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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Jaeggy's boarding-school novel - minimlaism at the extreme

Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy's novel - doesn't it seem as if it might be an essay or a memoir? - of her year as a 14-year-old in a Swiss boarding school, Sweet Days of Discipline (1989), gets better and stranger toward the end as FJ moves ahead in time and we get glimpses of her boarding school friends and acquaintances in later life; I won't give anything away, but it's fair to say that none has fared well as a result of the boarding-school experience. Interestingly, despite the ominous title, there is no violence or abuse or any other form of mistreatment in this novel; there is a bit of cruelty but not the bullying that is often a feature of prep lit. The sorrow and isolation these young women feel in their boarding school isn't because of the school but in spite of it: It's the parents who are to blame - strange and distant, getting on w/ their jet-set lives while putting the kids pretty much into cold storage. This novel is so slight as to verge on minimalism - 101 small pages, to be precise. I appreciate a work that accomplishes its goals as efficiently as possible - most novels suffer from maximalism, writers enamored of their own voices, but in this case I think the novel could have used more "fleshing out." FJ's character sketches are not just minimal, they're really outlines, particularly of the narrator's 2 best friends in school - neither of whom comes to a happy ending. Couldn't she have given a hint of the troubled psyches and difficult family dynamics that ultimately damaged these seemingly A-list students? I don't need every blank to be filled, every T to be crossed - but I do need a few poignant scenes, some further details or observations or insights, that foreshadow the dark outcomes that lie ahead. 

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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Prep-school novels and one that never gets off the ground: Sweet Days of Discipline

Sweet Days of Discipline (1989) - not a tale of bondage or anything of the sort - is a short novel (100 small pages) by Swiss-Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy about her year as a 14-year-old in a Swiss boarding school; the time is never firmly established but seems to be perhaps the 1950s? The novel seems like a mashup of Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and My Brilliant Friend (to which it would be an antecedant), and there are probably a lot more boarding school novels (e.g., Prep, Separate Peace) to constitute a genre unto itself. In this novel the unnamed first-person narrator establishes that there is a caste system or pecking order in the school: Younger girls try to attach themselves to an older student who will be their protector of sorts and in turn the younger girl will perform various services, such as cleaning the room. Sounds like an American prison system, in fact - though in this instance there's not even a hint of sexual favors nor even of physical abuse. In most of the prep-novels the protagonist has a powerful relationship with either fellow student or a teacher; sometimes the relationship is brutal and oppressive, sometimes worshipful and inspirational (sometimes both). Jaeggy does a good job w/ the set-up - the narrator develops a worshipful relationship w/ the top student, a year older and much more "experienced," Frederique, and a contemptuous relationship w/ her German roommate, whom she considers such a nonentity that now, writing in retrospect, she can't even remember the girl's name. Once she's done the set-up, however, FG doesn't bring the novel anywhere; she's a writer who seems indifferent to plot. What happens to these characters, how do the interact and change one another, is there a point of crisis, any violence, misbehavior, anything? I'm now 60 pp in and so far nothing: The teachers and the headmaster are just sketches, there are one or two peripheral characters (an African girl whose father is president of his country and who has become a favorite of the headmistress - but FG makes little of this). There's a bare hint that the German roommate may have had some family connection to the Nazis, but again - so far at least - Jaeggy hasn't playing out this string. Short novels are great - some of my favorite works fall into this form - but if the writer doesn't build in at least a semblance of plot the writer might as well call the work a memoir and be done w/ it. 

