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

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

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Why The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo misses its mark

Didja think it was strange that Harrriet's body had never turned up? Didja think it might have been a clue that someone was sending pressed flowers every year to Henrik, and the latest was an Australian specimen? Maybe, unlike Blomkvist, you didn't exactly choke on your coffee when you learned that Harriet was alive? Okay, enough said about the structural and conceptual weaknesses of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." I finished. After a denouement that stumbles on for a hundred pages after the true climax of the, after another interminable conversation in the plot just pours out like pages from a printer - told, rather than shown - I finished. I'm sure this book will be filmed, but the screenwriters face a big challenge, as this book, for all its events, has very few actual scenes. And yet, and yet - I honestly do feel that Stieg Larsson was probably a great guy, and I feel like a heel criticizing him so bluntly (take heart, the world of readers have spoken and I'm in a minority), but I wonder whether the book he's written actually belies his noble intentions. He apparently wanted to write a book of social justice, revealing through fiction the violence so many women endure in secret. Yet what he's done, I think, is to make it seem that the "men who hate women" (the title in the original Swedish) are totally deranged lunatic crackpots - neoNazis, incest-crazed, keepers of torture chambers and intimate diaries and photo journals, horrible predators against the weak and helpless. It's too easy to say that those are the aberrants so far out on the scale. In fact most of the violence is date violence, violence in couples, drinking-drug related, far more common, garden-variety. Dragon Tattoo, by making the violence so gothic and extreme, actually diminishes the scope of the issue. Serial killers, face it, are rare - and usually caught. I'm totally with the eponymous Salander on this one, by the way: Martin is a total shit for his lifetime of violence, and the fact that is was sexually abused is no excuse for him and no reason to feel sorry; Harriet, the lost child who returns to save the family fortunes, is also a shit for remaining silent for 38 years while the violence (she supposedly didn't know about it?!) continued. For all my critiques, Salander's could be a pretty interesting character, an unconventional detective (as in Motherless Brooklyn), and I suspect she plays a bigger role in the final two books in the series.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

How (not) to portray a serial killer: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Despite its higher ambitions, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," by the end of the 3rd (of 4) sections, has become a search for a sadistic serial killer. Setting aside all my qualms about even the remote likelihood that a madman as Stieg Larsson describes him could get away with a series of such gruesome crimes undetected, there is nothing remotely interesting about this aspect of the novel. Works about serial killers (my references are mostly to films because I don't often read this kind of fiction) can be totally engrossing and fascinating so long as we learn something about how their minds work and how or why they became so deranged (Silence of the Lambs, It, Psycho, Sweeney Todd, to cite 4 very different examples). Or, for an alternative approach, this story line can work if we follow the complex process through which smart cops or detectives unravel the mystery of the killer, often putting themselves in danger during the process. In Dragon Tattoo, neither happens. The killer of course has to be a member of the Vanger family, one of the family members living on the island of Hedeby, where Blomkvist and Salander are investigating a murder or disappearance from 38 years back. When we learn that the killer is Martin Vanger, are we surprised? Do we care? No, that only works if we've gotten to know and see Martin - but he's a character we barely know at all. If a serial killer is to be a minor player in the novel until his secret is revealed, the writer has to present him (or her, for that matter) as either just slightly strange and deranged so we always feel creepy around him or as seemingly very normal - but we gradually learn more unsettling things about them. Either we can know much more than the protagonist (cop or detective) or we see the pieces come slowly into place through the protagonist's POV (which is how Larsson plays it). But what payoff do we get by learning that Martin is a killer? We know it has to be someone on the island, and frankly it might as well be anyone. (Larsson populates the island with unreconstructed Nazi sympathizers, but that's more or less a red herring - they're hateful in other ways). There is no shock of recognition or surprise when Martin is revealed and imprisons Blomkvist in his - ready? - torture chamber that nobody had ever seen or suspected on this tiny island! Though Dragon Tattoo has a veneer of social significance - references to violence against women, to neo-Nazis (which Larsson apparently bravely pursued during his own heroic life cut too short), the story itself is more about random, crackpot violence and, to be frank, authorial manipulation.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Gothic melodrama of the lowest order? Or social commentary?

So now able investigator Salander has assembled a list of horrifying unsolved murders over about a 20-year span, each one an attack on a woman in particularly gruesome manner. Each is somehow linked to a passage in Leviticus that proscribes a Biblical punishment for such things as wizardry, sex with animals. How many ways does this strain credibility beyond even the ludicrous, to the point where I just want to throw up my hands? That no one in Sweden would see a connection between these cases? That any one person could get away with these serial murders undetected? That any tortured mind would even pursue this course? That any one person acting alone could solve the crime in a couple of hours with a few Google searches? All of this is just evidence of a really creaky plot that has a veneer of contemporary realism but in fact is a gothic melodrama of the lowest order. What bothers me more is the implication that "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is a book that examines violence against women. Does it? Or does it exploit violence against women for cheap plot points? The serial killer as Stieg Larsson presents him is so far out on the lunatic fringe as to not be representative of anything except a thriller-writer's imagination. The "advocat" who attacks Salander may in some ways be more typical - the upstanding citizen who gets away with it, even thinks that women like his sadistic bullying. That's a theme worth looking at - but does Larsson do so? Not really - he makes the advocat into a cartoon of evil, has Salander learn everything about him with a few quick searches and downloads, and exact her own gruesome revenge very expeditiously. In other words, he throws in these scenes for some excitement, or worse, but he's not interested in looking at the mind of an abuser. Look, this book is a tremendous success, so it must resonate with many people, and who am I to criticize that? And Larsson was probably a great guy, and I feel bad that he did not live to enjoy his success. But let's not make of this book any more than it is, a cheap thriller.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is Girl with the Dragon Tattoo really about violence against women?

