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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, February 28, 2011

A great set-up and a promising story in the current New Yorker

Story by Said Sayrefiezadeh (I'm sure I misspelled that), Paranoia, in current New Yorker isn't a mind-blower but show a lot of talent and promise. He does a very good job setting a scene in some unnamed city (possibly LA? there's a reference to Santa Monica) at some undetermined time, as the country is getting ready for a war and there are shipments of arms and parades of soldiers moving south and west. That's a great set-up: a very familiar-seeming place but where are we? What's happening? We quickly learn that this is a narrative of a 20ish young man who's taken under his wing an immigrant living in the U.S. illegally and doing his best to stay out of trouble and under the radar - but the immigrant guy gets injured, hospitalized, has to borrow $, one thing leads to another and then to the inevitable: the men come and take him away, obviously for deportation. But the narrator learns of this only vaguely, in fits, from the immigrant's unfriendly landlord who speaks fractured English. At the end, there isn't a lot of plot to the story, mostly a lot of set-up, introducing the two main characters (one of whom disappears from the story) and some subsidiaries, particular a trio of black dudes, two of whom played football in h.s. with main character. First chapter of a novel, anyone? Any takers? From what I see here, it will probably be a pretty good novel. Any reader would suspect that the author is an Arab or perhaps Iranian, but the story gives no indication of that - the main character pretty much described as a white, average American guy. Assuming this story will spin out into a longer work, I wonder how the cross-cultural elements will play out. I know nothing about who SS is nor about his background, but wonder if he will (or has) used autobiographical elements in his fiction. If not - more power to you, SS! Most beginning writers draw exclusively on their personal experiences, and it seems you're able to draw on other resources, that is, your imagination and your observations.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Criticizing Joyce: The most boring part of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Let's face it, to be honest, doesn't matter how great he is or how great the novel is overall but the middle section of James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" is a pretty tough slog. I get it, he's wracked with guilt about his sexual drive and his encounters with prostitutes and with a young woman named Emma (not too clear how or when that relationship started) and he - Dedalus, the protagonist - feels sinful and hypocritical, especially when he leads the younger students in his school on a weekend religious retreat - but then we get page after page of sermonizing, a priest going on and on about God's love for each of us, and sending his only son to redeem us, and then we get into the tortures of hell, the smell of brimstone, on and on - I really don't care, I read enough (to many) sermons years ago studying the 17th century and I don't get the point - perhaps it's meant to be vastly ironic that the church talks of love and redemption but then gets its followers to confess not through emphasis on God's love but on his wrath, the exquisite nature of punishment in damnation. It seems a tedious point to dwell on - and does not advance the novel - gives us little or no new insight into the emerging portrait of Dedalus (Joyce) the artist other than to see the kind of world and thinking that he rebelled against and left behind. Who am I to criticize Joyce, right? But still - does anyone really like this section of the novel? Don't we all want to skim it? Or skip it?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

My Top Ten Books for Book Groups (Fiction)

Ran into friend Jenn B. last night and she mentioned that she sometimes looks at elliotsreading for suggestions for her book group (Thanks, Jenn!), so I'm going to offer some - the Top Ten Books for Book Groups. I've been in a couples book group for almost 20 years, and we've covered a lot of ground - almost exclusively fiction. This list is the ones I can think of (off the top of my head) that have been the most universally liked and led to the best discussions. We've found that short novels or even novellas work very well, short stories are problematic (but I might have some suggestions in a later post). I'm leaving off a few personal faves that not everyone in the group liked (Emperor's Children, Gorgeous Lies, for example) as well as some true classics that I loved reading but may be too daunting for all but the most adamant book groups (The Inferno, The Past Regained, e.g.). So here are ten that worked really well for us, in no order:

The Age of Innocence (Wharton) - or almost any of her classics
The Periodic Table (Levi)
A Month in the Country (Carr?) - a great novella!
The Light in the Piazza - we read it before the musical came out - both great!
So Long, See You Tomorrow (Maxwell) - possibly the top of the list. Every serious reader ought to read this one.
The Known World. Perhaps the best American novel of the past 10 years.
The Remains of the Day. Better if you haven't seen the movie.
Billy Budd. I'd love to see the opera someday.
Housekeeping (Robinson) - people had strong and divergent opinions on this one.
Atonement (MacEwan) - Again, better if you haven't seen the movie; also controversial, especially the ending.

