Follow by Email

Welcome

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, December 31, 2010

A haunting image of loneliness: William Trevor's stories

Though it's fair to say that every piece in William Trevor's "Selected Stories" is immediately recognizable as Trevor's work, within his well-defined world he does experiment in a few different modes (the short-story form is very useful for writers, allowing them to try different voices and techniques without the huge emotional and intellectual commitment of a novel). As noted in earlier posts, he obviously draws on the influences of Woolf (A Day) and Joyce (Of the Cloth?), and in story I read yesterday he tips his hat to Melville (bit of a surprise, that, as Trevor might put it): A Friend in the Trade, about a married couple who run a small boutique press and a strange friend of theirs, a bookdealer who seems to have no family, no other friends, no ability to communicate except in odd, disjunctive sentences about his findings at various estate sales, a thoroughly lonely character - today we'd probably diagnose him as having Asperger's or autism - who latches onto them and, as they plan to retire and move to a small house in Sussex, threatens to follow them and settle nearby, maybe in outbuildings on their new property. The obvious source is Bartleby, but Trevor brings his own voice and sensibility to this material - you feel bad for the family that is somewhat haunted by this man yet feels a responsibility for him as well, and most of all for the man, his isolation, his dependence, the faint possibility that he may be in love with the wife, his obvious and overwhelming need for a home and hearth. In just a few pages, Trevor creates a haunting image of loneliness.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The essence of a William Trevor short story

William Trevor's story in "Selected Stories" called (I think) Mourning, about a young man in Ireland, youngest in his family, works in construction and is rather unskilled, they joke that he's well-suited to run the cement mixer, leaves for England and better opportunity, and story follows him through his loneliness in London, the butt of bullying jokes on his construction crew, and he's befriended by another Irishman and slowly, subtly recruited to commit a terrorist act (leave bomb on a bus - though it's never made completely clear) - and his decision as to whether to go through with the act will be the most important decision of his life. I won't give it away. But this is another one of the best of Trevor's pieces and typical of the key elements in his fiction: the isolated and somewhat lonely or eccentric individual, the elegaic sense about the doomed nature of current society moving too fast and confusing us with its demands and changes, an undercurrent of contemporary political struggle, the key moment or decision or action that will change the course of a character's life (in this way he differs from Chekhov and other great story-writers and comes closer to the style of a dramatist, or maybe of a moralist). Trevor's characters are all trying to get by in a difficult, changing world, a world that has left them (and rural Ireland, often their homeland) alone and confused and quaint (though not picturesque), and they get by through compromise and accommodation.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

From Joyce to William Trevor : Elegies for Ireland

Of course the influence of Joyce is everywhere in William Trevor's "Selected Stories," probably most pervasive in Of the Cloth, a story about a Protestant minister who's visited by two Catholic priests after the funeral. Unlike most of Trevor's stories, this one does not turn on a single dramatic incident - an accident, a crime, a a fateful decision - but is more atmospheric and contemplative, developing around an event - a story of mood and reflection, and an elegy for a way of life gone or soon to go: we see in the Protestant minister that his church had faded from relevance (he took over his father's ministry but he has no children) and we see that despite the historic antagonism between the two churches that the men "of the cloth" have more in common with one another than with their parishioners - each has chosen a life that is in the public but strangely private and isolating - and we also see the shadow of scandal over the Catholic church - the unmentioned arrest of a pedophile priest that haunts this visit. Any reader will hear the echoes of The Dead, with its famous conclusion about the snow falling all across Ireland, covering the living and the dead - Trevor evokes this same mood of time passing and people reflecting on the futility of life.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Can William Trevor write anything bad? mediocre? even just ordinarily good?

Every single one of the stories in William Trevor's "Selected Stories" is a small masterpiece. Does he ever write anything bad? mediocre? just ordinarily good? He's taken a single tone of voice and a narrowly circumscribed geographical sphere - mostly rural or suburban Ireland, England sometimes - and found an astonishing abundance of material, people, conditions, and situations. Every story I find myself thinking: there's enough material here for a whole novel. Yet: the real accomplishment is that Trevor can encompass a whole novel within the scope of a short story. A novel would be superfluous. You'd think he would burn through his material at too rapid a rate: for most writers, stories are just vignettes or, increasingly, selections from a novel in progress, but for Trevor each is a unique and independent work of art, so how does he find such a wealth of material? I'm struck in particular by the somewhat long (30 pp.) story Lost Ground, about an Irish Protestant boy about 16 who has visions of an appearance of a woman who calls herself Saint Rosa, and the boy feels compelled to preach about his vision - he sees it as a call for tolerance and peace. He's also clearly mentally disturbed (though Trevor tells the story beautifully, so that we're uncertain initially whether Saint Rosa is a real person). Story is about the boy's relation with his fiercely militant father, his craven and accommodating brother-in-law (a minister), the divided community - an incredibly difficult scene when he visits the Catholic priest and is rebuffed, and a powerful showdown with his father - and the story leads inevitably toward a tragic end, told unflinchingly, hard as flint. One masterpiece among many.

Monday, December 27, 2010

William Trevor's stories are throwbacks, contemporary, and timeless

Looking through William Trevor's "Selected Stories," his four most recent story collections brought into a single volume, I can see that he publishes a collection of stories ever 4 years or so, each of about a dozen stories, which means he writes and publishes 3 or 4 stories a year - a steady output that doesn't seem like that much except: he also writes novels (a bit on the side?, to use his terminology), and he's been at it steadily for decades and - each of the stories is a true work of art that only becomes more profound and impressive when you see them within the context of his whole life's work. What makes a Trevor story "Trevorian"? And what is his particular world-view? A noted in yesterday's post and by may readers and critics, there is a strong affinity with Chekhov - lonely characters who gradually and reluctantly come to terms with the limits of their lives. Reading a few more of the stories, though, it strikes me that Trevor's character may seem very old world - the older characters in particular, as they often live in a simple poverty vaguely romantic poverty of the Cotswold cottage and self-reliance, not much found in the U.S. today - but in many ways his themes are contemporary - reading them in sequences I'm struck by how important infidelity is as a theme, divorce and its effect on young children, homosexuality or more accurately homophobia (Timothy's Birthday), and petty crime. The stories are at once throwbacks, contemporary, and timeless.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Trevor and Chekhov: The fiction of circumscribed lives

As expected, as requested, received two great books yesterday for xmas: Ann Beattie's New Yorker Stories and William Trevor's "Selected Stories." Started reading Trevor last night, or re-reading actually, as the selection is really his last four collections brought together, and I think I've read each of the four - in fact have probably read some of the stories multiple times, in the New Yorker, in Best American or O.Henry, and then in a collection. Trevor of course stands up to multiple readings, and his anointment as the best living English-language short-story writer (along with "Alice the Great" Munro) stands, as do the comparisons with Chekhov. Like Chekhov's, Trevor's characters are consigned to circumscribed lives - in small towns, in bad neighborhoods, in distant provinces - and the stories are about how they live and how the compromise. Trevor's stories are probably more deeply rueful than Chekhov's, and he has a bit more of an ironic bite, but they share the sense of lives in futility. First story in the Selected is The Piano Tuner's Wives, and the plural there is very sly and telling - story involves the 2nd wife who has loved him long and from afar - it's her life that's the unrequited one in this story - and she marries him late in life after his first wife dies; her role is guide him, to be his eyes (he's blind, we learn pretty quickly), and by the end we see that she lies to him about what she sees - in order to control, and to make him think that his first wife had deceived him - but in typically Trevor "roundness" of character and event, we also come to understand that he know she's lying and he has resigned himself to accept this - these are the strategies we adopt for living, for getting by.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Why were the Victorians obsessed with death? : Tennyson

A little weird to be writing about memorial verses today, xmas morning, but as it happens yesterday I was reading Tennyson's "In Memorium" (making me I guess the only non-grad-student in North America doing so) and wondering what is it with the Victorians and their absolute obsession with commemorating death? A walk through any older cemetery will confirm this - the morbid statuary, the carved angels and urns and even entire deathbed scenes (you can see one in Forest Lawn in Buffalo), and reading about the memorial verses in newspapers and the black ribbons everyone wore in the U.S. when presidents died - and mostly the great poet. Although these memorial verses go back farther - Milton's Lycidas an example, and the Romantics wrote about the death of Keats (Adonis) - though not with the same morbidity, desperation, and fixation as in Tennyson with whom it rises to the level of obsession: about 130 poems all in the same meter, linked only by the theme, various statements on the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, died young, full of promise, but uncelebrated - and that I think is part of it - in an earlier era early death was more frequent but as medicine improved it became more shocking, tragic. But mostly I think it must be what JH Miller referred to as "the disappearance of God," not the death but disappearance: Tennyson's Memorium filled with many references to Hallam's being in a better place and so on, but there's a sense that it's forced, that Tennyson desperately trying to believe what he doesn't feel. As the world was moving toward a modern, scientific sensibility, writers and other thinkers were evidently, and publicly, struggling with how to justify early death - in a world where it was increasingly difficult to have faith that we are all living in the hands of a Christian God.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Among the most bizarre opening scenes ever staged: King Lear

Re-read (millionth time, but first time in many years) the first act of "King Lear," and of course on coming back to this play it's as strange and compelling as when I first read it, probably as a teenager, and it struck me so vividly as something I had to know more about, leading me on the road to studying Shakespeare in college and beyond. How odd this play is: Lear's incredibly bizarre decision to divide up his kingdom and demand of his daughter "which of thee dost love us most?" Many critics have written about this as an act of medieval fealty: declaration of loyalty to the king, and so on, but of course it does not feel this way, it feels cruel, and out of some deep need of wound that Lear has suffered. Compare Lear with all of the great Shakespeare tragic heroes, and what's the difference? He's the only one without a wife/beloved - is she even mentioned in the play, ever? Lear is more like Prospero or some of the old men in the comedies, Duke Senior et al. - alone, embittered, old. But not that old, if you think about it - Goneril and Regan are probably pretty young (no children yet) and Cordelia just getting married, so Lear is not really at a point where he should be thinking about his own death. So why does he demand this declaration of life, and why does he flip out when Cordelia refuses to declare her love? What's the story of Lear's life, in other words: who was his queen, what happened to her, what kind of monster mother would raise two daughters like G & R? There may be a psychological explanation for his actions, there may be a political explanation, but there's no obvious explanation other than that he sets the play and his own tragic fall in motion. Other artists have adapted the Lear story, including Jane Smiley setting it on a contemporary farm, and it does still make sense as to a dividing up of an estate, however modest, and the jealousies that often provokes - but it stands all alone in Shakespeeare as among the most bizarre opening scenes ever staged - though the rage it suddenly evokes is echoed in other S plays, notably The Winter's Tale.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is The Tempest really a great play?

