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

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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

What Letting Go foretells - and doesn't foretell - about Philip Roth's career

Nearing the end of Philip Roth's very compelling debut novel (1962) "Letting Go," and making some final observations - interesting to look back at a great writer's first novel to see what it foretells about his or her then-nascent career - in Letting Go we see, as I've noted in previous posts, many of the elements that Roth would explore and develop across his great career. But notably - Roth has been criticized, often unfairly, for two things: insensitivity toward women (definitely true in some of his novel but not all) and cruelty toward his fellow Jews (largely an unfair criticism - he finds his own family and community a great outlet and target for satire, humor, and wrath - but so do most great writers). In Letting Go, however, the women are generally the stronger and more sympathetic characters by quite a stretch - the men, including the central figure, Gabe Wallach, and his counterpoint and antagonist, Paul Herz, are feckless, failures - despite their great education and (in Gabe's case) upbringing. Gabe's father is a bit of a fool, too - dependent and needy, until in his widowhood he finds a new wife, whom Gabe disdains. Second, as to Jews and Judaism, though interfaith marriage is a major theme in LG - the Herzes are cut off from both families because of their marriage - Judaism is a really minor theme in this novel, which takes place largely in the academic communities of Iowa and Chicago but really takes place within the walls of a few apartments and restaurants - the characters are pretty isolated from all communities (it doesn't feel terribly like an academic novel, despite its setting - Gabe and Paul could just as easily be colleagues in a law firm or an insurance office) - the streets of Newark and the angst of American Jews, which will be so important to Roth as his work develops, are only a whisper here at best.

Friday, December 30, 2011

How Philip Roth's style has evolved

As noted in previous posts, we don't read Philip Roth's novels for plot, but his first novel, "Letting Go," while it's by no means tightly constructed, in fact it "sprawls" across several sets of characters, many years, several settings, and a few shifts of narrative point of view, is a good old-fashioned story in some respects - not a potboiler, but not literary fiction as we know it today; in fact, it makes me nostalgic for those years, not all that long ago, when literary fiction and popular fiction were not so far apart. I don't know LG was a best-seller or a BOMC selection, but it certainly might have been - much less imaginable today. Roth's style evolved - his great novels of the 90s and the 21st century have a very open structure, not really snapping to a conclusion - but as I near the end of Letting Go I can see that he's building toward some emotional climaxes: a few highly dramatic scenes and developments (spoilers here, obviously): the death of the young boy, Markie, pushed out of bed by his sister - nicely told from the sister's point of view, though children have never been Roth's forte; the Herzes' adoption of a baby girl, with the threat of legal complications (we'll see how this works out). Ultimately, the great theme of this novel, as of so many of Roth's work, is the relationship between parent and child, particularly father and grown son, and we see these relationships from a number of different angles throughout this book - though as the book evolves, the main character's dad, Dr. Wallach, becomes less of a plot element (and less involved in son's life, as he prepares to remarry). Also, I note that literature - which was a main theme in the first section of the novel, as characters discuss at some length Portrait of a Lady, almost evaporates from the plot: there's no real sense, by the half-way point, that the main characters are literature profs; they could as well be ad execs of accountants or anything.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Yorker fiction editors: This is the best you've got?

You're the fiction editor of The New Yorker, probably the best read and most distinguished general-interest magazine in the world, one of the very few anyway that still publishes fiction, you have about 50 issues a year, meaning there's no reason you shouldn't be publishing the 50 best stories in the world every year, right? And sometimes I have to just shrug my shoulders and say: This's the best you've got? I do admire the NYer editors for a few things: they have recently made an effort to publish actual short stories and not novel excerpts, which half the time are basically like movie travelers touting a book about to be released. They are interested in world literature and have increasingly sought out stories in translation, often by writers little known in the U.S. (Cesar Aira a recent example). But this week, an Israeli writer named E. Keret (I think), a story called Creative Writing - come on. The very short story is about a couple, recently lost a child through miscarriage, woman enrolls in writing course, writes three stories, each of which Keret summarizes briefly, each sounds like it could be a good Murakami story (e.g., woman gives birth to a cat), but they're not stories, their ideas, sketches. Then the man enrolls in a course, writes a story about a businessman who's actually a fish. He can't come up with an ending for the story. End of story. Honestly, conceptually this might be a good idea if the "creative writing" of the man and woman revealed something to us or to them about them or their relationship or their ability or their inability to communicate, or it it lead to change, brought them together, or apart, or something - but this story is only half-told, if that - it's a story that would show a lot of promise in a workshop (and maybe that's the point? is there a deep and underlying irony that I'm missing, a story about workshops that is a workshop story?) - but is it one of the best stories of the year? I don't think so.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Three great scenes in Philip Roth's Letting Go: Each could be a short play

I wonder why Philip Roth never tried his hand (at least I don't think he has) at writing plays? He's such an expert at dialog, and not just at creating dialog (or triolog, at times) that seems realistic but also at using dialog to illuminate character, to examine and exhibit the mind at work, and (to a lesser extent) to advance the plot. I've mentioned in recent posts a few of the great scenes in Roth's first novel, "Letting Go," and I continue to come across more as I read deeper into the book - and can't you imagine (if you know these scenes) each one as a one-scene play or as material for an acting workshop?: the central/Rothian character Gabe Wallach taking the shy, pregnant young waitress out to dinner to discuss with her the procedures of adopting her expected baby? They sit in a sort of touristy lakeside Chicago restaurant and he awkwardly tries to draw her out and then to get her to discuss the pregnancy. Very deft and troubling scene. Or, Libby at her first meeting with her psychiatrist, at which she dances around her problems and then, at his gentle urging, bursts out with all of her frustration about her marriage and the crush she has on Gabe - then, after the doctor mentions the bill, she threatens to jump out the window. Or, Paul Herz returns home after learning of his father's heart attack and discusses his parents and his miserable life with long-ago girlfriend now comfortably married and living in a modern (circa 1955) Brooklyn apartment, as the baby sleeps beside them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Top 10 books for a liberal, free-thinking woman

Friend PM writes on behalf of daughter E, who would like to read a book that "would change the way she thinks, preferably contemporary," "geared to a liberal, free-thinking woman." Any suggestions? Yes!

Here are 10, though I have to admit that for me contemporary kind of means within the last 100 years. If the list were truly of contemporary books - last decade or so - I don't think I could recommend many that meet the criteria. Great books endure for a reason. So, alphabetically arranged by author:

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. Shocking, provocative futuristic novel, maybe even more on point today than when written in 1980s or 1990s.

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. Hugely powerful short novel, well ahead of its time, a woman's coming of age and into herself - with dire consequences.

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A story, not a novel, widely anthologized, and a rightful classic - absolutely foundational work of feminist literature and thinking.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. Why not include one male author on the list? One of the greatest accounts by a male author of the life of a woman - in this case, a 19th-century dairy worker who's victimized but who fights back.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. A classic, one of the great works of African-American fiction by women. Florida, in the 20s/30s - a woman struggles through many relationships, poverty, triumphs, endures.

The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing. Maybe a little dated but one of the first great works to link feminism, literature, progressive politics. The bible for '60s feminist thinking, especially in Britain.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, by Alice Munro. Short stories. Don't let ridiculous title deter you. Munro is one of the two greatest living short-story writers, and this is one her best collections. Go on to others if this one moves you, which it will.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. The feminist counterpoint to Catcher in the Rye. Everyone has to read this at some time in their life. Woman starts out on her own in the New York literary/magazine world.

A Short History of Women, by Kate Walbert. Very strong and unusual book that follows a number of characters over a long span of history. The only true contemporary novel on this list.

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. Probably her best novel and a amazing account of one day in the life of one woman.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Some great scenes in Philip Roth's Letting Go

Reading slowly through the Three Women section of Philip Roth's "Letting Go," some truly harrowing scenes - perhaps most memorable the day in the life of Libby Herz, which begins with her waking, disheveled, trying to write a poem, scribbling lines she can recall from Keats et al., then a surprise visit by a guy from the Jewish adoption agency, it's obvious that he can see that she's very disturbed, she knows that, too, then off to an appointment with an analyst, she tells him (and us) things we hadn't known about the interior life of their marriage, then freaks out when he tells her the cost ($25!), returns home (buying then returning a sweater at Saks, which she can't afford, they live in dire poverty), at home looks at a book from the rabbi who converted her, then decides to be a good Jewish wife, starts making latkes, as Paul returns home with Gabe Wallach - Roth deftly stays within Libby's POV, and we can only imagine who she looks to Gabe and Paul as they enter - she's obviously frantic, disturbed, manic, flour on her face, a huge pointless mount of grated potatoes - and then they get in a huge argument, as Gabe tells them he knows of a woman with baby for adoption (obviously the friend of his girlfriend from whom she's been borrowing $) and Libby screams at Gabe, falls to her knees, says she doesn't want help, he retreats - some truly powerful writing in this section - the novel as a whole just meanders along without any great defining shape, but along the way there are great moments of drama, of comedy, and of insight - somewhat true of Roth's whole career as a writer.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Psychoanalysis and the novel: Roth, Hamlet