That should keep you going for a year (with a summer interlude)!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sexuality in Portrait of the Artist

The sexuality in section 3 of James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" was obviously shocking when novel published a century ago - even kind of shocking when I first read it some 40 years ago - and today of course not shocking in the least, unless you're shocked by how demure and indirect these scenes are. And by their indirection, they're actually quite beautiful: Dedalus, now probably a late-teenager, still in school (not entirely clear where - still at the Conglawes boarding school? some of the schoolmates are the same) ha apparently won some money from his racing and spent quite a bit of it on his family, but then gets drawn into the Dublin red-light district, we have a scene - kind of a prelude to many similar scenes of night wandering that Joyce will develop much more fully in Ulysses - in which Dedalus walks among the prostitutes, is approached by one, goes up with her to a room, they touch lips, his world swirls around and changes forever; then we have the impression that he is a dissolute for a while - does seem kind of precocious in this, having the time and the money and the wherewithal to pursue this obsession - and we also see him back a school, some kind of proctor or supervisor for the younger students, and totally wracked with guilt and wondering how he can confess or if he even should confess - school goes off on a religious retreat and Dedalus is torn by guilt. As with the rest of Portrait, these are sketches and snapshots rather than developed narrative lines, which over the course of the novel gradually cohere and form an image, a portrait, of the emerging personality of a writer. At this point in the novel, however, Dedalus shows no literary or artistic inclinations.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The emerging character of the exile and the writer in Joyce's Portrait

After a first section of James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," in which the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, is bullied in school and stands up for himself, becoming a hero among the boys, the second section moves Stephen into adolescence, and slowly and subtly he begins to edge away from his family. Parents and home were idealized in part one, as Dedalus is lonely and homesick while away in Clongawes boarding school, but in part 2 we see, from Stephen's point of view, the problems and discontents in the family: a strange section in which Stephen, still pretty young, accompanies his Uncle Charlie on errands to various stores in town (not totally clear what these errands are, debt collection? debt payments?), then we see the family in some kind of financial decline, moving from a suburb (Blackwater?) to Dublin, Dedalus feeling the gloomy atmosphere of disappointment in his father; then a trip with father to Cork, where father, Simon Dedalus, was raised, this trip to sell things at auction, probably more evidence of the financial distress, but Simon putting on a brave face, singing, taking Stephen on a tour of the college and getting sentimental about his old haunts, becoming teary about the death of many friends long gone from his life - Stephen behaving in typical adolescent fashion, slightly ashamed of Dad, sullen, but also very dependent and looking, hoping for something heroic in his father. We begin to see here the emerging character of the exile and the writer. Portrait is unique: very indistinct in some ways, as the overall arc of the narrative is seen as if through gauze or the haze of memory, and extraordinarily sharp in its specific, sensory details of place.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Why Portrait of the Artist is unconventional

Read the third section of James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and, as with first two sections, I'm amazed at how little I recall about these, even though this is probably the 3rd time I've read the book - not sure why that is. Possibly because the Portrait itself is not a highly dramatic novel, that is, it's not driven by plot or by conflict in the usual sense: character faced with problem he must confront and solve, narrator goes on a journey, stranger comes to town - none of the usual narrative tropes. It is, as the title proposes, a Portrait, and in that sense rather static - the movement of the narrative, the arc of the story, being the development of the sensibility of the artist/writer, Joyce of course but here called Stephen Dedalus (or Stephen Hero in an earlier draft) - which we see both as the narrator matures and as the style of the novel itself evolves and becomes more unconventional and experimental. In the early chapters, there's nothing that inevitably suggests Stephen is on a path that will lead him to exile and to stature as one of the world's great novelists - seems like an ordinary, intelligent, schoolboy, with the exception that he is extremely observant and attendant to sense details. Third section involves an episode in which Stephen is unfairly caned by Brother Dolan, a sadistic teacher in Clongowes school, and at encouragement of his friends Stephen reports the incident to the Rector and is treated kindly - and becomes momentarily a hero. This section actually a bit more conventional than earlier, an isolated piece, not amazing for its story but very notable for the Stephen/Joyce's skill at evocation - the sound of balls hitting cricket bats like water dripping on slate, and many other examples.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A piece of a portrait : What you'd learn from the first 2 chapters in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist

Hearing two mentions of James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" in past two days, started re-reading it last night - maybe for 3rd time? Last time 15 years ago or so? Not surprised as how good it is, but am surprised at how little I remember of the first two sections/chapters: first of the artist (Stephen Dedalus) as a pupil in a boarding school, younger and smaller than most of the others, picked on a little, pushed around, homesick, becomes ill, section ends - one of the first of a million boarding-school stories, but not a horrendous school or a story of the brutal hazing and torment that we see in many others, just a boy and his loneliness and his initial questions about fate - nothing particular in the first section that would lead you to think he's on a life course toward become a great writer, other than his sensitivity to language (he recalls various childhood rhymes) and his probing thoughts about his place in the cosmos (not all that unusual for a preteen). Second section about an xmas dinner at Stephen's home, in Dublin, during a term break - he's a bit older, but not clear exactly how old, most of the section in dialog as the the family members passionately argue whether Parnell should be excommunicated for having an adulterous affair (these details seem long ago faded from history - maybe not in Ireland), but the point is how Stephen absorbs and observes the verbal fencing of adults. Each section very well presented, with great economy of detail - and at this point in novel with none of the experimental narrative techniques that emerge in later sections and begin to establish Joyce as one of the great Modernists. If you stopped reading at this point, you wouldn't know that Portrait is an extraordinary and seminal work.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The man who refused to hate Hitler

