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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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A novel needs an arc of story, a fundamental crisis, depth - not surface

A novel needs an organizing shape, an arc of plot development and a collision of forces, a conflict that sets the story on edge and in motion, and we should get deeper into the novel and its characters and its setting as it progresses - and this is the problem with A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book" - it has none of this. Despite Byatt's amazing breadth of knowledge and skill with language, or because of this, or because of her past success (Possession), it seems she feels as if she can just light the flame and the novel will write itself. Or right itself. It won't. The novel begins with such great promise - three boys meet up in a museum basement, each quite different, Philip the most intriguing, a Dickensian waif with great talent and ambition, but Byatt loses hold of this plot strand as she introduces us over the next 250 pages to literally dozens of characters and multiple themes and settings - the book never settles, it just moves along, and it feels as if the plot, such as it is, just happens - we get a chronology of the lives of the characters, a series of episodes, but there's no feeling of crisis or of inevitability. One example: it looked as if we were onto something when the Wellwood marriage is in jeopardy as Olive discovers Humphry's infidelity, but, no, the marriage just stumbles along, Olive provides Humphry with money to send to the other woman (we haven't met her, yet). Major hint dropped that not all of the Wellwood children are his, but this isn't developed. Byatt buils miniature plots - Tom at boarding school, Charles's foray into radical politics, Philip learning his craft - but doesn't make much of any of them, just keeps writing along, introducing more elements, more interpolated passages from Olive's writing, skimming along the surface like a figure skater on ice.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Byatt has great imagination but this novel in danger of running off the rails

So how much is going on in A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book"? Well: Olive delivers a baby boy (Harry), child # 7?, as she begins serious flirtation with widowed Prosper Cain, partly in order to exact vengeance on husband Humphry who admimts to having an affair with a literary groupie, Marion, who is now pregnant - and in their "row" they let slip, and the children overhear, that not all of the children are his - so these affairs have been going on, though there's not much evidence of that in the way they behave as a frolicsome if eccentric clan. Meanwhile, Philip is learning the craft of pottery from B Fludd, while being seduced by young daughter Pomona (the names of the women in this book - is it Byatt or is it England?), and then his sister shows up totally bedraggled. Tom & Charles, cousins, studying for boarding school exams, as Charles, a weak student, is drawn by his tutor into a radical London political cell. All this in about 50 pp.! And that doesn't even take into account the long (and for me tedious) sections that delve into the craft and history of pottery and glazing nor the interpolated italicized passages from the children's book that Olive is writing. I've noted in previous posts that Byatt has a copious imagination, and that's all to the good - she gives you your money's worth in plot, character, vocabulary, hodgepodge of styles - but this book is seriously in danger of running off the rails. There are some great conflicts foreshadowed but the focus at this point is so broad that the whole picture has begun to look hazy.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The most copious, teeming, maximal writer going today : A.S. Byatt

The themes of A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book" begin to emerge, entwine, overlap: escape. Children's book author Olivia Wellwood keeps a handwritten, personally design book in progress about each of her 5 (?) children, each with the theme (not terribly original but still...) of escaping through some kind of hatch or doorway into another world. This based on stories her father told her about the coal mines - down the hatch to another world that he tried to make fanciful. Father and brother died in the mines. So Olivia, who seems so British upper class, is really a refugee from her class - another escape, as we see her as a Brontesque/Cinderella-like abused servant, and her sister, Violet (do I have these names right? do they really echo 12th Night?), and she talk of running away, and do run away, to london, where she meets Humphry (sic) whom she marries - another escape. Then of course Philip, who is escaping his class background though also delving deeper into it - he grew up among the kilns and he still wants to make pottery though wants to make beautiful stuff. Does he talk of escaping to the seacoast? In fact he winds up as an apprentice to the talented but gruff Fludd. This all in 100 or so pp. Byatt is about the most copious, teeming, maximal writer going today - every description bursting out of its seams so to speak with specific images, or at least lists - never just a pattern of flowers but she names the flowers and nobody's every heard of half of them. She recounts the story of each of the children's books - a million ideas in her brimming imagination, one of the few writers who writes about the imagination of others and makes that credible. Her style is not really my favorite and I hope she can settle down to move the plot forward - dozens of characters already introduced and the focus getting lost - but I'm impressed with her ambitions and with the scope of The Children's Book.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

When rich people think they can live "by the pen" : The Chlldren's Book

A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book" begins to find its own voice about 50 pages in (and move out from the shadow of Atonement) as it becomes clear that the family (Wellwood?) is very politically active - a theme of radical/liberal politics and the family strife it causes (among the very wealthy) will run through the novel - reminiscent of another familiar British theme, which Powell explored in Dance to the Music of Time. Humphrey W. at the Midsummer party squabbles with his brother, who rightly questions how Humphrey can continue to work in banking while writing anonymous satirical pieces about the industry and talking the radical line - he has to "walk the walk," as we'd put it today. Humphrey announces to his (pregnant) wife that he's going to quit banking and live "by his pen" - a preposterous idea and something that only someone with a huge amount of family money would even ponder, unless he anticipates a life of Bohemian poverty with lots of property that they can't maintain (see McPhee's Bright Angel Time). He doesn't, he doesn't even think about it - but what I foresee is that this will put the pressure on his wife, Olive, who will have to support the family and she will do so through her writing, the eponymous children's book, which of course will strain the marriage (will Humphrey be driven to her preeminently competent sister, Violet?). Meanwhile, what of the children, falling a bit to the wayside in this chapter - but it appears that their changing relationships and the future of the Dickensian, talented, unlettered Phillip will be part of the story as well. Many very fine narrative strands here - we'll see how they untangle, or tangle