When you think of how much much mileage writers (and directors) have gotten from psychoanalysis as comedy, it's striking once in a while to come across a novel in which psychoanalysis is used in a straightforward manner for character development and insight - maybe especially striking that Philip Roth uses a visit to a psychoanalyst in this way in "Letting Go," when we think of his most famous (perhaps also most notorious) novel, Portnoy's Complaint, which is in fact structured as one long "complaint" from patient to analyst. In LG, one of the main characters, Libby Herz, a clearly disturbed, perhaps hypochondriacal, young woman, on verge of some kind of nervous breakdown, as she and husband are living in poverty, looking into adopting a child, which obviously makes her anxious, she has a terrible visit with man from the adoption agency, feels she has blowntheir chances, and then off to an analyst. Well, even in the 1950s I doubt you could call an analyst in the morning and make a 1 p.m. appointment - but that quibble aside, Libby's visit to Dr. Lumin is a great scene and Roth uses this narrative opportunity to have Libby reveal to the doctor some things - her lack of sex life with husband Paul, her attraction to novel's main character and sometime author stand-in Gabe Wallach - that she has never said aloud even to self - in this way analyst visit is something like an interior monologue but actually dramatized: imagine Hamlet's soliloquies as 50-minute sessions with a shrink.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Two wrenching scenes in Philip Roth's Letting Go

Examples of great, difficult, scenes in Philip Roth's writing, from 4th section, Three Women, in his first novel, "Letting Go" - the section begins with Gabe and Martha, now living together along with her two young children, preparing for a diner party (we gradually learn that guests will be Libby and Paul Herz, Gabe's main antagonists and counterpoints in this long novel) - and Gabe and Martha squabble painfully, relentlessly, mostly about $, but it's obvious that it's not about $ it's about power and the difficulty of two adults building some kind of relationship and commitment - she obviously wants G to marry her, though does she really love him or does she just want to be married, to have someone to help her with her kids, her life? - he's obviously not ready and not ready for her - as his eyes, and mind, keep wandering onto others, imagining what life would be like with them, etc. - the dinner party is a horror, they all say terrible things to one another, it's almost Albee-esque. Second wrenching scene, as this section continues, and we are now in the mind of Libby Herz, aware of her weaknesses and frailties, her hypochondria, her inability to do anything with her life, and we see through her eyes the terrible poverty in which she and Paul live - a few years earlier it would have been and was genteel grad-school poverty, la bue, as in nostalgia for, but now Paul is a prof at U Chicago, they should be more prosperous, comfortable, but their lives are terrible, he is trying to write a novel, he obviously never will, he obviously will not keep this fill-in job, they are destined for trouble - and then she gets a visit from the guy from an adoption agency and the visit is a horror, she is obviously disturbed and unfit and she knows this - she is ruining everything. Where can this lead but down?

Friday, December 23, 2011

What Roth does well (and not so well)

What Philip Roth does well (and not so well), based on obvservations from a lifetime of reading Roth's fiction and in particular my current reading, "Letting Go":
evocation: he creates a sense of place (and time) as well as or better than anyone, right alongside Updike, among his contemporaries, and Proust, among his predecessors. Roth's Newark is one of the most vivid places in all of fiction.
dialog: his dialog can be among the wittiest and sharpest, especially the many struggles between son and mother or father, most famous in Portnoy's Complaint but present throughout - many long scenes told entirely through dialog, as we watching the workings of two minds grappling
Jewish angst: His trademark, and present in every one of his novels, right from the start, issues of interfaith marriage, fitting into American society, obligation to religion and family, faith v secularism, and in later fiction issues about Israel and the Holocaust
Esoterica: his characters know about so many things and wear this knowledge lightly, but we as we read him we learn about everything for new criticism in the 1950s to the glove-making industry
Battle of the Sexes: some of the most punishing scenes of marital and couples strife (especially in Letting Go), and lots of great writing about adolescent angst (in early works of course but also in newest novel, Nemesis)
Crazy Jews: the peripheral characters are a cast of eccentrics and weirdos of almost Russian proportions - plenty of these in Letting Go, including the Herz uncles and parents and the Gabe Wallach's dad - Bellow is the obvious influence here
But not so well:
Plot - you would never go to a Roth novel for plot, but, as noted yesterday, his novels together make up a vast compendium of a novel about the sensibility of the author, Roth himself
kids - are there any believable kids in Roth's fiction? He seems to have very little sense of how to portray young children - life for him starts with adolescence, with puberty - at least life in the novel.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

What Roth hath wrought: His novels are really about one single character

Someone - John Cheever? - warned young writers against writing short stories - you'll burn up too much of your material. The implication being: each short story could develop into a novel. Maybe so, though I think there are fundamental differences between the forms that go far beyond length: there's the sense, which I've posted on before, that stories focus on misfits and isolates and novels encompass entire societies and therefor their characters tend to be more conventional, even if rebellious. That's a very broad generalization but I hope based on truth - despite the many exceptions we can think of. Philip Roth of course began his career with an astonishingly good collection of stories, and then went on to write his first novel, "Letting Go," which is in 6 sections, each something of a novella. The sections do not exactly grow organically - I suppose you could read them in various orders or could skip an entire section - but all of them are tied together by the main character, the guy who narrates some of the sections, Gabe Wallach, a sometime stand-in for the author. Roth was obviously not worried about burning all of his material: in Letting Go he works through many of the major themes of his life up to that point (Jewish childhood, struggles with father, early marriage and romances, academic life - though not Newark, and not the Army, both of which he wrote of in Goodbye, Columbus - Newark would become his Yaknapatawpha), yet somehow he knew that he could go back to this well again and again over the course of the long writing career that lay ahead of him. Letting Go is full of incident but it's not plot driven - none of Roth's novels are. We don't read him for plot but for character, setting, observation, discussion of ideas, comedy, and in a sense all of Roth's novels are about one character and his evolution and development, his struggles with his family and his community, his faith and his art, his sexual drive and his depths of guilt - Roth himself.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A single day - Thanksgiving - in section 3 of Philip Roth's Letting Go

Philip Roth's first novel, "Letting Go," continues to grow and expand, to build a whole network of characters and relationships that touch on the central character, the narrator Gabe Wallach (who has much in common with the author) - and I have to laugh at myself, as my first impression of the novel, based on the first of the 6 sections, was that this would be a very simple narrative about 5 rather lonely and isolated characters - not so - the 3rd section, which takes place on Thanksgiving Day, introduces yet more characters: Gabe visits his father for the Thanksgiving break (at this time, Gabe is an English prof at Chicago) and we learn that dad and his pal, Gruber, both widowed, have taken a 4-month tour of Europe, and now, at the dinner, Gabe learns that his dad is to be married to a 54-year-old whom he'd met on the crossing - and she is immediately set up as his rival (and a possible alcoholic); Gabe also visits Paul Herz's family in Brooklyn, hoping to open a window of communication - they have been completely estranged from Paul since his marriage to Libby, a "shiksa." The visit fails - the dad is in terrible health and the mom feeds off his incapacity; Gabe then visits a couple his age in the same building, the husband was one of Paul's childhood friends - a typical conventional Brooklyn Jewish couple (Miami! Danish-modern furniture! crappy best-sellers!), and Gabe is drawn to the wife - as he has been drawn to Libby - he is drawn to the dangerous and unavailable, and his love life seems to be circling Paul; finally, we also meet divorcee in Chicago whom Gabe has just started dating and learn of her complex relation with her kids, her whacked out sister, and a lawyer who's pursuing her and who comes to her place for Thanksgiving - a complicated day! This is not a novel that takes place on one day a la Ulysses - it takes place over many years - but this section is a tour-de-force account of a number of lives that intersect and cross on this single day: unity of time, if not of place.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Philip Roth and the long shadow of Saul Bellow

The second section of Philip Roth's 1962 novel, "Letting Go," concerns Paul and Libby, young couple, ostracized by both families because of the interfaith marriage, struggling to get by in poverty in 1950s Detroit - she dropped out of Cornell to marry Paul, he drops out of grad school in Michigan and takes an auto job - and then she gets pregnant, and much of the section concerns their decision about whether to abort the fetus and if so how to go about this. Thankfully, this section of the novel feels very dated, as our medical care for pregnant women has so much advanced since those dark days - still, an important period piece to read today to remind us of the possible consequences of abandoning current laws. This section shows Roth's early indebtedness to Saul Bellow: Paul is a typical early-Bellow hero, a smart young Jewish guy facing a huge life crisis and best upon from all sides by eccentric older Jewish busybodies who act as if they're his allies but are really in it for self-interest or just to destroy him - in this case, it's his two eccentric uncles who give him bad advice about marrying Libby, or not, and in the second part two elderly guys in the rooming house who embroil him in their legal quarrel. The whole section is a ghastly, harrowing account of a young, idealistic couple, struggling through urban poverty - I wonder if Roth set it in Detroit, which feels a little like alien territory for him, to get out of Bellow's long Chicago shadow. At end of section, it gets tied back to the initial narrator of the novel, Gabe Wallach, Paul's grad-school friend and rival.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Did I say the characters in Letting Go were isolated? Check that - I just got to part II.

