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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, November 18, 2017

Volume 1 of The Sleepwalkers: A story of one man, or a broader look at social forces?

The end of Book One (The Romantic) of Hermann Broch's 1928-31 3 vol novel, The Sleepwalkers, leaves me puzzled and confused. So the main character, the young German officer Joachim, tries to leave money to his Berlin girlfriend, the sometime-prostitute, poorly educated, "lower" class Ruzena, but she, always classy in her way, completely declines the money and berates Joachim, w/ particular venom toward J's (only?) friend, Bertrand. J then formally proposes to Elisabeth, the daughter of a wealthy landowner who lives near his family estates; this is the marriage that all of the families hoped would take place. But it's obvious his heart isn't in it - nor is hers, as in fact the conniving Bertrand had declared his love for her but, realizing they would never be able to marry, he takes off on a business expedition, possibly to India (the ends of the earth for a European in this setting - 1888). So J is right to think he has been betrayed by Bertrand, but what about this marriage? Why does he enter into it w/ such lack of feeling and emotion? The volume ends with their chaste wedding night, a totally strange night in which J seems to have hallucinations that his wife's face is not a human face but is some kind of landscape, with mountains and valleys. He's obviously sexually experienced, but just not drawn to this woman; she doesn't seem afraid or frigid, in fact seems more forward than he is, but they end up sleeping side by side w/out touching. In the end, I have no idea what to make of this: Is this a portrait of a somewhat mentally disturbed young man, pressured by conflicting forces in his society (drawn toward the sexually adventurous woman but married to the proper German daughter, loyal to his country - he's a soldier though we see nothing of his military profession - and his family but always in the shadow of his older brother who died in a duel "of honor" and of his father, who is increasingly mentally ill himself and trying to disinherit his only son? Is this story meant to represent the forces at work in society in the late 19th century? If so, it doesn't really click - at least not in comparison w/ the other great German language epics of its time: Magic Mountain, Man Without Qualities, Berlin Alexanderplatz - all of which are imbued w/ their time, wrestle w/ grand ideas, and present a broad spectrum of society and not just the torments of a late Romantic. That said, this volume reads well and has some fine, weird passages, the wedding night among them; I will at least have a go at volume 2, sent in 1903 and called The Anarchist (which sounds promising already).

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Friday, November 17, 2017


The first volume of Herman Brock's 1931 novel, The Sleepwalkers, moves along placidly up to a point; the first hundred pages of so establish the dynamics of the plot, which centers on the young German army officer Joachim Von Pasenow. J is surrounded by opposing forces. His tyrannical napoleanic father insists that, following death of older brother in a duel of "honor," J come home to manage the family estate and to marry the daughter of wealthy neighbor. J is very attracted to the beautiful daughter , Elisabeth, but he is also deeply involved in a love affair w a woman in Berlin whom he had more or less rescued from a life of prostitution (Ruzena). His (only?) friend, Bertrand, a successful international businessman , has insinuated himself into both relationships - and at some point the novel feels frozen in place w the protagonist unable to make any decisions about his love, life, and future - a hamlet/prufrock sort of character. The novel takes a turn for the bizarre and dramatic, however, when the father , herr von pasenow, suffers some kind of nervous breakdown and insists on disinheriting his son and exhibits odd behavior (obsessed w mail delivery, angry at dead son for not writing). Meanwhile so-called friend Bertrand tries to set Ruzena up in a dress shop , which she rightly sees as a way to buy her off; furious, she shoots be w a pistol, grazing his arm. When J hears if this he goes off in search of the now- vanished R; finds her in ladies room at night club/casino. After ugly scene there she leaves w a customer- back to her old ways it seems. J - a la the German romantics (this part of the novel set in 1888 and called The Romantic) descendants of Young Werther considers suicide but literally falls asleep from exhaustion while writing the note. It's impossible however for readers to imagine his settling in marriage w either woman - one too socially outcast the other to good and "pure" - tho perhaps not naive about sexuality, a very open theme in this ahead-of-its-time novel. We hope,however, that he will have the chance to tell off his officious father.

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Another great Modernish novel that few today have heard let alone read