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ways in which The Children's Book echoes Atonement

A little farther into A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book" brings these thoughts: looks like a very good novel is unfolding, but I am totally daunted by the length of this book. I will read 600 pages of Moby-Dick, 1,000 of Ulysses, 1,200 of War and Peace - but for a contemporary novel, I'm not sure I want to devote that much time to one book. I know that's ridiculous in that I'm just as likely to read 3 mediocre 200-page contemporary novels so why not one good 600-pager. No reason. I'm reading on. I also continue to be struck by the resemblance or echo of Atonement: both historic fiction (Atonement about 20 years later than The Children's Book), but about eccentric and complex British families living on country-ish estates (Byatt's more eccentric and more political and artistic), both about class lines being crossed (a pernnial British theme - in Atonement it was more about upstairs/downstairs, in Byatt more about a true outsider, a Dickensian waif), both beginning with artistic performances at a family gathering (can anyone imagine this in an American novel? never), both about precocious children (another perennial British theme, are they all precocious), both seemingly to unfold over a long period of time. And you can't tell me Byatt is not aware of the echo, especially in that she pointedly uses the word "bryonny" (some kind of shrub? anyone who bothers to look up all her words will never finish the book), which is the name (differently spelled) of Macewan's protagonist. Britishh contemporary fiction is a small, crowded room with a lot of sharp elbows.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Who writes these kinds of period pieces today? : A.S. Byatt

Started the very long A.S. Byatt novel "The Children's Book," not one I would probably have picked u on my own but it's our next book-group selection so I'll give it my best. First impression from first chapter? Promising, very English, very show-offy, with about 20 words that I could look up if I'd bothered - where do these British writers get such a vocabulary, and such knowledge of arcana? The set-up: three young boys cirac 1890 converge in an art museum, a museum really of objects collected to benefit crafts and industry (art students are supposed to study them I think) - it's probably modeled on the V&A. One boy is the son of the curator or director, and he's one of these British public-school types ridiculously precocious and knowledgable, wouldn't last ten minutes on an American schoolyard; the other, two years older, is son of a well-known children's-book author - she's come to discuss some materials for a potential book with the (widowed) curator - so two types of relations/friendships foreshadowed. The action is that the two boys, Julian and Tom, I think, meet a third: a waif street urchin who's been secretly living in the basement of the museum in a crypt (less scary than the street, he says) and has been sketching objects during the day. He's obviously the talented one of the three. He's a character so obviously out of Dickens that even the other characters note this fact. So a lot of possibilities can develop from these five strong personalities - reminds me a little of the setup of Atonement - who writes these kind of period pieces today? Apparently, a few British writers do so, and very successfully.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Publisher Gets What He Deserves (or does he?) : The Imperfectionists

In the last two stories/chapters in Tom Rachman's "The Imperfectionists" there's a sudden and to some degree welcome change. In these two stories at last the beleaguered staff members of the international newspaper (obviously modeled on the IHT) show a little backbone and react when trampled upon - and they take it out on the horrible management and ownership of the paper. Any newspaperman/woman past or present (e.g., me) can understand that, and there's a certain schadenfreude in watching the idiotic publisher and the heartless accounts executive get what they deserve. And yet: there's such an underlying cruelty in these two stories; I won't give away the surprises and twists, though most readers can probably see them coming, but the characters who act out are very nasty - in one case impulsively and in the other case much more deviously and by design. I know, I want it both ways - I have remarked in previous posts that too many of Rachman's characters are doormats and now when they strike out against (corporate) oppression and idiocy I think they're cruel and unfeeling (which they are). Overall, I'm a bit puzzled and at sea about The Imperfectionists - I did really enjoy reading it, the "types" Rachman creates and describes are amusing and to an extent recognizable to any newsroom denizen, but they're not happy, not pleasant, not idealistic and enthusiastic and energetic like so many I've known in the business. Maybe these burnout types or hapless naifs are more typical of an international paper, I don't know. I'd encourage other newspapermen/women to read it, but I wonder how many would agree with me: This is like Bizarro Planet, recognizable but strangely fractured and bewildering and not really the world that I know.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Rachman, what world do you live in? : The Imperfectionanists

Tom Rachman's "The Imperfectionists" continues to be baffling - terrific stories one by one, but the cumulative effect is sad and depressing. Case in point: the story about 2/3 through about Craig Menzies, the news editor, basically the deputy editor, at the international paper which is the locus for all the stories in this novel. Menzies is very successful at work - though a bit of burnout case who has fantasies about success in another field, patents or engineering. He's in his 40s (seems older, to me) and has a much younger partner, an apparently very good-looking 20something, who has given up all of her ambitions (photography) to live with Menzies in Rome. Very romantic, but doomed, obviously, anyone can see that coming - but what makes the story so exasperating is the way Menzies allow her (Annika?) to trample all over him - she's unfaithful, her Italian lover sends emails to the entire newspaper staff with lewd pictures and sexual details, and Menzies? - he barely raises a peep, and even ends up paying a lawyer to make some bogus claim from the Italian pest go away. Finally, finally!, toward the end of the story Menzies explodes (just when Annika is trying to make up with him) and kicks her out, buys her a one-way ticket back to the U.S., pays for a hotel room for her and then - when he calls in sorrow and regret, the Italian guy answers the phone. Loser! Exasperating, but the story is so well written and so compelling I want to keep reading more and will in fact finish this novel, but I do feel sorry for Rachman if this is really his view of the world: Rachman, what world do you live in? Yes, I know some people like these - but don't you know anyone with gumption, spine, character, lovers, friends?

