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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

Monday, January 31, 2011

Ann Beattie's stories in the '80s : Why they're among her best

It's obvious to anyone reading through Ann Beattie's "The New Yorker Stories" that her work advances to a higher order of being in the early '80s with the stories collected in Where You'll Find Me - these stories are more compact and dramatic than her earlier work, still with a recognizable Beattie attributes of quick wit and wry observation, still with the prototypical Beattie characters whom I've described as generally lucky in friendship, unlucky in love - but these stories are more crystalline, often hinging or turning on a single event or observation or revelation (her earlier stories were more meandering and sometimes made needlessly complex with too many character and too many quirky incidents). Among the best are Coney Island, very simply about two guys sitting at a table drinking, as one prepares to go out and have a drink with his former girlfriend now recently married, leading the two to ruminate on the differences between friendship and love - and the gaps that inevitably and sadly open between friends over time; Times (I think that's the right title), about a young couple visiting her family over xmas and their naive agreement that they'd tell they'd tell each other about any infidelities and how this almost destroys them; an amazingly poignant story about a couple driving home in the snow after a party and the recollections of the death of their daughter - and so many others - these are definitely Beattie with a new level of maturity and and the height of her writing powers. Shortly after these stories, she shifted her focus more toward longer fiction, coming back to the short form about a decade later.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Watch waterfalls of pity roar : Ann Beattie's stories

As noted earlier, Ann Beattie copyrights her stories under the whimsical company name of Irony & Pity, Inc. Readers of her stories have focused on the irony, in this it's more evident and actually more fun - and we tend to think of her as a witty, quirky, wryly observant writer, which she is - but as you read through an entire collection of her work, such as "The New Yorker Stories," especially those from the late '70s that were part of her collection Secrets and Surprises, the waterfalls of pity become more evident - her characters, whether they even know it or not, are incredibly sad, one after another from a series of broken marriages and infidelities and infertility, the children victims of abandonment and neglect, many of the women victims of emotional abuse if not physical abuse. In her earliest stories many of these characters were from a wider socioeconomic strata, and many were the descendants of O'Connor's loopy gargoyles, but the later (i.e., late-'70s) stories start to move higher up the economic ladder, they're well-off New Yorkers, primarily, many of them successful artists, photographers, lawyers - but no less grotesque or sorrowful for all their success. Because the wit, the irony is still there - among hundreds of examples think of the woman writing to her grandmother in large block print so grandma can read it, and thinking it feels like she's writing a note from a criminal, and she sort of is - the sadness, when we read the stories in sequence, is nearly overwhelming - much more so than we we (or I) read the stories one at a time, at monthly intervals or so, as they appeared in print. But much of this begins to change in her work in the 80s, about which more later.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The books that have changed my life

Following up on yesterday's post, been thinking about another list, inspired in part by a funny Steve Martin piece (100 books I've read) - will try to list the books I've read that were most important/inspirational/influential at one point in my life, in the sequence in which I read them: The Books that have changed my life:

Pat the Bunny
Little Lost Bobo
All About Dinosaurs
The Sinister Signpost (Frank Dixon, Hardy Boys)
It's Great to be Alive (Roy Campanella)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Look Homeward, Angel
Prufrock and Other Poems
Howl and other Poems
King Lear
William Carlos Williams, Collected Poems (2 vols)
Shakespeare our Contemporary
The Elements of Style
Where I'm Calling From (Raymond Carver)
Rabbit Is Rich (and the other Rabbit novels)
Remembrance of Things Past

I'm sure I've left off major landmarks. Not sure what this list tells you about me. Not sure what's coming next!

Friday, January 28, 2011

The (12) top writers (English-language, not living) without whom my life would not be the same

My friend Bill posted on FB a query, asking his friends to (quickly) list the 12 greatest/their 12 favorite vocalists - and it provoked a lot of thinking (at least on my part), so let me propose a similar challenge: list (quickly) your 12 top writers, the 12 writers without whom your interior life would not be the same. To narrow the field a little, let's say writers of the past (i.e., not alive today) and let's say also English-language writers. OK? Wait, wait - obviously everyone's list is going to start with the same writer, so let's just get Shakespeare off the stage right away and add 12 more from here. Here's my list (unranked):
1. T.S. Eliot. What? That anti-Semite? But his poems were the first complex ones I knew and loved, and I still go back to his work again and again. So to balance him:
2. Allen Ginsberg. Not necessarily the greatest but the most influential and accessible. No poet opened my eyes more to the possibilities of writing than Ginsberg.
3. William Carolos Williams. Guided me through college.
4. Keats. His odes and some of the sonnets - I return to again and again, still.
5. Forster. On basis of Passage alone.
6. James. The novellas.
7. Updike. I came upon him somewhat later. The Rabbit books will be read forever.
8. William Maxwell. Still not fully appreciated. So Long, see you tomorrow is one of our great works of literature.
9. Joyce. Ulysses is too great for any one mind other than Joyce's to comprehend.
10. Faulkner. Obvious American heir to Joyce.
11. Hemingway. Obvious counterpart to Faulkner.
12. Raymond Carver. Obvious heir to Hemingway.