Well by the middle third of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" some action begins, as two of the three strands get into motion. Lisbeth Salander is raped by her legal guardian, and she goes after him with a vengeance on her 3rd visit. And Mikael Blomkvist gathers a lot of info about the Vanger family and the unexplained death of disappearance 38 years ago of niece Harriet. Okay. Why is this all so dissatisfying? Because neither of these plots move along because of any great skill, insight, or accomplishment on the part of either protagonist. Though Larsson notes that Salander considered many different strategies for revenge against her guardian, ultimately, what does she do? Hidden-camera surveillance of his attack on her (conveniently, she's a detective with access to lots of equipment), then on 3rd visit nails him with a Taser and chains him to the bed (as he did to her). Yes, he's hateful to a surreal degree - but can't the plot be interesting? Can't there be some tension or ambiguity? Can't we worry for Salander a bit (we never do)? And if that plot is two-dimensional at best, what to make of Blomkvist and his investigations? He gets his big break when he examines supposedly the last photo of Harriet, taken at a festival in town, notices she's staring off camera at something that he assumes scares her; he goes to a newspaper office, finds dozens of photos from this same photo shoot (40 years ago!), sees a couple taking a snapshot in one of the pix, reads a sticker on their car, tracks them down (40 years later!) in a small town... Oh, please! This is just authorial noodling. Character has to drive plot, and plot has to include action, scenes, settings - not just material, events, facts. How can this book be so popular? Perhaps the patina of social consciousness, these interpolated section headings that note how many Swedish women are victims of violence. Yes, I believe that - but simply noting a social problem does not make a novel into an examination of one. Why does this occur? Who are the victims? the perpetrators? How do we stop this? Larssen depicts violence against women in one scene (so far) and he references (but does not describe it) in several others, but nothing in this book helps me understand violence against women. I have seldom, maybe never, read a book so full of incident and so far from the interior life of its characters.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I can't figure out why everyone raves about this book

Three plots of strands of plots going on in Steig Larssen's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo": one involving crooked businessman Wesserstrom (?) who defeats central character, Blumkvist, in a libel action, threatening the existence of Blumkvist's magazine, Millennium; aged industrialist Henrik V. who hires Blumkvist to investigate death or disappearance 40 years ago of his grand-niece Harriet and who claims to have incriminating evidence against W. that Blumkvist can use; title character, Salander, a detective who for some reason V hired to investigate W and who is being sexually abused by her legal guardian (she is some sort of ward of the state, though she's in her 20s or so). That's a lot of plot! I'm a third or so into the book and for the life of me can't figure out why it has been such a success. I don't read a lot of crime/thriller fiction, but there must be better out there. For 200 pages it's been almost nothing but clumsy exposition. For example, Blumkvist has to learn about all the members of the V. family, who live on the tiny island of Hedeby, and Larssen manages this by a long walk through the village during which Henrik V tells Blumkvist who lives in each house. There has almost literally been not a single scene in the book so far in which anything remotely interesting happens (the scene of Salander's abuse is a partial exception, something happens but it's not interesting, just repulsive). The detective novels I've read and enjoyed, from the classics like Hammet to Parker and some others, involve lots of locales and encounters and tense situations. This book - I'm +200 pages in, and none of the main characters has been in jeopardy for a moment and for the most part all the protagonist, Blomkvist, has done is listen to others lay out the elaborate mechanisms of this cluttered plot.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The most ham-handed exposition ever: Dragon Tattoo

Everyone says I have to read "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Why? Because it's about a journalist (I was a journalist). It's set in Sweden (I lived in Sweden). It's a book about a guy in Sweden (I wrote a book about a guy in Sweden). So at last I started Dragon Girl last night. Okay, first of all, it's not really the kind of book I usually read, but like many readers I think I'm drawn to this one by the locale, the very cool title (totally different from the original Swedish title, which is something like Men Who Hate Women - this one being far more appealing and an effective brand for the 3-book series). What is the strong connection between police procedural/thriller/mysteries and Scandanavia? What are readers so drawn to this connection? There is some way in which the darkness, stillness, austerity of the north, coupled with the Bergmanesque fatalism and spiritual gloom links to the noirish figure of the lone detective. Books (and films) that would in another setting be mere genre pieces gather a patina of literary excellence in the northern light (Smilla's Sense of Snow, books by Ullman [Liv's daughter], that DiNiro movie transposed to Alaska, can't remember title). So what about Dragon? It upsets the stereotype just a little bit by having the detective be a punkish (tattooed) waif - we'll see what becomes of her. But I have to say: I read +100 pages of the most hamhanded exposition I've read in years, maybe ever. Long, long stretches of characters explaining stuff, telling back story, ostensibly to fill in another character but really to us, it was almost comical, unbearable. Perhaps by page 150 the book will get moving - it must! - but so far the story setup, girl disappears on remote island and 48 years later wealthy industrialist hires disgraced writer to find the killer - seems wildly improbable. You just have to throw yourself into it and hope for the best.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Catching Holden Caulfield