Monday, August 23, 2010

I wanted to shake Rachman and say: Don't you know anyone nice?

Tom Rachman's "The Imperfectionists" remains fun to read 2/3 through it but I have to say: has there ever been such a collection of bitches, bastards, doormats, and losers as you'll find in this story? Newspapers are well known as a refuge and sanctuary for eccentrics of every stripe, and comic fiction has free rein to exaggerate of course, but at some point along the way I wanted to shake Rachman (or one of his characters) and say, hey, don't you know anyone who's nice, competent, committed? Don't you know any young reporters with any spine? Don't you know anyone involved in a serious relationship, anyone committed to a partner? Okay, this is a satire, and it's fun, and, among all the many newspaper send-ups Rachman gains a little more forbearance because he set The Imerfectionists in an English-language international newspaper, so the types are perhaps more extreme than at the domestic variety. He's definitely in the same territory as the one Arthur Phillips explored in Prague (and Phillips blurbs this book, unsurprisingly) - the young, the drifters, the troubled, the lonely - but in Prague the were not uniform in their fecklessness. The story/chapter I finished last night in The Imperfectionists involves a would-be Cairo stringer who allows a wizened foreign correspondent to take over his apartment, steal his laptop, steal his story, send him off on pointless research, sponge his last dollars, the hapless dude even sleeps in an armchair while the older guy sleeps on his bed - he can't see through this schemer and louse? Come on, wake up! Rachman's stories/chapters (they're really both - it's a novel in vignettes) are uniformly funny and sharp but the cumulative effect is disheartening. Newspapers are like this - in parts, at times - but he misses the big picture, which is totally different.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Great fun to read The Imperfectionists, but will it all add up?

The losers, dreamers, schemers, and eccentrics who seem to collect around a newsroom have been a comic staple of fiction for some time - I've tried my hand at this myself - and Tom Rachman's "The Imperfectionists" rushes in where many have already tread (trod?), and, amazingly, he finds lots of new material in this well-gleaned field. The Imperfectionists - first hundred pages or so - is very smart, funny, lots of fun, and seemingly very well designed to boot. I'm generally not really drawn to "linked stories," which strike me as warmed over mfa theses, but this collection is much more than linked stories. Each seems to be the story of someone working at a Rome-based international English-language newspaper (obviously modeled on the IHT), with short bridge chapters that capsulize the history of the newspaper. It's really a novel told from one single point of view - Rachman's - but with multiple lenses - a modern Canterbury Tales Prologue, in a way. Each of the first five or so chapters has been very entertaining and, to anyone who's worked in a newsroom, exaggerated but largely credible. We all know the ambitious editor with her own personal news obsessions, the tyrant of the copy desk with his style "bible," the drudge relegated to obits, the washed-out stringer with his tales of the old days, the needy and neurotic not-so-young reporter so unlucky in love, and so on. The obit-writer chapter btw is a clever tribute to Naipaul, a reversal of his life, in this case a failed newspaperman who's father was a famous novelist. We'll see how, or if, all of these sketches add up, but even if they don't it's great fun to read each one - each one funny, mordant, and terribly sad.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The pursuit of whales and the pursuit of whalemen : Mob-Dick meets Animal Planet

Terrific description in "Moby-Dick" of the swarm of whales (the Armada, Melville calls it) and how the whaleboats plunge in among the herd and the whalemen risk their lives in the frenzy, killing as many as they can and injuring others in hopes that they can come back for these later. Also Melville explains how the mark a dead whale, called waifing, with a stick or pole so that other whalemen will know that the whale is claimed. Melville explains the simple law of the sea and the distinction between a fast fish (dead or claimed by waifing, but must be brought on board in a reasonable time) and a loose fish - and he wonders which people are, and notes that readers are both, how true. Interesting to me how in all my reading of Moby-Dick I lose sight of what this quest (and industry) is all about, which is killing fish/whales. M had TV on last night watching Animal Planet documentary about the brave environmentalists trying to obstruct the enormous Japanese factory ships, risking their lives in the process for sure, and strange to note how the whale fishery has reversed: whaling much less dangerous than in the 19th century, but pursuit of the whalers is very dangerous. So easy to lose perspective and celebrate to glory of the whalemen, when in fact it's a sad and brutal occupation, much more so today when there is absolutely no need for it. As for me, I am both a fast and loose fish, too, and about to break lose and put aside Moby-Dick for a few days as I take on some other reading, but I will come back to Melville's world, with pleasure and anticipation and a sense of the uncanny.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The missing chapter in Moby-Dick

Melville writes a long chapter in "Moby-Dick" about the whale's spout - what is it? water or vapor? - in which he goes into some detail about the whale's anatomy, his breathing and feeding, the principle of sounding, observations about how many spouts he exhumes while surfaced and so on, and Melville is extremely knowledgeable or so it seems but he misses one thing: as noted in earlier post, Melville had no idea that whales actually sang. He thought they had no voice, and made no utterance. Imagine if he'd known! Moby-Dick would be at least a hundred pages longer. That could be a great exercise for students: write the missing chapter of Moby-Dick, the song of the whale. What would Melville think, what would he do, whom would he compare the whale's song with, what would it mean for him? It is a strange concept, that their singing must be a form of communication, that there's a network of whales down in the deep - but their communication did not enable them to survive the hunt. Did it serve some other purpose, social or expressive? About mating or seeking sources of food? About currents and climates? I'm full of questions here, and maybe to some there are answers. There certainly must be answers to the question Melville raised about the nature of the spout, we must know today what the spout consists of: pure sea water, or is it mixed with some secretion from the whale? Whalemen thought it was poisonous, and some were injured in contact with it - could it have been vaporized and scalding? Or shot forth with such power that it could cause injury, like a fire hose? More questions.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Melville's abundant skill has vanished - Why?