Another classic Modernist novel that for some reason few have heard of let alone read: Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers (1928-31, 3 volumes) - which I started reading yesterday. First volume, The Romantic, set in 1888 Berlin and a family estate elsewhere in Germany.Very briefly the initial plot concerns the younger son, Joachim, of the titled landowner, Herr von Pasenow. The younger son forced to go to military school age 10 and into a career in the Army, to which J does not feel fully suited; older brother gets to live on and run the estate. Older brother dies in a duel "of honor," so J may have to go back to run the estate and, presumably, marry daughter of neighboring landowner, Elisabeth - but he is now used to life in Berlin and has fallen in love w/ a bar-girl, i.e., prostitute, Ruzena, who is Czech and not well educated - completely unsuitable marriage from POV of stuffy and hateful father. All that said, this novel isn't plot-driven, although it does have a few beautifully rendered scenes: the father visiting son in Berlin and going out for a night on the town, father tries to "buy" Ruzena for son for 50 marks, a mortifying scene - and perhaps the precursor to the father-on-the-town scene in La Dolce Vita; the beautiful scene of J and R spending a day in the country and falling in love, ends w/ their having sex in R's apartment - a surprisingly frank and detailed description of sexual relations for a 1920s European novel. Most of the novel, though, involves long conversations examining various topics and viewpoints: the morality of dueling, the inevitable rise of the black population in the African colonies. So the novel feels like a novel of ideas, but as such not as focused as the standard-setting Magic Mountain, in that the ideas arise from conversation rather than from action and conflict. Like Mann and Musil, Broch writes in 3rd person, so this doesn't feel as much like an examination of consciousness as does Proust; also like Mann and Musil, Broch does not experiment in form or w/ language (as does, obviously, Joyce). Perhaps the closest literary relative would be Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz - though the social milieu is largely landed gentry and military officers rather than thieves and other criminals, the mood is similar, examining the dark side of Berlin life - and obviously doing so across a long span of time (the 3rd volume is set in Brach's present of ca 1930).

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Possible meanings of the "riddle" in Tom McGuane's story

Another fine Tom McGuane story, Riddle, in the current New Yorker; McGuane has established himself as the great chronicler of the changing times in the Northwest, Montana in particular (his friends Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford have also written well about this region and there are many similarities particularly between McGuane and Ford). This piece, in which a contemporary man looks back on an unusual, perhaps pivotal, day in his life about maybe 20 years back, and he himself, as narrator, says he cannot quite make sense of the events or even be sure which if any may be imagined rather than recollected. McGuane focuses many of his stories on the migration or invasion if you will of West Coast $ into rural Montana, whether from those fleeing the pressures of life in the tech or entertainment industries or more often from the uber-wealthy building vacation ranches and estates. His (male) protagonists play a facilitating role in this invasion, which is changing the world they grew up in or at least settled into, in their modest ways. The narrator (often a realtor, a la Richard Ford's major protagonist, interestingly) in this case is an architect, whose specialty is building models for presentation and use by other architects; he notes that "in those days" he rented a small office in town (presumably, no need for him to have an office at present - for reasons left open - too successful? only builds models no need to meet w/ clients? to un-successful? change of career?) and notes that he had a model of FallingWater on display and that his clients usually thought it was a house he'd designed. Ha! On this night, after heavy drinking to closing hour, he sees an old ranchhand on the near-deserted Main Street greeted warmly by a young many or boy, and narrator is profoundly moved by watching this encounter - he's not even sure why, but we can sense that it's out of his own sense of loneliness. On his ride home to his house out in the country (at least 10 miles) he comes across an "accident" scene, which proves to be a scam as the purported victims steal his car and take off. He gets a ride home from a woman - an ER doc - and at his home they have sex; presumably, he never sees her again. The next morning the Sheriff arrives and tells him his car was involved in a bank robbery and the driver and passenger were hit in a fusillade of bullets when they were arrested. He asks why the narrator never reported the theft of his car; narrator cannot answer this - which seems to be the eponymous  "riddle." Was it because he was not sure of his facts? Did that have something to do w/ the ER doc? So odd that an ER doc would pick him up on the highway; could he have gone to the ER and his memory blanked? Did he in some odd way ID w. the bank robber Bonnie & Clyde-like couple, see them as an emblem of what his life could - or should - be: on the run, escaping from norms and expectations, or at least w/ someone instead of out in the country 10 miles from a small city, nobody else in his life?

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Why writing a novel is like a socially acceptable form of insanity

Laurent Binet wraps things up, kinda, in the last section + epilogue to The Seventh Function of Language, but honestly the conclusion is so Byzantine I just could not figure it out or answer all of the questions. But does it matter? Not really; this novel, though a mystery novel in structure, is not at all like a mystery novel in mood or intention.We really don't care exactly who dunnit or why they dunnit - it's more about the send-up of academe and the examination in a lighthearted and entertaining manner of certain complex literary and philosophical issues. But we never or at least I never quite learn what the eponymous 7th function is; at the end I still think it's some kind of pronunciatory function (I now declare you ... which by so uttering makes it so) of language, with the idea tha the 7th function by establishing fact through utterance can influence the behavior of others - in other words, can become a tool of political oppression or control. But we also see - in the final debate in the Logic Club - that the 7th function doesn't work; and then we learn - I guess this may be a spoiler but if you're with me this far you know that it doesn't really matter - that Barthes did not discover the 7th function - one of his mentors (Jakobson) did so, and for some reason entrusted Barthes not w/ a manuscript describing the function but w/ a fake description - which is why the 7th function failed in the Logic Club debate, because it wasn't the real function. So what is? Who knows? At the end of the novel, Simon Herzog - now good buddies w/ police inspector Bayard - is still trying to puzzle out whether he's a character in a novel or living a so-called "real life - hah! - and has the final insight int he last section that he's not only a character in a novel, that in fact he is the author of the novel. Well, hm, I know nothing about Binet but we surmise that, like Herzog, he's an academic perhaps in a philosophy department - but he obviously did not go experience the life of his character, replete w/ murder attempts and the lopping off of his right hand. But in a sense all authors are (all of) their characters; as I have said elsewhere, writing a novel is something like a socially acceptable form o insanity, as novelists carry on these long and complex relationships w/ people who exist only in their heads. Talking to one's self is another function of language, I believe.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