Looking back over the beginning pages of Hans Keilson's "The Death of the Adversary," I see a few things more clearly: Keilson carefully establishes the novel as a way to present his own warm memoir, written in secret, in German, in a kind of code (calling Hitler "B," for example - not that it would have helped him had the Nazis found the manuscript). He begins with a narrator receiving the manuscript from an attorney, who says a client had left it to him - the few details of the client's life seem to match those of Keilson's. So he creates a frame around his own memoir, both distancing himself from it and making it more real? Why didn't he simply publish his memoir as such or even as a novel, without the frame? Because, I think, it was too painful and honest for him to bear. Most Holocaust novels (and memoirs), as noted in earlier post, are either about heroic resistance of plaintive and tragic submission to fate. Keilson's is not, it's a bit weirder - about a young man who refuses to hate B/Hitler, and rationalizes everything about Hitler's rise to power - comes up with a philosophical rationale that Hitler needs an enemy to clarify his position and to hate Hitler would be to fall victim to the same condition. Obviously, he is a young man filled with fear, guilt, and self-loathing. I kept waiting for him to act, to do something - he doesn't, but as I look over the beginning of the novel I see that in the first pages he does express his hatred of B/Hitler and his wish to see Hitler dead (as in the novel's title). The amazing thing is how long it took him to get there. So some aspect of the author's life - the element we never see in this novel, which drove him into hiding and exile - at last convinced him of the evil of Hitler (and for that matter, why blame only Hitler - why not the millions of Germans who embraced him?). A strange and provocative novel by any stretch.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Holocaust survivor and his guilt : The Death of the Adversary

Hans Keilson's "The Death of the Adversary" is an impressive if befuddling novel - a very unusual Holocaust novel in that, as mentioned in previous posts, Keilson never uses the words Hitler, Nazi, or Jew, though it's obvious what he's writing about - his secretiveness about the subject matter gives the book a Kafkaesque, spooky feeling - as if the words themselves were curses or talismans - and it also gives the book a sense of realism, in that the frame of the story suggests we're reading a manuscript written in secret and hidden - as in fact it was, perhaps - Keilson apparently wrote the novel while in hiding during the war. All that said - it's very frustrating that the narrator remains so passive, naive, and self-loathing. The novel continually builds toward some kind of confrontation, which never takes place. The narrator goes through a series of encounters, each more horrific and haunting - scorned at the playground, shunned by his best friend, then (as a young man) spending an evening with some supposed friends hearing their detailed account of the desecration of a Jewish cemetery. At the end, he actually watches Hitler pass in a motorcade. Not only does he never act - which of us would be brave enough to do that? - but he continues to philosophize about Hitler, he needed Jews as an enemy to define himself, Jews need an enemy to survive - and so on. However: at the same time, he learns that his parents have had to flee their home, his father taken away and obviously killed, and it slowly, painfully, dawns on him that Hitler means what he says and more. This is a truly tragic novel in that sense - an apologist who learns the truth too late and must live with the guilt.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Thoughts on why Keilson's Holocaust novel has not been recognized as a classic

Why isn't Hans Keilson's "The Death of the Adversary" a recognized classic? Well, I'll hold off my own judgment till I finish, but half-way through it seems like a grossly unrecognized novel, rescued from oblivion by an FSG reprint (and a NYTBR cover review) last year. Still - why isn't Keilson ranked (and read) along with Levi, Wiesel, Ann Frank, and other Holocaust survivors and chroniclers? Probably because his tale is both less horrifying and less reassuring than others'. His is of a young man who resists the resistance, refuses to acknowledge or recognize the danger of Hitler and the Nazis, refuses even to name Hitler, refuses even to identify himself as a Jew. We don't get the heroic and tragic resistance and (ultimate) survival of a Wieself or a Levi, we don't see that plaintive suffering of an Anne Frank, we don't see the valiant struggles of a young man as in Koszinski or Begley, we don't even get the rueful and ironic resonance of a story such as the recently discovered Suite Francaise, in which part of the haunting aspect of the (unfinished) novel is knowing of the author's fate (death in a camp). The closest kin may be Fallada's novel, also recently rediscovered, about ineffectual German resistance to the Nazis. Keilson's is darker and less appealing, much more of an intellectual's struggle, harder to identify with, told in a way that Kafka might recount the Holocaust had he lived through it - full of weird abstractions and refusals to act rather than heroic action or tragic resistance.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A chilling account of the rise of Nazism : The Death of the Adversary