Book group discussion last night of "Catcher in the Rye," a rarity, as it's the first time I can recall in years at which we universally liked, even loved, the book. Joan asked the question, opening discussion: What happens next to Holden? Catcher ends with him in the sanatorium, and Joan wondered whether he goes back to school. My own view is that of course he does, he sees himself as a rebel, as the only honest guy in a sea of "phonies," but of course he's a phony himself. Catcher was published in 1951, set a few years earlier I guess, and I can see Holden in 9 years, in 1960, as one of the malcontents in the cast of Mad Men, writing jingles for Lucky Strike, complaining about the phonies, or the bullshitters as he'd probably call them by then, on the agency staff, about the meaninglessness of his work, dreaming of writing a novel (but of course not doing so). We wrestled with the question of why he is so enduringly appealing a character, especially to adolescents of many generations, many background, male and female. I think that of course adolescents are drawn to his sardonic humor and his distrust of the phonies he sees everywhere, while all readers are also deeply touched by his innocence, his generosity, his tender sympathies, especially for his sister, Phoebe. As an older reader, I am moved by Holden's innocence, but we also see his fecklessness. The very metaphor of the title is a perfect trope for his dreamy and ineffective idealism: his expressed aspiration is to rescue children at play and to catch them before they fall off a cliff, fine and noble a thought, but there's not a moment in the novel during which Holden actually has a thought about really doing something to help people. Would he like to be a teacher? a writer? a counselor? an activist? By his age, he should be engaged in some aspect of life rather than mindlessly spending (his father's) money. And yet: we still love him, we feel sorry for him, with his empty family, his absent father, his dead brother, his failure literally to catch the suicidal leap of the bullied friend, his lack of connection for guys his age, his trauma. We wish someone would read out a hand to him (and not to pet his forehead, as his creepy former teacher does), we wish someone would catch Holden.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Open the door, Homer!: Holden Caulfield as Ulysses?

Some further thoughts on "Catcher in the Rye" in advance of book-group meeting (tonight): Someone must have noticed this, written about this, done a dissertation on this, but the other possible literary antecdent for Catcher is the Odyssey. Unlike Ulysses, it takes place in three days, not one, but still a pretty tight timeframe. And there's a way in which you can see Holden as leaving the battlefield after the war (the prep school, the football game that he alone cuts out on), and beginning a tortuous homeward journey. He's tempted by various siren calls (the rockettes? the women in the nightclub whom he dances with?), threatened by a cyclops (Maurice the bellhop?), is there a Scylla and Charybdis? (have to think about that), a Land of the Lotus Eaters (Amalifi's apartment?), Calypso (old Sally?) - or are these tropes that will occur in any work of literature? Is the Oddyssey such a model, the journey home, that it can encompass almost any travel narrative? The closest point of contact between Catcher and the Odyssey is his actual return home, sneaking into the apartment, unrecognized, there's no faithful dog, but he has to rescue Old Phoebe much as Odysseus has to reclaim his place in the household. It's a stretch - but a thought.

Another final thought on "Crazy Heart," which I finished last night: The end is surprisingly bleak; I had been sure that this was a novel of redemption, a man turned around by the love of a good woman, but, no, Tom Cobb doesn't let Bad Blake off so easily, and leaves him soaked in mud, drunk, broken down by the side of the road, going nowhere. I'm curious to see if the movie softens the blow. Any guesses? What do you think?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Writing in the face of death - Keats

After watching "Bright Star" (see, I was inspired to reread some Keats - got out my old great college keats text, from freshman year, still with my dorm room # inscribed, and with checkmarks beside the assigned poems and the key passages in the letters underlined - still useful info (except for the dorm room #)! It's obvious on even a casual re-reading that Keats is second only to Shakespeare in use of language. Every time I look at the great odes (last night I reread "Nightingale") I am stunned and moved and blown away by the beauty, line by line. His early death (at 25) is part of the pathos and the legend and also his great theme - all of his great poems are infused with his seeming foreknowledge that he would die young (and obscure). The fact that he did young but become posthumously famous makes these poems all the more stunning. How could his contemporaries not have universally recognized this greatness? In his day, it seems, a poet had to be independently wealthy (Byron) or manage to concoct a career through various scribbling assignments, translations and the like, and still live in poverty and uncertainty. It was the time before writing programs, endowed chairs, arts councils, and private grants (except for patronage). We can only wonder at what great works Keats would have produced had he survived - but then again, was it the nearness of death that made his works so great? Had he lived, would he have doddered into old age like Wordsworth? Every serious reader should look at Keats's odes again and again - I love them more each time I come back to them.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Quiet! Musician at Work: Crazy Heart

Usually when I read a novel I learn something about writing, but reading Tom Cobb's "Crazy Heart" I'm learning something about music. I haven't ever read a book that gives you a better sense of how a band puts together a set, how a lead musician works with a backup band (of varying degrees of capacity) to put together a sound and a show. Lots of the material is over my head - I imagine someone versed in music, particularly country music, would get even more from Crazy Heart. But I get a sense of how difficult the work is, how specialized the talents are, and how much skill, taste, nuance goes into every (good) performance. I know the same could be said about writing, and a musician sitting in on a fiction workshop would be amazed at the level at which we would discuss character, plot, style, etc. Fun to see a different world, though. Of even more interest, about half-way through Crazy Heart as Bad Blake starts to gravitate back toward song-writing, we get a glimpse of the creative process: what inspires a musician to create a song, what glimpse or sensation or memory or phrase gets him going? It's the same with writing in some ways, but the creative process is more visible, because more external, with music. It's something rarely caught in fiction (exceptions, Doctor Faustus? others?). I love the moment in Bob Dylan's "Don't Look Back" when he's noodling around on a piano and kind of humming or mumbling some lyrics. We never know what song it became, if anything, but seldom has a documentary actually capture an artist at work in that way. At its best, Crazy Heart does that, too.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Rescued from oblivion - Crazy Heart, the novel