Is "The Tempest" really a great play? In some ways, of course - starting with the language. It's Shakespeare at the end of his career, so the imagery is fully incorporated into the verse, not external, showy baubles as in the earliest works, not a lot of set pieces (other than "our revels now are ended") but just line by line, there's hardly a passage you couldn't isolate and enjoy, wonder at, revere - from descriptions of the landscape, the nautical scenes, many references to the tides - it's his most geographic and topological play. Also, Shakespeare recapitulates many of the themes running through all of his works, including authority, imperialism, colonialism (yes, these issues are in the other comedies, believe me), and perhaps more than any other play he reflects on the process of making art and drama - particularly poignant in that The Tempest is his last major work. Also some scenes that are challenging to all directors (the storm, the pageant/masque) and some pretty easy and always funny (the drunken louts, the ingenue lovers). All that said: in some ways it's a play more appreciated than truly loved. Don't we have to admit it: Prospero is a bore and a controlling bully. The play is completely devoid of surprise - for the audience - as we see Prospero controlling everything and everyone, through his minions, Ariel and Caliban. The conversion of the usurping duke is preposterous (though not without precedent in S's comedies and romances). Is it really a great play? Or more of a monument, an object of study and conjecture, and a curiosity?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How The Tempest summarizes all of Shakespeare's works

Inspired in part by, of all things, a TV series we've been watching (Slings & Arrows), I picked up my old Riverside Shakespeare last night and began reading S for the first time in many years - kind of amazing, considering how central S was to my life at one time. Reading "The Tempest" - a great play to come back to after many years because it contains so much of S in it, as if he knew that it would be his last play (let's ignore Henry VIII and the 2 noble kinsmen). Just to summarize a little, Prospero is the avatar of all of the meddling old men in so many S dramas, including Polonius, the various Friars (Much Ado, Measure for Measure, R&J, et al.); there is not one but 3 bloody coups (planned, at least), which echoes comedies (AYLI), tragedies (Macbeth and Hamlet, e.g.), and the histories of course; the alignment of magic and theater, as earlier in MSD; the young lovers heading toward a happy ending, the old people heading toward a restoration typical of the late romances. All this - yet it's also his most explicit take on class conflict, colonialism (his only play that takes on seriously the theme of the New World and the issues it raised - I'm sure many doctoral dissertations are out there on The Tempest and imperialism), and the typical Shakespearean use and abuse of the pastoral. All the themes I wrote about in my long-ago book on S's comedies are in The Tempest, and much more obviously so and more evident - I wonder why so many critics accept these themes in The Tempest but went nuts when I suggested that the beloved AYLI and TN also contained themes of oppression, ideology, and appropriation and exploitation of nature? So many things to think about - from the shipwreck at the outset and what it says about the various characters, the strange references to Tunis, most of all who is Prospero and what is his relation to Ariel and Caliban - it's obvious they're not so happy to be in his control - what does that say about the class structure in S's society?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A thin line separates poetry from madness : The Quickening Maze

I finished Adam Fouldes's short novel "The Quickening Maze" wanting to know more about the sad life of poet John Clare, who spent most of his life in an asylum and died obscure, and Alfred Tennyson - and wondered if their paths did actually cross in a mental asylum or if that was Fouldes's novelistic liberty. And that's a good way for a novel to end - with readers wanting to know more. It's not a great book, it's a little too elliptical at times, but it's a very intriguing novel that has a lot of elements and accomplishes its modest goals efficiently and effectively. Some readers may be more drawn to the information about treatment of insanity in the 1830s, others more to the family drama of the Allens - father runs the asylum and squanders family's fortune in a foolish investment in a furniture-making scheme, daughters yearn for marriage as the best way to leave this insular family and the life on the asylum grounds, but - particularly for middle-daughter Hannah - social relations are awkward and opportunities rare. I was most drawn to the literary aspects: Clare seen at first as a freak of nature, an uneducated poet writing about country people, but when his work falls out of fashion he's seen as delusional, insane. There has always been a link between poetry and madness, and Fouldes explores the idea that maybe which side you fall on depends on your social class as much as your condition. Tennyson, whose brother is a patient of Allen, is considered just odd and morose - would it have been a different fate had he been poor and uneducated? As it is, we see him here on the verge of writing his greatest work, In Memorium, as Clare fades off into delusions and madness.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Class prejudice and British poetry : The Quickening Maze

There are lots of elements in Adam Fouldes's brief novel "The Quickening Maze," and he handles the many plot strands efficiently and succinctly. Among the topics are the treatment of the insance in the early 19th century, a tale of unrequited love (somewhat plain daughter of the doctor who runs the asylum falls in love with the much older visitor, Alfred Tennyson, but it's obvious that he is uninterested in her - made all the more poignant by his attraction to her best friend, Annabelle), various delusional characters (including a man obsessed with the national debt, and others - this part the least interesting to me as it always seems to me an easy mark to write about the mad - they can do or say anything and it falls within the bounds of the credible - a much more difficult task is to write about the mad in such a way that they seem at times to be sane). Most intriguing aspect to me, though, is Fouldes's treatment of the British poet John Clare, held in the asylum because of his various delusions, his care paid for by his publisher. Clare was a briefly famous poet who was considered a prodigal genius, not well educated, wrote about country people and their superstitions, some great nature poems. In Maze Fouldes explores the ill-treatment of Clare: had he been a Oxbridge grad, had he settled in London and written a more classical verse, would he have been institutionalized, or just considered an eccentric artist? This viral class prejudice sharpened in the novel by the contrast with Tennyson, who is revered and doted upon, as he struggles through writer's block - and today his work though of course still well known is rarely read except for a few chestnuts (Crossing the Bar, Ulysses).

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Novels about writers: cheap trick? or something of value?

There's been a rush of novels recently that treat as fiction the life (and times) of a real novelist - some of these are good, e.g., Colm Toiban's "The Master," about Henry James, others not so good. Overall, I'm not a huge fan of historical fiction/fictive biography - feels to me like kind of a cheap trick for a novelist. I mean, isn't our mission to create characters and events, not to appropriate lives already lived and invent dialog and incident at will? The technique only works and validates itself if there is what in ed-jargon we call "value-add." What is the novelist bringing to this material to help us understand the consciousness of the writer and the life of his or her times? After all, the writer himself/herself has already opened his/her consciousness to us, through his/her works, right? Toiban added something to James's life (who would read through the Edel bio's anyway?) because James himself was so reticent and personally withholding in his fiction - a whole area of sexuality hinted at but never revealed, much less explored. Then there are pieces like Cunningham's The Hours, which opened up Woolf's life by contrasting her story with two powerful contemporary narrative lines. Last night I started Adam Fouldes's "The Quickening Maze," ostensibly about the life of British poet John Clare - a truly intriguing character because of his madness and because he was one of the very few uneducated, working-class writers of the Romantic era. There have been 2 (I think) recent biographies, both well received. Plenty of material here for a novelist, too, as a biography can't really probe the inner state of the poet's madness, and as it happens this novel is, so far, more about the asylum where Clare was treated/imprisoned and about the director of the asylum, Matthew Allen - a really interesting look at how mental illness was thought of and treated in the 1830s.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A rare literary-thriller hybrid: The Same River Twice

Ted Mooney's "The Same River Twice" is a rare hybrid (literary thriller that's both literary and a thriller) that satisfied on many levels - lots of action, intriguing plot, smart characters who are flawed and complex, an excellent sense of place, solid writing throughout. It may not be for every reader - maybe not literary enough for some tastes and not fast-paced enough for the thriller addicts - but I hope it might cross-pollinate those different reading audiences. I particularly like that it involves a high-stakes criminal enterprise but that the main characters are just people going about their lives - not CIA or Interpol heroes already embedded in a world of danger. Though I know nothing about him other than this novel and its jacket copy (though of course if you've read someone's novel you do know a lot about him), I think Mooney must be a good guy and a smart conversationalist and would like to meet him someday. In fact, we have worked similar territory, and I would love him to read Exiles and share his comments. I'm not a thriller reader or fan, in particular, but I do believe in credible characters and strong, well-designed plots - it's what I like to read (though my taste runs more toward the classic literary) and try to write - and I'm sure Exiles was subject to some of the same criticism Same River Twice must have or might have faced. I was beaten up in a few reviews for too much incident, for difficult characters (Mooney's are difficult, too, and not entirely sympathetic), and I think Exiles was misunderstood by readers who expected one genre or the other and could not comprehend a hybrid. Of course there are differences, as I worked in a time period set 40 years back and wrote about much younger people and against a leftist political background - while Mooney is contemporary, and not especially political, at least overtly.

