and Furies

It seemed that everywhere I turned, someone was reading or talking about Fates and Furies. So I too began the book, but was soon put off, feeling it resembled light porn – or what I imagined “ light porn” to be. I complained to my friend Anne who lectures to a book group in Rosedale . Anne my dearest friend whose earlier career demonstrated that she could enchant the dullest student with her classes in literature. So if Anne found merit in the book, I too would persevere, grin and bear it as the couplings continued- on sweaty breasts, on exposed bums in uncomfortable locales, in closets,well you get the idea. So I continued and admit in the end,I did enjoy it.

In a NPR interview with Terry Gross, critic Maureen Corrigan suggests that Lotto and Mathilde , the dual parts of the marriage in Fates and Furies are “ not fully realized”. And although I admit that I eventually found the book a page turner, I stood at the doorway, and detachedly observed them through a windowpane or a mirror perhaps, their liveliness refracted, distorted. Only when Anne sent me this quotation regarding the writing did I relax and NOT expect them to be“ real”.  

Anne wrote ,

            “….except from the NYTimes review which attracted me ( Anne) to the novel in the first place:

Groff — — displays an exquisite sense of how best to use literary (and other) traditions and ­predecessors. Not only does she prominently rely on the classical concepts of the Fates and the Furies…”

And so the romp with Lotto and Mathilde became something very differently than first anticipated from the initial encounters of flesh and blood characters . The story of the Satterwhite marriage from each member’s perspectives becomes a created piece where first, the husband, the golden boy , the quester, destined for greatness, even the presidency, has been foretold in the stars– or at least by his father, Gawain. He begins the narration in Fates. Eventually the wife, Mathilde, reveals her part in the relationship. Groff foreshadows that the marriage will be the real story here: 

 …He imagined a lifetime of making love on the beach until they were one of those ancient pairs speed-walking in the morning, skin like lacquered walnut meat…. Between his skin and hers, there was the smallest of spaces, barely enough for air, for the slick of sweat, now chilling. Even still, a third person, their marriage, had slid in.

Lotto’s thoughts of a future, love, sex and a sense of the romantic work towards understanding his idealized view, even as the couple will harden into little nuts intertwined in a marriage that will be more than a thought, but an actual living presence that maintains them as a couple for decades.Endowed with the stereotypical characteristics of the hero, Lotto, short for Lancelot, our Prince Charming, is taller exceeding 6 foot, and more charming than most mortals, heir to a fortune, excelling in sports and academics as an adolescent. He stands above the crowd, especially women,who are drawn to him like fireflies; he shines. 

He has the feel of Jay from The Great Gatsby, ripe for the American Dream to propel him into greatness .Made rich by his father bottling Florida’s water, even the metaphor works for Lotto himself who is perhaps more package than essence.Yet, soon he is disinherited by his mother who does not approve of his marriage. Riches to rags, Lotto is forced to find his own path to success. With the grand support of his wife, they live on barely nothing, church mice who make do with crumbs but are buoyed by their love, their marriage. 

Although mediocre as an actor and often depressed, Lotto apparently excels as a playwright, drawing on his own Tennessee Williams’ background of overstuffed “ Muvva” as fodder for his brilliance. Entitled The Springs, his first play connotes for images of freshness or beginnings along with hints from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, 

Hope springs eternal in the human breast; 

Man never is, but always to be blessed

 Cliché meets cliché. To the depiction of Lotto depicted as “ loud and full of light”, my response catapults to Macbeth’s line 

…a poor player upon the stage

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Although harsh in my reflections, nonetheless my mind sketches in the looming presence of the charismatic dramatist whose bright largeness hides gaps, particularly when he cannot actually substantiate the completion of his first ground- breaking play; as if the elves had come in the night to transform it, he acknowledges that he cannot remember, for dozing off from a drunken stupor. 

And yet, our boisterous hero rises.  

Supported by the startling Mathilde who appears to sacrifice herself for the brilliance of her hubby,washing, scrubbing toilets, supporting him in a very un- feminist manner, happy to be in love, she seems a cipher of self sacrifice. Much like Little Dorrit or Oliver Twist, Mathilde has an background of occluded abuse and alienation in society. Without explanation only a maudlin innuendo of a past and obscured by Lotto’s fame, Mathilde is merely backdrop. Occasionally, she retreats, appears passively aggressive as she sulks, but always returns to the side of her man. A tabula rasa, perhaps, but we let it pass because we don’t feel passionate enough about the so- called ice queen, often dressed in white, to stop and ponder. Besides which, Lotto drinks up all the light. 

However, throughout their telling of their tale, one feels caught in a fascinating web of narrative  much like the plot driven Iliad or the rise and fall of a Dickensian plot. Susanna Rustin calks Groff , “ a manipulator of information”. We silly mesmerized mortals trust and float on and above Lotto’s words, not questioning his manner of relating his triumphs because he is so obviously a narcissist, a man who does not ever cheat on his wife and who maintains loyalty to his friends.  

The story speeds on throughout his life, the reader barely able to remember the names, the places, even his well received plays that are responsible for his success. Throughout the trajectory of his good fortune, he remains unbelievably loyal to his gal, never straying. To him, she is the purest of the pure . To us, Mathilde is a pretty or interesting wallflower, easily overlooked. 

In the beginning of the novel, Mathilde is associated with sexual acts, a willing partners in the abundance of sex that becomes tedious: she, at first, remaining pure before actually committing to the act, prior to their marriage. Only when Lotto literally falls (or was he pushed?) from an airplane, does the book thankfully depart from that lightweight genre and veer into more interesting tracks. 