Well scump on me as we used to say in 7th grade, but there I go in yesterday's post writing about Philip Roth's first novel, "Letting Go," and noting how it's an especially lonely novel because through the first 70 pages or so it introduces only 5 characters, each of them lonely and alienated in his or her way - and then I get onto the 2nd section of the novel, Paul Loves Libby, and suddenly we get a whole slew of new characters and a complex web of family relationships - a much more traditional or conventional novel in that regard. I almost wonder whether each of the six sections of the novel is like a standalone novella, with characters linked across them - more novelistic than Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus, which consisted of six novellas or long stories linked by theme (Jews!) and setting (mostly Newark and environs) and tone (witty, ironic, self-reflective). Anyway, 2nd part of Letting Go takes two of the characters from Part 1, Paul and Libby Herz, and goes into the background on their marriage and how the interfaith marriage, mid-1950s, was received by Paul's family and in process we met his two very eccentric uncles and his dreary and controlling failure of a father (Roth's great theme - patrimony). Can't tell if this will be a "sprawling" novel as the dust jacket unhopefully put it or a complex novel with many interrelated strands - in either case, it's still for me very compelling and thoughtful and literary in a way we seldom see in fiction today - smart and thoughtful without being clever or contrived or gimmicky (talking tigers!, voices from the dead!) or trendy (zombie! vampires!).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Loneliness of the Long-form writer: Roth's first novel

Philip Roth's "Letting Go," which even the Library of America jacket blurb calls a "sprawling" novel, doesn't seem, to me, to sprawl particularly, not in the first section anyway - though it is very long for a first novel, or for almost any novel that would be published to day - but what I really note in the first section, aside from the obvious quality of the writing and the early establishment of themes and tropes that would be with Roth throughout his long and great career, is the loneliness of the protagonist, Gabe Wallach, and in fact of all the characters - partly because there are actually so few characters. Generally, short stories work be establishing only a very small # of characters and concentrating the action (there are exceptions - Ann Beattie for one); novels tend to open up much more and to be an opportunity for the writers to expand the universe of people, to develop or at least to sketch not only the protagonist or the narrator but a world of people. Roth began as a novella/short story writer, and Letting Go, his first novel, still carries some of the short-story sensibility - though at much greater length. In the first 75 or so pages, there really are only 5 characters, no minor characters or peripheral characters introduced at all: Gabe, his father the dentist back in nyc, his sole grad-school friend Herz and Herz's wife Libby, and the girl whom he starts to date and then rather abruptly pushes away, Marge. Each of these characters suffering from a great deal of loneliness and isolation - even though four are in a large university setting in the prime of their lives, supposedly, and one, the dad, has an active dental practice in New York - but it does not feel that way, they feel as isolated as characters in a French existential novel of the time, The Stranger, say.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Philip Roth's surprisingly excellent first novel, Letting Go

There's a paragraph about 50 pages into Philip Roth's first novel, "Letting Go," in which he describes the character Herz and his Salvation Army overcoat - as good a descriptive paragraph as Roth ever wrote, maybe as anyone ever wrote, comic, precise, a true sketch of a whole character through observation of this tattered, over-sized, second-hand overcoat - and an obvious nod to Gorky and the Russian greats as well. I am struck, in reading (for the first time) this 1962 novel at how surely Roth established his style and his themes right from the outset of his career: the comic dialog between the protagonist (a Rothian character, Jewish intellectual in the Midwest trying to establish independence from his loving but overbearing family,in part through attractions to and liaisons with people, women, from the Protestant heartland) and his overbearing but very needy recently widowed Dad: a tennis game in which the dad keeps up a steady chatter, a scene in the dental chair (dad's a dentist) when dad examines son's teeth - but it's not about the teeth, it's about the father feeling abandoned (there are plenty of schools in New York!) and the son feels infantalized. This novel could truly have come at any phase during Roth's long career,though it's maybe a bit more provincial and conventional that some of the great works that were to follow.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Gripes of Roth: Letting Go

Started reading "Letting Go," one of the Philip Roth novels I haven't read, in the Library of America edition (if possible, I'll go back and re-read Goodbye, Columbus & 5 other stories when done with LG): it's interesting to see, in this, Roth's first novel, some of the themes emerge, even in the first 50 or so pages, that will be with him throughout his great career: son's caring relation with his father played off against his desire and need to break free, the Jewish intellectual guy's fascination with the "shiksa" bride and the tensions of mixed marriages. It's quite mature as a first novel - though not his first book - which may be because, though it's a university/grad-student novel, like so many first novels then (the 1950s) and now, grad students (Roth included) were older then - often completing military service. In LG, the narrator is, like many Roth characters, a guy living alone - in this case in grad school, English, Iowa - gets drawn into the mix of a difficult grad-student marriage - a type familiar to anyone who's gone to grad school of the slightly older student responsible for a spouse (and kids often - though not here) who can't really enjoy the bohemian/bou of grad life and is struggling to keep a family afloat through several jobs. Two other quick notes: how odd it is to find a novel so literary - could never be published today I'm afraid - epigraphs from Thomas Mann and Wallace Stevens and much of the first chapter involves discussion of Henry James and Portrait of a Lady - can you imagine any book like that published now? Also interesting to see what Roth themes did not emerge early in career - such as alienation, Jews, Newark - or at least haven't emerged yet.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The New Yorker gets in the holiday mood with a story about date-rape and murder

Well The New Yorker gets right into the holiday spirit with Margaret Atwood's grim little story about an abuse victim turned murderer - think of what you might get if you cross-bred an Alice Munro story with a Joyce Carol Oates story and it's this, Stone Mattresses. Like everything Atwood writes, it's well crafted and compelling in its way and provocative - I'm just not sure what it provokes. Story is narrated by a woman about to go on an Arctic cruise, where she at first vows not to flirt but immediately begins eyeing the men and looking for not a mate but for a victim - & and it turns out, quel chance!, that the first guy who sidles up to her is the very guy who 50 years or so back had taken her, than a shy and sheltered young teen, to a dance and brutally raped her - and, in a Hardyesque turn, she got pregnant, was sent away to a home, where to she gave birth - and then went onto a life that consists of a series of marriages and then easing her husbands toward death (too much or too little meds, etc.) - after this longish Munro-like digression into that tale of young troubled woman coming of age in small Canada town, we get onto the main story, in which narrator, Verna, deftly lays a plan to avenge her wrong by bashing in her suitor's head with a rock. As she says, she's read a lot of crime novels. But is this crime credible? And, more to the point, what does Atwood expect us to think about this act of vengeance? No doubt the guy deserved it - 50 years ago - and no doubt all of us have had vengeance fantasies, but honestly, is this civilized behavior in any way? By the way, I think Jonathan Franzen's treatment of this issue - date-rape and its aftermath - in Freedom, was very effective, much more sensitive and sensible, and much more credible. But this story may be a jolt of catharsis for some, even as it will horrify others. Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Two thoughts about Bartleby

Re-reading Herman Melville's great short story (or very short novel, if you like) "Bartleby" for the #? time - prompted in part by a discussion at work about a column that called Bartleby the first "occupier." You know what? That's ridiculous. I saw the column, kind of skimmed it, so maybe I missed the point, but in going back to read the source - well, calling him the first occupier either totally misunderstands the story or the movement, or both. Bartleby is a strange and ruined man - we learn at the conclusion what ruined him - and his refusal to take on any work assignment that's not to his liking and ultimately his refusal to remove himself from the office where he's made his hovel of a home is not meant to be a protest or a statement or any kind of will for change - it's a mode of despair and complete alienation, a cry from the soul of a person completely obviated by the 19th-century world of business, the tedium of daily office life, the inability to connect with any other human being or to have any kind of spiritual, artistic, or personal life outside of the life of wage labor. Is this a novella particularly linked with the 19th century? Obviously we no longer have scriveners in the workplace, but people chained to their keyboards are the 21st-century equivalent. At my own workplace, we have recently experienced a very sad episode of an employee who was obviously mentally deranged for a period of time - and no one really knew how to deal with this situation or to reach out and comfort this employee and bring help. In some ways, though this co-worker was nothing like Bartleby, it was a similar situation - just as real today as then: we are caught in our work and our responsibilities and unable to reach across a gap to help another other than through the protocols of work. Today, we have HR referrals, medical leave, and so forth - but these protocols are bureaucratic and designed to protect the employer's interests and they don't really cure the ailment of a tormented soul.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Realism, Surrealism, and the perplexing oddities of Cesar Aira's fiction

Cesar Aira's "How I Became a Nun" is an intriguing and highly perplexing novella. It verges on greatness but doesn't quite make it over the top, for these reasons, I think: As I noted in a recent post on one of Aira's stories that appeared in The New Yorker (it was the first I'd heard of Aira), he has a very peculiar style: his story - and this novella as well - at first appears to be a very straightforward piece of realist or naturalistic writing, and then Aira slyly works into the narrative one or more totally bizarre observations, events, or images - and at first you think, well, that's odd, but maybe that's how things are done in Argentina, and it takes a while, as you proceed with the reading, to realize, wait a minute, he's created an entirely surreal world of fiction, every bit as strange as the weirdest of Kafka or Borges,m and maybe even more weird because of the creepy way he slips these elements into his fiction. In How I Became a Nun, for example, we begin with a straightforward account of how the narrator moved into a new city and her dad took her to have ice cream for the first time and, to her surprise and his annoyance, she hates the taste - and he forces her to try to eat her ice cream. In some ways, a typical set-up for a story about a young child and ongoing control struggles with father and adjustment to a new city, etc. - but, no, it turns out the ice cream has been poisoned (OK, we can accept that - and for the moment don't even question how odd that is) and then the dad gets into a fight with the vendor, kills him, goes to prison, the child is then hospitalized for a year (is that possible?) and in the hospital is visited by strange visions - possible, maybe, but things are getting weirder - and eventually you realize you're in a different world - not this one - though it looks a lot like this one. Aira could a great novelist, and I will no doubt read more of his works, but some of the elements in this novel are just oddities and perverse: why is his narrator sometimes and boy, sometimes a girl? why is does the title apparently bear no relation to the text? Why, at the end (spoiler, obviously) does the narrator actually die? If he could rein in the eccentricities just a little and make this work slightly more approachable, give it more of a structure, this would be an even stronger piece.