The narrator in Hans Keilson's excellent novel "The Death of the Adversary" refuses to recognize the evil nature and the danger of his enemy or adversary, referred to only as B, but obviously Hitler in 1930s Germany. The narrator rationalizes and intellectualizes everything - he knows that B has named the narrator's people, those bearing the mark, as he calls it, Jews, obviously, as the enemy, but he rationalizes that there's no real danger, that B simply needs an adversary in order to build support and sharpen his views - he sees the entire cataclysm of the rise of Nazism as a dialectic, something playing out in the realm of ideas. Why is this? He's clearly full of shame and self-loathing, ashamed of his parents and their timidity and accommodation; also, a refusal to recognize himself as in any way different from others in his (unnamed) country - he cannot bear the shame of being ostracized, as he was in childhood. So now we see him, half-way through the book, as a young man - he's traveling somewhere, staying at an inn, and as it happens B is giving a speech at the inn, which the narrator listens to - and he's captivated and moved by the power of B's voice and his oration - rather than horrified or terrified at what B is saying. Eventually a mob breaks in, tears apart the tavern - these are evidently an anti-B force, perhaps other Jews, but the narrator will not join, in fact just coolly rationalizes again and commiserates with the innkeeper. A very strange novel told with a chilling narrative style.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Why isn't this guy world-renowned? : Has Keilson

Hans Keilson's "The Death of the Adversary" continues to be an original, haunting, important book (now about 80 pages in) - so why isn't this guy world-renowned or at least better known? Because he's not a full-time writer? Because he's Dutch (though I think he first writings were in his native German)? Anyway, Death of the Adversary continues to tell in a most striking way the story of the gradual rise of Nazism and the spread of anti-Semitism from the viewpoint of a youngish (40 or so?) man looking back on his youth. The strangeness of the novel comes from the fact that (so far) he has not uttered any key defining words: Nazi, Hitler, not even Jew. This weird technique makes the book both more mysterious and particular - and more universal. You can't pigeonhole it or dismiss it as yet another Holocaust memoir (as if there can ever be enough) - it's also a story of alienation and terror. Nor can you dismiss it as another story of tender youth, as it's clearly a from-the-life depiction of one of the most horrendous and shameful episodes of world history. The narrator (we are reading papers he supposedly left in care of his attorney) tells of his friends gradually abandoning him, his loneliness, finally his pouring his heart out to one friend who visits from out of town, and this friend tells him that he in fact has become a great following and admirer of "B" (i.e., Hitler). Narrator shamed and angered, but refuses to hate "B," in fact sees something of himself in B's image. Narrator then befriends some others who "bear the mark" (i.e., Jews), and is reproached for being too cool and aloof - unwilling to express his hatred of B. The sense of alienation is palpable - very powerful material.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

One of the strangest books on the rise of Hitler

Hans Keilson's "The Death of the Adversary," first 50 pages or so, great start to an unusual and disturbing book. On first thought, it seems familiar territory - young man growing up as the Nazis take over Europe and Nazism and anti-Semitism spread like a plague - not that there can ever be enough documentary and artistic evidence of this horrible era, all who know of it should testify - but what makes t his book (so far) especially strange and chilling is that (so far) the words Nazi, Hitler, Jew, Germany never appear. The young man - actually an older narrator looking back on earlier events - slowly chronicles his observations as he observes his parents talking in whispers, burdened by distress, then at some point his friends won't allow him in their "games" and he comes home in tears, eventually gets back into a soccer game and is brutally fouled and injured, his life gradually forced more into a retreat - he has no understanding of why. It's a book of a terrifying historical movement and period, without a glimpse of actual history or current events, all told from the inside, from within a family and within a consciousness. Stranger still, the older man looking back is focusing on his death wish toward his enemy (or adversary, as the title would have it), whom he refers to only as B. - we assume this is Hitler, but why the B? Keilson iis I think a Dutch writer, perhaps still living, one of his books recently just published in English - a writer who should no doubt be much better known and more widely translated than he is.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

It's Greek for me : I'd rather read the Iliad, but ...

The best part of David Malouf's "Ransom," his retelling of (mostly) book 24 of the Iliad, is the journey across the plains from walled Troy to the Grecian camp, in which a muleteer, Somax (?), transports King Priam and his wagonful of loot to ransom Hector's body. There are some beautiful, dreamlike passages in this section and Malouf establishes an intriguing bond between the two men - echoes of Quixote, of King Lear, of the excellent HBO series Rome, and of many buddy movies and novels in which a relation forms among so-called unequals. Malouf's end note acknowledges that the Somax character is entirely his invention - I wish he'd done more with this part of the book. The rest of the novel is, at least intermittently, extremely well written - Malouf is a very distinguished Australian writer and he creates a few scenes very rich in detail - he's at his best when he writes in full sentences, as with most of the scene of carousels in Achilles' tent, and he's weaker when he's jotting down sentence fragments and it feels as if he's making notes for a script or for a longer work. That said, the scenes in the Achilles' camp are very fine (especially Achilles' mistaking the arriving Priam for his own father), the closing section in which we see a bit of the ruins of Troy and we see Somax as an old man telling tales, are very good. It's just that, by the end, I've read a retelling of part of the Iliad and I wonder why? What's the point? What did it add? As noted, I wished Malouf had used this as a springboard to focus on what he truly did add to this classic and unfurled a whole novel from that strand.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Iliad reimagined as a buddy movie

