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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

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Garcia Marqez's Bolivar seems credible but maybe because Garcia Marquez has formed our ideas about Latin America

I have to laugh again at the weird specificity of Garcia Marquez - he has an odd penchant for enumerations. A guy never suffered saber wounds but he was, rather, stabbed 14 times by a saber. A woman doesn't steal a password and sneak past the guard posts, but she sneaks past seven guard posts. Who's doing all this counting? I once wrote parody of Garcia Marquez (and others) as a column imagining what if various famous authors had been hired to write the sequel to Gone with the Wind. Began something like: It had been 421 restless nights and 17 nights of peaceful sleep since Rhett Butler had last ... - I don't know, something like that, wish I could track it down. His very specificity, self-consciously comic as it may be and a witty sendup of his old days as a journalist when he had to rely on the facts, does serve the purpose of building credibility within the extreme emotions and situations of his plots: if he knows that he was stabbed 14 times, he must have really done his research, and everything else must be true - even the guy followed by a cloud of butterflies. In "The General in His Labyrinth," the need for veracity is greater because he is writing about a historical figure, so we want to be sure he's not "making it up." N.America readers like me are at sea - he could tell me almost anything about Bolivar and I'd believe it. His bio of the last days of Bolivar seems credible - but only because so much of our knowledge and experience and preconceived ideas about Latin America has been formed by Garcia Marquez himself.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The 180-degree opposite of the interminable Wolf Hall: General in His Labyrinth

For a novelist so political, with a background in journalism and advocacy, Garcia Marquez takes a very calm, neutral stance in "The General in His Labyrinth," it's almost as if he set himself a task or challenge of staying within the boundaries of a tight narrative strand - a journey that takes place over a few days or maybe weeks at most, from point A to point B (Bogota to the coast), by one man, Bolivar - and though the novel is full of hints and innuendos about Bolivar's revolutionary activism it's all hazy and shadowy, we don't learn much about the "history" - in short, this not a historical tome but a psychological novel about the last days of a powerful man. We're left wondering: what is it that turned Bolivar from an international hero, a great liberator, into a pariah in his own land? Why do so many of the people despise him, he has to almost sneak out of Bogota in darkness? It's not just internal power politics, because the hatred of Bolivar extends to the villages. And then there are some who do still revere him - as we see when he stops at the mysterious city of Mompox (a real place?), where the river widens and becomes almost like a swamp, a miasma. The book raises questions in will not answer, and that's to its credit - a 180 degree opposite from the interminable Wolf Hall in which readers are overwhelmed with details of palace intrigue. Some obviously loved that - not me. I think this novel would read as well if the General had been a purely fictional character, Garcia Marquez's creation. In a way, he is.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Fate & longing, power & sex - but in a muted tone : Garcia Marquez

"The General in His Labyrinth" is meant to be, I suppose, an "ironic" title, as he's not really in a labyrinth but on a journey (at the front of the book is a map of Bolivar's journey), which is somewhat Odysseyan, an old man's voyage home, fraught with perils, including, during the long river voyage, an episode of crashing against the cliffs and maybe other elements recalling specific episodes in the Odyssey? The journey is straightforward, possibly doomed, futile, reminiscent of some Herzog S.American movies. But the labyrinth is in his mind - he's in the throes of it but not really in it. The labyrinthine elements of the novel concern his memories of his days of glory, the feats of strength, the nights of conquest - and in particular how these memories intersect with his final days, for example, during his journey a woman on horseback overtakes his entourage and Bolivar recalls meeting her many years before when he was starting on his quest to liberate the Americas, she lured him from his hammock in the night, seduced him, but refused to have sex, in the morning he learns that her goal was to get him out of his hammock to foil a nighttime assassination attempt, now she asks for a favor, a letter releasing her husband from prison, which Bolivar composes - an episode very typical of the mood of Garcia Marquez's fiction, imbued with fate and longing, power and sex but in a muted tone, and of course told with the weird obsession for detail, almost comic at times - it's never, for example, escorted by soldiers but rather escorted by a team of 8 soldiers wearing ... - getting in all the facts, real or imagined, stuff Garcia Marquez must have learned from his days as a journalist and which he emulates as a novelist but liberated not to invent facts and details at will.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

All other historical fiction is bland and dutiful by comparison : Garcia Marquez

Amazing how much material Gabriel Garcia Marquez develops with very little narrative movement in "The General in His Labyrinth": the first 90 or so pages simply involve Bolivar's retreat from Columbia toward the coast and possible exile to England, having lost most of his family fortune and having relinquished power, the greatest liberator in Latin American history, maybe the history of the world, now a fallen idol, despised by political enemies, even by the people in the towns and villages, dying but unafraid - that's the setup, but all that "happens" so far is he makes his way out toward the coast, through hardships and physical torments - yet what a portrait of a man, and of a country, so real and vivid - yes, this is historical fiction and he must be working from sources, I'm sure he wants the novel to be historically accurate, but no sources can capture the the mind of Bolivar in such clarity and depth, it's the work of a novelist to do that. I'd have to say nobody living today writes with the precision and fluid elegance of Garcia Marquez (he must also be blessed with a great translator - Elizabeth Grossman, I think?), all the other historical fiction I've read (not all that much) is bland and dutiful by comparison (Tolstoy the exception). Mentioned in yesterday's post how some of us became aware ca 1970 that 100 Years of Solitude was a classic work of fiction, just being discovered by N.Americans; I also recall that when I was books editor in the '80s noting that Love in the Time of Cholera was probably one of two books I reviewed during the 3-4 years on that assignment that would be read forever (Beloved was the other). Too bad it became sort of a running joke in that movie Serendipity.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