Monday, December 12, 2011

One of the strangest mental breakdowns in literature : How I Became a Nun

"How I Became a Nun," by Cesar Aira, continue to be totally odd and totally compelling, as I'm now about 2/3 through this novella- to give you an idea of what happens, the kinds of things that Aira imagines: the narrator (whose gender alternates seemingly randomly between boy and girl) goes to see his (or her) father in prison - father was imprisoned for killing the ice-cream vendor who'd sold the son/daughter poisoned strawberry ice cream at the start of the novella - and as they're waiting for the father in what's probably a visiting room the girl/boy wanders off and moves down some corridors and ends up in a skylight, where he/she spends the night while everyone's frantically in search - on discovery, thinks about saying he/she was in hiding as part of a plot to spring father from prison. Even weirder scene, the young boy/girl in 1st grade, not yet able to read, sees lines scrawled in the bathroom, goes back and copies them in notebook, of course they turn out to be vile swear words - when mother at home sees them, she comes to see the teacher, and the teacher comes back into classroom and totally flips, her language breaks apart, she tells the class to shun the boy/girl (Aira), he/she is evil - it's one of the strangest and most compelling and spooky breakdowns I've ever come across in fiction. Not sure where this novella is leading, but Aira clearly in the tradition of Kafka, Borges, Bolano (maybe) - and he deserves greater recognition.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Another excellent Latin American writer: Cesar Aira

Following up on a recent New Yorker story by a writer whom I'd never heard of, and by a subsequent recommendation from a reader of this blog (thanks!), I grabbed a copy of Cesar Aira's novella "How I Became a Nun." Should have probably finished it in one sitting, but didn't, so I'm not sure yet how to judge this novella or even understand it - but the first 30 pages or so are very compelling. Starts off as the narrator describes a childhood memory from age 6 when she (or he?) first encountered ice cream. She or he? The title of this novella would lead you to suppose the narrator is a woman, but in the first section, which is generally described in the most realistic, natural fashion - an account of the trip to the ice-cream shop, where child tastes strawberry ice cream, finds it repulsive, father brutally insists that child eat the ice cream, at last father tastes it, realizes it is awful, fights with the ice-cream vendor - the pronouns shift, sometimes narrator is he or son, sometimes she. At first I thought this was a translation of production issue (there are other typos in this edition), but no - its obviously Aira's way of making reality both concrete and shifty, elusive. Story builds as the ice cream, poisoned apparently, leads child to enter hospital for an extended, lonely stay, replete with observations of strange, surreal events, such as the dwarf who visits daily and offers prayers. So - here's another original, powerful Latin American writer, obviously working in the long shadow of Borges, but with an original voice.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Four disappointing books I read in 2012

Last year I posted about the most disappointing books I'd read, but most of the books I read this year were quite good, and the few that weren't had some redeeming qualities, so this year's list may be more about me and my reading preferences and less a true catalog of the year's biggest losers. Readers of this blog will know that I read (or at least started) several books by debut novelists in 2011, and none blew me away - but I'll put those novels aside: they're only disappointing relative to your expectations, you can't really expect a young novelist to rise to the level of some of the greats I read this year - Tolstoy, Cervantes, William Trevor. Maybe they'll get there. But there were a few books that disappointed me this year, for various reasons, so here's my look at four disappointing books I read in 2011:

Tender Is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Okay, it's beautifully written at times, and the story of Scott and Zelda is powerful and romantic and tragic, but is this novel really any good? I found it very hard to care about the characters or believe in them - they drink, they fight, they act like spoiled rich kids, it may have been shocking and moving to read this novel - 70 years ago - but I found it tedious and unlikable. Dick Diver is supposed to be one of the world's leading analysts, but nothing in the novel makes us believe he's any more than a drunk - the only "analytic" work we see him do at all is fall in love with a young, vulnerable patient.

The Accident, by Ismail Kadare. I did like his collection of novellas, Agamemnon's Daughter, and I give this Albanian expatriate great credit for his bravery in writing from exile about a horribly cruel regime, but this short novel - about a taxi crash and the relations among the people in the vehicle - starts off well but then goes nowhere, endless existential drivel and never coming to a point. The plight of the European intellectual? Who cares?

The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil. Jeffrey Eugenides, discussing 1980s student bookshelves, amusingly refers to the "point-scoring Robert Musil" - even more so today with the beautiful 2-volume edition. I want to read it. I've tried! More than once! And though it starts off as if it will be a great, monumental novel about the decline and corruption of an early-20th century European kingdom (Austria?), after several hundred pages I find myself completely lost, just waiting for the characters to take shape and to do something. I guess the title should have been a warning. This one, for me, goes down with Finnegans Wake and Gravity's Rainbow: I'm sure they're great, if you persevere, but I don't have a lifetime to do so.

The Poorhouse Fair, by John Updike. Readers of this blog will know that Updike for me is one of the great writers of the century, especially his 4.5 Rabbit novels and every story he ever wrote. I've read almost all of his fiction from the past 20 years but haven't read all the early works, so this year I went back to this novel, his first. Essentially, it's amazingly good as a first novel and a very unconventional theme and setting (a home for the elderly) for a young novelist, and the sex and profanity must have been bold in 1950, but ultimately I was only interested in the book as a window through which to view the author Updike would become. The novel itself seems really dated and not all that compelling.

Let's hope for no disappointments in 2012!

Friday, December 9, 2011

The European and the universal in the Best European Fiction 2012

Finished the very interesting Aleksandar Hemon anthology "Best European Fiction 2012," and following up on yesterday's post am thinking more about what's "European" about this collection. Many of the stories, including some of my favorites, are not intimately connected with any one country or language - they really could take place anywhere - adding another favorite from near the end of the collection, the Spanish story called Today about a one day in the life of a 30ish man going off his meds. But a few of the stories offer news and views into a particular culture - one story about some Ukrainian thugs opening up a gay nightclub, another about a middle-aged actor visiting his more successful brother somewhere in the Rhineland (the description of the landscape and the wine bars gives a real sense of place), one about two women who fall for each other at a club (a little glimpse of contemporary European youth culture), I think one or two comment at least obliquely on the Balkan wars, the Scottish story the touches on ethnic/religious rivalries in British football. But overall the best are the universal ones: is that just my taste (or my limitations)?, or does it say something about the best short fiction: very difficult to truly develop a sense of place and culture in short fiction, short fiction being more about a single action or a single character, and therefore less culturally bound, more universal in theme (and appeal).

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What's "European" about the Best European Fiction 2012?

Wondering as I continue to read through Aleksandar Hemon's anthology "Best European Fiction 2012" what exactly is European about the stories other than place setting and language. Noted in earlier posts that the European writers, if this is a representative sample, tend to be more engaged in experiments with form and voice than American writers (several stories wrote in one paragraph fragments, one in sentence fragments, one in essentially a long take, one with interpolated news bulletins, another in the 2nd person, one with paragraphs assembled in random chronological order) - but I don't know that this is exactly avant-garde - seems a little derriere garde, as American writers were more interested in formal experiments in the 70s and 80s than they are today. Of course the setting of a story is often revealing and important - but many of these stories could I think just as easily be set in the U.S. Could the same be true of American stories? Could they be transposed to the U.K. or to Europe? Sometimes - as we're in a much more global culture today than we were 50 years ago, and many stories today are about rootless, alienated people - they'd be the same in any setting. But I think there's something more particularly American about the best American fiction, an openness of style and point of view, that would not hold or make sense in a European setting: can you picture an Ann Beattie or a Charles Baxter or a Tom McGuane of a George Saunders story transposed to Europe? Much less a Raymond Carver or a John Updike or a Eudora Welty?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The funniest story in Best European Fiction 2012

Really enjoyed Duncan Bush's story Bigamy in Aleksandar Hemon's anthology "Best European Fiction 2012); Bush is Welsh, writing in English - is there a reason why by and large I've liked the English-language stories in this collection the best? Certainly part of it may be that they're writing from the same literary tradition I'm steeped in - but then again one reason to even pick up an anthology like this one is to get some news from other cultures, other tongues. I'm wondering if in part it's that the selection pool for English-language stories is so much deeper: for the stories from other languages, the anthologists had to wait for the story to appear in translation. Perhaps many of the very best are not translated into English, ever? Anyway, Bush's story is probably the funniest in the collection: a bunch of (construction?) workers on a break read and discuss a news item about a bigamist who's been outed - a truck driver with two families, two lives, in two towns in Wales - and they discuss how this could be possible, all the possible slip-ups and difficulties, and the story then ends with one of the characters, the narrator, reflecting on how his long-time girlfriend can tell in seconds if he's been out at a bar or pub flirting with another woman. It's just the right haunting and serious note on which to end this story of boisterous jabber about a seemingly innocuous or curious incident in the news.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Best European Fiction and the long shadow of Joyce

Judging from Aleksndar Hemon's selections in "Best European Fiction 2012" many European women fiction writers are working in the long shadow of Sylvia Plath (suicide, death, sadness - maybe we're all under that shadow?) and Irish writers work under the long shadow of Joyce. Obviously. But the surprise is that the Scottish writers in this anthology falls under that shadow as well - but maybe that's because he's of Irish ancestry (maybe even birth) and living in Scotland: anyway, can anyone read the McLoughlin story about a young boy (lad) who goes with his Dad to a football (soccer) game and not think about Portrait of the Artist? We have the same perspective strictly and artfully limited to the perceptions of the boy, as he is both spectator and participant in a Dad's day at a riotous football match: his first visit into a pub, a long bus ride to the match, the young boy's scary perspective on the tumultuous events of the match, the dim awareness of the cultural tensions (the boy and his Dad rooting for a Celtic team playing a Scottish team - and the sense of being an outsider and in an under class), the fear of separation and of injury, minor humiliations - and most of all the language, with the very particular Scottish-Irish idioms and phrasing, such as: He didn't understand, but. This story isn't on the Joycean level - what is? - in that there's no true epiphany - but a very well crafted story that brings us into the life and consciousness of another.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The two best stories (so far) in Best European Fiction 2012