And there are so many I left off! And no women, what's the matter with me? Well,let's just assume this was the 12 male writers list - more to come in future posts.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Freestyle narration and Alice (The Great) Munro

Always a pleasure to come across a story by Alice (the Great) Munro in a New Yorker, and her current story, Axis, is a showcase for some of the signature qualities and characteristics that make her one of the great living writers in English: the way the story veers suddenly, changing its focus seemingly (starting off to be a story about two girlfriends in college, then become a story about one of the girls and her boyfriend) and her uncanny sense of how to use vary the pace of the story - as in Axis, in which the first 2/3rds of the story encompass the scope of about a year in the life of the four central characters, then it concentrates on one weekend in which the college boyfriend visits the girl's family on their remote Ontario farm and meets the dreaded mother for the first time, then lurching forward 40 years or so, in which the characters are late in life and two come across each other and catch up, sorta - a typically Munro-like capacious structure, that few other writers could emulate or even try to do so. All that said, Axis isn't really one of her best stories. It's still Munro, so there are amazing elements - the scene with the mother coming across the her daughter and boyfriend in bed, and the coldness and self-righteousness of the mother, the boyfriend's realization that this could never be his life - but would he really leave and abandon forever this girl he thinks he loves? Didn't seem probable to me. And maybe it was a huge mistake - at the end we learn that he'd never married, and she too had come to some unspecified solitary end. Or maybe they just weren't right for each other, and both knew that in some way and needed the intervention of the mother to realize that or act on it. Imagine how Updike would have treated this material though - very differently. Guy would have been more gallant for sure! Munro has adopted and perfect a very freestyle narration, but in this one the freedom doesn't really help her as the characters behave in ways that make sense only in the story - not in life.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A darker strand emerges in Ann Beattie's early stories

The last two stories from the 1978 Secrets and Surprises in Ann Beattie's "The New Yorker Stories" continue with the dark turn that her fiction took at that period. Her very first stories were more whimsical and witty - albeit with some very dark and threatening strands, as in the story of an abandoned child, Wanda's, and some of the ones heavily influenced by O'Connor - but the stories The Vintage Thunderbird and Distant Music focus more deeply than any previous Beattie stories on infidelity and, especially, divorce, and midlife loneliness. Are her characters truly lucky in friendship? Doesn't seem so from these two at least - her characters start to seem at sea, abandoned adults. Around this time Beattie also published her first (I think) novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter - and the title says it very well. Her work at this time took a hibernal turn. Pausing to look back on her work, first of all I'm struck by her amazing run - first story in the New Yorker about 1974 and then a string of a story every two months or so (plus others not in TNY), enough for two collections (plus a novel?) by 1978 - each one with a distinct voice and style never seen before and easil recognized as Beattie's yet each exploring something or someone different - she was writing before the omnivorous trend of "linked stories," novels on the cheap - so each was a new creation of characters, setting, predicament. Two further observations to be developed: Beattie has said that travel helps her to write, but it's travel for her, not for her characters - they seem stuck in place. Also, collecting all the New Yorker stories is a great way to look back at a career and to learn something about the sensibility of the magazine as well, but why was Scribners so cheap in its production as to not put the name of the story on the right-hand header?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A surprise ending in an Ann Beattie story

Shifting is one of Ann Beattie's better-known early stories ("The New Yorker Stories") - I think perhaps because it's one of the most traditional of hers, and therefore one of the easier ones for readers unfamiliar with her work and her style to approach and comprehend. Unlike most of her early stories, with their complex network of characters and their sense of a narrative cast adrift, shifting about without a clear arc, without a direction, a style that could be called aimless - but aimless with a secret direction, in that the meandering structure of the stories accurately captures the meandering and aimless qualities of the lives of the characters she creates, and of the mood of her generation in fact - in Shifting we get a rarity for Beattie, a story focused on a single, central action: childhood sweethearts who marry and then grow (or she grows) disappointed in the tepid quality of their life together, come to a minor crisis over an old car (she has inherited it) that they agree to sell so as to invest the money wisely but she doesn't want to sell it; she takes lessons to learn to drive a shift (the pun of the title - also, little-known fact, Beattie's dad was a driving instructor, if I remember correctly), then has a brief affair with the much-younger instructor. It's a tiny little drama, a life story compressed into a few pages and centered on a single image, in other words a typically fine story but not greatly representative of Beattie - until ! - the last sentence - it's as if she knew she didn't want to end the story with an image, as so many of her stories do, but with a narrative shock: She ends (can't quote it exactly but something like this): This was in Philadelphia, in 1972. So she strikes the exact opposite of the expected note, and ends as if this were a documentary or even a police procedural: this was real, this isn't a story, this happened. She always, always, surprises us - and of course the best surprises are those that come when we expect them least.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Near the edge: Ann Beattie's stories take on a more menacing tone

By the late 1970s,after Ann Beattie had published her first book of short stories (Distortions), the stories in her 2nd collection (Secrets and Surprises) become darker in tone. From the group collected in "The New Yorker Stories," you can see this, particularly in Colorado and A Weekend - we still have Beattie's sharp wit and her wry, off kilter use of dialogue in which the characters aren't quite listening to one another, the same complex web of friendships and relationships that's sometimes dizzying. But where as the earliest stories were sometimes jaunty or even flip, this second group is more menacing - broken relations in the first group seemed to be just part of the kaleidoscopic nature of late-adolescent life, but not divorce and abandonment become highly consequential, devastating. A Weekend, for example, is pretty much from the point of view of Lenore, a young woman living with an older ex-professor, denied tenure, living in a rural outpost - every weekend former students come to visit, and it's evident he's having affairs with many of the young woman - he's a horrible narcissist, and Lenore just lets it happen, let's him walk all over her. In Colorado, after multiple trading of partners and some lots of alcohol and marijuana, a young couple head off for Colorado where they plan to stay with some equally aimless and impoverished friends, only to learn on arrival that the friends are near divorce - they're all at a dead end. I've said a few times before that Beattie's characters are lucky in friendship, unlucky in love, and I think that's generally true of her work, but in the Secrets and Surprises stories the luck in friendship is very tenuous as well - these characters are near the edge.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Irony & Pity: What Ann Beattie means when she says "That was easy"