Friday, December 17, 2010

One of the strangest bodies of work of any American writer: George Saunders

George Saunders has over the past 20 years or so built up one of the strangest bodies of work among American short-story writers. I remember when his first (I think) book came out, Civilwarland in bad Disgrace (I may have the last word of the title wrong) and thinking how peculiar it was and how hard it would be to follow up - but Saunders had in fact followed up with about 5 books of stories, each of them odd, each of them similar in theme and scope (from what I've read - most but not all of his stories). He is the descendant of Barthelme via Beckett via Kafka, to give you an idea of his provenance. He has made an entire literary career by writing about losers and outsiders (typical inhabitants of American short fiction) who are denizens of amusement parks, theme parks, or, more recently, subjects of some kind of psychological experiments - typically, his characters are under the control of some unseen and barely known outside force. His best-known story (don't remember the title) is a novella-length piece about people living as a caveman/stone-age exhibit in a theme park - they receive instructions and reports daily by fax, but are supposed to have no contact with the outside world. Current story in The New Yorker, "Escape from Spiderhead," a little more lurid than other Saunders stories, is about a guy being observed in a pharmacology study, drugs pumped into his veins that alter his sexual/emotional feelings toward several women. What to make of Saunders's work? On some level, it seems comical and whimsical, but there are surprising depths to his work as well, as he lives just on the near edge of what's possible - his work imbued with suspicion and even paranoia about loss of control and submission to authority, of the state, the corporation, or both - not much difference anymore.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The inherent contradictions of the literary thriller : The Same River Twice

Reading Ted Mooney's intelligent "The Same River Twice" and also thinking about Laura Miller's essay in Salon, which I just saw, on Why We Like Bad Fiction ("we" don't, actually) gets me thinking further about the problems and inherent contradictions of the "literary thriller" genre that Mooney is working in (I've been linked to it, too, qv Exiles). Mooney's novel has so much going on in it: it's initially about a young woman (Odile) who smuggles some Soviet artifacts out of Russia, and then about the art dealer who will sell these artifacts (handmade flags glorifying various Soviet heroes - could these really be sold to museums and collectors as valuable art objects? I think this is just Mooney's big joke on the art industry). Novel is also about art dealers worldwide but esp in Paris, indie filmmakers (Odile's husband, Max, is a Jim Jarmusch-like character), artists and designers working in Paris (Odile poses for a portrait), contraband DVDs (Max's is pirated), assorted marital-family relationships and affairs, and then the Russian underworld and French police that variously intersect as they come after Odile and others for reasons not yet totally clear. And those are only the main plot elements! Add to this that Mooney is a really good writer, very observant and very adept at setting a scene - but I find myself torn. How do you read this book? Emphasis on literary - savor the prose, really get a sense of each scene, read each detail? Emphasis on thriller? Focus on the dialogue, speed it up, follow the plot wherever it leads? This isn't about labeling - I don't care for the term literary thriller particularly - but I do find myself torn as a reader and wish I could appreciate the book on both levels, and I do in a way, but I also feel a bit at sea - it's a real challenge for a writer committed to both great writing and great story-telling, how to unite these two sometimes opposing forces.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What makes a thriller a "literary thriller"? : The Same River Twice

Been reading Ted Mooney's "The Same River Twice," accurately described as a highly literary thriller, a sparse genre. Enjoying the novel, it's a good read, and as with most thrillers you have to suspend a lot of disbelief and just go along with the flow of the story. The literate aspect: well, that means that you'll get a lot more depth of character, that the characters will actually be intelligent people and will have some kind of family history and web of personal relations, and that the setting will be developed with some attention to detail of geography, topography, architecture, design, mood, and light. All that's here: the characters are variously filmmakers, high-end boutique dressmaker, houseboat habitues; the setting primarily Paris, though the novel begins in Moscow and has some detours to NYC and rural provincial France. So in addition to the fast-moving and somewhat complex (at times perplexingly so) plot, we get a lot of the ancillary pleasure we want and expect from all good fiction - knowing something about the consciousness of another, getting a view of someone else's world. As with other of the literary thrillers (not that I've read that many), the plot mechanism involves a character who takes on a task, challenge, adventure, mission and gets in way over her (in this case) head - here it's the 20-something Odile who agrees to go to Moscow and pick up some (supposedly) valuable art objects and courier them back to Paris for a dealer. Kind of hard to believe she'd do this, but when we accept that premise the consequences follow - including being stalked by some Russian thugs and strangely entwined in the life of the dealer who sent her on this mission. A good read so far (I'm about half-way through).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why I think highly of Joyce Carol Oates

If you missed Joyce Carol Oates's moving and brave piece in the New Yorker about the death of her husband, Ray (?) Smith, you should go back and read it. As you'd expect, Oates writes unflinchingly about every aspect of the horrific week in which her husband took ill and unexpectedly died of complications - she tells us in a short space about their loving relationship, about illness, age, hospitals, grieving, excellent piercing observations and strange moments, the moments that take on a ghostly presence of their own in times of stress and tragedy: her car parked inexpertly and a note on the dash, learn to park, bitch; the call at midnight, just as she's thinking all would be OK, and her drive to the hospital, trying to get in, doors locked, arriving - too late! - and her guilt for, this time, driving so cautiously, and her husband's dying among strangers, and then her ability to turn away, to move forward through life - in part of course through writing, through writing this piece. Oates comes in for more than her share of envious mockery for her astounding output, and of course nobody can read all of her work (we learn here that even her husband didn't!) and you can't help but think that maybe she would be better or at least more appreciated if she wrote (or published) less - which is to say there are some gems among her novels and stories. I've never met Oates (and her husband rejected a # of my stories over time), but I think highly of her: many years ago, friend Seth Feldman published a story in a tiny Canadian lit mag, and out of nowhere Oates read the story and sent him an appreciative note. What a kind, thoughtful thing to do for a young writer!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The 5 Most Disappointing Books I Read in 2010

It would be impossible and absurd for any reader to list the worst books of 2010 - reading is totally different from movies, TV, music in this way: we often see a horrible movie for a variety of reasons, but we are really unlikely to start reading a horrible book and less likely to finish it. But I think each of us can come up with a list of the most disappointing books of the year: something about them made you want to start, and something about the book caught you early on and made you want to continue reading, maybe even finish the book. Here's my list of:

The 5 Most Disappointing Books I Read in 2010
(listed alphabetically)

The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt. I was impressed by Possession and by some of her short stories of recent years, and started reading The Children's Book with high hopes, as the first chapter set up a very promising rivalry among three very different boys who meet in a museum. By the end, this book was a total mess, a hodgepodge of hundreds of plot strands left loose, ideas undeveloped, scenes crushed by over-description. Editor, anyone?

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. Everyone recommended it, in part because I've written about Sweden (Exiles). Once you get past the high-mindedness of its stance against corporate greed and violence against women, you have to wonder: doesn't this book wallow a bit too much in the most extreme and ghastly forms of violence against women? Has there ever been a book in which the police were more obtuse and the amateur sleuth/journalist solved the mystery through a more preposterous set of clues? I don't get it.

The Humbling, by Philip Roth. One of his worst books ever - and then Roth redeems himself later in the year with the terrific novel, Nemesis.

The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead. I'd had this classic sitting around for many years, and finally got to it this year - but couldn't finish. The creepiness of the overbearing father and the horrible behavior of all the adults made my flesh crawl, and I couldn't wait to put it down.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. All these awards, and for what? Started off as what looked like it would be a powerful and honest historical novel, but by the end I was just slogging through event after event in Cromwell's (and More's) life/s, all told in the same flat, dry narrative voice. I'd much rather have read a biography.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Elliot's Reading : Top Ten Books of 2010

The Times today publishes its selections as the top 10 books of the year. Me, too. A few notes, first: Only a professional book critic or a team of readers (i.e., on a magazine staff) can possibly read enough new books during the year to come up with a plausible top ten, so my list will be of the ten best books I've read during 2010, some new, some classics or at least rediscovered. Also, I'm not considering for inclusion any books by friends or acquaintances, but I would like to give a shoutout to a few books by friends that I read this year, notably Jean McGarry's "Ocean State," Bruce DeSilva's "Rogue Island," Thomas Cobb's "Crazy Heart," and even, though it wasn't really my kind of book, Robert Goolrick's "A Reliable Wife," which my sister (and others) said they could just not put down.

Also, a special note to two works that the Times included and unquestionably belong on any ten-best list: though I haven't (yet) read Ann Beattie's "New Yorker Stories" or William Trevor's "Selected Stories," I've definitely read many, probably most, of the stories in magazines or earlier collections, so they get a mention, too: Clearly they are two of the best living English-language short-story writers, along with another whose book I have read and is included on my list of:

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2010
(listed alphabetically by title)

New Books

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. Yes, it's been hyped to death. Yes, he's already been on Oprah and in the society pages of the NYT. Yes, we're maybe a little sick of him. Yes, his world view is very dour. But to all the envious sideline players waiting for Franzen to fall on his face, isn't it clear that Freedom is a really smart, compelling novel about credible people in contemporary America? His ambitions are high, he dares to model his work on Tolstoy no less, but this is a novel that perfectly accomplishes its aims and creates characters who are, as Forster puts it, "round." Worth anyone's reading.

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. Another one who doesn't need my help - winner of the 2009 NBA, and now available in pb. Very ambitious, the kind of novel that often falls apart - multiple plot strands that intersect at various key points. But McCannn ties it all together beautifully. The model here is Mrs. Dalloway/Woolf. Again, I found the characters completely credible and the intricate plot very compelling. Note (small spoiler) that both Freedom and Great World involve fatal car accidents - a device that writers ought to retire.

Nemesis, by Philip Roth. A surprise pick, after the disaster earlier in the year of The Humbling, Roth comes back with this short novel that is clearly one of his best - returning to the native soil of Newark in the 1940s, which has provided him with so much great material. This novel is deep with meaning and allusions on many levels, not the least of which is the analogy between the polio epidemic and the barely-mentioned but ever-present Holocaust.

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro. The other great living short-story writer. Maybe not her best collection ever, but every Munro story has some greatness and every Munro collection has some great stories.

Classics

Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. Hadn't read it since high school and still have that cool old pb edition. It still stands up (the edition, too): funny, touching, an amazing narrative voice that has been the model and inspiration for a thousand mfa's. None can match it.

Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada. Postwar German novel, largely ignored, recently republished, very dark, scary, strange - as much for the life story of the troubled Fallada as for the novel itself. About German resistance, based on true events of a rather crazy man who opposed Hitler for nonheroic reasons. Great book, darkly provocative.

Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. Unique. Both incredibly influential - literature can include anything and everything - and a case unto itself. Why would anyone ever read an abridged version? What they took out is what you'd want to read.

Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell. It's 50th anniversary, best known today through the movie version, which I haven't seen but it cannot do justice to the novel, with its startling narrative style of very short chapters, about 100 vignettes in the woman's life, which taken together make up an extraordinary life story of an ordinary woman and her travails.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. Hardy was scorned and overlooked when I was in grad school, and of course he's not as great and perfect and thoughtful as some of his near-contemporaries, but on re-reading Tess I found it to be a very moving story with some amazing passages. Few novels ever will make you feel as deeply for the main character - you want to just jump into the book and rescue her.

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Our world would not be the same without this novel. It's a monument, an avatar of greatness, showing all that the novel could do at its highest level - a book containing and conveying an entire world, specific, real, intelligent, thoughtful, beautiful. As has been said: reading Tolstoy is like reading life.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Definitely one of the best stories of this year - of any year

Daniyal Menueddin's (sp?) story "A Spoiled Man" in the "PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010" collection is prototypical of editor Laura Thurman's taste - an exotic setting, a somewhat long story, a story that covers a large span of time and includes back-story material so as to cover an entire life, in other words, a compacted novel, and I have to say that I can see why an editor would choose these stories - they are grander and more ambitious than most published short fiction - and my taste is similar to hers (though oddly the stories I've written or published do not necessarily match her taste - I'd written one story, not published, that writers' group friends said should be expanded into a novel, to which my reaction was, good, let's leave it as a short story then). Menueddin's story is without doubt one of the best of the year, of any year - a true classic - touching on class relations, international relations, cruelty, love, sorrow, and the insensitivity and ignorance of the wealthy who think they're doing good and essentially destroy a man in the process. I suppose it would make a great film, but I hope nobody tries, because it's about perfect as it stands. Has to remind readers of the best of Forster, and not just because of the Asian setting. I've been really impressed by Menueddin's writing, and I hope he keeps at it, though he seems to have so many talents that who knows where he's going? Oddly, the selection from Alice the Great (Munro) in this collection, Some Women, is a bit atypical: here's a writer who often does tell complete life stories in her short fiction, but this piece is about an older woman looking back at an episode from her youth that was epochal in her life - at the very end she references that she's now much older, but we have no idea what she's become other than the author of this piece. A fine story, of course.

Friday, December 10, 2010

If you were an editor - how you might choose the PEN/O.Henry winners

If you're an editor of a magazine or even more so if you're an editor of an anthology of the best stories from all the (American & Canadian) magazines, i.e., if your Laura Furman editing the "PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010," you will inevitably be overwhelmed and stupefied by the similarity and familiarity of so many stories on the same themes, about the same people, and in the same styles: poignant and ironic glimpses of a moment in the life of an anguished teen, a distraught mom, a distressed writer, from Brooklyn, LA, Iowa City - you name it - and as a result when you make your selections you will be drawn toward something, anything!, that's a little different and unconventional, which (in part) explains why the Prize Stories include so many longer pieces broad in scope unlike what we read in most magazines and, in particular, why there are so many stories that take place outside the U.S./Canada, in fact not even about American ex-pats (a fairly familiar theme, and I plead guilty) but foreign cultures altogether. I'm no jingoist and anyone looking over my list of readings will see that I, too, turn to literature to get news of other cultures (and other times), but I would expect the O.Henry-PENs to have more news about what's going on in American life - isn't there something? The stories in the collection set abroad do include great ones, like William Trevor's "The Woman of the House," of course anything by Trevor could be in any anthology, but a few of the others seem much weaker and I wonder if they'd have made the cut were it not for the pseudo-exotic vocabulary and unconventional phrasings.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Attracting an editor's attention : PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010

First I've seen of a story from Jess Row - Sheep May Safely Graze (nice title, several references to serious music in this story) in the "PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010" collection edited by Laura Furman, and so why did she select this story? Aside from its startling opening (death of a young girl in boating accident), always important in attracting the attention of an editor overwhelmed by thousands of dull, mediocre submissions, many with long atmospheric openings or desert-like stretches of flat dialogue - and its thoughtful account of life among the upper-bureaucracy of D.C. (not often captured in fiction), it is, like the first four selections in this edition, it covers a long span of time rather than a single moment/day/episode - though Row's story is a little more focused on a single episode and its aftermath, how the death affects the girl's father, the narrator, and pushes him nearly to the brink of a heinous and ill-conceived revenge attack. Row's narrator is a much older man looking back on the events of his youth (the 'nanny' narrator of an earlier story in the collection by K.Allio is also older looking back), which I think is a great way for a writer to modulate some of the emotions of the events of a short story, to offer both episode and reflection but still from a single POV which may or may not offer the most clear-sighted perspective on the events of the story. Looking ahead, I notice that the next story in the edition is very long - all of the stories so far tip toward the lengthy, though not quite novella-length. Is that a requisite for Prize Story selection? Sometimes less is more.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pushing the edges of the short story form: PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010

Read two more stories in the "PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010" collection, and from the first 4 stories that Laura Furman selected a pattern of taste emerges. Both the Adichie story, The Diligent (?) Historian, the the Wendell Berry story - like the first two in the collection - cover a large span of time, generations actually. It's unusual to find today stories of this scope, especially successful stories, and the selections here seem very much a reaction to the minimalism and the moment-in-time or day-in-the-life epiphanies that for the structure or organizing principle of almost every published story today. Magazines don't often go for the broader story - for one thing, they tend to be longer as these first four in the collection are - and for another they often read like sketches for a novel or screenplay. To their credit, each of these stories stands on its own. I suspect the editors was drawn to Adichie, who's had success with two novels and several appearances in The New Yorker, writing about her Nigerian childhood and background (obvious comparison here with Achebe), and Berry is an old pro who's too often consigned as a regionalist - and in this collection that may have helped him, as these editors seem to be moving away from the million stories about angst in Manhattan and at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I myself have written about 20 stories, most of which not published, and as I try to think back I believe nearly every one takes place in a single day and at the few longer ones takes place in a relatively short time span, a few weeks maybe - it seems really a challenge to push the edges of a short story farther than that, and we'll see whether others in this collection try the same unusual strategy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Why the editor chose the PEN/O.Henry winning stories

A scan of the table of contents (or back cover) of the "Pen/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010," edited by Laura Furman, shows that really only 3 of the authors are well-known short story writers: Annie Proulx, William Trevor, and Alice Munro. Trevor and Munro are included no doubt because their stories are great and certainly because they're the two greatest living short-story writers in the English language (and yet: weren't the O.Henry awards at one time limited to U.S. authors? Or at most to North American? Aren't there about 60 million UK and Canadian literary prizes? What's wrong with having a U.S. short-story award?). Proulx included on strength of her story (Old Cowboy Songs) for sure and also on her literary prowess. The others? Great to see that the editors were not driven by name-value, high recognition. At worst, maybe there was some logrolling (what? in a literary award? shocking!) but I have no evidence of that - so let's assume all of the other stories were selected on the merits. (One year the Best American Short Stories were selected blind - great idea!) Would be fun to ponder, reading through the collection, why the editors selected each one. Read Kristen Allio's "Clothed, Female Figure," which I think drew attention because of its unusual and sustained narrative technique - story told by an older Russian "nanny" regarding letters she is receiving from one of her former charges now a "nanny" herself - the interior letters are much more in an author's voice (Bennington girl, artist) than the main narrator (unschooled, nonnative speaker/writer), so the story seems to be in a reverse frame - we know more about the letter writer and very little, just hints, about the life of the narrator. By the way: why do the PEN/O.Henry Awards list only a few (this year, only one!) runners-up? It's like saying somebody liked your story but we just could not even bring ourselves to publishing it with these other 20 - a long list of runners-up at least shows that there was a two-stage selection process.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The amazing coldness of Annie Proulx

Reading Annie Proulx's Those Old Cowboy Songs in the O'Henry/PEN Prize Stories 2010 collection, and am struck by a number of things, first off her style, diamond hard, words chosen with care, few adjectives, few metaphors (except in dialogue), and not much dialogue, these 19th-century cowboys being of a laconic type. Also, well researched stories of the West - she's known for that, a former journalist who's gotten lots of mileage out of her love for proper nouns, as well as for the technical verbs of a craft - an impressive description in this story of process of building a remote mountain cabin. Proulx a bit of a wanderer, we would have thought she was a true New England/Atlantic Provinces writer when she struck gold with Shipping News, but then she moved to Wyoming and you'd think she's a lifelong westerner - again, the research that she does so well and that inhabits her stories rather than embellishes them (cf AS Byatt). That said: there's an amazing coldness and even misanthropy to her work. This story, about a young marriage that comes to disastrous end with husband freezing to death and wife dying in childbirth, told for a godlike omniscient POV - no survivors exist to provide the details of this story, told as a legend - but her godlike narrator does not seem to like the humans below. The people in her stories are generally hard and cruel, and the good ones come to back ends almost invariably, the world a tough place. Proulx's compelling writing seduces you into accepting her world view for a moment, but on reflection it's good to wonder: Is this really the place that we inhabit?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A lot going on beneath the opaque surface of The Housekeeper and the Professor

As is always the case with book group, we uncovered a great deal in Yoko Ogawa's "The Housekeeper and the Professor," and I appreciate the book now far more than I did when first encountered - still don't think it's a great book, a little too (intentionally?) quiet and static and Ogawa fails to integrate or resolve some key plot elements (e.g., what exactly is the relation between the Professor and his sister-in-law?, how exactly does the 80-minute memory span affect the Professor's life and cognition?), but it is a sweet story about how a young boy (and his mother) learn from an older man and how help one another on the difficult course of life through simple friendship. Our biggest discussion topics were the Professor's loss of memory - I'm pretty sure the way it functions is that he is unable to retain new info for more than 80 minutes, but he has good recall of anything that happened before his accident and he can get through his life quite adequately until new info (arrival of the housekeeper at the door) resents itself; and the Euler equation, which obviously has great meaning for the Professor but was difficult for us to understand and integrate. As Toby explained, it's about integrating various mathematical concepts that one would think are entirely separate, much as e=mc2 did/does. As the threesome in the book does. It also express +1 + -1 = 0. Which could mean to the sister in law, you're a minus one leave us alone; or that if you add someone (+1) to the lonely man (-1) you have solved the equation - as well as the mysterious concept of zero, which is not intuitively obvious and had to be invented, and the concept of the square root of minus-one, as the equation seems to say that a square root of minus one can exist by combining two imaginary #s - two unlikely people together can do the impossible? Anyway, a lot in this quiet book just below the surface, though the surface in my view is too opaque to make this book great.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Reading consciousness and fetishes - how do we know what we know?