Reading a bit of The Iliad (Fagles translation, excellent) alongside my reading of David Malouf's "Ransom," and realize that the retelling is almost entirely based on he events of book 24, last book of the Iliad. The first half or so of Ransom touches on the highlights of Achilles' wrath, killing of Hector, abuse of Hector's body. Then we get to the heart of the novel, Malouf's take on Priam's journey into enemy territory to ransom the body of Hector. This material is potentially highly dramatic - could be a great movie, on the model of many Westerns, can just picture the Coen brothers doing it - Priam crossing dangerous ground in a mule cart, the odd encounter with Hermes in human form. Malouf's main interest is the developing relation between Priam, who has led the sheltered and protected life of royalty, and the mule-cart driver, Somax/Ideaus, with his peasant wisdom and working-class fatalism. Well, I could see this as kind of a buddy movie, too. Also has significant echoes of King Lear, the old and powerful man suddenly feeling ineffectual. This second half of the book definitely picks up in narrative interest, but it still feels like a sketch for a novel rather than a fully developed work of fiction - lots of sentence fragments, quick observations, not the great psychological depth and original insights we'd expect from a world-class novelist meditating on one of the classics of literature. Other great writers have taken on similar topics late in their careers: Updike on Hamlet, Coetze on Robinson Crusoe, for example - and usually with limited success: our interest in these works tends to be in what they show about the contemporary writer. Rarely do these retellings of classics match up in any way to the work they're emulating.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Achilles is in your alleyway : What we learn about him in Ransom

Achilles is a cruel, narcissistic bastard - that's obvious to everyone who's read The Iliad and it's equally obvious to readers of David Malouf's retelling of the tale, "Ransom." First 50 or so pages focus on "the wrath of Achilles," and give quite a gruesome account of his lashing Hector's body to the axle tree (a word I'd only seen in Eliot till now) and dragging him around the walls of Troy. In a touch that I don't think is in the original, Hector's body seems to recover miraculously each night, so Achilles drags him again and again - Sisyphean. Not sure why Malouf adds this supernatural element. He tells us (doesn't show) that Achilles sacrificed many on the "barrow" (pile or mound at a funeral site - who knew?), including several horses and Trojan prisoners. Violating the body is one thing - sure to incite the wrath of Priam and the Trojan leaders. But why kill horses and why mistreat prisoners of war? Those are violations of all convention, barbarous behavior - and any talk about well, Greeks used to do lots of sacrifices etc. is just wrong - this isn't sacrifice, it's slaughter. So why does Achilles do this stuff? Is he just insane? Enraged? Here's an area where Malouf could give some enlightenment, because Homer didn't - is it homoerotic? (not a hint of that from Malouf), or just a powerful sibling friendship (that's what he implies, but doesn't develop), or weird injury to his warrior pride? Book so far very well writen, if a little too aware of its own vocabulary and burnished style - but I'm waiting to see what insights Malouf offers - or is it just a retelling of the familiar?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A type of novel I (usually) don't like - we'll see how this one goes, though

I usually don't care for this kind of book, but, we are considering it for book group so I thought I'd take up David Malouf's new novel, "Ransom." Why don't I care for this type? I mean, really, why would a novelist just retell a story that's already been told much better already? This novel is a retelling of part of the Iliad. Why not just read The Iliad? I generally have impatience with the many novels that "fictionalize" a life story, that reimagine or extend the life of a literary character, that turn a historical event into a narrative episode - though there are some great novels that use and transform elements from history and biography, e.g., War and Peace. As to the others, my thought is: tell me something from your life, your experiences, or your imagination. I admit - my shortcoming, my personal taste. So, what about Malouf's take on Homer? I guess it's shortsighted to say it can't or shouldn't be done - a classicist would possibly say Homer shouldn't even be translated, so if you can't read ancient Greek forget about it. So Malouf offers a window into Homer's world. His writing is good, swift - covers about 2/3rds of the Iliad in his first 30 pages - but very ornate, and uses lots of sentence fragments, as if he's just jotting down impressions rather than developing thoughts. Interestingly, he gives a whole back story on the Patrocles-Achilles friendship - Patrocles as adopted brother of Achilles, maybe this is legendary, but I don't think it's in the Iliad - and definitely doesn't even touch on the homoerotic elements in their relationship. Though I started Ransom with trepidation, it so far is quite readable and I'm looking forward to continuing reading.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The demons that haunt Mary Gaitskill's stories

Marie Gaitskill has built her career by writing about outsiders, people who are wounded, damaged, self-destructive - most notably I guess in her story Secretary, made into a pretty good movie, about a depressed young woman who's seriously into cutting (I think that was emphasized more in the movie than the story, not sure) and a recent novel about a self-destructive fashion model (?). She keeps developing this particular metier, and her stories from the very first to the most recent are generally depressive and unpleasant but in some peculiar way compelling, too - you have to pay attention to them, in the same way that you can't not look at a car wreck - and then you're glad you're moving along and it's not you in the wreckage. Her story in the current New Yorker, The Other World, is fairly typical of her work, though a little more ambitious in narrative style than some of her earlier stories: narrated by a man who describes his obviously disturbed son, the son obsessed with pictures of guns for example, but the man keeps making light of the disturbance - we see a broader picture than the narrator does, as in some of Ishigura's work. Gradually, story becomes more about the man himself, as he in the coolest imaginable tones describes his murder fantasies, his thoughts of violence against women, some of the creepy behavior he engaged in as a child, and ending with his bonding with his son - the torch has been passed, so to speak. Typically Gaitskill: a believable character, but one we wouldn't want to know, one we feel no sympathy for, one that makes us wonder what really draws her to these demons?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Who knows how great a writer Jean Toomer could have become?