History without the historian's obligation to the truth : historical fiction

Once again Elliot's not reading very much, but I did read further into "The General in His Labyrinth" and hope to read more today. It's a historical novel, but for the North American reader it might as well be fiction, as most of us know nothing of the history or characters (Simon Bolivar) so we're not internally fact-checking as we go through nor are we using it to broaden our base of historical knowledge - as, for example, when we read Gore Vidal's Lincoln, our interest is not in Lincoln the character in a novel but Lincoln the historical figure and how Vidal adds to our understanding of same. I've always backed away from historical novels, as my interest in reading fiction is the fictive qualities, and many of them seem to be cheap tricks, writers vampiring a set of facts and details and personalities, a ready-made scaffolding for a novel, and they can go their own way as they see fit but can fall back on the facts when they lose their way. Big deal. I think of Wolf Hall, so well written on one level but, by the end, or even well before the end, a total drag to read. Would we care a whit if we weren't trying to learn something about the historical figures? I remember cheap-trick books like the successful I Am Amelia Earhart, which was not only historical fiction but first-person narrative and really, why would a writer want to do that, other than that it's easy, the whole life is there for you. Garcia Marquez show what it really is to write an excellent historical novel, because this one stands up well against any of his other works, it's a narrative and world created in its own terms, and the historical setting is a "value added" - but it's not a half-hearted attempt to write history without the historian's obligation to the truth.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Our instant verdict on Garcia Marques back in 1970: A classic

Only got to read a few pa"ges last night but started Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "The General in his Labyrinth. No sure what it is that makes Garcia Marquez's work so compelling, but will try to figure it out. Seems archetypal Garcia Marquez from the outset - a ruined, remote Colombian village or outpost, mid-19th century, an old patriarch, his body in ruins like his surroundings, has to make one last heroic stand or journey, slowly brings himself to be awake and alert, his mind culling through his past triumphs and glories, all gone, a beautiful woman is devoted to him, but the sex all seems to be a memory - a paradigm of fallen greatness, ruined empire - but wait! - this dying patriarch seems to be the hero Simon Bolivar, so he should be triumphant and heroic, not some last gasp of a dying aristocracy (cf, The Leopard) but a new man for a new age - it's not what we'd have expected if we'd expected anything, because who (in n.america) even knows a thing about Bolivar other than his name? And maybe this treatment isn't accurate, it could be Garcia Marquez making the hero into his kind of hero - or maybe he found in history a perfect and suitable subject for his style and talents. I remember back in grad school, ca 1970, before any one in the U.S. had heard of Garcia Marquez, a friend in romance languages read it in spanish (100 Years of Solitude), gave it to another friend (english grad student) and said read it - she wondered if it was as great as she thought, or was it just that she felt a personal pride because she'd read it in spanish. The verdict: this book will be a classic and will be read forever, and that was right.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hey New Yorker editors, why not give us stories that can stand on their own rather than what seem like writing samples?

Kinda getting sick of the New Yorker "stories" that are not really stories at all - and I know the New Yorker itself has been for a half-century known for its epiphanic stories that create a mood, an atmosphere, and then end with a moment, slightly unexpected, slightly off kilter, that in some way opens the story up rather than ties up the loose ends. Salinger was maybe the first, followed by many others and then of course the flaccid imitations in a thousand writing programs - the style that launch a thousand slips - because it's so seemingly easy - hey, I don't have to end this story at all! - and so hard to do well. No - now the magazine is moving it even further and publishing what to all intents and purposes are not stories at all but snippets, excerpts from works in progress. Okay, that can be a great thing - most of the 19th century novels were published in serials and some of teh greatest 20th c novels were published as works in progress, e.g., Finnegans Wake, Remembrance. But these seem more like the kind of promotional materials publishers hand out at bookseller conventions. Take this week's story by Nicole Krauss, one of the 20 under 40: it's actually quite good for what it is, but it isn't enough of anything to be truly good. She writes about a novelist (not her, someone older) who years back had heard a dinner story about a murder-suicide, wrote about the episode, then years later came across the man whose story she'd appropriated. All told very well and it's full of promise, but this piece just ends abruptly, not only with no resolution but with odd features unexplained (why is she telling this to a "your honor"?) - obviously seems clipped from something longer, something possibly very good, but why not give us a work that can stand on its own rather than what basically amounts to a writing sample?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