Let's be honest - no matter who's reading it and no matter how much you love "Moby-Dick" and stand in awe of Melville's great power and originality, there comes a point in the dark November of your soul when you think - enough, I don't want to know one more single thing about whales, oil, blubber, tackle, barbs, topmasts, gams, and so on forever. You begin to wonder: what's happened to the story here? Ahab, a dynamic and mysterious character, has pretty much faded below deck. Queequeg, introduced so dramatically in New Bedford, is now just a skilled workhorse (interesting how the hardest and most dangerous work goes to the three men of color, and the humiliation cooks to the black cook). Ishmael is just a lens through which we see the story - no longer a character. And what of the mysterious Filipino boatmen that Ahab stowed away? Melville's abundant skill with distinct characterization, so evident in the first hundred pages (the two shipowners, the strange Elijah, et al.) has vanished. Why? Where? Not to say that it's all part of an overall design, but there is a way in which the entire novel mimes the process of a whaling voyage, embarking with such hope and high prospects, followed by long periods of languor and serenity, then sudden bursts of dramatic and dangerous action, and then hours of hard, even tedious work. It's not what we expect of a novel, there is no obvious arc to the story as in popular fiction of movies, but nothing in Moby-Dick is what we would expect. The novel itself is a voyage - and a quest.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Melville was born 150 years ahead of his time

One of the (many) ways in which "Moby-Dick" was ahead of its time then and maybe still is the cutup nature of the narrative. It's not a plot-driven novel, though you hardly notice that because there is so much narrative within it - narrative in the absence of plot. Lots of sea stories, told by passing ships (during the "gams"), anecdotes, episodes - just read the really strange (this word keeps coming up re Moby-Dick) one of in which Tashtego is scooping the buckets of spermaceti from the head of the whale and he slips on the oily blubber and falls into the head casing head first and almost drowning in oil, the head swings and falls off the tackling and into the sea, Tashtego rescued by Queequeg who dives into the ocean, cuts a hole in the bottom of the head and pulls the nearly lifeless Tashtego through as if he's helping to give birth - I'm that this scene has been much commented upon! An example of a narrative nugget. But is there really a plot to Moby-Dick? Not much - just an obsession, Ahab in pursuit - you could probably tell the plot in a few sentences. And remember how Melville shifts the tone fairly early on - totally giving up on creating Ishmael as a strong character - after the first chapter he's barely a character at all but more of a lens through which we see the Pequod - and completely giving up the buddy-story narrative, as we never really see Ishmael and Queequeg interact once their on the Pequod. Could you rearrange (most of) the chapters and still have Moby-Dick? I think you could - it's a book that could just as well be presented in a clickable online format. Melville was born 150 years too early.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The eye of the whale: Moby-Dick

Another often-overlooked aspect of "Moby-Dick" is Melville's humor. Reading chapter about the whale's head - actually two heads, because following some odd nautical superstition Ahab went after a right whale so that he could have the head of a right whale and head of a sperm whale hanging above the boat. Whether this superstition is real or not, it does allow Melville to have a little fun, comparing the two heads, and then examining them, ghastly though they may be dangling above the crew, with a close inspection. He makes particular note of the eyes - much smaller proportionally than you would expect from a head so large, and also placed squarely on the side of the head, giving the what two distinct views of the world, left and right, but making it difficult - or so Melville imagines - for the whale to assemble an accurate picture of his surroundings. Of course others - horses, most fish, e.g, - have the same anatomical oddity, but, as Melville notes, it's stranger in the whale because of he enormous size of the head, the vast space between the two eyes - you wonder how they could be part of the same creature's perceptual apparatus. One thing Melville didn't know, and we do today, is that whales seem to "sing" to one another. Imagine what Melville would have concocted out of that bit of information, had he only known! This section of the book contains one of Melville's great, Thoreauvian observations: why do we seek to "expand" the mind? Subtilize it!

Monday, August 16, 2010

The whale means everything - and nothing : Moby-Dick

What is the significance of the whale? What does it symbolize? For a while, we can put aside all the taunting questions, the allusions, the history, the Biblical and mythological references, because once the first whale is landed Melville takes a bit of a shift and the whale becomes: a commodity. Suddenly the whale whale lies before us, or beside the boat, swarming with sharks like maggots on cheese as Melville memorably puts it, the head severed and dangling above the bow from a great grappling hook, and the whalemen cut the blubber off in great sheets and prepare to boil it down. This great beast is nothing more than a source of oil, something to be melted into barrels, stowed away, and sold for hard cash. How unromantic, how prosaic, how gross, what a let-down. But that, too, is part of the greatness of this book - that it can stop once in a while and say: this is what it's all about, a great economic drive, there no legend and romance here, it's just a bunch of guys trying to make a living, and a profit for the faraway owners. Who can forget the blubber being stripped from the carcass, or the gross sense of Stubb eating the flesh basically raw. What does it taste like? fishy? oily? beefy? Melville never says actually (surprising - did he never taste a hunk, amid all this research?). Who can forget Stubb expertly severing the head with a few quick strokes? who can forget the brains of the whale, a are delicacy, for some I guess. The whale means everything - and nothing. At the end, he's just fuel, like a flatcar full of coal