Among the early stories in Ann Beattie's "The New Yorker Stories," i.e., the ones in her first collection (Distortions), I think the story Vermont is the best prelude to the kind of stories we most associate with Beattie: a fairly large and complexly interrelated set of characters, mismarried and mismatched, complicated relations of love and friendship, each of the characters eccentric though not pathologically so, most of them apparently well educated but somewhat adrift in their careers - in this story one of the couples leaves NYC to visit friends in Vermont, then later they decide to give up careers and move to Vermont, refurbishing a rundown house; the woman's ex and his new girlfriend, much younger and not a country girl, pay a weekend visit, which is fraught with unspoken tension and edged with remorse. At the end of the tense weekend, as the ex and girlfriend head back to the city, Beattie ends story abruptly with : "That was easy." - a typically funny, unexpected Beattie line - you can see why her stories are all copyrighted to her "company," Irony & Pity Inc. Many of Beattie's stories involve travel, and actually quite a few I think involve a modern version of pastoral, leaving the city for some kind of rural peace and grace, that proves every bit as elusive and illusory to her characters as it did to Shakespeare's. Looking back at this story from a 35-year vantage, it's interesting to think about the chart of evolution of Beattie's characters - in more recent stories her characters gather for very fine country dinners; they no longer sleep on spare mattresses - and in a way, though her stories do not seem autobiographical in particular, the arc of her writing is a sketch for the arc of her life, and therefore of the lives of so many in her (our) generation.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ann Beattie's characters : of an age or for all time?

Further thoughts about Ann Beattie's style in her early (1970s) stories - it's not only her use of slanted, slightly akimbo dialogue, in which each character is speaking but not really listening, that gives her stories their sense of displacement, makes us sense that they're a form of realism, but not about the real world that all of us inhabit: also striking is her use of the present tense, another Beattie trait that was original to her and has now become the default mode for a million graduate writing seminars. But when she burst on the scene with her stories and their sense of the immediacy, of bringing right into the action but telling it as it unfolds, it was quite an awakener for readers, especially readers of the staid New Yorker. Particularly disconcerting is that she brings you right into the action (John puts a can of beer into the fridge...he waits for it to cool...) but at the same time there isn't much action - her characters are victims of anomie, we're right with them as they lead their lives but they generally aren't leading much of a life, they're in torpor, and deep in self-absorption. Many saw this then, and still, as a portrait of a generation, and began to look to Beattie as a beacon of her time, a trendspotter - and I believe she hated this characterization or assumption. Like all writers, she saw (and sees) her characters not as representations of anything but as themselves, unique and complete. Looking back on her early stories, though, the characters do seem very much of their time and of their age (late adolescence/early adulthood) - whether she meant to do so or not, her characters have helped shape our image of the time in which they lived.

Friday, January 21, 2011

We tend to think of Ann Beattie's stories as populated by young, well-educated, witty, somewhat eccentric, quirky, observant, introverted characters, people much like many of her readers! - but in fact Beattie has been typed, become a victim of and defined by her best-known work, when in fact her range was wider than most of us remember - looking back at the 70s stories in "The New Yorker Stories," I see that some of the people she writes about are close cousins to Flannery O'Connor's gothics and weirdos: drug-addled divorces, serial marital perpetrators, judgmental fundamentalist parents - a much wilder and more ragged set than I recall. And yet - right from the first story there is a distinct Beattie voice and style that emerges and that over the years has become ever more crystalline and precise, but it's there from the onset. How do we know an Ann Beattie story? Let's count (some of) the ways: first of all the voice, the dialogue. Her characters speak by indirection, as if they're not entirely listening to each other, but their phrases play off each other like jazz riffs. Many others have imitated this style since then to differing effects: broad comedy in George Saunders, stark minimalism and isolation in Raymond Carver, to cite two examples. With Beattie, the dialogue establishes a world in which nothing quite seems to fit together. She's been described as a realist, a chronicler of our/her time, but that's not quite accurate - her dialogue makes her stories seem a bit like a dreamscape, language that on the surface seems real and plausible but as you read through it feels slightly off, a world knocked slightly off balance, making us feel a little disoriented.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Emigres who write about their childhood : Nabokov and others

There's a solid tradition of emigres writing about their childhood in native land, often with very tender recollections of parents (deeply affectionate mother, severe father is often the trope) and even more so of servants who were either surrogate parents or surrogate siblings - these recollections, either memoirs or memoir thinly disguised as fiction - written in the adopted language - which I think adds a particularly poignancy to the writing and to the material. Current New Yorker story, Naimi, by H. Matar, is in this worthy tradition - the lineage being from Nabokov to, more recently, Aciman and the Russian emigre to France who wrote Dreams of My Russian Summer, to cite some notable examples. Matar maybe not at those levels, but his is a beautifully written story that, alas!, like so many in the New Yorker these days has no particular shape or direction and feels inevitably like an excerpt from a longer piece. The heart of the story concerns the way in which his father essentially conspired to keep from the young man any news or information about his mother's mortal condition. After the mother dies, the father tries fitfully to establish a relation with the young man, but a huge emotional gap lies between them. The family has settled in Egypt, and there are references to their native land, where the father was a top adviser to the king, then fled from a revolution - the native land is never named, so it's anyone's guess. One striking feature is the section on the family's summer vacation in Norway: Matar describes a lot of different cultures in this story, but I think he needs more space in order to develop this material and give us our bearings.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The shock of the new: What was it like to read Ann Beattie's first New Yorker story?