Another day of elliot's not reading - what if we didn't read? how would life be different? Well of course I read all day - emails, messages, news items, ads - by read I mean serious reading and in my case I mean reading fiction. Most of what we read - passive reading, stuff that opens before your eyes and you take it in like you'd take in a tree in front of your face of a cat darting out into the road while you're driving - is informational. And reading fiction is informational, too, but in my view it's informational of a much higher order. If we didn't read or couldn't read our experience of life would be limited to our own immediate perception and cognition. It's been well said that reading is access to the consciousness of the consciousness of another - but few realize how profound that is. We all have the experience of reading books and then forgetting them or so we think - because we think to remember a book is to remember its plot and characters, the factual data, in the way we can recount a story we read in the morning paper, but that's not it at all. Reading fiction is how we know or think we know what it was like to live in a different culture, time, era - and also how we have any idea what it's like to actually be another. Don't we all have a sense of Victorian England, as one example? And isn't this sense entirely fabricated by reading Dickens? When I say Victorian England what comes to your mind and why? Is it even fetishized - maybe you see the orange spine of a Penguin pb?

Friday, December 3, 2010

What's the strangest line in the world's most famous soliloquy?

The most famous soliloquy in the history of the world? Has to be to be or not to be. Though I I haven't taught Shakespeare in many years and when I did I focused on the comedies, and though I am not up on Shakespeare criticism in the least, I'm going to venture an observation that I don't think anyone's made about Hamlet's To Be (I may be wrong, and if I am please let me know): the most striking and revealing aspect of the soliloquy is that it shows us Hamlet's incredible loneliness and isolation. He's considering suicide, and he decides he cannot kill himself because he might suffer in an afterlife - thus conscience dost make cowards of us all. Interesting thought, intellectually - but it's not the way someone considering suicide would think - especially someone who's not really serious about suicide, but just grandstanding or posturing or as they say calling for help. There's not a word in the soliloquy (is there?) about how his death would sadden anyone living - his mother, his beloved, any one of his friends. Isn't that one of the main reasons depressed people turn from suicide - their connection to others? Their sense of the havoc their death would cause? Not in a grandiose manner, but just try to imagine life after your violent death. Would it make a difference, would anyone care? Hamlet doesn't even say that - nobody will care if I die. He's just indifferent to others - no other person seems to matter to him. In that way, the most strange and powerful line of the soliloquy is the last: But soft, the fair Ophelia. He sees her - but he doesn't even make the connection between her life and his death.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I will not add to the sorrow in this world

There's a story in this week's New Yorker by Jim Gavin. I've never heard of him. I will probably read the story, but I will not post on it. Why not? I'll tell you, I'm starting to feel sick every time I write a post for this blog about a book or a story that I don't really like that much. Why do I do this? Why bother? If these notes are to have any meaning or integrity for me or for any of the dozen of so of you who might be reading this, I have to honestly try to think about my reading and convey my thoughts about what I'm reading. I've devoted a great deal of my life to reading, and to writing, and I would say that reading and writing have literally saved me soul from oblivion. All that may be so, but why then would I criticize the work of a fellow writer, someone struggling just like me to gain some peace and salvation and to make sense of the world? I just won't do it anymore. There is enough sorrow in the world already without my adding to it. I'll still read a lot of new writers, I'm sure, and I still want to try to maintain this blog for my own pleasure and for the very few who have stumbled on it and might learn something or share something. However: I won't write about living writers except for the few who can take it, not that they're likely ever to know about this blog or to care about it if they did. As to the others, people like me, maybe more fortunate or successful (how else would I have come upon their work?), god bless you all - keep writing, I will offer you no hindrance, I will cause you no pain.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why did the New Yorker publish Yellow?

Are you serious? The New Yorker must get a thousand story submissions a week. With the prestige and resources of the magazine, the editors can publish the best short fiction in the world. And you're telling me the best they can come up with is this peculiar little story, Yellow, by Samantha Hunt? Huh? I don't know anything about Hunt, and I hope she's a young writer with promise and that this story sets her off on a brilliant career. It does show some promise - I'd probably really praise it if I came across it in a grad seminar. But come on, what is there to this story that makes it exceptional? It seems wobbly and uncertain of itself, which may be intended to give it a postmodern edginess but instead makes it feel random and arbitrary. On a literal level, the story is ridiculous: a very nebbishy 42-year-old living with his parents, out of work, afraid of night noises in the house, seemingly stepping right out of a George Saunders story, heads off in his car, strikes (and kills) a dog, carries the dog to the nearest house, taken in by a woman whose husband and kids are out at the movies, they kiss, they screw, the dog comes back to life, woman tells him he has to kill the dog with a shovel, he takes the dog out behind the house, husband and kids come home from the movies and he looks at them through the window. Given that nothing here makes sense, what is the point of it? Are we in the first episode of a movie or (more likely) first chapter of a novel, in which the characters (or one of them) has some kind of magic power - a linkage of sex and death as in say Gravity's Rainbow? Maybe there's more for Hunt to say, but taken on its own, though, Yellow is little more than a curiosity. I'm curious as to why the NYer published it - anyone else?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The end of The Portrait of a Lady: How could you!

The conclusion at last of Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady," and what a horror it is! Isabel Archer leaves her husband Osmond against his direct orders (!) to go to England to visit her dying cousin Ralph. After Ralph dies she briefly sees her first suitor, Warburton, who is now engaged to an English woman he's known for 3 weeks (we never see her). Isabel's aunt is cold and distant, her best friend Henrietta about to marry Bantling. The only one left is a hapless Goodwood, who shows up and pleads with her to leave her marriage and stay with him - to turn her back on convention and propriety. He holds her, kisses her, it's the first time this cold woman has ever felt (as far as we know - this is a James novel after all) any sexual stirring. And then, finally, in the last scene, we learn that Isabel has gone back to her husband. How awful! What a terrible, empty life she will face - much like her aunt, who lived through a loveless marriage. This ending so painful that James cannot even write it directly, but in typical Jamesian manner he shows it by indirection - Henrietta informing Goodwood. I've posted on this issue before, but the end of Portrait is a distinct turning toward European trope: the hero returning toward incorporation in society and convention. An American hero(ine) would definitely have run away with Goodwood, would opt for the rebellious, the unconventional, the individual. Whether James himself is corrupted by the European style (does he really think Isabel is doing the right thing?) or whether he's showing us the ruination of a character is another topic. But I think all American readers who finish this novel must say: How could you!


To order a copy of "25 Posts from Elliot's Reading: Selections from the first 2,500 blog entries," click here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Portrait of a Lady as a Monster

Maybe Isabel Archer is shocked, shocked to realize finally - 500 pages into the novel! - that Osmond married her for her money and that Madame Merle arranged the marriage. Every reader will has seen this from the outset, and it's not just that "The Portrait of a Lady" is a novel with an omniscient narrator, it's not just that we see thing that Isabel cannot see and know things she cannot know. It's that Isabel suffers from a terrible character defect. Charitably, I'd like to say she's too trusting and sees only the good in others. But no I don't think it's that, I think she suffers from a perverse egoism. She doesn't see Osmond (or the phony Madame Merle) as good people, she's in fact drawn to their shallowness and cruelty. Why else would she turn down and turn away from two much nicer, kinder men and marry the worst one in the group? I don't think she misreads him at all. She sees that he's a snob and a good-for-nothing, the image of the nasty American, up in his Florentine villa complaining about everything, nobody's up to his standard, nobody's good enough - and Isabel likes this? Yes - she's cut of the same cloth. Her only desire is to be be independent, free - but free to do what? She doesn't have a thought in her head about making the world better, contributing to society, or even helping a single person. We know how little Isabel knows, but how little or how much does Henry James know? Does he know he's created a monstrous protagonist? Or does he see her as some kind of innocent ideal who has been ruined by the corruption of those around her?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

How Isabel Archer becomes an object of pity : The Portrait of a Lady

As Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady" moves inexorably toward its conclusion - the characters variously and separately heading back to England, as it appears the novel will end exactly where it began - and Isabel's life a ruin, she managing to prevent her husband from marrying his daughter off to the wealthy Lord Warburton but earning her husband's enmity in return, Isabel now having nothing, her various suitors all gone or, in Ralph's case dying, you have to look back and try to understand the point of this novel. Ultimately, it seems to me, the point is: Leave well enough alone. Isabel would have been just fine has she been left to her own devices in Albany, where she would have married well and been happy. The idea that she had to be brought to Europe to see the world and to grow in experience was the first step toward her ruin, and then the second and fatal blow was her inheritance of a small fortune. That made her an object of desire to the fortune-hunting Osmond. It's a bit of a mystery as to why she couldn't see how horrible he was and why she couldn't see through that phony, Madame Merle. But it seems her money distorted her judgment and ruined her desire for independence. It's also not clear what happened to her spirit during her years of marriage. Why is she still so subservient to Osmond? Why can't she defy him outright rather than through little devious schemes? I guess in part she worries what he will do to Pansy if she (Isabel) is out of the picture, but it's also as if she's become corrupted with the European malaise, a slave to custom, worried about appearing too brash and too bold. By the end of the novel, she is a much less vivid character, all her lines are blurred. We no longer admire her; we pity her.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