It's obvious why the movie of Lucky Jim was a terrible failure

"Lucky Jim" is a comic novel, as David Lodge notes in the intro essay, but only in a sense. It's not comic in the Shakespearean mode in that the happy ending, so-called, is only Jim's. Margaret's still out in the cold. And by its very nature, steeped in luck, it's not really a satisfying comic conclusion - Jim Dixon (as Lodge notes, he's always called Dixon in the novel) does not "earn" the happy resolution but it's handed to him, by luck or fate, if you will, but I'd say actually by the hand of the author. So, in the end, Dixon gets the pretty girl and everyone else goes along in the pettiness and misery. And will Dixon be happy? More important, will he make Christine happy? Obviously not, as there's nothing in his character that suggests kindness, benevolence, or ambition. Well, the novel is very funny in stretches and in certain scenes. Lodge notes, however, that the movie was a terrible failure, and it's obvious, from this distance, why that was so. These scenes are funny when narrated by Kingsley Amis, and they would not be funny, merely loutish, when acted or filmed. A true comic novel has to be funny and emotionally satisfying. Lucky Jim is funny but not emotionally satisfying. I think to love this novel you have to have grown up with it, you have to remember being knocked off your pins when you first read it. Today, it would evoke some laughs, as well as many winces, especially at the blatant sexism and the latent classism, but it by no means feels revolutionary and we would certainly hope that Amis today would not be considered the voice of a generation, angry or otherwise.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why Lucky Jim is not a "comic" novel

wrong about that: looks like Margaret, despite all the foreshadowing, will make it to the end of "Lucky Jim." Jim (Dixon) delivers his Merrie England lecture and, predictably, it's a total fiasco, with Dixon pretty well drunk, shaking with nerves, launching into parodic imitations of his department and other notables, various in the audience, Dixon seems to faint or collapse, but does manage to eke out an ex tempore comment, completely at odds with his dinner-clubbish prepared text, in which he declares that there never was a Merrie England, that England of old was a time of misery and suffering and only hopeless nostalgics or fools would imagine that it was a merrie time. That could be a theme for this whole novel. In fact, Merrie England would have been a better title. Nevertheless, giving the lie to the underlying issues of class and privilege, Jim Dixon does prove to be lucky, as the wealth Gore-Urquart offers him a cushy job in London as a private secretary - what a fool, Dixon will obviously fail at that, and not use the opportunities it affords him either because he has no core goals or beliefs. He will, I guess, in the final two (upcoming) chapters win Christine. Is this a comic novel? Yes, in the sense that, it seems, all knots are tied and all survive (still maybe wondering about Margaret's fate) and the evil get their due but in farcical ways. No in that it seethes with bitterness and cynicism, it's a comic novel that's all attitude and no heart.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Should you read Lucky Jim?

I have to say that Kinsley Amis shows a bit of surprising tenderness and psychological insight as we near the end of "Lucky Jim," in two long chapters during which the eponymous Jim Dixon determines that the beautiful Christine is really out of his league and that he should make the best of his on-again off-again relationship with the less appealing, needy Margaret. Amis, for all his high-jinx comic descriptions and his penchant for pratfalls - the ripped trousers, for example - writes strong dialogue that really unfolds the characters' thoughts and feelings - but he doesn't get lost in vast patches of dialogue either, the long discourse between Jim and Christine over hotel tea punctuated by visits from the haughty waiter, increasingly getting on Jim's nerves. I'm at the point in the book now, near the end, at which Dixon is about to deliver his long-anticipated lecture on Merrie England, n preparation for which he becomes far too loaded with whiskey and sherry, so we suspect the worst, but then again he's "lucky." I'm withholding final judgment till I've actually finished the book, but was asked yesterday should I read it, and I think the answer has to be that it's a book that was of its time and has over the years lost much of its edge and all of its charm - the sexism and the cynicism seem very much of another era. Jim may be lucky, but he's also a self-pitying loser, and perhaps in that time there were fewer opportunities and England was much more class-bound than today, but I think any reader today would just want to tell him: get on with it, find another job, move, go someplace else, don't devote your life to a profession that you obviously detest.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Who's this writer with the unrevealing name - C.E. Morgan?

Like most of the other pieces in The New Yorker 20 under 40 fiction issue, the selections from S. Scibona (sp?) and C.E. Morgan appear to be excerpts from longer works, either novels-in-progress or novels forthcoming. Niether has the true arc of a story; both introduce characters and situation without bring the story to a resolution - by which I don't mean complete closure as in the most traditional stories, in mean not even the moment of final insight that New Yorker stories have been known for since the 50s and that have become the trademark or bane of writing programs, the tic that launched a thousand careers. Scibona's story, The Kid, about a Latvian boy abandoned in an airport, is well-written but wildly improbable, and it takes quite a while for the story to come into focus. Assuming there's more to the story, perhaps the novel-in-waiting will go on to explore what happened to the boy? Hard to know. The novel could be good, but this piece was not really satisfying on its own. C.E. Morgan, Twins, is another story, so to speak. Who is this writer with the generic, unrevealing name? She's one who's slipped beneath my radar, one of those names you see around but whom most of us know nothing about - compared especially with the some the media-savvy members of her under-40 cohort. I'll pay attention to her - this story beautifully evokes its setting, working-class mixed neighborhood in Cincinnati, ca 1980, and she does a good job establishing the characters - twins, one black one white - with the world seen from their limited, frightened POV. Interesting that at least 3, probably more, of the 8 stories in this issue are from the POV of very young children. Writing from the POV of a young child is in some ways a restriction but also frees writers from certain binding conventions (adult perceptions and base of knowledge). Need to think further about this theme.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The characters are rootless but not alienated, existentialism without the angst : Lucky Jim