The two best stories so far (about 2/3rds through it) in Aleksandar Hemon's collection "Best European Fiction 2012" are both about children: what does this say about European fiction? about Hemon's taste as an anthologist? About mine as a reader? Can't really generalize but though there are quite a few good stories in this anthology the tops so far for me are a Norwegian story (by someone name B. Breiteig) about two misfit boys at some kind of boarding school who slip away from authorities and the narrator, led by a very troubled youth, enter the crafts room or shop and proceed to do a great deal of damage to all the crafts projects - and maybe to each other. They're caught in the end, and you know the results will not be good - reminds me a little of the 50s novella Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and this story, being Norwegian, is particularly haunting as an odd foretelling of the crazy massacre of Norwegian campers that happened just a few months ago. The other really good story is a Swiss (French language) story, by someone named Revaz?, also about kids but this not from their POV and not misbehaving kids but just the opposite - it's in the form more or less of a letter from a woman who runs an orphanage telling the kids she'll be away for a few hours and leaving instructions: at first, it's just wash your hands, serve snacks to the younger children, that kind of thing, but gradually we realize this woman is totally abandoning the children and leaving them instructions about how to get on with the rest of their lives without any adult supervision - at once very strange and horrifying, but on another level you realize, to a degree, that this is what school - what life - is all about: leaving us on our own.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The 10 Best Books (I Read) in 2011

This year a lot of my reading involved classics, and many of those books I read by contemporaries were collections from a lifetime of work. 2011 was, for me anyway, a weak year for new fiction, particularly for new novels. Professional critics will have their ten-best lists of new fiction, but most readers don't or can't read enough new fiction to make any sensible judgment on the best new fiction of the year. Why should we? For me, it's important to return from time to time to the great books I've loved and to read for the first time some that I've overlooked. So my ten-best list for 2011 is really the 10 Best Books (I read) in 2011:

Selected Stories, by William Trevor. Retrospective story collections were definitely among the best books published in late 2010 or 2011, and this collection makes it clear that without a doubt Trevor is one of the greatest writers of our time.

The New Yorker Stories, by Ann Beattie. Another great collection that gives a terrific complete overview of Beattie's remarkable contribution over so many years to American short fiction.

Gryphon, by Charles Baxter. The third great story collection from the past year shows novelist and old friend Baxter's great skill and broad range in short fiction.

Collected Stories, by Eudora Welty. Among the books I read in 2011 from the library back shelves were two other great short-story collections. Reading Welty's entire short-story corpus, you see that she had a narrow range and narrow social scope, but incredible insight and perspicacity.

The Death of Ivan Ilych, and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy. Despite my slamming of The Kreutzer Sonata (which I think is unlikely to harm Tolstoy's reputation), this collection, in the Volkhansky-Pevear translation, has some extraordinary pieces, and it's a great way for those daunted by W&P or AK to begin to understand and enjoy Tolstoy.

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. Moving on to the best novels I read this year, DQ has to top the list: two of the greatest characters in world literature, very funny, very thoughtful, sharply critical of society in its time and, by extension, in ours, easy to read though not to hold - wish I'd read it on a Kindle.

Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust. Wait, maybe this one should top the list? In the Lydia Davis translation, every page, every sentence, every phrase is full of insight and beauty. No doubt Proust is not for all tastes, but every writer from the past hundred years has learned from Proust and lives in his shadow.

Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald. A totally quirky novel that in the short time since its publication has become a classic and has influenced many young novelists and essayists. Many have tried, but none can write about time, place, history, and memory better than Sebald - his early death was a great loss to us all.

Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson. I'll make this a plus-one by adding the other Keilson novel published in English in 2010/2011: Death of the Adversary. Two great and totally forgotten novels from the mid-20th century by the Dutch writer who died this year at 100! Both these novels, about Europe under the shadow of the Nazis, are strange and sad and give, hard as it is to believe, a completely fresh perspective on their tragic time.

In a future post: Some books that disappointed me during 2011.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Best European Fiction? France is so far out it's back in

You tell me - how surprising is it that, in Aleksandar Hemon's anthology "Best European Fiction 2012," which includes one "best" story of the year (the "year" appears to be the year the story is available in English, not the year of original publication, which seems to range through the past decade) from every (I think) European country and even language group (e.g., one each from England, Scotland, Wales) the most straightforward, simple, and conventional story in the first half of the book is the story from: France! What happened to all the sons and daughters of Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes? What happened to all the metacritics and hypertext addicts, the constructionists and the deconstructionists, the postmodernists and the even the existentialists? Helas! What we get is a rather pleasant story titled something like Juergan, the Best Son-in-Law in the World, about a young woman and her husband devoted to her mother (living in Bavaria) who help her out when she's lost her cat (yes, there's a little twist at the end, as well as an author's note that she wrote this story as catalog text for a photo exhibit) - and yet - I think Hemon's selection of this story to represent France in 2012, alongside a Slovakian stories written as one long and indiscernible paragraph, is a bit of a hyperjoke in itself - France is so far out that it's back in.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Post Magic Realism: Story from Argentine writer in The New Yorker

Argentine writer Cesar Aira (crossword-puzzle makers around the world are thanking heaven for providing this name) appears in The New Yorker this week with a story called The Musical Brain - I've never heard of Aira, and wonder if TNY sees him as another one of the Latin American writers whom they will introduce to a wide, English-speaking audience (the most recent being Bolano - too late for Balano to enjoy the renown, sadly): This story though not perfect (it ends kind of nowhere, and I wonder if it's actually a piece from a longer work?) is really distinct and unusual. The long history of Latin American magic realism and highly imaginative writing (e.g., Borges, Cortazar) very evident in the ancestry of this story, yet Aira puts his own touch on the material - you could almost call it post-Magic Realism. Story begins as what seems to be an ordinary memoiristic story - mature writer recalling moment of his youth when he had dinner in a fine restaurant with his family - and then something strange happens in the restaurant: people bring boxes of books up to an older woman at a head table. We think, how could this be? What? And then Aira explains it was some kind of fundraiser and we're thinking, OK, maybe the customs are different in Argentina, and we go on thinking this is a realistic story and then another odd thing happens - and it really takes quite a while before we get our bearings and realize that this whole fictive world is like a dream-state, vivid and real memories mixed with surreal events and circumstances (two feuding dwarfs entombed in a blood-filled statue, e.g.) - but all told with a cool, controlled tone and diction. Aira is clearly in the tradition of Kafka, as well - and I hope we'll see more of his work in English.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

That qualities that make Alice Munro one of the greats of our time

Leaving Maverly is the latest story from Alice Munro in The New Yorker, along with the good news that she has another collection due out next year - this story shows some new direction in her work, as well as the qualities that make Alice the Great one of the two greatest short-story writers of our time: We have the familiar Canadian smalltown postwar (i.e., late 40s early 50s) setting (though less emphasis on the Canadiana than usual) and we have the Munro quality of an ambling plot that develops and finds is shape as it moves along. First few paragraphs describe a young girl who has to leave her job in a movie theater and recommends a replacement, and the crotchety theater owner is skeptical but hires the girl. From the first 10 paragraphs or so, we think the story may be about the girl leaving the job, or more likely about the theater owner - then we begin to learn more about the new hire and we think it will be about her, and then we learn that she needs someone (a police officer, as it turns out) to escort her home, and the story turns out to be, primarily, about him and his invalid wife: we learn the whole back story of their courtship and marriage, and then we follow them across quite a swath of time, as is typical of many recent Munro stories. The young theater ticket taker leaves town and from time to time crosses paths with the police officer - finally seeing him when he's working in a hospital where his wife is mortally ill. OK, that's all pretty familiar Munro territory - but this story, also like some of her more recent, is quite compressed and tells a lot (not enough, perhaps) by indirection. The police officer is kind of dull and mundane; the most interesting character and the one who really goes through conflict and changes is the young girl, who is raised in a strict household, rebels, joins the counterculture, divorces, in the end oddly comes onto the police officer - what has changed her? What has happened in her life? Most writers would make the story about her - but Munro always defies expectations. In this case, the story is not one of her greatest - it feels as if there's a lot of empty space in this story - but it's a precis of her late writing style and of the decisions and chances that she always takes.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Is Best European Fiction really the Best?

