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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

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Renata Adler's Speedboat in its time and ours

Holding off on any judgment re Renata Adler's first (of 2) novels, Speedboat (1975?), as it's so unusual in every way that one night of reading isn't enough to help me understand her work (she has published many books of nonfiction, many articles in the NYer, where she worked for decades, and only 2 novels). Clearly, to the extent that it's a novel at all, it's a novel in fragments, in the "mosaic" style that some adopted and developed in the 70s in the era of postmodern fiction/the novel is dead/make it new. There is neither an arc to the narrative (or any narrative whatsoever) nor any significant development of characters, at least in the first 2 sections (about 1/4 through the book). Is it a novel at all? What RA has done is string together a sequence of vignettes, in no discernible order (possibly simply order of composition?) about various phases in the life of a character probably much like her though w/ some details changed (e.g., she references various international assignments for "the paper," when everyone knows she wrote for a magazine). The piece reminds me of the near-contemporary novel that I recently read, Eliz. Hardwick's Restless Nights, though EH's was more obviously a story of a life, her life, told out of sequence, in much more developed passages and scenes. What saves RA's work from being just the chaos of a spilled notebook is that every single one of the vignettes is striking and sharply observed, and the constant shifting of time and locale in fact gives the work a broader, more universal scope. There is not nearly the suffering and decline of characters that we saw in Hardwick; Adler's protagonist is more hard-boiled - she's not an ingenue learning about city life but a sly, tough observer ready to take on everything; some of the more powerful pieces involve hardships seen and endured in international reporting, heavy bouts of drinking (in college and after), injuries suffered by friends and strangers. Some are quite short and witty; none is sentimental. In a way they remind me also of Lydia Davis's short, quirky fiction - tho what Davis calls a story collection here is seemingly united into a single novel; if it were published and marketed today, it might well be presented as a collection of flash fiction: Each stands alone surprisingly well. RA deserves huge credit for pouring forth such rich materials, so many ideas - a writer's notebook poured forth into publication in the raw, but you also have to wonder: What if she'd taken one of these pieces, or several related pieces, and developed the material into a more conventional novel? In a way, Speedboat is very much of its time; the world is less open today to such formal experimentation as it was in the 70s - esp. from a well-established NY/NYer writer.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

North and South as novel of ideas, for better or worse

I've gone as far as I care to w/ Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1855), which is +half-way through this 1,000-ebook page novel, and I give her credit for one of the few works of fiction of its day to truly try to comprehend and convey the plight of the working classes in the so-called Industrial Revolution. Her account of the unsuccessful workers' strike takes a page right out of Engels, but she's not a blind idealist, either - she allows the factory owner, Mr. Thornton, to have his say as well, and, in the section I just finished reading, she has one of the strike leaders - Higgins - distraught about the death of his young daughter, to engage in quite a debate with the lapsed clergyman, Mr. Hale, about workers' rights and the right to strike for higher wages. Higgins more than holds his own - though he, too, is a bit of an idealist, supporting the strike but not any resort to violence (fair enough, but I suspect - and maybe Gaskell would reveal this in later chapters? - that the strikers who began hurling rocks were incited, even hired, by the factory owners to break up the solidarity among the workers. So Gaskell's is a novel of ideas, and they were ideas seldom touched on by her contemporary novelists who seldom portrayed working-class characters other than as comic foils or objects of condescending charity and pity. But I wish it were ... a better novel, for all that. The will she/won't she plot about Margaret Hale and her displeasure w/, even loathing of, Thornton, who is in love with her, and the melodramatic subplot about brother Frederick, charged w/ mutiny for which if captured he would be hanged, who is summoned back to England to visit his mother on her deathbed - these plot devices just feel tedious and attenuated. In other words, I wish I were more engaged with the characters and their troubles. It's not that this is an abstract, intellectual novel by any means, but it feels to me that Gaskell's strength lies in developing dialectics and arguments and less in character development, plot nuance, and style. 

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Did any other Victorian writer take on the issue of workers' rights to directly?