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Friday, December 15, 2017

The depiction of homosexuality in Dorian Gray

Finished reading Oscar Wilde's (only) novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), as well as Jeffrey Eugenides's insightful intro to the Modern Library edition and concur w/ JE that it's an entertaining and provocative novel if not a great one (JE first read it as a teenager and it impressed him at the time w/ its decadence and artistic splendor - less so today he notes). What strikes me above all is how much it's a novel about homosexuality (which JE actually hardly mentions, though he talks about it as a novel of gender identity). As is well known, Wilde lived a "double life," married w/ children at the time he wrote the novel, later moved into the Savoy and had a long, committed relationship with another man - and was convicted on a morals charge because of this, imprisoned and assigned to hard labor, survived that amazingly, and in his later years was an advocate for prison reform (I'm not sure whether he was also an advocate for rights of homosexuals - I don't think he was, though; I think he advocated on behalf of all prisoners re treatment and conditions rather than about civil rights). Dorian Gray is infused with veiled references to a homosexual culture: the three main characters are men, who rhapsodize about Gray's beauty and talk with cutting disparity about marriage (one of the men, Lord Henry Wotton, by far the most visible character in the novel and obviously a version of Wilde, is married at the outset, but the marriage breaks up for no explained reason). Wilde includes a lot of writing about Dorian's immorality, his corrupting effect on others, plus Wotton's evil influence on Gray, Wotton's successful attempt to break up Gray's brief engagement to a naive young actress, Gray's "Faustian bargain" to maintain his youthful beauty but at great expense, lots of excursions into clubs and "dens of iniquity" but no there are sexual encounters w/ women throughout; Wilde does everything he can to create an aura of debasement and immorality w/out making any direct reference to homosexual relationships - much like Proust's indirect treatment of the sexuality of his narrator. Why is this? Obviously, given the cultural and legal climate of the time Wilde would never have been able to publish, at least in England, a novel about homosexual relationships (France was ahead of the cultural curve on that). More important, it may have been better to depict the homosexual culture by indirection and omission: Just as homosexuals had to live "in the closet" (along w/ the eponymous portrait, as a matter of fact), literature about homosexuals had to be hidden, coded, and subterranean; Wilde's novel, though it never directly addresses the theme of homosexuality, captures in some way the nature of the culture in Edwardian England: speaking in code, arranging assignations in the dark, disparaging marriage, adopting a pose of indifference, making a fetish of art and decor, disappearing. 

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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Now that I'm reading Wilde: What's the most significant work of literary fiction I haven't yet read?

As noted in an earlier post, I'd considered Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) as the most significant work of literary fiction that I hadn't read; now I'm 3/4 of the way through the novel - so what replaces it on the list? Before even taking on that question, a few points: There are a vast # of books that I've "read," but so long ago - sometimes even 50 years! - that I remember little or nothing about them (though they're still part of my consciousness, as are all experiences whether we remember them or not, right?). Second, I take "credit" for a # of significant, even great, books that I started but just could not or chose not to finish, notably: The Old Testament, Canterbury Tales, Gravity's Rainbow, Finnegans Wake, Man Without Qualities. That said, here are a few of the other significant works of literary fiction that I haven't (yet) read: 

Balzac. Unless I want to take "credit" for reading some of the "Comedie Humain," I'd have to say I've never read Lost Illusions and probably won't.
Twain. At one point in my life I went through virtually all of Twain's works; I have a pretty full collection. Oddly, I had, and read, all of the major novels, but I didn't have a copy of Connecticut Yankee so I didn't read it and to this day still haven't, for some reason.
Nobel Prize Winners. Not all books by all Nobel winners are necessarily "significant," and some have obviously faded in significance over time, one of which is Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. Still, it was a major work in its time and one I haven't read and probably never will.
Historically significant fiction. One novel that had a huge impact on American life in the 19th century was Uncle Tom's Cabin. Is it worth reading today as anything other than a curiosity? I don't know; never read it.
Mega-best-sellers of our time: I guess you'd have to say that the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are significant literary works and that have shaped the literary taste of millions. Haven't read them, though (did read The Hobbit).
Scifi, which remains a blank spot for me, w/ a few exceptions. Some would put Bradbury and Philip Dick on lists of significant literary authors, but I've read little or nothing of their work. 
Great works of Asian and African fiction? I know I've missed many, but I know little about these fields. 
And probably the book I would now consider the most significant literary fiction I've never read: Richardson's Clarissa, considered one of the foundational works of the novel in English. It's now on my list!