"Lucky Jim" combines high literary style with schoolboy vulgarity to a great comic effect (at times, in certain scenes), in a way that's very typical of British lit - going all the way back to Chaucer in fact. Dixon waking with a hangover and facing the horrible (even by English standards) rooming-house breakfast - it's an almost Homeric accounting of what he drank and what he's faced with at the table. The almost brutal account of Margaret's breakdown in Dixon's room, where she howls in pain knowing he will never love her and gets revived by a few slaps and some whiskey. (I sense that, as she tells Dixon she's fine, all better, she will go off stage and kill herself.) Amis has a cruel humor, alleviated somewhat because he's cruel to his protagonist as well. Everyone's a schmuck. Obviously this novel was an was like a grenade hurled into the garden party of polite, boring British fiction. It's still funny, but with our distance from it, 50+ years, its age shows - not as funny, shocking, or unconventional as it must have seemed then, and a thin gruel compared with American fiction of its era. In a way, though, it's a precursor to that other great comic novel about a hapless schmo, Confederacy of Dunces, but Confederacy is a sad, rueful story because the character has a history and a family, and the eponymous Jim Dixon is an almost totally deracinated character, we know nothing of his past other than that he served in the Army and nothing of his roots. Kingsley Amis's characters are rootless without actually being alienated - a very English version of existentialism without the angst.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Dumpy guy gets gorgeous girl: Wondering why are so many (male) writers drawn to this theme?

New Yorker fiction issue, 20 under 40, read last night Gary Shteyngart's Larry hearts Eunice and ZZ Packer's story, Deployment? Forgot title. I use the term "story," loosely as these are obviously not stories but excerpts from or openings of longer works, novels no doubt. Why are there so many novel excerpts in the fiction issue? Because obviously the editors solicited submissions from the 20 anointed writers, and many either had no stories they wanted to submit or, more likely, they want an advance push on their forthcoming or slowly coming novel - who wouldn't? Shteyngart is one of these guys who debuted with an envy-making splash, a cleverly titled book by a superclever writer who didn't even speak English till he was, what?, a teenager or something, and with a provocative picture of the bearded author with playful bear cub. Hm. His books are a little too campy and show-offy to me, couldn't finish Absurdistan, but he does claim a room of his own within the uberbrainy Foer-Kraus-Mason-Eggers set. This story teasingly is set in the future, a world even more dominated by tech alienating tech gadgets than today's, but within the high-tech gleam it's a conventional love story: the dumpy but funny guy improbably wins heart of beautiful, exotic girl. Why are so many (male) writers attracted to that theme? Just wondering. Packer's is set in the post-Civil War past, another take on the agonies of the freed slaves (amazing that anyone will try after Beloved and The Known World). Story seems strikingly cinematic, a dramatic escape, boy fights of dog to save sister, and arrival at a safe (seemingly) outpost, but impossible to judge it as a story as it's so clearly just a setup for something coming.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Does Lucky Jim stand up well against is American contemporaries?

One of those truisms that actually is true: English novels tend to be about inclusion, bringing the hero/heroine into society (Dickens, Austen being the paradigms); American novels tend to be about exclusion, with the hero/heroine "setting off for the territories" or floating free on a coffin. In the 20th century, the categories began to break down considerably. That in part explains why "Lucky Jim," so tame and antiquated today, was a shocking success in postwar England. Here was a novel about a misfit, a loser, an outsider - atypical of British fiction. But after the war young writers in England were challenging British society and conventions in the way that American writers had been doing forever. But does Lucky Jim stand up against its contemporaries? Not hardly. The postwar American cohort of writers was so much more profound and funny, playing for much bigger stakes: think of Roth, Heller, Yates, Mailer as the leading edge of writers making sense of life after the war. Their characters suffered, they beat their heads against the war, they threw up their hands in despair, they said no in thunder. Kingsley Amis's aimless protagonist, Dixon (which I misspelled yesterday) rails against - what? - the tenure system in a provincial English university? Pretty small stakes, that. But in its time, I think British readers saw this as the leading edge of a revolution in British letters. It's still a funny book, and Amis is a solid, deft writer, scene by scene, but the world he inhabits, or at least the world he created, is bound pretty tight.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Could these be male wish-fulfillment fantasies?: Lucky Jim

"Lucky Jim": indeed he, Jim Dickson, is lucky. Can't help but think that in postwar England (book published 1954) there were lots of women and few young men (Surf City!), because how else can you explain why characters like Dickson, totally feckless, foolish, bored with life, caustic, alcoholic (probably), in ill health (eventually), boorish, shall I go on?, get the girl? Get the good-looking girl, or any girl they seem to want? Wait. Maybe there's another explanation! Could it be that these books are male wish-fulfillment fantasies, by writers scribbling away, full of bitterness, envious of others (other men, other writers), and seeking fulfillment through his fantasy life, through his characters? Hey, just a thought. Whatever the reason, however hard and improbably it may be to accept Dickson's conquests (though I have to say that the twerpy artist that the beautiful Christine jilts for him as an even more insufferable character), Amis's novel does have this going for it: It's really funny. The description of the unbearable madrigal party given by the donnish Welch and frau is hysterical, and then Dickson goes off to the pub, gets loaded, comes back, fumbles through a failed seduction, passes out, and wakes up having burned the sheets and blankets with his smoldering cigarettes. The hangover scene is great, and it's really funny how he tries to cover up the evidence by slicing the sheets and remaking the bed. Great comic farce, which somehow reminds me of Withnal & I and the "holiday by mistake."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Writers who don't love their characters : Lucky Jim