Am reading "Crazy Heart," by old friend Tom (Thomas) Cobb. The story behind the novel is interesting in itself. Tom sold Crazy Heart through his very powerful N.Y. agent in the mid-'80s. Rhode Island College hired him, partly on the strength of the book, to come here from Texas and teach writing - that's how I met Tom. At the time Crazy Heart was published, I was books editor at the Journal. It got a lot of good advance publicity, and we gave it a strong review (I'm pretty sure friend and fellow-writer Bill Reynolds reviewed it). I stayed in touch with Tom from time to time over the years. The book did okay, but languished as so many do - but Tom did sell the film rights. They were renewed every year or so, bringing him a little steady stream of extra income - but he hit kind of a publishing drought (a real shame - I read one of his unpublished novels, about a guy teaching in a prison in Arizona, and thought it was great). Amazingly, they finally made a film of Crazy Heart more than 20 years after initial publication. At first, the distributor wanted to send it straight to video, i.e., into oblivion, but it got rave notices at a film festival and they changed their plans - and now it's up for 3 Oscars (and will probably win 2 of them), and to Tom's delight it's back in print. I hope all his books go into print and into film, too! Crazy Heart is a really good read, you learn a lot about music, esp. country music (not my thing, but kind of interesting to be immersed in that world). Mainly, it's a story of a guy (Bad Blake) down on his luck and ready for redemption. Yes, it's been done before, but there's a lot of dark humor here and credible inside knowledge of the backwaters of the music business. It's obvious that Bad Blake is a great film character, and it's amazing it took so long for the world to see that.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Holden Caulfield v Huck Finn

By the end of "Catcher in the Rye" it's obvious that Holden Caulfield is the anti-Huck Finn. As noted in yesterday's post, his voice is a 20th-century version of Huck's American vernacular, so on a stylistic level they are literary cousins. But: Huck is impoverished, an outsider, unwanted. He depends on close friendships with other men/boys. At the end, distraught at what he's learned about society (and his family), he famously sets off for the territories. Holden: is wealthy, privileged, spoiled, (over)educated. Despite his tender feelings, he has no friendships with any guys his age. He is much more driven toward women, though he has problems there as well. His greatest tenderness is for his siblings. He wanders through a city (though he dreams of moving out the country, a strange foreshadowing), and ultimately, in the last chapter, goes home to his family. They do share one trait: both are sons of alcoholics. In today's lingo, we'd say that they both suffered childhood trauma - particularly Holden. In my view, that's what drives him. We learn very early on how he was traumatized by his brother's death (he smashes garage windows with his bare hands, and we later learn that he was hospitalized because of that and missed Allie's funeral.) Very late in the novel we learn that Holden was present when a kid (wearing Holden's sweater), being bullied, jumped to his death out a dorm window. It's striking how this key scene is delayed, and played down. Finally, Holden visits his favorite teacher and is startled awake when the teacher pets his head. Holden runs, and notes that he's had to deal with "about 20 flits," or something like that. To me, that suggests some history of abuse, which a 1950s novel would not unpack, but it's a solid and mysterious hint. Holden - so vulnerable, so sad, a screen onto which a million adolescents can project themselves.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Catcher: Is it dated?

I don't even know if you could call it re-reading as I haven't read "Catcher in the Rye" since about 1962. I'm glad to be reading a 15th-printing pb with the iconic cover of Holden Caulfield in his red hunting cap, clutching his "gladstone" (i.e., suitcase), to the left a Hollywood blond sucks on a cigarette beneath a marquee. A very dated cover image! Is the book dated? Yes, of course - but it was dated in 1960, too. Almost nobody who read it and in some way identified with Holden lived anything like the life he led, not in 1960 and certainly not in 1990! Boys prep schools, trains, nightclubs, a 16-year-old renting a room in a Manhattan hotel, calling up old girlfriends, riding in cabs around the city - it's not just that the expense would be prohibitive today except for the very wealthiest of eurotrash and others. It's that it doesn't seem like the life of a 16-year-old - more like a 20+-year-old Army veteran, which is what Salinger was. But I'm not saying Holden's a phony! Far from it. As every reader knows, it's his voice that makes the book so affecting, and also his quirky personality, so tender and sentimental and needy, beneath the veneer of toughness, cynicism, and independent bravado. Salinger's narrative begins at a fork in the road of literature, and from the first sentence he casts his lot with American lit (Huck Finn the obvious antecedent) and turns away from British (David Copperfield). But it's more stylized and internal that Twain; Salinger created an American vernacular hero, whose voice has launched a thousand, a million, narratives: the self-conciousness, the constant attention to his own behavior, the trenchant observations alongside the most overstated, intentionally juvenile generalizations. Many have followed, some with success (Edisto?,Mysteries of Pittsburgh?), but J.D.Salinger led the way.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Can't he see how bad this book is?

Part 2 of "The Humbling" was a fantasy of seduction - aging actor (I almost wrote "writer") still wins beautiful 40ish lesbian woman who who leaves her current relationship and makes her self over and basically enslaves herself to him. Part 3 is a fantasy of self-pity. The woman (Pegeen Mike) of course leaves him (Axler), but not until after a sex scene in which she totally dominates him (echo of Zuckerman Bound) and another scene in which they're joined by another woman (echo of Portnoy, but only a distant echo - much less funny). When she leaves, Axler wallows in his misery again, phones Pegeen's parents (his theater friends from years back) and berates them. He also recalls the woman (Sylvia?) from part one, whom he'd met in the psychiatric hospital, who wants to kill her abusive husband. In part 3 Axler learns through news reports that she's done so, and he's inspired by her courage, inspired enough to, at the end, shoot himself (and leave behind a note quoting The Seagull, which also ends with a suicide). Well, to my memory the suicide victim in The Seagull was a young man whose life lay ahead of him. In Philip Roth's "The Humbling" the victim is an old man whose work is behind him. Our emotions are entirely different - in fact, I'm sorry to say, I had no emotion whatever at the conclusion of this thin book. To put it bluntly, the story is barely sketched in, largely told in long patches of stagy dialogue. Roth never examines the interior life of the characters. Axler does not grow or change at all through the course of this story, he's miserable start to finish. I have loved Roth's work for many years and nothing will take away from his lifetime of accomplishment - I hope he is recognized with a Nobel before long - but this book not only does nothing for her reputation but it makes me (and others?) worry seriously about Roth's mental condition. Can't he see how transparent this book is? Can't he see how bad it is? Can't anyone? Can't everyone?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Roth Bound - The Humbling