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

3 thoughts on the significance of the eponymous portrait in Dorian Gray

About half-way through the novel we get to the "reveal" in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), which everyone by now knows, but in any case: Gray comes home after crudely rejected the sentiments of his former beloved/fiancee Sybil (who later kills herself); when he looks at his portrait, which Basil has presented to him, he sees a maligned expression and the first sign of age lines and scowling - he's quite sure that the portrait had mutated, aged somehow, though he cannot fathom how this could be (nor can we). Extremely disturbed by this development, he drapes the portrait in cloth coverings and calls on some workmen stash the portrait away in an attic storeroom (he flatly refuses Basil's request to show the portrait in an exhibit). OK, so the motif of the novel is that while Gray retains the beauty of his youth the portrait ages - not just with the years, as I'd initially surmised, but in sync with the growing bitterness and cynicism that Gray experiences as he ages. Other than that this is a clever narrative trick, what do we make of this aging-portrait phenomenon? First, as OW's take on art, hes going against the idea that beauty is eternal and unchanging (Ode on a Grecian Urn, e.g.) art itself changes as we age - the experience for example of re-reading a work that had a certain meaning when first encountered and later in life seems different. Second, OW's sense art in some manner protects us or shields us from life: Yes, our bodies inevitably fail us as we age and we suffer the torments of life as we are battered and hardened by experience (the innocence of use, Wordsworth, Rousseau, q.v.) but art helps us endure, preserves us in a way. Third, covering up the portrait and hiding it away, in a "closet" no less, is an analogue for the enforced secrecy around the lives of homosexuals in the Edwardian age (note all of the emphasis on male beauty, the homoerotic flirting and competition and jealousies among the 3 protagonists, Lord Henry's loveless marriage of convenience, the sense that Gray's "engagement" is just a cover, a beard, not to be taken seriously), these 3 men and Gray in particularly seeming to live a socially conventional life but hiding the truth away in a closet - and perhaps this novel is the origin of that phrase?

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The most significant work of literary fiction that I'd never read: Dorian Gray

I'm reading, for the first time, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray - which to me is significant because up to now I'd kind of somewhere in my brain logged it as "the most significant work of literary fiction that I'd never read." So now I'm in - and I don't know what took me so long and I do know why it's read by so many, still. I'n not sure how great DG is as a novel, but it's with no doubt great as a vehicle for carrying Wilde's sardonic wit. Very roughly, the story line involved 3 characters who converge at the outset: Lord Henry Wotton, a wealthy and irresponsible dandy (though he's married and has some arch things to say about the marital state, he's obviously a mouthpiece for Wilde); Basil, an artist; and Gray, the subject of the eponymous portrait, a younger and very handsome man whom Lord H swoops up and tries to educate in the ways of Edwardian (1891) London society. Basil gives the portrait to DG, and says he will never exhibit it because it is too beautiful; DG recognizes that over time he will age and look less like the beautiful portrait - and like everyone else I know this means that the portrait will age, not the subject. But as noted we read this for the wit, and right at the top Lord H makes the observation that, I am paraphrasing: It's a terrible think to be noticed, though not as terrible as not being noticed. That's the template for Wilde's witticism: statement, and then undermining or twisting the statement in a self-contained retort. This device works to hilarious effect on stage (vid Importance of Being Earnest), and works OK in a novel, though the formula becomes tiresome and the quips tend to dominate all else - in fact, we'd say they're not credible as conversational elements except that we suspect that Wilde perfectly captures his own repartee in this character. On almost any random page you'll find at least one killer quote. Will keep reading - and wondering: Now, what is the most significant work of fiction that I've never read? Will discuss that in a future post. 

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Monday, December 11, 2017

McDermott's great re-creation of a lost world, and a correction to yesterday's post

Well, mea culpa mea maxima culpa but a big correction to yesterday's post re Alice McDermott's The Ninth Hour (2017): Mr. Costello is still married, not a widower, as he and Annie are having their love affair, which of course changes a lot. His wife is mortally ill, mentally and physically unsound, and the nuns are caring for her daily - and the protagonist, Sally, Annie's daughter (and the narrators' mother) - has in fact helped care for her as she considers joining the order of nuns. I had thought she had died before her husband, the local milkman, and Annie had begun their relationship (in fairness, much of the novel is told out of sequence, which does make it a little hard to follow, but it's still on me). So now it becomes evident why Sally is so upset and mortified when she comes home unexpectedly and sees that her mother is in a relationship w/ Mr. Costello - which leads to her leaving home to board w/ the Tierneys, whose son, Patrick, she will eventually marry. It also leads to the dramatic climax of the novel, which I won't spoil, but which entails Sally's doing something desperate and reckless to, as she puts it, save her mother's soul while losing her own. Not all readers will buy that, but McDermott does know how to bring her plot to the boiling point. All told, this is a great depiction of a time and place and community that today barely exists; it's also, without feeling heavy-handed or smothered in research, gives the best account I've ever read of the life of a small convent of urban nuns and a powerful appreciation of the work these women pursued every day to help the impoverished in their community, long before there was any government so-called safety net or any type of public social services. Those who long for the days before Medicaid, Medicare, Obamacare, Social Security, DCYF and case workers, CHIPs, SNAP, and so on - take a look at the world McDermott re-creates and see if things were better for the poor and the outsiders, and then think again.

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