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The most disconcerting chapter in Moby-Dick

Great novels can be greatly bad (at times), too, and maybe none more than Melville's "Moby-Dick," which aside from the occasionally impenetrable Biblical prose and the eye-numbing compendia of information about whales also includes one incredibly racist and disconcerting chapter, Stubb's Dinner (Supper?). Even in its badness it's great, however, as it shows the enormous reach of Meliville's imagination and ambitions. But in this chapter, Stubb wakes the cook (Fleece), a black man - says he's 90 years old ! - to cut him a whalesteak and cook it for his dinner. Then he berates the cook for overcooking the steak - he wants it rare - and then has the cook preach a "sermon" over the gunwales of the ship, imploring the sharks (devouring the whale carcass) to make less noise. This chapter recalls Huck Finn at its worst, with white men taunting the black man simply because they can do so - nothing at all funny about it, except perhaps the dignity and flash of sly humor from Fleece, but you have to suspect that Melville put this chapter in for what he thought of as low comedy - made all the more powerful and terrifying by what's going on alongside the Pequod, the sharks thrashing in the bloody water, gouging strangely globular hunks of flesh from the carcass. I'm sure there is a deeper layer of meaning - the sharks like the horrors of life of man on earth, killing one another for survival, and a voice from above calling for peace and good will - essays, books, have probably been written on this - but it still makes us uncomfortable (today) - and forces us to grapple with the difficulties of this novel in ways few of the other chapters do.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sure he could write about whales, but could Melville write about accounting?

Then, just when you think "Moby-Dick" is about to become a collection of some of the most striking and beautiful essays ever written - one of the whalemen spots a whale, and they lower the boats, and Moby-Dick becomes an incredible story of action - which Melville narrates with such skill and precision, such deft and strange observation, as Stubb's whaleboat pursues the whale, the whale dives, they wait, Stubb smokes his inevitable pipe, what a great device!, and then they're closer and, hard as it is to believe, the whale doesn't stand a chance - Tashtogg (?) hits him with the lance and then the powder him with blows - blood's flowing everywhere, and the little whaleboats get knocked about - the whole thing is incredble, hard to believe, and then you wonder what the hell are they going to do with the whale, but of course Melville will explain that, too, in great detail. What great material - it's amazing more didn't write about it, but just a we have only a few soldiers who can write well about war, how many whalemen could also write?, and the whole industry had only a short life - we're so lucky that Melville went to sea. Thought it's apparent that Melville could write well about any profession, right? As a joke, you might say: could he have written about accounting? Answer: Yes. Bartleby the Scrivener, qv. But in whaling/Moby-Dick he found the perfect vehicle for his style, his temperament, his imagination - though it is clearly a novel well ahead of its time, as noted previously, it is amazing that it almost died in obscurity - how could at least some readers not have seen its greatness?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Melville - Browne - Sebald : The boundaries between essay and fiction

Three chapters toward the middle of "Moby-Dick" are monuments in themselves - perfect examples of miniature essays, fully capturing the strange mood of the novel and the unique narrative voice that Melville established. The Brit, Squid, and The Line: The Brit (not short for British, but descriptive of the krill or seafoam floating on the surface of the Pacific and consumed in great gulps by the slowmoving right whales, who leave a trail of blue behind as the cut through the yellow krill), Squid describing the giant squid that bobs up and down, an island of white, rarely seen and an ill omen; the line describing the rope that links to the harpoon and how it's made and how it coiled on the whaleboats and from that expanding to a view of the universe and man's fate, each of us surrounded by a line that can snap us off to death at any single moment. I;m sure these three chapters appear separately in anthologies - they ought to, they would be great for teaching. I was not surprised at all to see that Melville took one of his chapter title form Sir Thoman Browne; his essayist style heavily influenced by Brown (British, 17th century?), who wrote strange meandering essays about commonplaces of English life, such as burial urns, and used these as gateways that opened for him on to vast explorations of faith and fate. Browne is Melville's antecedent, and is descendant, I would say, is the late great W.S. Sebold, whose nearly unique fiction was built on essays and observations (plus photos) of the detritus of life: ruins, abandoned buildings and neighborhoods, spaces of desolation. A Brit, an American, a German.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Moby-Dick could have been just a great sea yarn, but...

As many others have noted, the greatness of Melville's "Moby-Dick" is its unevenness - it's a baggy compendium of so many styles and genres and techniques that it gives the illusion of containing the vastness of the world, or at least of the ocean. On this rereading its more obvious to me how it's an ancestor of Ulysses, in that Melville is willing to bring form and experiment with different narrative techniques (the script-like scenes in which the many whalemen, each from a different culture, speak their minds is the obvious inspiration for Nighttown). Melville switches from a catalog of legends about dangerous whales and whaling voyages, the book threatening to become a nonfiction tract, to the strange appearance on deck, after months of voyage?, of the five Asian whalemen whom Ahab has sneaked on board and kept like stowaways in the hold until the first whale siting - Ishmael had seen intimations of this secret crew, but their appearance on deck is startling and strange. What do they signify? Books have been written about that I'm sure. On the most literal level the dark forces of anger and revenge that Ahab has kept barely repressed and that he prepares to unleash against his nemisis. On another level - a kind of imprisonment or enslavement - for who are they and why would the consent to being kept in the hold for weeks or months? How did Ahab arrange to compensate them? There's something bestial and sadistic about the relationship, the episode. I was surprised - I didn't remember at all - that Starbuck's whaleboat is crushed during the squall and fog in the first "lowering" - a great piece of maritime narrative - as Melville shows his expertise at the popular side of the genre. Yes, Moby-Dick could have been simply a great sea yarn - but he saw so much more and was so much more ambitious and visionary