I appreciate the politics of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1855), unusually forthright for a Victorian novel, with so much of the novel devoted to issues of workers' rights. It's not entirely clear where Gaskell stands on the issue, which is to her credit as a novelist - she captures well the positions of both labor and management - ultimately, I think she sides w/ labor, as the workers during the factory strike, and before the strike for that matter, are truly suffering whereas the factory owners are just defending a system that keeps them in power and in relative comfort - but give Gaskell credit for not making the factory owners, particularly Thornton, piggish or vulgar or unduly affluent, and some of the issues that the owners raise are with us still - the inability to compete w/ cheap foreign labor, for example (ironically, the cheap labor comes from the American factories). Gaskell builds the class conflict into a violent confrontation at the factory gates as the workers rally to protest the importation of cheap labor from Ireland. It's at this dramatic moment, about halfway through the novel, that the social and romantic story lines converge, as factory-owner Thornton, prompted by the heroine, Margaret Hale, who has been moved by the plight and poverty of the workers, bravely confronts the mob - and Margaret throws herself in front of Thornton as the mob charges. For the first time in his life, Thornton - who has been entirely devoted to commerce and not to romance - falls in love, but when he declares his love to Margaret she is outraged - she feels nothing for him, and thinks him to be peremptory in the extreme. Well, if this is truly a "comedy of manners," which I think it is, over the course of the narrative Margaret will have to choose between the 2 suitors, both of whom she's rejected. Maybe Gaskell will surprise me and Margaret will choose another course - independence, to the extent that was possible to one of her class and means in the 1850s? I'm not sure I'll get that far, however, N&S is a novel that I just keep hoping will be better, but it somehow lacks the narrative spark of other surviving Victorian-era fiction: The characters are flat, the plot just jolts along, incident upon incident. It's unusual and has probably endured because of its political and socioeconomic themes - did any other novelists of the time dare to take these on so directly? did any even depict a manufacturing culture, the source of British prosperity in the 19th century, so acutely? - but as literary fiction it's thin gruel; I'll probably read further for a day or w mioght might not hold out for 1,100 ibook pages, sorry.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The social realism and politics of Gaskell's North and South

Yesterday I posted on what Elizabeth Gaskell is not (not Dickens, not Hardy, not Eliot, et al.), and today I note something that her novel North and South (1855) is: a precursor to Zola, in that it's one of the few Victorian novels that takes on socio-economic issues as a major topic. It's not a "realist" novel a la Germinal, but it's far more socially engaged than, say, Dickens's most political and topical novel, Hard Times, which in the end is primarily a critique of an educational system that focuses on the practical and useful. That's a topic in N and S as well, but I was pleased and surprised to see how directly EG takes on political topics, starting about 200 pp into the novel. UP to a point, we see, mainly through the perspective of the 19-year-old Margaret, that life in the northern industrial city of Milton (i.e., Manchester?) is unhealthy (horrible atmosphere and dirt and grime everyone), nonaesthetic (ugly factories and warehouses and drab housing quarters for all), and grimly pragmatic (a general belief that business and commerce are the essence of modern life and that there's no need for young people to study the classics). But things really heat up when Mr. Thornton, who is essentially protector and sponsor of the Hale family (Margaret's family) that has relocated to Milton, visits and the discussion turns to politics. The factory workers are planning a strike for higher wages, which Thornton, a factory owner, argues that they don't deserve and that he can't afford; Margaret takes the position that the workers should share equally in the prosperity of the factory - she's a proto-Frederic Engels! - which puts her at odds w/ Thornton and puts her father in an uncomfortable position as mediator. To EG's credit, though she doesn't flesh this out, we see in Margaret the evolution of a consciousness: On arrival in Milton she had no sense of how workers lived or what their life struggles may have entailed, but after she befriends a working-class family, the Higginses, who are suffering from poverty and disease, she begins to understand the injustices in her society and to speak out on this topic; I suspect that as the novel progresses she becomes more directly involved in class politics - though how much will she truly risk? How deep is her commitment? How much is truly radical ideas and how much is sentimentality and condescension? Can she truly break w/ her class and w/ her family? 

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Gaskell stays within the conventions of her genre but builds a good narrative

Started reading Elizabeth Gaskell's (long) novel North and South (1855, ergo not about the Civil War) and on first impression it seem to be well written and entertaining, to a degree, but hardly groundbreaking - an example of the kind of magazine-serialized fiction popular in Victorian England, a "comedy of manners" built on a series of contrasts, as hinted at in the title. The basic story line: two cousins, Margaret and Edith, more or less raised together as M's family, her father a poor country parson in Hampshire, send her off to live w/ her cousin's family in London and to learn the ways of the world. The story begins as E is about to marry a dashing young soldier - her family's a little disappointed that he's not wealthy, but accept that it's a love match - and move w/ him to Corfu; in part because her cousin is leaving, Margaret returns to her family in the country, and shortly thereafter her father declares that he no longer can continue his work as a parson and the family must relocate to a newly arisen industrial city in the north (it's called Milton - could possibly be Manchester?) where he will work as a private tutor (and they will have even less money - plus giving up a life in the beautiful English countryside. So there are at least 2 North/South dichotomies going on: North and South England (i.e., old green England with its rural character and traditions and the newly ascendant industrial world, with everything focused on commerce and profits) as well as England v Corfu/Mediterranean - though this has not yet (about percent through) been developed. The story moves along pretty well, but without any great literary flourishes: Gaskell is an etiolated version of the Victorian novelist - without the perspicacity of an Eliot, the humor and sentimentality of Dickens, the confidentiality of Trollope, the world view of Hardy. For one thing, the personal relations among the characters - Edith's marriage, the pursuit of Margaret by E's new brother-in-law are just delivered straight up, no development, little subtlety. And what about M's father and his weird decision to give up his profession and move the family to the far north? EG doesn't examine or explain this at all - a huge opportunity missed, I think. That said, she's working within the conventions or her era but the conventions themselves give her a great deal of latitude to build an entertaining narrative; I'd be shocked in N&S has not been made into a BBC miniseries. 