Still trying to discern if there are overriding themes in Aleksandar Hemon's collection "Best European Fiction 2012" - can certainly see from the first 8 or so stories that these are edgier and more unconventional in narrative style than the typical Best American collections, each story very much emphasizes a voice: the one by the Irish writer about a scholar visiting a central European country and his oblique relationship with the young woman assigned to be his guide (or monitor?), with its very short, staccato sentences, is one example - also some inventive use of forms: A story about a woman on an Antarctic expedition that juxtaposes scenes in Antarctica with scenes of her remembering her mother's death - not that these are highly experimental like some American works in the '60s or some contemporary French fiction, which is all about form and style and with very little content - but these stories seem unsettled and, to be honest, not as finely polished as some of the stories you'd typically find in a Best American. Maybe this has to do with the format: one story from each country and each language group (i.e., a story in Gaelic, Welsh, Catalan, etc. - not just Spain, Ireland, UK, etc.) - have to wonder how a Best American would look if there were one story from each state, and just suggesting that makes you see that it would be a distorted view of what's actually the best in American fiction - not that all writers are in NY or LA, but you can see what kind of compromises you'd be forced to make if picking one from each state rather than 50 (or 20) best.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Obession and unfulfilled desire in the Best European Fiction

It's hard (for me) to know whether it's his taste or whether this collection is truly representative of the best European fiction but least from the first few stories in Aleksander Hemon's collection "Best European Fiction 2012" we can make a few general observations: European short fiction is edgier and more ambitious in form than American short fiction - or at least it seems so. This anthology is organized in an unsual way - thematically - so I can't generalize too much as the first four stories were about love and desire - so although I think so far this collection doesn't have much to say about war or politics or the social trends that are rocking Europe (immigration, assimilation, sudden wealth, economic crises, terrorism), it does seem that these push the edges of form and narrative voice in ways that American fiction doesn't: compare this with any of the recent Best American story collections and you'll see the difference: most American stories anthologized are pretty much straight realism/naturalism, although they tend to be about outsiders, loners, and losers. First 4 stories in this collection: a failed artist who develops an obsessive crush on man sitting for portrait; a person living in youthful poverty in contemporary Croatian city and falls for a girl at a club (surprise ending - for some - in this story); story narrated by a dog, who watches his owners despair over lost love (another bit of a surprise ending, which I think brings on a wrong note - should have been simpler), and widow (only story so far about an older person) who develops an obsession with a much younger Sicilian actress - note that each of these, to varying degrees, is about obsession and unfulfilled desire.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hamlet, Iago, and Cervantes: An introduction and a final word on Don Quixote

Finished Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote" - and then read Harold Bloom's intro to the Edith Grossman translation of the novel (I always read intro's last - it's the only way to understand them, and I read them not to direct me while I'm reading the novel but to engage my thoughts once I've finished - I want an adversary, not a guide) - Bloom is as steeped in world literature as any critic alive (or dead, for that matter), and his intro to DQ is very "literary," in that he focuses on 1. the multiple layers of illusion and reality throughout the novel, noting rightly that every character in volume 2 either was a character in volume 1 or knows of the characters from having read volume 1; 2. the relationship between Cervantes and his near-exact contemporary, Shakespeare. Specifically, he compares DQ with Hamlet - sort of a parlor game, if you ask me: yes, they are two of the most profound characters in the history of world literature, and yes both suffer, or seem, from madness and delusions, and yes, both are outcasts from society - but the differences are vast. Hamlet has a true problem that he needs to solve, or resolve - at which he fails. DQ has no clear mission at all other than to fulfill his mad fantasy. He's more like Iago - both motiveless, one toward evil (malignancy) and the other toward good (beneficence). Bloom correctly notes the extreme violence and cruelty, especially in volume two, but completely misses or overlooks the class content to this cruelty - Cervantes is more of a social critic than he lets on. He wisely notes, however, that the Spanish empire was in decline during Cervantes's lifetime - part of the cultural climate of DQ (not only the rise of the renaissance but the death of the empire) and he shrewdly speculates on autobiographical elements in the novel: Cervantes's sense that he gave his life in service to the King and was not recognized, either as a warrior or (in his lifetime) as a writer. Lots to think about in Bloom's intro - though it's better read as an afterword, in my opinion.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The two most despicable characters in Don Quixote

Can there be any doubt that the duke and duchess (unnamed, as far as I can tell, much like Sancho Panza's donkey) are the two most despicable characters in Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote"? I thought we were pretty much rid of these snobs and louts, but, no, as DQ works his way home, defeated, beaten, depressed, and humiliated, the send out their thugs to grab DQ and SP and divert them, bring them into the castle, where they are once again subjected to harassment humiliation and, in SP's case, two some physical abuse. Oh, what fun it must be for these two members of the so-called nobility to torment someone who is obviously weak and mentally disturbed! I don't know anything about the history of criticism of Don Quixote, but I sure hope that this has been remarked upon by all readers - and I hope readers and critics don't write this off as "irony": how "ironic" it is that the unlettered SP and the simple DQ behave with greater nobility than the aristocrats, and so forth - no, it's not "irony" - what Cervantes is showing here is the true conflict of class relations, one class contributing nothing to the good of society, totally undeserving of its privileges, which it holds onto through force and intimidation, and exploiting in every possible way the class that is "below" it: this is a system bound to implode, and in fact was beginning to do so in Cervantes's time. He saw through the contradictions of his era, and captured this in his great novel. Have others seen this as well? I hope so.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Two brief criticisms of Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote" is one of the great works of world literature - which is to say that it's not perfect - greatness is sometimes measured by or appreciated through its imperfections, and even Homer nods - so here are two brief criticism: Why is DQ so mean to Sancho Panza, even at the end, insisting that SP carry out the ludicrous instructions that DQ allegedly heard during his visit to the Cave of Montesinos (?) indicating that SP had to lash himself several thousand times in order to free Dulcinea from her enchantment. DQ, so morally sensible in many regards, should drop this issue and stand up in defense of his loyal squire, not keep insisting on self-laceration. Second, aren't there just a few too many interpolated tales that involve women going around disguised as handsome young guys? What's the point of this? I know, it's a familiar renaissance trope (perhaps more plausible in the days before everyone had eyeglasses), but still - these stories get very repetitive in this book of great variations. But maybe there's a special point to the final such story, as DQ is being welcomed as a hero in Barcelona: Here, DQ offers to go to Africa to resolve this crisis, but he is refused an a boatload of men sails off to rescue the man held captive - and the succeed. Is it important for DQ to see that he is not needed to rescue everyone in distress and to right all the evils of the world? That the world can go on without him - that he's been superannuated? Perhaps this final episode, in which DQ plays virtually no role, is an important gateway that will allow DQ to retire meekly to his village, with SP following and the donkey bearing the battered arms.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Don Quixote

As Don Quixote and Sancho Panza head toward Barcelona where DQ will (he thinks) participate in a tourney, the have yet another strange encounter: DQ feeling very depressed and unable to eat - he is apparently evaluating to whole purpose of his quest and of his life - a spiritual moment that reminds us of the outset of the Divine Comedy perhaps - as SP eats heartily and tries to console. As day breaks they see dead bodies hanging in the trees above the - a truly ghastly moment that is soon interrupted by the arrival of Roque (?) a well known bandit from Catelonia. R recognizes DQ and shows him great deference and courtesy and escorts him into Barcelona. Once again the layers of reality and illusion and narrative structure are almost labyrinthine. We have a fictional character meeting a historic character within a novel and the historic figure recognizes the fictional character from having read the book about him - and of course the novel we're reading purports to be a historical account written in Arabic and translated by Cervantes and in the second volume it refutes the accuracy of a pirate sequel - so in all of this who is the real DQ and what does it mean for a character in a novel to be "real"? The reality of a character in a Booker - regardless of whether the author bases his character on a historical personage - is the life that they take on in our mind and in our culture. Isn't it fair to say that DQ is at least as real as others who have lived in flesh and blood? We are almost like the character in this novel ourselves - we feel we know DQ and would recognize and honor him if we came across him. Their behavior - the duke the bandit the guests at th inn who recognize DQ as a celebrity is just like ours - and in that sense we too are characters in Don Quixote.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Don Quixote

As Don Quixote and Sancho Panza leave the castle of the duke and duchess and move on toward what will be their last series of adventures they have an encounter that , as Sancho notes, is unique in this novel: neither they nor anyone else is hurt, robbed, or humiliated during the course of this one. DQ and SP come across a group of men transporting some shrouded figures DQ asks what the shrouding might conceal - uh oh, we expect him to begin another manic delusion and destroy whatever is under wraps and to provoke more violence but no - he sees these are statues of saints and he carefully explains the great works of each (though he thinks each is a saint and a knight as well). SP is deeply moved by DQ's intelligence, and DQ begins the most moving passage of self-reflection in the novel: these saints were committed to a holy and spiritual cause and he is in a carnal and earthly pursuit and he wonders how he will be judged in comparison - which raises explicitly for the first time: What exactly is his quest? Is he a holy saint in some way? Is there something sacred in his seemingly absurd belief that he can wonder the earth in the hopes of protecting the weak and righting wrongs? Is he existing on two levels, the sacred and the profane? And are we to be judged in our reaction and response to DQ and others like him, the mad and homeless of our day?

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Is Sancho Panza fit to govern?

So Sancho Panza has finally had enough - when some of his "subjects" barge into his room at night, convince him that the castle is under attack and that he has to be their fearless leader - they strap him, naked, inside two shields and tie him tight so that he can't move - he topples over, they trod all over him, battering him once again, then they cheer and thank him for leading them to victory. They take him back to bed and he basically passes out - at which they feel a slight bit of remorse. These are the subjects of the duke and duchess (never named) who are getting such pleasure out of tormenting SP (and Don Quixote as well). Then, to their surprise, when Sancho awakes he says he's had enough of this, he was never meant to be the governor of an "insula" and he had no idea how stressful the work would be - he'd rather govern his herd of sheep or goats, and so long as his faithful (never named) gray donkey has enough grain he's happy, and he saddles up and leaves - to their mild amusement. Is Sancho really unfit to govern? Obviously not - he's shown himself to be more wise and thoughtful, let alone more compassionate, than those in power. To paraphrase the great contemporary writer William Trevor - from the conclusion of one of his stories: The failure was the world's, not his.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bullying in Don Quixote