An example of Henry James at his best - and worst

Chapter 42 of Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady" is a perfect example of everything that is great - and horrible - about James's style. This chapter takes place entirely within the mind of Isabel Archer, as she sits before a dying fire in her drawing room and ruminates on everything that has gone wrong in her terrible marriage to Osmond. It's as powerful, profound, sorrowful a view of a ruined marriage as you will ever read. The writing is elegant and original and plays to James's strengths in that these slight nuances of feeling and emotion are poked and prodded and turned around every which way until Isabel has a full understand of the dire nature of her condition. It's perfect James. And yet: nothing happens. We watch Isabel's mind at work, but we do not see her do anything other than sit before the fire and think. So James is the perfect exemplar of one of the "beginner's rule" of fiction: write what you know. He knows only a very narrow social milieu, one type of character in one particular setting (the idle rich, Europe) and he writes about that exclusively and at times exquisitely. James, however, violates the other cardinal rule: show, don't tell. He shows us Isabel's view of her marriage but he never gives us any of the scenes in which we can see for ourselves why the marriage is horrible (he does have some nasty dialogue between Isabel and Osmond). The horror of the marriage is mediated by Isabel's thinking and by James's narration. He gets by with this because what he does he does so well, but it also explains why so many find James unreadable. As to Isabel, by this point in the novel she is playing such a complicated game - telling Pansy that she must obey her father's will while secretly and subtly manipulating events so that Pansy will reject Warburton and leave the field clear for her beloved Rosier - that it's hard to keep up. Her machinations are as complex as one of James's sentences, and you just want to say can't anyone in this novel be straightforward and just say what they mean?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Is Isabel Archer a moral being? Is anyone in The Portrait of a Lady?

Madame Merle has been very cool to Isabel. Merle has accomplished her goal - she got Isabel to marry her friend and protege, Osmond. Now, years later, as the marriage is clearly a disaster (at least for Isabel), Merle is nowhere to be found - until she has another need - this time more difficult to fathom. For some reason Merle has become the champion of the relatively poor (relative at least to the super-rich, idle Americans who populate "The Portrait of a Lady" and almost all Henry James novels) Rosier as the suitor for Isabel's stepdaughter, Pansy. Why does Merle do this? It clearly sets her in opposition to the wealthy suitor, Lord Warburton. I can't see what's in this for Merle. I can see that it will force Isabel to make a decision - should she advocate for Rosier (a marriage of love) or for Warburton (a marriage of convenience, much like hers). Obviously there's no choice at all from a moral point of view. But is Isabel a moral being? Is anyone in this novel? Isabel may have started as a moral being when she arrived in England, but her exposure to the European class culture and, even worse, her sudden and unexpected inheritance that changed her social status (like winning the lottery today) has apparently upended her moral compass. She's as bad as any of them. But she will face this one final test. Friend Bill who has recommended Portrait to me for many years, described it to me as a novel in which the characters are faced with a huge moral and ethical decision. I don't know how high the stake are here - the decision will affect no one outside of this tiny, tight knot of privileged and self-centered characters - and we travel an awfully long way with them beore they (or Isabel) confront this decision, but there still is something compelling about James - the acuity, the high intelligence, the sense that narrow as his world is he knows it intimately.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Would, could The Portrait of a Lady actually be a good movie?

So two of the rejected suitors, Lord Warburton and Ralph Tochett, whom we'd met in the first scene of Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady," as they gathered at the afternoon tea at which Warburton was warned not to court Isabel Archer, now commisserate and lick their wounds. Ralph basically admits he has been in love with his cousin Isabel, though he's too ill to consider marriage. The two of them are supposedly off to Sicily, but as they discover neither wants to go, they each want to stay in Rome (?), Isabel has now settled in her horrible marriage. Ralph knows that he has given up any chance to be close to Isabel because he warned her that Osmond was an evil man - even though he was right, she would never accept that she should have listened to his advice. More significant, as foreseen, Warburton is in love with Osmond's daughter/Isabel's stepdaughter, Pansy. This will clearly lead to the ultimate confrontation of the novel: Osmond will want his daughter to marry the wealthy Warburton, and Isabel will stand up for her right to marry the man she loves, Rosier - even though this will further alienate her from Warburton, who may yet exact some kind of revenge. Well, we've come a long way to get to this point! Reading Portrait I occasionally think, as we all do, of who should play the parts, and I was pretty sure that a younger John Malkovitch would be a great Osmond - only to learn in poking thru a film encyclopedia that there was a 1990s Campion movie of the book with Malkovitch (assume he does play Osmond, I didn't actually check). That said, how could it be a good movie? So little happens outside of conversations and nuances of feeling. On the other hand, maybe the book needs to be distilled down to a 90-page screenplay - but then it wouldn't be James, it would be just a classy melodrama - typically Campion material/mishandling of literature, btw (see her very disappointing Bright Star, or rather don't see it)?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Why Henry James's novels are both great and minute

Can you figure out what's going to happen in Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady"? We have jumped several years forward and now Isabel and Osmond are unhappily married - and Pansy is a very attractive, shy, sheltered marriagable daughter. A seemingly nice young man, Rosier, is in love with her and wants to ask for her hand - but Osmond is cruelly sarcastic and dismissive: Rosier is not wealthy enough. Madame Merle meddles, agrees to help Rosier, but which side is she on? Enter from the wings: Lord Warburton, into a drawing-room party at one of Isabel's "at home" days. Shall we guess that he falls in love with Pansy? That in an odd twist of fate Osmond becomes his champion, in that he's suitably rich? And that Isabel, who we are told always disagrees with her husband, takes up the case of Rosier. In a more modern setting, this would break up the marriage, but I'm not sure how that happens in James's world - my guess is a complete estrangement, but like the Touchett marriage - Isabel will go off on her own after being vanquished by her husband and Warburton. And that leaves one "suitor" unaccounted for - the hapless Caspar Goodwood (I love typing out that ridiculous name). I see him trailing Isabel around Europe like a puppydog. Well, I could be completely wrong. We've come a long way with these characters by this point in the book, and I feel we should know them better - the way we know a Tolstoy character - but James characters are wound so tight that we never see how they act other than in the drawing room. It's as if the whole world can be contained in within the inflections of civil conversation and discourse. It can't. James does a very small thing very well, but there's so much he misses. His novels are both great and minute.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Isabel, can't you see Osmond's a phony! : Portrait of a Lady

Ralph Touchett comes as close as he (presumably) ever will to professing his love for Isabel Archer (Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady") now that she's engaged to another and out of reach. Sad character - s Jamesian. Isabel is clearly engaged to a horrible man - everyone knows it but her, all of her other suitors fell for her before she was wealthy and it's obvious that he's interested in her only because she's wealthy. So what happened to her? Where and how has she totally lost her judgment? I'd thought she was a sharp, perceptive, independent woman - but no, she's worse than anyone else, cruel and stupid. And yet: does her falling for Gilbert Osmond have something to do with a desire to rescue Osmond's totally ignored teenage daughter, Pansy? Isabel has not articulated this, but it clearly seems to be part of her attraction to Osmond. Bu why should Isabel throw her life away for the young girl whom she hardly knows? Why not bequeath her a legacy, get her a decent education, send her to America? These are questions James never raises, but you have to think part of the problem all of his characters have is either too much money, too much time, or too much of an absorption in all the class-status bullshit of 19th-century Europe - Osmond the worst of them all, with his precious little observations about this and that ornamental artifact or touch of light on the horizon. Isabel, can't you see this guy's a phony? If not, the rest of you guys are well rid of her, she'd only cause you trouble.

Monday, November 22, 2010

What Pansy Knew: Why there are few children in the world of Henry James

After a year of travel, Isabel Archer comes back to Florence and we learn that she is engaged to Gilbert Osmond, an insipid, fortune-hunting American. We don't know why or how this came about - typical of Henry James ("The Portrait of a Lady") to elide a crucial dramatic scene and tell his story by indirection. We do know how this announcement affects a number of characters. First we see the stolid, hapless Caspar Goodwood arrive in Florence to see Isabel face to face and plead his case, such as he can, once more. Goodwood could b played by John Hamm, a handsome and rather boring presence. Isabel dismisses him curtly, even cruelly. What has become of her? She had seemed so strong and independent and freshly American, and now that she has money she seems no better than the rest, and very much under the spell of Madame Merle (who could be played by a slightly younger Glenn Close). We have to figure that Isabel's commitment to Osmond has something to do with Osmond's daughter, Pansy, whom Isabel visited before leaving Florence for her year of travel. There are not many children in the world of Henry James, and the few that there are, such as Pansy and the eponymous Maisie, are really just little adults - small people who speak like a James character and have few or none of he recognizable feelings of children - probably because James himself was born at the age of 50 or so. How aware is James that Pansy has been essentially abandoned by her selfish father, Osmond? Or does James think it's normal behavior to leave your child in care of governesses (mother is dead) as you follow a rich young woman around the ruins of Rome for weeks at a time? Isabel may think she's doing a service to Pansy my marrying her father, but it rarely works out that way.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Is it worse to be a fake aristocrat, or the real thing? : Portrait of a Lady

The 3rd (of 4th, if you count the hapless Ralph) suitor of Isabel Archer emerges as a major, sinister character as Isabel heads into the always (in Henry James) dangerous and corrupt world of Florence/Rome. Her scheming and duplicitous friend Madame Merle has drawn her into the orbit of Osmond, who is an American of the worst sort, living in Florence of some sort of obscure family income, doing nothing except spouting opinions and acting like a lord. We know why he's drawn to Isabel - she now has plenty of money. It will be important to see how money changes her. It doesn't seem to affect her a lot - except that it makes her even more desirable to men of the worst sort, and she has no natural guile to defend herself. She actually seems attracted to Osmond. But really which is worse? To be a fake aristocrat like Osmond, living well only because he is wealthy in relation to his Florentine surroundings? Or to be a true aristocrat like Isabel's first suitor, Lord Warburton, who talks about being a liberal and wanting to serve in Parliament but really - as we see when he reappears in a chance meeting with Isabel in Rome - mostly devoted to traveling around the world and nursing his wounds (since she rejected him). Neither does much good in the world, both are entirely self-centered and live off inheritance, though in a different way. And what about Isabel herself? Great, she wants to be an independent woman - but toward what end? Purely self-betterment, it seems. You certainly grow to understand the characters in "The Portrait of a Lady," but not necessarily to admire them, or even like them.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wish the New Yorker were more committed to the short story