I actually love the form of the novella and wish there were more great ones, but publishing today doesn't encourage novellas, too long for magazines, too short for books - unless you're of a grand enough stature to publish a novella as a book under the guise of a novel, as Bellow did late in life and as Philip Roth is doing now, with "The Humbling." (Great novellas? A Month in the Country, The Light in the Piazza, many by James and the Russian writers, to name a few.) As to The Humbling, I've read the first 2 (of 3) sections. Main character is an actor, Simon Axler, +60, who suddenly loses his talent, feels his acting is fakery, critics rip him, he goes into a deep depression, hospitalized, suicidal, befriends a much younger woman fellow-patient whose husband abused her young daughter, wife leaves him, end of section. 2nd section months later, drops all characters in first section except Axler, he's in virtual isolation on remote farm, his agent visits, encourages him to return to stage, 40ish woman (daughter of old theater friends) visits, she's a lesbian, she falls for him anyway, they begin a relationship, he buys her lots of clothes, restyles her (a la Pretty Woman), her parents upset, her ex-lover threatens Axler, he's attracted to her, too, kinda. Okay, a lot of plottish elements here - but sadly, so far, this feels like an outline for a novel rather than a novella. Roth rips through the action, padding with lots of stagy, awkward dialogue. It's a shame because some real Rothian themes are unearthed: the artist in therapy, recalls Portnoy, but here so much darker, artist near end of career and without the swagger and confidence. Nothing made of this, however. The artist paralyzed, recalls Zuckerman Bound, and of course Roth will resist an effort to read The Humbling as a portrait of Roth, but he's pushed these boundaries his whole career and you can't help not seeing the obvious parallels and wondering about the state of Roth's psyche and his own sense of his career and his capacity. Of course the sexuality - the older man, priapic, powerful, seducing the younger woman - at least here he's honest enough to note that part of the seduction is the wealth and status he can bestow on her and it's not just (or at all) that she finds him physically attractive, in this way at least the sexual conquest is more realistic than in so many other male-fantasy novels (and movies). But it's still disturbing how little distance he puts between himself and his material. He seems to be writing out of his own need to console himself for his diminishing powers (sexual, artistic). This could be a great book, but, so far, it just isn't. Plot has never been his strong point, but honesty has been and The Humbling seems to be delusional - up through section 2 at least.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Abot ths Blog: Who should read it?

A few words about this blog, or about how and whether to read it: These posts are not meant to be reviews of books and stories in any conventional sense. They're a daily record of my reading and my thoughts about my reading, a way for me and for anybody else interested to see how a novel or story unfolds, opens up, takes shape, or doesn't, in the mind of the reader. They're a way for me to make sense of my reading (and, on Elliot's Watching, of my viewing) and to integrate multiple narratives into my life. For you, be warned: there are lots of "spoilers," and I make no attempt to keep hidden any element of the plot of story. You might consider these to be not reviews but postviews, and my hope is they may be a way for you to recall or recreate a book that you've read or are reading, a way for you, in a sense, to read along with another reader, with me. On another note, I make no attempt while writing these posts to check for accuracy, for character names, for actor names, and so on. The entries are in that sense "raw," and it does amaze me how often I (and others?) can't exactly recall various details, particularly names, when we sit down to recollect and write. In my professional life, I'm always looking up facts and details because what I write at work is very public and must be accurate to the T. With this blog, I step aside from that pressure and demand and just write as I recall it. If I or anyone else were ever to publish any of these posts in any other format, I suppose I'd clean up the errors - but here you are reading the notes of a reader in their most immediate and uncensored form.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Each great novel is great in its own way

All crappy novels are alike, but each great novel is great in its own unique way. Some final thoughts on the greatness of "War and Peace": First of all, its magnitude. It's almost the benchmark of cliche for a big novel, but don't take that to mean an unreadable novel, far from it (though many are daunted and think it's unreadable). It's probably not the biggest of all novels, certainly not if you count the novels in series such as Remembrance of Dance to the Music of Time, and maybe Man without Qualities. But it's probably the biggest novel that truly encompasses the arc of a single story. The other monsters are unique in part because of their style (Joyce) or their philosophical heft (Magic Mountain), but is any truly as approachable as War and Peace? It's epic, but also very personal, emotional - a coming of age story in some ways, as well as a historical novel. It's also great because of its clarity, which again will surprise some people put off by the Russian names, the historical digressions, and the many passages in French (which I enjoyed having a go at in French). But no, not really - as noted many times in these posts, his language is straightforward and economical (easy to translate, I would bet), and his descriptive eye is unmatched. Many scenes stay in memory, and would be worth rereading, reprinting, studying - to see the difficulty of achieving simplicity. Finally, there are the many strange passages (Rostov on the battlefield, Pierre released from captivity, most of all the death of Andrei, and others), something like epiphanies in Joyce but without the overlay of symbolism, in which characters grapple with the very essence of their lives, of the meaning of life, and come to some comprehension that lies just beyond the reach of words - the art of the novel push right up to the edge of its limits.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