I've thought for a while that, in one way or another, all authors love their characters. One review said of Exiles that he loved the story but hated the characters, and that cut me right to the bone - I'd rather it were the other way around, if I had to choose - because I loved the characters, with all their flaws. They're part of me - how can they not be? This issue came up in recent discussion of Flannery O'Connor, with her gallery of grotesques - and I'm sure she loved every one of them, even though on some level they're not meant to be realistic characters but symbols or emblems of deeper truth. What about Kingsley Amis? I think here, with the British writers of academic sendups, we're getting close to the edge of that truth. Amis, in "Lucky Jim," wrote what's considered to be one of the classic academic novels, and the protagonists, mainly Dixon (so far), a history professor on the rise, are cynical, immoral, they hate their jobs, they hate their students, they're fiercely competitive for the smallest stakes, they devote their lives to a narrow niche of scholarship that even they find boring and wasteful. Funny, yes at times - but worth the effort? Academic satires are too plentiful and too easy. There's a tone in these novels, or at least in this one, in which the author holds his own characters in contempt - he's smarter, hipper, born with the same talents but braver and in pursuit of something true and real (literature) and not fake and trivial (pedantry). Yes, it's a first novel by someone who had long career, but it established a tone of smug cynicism that's still around, faintly echoed by some of the British "laddie" lit of today, including perhaps the early works of Amis fils.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The wit, the sadness, and mortification in O'Connor's Wise Blood

Reactions as usual pretty much across the board on Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood," as book-group views ranged from repulsion to awe. Joan said she hated Wise Blood because she could not stomach the idea of the author's manipulating the characters for her own ends, that she had no sympathy for or even understanding of the trauma of a young man returning from war alone in the world and trying to make sense of his life (O'Connor would probably heartily agree with Joan) - in other words, Joan wanted the book to be a more traditional coming-of-age novel, which it could be but isn't. Margot & Theo in particular loved the beautiful writing, Margot annotating descriptions of faces. I would add: the funny writing, her wit is sharp as nails. Mostly, we wrestled with the religious thematic, or even allegorical, elements, so clearly O'Connor's claim and aim in this novel. General sympathy with my view that though the novel is imbued with religious themes and symbols, it is by no means the kind of story one would expect to read if embarking on a novel about sin and redemption. There's sin all right, but the redemption is really more a mortification of the flesh - if in fact Hazel undergoes a conversion a la Paul (I think he does), he never confesses to sin or does anything to rectify the suffering in the world, he just adds to it by increasing his own suffering. That may be O'Connor's view of Catholicism, but it seems a far cry from the practice of Christianity - he's not much of a saint. We also noted an often-overlooked element, the incredible sadness of the book, esp Enoch's loneliness. Pretty amazing for a first novel, but general agreement that it's not really opened enough and feels like a series of related stories - stories being O'Connor's true accomplishment.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

These are not normal characters by any stretch: Wise Blood

Rereading or at least reviewing "Wise Blood" in prep for (tonight's) book-group meeting, and on 2nd go-through the religious themes and elements more starkly rise and more deeply imbue the narrative. Grad students could have and no doubt have had a field day tracing religious symbols. Tombs and burials - Hazel going to sleep in the train like being in tomb, he watched his father's and grandfather's and (later we learn) mother's burial and always wondered if they'd open the casket, afraid of burial alive, but he's too literal, does not understand in religious sense what it is to rise from the dad; the name: Moats (the mote in my eye?), and then the blinding, as in Paul struck down blind on the road to Damascus, but he's blinded on road to nowhere. He does not know his destination, but it's important to him to have what he thinks is a good car. The one-armed man tells him the car is not the way to his destination. The animal theme - the work in the zoo, the bear and hawk in the cage. False idols. Watching the women at the pool, like bathing women at beersheba? Hazel's insistence that the porter is from his home town - he cannot accept someone's making a new life for himself. Or is it that the porter denies his name, just as Peter denied Jesus' name? Most of all, Hazel obsessed with his preaching against Christ, and why is that? These are not normal characters by any stretch, and something must have happened to each of them to turn them against Christ, but O'Connor has no interest at all in exploring or explaining that - the wartime trauma, childhood trauma, what is it that spurs Hazel first to preach against the church and then to repent and mortify his flesh?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Amis career and the Amis dynasty : Lucky Jim

Another one of those novels whose name keeps coming up but which I've never read, till now: "Lucky Jim," by Kingsley Amis (his name kept alive by son Martin, with whom he's often compared, usually favorably). I've read little by Amis pere, though remember starting Stanley and the Women and definitely not finishing it, an old man's gripe I thought. Lucky Jim was, I think, his first novel, or at least his breakthrough. Looking back, it seems to have been one of the "bridge" novels - part the new postwar, angry-young-man Britain, full of promise and bitterness and verve, and part old-fashioned British academic novel, colleges and dons and proctors or whatever they call them. It harkened from the old world and appealed to the new. Reading it now, about 50 years after its publication, at least at the start, it's hard to discern the "new," it feels very old-time and quaint, and nevertheless sharp and funny. Begins with the two profs, Dixon young and ambitious and conniving, and Welch old and doddering but maybe still a bit sly - are these the two faces of Britain/British lit I mentioned above? - ambling across campus and later driving out to Welch's house for "tea." And there's some kind of unexplained so far sexual tension between them - Dixon seems to have had something going with Welch's wife? Not sure yet. I think the novel will probably be some kind of sexual romp - eyebrow-raising in 1954 but pretty tame today. Thank God. The writing seems very assured for a first-timer, and it must have been obvious to any reader that Amis was destined for a career, if not necessarily for a dynasty.