Return after brief interlude to Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote," where I left Sancho Panza as the appointed governor of what he considers an "insula" but is actually a village - where a number of people, paid by the duke, try to trick Sancho and make him look idiotic: the so-called doctor who tells him he shouldn't eat anything, the various disputants who come before him to resolve their quarrels - and time after time Sancho proves himself the smartest of the bunch, and everyone's amazed that an uneducated peasant shows such intelligence, wisdom, and judgment - and would actually make a great ruler. Just like, even today, people cannot accept that a poorly educated tradesman's son from the provinces could write the finest literature in the history of the world. Throughout this entire section of the novel, SP and DQ himself - still held inactive on the Duke's estate but yearning to head off for a tournament - both prove themselves far better men than their so-called superiors. The duke, ever trying to make things miserable for others just to entertain himself and his coterie, sends a delegation off to see Teresa Panza and tell her about her husband's elevation to the governorship - now, Teresa may not be as smart as Sancho and may fall for this and decide she'd like the life of luxury - she seems to be a character heading for a fall - but is it really her fault if she does overreach and then suffer in disappointment? Or is she just another victim of class-based bullying?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Another possible explanation for why Henry can't thrown (in The Art of Fielding)

Small (6 of us) book group discussion last night on Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding," not universally loved but generally liked and admired - I think we all felt the book was easy to read and yet, surprisingly, carried a lot of baggage and we divided down the middle on what aspects we liked and didn't: some (including me) liked the baseball story and the focus on the young men coming of age and others preferred the trials and tribulations of Affenlight pere and fille. As noted in other posts, I built up no sympathy for Affenlight despite Harbach's best attempts and Pella remained an enigma. I was interested throughout in the story of Henry and Schwartz. Harbach doesn't tie the strands neatly together at the end - and I like that, the sense of openness at the conclusion of the novel - and I can see why the novel is such a commercial success, a coming of age story, with cinematic (and sequel) possiblities - Henry a very likable and sufficiently enigmatic character. The novel, by and large, is about his journey (and Schwartz's to a lesser degree) from innocence to experience. I offered a possible explanation as to why Henry lost the ability to throw: remember, despite his loss of fielding skills, he remains a good hitter, even improves his batting (and kinds of wins the final game with an at bat as well): he has moved from defense, a reactive skill in which he is devoid of body and intellect, to offense, in which he has to think about everything (the battle of wits with the pitcher and catcher in the last at bat) and has to do something aggressive to put the ball in play: strike at it, literally. As he matures as a person, he becomes a hitter, not a fielder. This interpretation leaves unanswered why he would throw the ball at Owen's face: repressing homoerotic feelings? Anger at Owen's privileges and privileged relation with Affenlight? Owen should not be reading on the bench during a game - no team would allow that, excepting of course the Red Sox.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Diamonds are forever: The ending of The Art of Fielding

Well, yes, Chad Harach's "The Art of Fielding" does conclude on the diamond, as it should, though - as I expected and hoped - not in a Chip Hilton heroic magical ending but with a touch of sadness and missed opportunities. It's truly a coming of age novel, particularly in regard to the main and by far the most interesting character, Henry - the shortstop who loses his ability to throw. We never actually do learn why that happened - a psychologist whom he's seeing toward the end offers some pat explanation about an oedipal conflict with the older player, Schwartz - but it almost feels as if an editor made Harbach splice that explainer into the text. The national championship baseball game strains credibility in a number of ways: a player would take a phone call during the game? He would share some bad news he heard with another player? A player would deliberately put his face in the way of a fastball? And they'd let him stay in the game afterwards? - but the game does move the story toward its real two-part conclusion: the burial at sea of Affenlight (a scene coyly reminiscent of Four Weddings & a Funeral) and Schwartz hitting grounders to Henry, very nice last scene. M and I agree that we never warmed up or got to the character of Affenlight (or his daughter, Pella, for that matter) - I find it troubling that Harbach at least seems to want us to feel sympathy for Affenlight - he's meant to be, I think, a grand failure, something like the father figure in the excellent novel Gorgeous Lies - but in fact it's absolutely impossible to believe he would be so reckless and in fact unethical in having a relationship with a student, male or female. From the outside, he looks like either a predator or a fool - but from the inside of the novel, he's meant to be heroic. To me, this turns out to be a very readable and smart novel though I wish it were focused on the players rather than the adults.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Is there joy in Westish?: Suspecting we're not heading toward a happy ending in The Art of Fielding

Looks as if Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding" is building toward an ending - and the ending looks as if it will be exactly where it should be, on the diamond. As the Westish baseball team enters the national div III series (against Amherst - funny!), the central character of the book, Henry, flies down to SC and joins the team - he expects that he's there as a spectator but can anyone be surprised that he's, first off, drawn onto the field and into the dugout? And isn't it inevitable that he'll get into the game? I hope so! I also see that Harbach is a shrewd and unconventional writer that he will not turn this work into a Chip Hilton novel - I would guess that everything doesn't turn out just perfectly for Henry, that he's not fully reconciled with his quirky, difficult friend, the older star player Schwartz, that there is not joy in Westish at the end of the series - but we'll see. Over the course of several posts I have expressed some reservations about this highly praised novel, but by and large I have found and am finding it very compelling to read - a good story line, well-conceived central characters, a very sure hand at writing, not so stylish as to be flashy but well crafted, well observed, and some nice literary touches and allusions as a bonus. I question Harbach's portrayal of Affenlight, the college president, and of his daughter, Pella, who's to me an improbable figure in this story, but he's very good on the college ballplayers and the overall feeling of teamwork, competition, success, failure.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why Henry can't throw: The Art of Fielding

Pretty close to the end of Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding" and I'm glad to see that college prez Affenlight gets what's coming to him - or what we all could see and he could not: he is obviously jeopardizing him job right from the beginning as this 60+ college prez begins a relationship with one of the students. Hello? Is it possible that Affenlight wouldn't realize the impropriety of this? Is it possible he wouldn't see how the board of trustees or for that matter his campus rivals would use this to oust him - or much worse? The whole Affenlight angle is to me a distraction in this otherwise pretty strong novel (not because it's a gay relationship, I don't care about that one way or the other - same plot demise could have and would have developed had the student lover been a woman - in fact, we are expected, I think, to have more sympathy for him because he's a just-emerging gay man - had he been with a woman student we would have seen him as more of a lech and a predator but in this case we seem him as more of a pathetic old man, an Aschenbach) - but I'm much more interested in the main story line about the baseball team as it moves toward a national championship and as the shortstop and central character to the novel, Henry, comes to terms with his sudden, inexplicable ability to throw. Maybe the inexplicable will be explained in the last chapters? Please don't attribute this failure to a repressed homoerotic desire or anything so simplistic or reductive. Some things can't be explained - they just are.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

An echo of Thomas Mann? - in The Art of Fielding

Nearing the end of Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding" and am glad that much of this portion of the novel focuses on the struggles of Henry as he tries to come to terms with his sudden and inexplicable inability to throw a baseball - forces him to think about his role on the team, his future prospects, and his waning friendship with one-time mentor, Schwartz. Issue of Henry's sister who got drunk on a campus visit seems to have been simply dropped from the story (wish there were more about Henry's awkward and changing relationship with his family - an important coming-of-age in college theme), and his sexuality, is, oddly, barely developed in this novel that by and large is very frank and open about sexuality - is repressed homoeroticism his issue, after all? I'd glad, even though it's late in the novel, that H expresses concern and puzzlement about Schwartz's abandoning him during his first months on campus - I never understood that and didn't believe it and think H would have been mor puzzled by it than he seems. If he is a latent homosexual, his story does in that way link with Affenlight, the college prez, who wrote his one important book on homosexual themes in literature and who now, in his 60s, comes out as a homosexual and has an affair with an undergrad. This aspect of the novel really troubles me: how would we read this if the affair were with a woman undergrad? (To be fair, one of the characters makes this same observation, but she's just worried that the girl might bring a harassment charge.) Clearly, the relationship is exploitative and unhealthy and verges on abusive and I think we shouldn't just write it off as an old man at last being liberated from sexual taboos. Then again, I'm not sure yet how Harbach will resolve this theme: Affenlight definitely reminds him - his name is almost an echo - of Mann's Aschenbach: both of them pathetic, brilliant men with no self-knowledge or self-awareness, who take on increasingly risky behavior at their own peril.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Plot v story: elements of narrative in the novel

Difference between a plot and a series of events that happen to a character: a plot involves a character confronting an object or obstacle or challenge, meeting the challenge (or failing to), and growing or changing in some way - a dialectical process. A mere story line is a linear series of events involving a set of characters and a setting or settings drawn together by these events, without necessarily any causative or formative relations among the characters (and setting). Some really great novels (including most picaresque novels) don't truly have plots - e.g., Don Quixote, which I'm reading right now. I'm also finishing up Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding," which has both kinds of story lines going: I really like the "plot" line, which involves the ballplayer Henry and his sudden and seemingly inexplicable loss of the ability to throw the ball - and also his gradual maturation and the development of relations among the teammates and the team's fortunes rise and fall. I wish the novel focused in this plot, but unfortunately (for me) there are numerous other strands that just seem to be a series of events - and therefore much less interesting. I'm reminded of an offhand comment one of M's friends made years ago, that novels are basically just gossip - and that's true, at the most fundamental level, but I'm afraid that parts of Fielding don't rise above that very much, while other elements are really intriguing and promising.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A little disappointed in The Art of Fielding, so far

Fun as it is, I do think Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding" is becoming ever more a melodrama and less and challenging work of literary fiction - for those who don't care about these distinctions and just want to enjoy reading a good book, have at it - there's nothing wrong with Fielding and it's entertaining and snappily written, but I have to say it's not living up to the potential I saw in the first few chapters. Maybe I was expecting a book much more about baseball - it's an element, but a fading element, in this tale of campus romance and, most disturbingly, a strange homosexual courtship between two real unequals, the college president and an undergrad - wouldn't he realize what a serious transgression this is and resist the temptations? - and I expected more of a literary book, perhaps because of the many Melville references in the early chapters, but these themes move to the sidelines, so to speak, and although we get a literary allusion here and there (some funny snatches of Keats and Eliot, e.g.) it's a book that's mostly dialog-driven and without a lot of complexity - more like a tapestry, with strands woven together, than a symphony, with echoes and resonance. It's a good novel, highly entertaining, but a little less than it promised at the start I'm afraid.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fielding Average (The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach)