All happy families are not alike

The epilogues to "War and Peace": part 2 is a bit of a slog, and I think many readers would give up on these, had we not already committed to 1,200 pages so what's 30 more? But Part 1, the kind of reprise that we see now in so many movies (did it begin with American Graffiti?), takes us 7 years forward, and we see the Rostov and the Bezukov families now, grown and established - and of course interlocked by marriage and friendship. They're all staying together for the moment at Nikolai's estate or farm really, Natasha with her 3 children while Pierre is away in Petersburg. Marya and Nikolai also have 3(?) children, plus the retinue of attendant women, the old mother-in-law, and Andrei's orphaned son. What's interesting is how thoroughly conventional they have become, yet they are still recognizably themselves, their personalities sharpened by age in some ways, softened in others. Nikolai a very successful farmer and landowner, greatly admired by his muzhiks/serfs (in a totally paternalistic way). Pierre is involved in some kind of political movement in Petersburg, challenging the mysticism that the czar (Alexander?) has taken up. The women have become conventional, cliche'd hausfraus - devoted to children and to building their husbands' egos and self-esteem, yet really in control of all that goes on, as in many a sitcom of the '50s. But they are also very passionate, some beautiful and quite true passages of spousal conversation full of ellipses and understandings that need not be spoken - very accurate, more so than anywhere I've ever read. Nikolai and Pierre do not at all agree on politics - Nikolai actually says that if Pierre were to challenge the government, he (Nikolai) would shoot him if ordered to. And Pierre's ideas are so vague and dreamy, almost like Lawrentian fascism - government run by a small group of men pledged to the good (what men? whose good? who picked them?). Andrei's son worships Pierre - a lot of potential conflicts here - as if Tolstoy was starting yet a 5th volume, or a nother novel that he never wrote. I can't be the first to notice this, but the tensions and conflicts brewing in this seemingly happy domestic setting actually give the lie to the famous first line of Anna Karenina: all happy families are, in fact, not alike.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

War and Peace stands alone

Finished first 4 volumes of "War and Peace," and just starting the epilogue - but lest you think I'm almost done, what other book would have a two-part epilogue plus an afterword, totaling +100 pages? Worth taking stock for a moment and trying to come to terms in a few lines with this tremendous novel. Is there any other book like it? I guess the American counterpart would be Gone with the Wind, which from my memory is very entertaining but superficial, portentous, and politically suspect, to say the least. It does have some of the same ambitions and scope. I never read The Naked and the Dead. Is it similar in some ways? "War and Peace" is a novel of the grandest ambition and boldest design, yet entirely conventional in structure, tone, and style. It is not groundbreaking in the way of other monumental novels (Ulysses, Magic Mountain, Man without Qualities, Remembrance, Moby-Dick) or iconic novels (Red & Black, Madame Bovary). Rather, it's the ground itself. It uses the most traditional means of storytelling and character development, of setting and background, to depict the lives of a generation (and a class) during a time of tremendous international upheaval. Unlike other great novels, it does not have that slight feeling of strangeness about it, and it does not have a distinct Tolstoyan style that marks the writing page by page, line by line. But there is a Tolstoyan method, you might say - his tendentious, polemical chapters and his battling for the lost causes of Russian history; his capacity to enter into the minds of his characters as they grapple with great spiritual and cosmological issues; his extraordinary ability to dramatize a scene through closely observed and sparely rendered detail. His style is in that sense timeless and pan-national. But nobody could write (much less publish) a Tolstoyan novel today, in Russia or elsewhere. "War and Peace" is a monumental novel, and like all monuments it stands alone.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Chilling words: "Don't you recognize her?"

At last, in the final chapters of the 4th (and last) volume of "War and Peace," Pierre calls on Princess Marya and there beside her is a woman in black, one of the attending companions whom Marya had often collected (the flirtatious French woman, Julie Karagin) Pierre assumes. We know better. And Marya astonishes him with these chilling words: "Don't you recognize her?" Only then do we realize how much the youthful Natasha has changed, aged, suffered. Pierre does not recognize her at first, but then - because of her suffering, her maturing you might say - he is overcome by love for her. The three of them stay up talking till dawn. Natasha tells for the first time of the death of Andrei and Pierre recounts for the first time his weeks in captivity. This novel, after so much suffering and pain and misapprehension, is destined for a happy ending of a sort - a comedy emerging from the tragic, as if Hamlet were to end with a wedding, bodies still strewn about the stage. Yet life is not a genre. Life is full of mixtures and contradictions and uncertainties and mysteries. Pierre, listening to Natasha, realizes the depth of his own love for Andrei and he compares that with his love for the peasant Karataev, shot to death on the prisoner march. The two are, were, so different, yet his feelings toward them unite the two and they are in some way the same. Life is the same way; "War and Peace" is the same way - right down to its title, a linking of contradictions and opposites, forming of two opposites a greater and more complex, and unnameable, single entity.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Is Pierre heroic?