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The immigrant's story turned inside out : Daniel Alarcon

Daniel Alarcon's story in current New Yorker, "Second Lives," is one of the best of the crop of 20 under 40 that has carried the NYer through the summer. Alarcon has a very "mature" narrative style, careful and thoughtful, analytic and self-aware, without being self-conscious or grandiose - seems like an older writer, a classic style. Story follows two brothers, sons of immigrant parents living on student visas in Balto ca 1970 - older brother born in Baltimore and therefore a U.S. citizen; family goes home to unnamed Latin American country (I'm guessing Peru or Columbia, from some contextual hints), younger brother born there. As family suffers through the tribulations and inflation of a shaky Latin American democracy, older brother goes to U.S. to finish high school - but things don't work out well and he has to leave the school. The crux of the story is an attempt to have a neighbor bring the son a birthday present when she visits the U.S. - the neighbor suspects it's a package of drugs. What makes the story work, though, is not the mechanisms of the plot but the suprising way in which Alarcon develops character and setting: this is the immigrant's story turned inside out; we see the life of the immigrant son, wondering among various dead-end jobs, from the family left, enviously, back in the native land. It's like a mirror image of a Jhumpa Lahiri story - told by the ones who don't immigrate. The emotional focus is the younger brother, torn by envy for his sibling and concern about the sufferings of his parents (lost their jobs and savings during political upheaval and strikes), trying to find his way - he may go on to become a lone immigrant himself, an Alexander Hemon - or for that matter an Alarcon, about whom I know nothing other than this story.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why Whiteness is Frightening : Moby-Dick

The Whiteness of the Whale is probably the most famous, oft-cited chapter in "Moby-Dick," and why is that? Because it's so counterintuitive and unconventional, just like the novel. The convention, the cliche, is that darkness is sinister and evil but Melville turns the cliche inside out and finds light, pure whiteness, to be the most frightful of all colors, conditions, or hues, and he cites many examples. Are they convincing? Well, not to me, really. Let's set aside the casual racism that Melville expresses (the convention that the white race is superior to the "dusky" races) - he finds in whiteness an incredible strength and power that to him is deeply unsettling. It's a great argument - he cites the power of white horses and white knights as symbols, white hair as a sign of wisdom (great!) - but he doesn't really convince me that white is frightening, not in the ordinary sense - i think what is convincing is that unexpected colors/hues are disturbing: he writes about albinos as frightening, and while his views are unacceptable by today's cultural standards his point is valid - what's frightening is "difference," anything that challenges our preconceived sense of order - the Times today had a story about animals that look frightening, and highlighted a kind of mole that looks as if it has no face. Also, think of pix of people with face transplants - unsettling because so close to normal but disturbingly off, the flatness and lack of affect. So I'd say it's not the whiteness of the whale but the differences, the defiance - the same qualities that make Melville's novels so grand and disturbing as well.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The incredible sadness of being - Herman Melville

Had the pleasure within the past week, while (re)reading "Moby-Dick," of visiting both the whaling museum in Nantucket and the Melville home (Arrowhead) in Pittsfield - a Melville pilgrimage, though we didn't plan it that way. The Arrowhead visit, unlike visits to so many writers' shrines, was particularly sad, as our excellent tour guide (Phil Spear) discussed quite accurately the obscurity and failure that hounded and haunted Melville throughout his life and the incredible and deserved international renown that began in the 1920s with the posthumous publication of Billy Budd. Melville was obviously far ahead of his time as a novelist - ahead of our time, even, as those who've tried Pierre or The Confidence Man will attest. The home full of sorrow, obviously a difficult life on this remote, rocky farm, and to think of his reaching out so pathetically to Hawthorne and then being shunned - perhaps because of too intimate advances to the older gentleman - and being alone, his books not selling, all that work - and he knew what he was doing was something great and unique. He could have gone on writing sea adventures, like his first few books, and, as noted in previous posts, that seems to be how Moby-Dick starts out, but then the material grows and the style shifts and becomes grand, oratorical, almost Biblical. Hawthorne may have encouraged this - Melville seems to have said as much - but it's a journey Melville took on his own at great risk and with tremendous cost to himself and his family. The old man, trudging back to New York in poverty, with his troubled children and alienated wife - a chilling scene to envision.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Call him Ishmael? Few have.

Continuing the weirdness of the incredibly weird "Moby-Dick," in the chapters that follow the famous Cetology chapter Melville continues, through the alleged voice of Ishmael, to convey inside dope about the long-dead (and dying in his own day, 1851) enterprise of whaling - a chapter of mastheads (whalemen would take watch shifts at the top of the mast scouting for spouts and sails - seems it would be terrifying but Melville/Ishmael makes it sound peaceful, especially in the tropics, gently swaying and surveying the distant horizon), a chapter on the officers' mess, each mate going down to the mess hall in order of rank and returning to deck in reverse order - and, specific to the Pequod, the tension of dining in silence beneath the glare of Ahab - the mates would probably prefer to eat with the crew. Readers would wonder : is this really a novel at all? As noted in previous posts, Ishmael as a character continues to fade from view, as his voice, so distinct in the memorable opening paragraph (and chapter) becomes ever-more Melville's, scholarly and analytic and observant like a great nonfiction writer - would he (Melville) be Krakauer/Kidder/Wolfe of today? But as the book shifts toward a nonfiction account of whaling on one level, and a deeper (literally) level the book builds a thematic resonance and grandeur: What exactly are these whales and what do they mean, to Melville and to us? A submerged, secret, and terrifying life force (Melville establishes this even before the opening sentence with the list of quotations), whose meaning this novel will explore and reveal. Sexual? Ecological? Demonic? Call me Ishmael: A great opening sentence, and full of irony because few or none have. His real name is Herman Melville.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Everything we look for in fiction but nothing we expect: Moby-Dick