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Monday, January 15, 2018

A great premise that's left undevelped in The Iron Tracks

In the end, I'm really not sure what to make of Aharon Appelfeld's short novel The Iron Tracks (1991). Put simply, it's a narrative by a man who survived the Holocaust and internment in various prison and work camps in Eastern Europe when he was a young man; the narrator - much like the author - escaped from a camp and survived in Eastern Europe till the end of the war, in the process forgetting his native language and separated from his parents (so far very much like AA). The narrator has, apparently, been traversing Eastern Europe - Austria, specifically - in an annual, yearlong circuitous journey visit a series of small, rural railroad outposts, for 40 years - perhaps also like AA in a figurative sense, as he spent the next 40 postwar years "visiting" the ravaged European landscape through his writings. About a third of the way through the novel the narrator informs us that his goal in his journey is to track an (ex) Nazi, Nachgtigel, who ran the prison camp where the narrator's parents were killed. This is a great basis for a plot, but AA makes little of it. About halfway through the novel, we learn that narrator makes this annual journey in search of Jewish artifacts that turn up for sale at various country fairs and markets; he buys these and sells them to a collector at a good mark-up. This is an opportunity for AA to give some depth and shading to the narrator's character, but AA does not take this opportunity. In other words, AA has established here a basis for a novel, but he opts for shading and understatement rather than development. I'm a great fan of short fiction and short novels, of efficiency in narration, and in narrative by suggestion and nuance, but there are times when a novel, such as this one, feels unfinished - as if the author had a contract to hit 200 pages and when he got there he mailed it in. For example (semi-spoiler-alert): The narrartor (Erwin) does track down his nemesis, Nachtigel, toward the end - once he learns the town where N now lives it proves easy to find him - he spots N walking alone in front of his house early one a.m., engages him in some conversation (falsely flattering N, telling him he's a military hero to those in the village), and then shoots him in the back. End of story; no great scene by any measure; and then the narrator moves on to another location. As noted in previous posts, AA seems to me adept and skilled at creating a narrative premise, but he also seems indifferent to narrative development and character development - at least in the little of his work that I've read.

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Sunday, January 14, 2018

Appelfeld's strengths as a writer, and his weakness

The narrative line in Aharon Appelfeld's The Iron Tracks (1991) clarifies as the novel gets to about its midpoint: The narrator, Erwin (?), has explained that his life involves taking an annual circuit route through postwar Eastern Europe, stopping at many small stations and towns (on the same date each year) where he had experienced some kind of trauma or loss (and sometimes love) during the war years when he was a young man, escaped from a labor camp, fleeing for his life (during which time he witnessed the murder of his parents, who were Jewish communist activists). We learn that his journey is part of his professional life: He searches at various fairs and market places for Jewish artifacts - wine glasses, menorahs, prayer books, etc. - that are seen mostly as trash but that are extremely valuable to certain collectors. Over time, others - his "rivals" he calls them - have become aware of the value of these artifacts and have begun to follow him on his route. So much of the foreboding and mystery around his travels turns out to be misguided; he's just a dealer in artifacts, in effect. And yet: He also notes a secondary (or is it primary?) purpose for his peregrinations: He's in search of the man, Nachvogel (?), who assassinated his parents, and he carries a pistol w/ which he will kill N if her ever finds him. He follows various tips and clues he receives while en route and seems, by the mid-point of the novel, to have a good idea where the killer has settled. Throughout his journeys, he has several one-night stands with various prostitutes (AA is very discrete in describing these encounters), and earlier in his life had an ongoing relationship w/ a woman, Bertha, who has left him; he's a lonely, isolate character - we know nothing of where he may have any permanent home, though he talks of emigrating to Israel (as did AA) - and he encounters some warm friendship on his annual journey as well as, from time to time, some hostile anti-Semitism. AA's strength as a writer comes from his ability to create an atmosphere - we get the sense of a ruined landscape, with much underground hatred and menace and w/ many people leading lives of secret shame and terror, after the war - but not in developing a character. In the 2 of his novels that I've read the characters are few and they're sketchy: We know a lot about what this narrator does but not much about what makes him tick. He's an unexplored country, even to himself.

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