Pierre, having suffered, having passed through suffering, by section 4 volume 4, is a better man - but how so? He has always been a sympathetic and appealing character, hurtful to no one, earnest in his seeking for truth and wisdom, thoughtful about the fate of his friends (he pulls Andrei out of his depression after the death of his, Andrei's, wife, "the little princess"), and wronged by his own fate (his mismarriage to Helene). But now, toward the end of War and Peace, Tolstoy portrays Pierre as more calm and self-assured, more liked by others (it wasn't clear that others didn't like him, though he was perhaps to brash and distracted, ADD we might say today). Pierre comes to yet another great realization: that he had been looking everywhere for God (through a spyglass, in another Tolstoy metaphor, suddenly springing up all over the place), when in fact God was at his feet, that is, God is everywhere. He wakes from the sufferings of his imprisonment and forced march, is treated by doctors (and nevertheless survives, as Tolstoy amusingly puts it), and wakes each day thankful for his warm bed, glad he won't be forced to march again. But what exactly makes him "better"? I'm not saying he had to become a revolutionary or political radical, but after all this - he's still very comfortable, wealthy, waited on by many servants. Tolstoy speaks of his generosity to others, including a very nice artist who comes to visit, but does he have any insight into the structure of his society, into how others suffer and still suffer and will always suffer while he lives in privilege? Tolstoy himself came to realize that, but Pierre, though a grand character, never rises beyond his station, never becomes truly heroic.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Yes, Napoleon's overrated. Let's move the story along!

Leo, Lev, Count - I'm + 1,000 pages into War and Peace and I have say, I get it! Napoleon was overrated, an egotist, a military klutz, a pompous megalomaniac. General Kutuzov was an underrated, underappreciated, military strategist, leader of men, patriot, good soldier, and good soul. Please, no more chapters flogging this dead horse, so to speak. Kutuzov essentially chases Napoleon and his army out of Russia, to the extent possible refusing every opportunity, pushed upon him by his careerist and ambitious subordinates, to engage in battle. Tolstoy depicts one attack, the Russians (and their horses) so weary they can barely move, the French eagerly surrendering to the stronger forces. These chapters are among the weakest in War and Peace. I had expected a quite stunning and horrifying depiction of the retreat in winter (it's actually mostly in November, cold in Russia no doubt but not the dead of winter). But these chapters are not terribly engaging, as fiction, because the main characters are off the stage. We're watching vast forces at work without perceiving the workings through characters we know and have come to know - contrast with the battled at Borodino, which we see through the eyes of Pierre and Andrei, or the much early Austerlitz, which we see through Nikolai Rostov and Andrei. Characters drive the engine of the plot. That's true in any novel except the most unconventional. I think most readers at this point, 4th section of volume 4, are eager for the action to return to Moscow, where the main (surviving) characters are soon to converge.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The force of life - Natasha

The third section of the 4th volume of War and Peace reverts back to the domestic. We're with the Rostovs, recovering from the death of Andrei - and we know (though they don't) that Petya, the youngest child, has died in battle. Our attention in these chapters is entirely on Princess Marya (Andrei's sister) and (mostly) Natasha, his beloved. Marya, though in mourning, is the far more practical woman and quickly assumes her responsibilities, particularly for her orphaned nephew. She will take him to Moscow to resume his education. Natasha, the far more emotional and even unstable young woman, wallows in her misery, seems almost to savor it. She thinks about Andrei, remembering a moment when he'd misinterpreted her, thought she could not bear to be around his suffering (when she actually could not bear to see him suffering, rather different), she wishes she could explain to him. She sits in her room, depressed, thinner and more wan all the time - her life could be endangered. But here Tolstoy breaks somewhat with his style and does use metaphor to explain: he compares her soul to a wounded body, healing, strengthening, and, later, compares it to a field with the first shoots of green beginning to emerge - her healing, her new life. For a young and vibrant woman like Natasha, it is impossible to turn away from the world. She agrees to go to Moscow with Marya, where her reconnection with Pierre is inevitable. Meanwhile, the Rostovs learn of Petya's death, and only Natasha can console her mother during two weeks of tearful mourning. For all her flaws and immaturity, she is a tremendous force of life for her family and throughout the novel.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Down so long it looks like up - Pierre the Saint

As the Russian prisoners are herded along by the French soldiers during the retreat from Moscow, Pierre stands out in many ways - he's huge, he speaks fluent French (it's not clear how many French soldiers know this), he is evidently, to everyone, of a higher social strata. But what we see during the retreat his Pierre's abasement, his hair matted, his clothes in tatters, barefoot. He seems to have found a peace, serenity, in this condition, realizing the insignificance of so much of his life. He is, in the sense, a saintly character, almost monkish or even a martyr - clearly how Tolstoy saw himself, or wished to see himself. Pierre has sought truth an meaning in many different ways, through the Masons, through military service, through heroism (his will to assassinate Napoleon, rescuing the girl from the fire), early in life through debauchery, through love (for Natasha), through honor (the duel, with Dolokhov?). By the end, or near the end, of War and Peace he is more like King Lear, old (though he isn't really old), suffering, disillusioned - or he would be disillusioned except that he is strangely drawn to the peasant Platonov (sp?) (weird reference to Plato?), simple of expression, his weird tendency to call everyone "little falcon," his stories and parables that seem to have a deep meaning that is just barely out of reach - he is so different from Pierre and from everyone Pierre has known that Pierre elevates him to a saintly status. There are Platanovs all around him, but he has never seen them or talked with them! Section 2 of volume 4 ends (other than some further history lessons) with the death of Platonov, horrible, off-screen so to speak, Pierre hears only the gunshot and the dog howling (the dog later snuggles up to Pierre and others, looking for affection anywhere), an echo of the death of Petya, just as pointless but much more cruel - the shooting of a straggler who couldn't keep up with the march.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The death of Petya - example of showing, not telling