Just try to imagine the shock you would have felt back in 1974 had you come upon Ann Beattie's first story in the New Yorker, A Platonic Friend. Up till then, New Yorker stories were either the well-crafted classical models, novels in miniature, of the Johns (O'Hara, Updike, Cheever) or miniatures memorializing the angst of the well heeled (Salinger) or beautiful vignettes about life in Paris, London, or the Cote d'Azur (Gallant, to cite some examples) and then we suddenly get this fresh voice - about young marrieds, not well off, struggling to define themselves and to find a course for their lives, unhappy and lonely but still hopeful, slightly eccentric but not off the charts or unbalanced, gifted with the capacity for wry observation and subtle wit - but not acidic wit, nothing dangerous. Beattie's characters and her subtle style, stories that neither build to a powerful conclusion nor hinge on a crisis or turning point but just establish a mood or condition and then almost vanish at the end like smoke, were a revelation, and the fact that her style and her type of character have become a staple in American short fiction over the past 35 years is a tribute to her own originality. Looking back at this story - the first in her collection "The New Yorker Stories" - it's hard to comprehend or recall how original it was and how startling it must have seemed. She established her own voice right away - you can only imagine the arguments in the New Yorker offices as to whether they should have published her first piece. Was it too slight? Enigmatic? Inconsequential? They took a chance and set Beattie on her way and she hasn't looked back. It will be interesting moving forward through the collection to watch her talent evolve over a long time span.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rare universal acclaim for a novel : Let the Great World Spin

Surprising unanimity @ book group last night regarding Colum McCann's "Let the Great World Spin," albeit there were only 8 present only 6 of whom had read the book, but still, we usually find some area of disagreement but not this time - in fact, discussion was rather tepid and ultimately got waylaid into speculation about the actual event - Philip Petit's crossing between the two World Trade Center towers - that forms the symbolic center of the novel. We agreed that the tightrope metaphor was both an analogue for the role and stance of the author - taking the risk of embarking on a novel, making connections between the seemingly unrelated - and that it was an inspiration to all to look up to the sky, to aspire; that it brought about a unity of feeling among New Yorkers (and others, given the hacker phone call from California) that we rarely experience, and it hauntingly foreshadows the attack on the World Trade Center of 2001 that brought all together in an entirely different way, and in a different media age. All were impressed with the range of themes and styles and with the precision and beauty with which McCann conveys each of the elements. We all were a little but off by the onrush of coincidence, especially toward the end of the novel, and we all felt the novel had a turning point (I would say the moment when Gloria was mugged) that led to a softening and sentimentality in the end that the hard and severe material earlier in the novel does not properly lead to or justify. I was the only one who spoke about Tillie, arguing that we shouldn't necessarily beatify her - she was an irresponsible mother who once imprisoned speaks about how much she misses her "babies," when it's far too late and she's done nothing to help them in her life - I admit I sounded like a Republican, but did feel she bears some responsibility for her life and her misfortunes. All told,not a great discussion but we all thought Let the Great World Spin was an excellent novel, deserving of its award and acclaim.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The turning point in Let the Great World Spin

As we prepare for book group (tonight) I finished re-reading (skimming, actually) Colum McCann's "Let the Great World Spin," and was impressed once again - a book with so much material, so much story, well crafted, rich with ideas and allusions, a tribute to many strands of modern literary history as well as to the complex network of social classes that intersect, sometimes, in NYC (and more often fail to connect). I once again have a few quibbles, however, and am wondering how the book group will respond: On second reading, I think even more emphatically that the concluding section, which jumps forward from 1974 to apparently 2006, is superfluous and damages the tight structure of the book without adding any vital information. The book should have stayed with its near-unity of time and place. The last section tells us of the adult life of one of the late Jazz's daughters, with some updates on a few of the other characters as well. By the nature of this book, this narrative, it could in a sense go one forever, as long as McCann's imagination and stamina held out - he could tell us about Ciaran (sp?) and his family, and on and on - but no, in my view, it would be have better to stop and let us imagine how the lives have gone forward. McCann softens his tone somewhat toward the end - in fact there's an emotional turning point when Gloria, trudging back to the Bronx on foot, gets mugged and inexplicably asks the cabbie to take her back to Claire's apartment, thus allowing Claire to repent for her crude remark and beginning a lifelong friendship. Let's accept the improbably coincidence of the strand that connects Gloria and Claire not only through their women's group but also through the children of Jazz, but I think the tone of the book has been rather cold and bitter and harsh up to a point and then it becomes warm and accepting and imbued with sisterhood and uplifting moral gestures, as if suddenly McCann is writing for the Oprah Book Club.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

One hand is tied to the tightrope walker...: Let the Great World Spin

Thinking for a minute about the symbolism or significance of the central motif of Colum McCann's "Let the Great World Spin," the crossing between the World Trade Center towers by unnamed aerialist (obviously modeled on the crossing by Philip Petit), set in August 1974, coincident with the resignation of Nixon: the events of the novel largely (except for back story, especially in the first section that introduces the Corrigan brothers) during the day of the tower crossing, and man of the characters either witness the crossing or interact in some way - in the courtroom where the walker is arraigned, for example - with the event. Isn't crossing the towers on a wire something like what the author/artist does? McCann, like the aerialist, makes an unexpected connection between separate and distinct events, does so artfully, imaginatively, while taking great risk, and in the public eye: to write a novel is like walking a tightrope, in particular a novel with multiple strands of plot. It's not just the grandeur of a novel, though there is that, but even writing a poem has the same qualities: uniting ideas and images that ordinarily are separate, going out there alone, taking a chance, living in public. I'd forgotten since my earlier reading of the novel about the section in which the hackers in a California computer lab, obviously developing some fledgling version of the Internet, probably through a military compact, patch in through a call to a phonebooth to get a first-hand account of the crossing: a very early, primitive look at the kind of instant world of communications today - shows how far ago we were in 1974: the world more connected, the towers themselves almost 10 years gone.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

When you've read a book, can you ever truly forget it?