I'm still enjoying (about half-way through) Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding," but I have to say I'm a little disappointed that it's not the book it started out to be, or at least not the book I expected it to be. The first few chapters led me to think of this as a coming-of-age college novel largely about two guys on the same baseball team with very different backgrounds, temperaments, skill sets. The older student/player recruits the younger one to come to his small college, and the younger is at least initially quite a misfit - few friends, no social skills. But the novel does not move in expected ways. First of all, Harbach moves the characters pretty quickly through time - three years of college in a flash. Second, he doesn't really explore the gradual maturation of the younger character/player, Henry, but moves on to other issues and other characters, particularly the university president, a repressed homosexual, and his crush on one of the ballplayers (Henry's roommate, Owen) and the arrival on campus of the prex's daughter, Pella (like the windows?), leaving her husband without a leaving a note (very improbable) and beginning a relationship with the older player, Schwartz, who laments that he has been rejected by all law schools. I find the story, though still very well written and compelling in its way, moving toward more conventional melodrama - but that may be just me and my mistaken expectations. I am mostly interested in Henry - who now, half-way through the book, seems on the verge of losing his uncanny skills at fielding - a Bill Blass experience, or is it something more overtly psychological, like his repressed homoerotic jealousies coming to the fore and interfering with his game?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Was Melville a baseball fan? Was Luis Aparicio a writer?: The Art of Fielding

(Putting aside Don Quixote for a few days to catch up with book group): Started Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding" and find it very well written, easy to read, easy to like, hoping for the best (in this year of, as I begin to look back on it, slim pickings for new fiction, at least for new novels) - From the first 60 or so pages in which Henry (long last name) gets recruited to play shortstop at a Division III small somewhat elite Wisconsin College (Westish - modeled on Beloit perhaps?) and finds himself very much lost and alone, except on the diamond: this genre of an outsider, often a working-class kid, making his or her way at an elite school, has been pretty well trodden ground, most often from a woman's POV: Sittenfield's Prep, Lorrie Moore's The Top of the Stairs (or whatever that disappointing novel was called), Tartt's The Secret History (one of the best), and perhaps from the guy's POV Farrelly's Outside Providence? - here the twist is first of all the baseball novel, more familiar ground here (there are echoes of The Natural) but the college setting is very intriguing, and the homoerotic elements: Henry's roommate, Owen, is gay (and the college prez has a crush on him); Owen gets injured by a thrown ball (an echo, unconscious?, of Irving's Owen Meany?) - and as you can see the novel is also dense with literary allusions - the college itself has adopted Melville as its mascot (yes, in Wisconsin, which Harbach explains with a bit of fancy footwork). Non-baseball fans, who will still like this novel I think, may want to know that Henry's idol, the great (but not real) shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, is modeled on the great (real) Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith. I think the real Aparicio did write a well-respected manual on fielding, didn't he?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Don Quixote and the Duke: Who's the better man?

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are separated for a while toward the end of volume 2 of "Don Quixote," as Sancho goes off to be a "governor" of a small village, in a scheme set up by the Duke and Duchess (never named - somewhat like Sancho's donkey) and DQ stays behind with the Duke and Duchess as a sort of a knight errant in residence - and the story give accounts of both men in alternating chapters. Though much of the comic energy of the novel comes from the interplay of the two, the separation nearly the end is thematically significant - as what we see is that, in different ways, both men are far superior, morally and even intellectually, to the nobility that has adopted them as their playthings. DQ gives SP excellent advice on governing, and in his governorship DQ proves to be wise and shrewd and doesn't fall for the idiotic tricks that they try to play on him: for example, a so-called doctor counseling him not to eat anything - and SP threatens to send the doc to jail or worse. DQ is subject to continued teasing, as the young women on the estate pretend to be madly in love with him, and though he kind of believes that he shows his moral solidity as he rejects their advances, vowing faith to Dulcinea. Of course he's a bit ridiculous - but who is the better person, him or the Duke? DQ does, however, show signs of cowardice in these later sections, and we wish he would stand up more boldly for Sancho. But it's important to see these two against the background of people who would torment and ridicule them - simply because they can.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Deceiving Don Quixote: how volume 1 differs from volume 2, and which is more humane

More teasing, or bullying if you will, of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, nearing the end of volume 2, as the Duke and Duchess arrange for an elaborate performance, something like a masque, in which a bunch of bearded men got up as "duennas" call upon DQ for help in avenging some kind of wrong or mortal insult - the lead duenna speaks very elaborately and formally, further deceiving DQ into thinking he is truly an knight errant being called upon to help an innocent person in distress. I guess there's humor here but it's also, as noted in yesterday's post, a form of cruelty: the Duke and Duchess are amused by SP's simplicity and DQ's insanity. DQ wants only to help people, and they are deceiving him - unlike his friends the barber and the priest who at their own expense and on their own time go to great lengths to find DQ (in volume 1) and then deceive - but only in order to get him home and to help him recover - these cruel people are deceiving DQ only to plunge him deeper into his madness, for their own pleasure. The contrast could not be more obvious - but what is the meaning? I think much of it is Cervantes's commentary on class relationships, then (and now). There also may be a sly way of making the readers themselves, us, feel uneasy: are we, too, complicit in getting pleasure through the sufferings and delusions of another?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Which volume of "Don Quixote" is more cruel?

Which volume of Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote" is more cruel? The seemingly obvious answer is the first volume, as DQ gets beat up and pummeled at every turn - knocked down by windmills, by the herds of sheep, by the mourners, by the falling hammers - and SP gets beaten and bruised as well and, famously, tossed in a blanket. Their physical sufferings are extreme and go pretty much beyond the standard - he modern standard, anyway - for farce and comedy. But in fact I think volume 2 is more cruel to DQ (and perhaps to SP). In volume 1, all of the sufferings are brought about by DQ's strange, mad behavior - it's is own delusions that get him into trouble and in harm's way. In the second volume, DQ is now in that strange double landscape, as a character in a novel whom the other characters recognize as a character in a novel. Though his physical sufferings are far less extreme, his emotional sufferings are far worse. Notably, the Duke and Duchess take him and SP into their estate and treat them, at least superficially, very well: feeding them well, providing clothing, etc. But essentially they are mocking DQ, getting great pleasure and amusement out of his obvious mental delusions. In effect, they are treating him like a diversion, a toy - they are cruel, bullies who use the sufferings of others for their own pleasure. To them he's an object of derision - as we see in so many pastoral novels of the era, in which the nobility find the bumbling peasants and fools to be amusing props and decor for their "natural" life. Their behavior is inexcusable - though it's entirely typical of their social class at that time, and maybe today as well.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

All you need to know about class relations in Don Quixote

Posted yesterday on why Sancho Panza's donkey has no name - and last night read further into Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote" and came upon an interesting section - SP and DQ are invited into the estate of a wealthy Spaniard whom they meet on their travels and he treats them as visiting celebrities, seating DQ at the had of the table, and so on - it's all part of a cruel trick, in that he and his family have read the first volume of DQ and are completely enthralled with his mad antics and with SP's naivete and homespun wisdom laced with proverbs and malaprops - another one of the meta-fictional elements of this novels, in which characters in the novel are recognized by others as literary figures - in other words, characters in the 2nd half of the novel have "read" the first half of the novel, which strangely makes the 2nd half of the novel more "real" in that the characters recognize the fictive quality of the first half - but then how do the fictive characters manage to infiltrate part 2? Anyway, what's striking about the visit to the estate: SP suddenly remembers that he forgot to take care of his donkey and asks a duenna (a rather regal older woman) if she could find someone to feed his donkey or maybe she could take care of him herself - of course she is morally outraged that someone would have the temerity to suggest she should take care of an animal. Here, again, we see the tender humanity and sympathy of SP, who worries about the comfort of his animal - he doesn't "name" the animal and anthropomorphize him but he appropriately cares about the animal's comfort and well-being; but the wealthy lady is appalled that anyone could ask her to look after an animal - that's something servants, or peasants, do. She probably names all her pets, but when it comes to taking care of them she wouldn't lift a finger. In a microcosm, in a few sentences, this tells you all you need to know about class relations in Cervantes's time - and still?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What is the name of Sancho Panza's donkey?

And of course the answer is: Sancho Panza's donkey has no name. Isn't this odd? Miguel de Cervantes is very specific about the name of Don Quixote's horse, Rocinante, so why doesn't the donkey, which accompanies DQ and SP on all of their journeys, except for an interlude during which he is stolen, then recovered, have a name? On the most obvious level, it's a class thing: both among people (DQ is of the gentry, although there are insinuations that the "Don" of his title is of recent and shady acquisition) and SP is a peasant. Also, a horse is of a higher "class" of animal than a donkey. But still, why no name? I think there's a sense in which the capacity to and the desire to name animals is a sign of luxury, of having too much time for games and frivolity: to name an animal is of course to anthropomorphize it, and a peasant, who has to work the animal to near death, may someday have to sell or trade it, is less likely to give his animal a name so that he is more able to see the animal as a tool or a commodity. There's also a sense in which names are emblems of accomplishments: the various monikers that DQ acquires over the course of the novel are a testament (his testament) to his deeds of valor. But SP earns no sobriquet, nor does his donkey earn a name: they're just functionaries, means to an end - or at least that's what DQ thinks, though we know better.

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