A turn toward the grotesque in the late stages of The Seventh Function of Language

Entertaining, informative, and provocative as it is, Laurent Binet's novel The Seventh Function of Language takes a turn toward the grotesque toward the end - in the "Venice" section, when the characters converge for a high-level meeting of the Logic Club, in which members and "challengers" face off in one-on-one debates on various esoteric topics, the "loser" of the debate has to, gulp, put his hand on a chopping block and have a finger lopped off. We'd already witnessed a few of these debates - I suspect that this club and its gruesome competitions is a sly mockery of some academic face-offs, though I have no idea what Binet's target might be - but the big confrontation in Venice is far more graphic and disconcerting. The debates themselves: In the first, the protagonist Simon Herzog, who amusingly continues to wonder whether he's actually leading a life or if he's just a character in a novel - prevails over a higher-ranking club member in a debate about Classic and Baroque style (a good primer in this section on these two terms in art and literature); in the second, Sollers, whom we believe may be the only person in possession of the document from the late Roland Barthes on the eponymous 7th function, the document that has set this entire mystery into action, does a horrible job in his debate, speaking in fragments and seemingly in a stream of consciousness. Is this supposed to be a demonstration of the 7th function? If so, it's a useless function; Binet has hinted that the 7th function involves provoking others into action, but at this point I suspect all readers are wondering whether we'll ever know what the 7th function is, or even if there is such a thing. In any event, for some unknown reason the novel turns to the grotesque at this point. To put it bluntly, Sollers, loser of the debate (and the husband of Helene Cixous, another "real-life" character in this novel and here a supposed Bulgarian agent seeking the Barthes document) has his balls cut off; shortly after that horror, Simon is attacked by agents of the man whom he defeated in the debate - a prominent Italian politician, as Simon has correctly surmised based on various "signs" - who sever Simon's right hand and toss it into a glassblowing furnace. Why does Binet do this, and unsettle us so much? Perhaps the two short final sections of the novel will elucidate.

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

A character in a novel who recognizes that he is a character in a novel

Laurent Binet's The Seventh Function of Language has a really great postmodern moment (p. 247) in which the hapless philosophy professor, Simon Herzog, whom the French police inspector Bayard has pulled from his academic setting and made him an advisor and sidekick in the search for the eponymous document that various spies and other operatives have been seeking for means fair and foul, including possibly the assassination of the one who composed the document, Roland Barthes. At this point in the novel, with Herzog and pretty much everyone else completely befuddled by the tangle of events - and we still don't know why this document is so important to anyone aside from the French intellectuals and their coteries - Herzog takes stock of his life. He realizes that he has had more adventures and strange encounters in the past few weeks than he'd expected to have over the course of his life: To name just a few, he's had sex in an Italian piazza, had witness a couple engaged in sex on a photocopying machine, had seen a man stabbed to death with a poisoned umbrella, had been involved in a car chase across Paris ending when the pursuers tried to kill him, etc. Then he tries to make sense of the adventure he's been brought into, and he goes over in his mind a # of the shaggy plot points that bother attentive readers as well, or this and of numerous other adventure novels: Why, for example, didn't the Prime Minister just have the suspect (a female Bulgarian philosopher) brought in for interrogation rather than send Bayard and Herzog to a conference in the U.S. to spy on her?, etc. At last he says: I think I'm stuck in the middle of a novel! Great: That's a sentence that calls attention to itself in so many ways. Yes, he is a character in a novel, so in addressing that fact he utters a true statement. But then again, even his recognition of his status as a "character in a novel" is suspect: Words are things, too, but what is the reference point here? Who is making this observation? A character? An author? We, the readers? Narrators often step outside of their own narrative to address the reader; characters, rarely so - and even when seeming to do so they remain characters. In a sense, Herzog's feeling of being a character in a novel is something we readers may also feel from time to time: My life is so complicated right now it should be a novel - who hasn't thought that? In some ways, Herzog's utterance is "within character," that is, just a realistic/naturalistic moment in this dizzying narrative.

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