As expected, reading the intro to my 1975 edition of Jean Toomer's "Cane" makes the book (Toomer himself never called it a novel, but I think it is a seminal 20th-century novel, or work of fiction at least) sound really great - a brief listing of the types of characters in the stories, of the issues it takes on, of the styles that Toomer practices and explores, the book sounds as compendious and ambitious as Ulysses. Maybe it is. But unfortunately it's not all that great - it's clearly the work of a young man, an impatient writer who blasts through his material without giving it a lot of shape or direction. In a way the openness of the form is what makes the book appealing, but I think by the end most readers are yearning for some connection between the many pieces - interaction of characters, emergence of a single character or voice, development of plot? Toomer had the advantage of working on material that had barely if ever been touched by any other writers, so every one of the sections must have felt fresh and original at the time (1920s), less so today. Interesting to learn that he tried to publish Cane as only the "southern" sections, parts 1 and 3, but was told he didn't have enough material (true, it would have barely been a pamphlet, let alone a book), so he added the urban material of part 2, which is far less compelling and not well integrated. Sad to note that he did not publish any books (one maybe?) after Cane, though he wrote quite a bit and led a full and adventurous life - he didn't want to be typed as a black writer, but that was or could have been his ticket to more publication. It's a shame - I think he would have had so much more to say about his world; his style would have matured. For all my quibbles and concerns, Cane is an incredibly powerful first work of fiction for any writer of an time. Who knows how great a writer Toomer could have become? His fame is completely posthumous.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Influential, original, unusual, lyrical - but a great work of literature? : Cane

Feeling a little guilty here for suggesting Jean Toomer's "Cane" for book group, though we'll see, the group never ceases to surprise me with the variety of opinions and enthusiasms that we come up with and express - still, my nearly complete reading of Cane, for me, shows that, yes, it was influential on both the Harlem renaissance and on southern regionalists such as Faulkner, but today it's more like a curiosity or a relic than a great work of literature, or of fiction. The 2nd section, set in black communities in the North, mostly DC, is the weakest of the 3 - each of the little sketches is a potential story, but they don't have the narrative qualities of most stories, they just establish a character or a situation and then abandon it. Would these really be so famous were it not for the fact that so little had been written by and about American blacks at that time? One of the pieces, about a black man who, to a degree, passes for white, in Chicago (perhaps at U of Chicago?), double-dates with a white friend - there's a lot of potential for a story or even a novel here, but it's left undeveloped - every time the plot thickens, so to speak, Toomer abandons the story line for a passage of lyric poetry. The third section is, for the most part, written in dialogue, much like a play. It's the most conventional part of the book: about a group of black men in a small Georgia town, two of whom have moved down from the North, one as a teacher, the other (Lewis) I'm not sure - but the community wants him to leave, threatens him. This could be staged well as a play, I think. We'll see how it goes. Unlike with many books, I will definitely read the preface and maybe some other pieces to see what others have to say about Cane - maybe I'm missing something.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What makes Cane a classic?

Didn't finish the 2nd section of Jean Toomer's "Cane," but I'd have to say that this section - set in the U-Street corridor of DC, then (1920s) and now a black neighborhood, though getting more upscale by the minute, is not what made or makes Cane a classic. Compared with the first section with its surprising and unique blend of poetry, fiction, short character sketches in rural southern Georgie, the DC section feels weakened - we get sketches of nightclub dancers and more descriptions of femmes fatales, mysterious beauties who drive men to irrational lengths and then abandon them - and grow older and less attractive - a theme of Toomer's repeated again and again, with variations. Reading Cane, I do appreciate his willingness to and ability to use a whole range of literary devices to give a portrait of a community, but he doesn't actually paint a portrait, he just sketches the outlines. He has terrific material with which to work, but he doesn't develop this material in an traditional way. I find myself waiting for, hoping for some plot - which would entail bring the characters and places together, following one character through at least several of the scenes, developing a thread that connects the first two (and the third) section of Cane into a unified work. But I guess what makes Cane famous is that these threads willfully do not exist - it's an open, breathing work, no far removed from the author's sketchbook or notebook. In that way, it broadened the scope of literary fiction, edging it as close as it could get to Symbolist poetry and looking forward to the impulsive and explosive writing of the Beats - but it does seem to be hinting at, promising, something that it can't quite deliver.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Does Cane hold up? Or is it a dated curiosity?

