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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

Friday, August 18, 2017

More religious themes in Greene's Brighton Rock

Following up on yesterday's post on Graham Greene's Brighton Rock (1938), which as indicated from the first sentence becomes a crime story, of sorts, with two rival gangs jostling for control of the betting operations at the nearby race track - the upstart gang led by a 17-year-old, Pinkie, who is cold-blooded and has no remorse about killing one of the gang members who in some manner betrayed the group and slashing the face of a guy who didn't pay off his gambling debts. The established gang is led by a true mafioso type, can't remember his name but it might as well be Corleone, who is cool and distant and lives a life of luxury and is somewhat taken by the Pinkie's fearlessness -but also ready to squash him if need be. Pinkie's problem is that a young (16) waitress at a seaside place witnessed some aspects of the murder and he has to keep her quiet; he flirts with her for a while, at which point we learn he is essentially asexual - his flirting is just a business proposition. In fact, he's repulsed by her and by the whole concept of sex. Both he and the girl, Rose, are "Romans," but Pinkie has no faith, no belief in mercy or salvation - though he recognizes that many plead for mercy when in the face of death. Another witness to part of the murder, a 40-something woman, Ida Arnold, becomes increasingly - and foolishly - curious about what happened (she'd met the victim but had not real relationship to him) and she begins following a # of leads and clues to prove that the victim, Hale, was killed and didn't die of natural causes, as the so-called inquest ruled. She is like a pilgrim, seeking the truth. Many potential conflicts loom: between Pinkie and his somewhat recalcitrant gang, Pinkie and "Corleone," Pinkie and Ida, Ida and the (paid off?) police - and it seems all this will culminate at the race track. Just wondering: Was the movie Atlantic City, which I saw so many years ago I forget all the plot details, based on this novel, transposed to the U.S. ca 1970?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Greene's Brighton Rock as religious allegory?

If one didn't know that Graham Greene had converted to Catholicism and had written at least one overtly "Catholic" novel (The Power and the Glory), you'd - or I'd - read his other novels differently. That is, would readers group The End of the Affair, for ex., as a "religious" novel? Doubt it. Yesterday I started reading Brighton Rock (1938), one of the GG novels I'd never read, and note that it is sometimes grouped among his "religious" novels (GG himself clearly distinguished in lists of his works between "novels" and "entertainments," such as Our Man in Havana, which stands up well as both, in my view). So that will be in my mind as I read through - though it doesn't start out as a religious novel in any conventional sense. The beginning is a little tricky: We meet a man, Hale, working as promoter for an English newspaper by distributing prize money in the seaside resort of Brighton - but he's wanted man, and in the first chapter most of his efforts involve trying to escape notice by his pursuers. We don't learn what they want from him, but apparently it has something to do w/ gambling debts. No matter. Though the first chapter would let us think the novel will be about Hale and his flight from assailants, as it happens they catch him and kill him in between chapters 1 and 2 - and the novel settles down into a different course: The main character seems to be a middle-aged woman, Ida, whom Hale flirted w/ while he was being pursued. She wonders why he abandoned her as she went into the ladies' room, and when she learns from news accounts that he died - supposedly of a heart attack - she becomes suspicious and begins investigating his death. She's the most unlikely of amateur sleuths, but so be it - the novel is off and running so to speak. Perhaps we can make a religio-allegorical leap and see her quest for information as much like a pilgrim's search for truth and salvation? If so, she starts off on the wrong course, using some kind of ouija board to get a "message" from the now-cremated Hale: This would be entrusting false idols, when the true devotee would need to trust in The Word. We'll see how this develops.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A disappointing collection supposedly of stories about Paris