Not sure just what to make of E.L. Doctorow story, Assimilation, in current New Yorker - always good to see something from Doctorow, who has been a very steady hand over so many years - most of his early fiction relied on a historical setting, and he very evocatively re-created a past era, most often in nyc - but lately his fiction is more contemporary (isn't this an unusual career pathway?), and this new story is set in ny today or near today - takes up the theme of the Eastern European green-card marriage, young (Hispanic?) guy working in a Russian(?)-owned restaurant is offered a deal: marry this girl in Europe, come back to USA, apply to bring her here, we'll pay you $3k. OK, it's not a terribly original plot and the plot developments are hardly surprising - haven't we seen this story line recently? can't remember exactly where, perhaps that collection of stories about immigrants in Toronto? certainly in a # of recent Indie movies from Europe - nevertheless the story is told quite efficiently and effectively, you really understand this young man's torn feelings, he doesn't quite fall in love with his wife but he's rather hurt that she seems unattracted to him and unappreciative. As with so many NYer stories recently, it seems pretty obvious that this one is part of a longer work, as it ends quite abruptly with the young couple about to set off on a troubled life - probably a first chapter of a novel. It's a novel I'd probably read, too, but I do with the New Yorker were more committed to the short story as a form, rather than to high-recognition writers and their book launches.

Friday, November 19, 2010

European v American: Jame's great theme, but so narrow compared with Hemingway, Fitzgerald

As anyone could predict, Madame Merle is an evil and scheming character who sensed out that Isabel was soon to become rich and therefore desirable, and as a young and unworldly American she would be an easy target for the wily Europeans. She is scheming to get an artist friend of hers in Florence to court Isabel and marry her - the 4th guy, so far, interested in Isabel (in his case, he hasn't even met her - he's interested in her prospects, unlike the faithful, hapless Caspar Goodwood who live her for who she is). These are the main Henry James themes, and though it's taken half the book to get to them we are settled now deeply into the James world: corrupt Europe v innocent America, and the mediating characters, the Americans abroad who foolishly emulate European style, are the ones most likely to be destroyed. Well, this is certainly an antiquated theme, one I imagine few younger readers would find holds any resonance today - and even then in the 1880s, for that matter - James was writing from deep observation but in some ways very narrow experience, and it's surprising how insular the literary set was at that time, it really did take the 20th century modern writers to shake everything up and - think how different Hemingway and Fitzgerald were on themes of Americans in Europe. "The Portrait of a Lady" may be a great book by some measures, but it is really quite stultifying, and as I read it I don't think, wow, I have to go back and read all of James. I feel I'm climbing a mountain.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Warning: Do not drive or operate heavy machinery when reading Henry James

Was very tired last night when reading Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady" and believe me, despite its strengths, this novel is not one to keep you awake at night. About a third of the way through (200 pages), and Mr. Touchett dies leaving Isabel a small fortune. Now, she can afford to be an independent woman, and we'll see where that gets her. Mrs. Touchett, the aunt who has more or less adopted Isabel and brought her from Albany to Europe, becomes even more of a self-centered bitch, immediately putting the London house up for sale, ignoring her very ill son, Ralph, and complaining about her late husband's largesse. She and Isabel take off for Paris. James's writing is strange here, in that he does very little with transitions - characters just go from here to there without passage between locales - and in fact, despite a few scenes of very fine and (for him) simple description, such as the evening in the small London park, he's not all that interested in exterior description - he describes characters (too much), and his novels are almost entirely interior affairs - which is why he thought he could be a great dramatist (most of his novels are built heavily on dialogue) and why he in fact was a horrible dramatist (theater-goers like to see something happen rather than listen to two hours of subtle, nuanced rumination). The focus on Portrait moving more, I think, toward the newly introduced Madame Merle, with whom Isabel is unduly fascinating and who I suspect will betray her in some devastating manner.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Jamesian character, always on the outside, devoid of purpose

Elated on turning down two proposals of marriage, Isabel Archer heads back to Gardencourt with her cousin Ralph to see her uncle Mr. Touchett who is apparently near death. Touchett tells son Ralph he ought to propose to Isabel. Ralph is full of torment; he's obviously in love with (or at least smitten by) Isabel, but he realizes that his own health is fragile and he could never sustain a marriage. He's one of those doomed and lonely Jamesian characters, always on the outside, unable to commit, neither British nor American, devoid of purpose. Isabel, however, is a lively and promising character, eager to set off for Europe and begin her life of independence - which will be easier to do once her uncle leaves her a legacy. For all her spirit, however, she seems devoid of any social conscious or sympathy for others - she has a cruel and selfish streak that may come to harm her later. And who's the Madame Marle (Merle?) who suddenly turns up and plays piano? She's got to be a phony and gold-digger - turning up just as the wealthy Touchett is about to die, seeming so continental but actually born in Brooklyn, where her father was high-ranking in the Navy, or so she says. My sense is she will pull Isabel down to the depths, but we'll see. I can't say that Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady" is sprinting along, but he continue to set out little strands of plot and character and we'll see how The Master can tie these all together by the end. Book is not for everyone, and maybe not for me, but it is monumental and impressive in its one-of-a-kind way.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Have to love those James names!: Caspar Goodwood, Lady Pensil, and The Climber sisters

Second offer of marriage to Isabel Archer in Henry James's steamy (ha!) "The Portrait of a Lady," this time from the hilariously named Caspar Goodwood, the buff, bumbling American bloke who's obviously way out of his league with the sharp and independent Archer. She's now told two men that she just plain does not want to get married - good for her! Not many could stand up to the pressure of expectations, then or now, and she sees marriage, at least as she's known it and observed it, as very stifling for the women and she wants to have a life of experience and travel. Her friend Henrietta Stackpole, a journalist and traveler (modeled on Wharton perhaps?) is a model for her, but Stackpole is too impulsive and maybe pushy - insinuating herself a bit too much in Archer's life. Have to love those James names: Stackpole runs into American friends, two chatty sisters from Wilmington, Delaware: the Climbers. (There's also a Lady Pensil.) Isabel Archer is obviously really attractive to men, as in addition to the two who have actually proposed her hapless cousin Ralph Touchett is clearly smitten - but he's kind of the Jamesian character, doomed (in his case by his ill health) to a solitary life as an observer. The scene of the two of them (Isabel and Ralph) talking through dusk in the square (one of the locked English squares - some "slum" children as James calls them peering through the bars) is very strange and poignant. There's not a lot "happening" (those quote marks intentionally Jamesian) in Portrait, but a lot of interior drama and tension slowly building.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A marriage proposal, as the narrative moves along by inches: The Portrait of a Lady

A proposal of marriage at about page 100 of Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady," and Isabel Archer rejects the proposal from Lord Warburton, but because this is James nothing comes easily or in a straightforward (American?) manner. Isabel hems and haws, it takes a few meetings and an exchange of letters before she tells Warburton no, although she tells him she really likes him! He can't fathom why any woman would reject him - and Isabel herself realizes that 19 of 20 women would say yes immediately. So what about her? Today, we'd say: She's just not that into him. But more important, she has some vague sense that she wants to lead her life, she's curious about the world and an independent spirit, about to see London and the rest of Europe, she doesn't want to be tied to a man - and good for her! Warburton kind of an interesting character - he's super-rich and believes himself to be a liberal or progressive (he's about to enter Parliament I think), but the American women - Isabel and her friend Henrietta - taunt him and ask him (and his sisters) whether he'd be willing to give up all his wealth and privileges - perhaps some foreshadowing? - and it's something they can't even comprehend. Meanwhile, Isabel is being pursued by her American suitor, Caspar Goodwood (!), an earnest, handsome dolt by all accounts, so we'll see how that plays out. Since this is James, probably very slowly. He is clearly setting up one of his American v European conflicts, but he moves his narrative by inches.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Why should we read Henry James?

Only 75 pages into Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady" and already we've had a shooting, a double-suicide, a blackmail threat, a hijacking, and two kinky sex scenes - oh, wait a minute, that must have been some other novel I was reading. No, we don't ready James for the breathtaking plot. He's not a page-turner, he's a page-starer. But there are rewards and there are reasons why we do, or should, read Henry James. First of all, he writes about character, and his characters reveal themselves through their conversation and we learn more about them from the conversation of others (and occasionally from the trenchant observations of the narrator). This technique is unusual and requires, of both author and reader, a lot of patience and diligence. We learn about character slowly and incrementally, and a character's self-knowledge may prove faulty and what other characters think and say may prove to be wrong. The characters actually do very little, but because they do so little their few actions and decisions have great consequence. In the best of his novels (and especially the novellas, in my opinion), this works very well, as characters are faced with moral decisions or with decisions that will change the course of their lives. The downside is that the lives of his characters are very insulated from others. Few of his characters have any responsibilities or sensibilities beyond their tiny social set (The Bostonians an exception). Portrait of Lady seems, so far, to be one of his best as it fully plays to his greatest strength. Why James failed as a dramatist, given his skilled use of dialogue in fiction, is another question that I'll look at in a later post.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

James's characters can never step up and say what they mean - unless they're intemperate Americans