Started Jean Toomer's "Cane," our next book group selection (my suggestion), which I haven't read for 35 years - wondering how it will stand up - I remember that when I read it I was of course much more enamored of experimental literature, anything that mixed genres or broke boundaries, and that does seem so antique today. Still, having now re-read the first third of the novel, the section set in a small south Georgia mill town, though it does seem dated in many ways, both style and substance, you can see how Toomer was deeply influenced by Joyce and how his melodramatic and lush style influenced Faulkner and, later, the writers of the Harlem renaissance and their descendants, Hurston, and more recently the great E. Jones (The Known World). First section a mix of short stories more like sketches, each about a woman living in this small town, the sections linked by short, lyrical poems. One the positive side, Toomer does a fantastic job creating the mood of the deep South rural community - from the smoke curling up from the pile of sawdust outside the mill, the stickiness of cane sap and gum everywhere, the smell of tobacco and of pine - he describes everything with rich detail, very evocative. The stories themselves - today, they do seem condescending and faux exotic, and very sexist as well: the women variously as harpies and seductresses, the men as victims driven to insanity by the women's enchantments, the community itself violent and almost primitive. I remember years ago thinking Andy should do a stage adaptation; I think I was thinking about the 3rd section - we'll see if that thought still makes sense.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Development of a writer's style over a lifetime : Ann Beattie

The dark and menacing strain continues to run through Ann Beattie's most recent stories in her collection "The New Yorker Stories," as the last two, from about 2005, evince: in one (Coping Stones), a widowed man discovers that his tenant is a wanted child molester; in another, a man hires movers to help him clear out a summer house and they prove to be strangely menacing characters. These recent stories also mark a real change in Beattie's narrative structure, focusing very closely n one character rather than the complex network of characters that populate and motivate her earlier stories. Naturally, Beattie's characters are older, later in her career, and confronting late-life issues: aging, and aging parents/relations. Two of her best recent stories concern dealing with an elderly mother - one clearly her most directly autobiographical story (begins with the words "True story"), as narrator, Ann, learns her widowed mom about to move in with neighbor guy. In another, a daughter helps her mom through transition to a nursing home. Beattie is really great with elderly characters and dialogue; their quirky and eccentric use of language and incapacity to follow the strand of a conversation weirdly echos and recreates the off-kilter style of Beattie's earliest pieces. Finally, the late stories seem to be pushing the edge a bit and threatening to break out into novels - something her early stories never did, each seeming complete in itself. For example, the Last Odd Days in LA includes a scene in which the narrator sees a fox (?) watching him at an LA swimming pool - this image would definitely have concluded an early Beattie story, but in the later stories she moves the narration on to a new stage, developing from that image, letting it unfold and giving us just a little more access to the character's interior life. Collecting all her New Yorker stories was a great idea, and reading them as a collection gives us an unique vision of the development of a writer's style over the course of a lifetime in literature.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Story that doesn't quite work, powerful personal essay in current New Yorker

I don't know much about Tess Hadley except that she's very English and she's been welcomed as part of the corral of New Yorker writers, with her stories appearing there now with regularity. I don't quite get it - there's definitely nothing wrong with her stories, but each one leaves me feeling a bit empty, as if something's missing, and none stays distinctly in my mind for long. Her current story, Honor, is a good example: the premise kind of interesting, a woman looks back on her childhood and remembers a very strange moment when an aunt (sister of her completely estranged father, whom she was told is dead) comes suddenly to live with her and her "mum." She knows something's terribly wrong, but only over time does she put the pieces together and learn that her aunt holds herself responsible for the death of her son/narrator's cousin - she left the house while father was in a rampage and father killed the boy. All good, strong material for a story, but it's told with such coldness and distance that I never got engaged with it. Partly it's the narrative strategy of looking back on these events from a long period away - that can be an effective strategy for sure (cf., William Maxwell), but Hadley doesn't make much of it - we don't see exactly how these events changed the narrator's life, for example - they just feel like events more thought about than felt. For contrast, read the very powerful personal essay in same issue by Francisco Goldman, describing in agonizing detail the terrible death of his young wife. Francisco, wherever you are - I am sure you have touched thousands with your words; my thoughts are with you.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Surprising dark elements in Ann Beattie's recent stories

How do you account for this streak of darkness that runs through some of Ann Beattie's late (post-2000) stories in "The New Yorker Stories"? Not that her stories are all sweetness and light - many of the early stories and mid-career stories had a sinister element, though the darkness is generally tempered (even obscured) by her wit and quirkiness: that's what readers tend to focus on in her stories, that's what we tend to remember. The dark aspect was always there, but it's what I'd call an interior darkness: characters causing misery in others (wives, husbands, lovers, children, parents) or suffering from their own malaise. Now I'm thinking about two stories post-2000, both fairly long, one, Women of This World, about a family gathering (Thanksgiving?) in Maine with assorted emotional complications, the other about a well-off investor in a difficult relation with estranged daughter, visits niece and nephew in LA (The Last Odd Day in LA) - in the first, out of nowhere, a country neighbor is beaten in her home and the central figure in the story makes the discovery; in LA, the guy comes home and is confronted by the daughter of the woman he's been dating who at first seems a confused but reasonable kid and then - from nowhere - pulls a gun and shoots. These are dark elements that come from outside - characters basically unknown to the central figures in the story, their violent actions not generated by the events of the story but a sudden intrusion into this civilized, comfortable world - a moment of Joyce Carol Oates in the middle (or at the end) of a Beattie story. Her view of the world in the 21st century is shifting, more unsettled and uncertain - same for all of us.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The status anxiety of the wealthy : Beattie's 21st-century stories