Friday, June 11, 2010

I liked these stories, sometimes to my own surprise

Read Ferris, Foehr, Meyer, and Galvkin (probably misspelled each name) in the New Yorker 20 under 40 issue. Liked them each, sometimes to my surprise. Take Ferris. I did enjoy his novel And Then We Came to the End, a weird sendup satire of life in cutthroat corporate America, about the staff in a company (advertising maybe?) in constant danger of losing their jobs, overwhelmed by the swarm of rumor, and gradually the whole enterprise withers away to nothing. Corporate America is a subject worthy of the satirist's sharpest barbs. But his story in the New Yorker, The Plot, is a about young writer trying to do a TV pilot with writer's block and status anxiety. Yawn. This is an easy target, one I don't care much about, reeks too much of the successful first-time novelist biting the hand that's trying to feed him. And yet: It's a good story, that gets better as it progresses, with a real postmodern-type twist at the end as the story itself becomes like an episode in (one of the) TV shows described. Foehr is an extremely clever writer, sometimes too clever by half or by whole, but every time I think of dismissing him as too peacock proud of his own voice, I'm impressed anyway - his story in the issue is almost like a prose poem, sweet and strange and mournful and encapsulates a whole life in a very short space. Meyer's story is longer, more traditional, familiar ground in many ways - family in wealthy suburb traumatized by son's crippling injury, veers awfully close to Updike/Chang Rae Lee territory, but within its conventional boundaries a pretty good piece, probably a novel excerpt. I was impressed by his American Rust, but ultimately set it aside as it was a novel that cried out for plot but after a greats setup just seemed to be creaking along - though fine writing and impressive for a debut. Galvkin's piece is slight by comparison and cloyingly self-aware - it reads like a million bad indie scripts, and sounds like no one would ever sound except a writer being smart. Well, she is smart, but in need of better material.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Do writers get better as they grow older?

I had the same thought as the (forthcoming) NYT book review essay re the New Yorker 20 under 40 fiction issue: Can you really call a writer in his or her 30s an "emerging" writer or a "budding" talent? They ought to be in full bloom by their 30s, I think. And Tannenbaum in the NYT cites many examples to show that most of the great writers did their best works at the relatively early age of 30+. There are a few exceptions - he does skim over these - including a few who matured with years - Roth and Updike recently, James and Mann more distantly - but they're the exception. And the reason seems obvious: your craft, your way with words, is not going to improve much after 30+. Since most writers draw heavily on childhood and early-life experiences for their first works, the determinant is can they continue to draw on this experience with ever greater insight (Updike did), or will they mature and write about great issues (as did Mann) or mature adults (James, Wallace Stegner, Roth to an extend, Bellow). That's to say it's easy to pick 20 under 40, especially if you've already published most of them. I have a 20 under 30 anthology from some years back - much more of a challenge, and few of its entrants are known today. Why not bracket all writers, as in a road race - give awards for writers in their 60s, 70s, 80s, say (and not based on lifetime personal best but on current production). As friend Peter Phipps first said to me about running: You don't have to get faster, just older. It would be nice if older writers got better. Sadly, few do.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What on earth is funny about The Man Who Loved Children?

Read Jonathan Franzen's essay on "The Man Who Loved Children" in the Times Book Review. He's right about a few things. This book is not for everyone, though it will have devote adherents. Count me out. Yes, Franzen is right that it's well written. Stead probably accomplishes everything she meant to in this monumental book. Franzen notes that the main character, Sam Pollit, is based on Stead's father, and the daughter Louie is based somewhat autobiographical. Every writer knows the feeling that writing well is the best revenge, and Stead must have exorcised many demons and exacted some measure of vengeance against her awful father - let's hope he read the book in agony. But must we read it? Sure, if you love to read about the suffering of children, about a perverse and gloomy world in which every adult is mean, petty, cruel, or grotesque. Franzen finds this book funny. I guess he's not alone. There are bright passages one can cite, quote, or excerpt. But overall? It's funny that this father forces his children to eat food that he's masticated in order to improve their resistance to disease? It's funny that Louie, basically friendless, is invited to a neighbor's house in order to do the old lady the favor of drowning her cat in a bathtub? It's funny that the father forces Louie to "decode" her secret notebook and read it aloud to the family and then stand there as he mocks her for writing the stupidest stuff he's ever read? I'm glad Christina Stead had to courage to become a writer, and this book may bring insight to many, but it brought no joy to me.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The most unlikable people I've ever read about: Man Who Loved Children