Been reading from time to time in an anthology I picked up ahead of travel to France, Paris Stories, Everyman's Library, and, hm. Well, Everyman editions used to be very good in a # of ways: Great selection of materials, a good chronology (I think - not as complete as Library of America, but adequate), great production including a little ribbon to serve as a book mark. If this anthology is evidence the only thing remaining is the ribbon (albeit, I think they improved the font or point size). This anthology is pathetic. First of all, the selection of materials is strange to say the least - for the most part a few pages from much larger works (going back to Rabelais and ending w/ Modiano) that may, sometimes, give you the sense of a Paris neighborhood but never give you a sense of authorship or of a completed literary work. There are at least two nonfiction sections, which hardly fit in w/ the idea of "stories." And for all that the very few complete short stories are not of the highest order: Julio Cortazar's Blow-Up, which aside from a lot of blather about the narrator's struggle to decide whether to tell story in first, 2nd, or 3rd person, and so forth, is a brief account of a photographer who intends to shoot a scene of people in a park and finds he's shooting some kind of tryst or illegal encounter - Antonioni et al. made much more of this in the film version. A story by De Paupasssant, A Paris Affair, is OK though not one of his best: A woman in a stifled life in a suburb (think Mme Bovary) sneaks away for a weekend in Paris where she seduces a famous author, finds the whole experience sordid and unpleasant, and then returns home w/ a "frozen" heart; what's good about this story is the surprising frankness about sex and the fact that she does not sheepishly return to her boring husband chastened and wiser nor guilt-ridden and ashamed - just cold and indifferent, making this simple story strangely dark around the edges. Aside from these: Why is there no context about any of the selections, no information about the authors and their works? Are these really the best stories one could find about Paris? Nothing by Mavis Gallant? Nothing by Proust, Sartre, Camus, Genet, Hemingway, Fitzgerald [correction: Anthology includes from FSF an excerpt from Tender Is the Night; what, you couldn't find one FSF story set in Paris?!], Nemirovsky, Orwell ... ? Seems to be a well-made book whose contents were drawn together on the fly and on the cheap.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cusk's Outline: The inverse of most first-person narrations

Toward the end of her novel Outline, Rachel Cusk gives us a glimpse of what the title signfies. The narrator (we learn, I think, in the last chapter that her name is Faye, though it's hard not to think of her as the author herself) crosses paths w/ the woman who will take over the Athens apartment that she's been housed in for the week of the writing seminar. The woman coming in, a playwright, is odd and deeply troubled, in fact traumatized, as the victim of a recent mugging and attack. The woman speaks almost non-stop, telling the story of her life and her eccentricities (eating disorders, among other problems), and at one point she remarks that as she hears others talk of their struggles, their marriages, the creativity, she feels as if all these lives are filled in around her and whereas her own life story is empty - the stories she hears constitute an outline of her life, but her life is not "filled in" so to speak. This ties in w/ what I'd noted in an earlier post, that is, the opacity of the narrator - she hears many life stories, in fact somehow she seems to inspire the confessional instinct in everyone she meets (many of them writers or aspiring writers), but we know little about her - the inverse of most first-person narrations. She never "confides" in her readers; what she tells us about her life is only told through her recollection of her interactions with others. In a broader sense, what Cusk is getting at I think is that our lives are made up not only by the story we would tell of our life - what one might say, for example, to a therapist - but also by the stories of all the lives of people we know, and people we meet. In fact, Cusk might go so far as to say that it's the stories of others that constitute the lived experience of our lives. Sartre said "hell is other people," but Cusk reverses that: life is other people (literature, too, for that matter). Without the narratives of others we would have no sense of how to narrate our own experiences; life consists of shared narrations.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The many narratives in Cusk's Outline

Another intriguing and somewhat puzzling scene in Rachel Cusk's Outline (2014) concerns the writing seminar the narrator (Cusk herself on some level) leads in Athens, the raison d'etre for her journey and therefore for this entire narrative. It's a class of (I think) 10 students, all aspiring writers, of varying ages and levels of experience. She begins the class, the first meeting, by asking each of the students to describe or recount something that they observed on the way to the class that morning. That leads to several strong presentations (my thought was that this was a fabulous class or writers - of course the fiction is fictive, and no class of varying abilities could come up w/ such astute observations), including one narrative in which a woman hears a strand of a Back keyboard piece from a window as she passes by a music conservatory, making her think of her failed attempt at a career in music. We can see that each of these observations could lead to a really fine story, or even a novel - all of which makes this seem to me that Cusk has presented a fine exercise for a writing seminar. Strangely, one of the students - the youngest, and the one whom she'd been warned would take over the class if allowed to - says he doesn't make such observations as they have nothing to do with his writing. At the end of the class, the final student, who'd remained silent up to that point, denounces Cusk as a terrible teacher. During the class Cusk received a frantic call from her young son, back home in England, who'd become lost on his way to school - over the phone she navigates him back to safety. So what have we here: Cusk (or the narrator, if you prefer) leads a terrific seminar but gets blasted, unjustly, by a student w/ bad attitude, and is made to feel guilt for leaving her children home possibly w/out sufficient supervision. So we see the forces pulling her apart: commitment to family, commitment to career, need for self-esteem, peculiar facility for evoking in others the desire or even need to tell their stories. This theme continues in the next chapter, w/ a twist, as the (unnamed, I think) guy she met on the plane (curiously, throughout she refers to him as her "neighbor") invites her for the 2nd day in a row to go out w/ him on is boat; she obliges, and can we be surprised that after these long conversations and her willingness to go for a ride w/ him, the "neighbor" makes a pass at her - which she brusquely rejects: he's unattractive to her, and she is no doubt put off by his serial failures at marriage. So why does she want to spend so much time w/ him?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The opacity of the narrator in Rachel Cusk's Outline