Started skimming through "Let the Great World Spin," by Colum McCann, in preparation for book group on Monday - not a book that "skims" well, in part because the language is one of its strengths (imagine skimming Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway? what would be the point?), but it also has a very complex, interlaced plot, which I think it's important that I recall - having read the book several months ago, much of it has slipped from my mind. Memory is a funny thing when it comes to re-reading fiction. If you'd handed me the book and said, here, talk about it, I probably could have given you two sentences: Uh, it's about about the day that a guy crossed between the World Trade towers on a tightrope and about about a few people who saw that event and how it changed their lives. Like a library card-catalogue summary, dull and dumb. But as I skimmed through the first section - which describes the two Irish brothers settled in the Bronx, one of whom, Corrigan (it's their last name, I think, but he goes by that) is in orders and takes up the cause of a group of streetwalkers and falls in love with a single mom/nurse from Guatemala, challenging his faith and vows - and as I read this section the rest of the book just slowly cleared and opened in my mind, like fog lifting or dispersing - it's as if all the other plot elements - the next 300 pages or so - were there all along (they were, of course) but were just inaccessible. I almost don't have to re-read the rest of the book, though I will - but even starting to do so made me think anew about the strangeness of reading and what it means to have read a book, even if we can't recall it. The book is there - it's in us, it has changed us, it's part of us.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Not to hold a grudge, but: Why I don't like Amos Oz

Not to hold a grudge, but, here's why I don't like Amos Oz: In the '80s, I was books editor for the Providence Journal, and one of the pleasures and responsibilities of the job was interviewing many of the great authors who came to Rhode Island, often to Brown U., to read and discuss their work. I won't go through the list, but there were lots of great writers, many emerging writers, some highly commercial, and so on. Universally, they were delighted to have the chance to do an interview with the local paper, especially if the critic (me) had actually read their works and was interested in literature. The one exception was Oz - he came to Brown, and absolutely declined, through the news bureau, an interview request. Now I don't mind if it's a principled position - if they author wants to be reclusive like Pynchon or even elusive, giving readings and letting the work speak for itself. But you'll notice that Oz does many interviews with the NYTimes and with other journals that he thought could help him in some way but, gee, I guess the Providence Journal was just some hick local paper and he couldn't be bothered. So, feeling's mutual. I have never read Oz since then. But he has a story, The King of Norway, in the current New Yorker, and I did read it. Wish I could still hold a grudge, but it's not a bad story, just rather slight. He establishes a very interesting character, a guy on a Kibbutz who is constantly monitoring the news and providing reports of deaths and disasters. Good premise, but nothing much happens with him - he gets briefly involved with a woman, pushes her away (he's apparently either a trauma survivor or somewhere on the autism spectrum or maybe both), she reacts by having a series of semi-scandalous relationships, he goes on with his gloom. Is this a fragment from a longer work? As a story, it shows Oz's deft hand at sketching characters an at describing life on a Kibbutz (not sure the time period but seems pretty long ago) but he doesn't do much with the material within the tight space of the story. Maybe he'll tell me - or somebody - why.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sentences v fragments, and the grandeur of William Trevor's style

A few final thoughts on finishing William Trevor's great "Selected Stories": first, Trevor's sense of an ending deepens in the last (most recent) stories in the collection. Many of his stories are told in short sections, and some alternate between the POV of two or more characters. Most writers take a good deal of time crafting the final sentence or passage in their stories, and Trevor in particular always ends his stories with a beautiful, often haunting, final note of grace. In the last stories in the collection I started to realize that toward the end of the story almost any sentence - or at least the closing sentence of almost any one of the sections - could have been the concluding note; it's as if Trevor's entire voice has become magisterial and masterly. One of the stories (Faith), which is no doubt one of the best in the collection, breaks a pattern in its closing sentence: It's not really a sentence, just a fragment. So many, too many, contemporary writers rely on fragments to build their stories, to give a sense of a jaunty pace and, perhaps, of the disjunctions and missed connections in contemporary life. The result too often is a series of lists, observations. Writing a sentence takes more thought and consideration; when we write a sentence we examine the interactions and relations within our world - someone does or is something. Trevor almost never uses fragments - that in part accounts for the grandeur of his stle - but Faith, about a minister whose life has been dominated by his sister, and he gradually loses his faith, ends in a fragment. Why? A final note: the last story in the collection, Follie-a-deux, about a horrible action to boys committed in their childhood and how it affects their lives, recalls a great story by Trevor's only counterpart, Alice Munro, and another well-known story by A.S. Byatt. What draws older, fully accomplished writers to this frightful theme?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A very rare William Trevor story that feels incomplete

The strangest thing about William Trevor's story A Perfect Relationship, in his "Selected Stories," may be the title. Is it perfect? Can any relationship be so? It's on the surface a story about a couple, been together about 3 years, man quite a bit older, met the woman when he was her teacher in a night school, teaching languages, relationship built slowly, now she lives with him but decides to leave. Like many relationships with a large gap in age, this one carries overtones of master-student - he's gradually making her aware of culture, introducing her to serious cinema and to classical music, one composer at a time. There's the sense in these relationships that the woman will grow out of her dependent, subservient status and leave - maybe for someone closer in age. There also Oedipal overtones in these relationships with a wide gap in age. The story surprises us, however, as so many of Trevor's stories do: we alternate between his and her POV, and from hers we see that she's not really clear why she has left and she has no goal in mind, just a desire for a little more independence. Most of the action in this somewhat quiet story is from his POV, as he goes to see her parents in hopes that she's gone there (she's an only child, very insecure and not confident in her looks); the mom has always thought the relationship was bad for the daughter, mostly because of the age difference, whereas the dad is much more supportive. In any case, she's not there - guy goes back to London, very morose, and then, bang, she turns up, ostensibly to drop off a key, and stays. What's it all about? These May-December things can work out, sometimes? I think there's a darker undercurrent - she's pushing for something she doesn't have and he can't give her, this story isn't really over yet. One of the very few Trevor stories that I think could use more development - it's crying out for the next chapter, and the next, a novel in waiting.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

