According to a skincare company trying to get me to spend more money, Friday was International Sisters Day. I don’t have a sister so my spending on moisturiser was limited, but I do have a brother. (And he buys his own moisturiser). I have no idea when International Brothers Day is, so I thought I would theme this post around male siblings and just ignore the fact that it was supposed to be a celebration of sisterhood. I should just point out that I chose the title quote because I love Oscar Wilde and it was about brothers, not because I’m waiting for my brother to die. Without him in my life I would lose the one person who manages to simultaneously ridicule the things I say and do, whilst being unconditionally, unwaveringly supportive. It’s a seemingly paradoxical combination that I’m sure many of you with siblings will recognise. The texts I’ve chosen both feature brothers, but admittedly not a sibling relationship I found familiar. This is hardly surprising – I consider having a brother one of the great blessings of my life, and this doesn’t make for a very dynamic narrative. So the relationships depicted are dysfunctional and bordering on destructive, but this makes for two powerful tales of familial drama.
Firstly, a classic of modern American theatre, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949, my copy Penguin 2000). The play tells the story of Willy Loman, the salesman of the title, as he loses his grip on his life. He is aging, always a threat to a salesman’s career, and his sanity is wavering, he is subject to flashbacks and unable to distinguish between past and present at times. The play is a damning indictment of a consumerist culture, and written in 1948, it sadly hasn’t aged at all:
LINDA: And Willy, don’t forget to ask for a little advance, because we’ve got the insurance premium. It’s the grace period now.
WILLY: That’s a hundred… ?
LINDA: A hundred and eight, sixty-eight. Because we’re a little short again.
WILLY: Why are we short?
LINDA: Well, you had the motor job on the car…
WILLY: That goddam Studebaker!
LINDA: And you got one more payment on the refrigerator…
WILLY: But it just broke again!
LINDA: Well, it’s old, dear.
WILLY: I told you we should’ve bought a well-advertised machine. Charley bought a General Electric and it’s twenty years old and it’s still good, that son-of-a-bitch.
LINDA: But, Willy…
WILLY: Whoever heard of a Hastings refrigerator? Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken! I’m always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the car and it’s on its last legs. The refrigerator consumes belts like a goddam maniac. They time those things. They time them so when you finally paid for them, they’re used up.
Within the pressures of consumerism, Willy and his sons struggle to make the money the need to buy the things they’re convinced they need, and still create a life of meaning. The sons of the play, Happy and Biff, are close brothers, but very different. Happy is a ladies man, working in the commercial sector, but lonely without fully knowing why. Biff struggles under the weight of his father’s expectations, only knowing what he doesn’t want – to follow his father into sales:
BIFF: Why does Dad mock me all the time?
HAPPY: He’s not mocking you, he…
BIFF: Everything I say there’s a twist of mockery on his face. I can’t get near him.
HAPPY: He just wants you to make good, that’s all. I wanted to talk to you about Dad for a long time, Biff. Something’s — happening to him. He — talks to himself.
BIFF: I noticed that this morning. But he always mumbled.
HAPPY: But not so noticeable. It got so embarrassing I sent him to Florida. And you know something? Most of the time he’s talking to you.
BIFF: What’s he say about me?
HAPPY: I can’t make it out.
BIFF: What’s he say about me?
HAPPY: I think the fact that you’re not settled, that you’re still kind of up in the air…
BIFF: There’s one or two other things depressing him, Happy.
HAPPY: What do you mean?
BIFF: Never mind. Just don’t lay it all to me.
HAPPY: But I think if you just got started — I mean — is there any future for you out there?
BIFF: I tell ya, Hap, I don’t know what the future is. I don’t know — what I’m supposed to want.
Arthur Miller has a great reputation for good reason. As the Loman family implodes under the weight of failure and disappointment, the play powerfully demonstrates the forces modern life can exert to a tragic extent. Not a light read, but sixty-five years later, still a vital one.
Secondly, and with a title that gives two sibling types for the price of one, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt (Granta, 2011). This novel was published to great acclaim and was shortlisted for the Booker in 2011. I found it a strange read. Apparently there were suggestions that the Coen brothers buy the film rights (something which John C. Reilly has apparently done) and that fact should give you a good idea of the tone of the novel. Like a Coen brothers film it is full of peculiar characters and situations, viscerally real yet oddly surreal, with a dry, deadpan humour. The novel tells the tale of Charlie and Eli Sisters, brothers who are murderers for hire amongst the gold rush of the 1850s. They are in the pay of the sinister Commodore, who has charged them to hunt down and kill the muppetly-named Hermann Kermit Warm. The story is narrated by Eli, the more sensitive of the two brothers who longs to leave the life and open a trading post. He and Charlie are bound by blood and deep understanding, a shared violent history and the fact that they work effectively as a murderous team. Charlie is an alcoholic and the more violent of the two, but at times Eli sees him anew:
“He then located a deep spot in the stream, stripped down, and leapt in, shrieking loudly at its coldness. I sat on the bank and watched him splashing and singing; he had not had anything to drink the night before and there had been no other people around to upset his volatile nature, and I found myself becoming sentimental by this rare show of happiness. Charlie had often been glad and singing as a younger man, before we took up with the Commodore, when he became guarded and hard”
The story has an episodic nature and short chapters, but the plot gains momentum as the brothers gain on their prey and realise all may not be as it seems. It turns out these two seemingly immoral characters have a line they will not cross, but discovering this does not help them:
“He exhaled through his nostrils. “What do you think we should do?”
“What do you think we should do?”
But neither of us knew what to do.”
As the Sisters Brothers continue on their path, not knowing where it will lead, they struggle, similarly to the Loman family, to work out a vocation for themselves that will give their lives meaning. Although their circumstances may be more extreme – and downright weird – than most of us will ever know, the fundamental need for meaning and acceptance makes their struggles recogniseable.
Here are the books with a present my brother gave me a few years back, in memory of our childhood; Gabriel the folk-singing toad from Bagpuss, my favourite character from my favourite kids programme:
And as a P.S.: Those of you interested in management leadership/self-improvement/self-leadership do check out my brother’s blog here. He hasn’t updated in ages but he assures me he’s got lots of good posts planned soon.