In addition to the "lady" (Isabel Archer) in Henry James's "Portrait of a Lady," we meet several other major players in the novel in the early pages, and James crafts a beautiful and (for him) succinct portrait of each. Touchette senior, an American who moved to England and made a success in banking, settles in England, but is always identifies himself as an American (this an obvious source of tension in his marriage, as his wife seems to be one of those Jamesian characters trying to slough off their American heritage and become a European), and his son, gone from Harvard to Oxford to English banking where he wasn't apparently quite the star his father was and then he became ill, some kind of lung ailment, and seems to spend the rest of his life (he's maybe about 30?) taking care of his health. These are the characters who will orbit around Isabel (along with her British and American suitors, whom we've met, and the meddling aunt, Mrs. Touchette) and determine her fate. When we read James, or at least when I do, my blood boils at the way the characters accept their social position (largely inherited) basically do nothing to improve the lives of anyone around them much less to improve the world, and trouble themselves over the slightest nuances of feeling and sentiment - without ever being able to just step up and say what they mean. (An American could do this - and then be shunned for brashness and intemperance.) Yet this is the James world, and to read him is to accept him for what it is, what he is. In Portrait, it's interesting to me that, at least at the outset, he does more than usual to establish the socioeconomic setting of his characters and he seems to have some distance from their wealth and privilege.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Taking up Bill's challenge and reading Portait of a Lady

With old pal Bill Saunders yesterday, and Bill has always, to my puzzlement, held up Henry James's "Portrait of a Lady" as the paragon of literary excellence. Think I read it many years back when with grad-schoolish diligence I plowed through the (almost) complete works of James - of course James is always monumentally impressive, that is, impressive the way a monument can be: cold, austere, grand, uninviting. I have loved some of the novellas and stories - I think that's his best genre, the compression of the form helps him come to the point - but did also like some of the middle works (middle in regard to time of his career) but found the last works completely unreadable. Portrait is one of the middle works, so I decided to go back to it - remember trying this once before and being completely put off, or off put, by an opening scene at a British garden party. Well, the kind of novels he writes could obviously not be written, much less published, today. You need a gunshot in the first chapter, or at least a gun. But having put off, or off put, reading Portrait for many years, picked it up last night to try or retry again. And you know what I was very impressed - the middle works of James really are quite an accomplishment. In the first few chapters he very deftly sets up a tension - smart, sassy, naive American woman comes to England chaperoned or "rescued" from Albany by her aunt Mrs. Touchette, and settles in at the Touchette estate where the grumpy uncle, nearly completely estranged from his wife, warns the dapper and cynical young man not to fall for his niece. We can see what's going on here right away, but how will it play out? Obviously not a book for everyone, as the pacing is still glacial by modern standards, but so far a really smart and compelling novel beginning to unfold. Maybe Bill is right?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A novel that's far less than meets the eye: The Housekeeper and the Professor

Finished Yoko Ogawa's "The Housekeeper and the Professor" and it strikes me as a novel that's less than meets the eye. There are many promising elements but few if any are developed into anything substantial. I realize it's always a delicate balance between overplotting a novel and undercooking it, but this story is far too tepid. For example (I may be giving some stuff away here), in the last few chapters the housekeeper discovers a hidden document that reveals that the professor had some kind of romance with his sister-in-law. Finds document, puts it away, nothing comes of this. Another, son Root rushes out to bakery to get candles for his 11th b-d party and is late in returning. Professor worries. Housekeeper/mom tries to reassure him. Eventually she goes to look for Root. He's fine, bakery was closed, went to another one, end of episode. I concede that I was worried Root would be hit by a bus or something melodramatic, so I'm glad Ogawa kept her story in control - but there's too much control. Honestly, what makes this novel special other than 1. the Japanese setting (I admit to being a fiend for world lit) and 2. the professor's observations about math. If this story were transposed to suburban Connecticut or someplace like that, how would it stand up? Poorly, right? The math angle is OK, but what does it really illuminate? He might as well have been an opera fanatic or an literary scholar - tho we readers/English-major types are probably unduly impressed by his musings on prime numbers. If math provided a lesson or an insight for the other characters, that would be one thing, but it doesn't. Finally, Ogawa may know something about baseball but she knows nothing about baseball cards (or for that matter about probability) as, imagine this, when housekeeper and Root go searching through many card shops for a card of a 20-years-previous star pitcher they just happen to hear of a closed candy store whose owner happily gives them an unopened box of cards which they eagerly go through and lo and behold find the star player's card with the special insert of a piece of his leather glove - a million to one shot at best.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A novel that's all premise, no plot

Nearly finished with the short novel "The Housekeeper and the Professor," by Yoko Ogawa - strikes me that this is a novel that's all premise. The entire scope of the novel is set forth in the opening pages, and initially it's intriguing and promising: the relations between the housekeeper (single mom in her 40s), the math professor (injured in a car accident and has no longterm memory), and housekeeper's 10-year-old son, whom the professor immediately likes. After that, what? Honestly, nothing happens or changes (30 pages shy of the conclusion), other than little episodes (boy cuts his hand, visit to baseball game, professor gets sick, housekeeper fired by evil sister-in-law but later returns). In most novels, we see relationships grow or develop: for example, perhaps prof is reluctant to let young boy into his household but learns to love him, or, perhaps boy is afraid of peculiar elderly man but learns tolerance. I know those sound sappy - but they're something. So the novel is all premise, but, on the other hand: what does Ogawa do with her premise? The old man has no longterm memory, so every day it's as if he meets housekeeper and son for the first time. Right? But we never really see this happen. The novel moves along as if they're old pals. Similarly, time seems to have stopped for him at his accident (18 years previous), in that he is sure that baseball stars of the past are still playing. But how does this affect his life? He goes outside - is he overwhelmed by technology, by changes? We never know. It's almost as if the novel could be exactly the same if the professor were simply an old man with no dementia.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Novel - mathematics = ? : Making sense of The Housekeeper and Professor the

Is this a really smart and thoughtful novel, or a bit of dressed-up sentimental claptrap? I'm half-way through and holding off on judgment so far. Yoko Ogawa's "The Housekeeper and the Professor" is very simple in composition: 40ish single mom, Japan ca 1992, takes on a job as a housemaid to a math professor who's lost his long-term memory in a car accident; she brings her 10-year-old son, whom the prof dubs "Root," along with her to work and the three develop an unlikely bond over the twin subjects of math and baseball. Echoes here of the many mentor-themed books that have followed in the wake of the hugely successful Tuesdays with Morrie. Also, on the literary side, echoes of mentor novels such as The Reader and a slew of recent entries I haven't read - something about a French professor and the lessons he imparts? The relation among the 3 is sweet, but I don't see its point exactly other than as a vehicle; the professor posits various math problems to mom and son and teaches them about prime #s, perfect #s, and other mathematical oddities. Somehow, they're interested. Somehow, I'm not. If you purge this book of the mathematical quotient (novel - math = ?) what have you got? Ogawa, in the 2nd half, must make more of the relationships among the 3. One oddity (echo of Oliver Sacks?) is that the prof can retain only 80 minutes of memory, so each day it's as if he meets the housekeeper & son anew. This could be greatly developed for poignancy or even for drama, but it kind if just lies there as a given fact - the novel (the novelist?) is too polite to probe and prod it into life.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Why Jean McGarry's stories are "cool" : Ocean State

The first section of Jean McGarry's collection "Ocean State" is the broadest in scope, in that its stories cover entire family histories, almost a novel's worth of material compressed into stories of modest length. The other three sections are no less impressive, but in a different way: most (not all) of them are more traditional in that they examine a single incident or episode (Dream Date) or take place in a single span of time such as one day in the life or work out the significance of a single image (Gold Leaf, Wedding Gowns). They're all very smart, and, though they do contain humor - particularly some of wisecracks from the ever-complaining mothers and the sassy daughters - they are generally pretty dark in tone: death, especially suicide, imbues these stories, and most of the marriages either begin inauspiciously or come to no good end. What's really striking is how "cool" McGarry's fiction is, and I use that term the way McLuhan did in describing media: you really have to engage in the stories are read them carefully, she doesn't lay out the transitions for you, so you have to watch for every twist and turn in direction. For ex., the story about the day in the life of a psychiatrist begins with rather detailed account of a troubled young girl, his first patient, and it comes as a surprise (to me) that the story's not about her but about her doctor, as we shift into the next patient. My personal fave in this smart collection is Dream Date, which beautifully captures a whole range of family dynamics in just a few pages, as everyone gets involved in planning Eileen's date with a neighbor kid to a "canteen dance," all of which involves extensive spying on his household and endless gossip about whether he (and his family) are good enough for Eileen. As I finish, I'm wondering what fellow blogger Charles May, who writes exclusively about short stories, might think about Ocean State - I hope he weighs in.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The evolution of a style: Jean McGarry

About 20 years ago I reviewed Jean McGarry's first book, Airs of Providence, and was really moved by her stories and deeply impressed by her talent - and found the book obviously of particular interest to Rhode Islanders, and Jean precisely captured (skewered?) the insular world of Irish-Catholic Providence family life in the 50s. None had written about this before and Jean seemed to get it down just right. We later became friends, so I have never actually reviewed another one of her books, though I've read almost all of them. The latest is a new collection of stories, "Ocean State," from JHU press. I've read the first three, the section called aptly (and ironically?) Family Happiness. It's puzzled me for a long time why McGarry hasn't ever found the national readership she deserves, though she has published in some of the top magazines - but I guess there's no sense trying to figure out the permutations of reputation, how it's made and unmade. Those who've found her fiction, most of it published by JHU, are among the fortunate. In this latest collection, at least based on the first section, it's interesting to see how her style changes and develops since Airs of Providence - many books in between, some with R.I. settings, but this is the bookend, the only other to reference R.I. in its title. Yet setting seems far less important in Ocean State; the first three stories could take place in any of a # of cities. She's distilled her style down to focus intently on character and relationships - and these first three stories are so tight and condensed, each like a novel in miniature, with no time to fool around with extraneous detail. They're more mature than her earliest work and also more demanding, as we follow a whole life story in about a dozen pages. We'll see how the other stories work as we go along with Ocean State.