One William Trevor story that misses, and why

OK, so not every single William Trevor story in "Selected Stories" is suitable for enshrinement in the Pantheon, just most of them. One that falls a notch below the mark, though still an excellent story by almost anyone else's measure, is the late story An Afternoon, about a mid-teen girl who meets a guy through a chat room and arranges a meeting in town, where she finds he's about 30 (at least) - nevertheless she falls for his creepily seductive patter and wanders off with him, gets a bit drunk, heads toward his house where he thinks they'll be alone, till the tryst is broken by his outraged aunt, concerned that he's on probation (for similar assaults) and will go back to jail if the girl rats. Story somewhat less effective than others of Trevor for a few reasons: first, there's virtually no element of discovery or surprise for the reader - we obviously are very aware that the guy (he calls himself Clive) is a predator, and our only wonder is how far he will get in his scheme. Second, though many Trevor stories are dark, few are as seamy as this one - a very unpleasant set of characters. Third, I'm not sure he has such a fine handle on the way a contemporary UK teen speaks or thinks; amazing this 80+ writer can even take it on, but compare with other stories - the next in the collection about an elderly couple forced to sell the farm to a developer, At Olivehill - and you'll see the difference in assuredness of voice. The strength of An Afternoon is, typically, the concluding passage when we see the girl, Jasmin, back at home with her horrible mother and feckless stepfather and we understand for a moment why she so desperately and pathetically seeks what seems to her to be love and attention from an older man.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The distinct qualities of the late stories of William Trevor

There's something extremely satisfying in reading through William Trevor's "Selected Stories" and realizing that some of the best stories he's ever written come near the end of the volume, meaning they were written and published when Trevor was about 80 - and he's still going strong. It's true that there aren't major shifts in subject and style as his writing career progresses, but the later stories seem to me to have a greater compression - they tend to be a bit shorter than the stories of 20 years ago, and a higher number of them are about a single, epiphanic event - and they also, paradoxically, tend to have a greater reach: many if not all conclude with a paragraph or two that takes a vast, cool, Godlike perspective on the events of the story and on life. The ur-story for this godlike concluding perspective would be the great Sacred Statues, and Trevor builds on this model consistently. The ur-story for the single moment or even that encapsulates and summarizes a life would probably be Cheating at Canasta, a widowed man visiting the restaurant his wife and he used to enjoy and witnessing a dinner squabble between a young couple, to whom he at last speaks. We feel the intersection of two lives, on mostly lived and the other with the world all before them, and realize with pain and poignancy that they have only this one chance for love and beauty and they are wasting it, as do we all. The latest stories also step a little closer to the lurid and violent: one story about a bully killing a kid accidentally (Bravado) and another (The Dressmaker's Daughter) about a hit and run killing, also a run of several stories about couples engaged in long-term affairs (these set in London). One of the most disturbing of all of his stories is Men of Ireland (on of the few late stories to return to Ireland), in which a man returns to his hometown to accuse a priest of molesting him and to hit him up for money - unjustly, apparently. Every single Trevor story is great or near-great and full of surprise and nuance that other contemporary writers barely approach.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Who will be the next American to with the Nobel for literature?

I'm going out on a limb here a bit and making a prediction: Louise Erdrich will be the next U.S. American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Why not? Though her name never (to my knowledge) has come up on the short list, she definitely seems to me both worthy and very much the kind of American writer whom the Nobel committee has often recognized and honored. She has taken on her little postage stamp of native soil (to paraphrase another American Nobelist) and made it a whole world, and his skillfully and engagingly brought to life a culture - contemporary Native American of the Plains - that has till then (and still) been largely ignored by American literature. Her novels and stories are easily readable, always imaginative and thoughtful, culturally significant without being tendentious, including a suitable amount of historical and mythical material without slogging through the miasma of magic realism. The Nobel committee clearly seems to like American writers (and others) who examine cultures on the margins and, and the committee has generally both mainstream American writers and experimentalists. It's a shame that they never honored Updike, and they have ignored Roth and Oates so far - I think Erdrich may be the next. Her style has changed very little since she first published about 30 years ago, and it's amazing how much material she has generated. She has a piece in the current New Yorker very typical of her best work, The Years (cq) of my Birth. It's obviously not a story but the beginning of a novel, covering the fairly familiar ground of an abandoned twin reunited in midlife with her birth family - with the added twist that the twin (white) was raised on the rez as a Native American. Looks as if this will be another successful and novel for Erdrich - and we'll see if it helps lead her to Stockholm.W

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A sharp, revealing contrast between two William Trevor stories