You can see why the first readers of "Moby-Dick" would scratch their heads in wonder. What's this, a whole chapter (Cetology) on the types of whales, arranged into some weird categories comparing whales with the sizes of published books (folio, octo, etc.)? And all of these chapters written by a supposed member of a whaling crew, about whom we know virtually nothing, but who somehow is full of Biblical quotation, mythical allusion, and incantatory, eccentric prose? What kind of book is this? But for us today, on every reading and rereading, we see that it's a book of such vast scope and ambition that by necessity (and design?) it has to be flawed, rough, and incomplete - thus the passage at the end of the Cetology chapter that even the footnote recognizes as famous in which Melville/Ishmael calls this novel a draught (draft) of a draft, for lack of time, cash, health, strength (I think those 4 things) - something with which every writer can identify. So we don't read Moby-Dick if we want a good whale yarn, a good story, a character who grows and unfolds over time - those things we usually get from a novel - it is an anti-novel, in some ways - particularly in that it does have all of these things: plenty of good stories within it (though none cohere into a single line of plot), very striking and memorable characters (though none grown and change), great writing (that sometimes breaks apart under its own weight); a sense of place (though completely removed from the world that most of us know - the antecedent of starship sagas, perhaps); information about the world in which we live (though a vanished world even in its time and told with such peculiar empahses as to seem unreliable, fact mixed with legend and comical exagerration) - everything we look for in fiction but nothing we expect from it.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The focus of Moby-Dick shifts as Melville works his way through his vast material

As Ishmael prepares to ship out on the Pequod and in fact does ship out, on xmas day, the focus of "Moby-Dick" shifts, even alters, as if Melville were feeling his way through his vast material (he probably was) - it's no longer an examination of the character of Ishmael, as it seemed to be n the first chapter - Ishmael is more of the window through which we can see the world of whaling and the profound an odd symbolism that's developed around whales and whaling, and it's no longer "buddy" story about the unusual friendship, possibly erotic, between Ishmael and Queequeg, which is the first strand of the story Melville lays out - now it's about the mysterious Captain Ahab, and all of the foreboding surrounding him - why he doesn't appear on the ship until they are out to sea, what is the nature of his illness from which he's recovering, why for forebodings and the warnings from the mariner Elijah? Obviously Melville lays the religious and Biblical allusions on thick, a grad-student's delight (the ship owners like heaven and hell, or maybe a thousand other polar opposites, for example) - but I think Melville had a great interest in all the diurnal details of whaling as well as the deep strangeness and mystery of this vanished (and in his time already vanishing) profession. Strange, as I write this in Nantucket, to walk the streets and see the houses, modest and grand, and know that the wealth of this island built on whaling - the very odd culture in which the men were away for years at a time, the women ran the politics and the daily life - to this day very beautiful artifacts on display in the museuam, the scrimshaw, the logbooks of the journeys with delicate illustrations of foreign ports, the tools of the trade. Heard in the museum a great narration of the wreck of the Essex, rammed by a whale in the Pacific in 1820, often cited as a source for Moby-Dick, but it's really only the source for the final chapter or two - the story of the Essex is more about survival for 96 days in a small craft on the Pacific, starvation, cannibalism, murder, insanity - another great story but not this one.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A great underlying theme of Moby-Dick

Nobody forgets how strange "Moby-Dick" is right from the first chapters, but I think many forget how funny Melville is, his descriptions of the meeting with Queequeeg, the horrendous boarding houses where the sailors stay when ashore, the description of arid Nantucket where islanders to about with sticks of wood as if they're relics of the true cross. What are we to make of the homoerotic themes at the outset of Moby-Dick? Critics blithely ignored this aspect of the novel for years; Fiedler opened this theme up with Love and Death in the American novel, most famously his unearthng the homoeroticism in Huckleberry Finn, and that was very controversial - but in Moby-Dick less so, more undeniable, Ishamael and Queequeeg sharing a bed, Ishmael waking in the morning with Queequeeg embracing him, and the strange bonding between the two men - Ishmael notes that people stare at them as they walk the docks - and goes out of his way to say that Queequeeg is not unusual in this setting. Do they see them as a gay couple? This is a huge underlying theme of the book, and for that matter of whaling expeditiongs - the man aboard the ships for years, yet in the scenes Melville depicts of the boats coming ashore the men are not looking for women, but they stay together as crews, drinking and watching out for one another. One other bit of note: Ishmael's fascination with the grimy picture of the spouting whale in the boarding house, the picture is really the whole novel in its essence.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Call him Ishmael, the strangest of narrators - Moby-Dick