As you look at the table of contents in Ann Beattie's "The New Yorker Stories," you'll see there's about an 8-year gap from 1992-2000 during which either she didn't write stories or The New Yorker didn't publish them. I think it's a time when she concentrated on novels - novels do pay the bills, and they generally are the ticket to real fame, awards, recognition - which is why it took almost a lifetime for Munro and Trevor to get the full recognition they deserve. So by 92 Beattie's incredible records of what looks like a story every month or so (or at least a few a year) in the New Yorker and a regular stream of story collections dries and withers. When she returns to the good graces of the magazine, she's a very different writer, at least in some ways: still the recognizable wit and quirkiness, the quips, the complex network for friendships and partners and exes. But her stories in the 2000s become more capacious (maybe it's from having worked for a decade on novels), the characters far wealthier, more status-conscious: one involves the typical Beattie clan gathering with all the angst that entails, but of a very comfortable, prosperous group, at which a main topic of discussion is fine wines - a bottle of Opus One becomes the totem for this story. Another about a man visiting his very successful nephew and niece who share a house in L.A. In a way, you could say that Beattie matures in these late stories, as do her characters. In another way, she seems to be exploring a new set of social anxieties, and the picture doesn't - at least in the first few stories from the decade - come into sharp focus at first. More to come.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

News flash: Not all blurbs involve log-rolling and ingratiating

Not that Ann Beattie needs any support from me, but ... I've been posting for several days now on her terrific collection "The New Yorker Stories," and I want to offer full disclosure to anyone who might be reading these: I do owe Ann Beattie a debt of gratitude, in that she gave me a wonderful blurb for my novel, Exiles. All of us know that most blurbs involve some form of logrolling or ingratiating - I know for a fact that a number of prominent writers give blurbs only to their current or former students, which seems to me a weird criteria - take my course and get a blurb ! - but there you have it. Reading blurbs can become a literary parlor game to determine who studied with whom or who knows whom from around town, writers group, agent in common, etc. Beattie and I share no such connection, and she offered a blurb purely in support of a fellow writer. We met about 25 years ago, when I was books editor for the Providence Journal - I interviewed her for a profile/review, and about a year later chatted with her at a dinner - honestly I doubt she remembered me at all. When Exiles was near publication, the publisher asked me to try to get some quotes - I was a longtime admirer of Beattie's work and thought she would like Exiles, in that it shares some qualities (I think) with her work. I tracked down her email, wrote, reminded her of our meeting, asked if she would be willing to read Exiles - she wrote back saying something like, wow, that was a long time ago - but OK send the book. I did, and to my surprise she actually read it and liked it and offered me the quote. I was, and am, very thankful and grateful - it speaks really well to her character and her generosity that she was willing to help out a fellow writer (me) whom she knew very slightly if at all.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Friends: Do all of Ann Beattie's characters really know one another?

You might notice as you read through Ann Beattie's "The New Yorker Stories" one peculiar fact about Beattie's stories: the characters all know one another. Rarely if ever does she introduce a stranger or an outsider to the scene. This insularity creates and accounts for the particular mood of Beattie's fiction, a tight social network made up of an intricate patter of romantic and amicable alliances and misalliances. I'm tempted to say that each one is like the starting point for a sit-com, but that's not really true because they the stories are not driven by plot, more by mood and incident and wry observation - though some of the quirky characters could be drafted by a sit-com and would fit in well. Having said all that, a few stories in the mid-'80s begin to break this mold: thinking particular of Summer People from the Where You'll Find Me collection, which is definitely one of her strongest (and strangest), a couple in a Vermont (?) house, aimless in their careers, dealing with the difficult, sullen child of husband's first marriage, like so many Beattie characters, and then a guy shows up on the small country road, Mr. Rickman, and indicates he's wanted to buy their house but didn't know it was up for sale, and then he starts making ominous, slightly but not overtly threatening comments, and he hovers over the rest of the story - we're never sure whether his threats are credible, but as story progresses we learn more about dark elements in husband's past, in the marital relationship. Similarly, somewhat later story Home to Marie, another great one, about woman walking out on husband in shocking manner, and in last paragraphs, story take an unexpected plot swoop and we learn of a time the husband was mugged outside a bar - what does this tell us about him? He was unfaithful, unlucky? Why was he at a bar in the "bad" side of town? The story darkens and opens, dramatically, just as it hits its last stride. Beattie continues to explore, and surprise us, with her unusual narrative rhythms.