Another set of William Trevor stories in his "Selected Stories" makes for a sharp contrast and reveals something about his thinking and his style: On the Street is an unusual story for Trevor, alternating in sections between the point of view of a man and his ex-wife, the man we see right away as a clearly disturbed person (unusal for Trevor's fiction), and as to the wife the question is why would she ever have been married to this guy? As the story progresses, we learn about the loneliness in her life that led to her ill-considered decision to marry him (she was widowed) and how she realizes almost immediately that the marriage is doomed. This story is a little less successful than most when Trevor tries to wrap it up and make a grander statement about the lives of these two people - it seems closely modeled on the powerful ending paragraph in Sacred Statues, but in this case the authorial observation that Trevor sometimes employs at the end - as if he's zooming away from the characters to a near-Godlike perspective (i.e., the author's) is a bit forced. The next story in the selection, The Dancing Master's Music, is more typically Trevor, in the Chekhov mode: a moment of grace and beauty touches the life of a young woman and changes her life for ever, subtly and internally rather than dramatically: she hears the beautiful music (she had never even heard a piano) and always recalls it, but she doesn't give up her life as a kitchen maid to enroll in Juilliard or anything. This story, unlike Street, covers a whole life span, another one of Trevor's novels in miniature.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The danger of the Kindle (and its kin)

I'm a bit of a throwback when it comes to paper and to books. I still like documents, I miss letters (and occasionally though rarely even write one). I like postage stamps (commemoratives, especially old ones) and first-day covers. I'm even a notary public - I like all that arcana. Obviously I also love electronic communication, as I keep this and my other blog as well as a range of other online communications and could not live without my two e-mail accounts and have always loved abbreviations and efficiencies in my writing and my note-taking (have devleoped a personal shorthand from years of work as a reporter). So I can see the beauty and allure of Kindle - millions of books you can download instantly, easy to carry, clickable notes, nice to read at night, and so on. Yet I will probably never adopt one and I have great fears for what Kindles and their kin will do to books and to reading. I imagine that as Kindles grow in popularity, someday bookstores may go the way of record shops and libraries go the way of Blockbuster. It's true that music and movies have continued to thrive under the new, electronic technologies, but I'm not so sure about books, already threatened. I fear that the number of books "published" will or may increase - but the # actually printed will fall dramatically. Can you imagine Random House, for example, having a spring catalog listing 300 novels, all bought and owned and controlled by RH but none actually printed or distributed or advertised or reviewed? These books will never be read - just "owned" by the corporation, on the off chance that one of a thousand will bring profit. E-publishing will cost virtually nothing. Meanwhile, RH and all the others will actually publish maybe 5 or 10 books a season - all by well-known established authors and celebrities. These books will be all you will see in a store, they in a review, anywhere. More and more reader will read fewer and fewer books - indies may survive in a niche, but the publishing industry will become much like the movie industry, one blockbuster after another, with the same stars, the same formula, each having to earn out its millions of investment, over-hyped, unimaginative, devoid of risk and style and intelligence. Kindle is aptly named - a little stick of wood that can ignite the vast book-burning bonfire.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

William Trevor's sense of an ending

Two stories juxtaposed in William Trevor's "Selected Stories" make for a revealing contrast in technique, both for what they share - Trevor's tone and milieu of sorrow and lost opportunity and missed connections - and for how they differ. Rose Wept, with the strange Biblical echo in its title, concerns a single discrete event, a small dinner gathering at which Rose's parents thank the tutor who helped Rose graduate from high school. During her tutoring sessions, Rose became aware that the tutor's wife had been having an affair, and this information became a coin she used for social acceptance among her group of schoolgirl friends. At the dinner, she feels remorse for telling tales about her tutor's suffering, hence the tears, at the conclusion. The next story in the collection, Big Bucks, is about a young couple in a poor Irish seacoast town with few prospects - his family owns a rundown farm he doesn't want, hers runs a pub she doesn't want to work in. The young man leaves for America with the hope of earning enough to bring his fiance there for marriage, but things don't work out - he never quite gets a good job, he ultimately calls her to break off the engagement. We see her then, years later, working in the pub, listening to the tales of another man who'd returned from America. There's once again a mournfulness in this story, but this one concerns a whole lifespan, a novel treated in a few pages. Both of these stories us the technique that Trevor increasingly develops in his late work of a strange, almost mystical conclusion - sometimes a passage, sometimes a paragraph, sometimes just a sentence - that both summarizes the story and requires us to see the events and feelings from a new and surprising perspective.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Chekhov, Joyce, Trevor : 3 modes of the short story

The great William Trevor story Sacred Statues, in his "Selected Stories," further picks up on the theme I posted on yesterday - the mysterious way in which the protagonists in Trevor's latest, most recent stories arrive at some kind of perception, about themselves or about their world, at the end of the story. In earlier Trevor stories the concluding mood, the final note, was what I've been calling some kind of accommodation to the difficulties of life, a settling for less, an uneasiness - what I've called a Chekhovian mood. In the most recent stories this tone or mode shifts slightly and at the conclusion the characters don't settle for less but perceive that there is something more, an elusive and spiritual quality beyond their grasp or control or full comprehension. This mood is closer to Joycean, and it's something like an epiphany but without the full realization. Sacred Statues, about a couple, early 30s, with 3 (?) children, struggling in rural Ireland, the husband had given up a good job as a joiner in order to pursue his passion as a sculptor (making sacred statues for churches), but is now in near poverty - he seeks out the elderly woman who encouraged him and supported him as he first pursued his dream, but now he has no money and cannot help. His wife has an idea that she could bear a child and secretly "sell" the baby to a childless couple in town. None of these plans work; at the end the husband will take a job on a road crew and give up his statuary. The wife stands and looks at the statuary in the last scene and then comes the startling, simple conclusion to the story: The world, not she, had failed.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Does William Trevor's style change over time?