100+ pages (of 500), 3+ chapters (of 10 I think, the chapters are long), and that's as far as I'm ever going to go in Christina Stead's "The Man Who Loved Children." I wouldn't say it's a horrible book. In fact, I can see how some might say it's a great book. The writing is smart and compelling and funny at times, the family and the long-gone community (Georgetown in the 1940s when it was not so posh) are beautifully evoked, and I'm sure that Stead accomplished her goal of creating a vivid portrait of a nasty husband and a bitter wife, fighting it out to the end and the rest of the world, their six children included, be damned. I'm not getting to the end. These are the most unpleasant, unlikable people I've ever read about. There are books about serial killers and despots and psychopaths - but none is as awful as this one, because what makes those characters frightening and distinct is the world they're set against - they're unique, they're the freaks. Stead's world is populated by horrors, by Gargoyles - except for the children, and you have to wonder how that could be - what happens to them between childhood and adulthood? No matter, her world isn't real - it's some kind of projection of the horror she must have felt inside. What a sad woman, lonely woman (I'm guessing - haven't read anything about her life). That's the kindest way I can put it. I suffered one book review in which the writer said he loved my story (thanks) but hated the characters - uh oh. I love my characters - all authors feel that way, I think. Why write about hateful people except in satire or low comedy? I don't know. The real question is: why read about them?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Who's responsible for the horrible behavior in The Man Who Loved Children? I have an idea.

Which parent is more awful in "The Man Who Loved Children"? Sam is insufferable with his baby talk and egomaniacal orations to his children, his need to control every facet of their lives, the little king, the horrible "sunday funday" (that's the way he talks) scene in which he encourages two of his boys to "fight it out" and "take it like a man," he's a brute and a bully, all in the guise of being a wise and caring patriarch, when all he cares about is himself - and the lessons he teaches are malignant, he thinks he, or the Pollitts, are better than everyone else, enjoys mocking the neighbors, and expects the children to find that amusing. What kind of "lesson" is that? But should this drive them to their mom, Henrietta? Hardly - she's just as bad, in a different way, selfish and lazy and full of bitterness and complaints. Lest we feel bad for her in the least, thinking perhaps that she was driven to her misery by Sam's philandering, then, bang, we learn that she, too, is having an affair, as she sneaks off, on Sunday no less, to have lunch downtown with her garrulous, beefy boyfriend/lover - and the only mystery is, why does he put up with her?, as she unload a torrent of complaint against her husband. Is there someone ultimately to blame for these abominations? Yes, Christina Stead - for you have to wonder about the stability of the mind of someone who could conceive of this family and populate a whole novel with them. We get a hint, when daughter Louie visits the crazy neighbor and we begin to think, hmm, the neighbor is so sick and dirty and nasty (she invites Louie over to kill a cat!) that maybe Henrietta's embittered view of the world in Stead's as well. Not sure how far I can go with this monstrous book.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Mom and Dad are both monsters - The Man Who Loved Children

I saw that the Times Book Review would run an essay by Jonathan Franzen on Christian Stead's "The Man Who Loved Children," which prompted me not to read the article in advance (the Times posted it Friday) but to pulls the ancient pb edition off my shelves and start it - something I've been meaning to do for 30+ years. When I first began teaching, one of my colleagues at UMass had just finished her Harvard dissertation on Stead - that was the first I'd heard of her. Man who Loved has been always listed as a feminist classic, went through a small vogue (my friend on the vanguard), then has kind of faded. My pb edition is archaic and in nearly unreadable type! Anyway, without reading the Franzen this morning I did see the headline and we came to the same comparison - this is a Strindberg family, man and woman at war to the death. I think the feminist interpretation has always cast Sam Pollit, father, the man of the title, as the monster - my pb edition blurbs him as "the complete egomaniac" or something like that - which is totally true, even more so today perhaps as we're more aware of proper boundaries and his sexually tinged jostling with his children, especially his daughters, is extremely creepy. But Henrietta (Hennie) is horrible, too - equally or more so - a selfish monster who is poisonously cruel to her children and esp her stepdaughter, Looie. It would be absurd to blame her behavior on her unfaithful husband - she bears responsibility for her actions, especially in relation to her children. The egomaniacal, heroic dad has become something of a trope, see Jennifer McPhee's excellent Bright Angel Time, e.g., but there's no viewpoint from which we can love and admire either parent, at least in the first 70 pp or so - they're both horrible, and the wonder is that the children seem unscathed, even delightful.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

On of our best writers but you tend to forget about him: Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides is definitely one of our best writers, but you tend to forget about him because he (apparently) works pretty slowly (only two books that I know of over about 20-year span), with few if any short stories along the way, other than what turn out to be excerpts from the novel in progress - and he also stays out of the limelight, such as it is for serious writers. I think he may even live abroad, not sure. Anyway, good to see his very strong story, Complete Solitude, in the current New Yorker - this one, also, no doubt, a novel excerpt as, for all its strengths, it doesn't have the true "arc" of a story - just ending with a moment rather than an insight or resolution. Story is one of the 65 billion stories about young love, but it's amazing the variations on the theme - this one about a rather repressed girl at Brown ca 1980 (when Eugenides was there, I think) and her first deeply sexual relation, with a guy, fellow student in a semiotics seminar (some good if too easy digs at the academic pretensions of the 80s, and now as well for that matter), who's too wrapped up in himself and can't really accept the love that she tries to offer him - or maybe he's "just not into" her. Eugenides does great job describing the life of the times in a college environ, especially the guy's ragged apartment with the never-washed sheets and the futon on the dusty floor. He creates a vivid sketch of two characters, especially the lonely woman - a thousand times more vivid and credible, in just these few pages, than the similar character that Laurie Moore tried to create in her funny but over-praised Gate on the Stairs. Looking forward to the (eventual) novel.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Is JB meant to be JC?: Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