Although sex is pervasive throughout, it becomes more than one note after our hero’s plunge. Sex has been established as constant motif throughout Fates and Furies and naturally in marriage, its presence plays a major role. Lotto’s first real sexual encounter with Gwennie in the shadows of a fire! albeit overladen with drugs and alcohol is the reason he is dispatched to a cold New England boarding school where his life is made miserable. Even here, sexual comfort is provided by his drama teacher: a random act that perplexes our lad. 

Later with Mathilde when the continuous sex of the early days falters somewhat, the intimacy of their love continues to bolster and keeps them together much as glue that underpins badly matched parts. Their friends throughout take bets on whether the marriage will endure. It does. That the sex does not produce children wrinkles Lotto’s broad forehead, but Mathilde easily dismisses it. Explained away as a matter of luck and timing, we also accept Lotto’s buoyant delusions. 

Throughout we are aware of the meddling of gods, the Fates, who manipulate Lotto for their sport and he continues to claim the American Dream accoutrements of fame, fortune, personality cult. Hubris lays in wait. Inside the story Lotto himself commandeers the tragedies and mythologies of the Greeks, perhaps openly challenging them,even calling on Telegony and Telemachus, openly appropriating the names of the gods and their victims,and citing them as sources for his genius. His masterpiece based on Antigone will be called Antigonad. Leo, Lottos’s personal muse, and Lotto jokingly refer to their heroine as “Go”. 

Groff boldly juggles literary traditions both in and out of the narratives  and plot lines. Along with illusion, confusion, deception, disguise, misappropriation of identity that recall Shakespeare, she preloads the telling of her protagonists’ takes with the advent of irony. However, it is the stormy vacillating fickleness of the Fates that control the roller coaster ride.The presence as well of the Greek chorus in parentheses who comment for example when Lotto considers suicide, “[ True. It was not his time] “does not surprise as we have been attuned to the multiple voices, within and out  of this book. And much like the Greek chorus , we have been watchful of Lotto’s hamartia, blinding trust, awaiting the fall of our victims dangling from Groff’s pen.

And in deed, the serpents in the nest reveal themselves to be those closest and most trusted by Lotto: Chollie, brother of dead Gwennie; and the beloved wife, Mathilde. Lotto’s relationship with Chollie from Lotto’s early years stands as the gargoyle to the prince, we often wondering why the closeness endures once boys become men and the travesties of the past are quieted by Lotto’s brilliant life of international success. Consistently described in repulsive terms of behaviour, clothing, demeanour, Chollie might have slipped away to return later to deliver his horrifying revelations to Lotto. Instead he steadfastly  clings to Lotto’s side.  

The one other “ true” friend is Leo Sen, the young genius, compelling, but strange. He too will disillusion Lotto. Wounded by Sen’s misunderstanding of the music to be set to Lotto’s opera, Lotto retreats to drink and ponder. When Lotto reveals to Leo that the music is all wrong, Leo is shattered. He leaves. He dies. Lotto returns to the arms of Mathilde for comfort. When Chollie confides Mathilde’s terrible past, the Fates smile their terrible smiles and we, readers, await the final blow to their hero who purged of his illusions must comply with his fate and die. 

The second part of the book, Furies, gives us ‘Mathilde’s ( born Aurelie) life, truly an ugly fairytale. At her core, she is ice, responsible for inflicting pain and possibly death. I even wondered if she had wrecked vengeance on poor Leo for disappointing Lotto. Like Moll Flanders and many other hapless heroines such as Julia Roberts in Pretty woman before her, she prostitutes herself in order to go to Vasar. A witch, a siren, never an innocent, she is surprised by the true passion and love that wrench her heart for Lotto. She can rationalize that she has not lied to her love, just never filled in the holes of her entire story. 

Yet when Chollie reveals to her that he finally unburdened himself to Lotto about her position as sexual protégé with Ariel,  her twice over employer who funded her education, she is furious, vengeful. Lotto is dead but she hates that he has died, the blinders having been removed from his eyes, their dream of a perfect marriage dispelled. She has become a hermit, ragged, rude, only leaving the house to engage in sexual acts with strangers. Again pervasive sex is at the heart of the theme that winds in and out of this marriage. When Mathilde hires an attractive private detective to discern how Chollie has so quickly amassed his fortune so she can ruin him, Groff’s description foreshadows that a sexual encounter between them will occur. 

In a not very convincing manner, Mathilde’s desire to ruin Chollie for destroying Lotto’s sense of their perfect marriage dissipates: and again the Greek Oedipus fate of sleeping with both one’s spouse and child is evoked as the reason for appeasement. That the person’s name is Land feels about the same as someone whose name is lotto, all connotations begging to be acknowledged. 

For me, this book was obviously not believable, but fun to read. Like Romeo and Juliet, these “star- crossed lovers” have a marriage that was far from ideal. The disparity between reality and illusion is vast,yet isn’t that where love lives?:in our illusions ( likely and hopefully not as vast as in our protagonists’).Here it is the blindfold obscuring both fate and furies, allowing for a marriage that has endured and must have provided succour, keeping them together during the better and worse parts of their vows. Had our Lancelot lived, we wonder if the marriage would have endured now that his illusion of perfection had been pierced? And would discovering that he had a son made a difference? Unlikely . For the gods must have their due. Perhaps swallowed in a dreamy stupor, or afflicted with an( other) injury to his head, the story might have rambled into Lotto erecting a new castle.  

But Groff’s story  must culminate with the death of our hero.

It’s a fun read. Just get past the beginning sex! 

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