Petya, the youngest of the Rostovs, who was just a kid at the outset of War and Peace and is now a young officer, joins Denisov (Nikolai Rostov's old military buddy) and Dolokhov in the Russian forces on the road from Moscow. This small section of War and Peace really could stand alone as a short story, maybe it has, and it's the prototype for about a thousand war films and westerns - the young soldier/cowboy/cop idolizing the older, experienced officers, begs to join the mission, tags along, sees some horrible and scary things, does well, and then, tragically and senselessly, through his foolish abundance of youthful bravado, dies. Petya and Dolokhov go on a risky scouting mission, speaking French, they pose as French officers separated from their battalions, learn about the location and movement of the French troops, then go back by night to the Russian lines. Petya's so stirred he barely sleeps. Beautiful scene of light breaking as the Russian troops approach the French for a surprise attack, then the gallop across the field into combat. Tolstoy's description of the death of Petya is one of the shining gems of the novel - he waves his hands strangely, moves more and more to the side of the saddle (we don't even know he's been shot - I thought he was being overly enthusiastic), then falls to the ground. Denisov described as a sound like barking as he clutches the wattle fence (previously described) - never even has to say that he cried, or cried out. It's all done through perfect selection of detail - totally perfect example of showing not telling. More to say later about Pierre, who is now a freed prisoner, and his march under guard with the French troops.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Two types of characters in War and Peace

As the French troops leave Moscow, with the prisoners (including Pierre) on a forced march, even those suffering from "bleeding diarrhea" (ugh), the stragglers to be shot - and as Russian Gen. Kutuzov tries in every possible way to avoid battle, which may be the best strategy, but is drawn into attack by the enthusiasm of those around him and by intelligence from (Polish) deserters and captives - it occurs to me that there really are two types of Tolstoyan characters in War and Peace. One type is the "private" character, or actually the fictional character the pure creation of Tolstory: Pierre, Andrei, Nikolai, Marya, Natasha, Sonya, Helene. They may have counterparts in Tolstoy's life, but they are unique to this novel. These characters have rich interior lives (most of them), and complex webs of social relations, to one another and to others in their strata of society. All novels have this, to a degree. The other type are the public or historical characters: Napoleon, Kutuzov, Rastopchin, other Russian generals. These characters have no web of social relations at all, and although we occasionally have access to their thinking and scheming, they don't have an interior life of emotions and perceptions. These are more typical of historical novels, but unlike a novel that is purely based on historical characters (I don't read many of these), the historical characters in War and Peace are defined by, confined by, the public record of their actions. Tolstoy is not interested in pushing them beyond what is historically known about them - to see whom they loved, who their friends were, etc. - he bases them entirely on what's available in the historic record. This could be a defect in a less copious work, but because we have such fully developed fictional characters in the foreground, we can accept that the historical characters are flat. The novel gains its depth by other means.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Napoleon's idiotic decision - leaving Moscow in October

Tolstoy forgets about his characters for a few chapters and goes off again on his theories about the forces of history, particularly in time of war. He's caught in an inherent contradiction, it seems. He can't help but analyze Napoleon's decision to leave Moscow in October (and the particular route he followed) as the worst possible decision any general could have made - the perfect decision from the Russian standpoint. But then, as he goes on once again to explain (preach?) that great men do not make history, you wonder: does he really think Napoleon's horrible decisions had no effect on the course of the war? In a memorable phrase (a rare use of metaphor), Tolstoy says that Napoleon, once under way, had no more control of events than a 10-year-old boy in a carriage holding the reins. Maybe the key is: once under way. Generals make these tactical decisions, but have little influence on their unfolding and their outcome. Despite the contradiction, I think Tolstoy is right, and I think most contemporary historians do, too, - in his turning away from a focus on great men in history. It would be better if he could more effectively build his case for the greater influence of ordinary people and popular culture. Moving along through the second part of volume 4, we pick up Pierre again, happily living among the prisoners, widely respected for his intelligence and strength, still unidentified as a count. His hair is matted and lice-strewn, he's barefoot, tattered clothes, can sit all day and just think - and from this position he seems to be making some sense out of what's important in his life. It's a monkish existence, and probably not too far from the abnegations Tolstoy self-inflicted later in his life..

Monday, February 1, 2010

Was Amy molested?

Have you read Eliz Strout's Amy and Isabelle, and, if so, do you have any doubt at all that Mr. Robertson, the teacher who has a sexual relationship with Amy, is a predator and child molester? An abusive, character-disordered man who should, at the least, have his certification revoked and, more aptly, should face criminal charges? When introduced in the book, the new substitute math teacher, he asks totally inappropriate personal questions of the students in his class, then makes bizarre sexual comments to some, e.g., you have beautiful hair. He zeros in on Amy - obviously a troubled, vulnerable girl with a poor self-image and, as he learns later, with no father and a weak, socially outcast mother. A perfect target for a predator. He seduces her with nonsense talk about poetry (not his subject), keeps her, alone, after school, starts driving her home, then necking with her in his car, ultimately taking her to the woods where he seems to basically "dry hump" her, finally gets her in his car and strips her, fingers her, and is caught in the act and chased out of town - not before making horribly nasty remarks to her mother. He seems to be an itinerant (maybe had similar issues in other schools), possibly makes obscene phone calls. After leaving town, he cruelly rebuffs any effort by Amy to reach out to him. Is Amy in any way in the world better for this relationship? I believe she is damaged by it, that she has been treated as an object and will believe, without future therapeutic help, that the way to get and keep a man is to be a slut, that all men, in her friend Stacy's words, are "rat fucks," that there's something wrong with her, that she's a bad person, I could go on. And yet: several people, maybe most of the people, in my really smart book group, think that this was a loving relationship, that Amy comes out of it with a better self-image, that she'll be fine now that she knows she's attracted to (and attractive to) older men, that Mr. Robertson really did nothing wrong other than violate some teacher/student boundaries, that if Amy had been a little older (she's 15 or 16) all would have been okay, etc. Am I losing my mind here? Were people having me on? Were some of my friends arguing for the sake of doing so? Did we read 2 different books?