Charles McGrath's review in NYTBR of William Trevor's "Selected Stories" raised the issue/question of whether Trevor's style has evolved or changed at all over the years. I haven't gone back to his early works to give a reasoned answer to that question, but in reading through the Selected Stories (his last 4 volumes of short stories, over about a 20-year span) I see a few evolutionary changes - though it's obvious that Trevor works within a fairly narrow field and that he's not an experimentalist. Still, reading through you'll see that, if his style doesn't evolve, his subject does, in that he's acutely attentive to the social milieu, and we slowly, almost imperceptibly sense that Ireland (setting for most of his stories) is becoming a different country in the 21st century - the abject waste and poverty of the earlier stories is displaced by prosperity, ambition, and internationalism (at least in the cities), adding a new level of tension to the stories: who's staying, who's going, how is the world changing all around us? Another and even more subtle change has to do with Trevor's relation to his characters, and I'm just starting to think about this and watch for it in the stories. The earlier stories, often about a crime or a fateful act and its lifelong repercussions, ended with characters making some kind of accommodation in order to get on with their lives - ended in a darkness and near-despair, the Chekhovian mood that all of Trevor's readers have noted. Gradually, he's moving toward a different point of view: characters commit or witness or live through a dreadful or cruel act and then surprisingly learn from it or recognize something about themselves - as if they've been touched by grace (the analogue here is Joyce's The Dead, I think): an example being the priest who takes confession from a mentally disabled girl, the couple on the arranged date meeting at a theater bar, the boarding school boy who thinks about having sex with the cafeteria worker, the young girl who witnesses her mother's infidelity - all of these characters feel touched by something profound and mysterious, not guilt, remorse, or despair. I will try to get a better handle on this mood as I read the later stories.

Monday, January 3, 2011

2 different types of William Trevor stories

In a few - very few - stories, William Trevor makes a half-hearted attempt to move off his familiar ground and write about a younger, more urbane social set, one such attempt being The Telephone Game, in "Selected Stories." This story is one of the weaker in the collection (this being Trevor, that still makes it one of the best stories of the year), and maybe it's just a prejudice from our knowing what Trevor does so well and from our expecting a particular world view from each of his stories, but he seems a little less sure-footed (handed?) here - a couple, he English, she German, wed after a whirlwind courtship, and the story takes place on the eve of the wedding as the couple endures their first squabble - with overtones and echoes of the historic enmity between their two lands - the symbolism a bit heavy-handed (which Trevor and the characters acknowledge). Heart of the story is the "game," in which the character call strangers and try to keep them on the phone, and the fear that they may have caused injury or death through one of the calls. Trevor could have made more of this - most writers would have. Set this against another story in the Selecteds, his justly famous The Hill Bachelors. No recent Trevor story better summarizes the landscape and mood of his work: this one about the youngest son in a family who returns home for his father's funeral and knows that he is destined to stay on the farm and run the place, and that it will cost him his life: all the women he knows and meets want to move on, to the city, to England, into the world - the world is changing and this part of rural Ireland is being abandoned by the young, who return for funerals and the like with a dutiful nostalgia and who leave as soon as possible. We meet no other "bachelors" in this story, but the sense is that the hills are populated with many - and of course they will be the last generation. What next?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

2 (more) great William Trevor stories

Everyone, I guess, has imagined reading his or her own obit., and William Trevor's story The Death of a Professor, in "Selected Stories," takes that trope and uses it to build an obituary - which we never actually read - to build the whole story of a life. Story involves what he calls a "jape," in which someone, unclear who exactly or why until the end, sends a false report that a professor has died, and four papers run the obit. His (much younger) wife wakes up and sees the obit in the papers, keeps it a secret from her husband - he's a bit stuffy and staid and would be upset that others including a backup rock singer get more display. He goes off to a Saturday sherry gathering among his colleagues, and we get little portraits of each, all insufferable (all men) - they of course have read the obit., know it's fake, don't quite no how to react. When he learns of the prank, he goes to a pub and gets drunk, then ambles home and tells his wife he's figured it out. Very clever twist. Is this a typically Trevor story? Maybe a little more tightly constructed (with its O.Henry ending) than most many of his others, but it does pick up the Trevor themes of the lonely outsider, making accommodations to fit in and to come to terms with the limitation of his or her life. Another great story in this volume, whose title I don't remember, is of a woman who rents a cheap apartment in a small town with the sole intent of meeting a lonely, single man and bilking him. She proceeds with ruthless effectiveness - a very strong and unusual story in that we despise, yet comprehend, the protagonist and watch with pity as she goes about her work. The victim is so easily duped; we want to warn him, and Trevor has so effectively created his duplicitous character that we feel she could have fooled any one of us. Another story about an outsider - but in this case, he's the secondary character, the victim.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

What books I might read in 2011: Looking ahead

My reading list is constantly changing and evolving, and in this New Year's Day I'm looking ahead, rather than reflecting back, on some of the books that I'm hoping to read in 2011 - though who knows? Got two great books for xmas, and am reading William Trevor's Selected Stories now and hope to get to Ann Beattie's New Yorker Stories next. Inevitably will read some classic works, but which? Will very possibly go into my own library for a few books that I haven't read for many years: recent conversation with M made me realize how little I remember of Mrs. Dalloway, except as mediated through Michael Cunningham, so I hope to get back to that novel. Recent review of biography of Jean Toomer reminded me that I haven't read Cane in many years, so I may get back to that, too - I remember thinking it would make a great movie. Why has that never happened? Don Quixote, in the relatively new translation, has been staring from my shelves in its bright red jacket - volume inherited from my mother - and haven't read it since college (old translation), so that may come down from the shelf, too. It's harder to say among new books. I almost always read the NBA winner, so I'm sure I'll get to that Jaimy Gordon novel about race tracks. Have been intrigued by reviews of two novels by little-known Dutch novelist Kielson (sp?), and they are high on my list. Was also intrigued by reviews of Albanian novelist Kadare and German Berhard - will probably look into their work, though both sound dark and foreboding. And who knows what other great works and rough beasts will slouch toward us this year, waiting to be read?