And now another level of allegory emerges in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," as she begins, half-way through the book or so, as an older woman looking back, to wonder (obsess over) which of her "set" of girls "betrayed" her. Hmm. So we have a figure followed by a devoted set of disciples, who hang on her every word and build their entire lives around what she says, proposes, and does, and one of them betrays her (we do know who but we don't, yet, know how) leading to her ... not crucifixion certainly but to her firing, a kind of death I suppose. I JB a female JC? If so, I would say it's in a perverse way to say the least - she is hardly a figure one would wish to emulate, and I can't see that she is in any way an avatar of Christian principles: she is harsh, cruel, unduly opinionated; she plays favorites. If I'd been a student in her school (of course that would have been a different kind of school) I'd have hated her. But is she good for her girls, her set? Has she advanced them in their lives? Spark doesn't exactly answer, or confront, that question, at least through the first half/two-third of the novel - our glimpses of the later lives of the girls don't show an obvious formative influence, they have become what they might have become without Brodie's intervention, it seems. So what's the point of the allegory? Is it meant to tell us something about Jesus? Or something about the worship of false gods? If Miss Brodie is the God, I'm an atheist.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Miss Jean Brodie as an allegory about fascism

Is it any wonder that Miss Jean Brodie is a big admirer of Mussolini? Of course she would be drawn to fascism. And I don't think it's too much of a stretch to think of Spark's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" as a kind of allegory - fascist forces (Brodie) thinking she's serving the good of others (her students) when in fact she's serving nothing more, or little more, than her own ego. The fascist leader is a narcissist above all, but secondarily the fascist is a bully and a coward - which Brodie is, at least the bully. How easy for the charismatic teacher to pick a group of girls, make them dependent on her every whim and mood, judge them constantly, humiliate those who don't bow to her will, and in particular the weak and vulnerable. All this puts Brodie in a very harsh light - far harsher than her students would. They (profess to) adore, or at least revere, her. But do they hold this view throughout their lives? One of the quirks of Murial Spark's narrative is the jump-forwards in time. The novel is set in the early to mid-30s, but written in 1962, and actually the narrative itself is from the POV of 1962. It's not like most other reminiscences of youth, which often have the narrative frame of an older person looking back. No, in this case it's an omniscient third-person narrator who seems to be simply telling the story of the girls in their youth (and Brodie in her "prime," as she puts it so often), but then will say, in describing one of the girls, something like: who 20 years later was to die in a hotel fire. Gradually, we learn bits about what became of each of the girls (and of Brodie). It's a narrative form that actually has a bit of the cruelty (to the reader) that replicates Brodie's cruelty (to her students): you will do it and see it my way, or else.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Is Miss Jean Brodie a great teacher or a monster? Or both?

Everyone knows the movie "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (it was one of those PBS-style movies of the 60s? 70s? that everyone saw in the days before there was nonstop BBC on cable; it introduced Maggie Smith and red hair to America), but fewer have read Muriel Spark's book, and that's too bad. I'd never read it, started it last night prompted by a few reviews I read of a new bio of Spark - most of her work sounds unapproachable but Miss Brodie pretty much acknowledged as her best. It's short, not much more than a novella, and from the start anyway very well narrated and quite provocative. I guess the question it poses right away is: Is Jean Brodie a great teacher or a monster? Or a little of both? Her "girls" are very devoted to her, but I'm not sure that's necessarily good. First, they become a separate a isolated clique in the school, and I don't think a teacher who encourages her "girls" to believe they're better than all others is a good teacher. Moreover, what makes them better? Apparently, simply contact with Brodie. It's all about her - that's obvious - and what the girls like about her is not what they're learning but what they're learning about Miss Brodie - her love life, her travels, etc. This is not good teaching. And yet - in a way she does inspire them and make them want to be and do their best. The school doesn't like her and is trying to push her out, into one of the "progressive" schools (it's the 1930s, Edinborough) - that's the spark so to speak that ignites the plot - but it's not clear why they don't simply fire her. I guess that wasn't done. They're probably not wrong to want her out, but she'll put up a row, as they say.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

An author's first work - not the place to start (for a reader)

Sad to say but, in the end, Roberto Bolano's "Monsieur Pain" is in my view not much more than juvenalia, a curiosity that would probably not have been translated/reissued were it not for the posthumous success of Bolano has "enjoyed" (because how can he enjoy it?). The story of his discovery and the frenzy to publish all of his works and market them and of course read them is amazing, but the tide of success washes in some flotsam as well. As an early work, M. Pain shows a lot of promise: the labyrinthine plot, the sharp observations, and the interest in the backwaters of literary history, most of all the infused sense of prewar (set in 1938) dread and paranoia that permeates every moment of the novel. But my early fears were confirmed, the plot just meanders, incident upon incident, and never develops into anything nor does it offer answers to the many mysteries and enigmas the title character confronts along the way. Some end notes, cryptically entitled The Elephant Track (huh?) imply that all or most of the characters are based on historical figures (one or two I know to be the case), but I would think the events of the story are entirely Bolano's. All told, he's one of our most important writers, discovered far too late and perhaps right now revered a bit too much, and this novel is not the place to start for a reader - even if it may have been Bolano's place to start as a writers. At some point I'll probably give By Night in Chile a go; otherwise, I'd recommend his stories, any of them.