One item to note in Rachel Cusk's fine and challenging novel Outline (2014) is the opacity of the narrator. The entire narrative (at least so far, 2/3 thru) is from the POV of the unnamed narrator but surely someone meant to be much like if not identical to RC herself, as she travels to Athens for a writers' workshop and during her stay in Athens. he has an astonishing capacity to meet people and to propel them to tell her their life stories, w/ particular focus on the challenges and breakdowns for their marital life and their struggle to raise children while engaging in a career in the arts. We meet, in I think this order, an Athenian man from a wealthy family who's ended 3 marriages and, we learn somewhat later, is devoted to caring for his son who is suffering from schizophrenia; a fellow writer at the conference, an Irish author, somewhat stymied in his work after initial success, w/ a propensity for flirting w/ young women and ostensibly (or so he says) w/ the tacit approval of his wife; a Greek novelist whom she knows from the past who invites to a dinner meet another novelist, a woman, who is suddenly somewhat famous largely because of the feminist principles that she puts forward in her novel - and she (like the Irish writer, for that matter) is an extraordinary egotist and narcissist - and a few others - but the overall point is how much they say and how little RC says - though everything she says is trenchant and pointed, including the observation about infancy noted in yesterday's post and, as another example, her brief discussion about her two sons and their gradual alienation and separation from each other, after a childhood of shared games and illusions. All of these narratives circling around the central narrator are in a sense a paradigm for the life of, & the role of, the writer and the artist: making sense of the stories of other people's lives, bringing these stories into confluence - all lives, RC seems to be saying, are narratives, and we each create the narrative of our life, though rarely get to articulate these narratives (except perhaps in psychotherapy). Something about her draws people out into lengthy confessions, that she absorbs and, in a sense, appropriates. It's at times hard to keep the narratives separate in our minds as we read through this novel, which is I think exactly the point - by the end we get a broader picture of what it means to live a life and to tell, even to oneself, the story of our lives.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Rachel Cusk's novel Outline much better than it may sound when summarized

It's obvious that the British novelist Rachel Cusk is in the spotlight, as she's received strong reviews in both the U.S. and U.K. and has been recently the subject of a NYer profile and an NPR interview, both somewhat rare for a literary novelist - yet something has kept me from reading her much-praised recent works - a trilogy (the 3rd volume not yet published) in which the narrator, a woman presumably much like Cusk, listens to the stories of various people she encounters in her travels who confide in her about their troubled lives and broken marriages. Sounded pretty dull and depressing to me. N.the.less, spurred by curiosity and remembering a strong recommendation from old from E.S., I started reading the first vol of the trilogy, Outline (2014), and find myself impressed and interested at this point (read the first two, of ten I think, chapters). In the first chapter, narrator listens to the life story of a man seated next to her on a flight to Athens (she will be one of the leaders at a writers' workshop); he tells of his family fortune that he's more or less lost through two unhappy marriages/bitter divorces - his narrative is much like a strong short story, with occasional commentary - much like a therapist or counselor  - from the narrator, and it's the narrator's (i.e., Cusk's) great intelligence and insight (sure, why not, she's creating these characters) that propels the story. Early on (p.18) Cusk provides a truly astonishing observation, noticing how an infant will toss to the ground an object such as a toy, then cry in despair, then the adult (mom) will pick up the toy and return it to the child, who will immediately toss it to the ground then cry again. Why? She surmises that the child gets such great pleasure from the alleviation of despair that the child would rather toss the toy aside than hold onto it. Without saying so, Cusk implies that this dynamic lies behind so many loves and marriages: why do some keep making the same mistakes in choosing their partners? Because the alleviation of despair is so gratifying, perhaps. 2nd chapter involves her listening to the tales of woe from a fellow teacher at the writer's conference, and she gets an invite to go out on a boat w/ the Greek man from chapter 1, so there will apparently be some interlacing of these narrative segments. Whether she can sustain the interest through 10 sections, much less over the course of 3 novels, I don't yet know, but all readers will feel they're in sure hands.