Taking the occasion of traveling to Nantucket to re-read "Mob-Dick," or at least the first section of it - don't know for sure if I'll reread the whole novel, but it opens up like no other book ever, a monument, an exhibit A for the case that the greatest of novels are a world unto themselves, that te greatest novels belie the principle, generally valid, tat a work of art (like a machine) should have no unnecessary parts (Strunk & White, q.v.) - the greatest novels are filled with unnecessary parts, or strictly unnecessary - but needed in the greater sense of establishing a voice and a mood. Melville opens Moby-Dick (I'd forgotten this) with several pages of quotations from literature, the Bible, sea logs, ballads - about whales, Leviathans, also a few paragraphs about the etymology of "whale." Why is this necessary? Only to establish that this novel is greater than a novel, it's a compendium of all knowledge on this strange and doomed subject. The first chapter, after the famously diect opening sentence, is strangely meandering and speculative, Ishmael discoursing on why all people are drawn to the sea and to water, then to his own peculiarities - he's not even sure why he signs on to a whaling ship, but he's a misfit, a wanderer, an obsessive and eccentric - yes people are drawn to the sea but not as he is, to run away from their own melancholy, he seems to have no family, no connection to society, and a totally unlikely narrator (as I recall his personality becomes less significant to the novel as the story unfolds) - but also establishes this as a truly American voice, heading away from civilization and not enclasped by it - a key, the key, difference between British and American fiction of the 19th century. But Melville's voice unique in many ways - to look at later.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Who can believe the conclusion of Tess?

Many great things about "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" but the ending is not one of them. Can anyone really accept that Tess would plunge a knife through Alec's heart? No, she's not a killer - we had seen her tenderly break the necks of the wounded partridges to spare them their suffering, and she's a farm girl and used to death, but she would not kill Alec. If Tess were a French novel, you could imagine that when self-righteous husband Angel would at last return for her he would find her a changed woman - she had run of with the louche Alec and had become accustomed to the jewels and fine clothing and the accouterments of wealth. But it's not, it's an incredibly English novel - Tess is unchanged, still the dairymaid, and wants to live the simple life with Angel - but she sends him away ashamed of what she has become and how far she has fallen - all of that is credible and painful, but not that she would stab Alec to death and take off in pursuit of Angel (and overtake him, how improbable is that). Yet she does, and they wander the countryside, at last spending a night together in a vacant mansion, which Thomas Hardy describes very effectively and it's a nice echo of their wedding night in the dank mill cottage when their lives fell apart. Then they wander, vaguely heading for some Northern port to escape when in a most unlikely and stagey scene they find themselves at Stonehenge where they are captured - use of national monuments for melodrama okay in Hitchcock but out of place here, Hardy would have done better to have them overtaken in some remote valley, where most of the novel takes place. Some amazing and moving scenes in this unique and strange novel. But the conclusion? Hardy was able to break away from Victorian convention and manage a rueful, even tragic conclusion - but he could have toned down the melodrama. There, he falls prey to the conventions of his age. Gimme rewrite!

Monday, August 2, 2010

What keeps Hardy from being a great novelist?

As noted in yesterday's post, Thomas Hardy is a sucker for those Victorian coincidences, and though this is not the undoing of "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" it doesn't help - Tess, who has to work in a rugged and poor turnip farm to survive after her husband, Angel, debarks for Brazil, wanders across the countryside hoping to ask Angel's parents, whom she has never met, for help and advice (Hardy makes clear that they would have helped her), but amazingly (!) she overhears a conversation between Angel's two brothers and the prim woman whom he might have married - and this dissuades her. You figure the chances. Then, trudging back to the farm, she stops in a village and overheard a sermon being preached by none other than Alec D'Urberville, who had seduced her and fathered her child - but now he is reformed, having been saved by none other than Angel's father. Huh? This kind of crazy plot mechanics keeps Hardy from being a great novelist - though he's a damn good one and great at certain things: the interaction of character with landscape, for example. The whole episode of Tess's 15-mile trudge across the countryside, mountain paths, open fields, villages, her tiredness, her poverty, her desperation, is conveyed so beautifully - if only he weren't such a slave to plot. Readers like plot, however - all of us - and it's still interesting to see how he will work out the kinks in this plot twist. Is Alec really reformed? Seems dubious to me. Will Tess want anything to do with him? I would hope not. But what options does she have? She is not a modern woman - she is still a woman of her time, limited by the scope of her family, upbringing, and environment - that's part of the tragedy that Hardy so truthfully brings to light.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Why Dick Cheney should be made to read Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Things just continue to get worse for poor Tess, once her sanctimonious husband, Angel, takes off for Brazil leaving her with 30 pounds - possibly that's enough $, but Tess, in her self-effacing way, gives 20 lbs to her parents so that they can put a new thatch roof on the house - her parents think she's well off and have the nerve to dun her for money. Tess spirals into poverty and heads off to another remote part of the county in search of agricultural work. In aside paragraph, we see (surprise surprise) that Angel is not exactly thriving in Brazil - a bit different from the British countryside, that. Sp what to make of "Tess of the D'Urbervilles"? Hard not to love Tess and wish you could step right into the book to help her (remembering Woody Allen's great story about Madame Bovary, "The Kugelmass Episode"). She seems doomed, in that Hardyesque bleak cruel way - but maybe not, maybe she will find something or someone and Angel will come back and it will be too late. Maybe it's his tragedy to live through. It ought to be. A terrific scene of Tess's despair, as she's heading off to the countryside and gets pursued by a lecherous man (the same one that Angel punched out in a pub - Thomas Hardy does suffer from that Victorian weakness for coincidence) and then she literally nestles in among some leaves, like an animal, hears horrible thumping sounds in the night, finds wounded partridges - there had been a hunting party and they'd left the wounded to suffer - and she tenderly breaks the necks of the wounded birds. Another blast at the blind cruelty not of nature but of man (take that, Dick Cheney, you horrible man).