Follow by Email


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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

One of the most unusual Holocaust novels : Comedy in a Minor Key

Part of the strangeness of Hans Keilson's short novel "Comedy in a Minor Key" is the title: why is it a comedy? It's about a Dutch couple who harbor a Jew in their attic during the Nazi occupation; the Jew (Nico) dies while in hiding and the couple, Maria and Wim, have to dispose of the body. (All this made clear in first few pages.) Then, the comic, I guess, twist: worried that when the police discover Nico's body, which Wim and a doctor had left in a park, the police will trace it back to Wim and Maria because of laundry tags, W & M themselves have to go into hiding. Spoiler here: all works out when a sympathetic cop himself clips the tags from the clothing, protecting the heroic protectors. So there's a comic "twist" and a "comic" ending in that all works out, for two of the characters anyways. And there are some grossly comic moments - carrying the stiff body out of the house, where to prop it, where to leave it - comic in the sense that maybe a Beckett play is a comedy. But I think "minor key" is the important element - all of this played out against a backdrop of the most horrible time in modern European history. It's comic and on an intellectual level interesting to explore briefly the relation that develops between the young couple and the older man whom they shelter, but when you step back for a moment and realize the grotesqueness of the whole situation, Jews living in hiding and Dutch patriots fearful for their lives for protecting the persecuted, the story itself, seen in the light of history, is a horror and a tragedy. Keilson in his quiet and unassuming way has written one of the most unusual of Holocaust novels - in the Holocaust is never named, the Nazis barely mentioned. It's like his other recently translated novel, Death of the Adversary, that takes on Hitler and Naziism without naming either.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A novel of heroism without heros : Comedy in a Minor Key

Hans Keilson's "Comedy in a Minor Key" is a very strange book, and I won't be giving anything away if I tell you the plot because that's exactly what Keilson does: it's a very short novel (135 small pages) about a Dutuch couple harboring a Jewish man in their attic during WWII, under Nazi occupation; Keilson begins the novel at the end, as the opening scenes are during a British (?) air invasion, flying over Holland to a bombing mission, so liberation and the end of the war are in sight, but the habored Jew, Nico, is very ill, and after the flyover he dies - a doctor comes to certify the death and the doctor and the man of the house, Wim, make plans to bury Nico's body. Then we jump back to the arrival of Nico in the home, about a year before. Throughout, we jump back and forward in time, it's a novel in pieces (though not at all difficult to follow because the action, such as it is, is very simple and there are essentially only 3 characters and one setting), and the effect is something like a Cubist painting, with the full picture coming together gradually through broken images. I wonder why, however, a writer would give up the possibility of building narrative and dramatic tension, why he would completely flatten the arc of the story? Is it because the death of Nico would be such a let-down as the conclusion of a novel about sheltering a Jew during the war? Keilson is very ruthless and honest with his material - gives a real sense of the awkwardness as well as the danger of the situation, and makes clear that the couple are doing their "patriotic duty," but that they are also full of ambivalence - a novel of heroism without heroes.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why don't American publishers ever take a chance?

Almost impossible to believe that books like those of Hans Keilson have been published in the U.S. - why would an American publisher even a 100-page meditative, serious novel set during World War II, but without battles, concentration camps, great love stories, heroism, or in fact any of the usual elements that might conceivably turn into sales or film rights. There's no way Keilson's work would fit into any kind of marketing plan. Let's see, we gonna send a 100-year old Dutch author out on a speaking tour? I doubt it. But somehow in one of those rare twists of fate talent has been recognized and virtue rewarded and FSG has published two Keilson novels, bringing at least some attention to a writer who I believe was virtually unknown to Americans till last year. Started "Comedy in a Minor Key" last night and haven't read deeply enough to say much about it - it tells of a couple sheltering a man (Jewish, presumably) in their attic in a quiet Dutch (I think) neighborhood, and the strange relation and dependency developing among them and the odd fear and ambivalence they all feel as Allied air forces fly over and begin attacks, wondering what will be their fate, uncertain who in the neighborhood might still betray them and who else for that matter might also be harboring Jews in the attic. This book, from 1947, so unlike anything published today, I'm glad it's been rescued from oblivion and that maybe it will show American agents, editors, and publishers that it's OK to take a chance now and then on writing that may be different, that bears the stamp of history and authenticity and suffering.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Why I said so long to Solo

So I'm saying so long to "Solo," Rana Dasgupta's ambitious debut novel, and my thoughts are unchanged from yesterday's post, very much impressed with Dasgupta's intelligence, the range of his knowledge (from European history to chemistry to musical composition) and his scope, as this novel is a capsule version of 100 years of Bulgarian (!) history as experienced by one man, nearing 100, blind, sitting in his small apartment and recollecting his life. All very impressive, but sad to say it's a novel without character development and without a plot. A plot is more than a series of things that happen, and a character is more than a person who lives through or endures a series of experiences. Ulrich, the centurion who is the central character in Solo, doesn't change or grow, he just endures. This reminds me in some ways of Forrest Gump and also of Benjamin Button (the movies; I never read Gump), using a character as a lens through which to view history or the history of a country, but note that in each of those there was at least a gimmick to keep you attuned to the character - the character evolves (or in the case of Button, devolves) through the course of the work. I'm sorry, I feel bad about my lack of enthusiasm for Solo, which has gotten glowing reviews and won at least one significant prize - I'm the outlier here, but I'm not going to press on - got to the end of the first section, of "movement," as Disgupta calls it and saw that the 2nd part takes on a completely new character, and maybe that gives Solo a whole new perspective that I missed, but I'll leave that to others to determine.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Impressive writing and scope - but how good a novel is Solo?

Been reading more in Rana Dasgupta's debut novel "Solo" and continue to be impressed by his knowledge, intelligence, and writerly skills. Every passage is beautifully written, sharply detailed, full of striking imagery - reminds me a little of Netherland, at least in style. And the scope and ambition of the book is tremendous: a 100-year-old blind Bulgarian sits in his apartment and remembers his life, which spans the 20th century; he touches (so far in the book) in most of the major upheavals in Europe - the early optimism embodied in his father, a railroad engineer; the devastation of WW1, which ruined his father; his enthusiasm for chemistry and studies in Germany; the ruin of all that through the rise of Fasciscm; political upheaval in Sofia; WW2 and the invasion of the Soviets, first as liberators then as oppressors; political retaliations, executions - all this in 100 pages, plus the protagonist (Ulrich) gets married, fatherhood, wife deserts him and disappears from his life; mother gets arrested - all this, plus a lot of knowledge about chemistry, music (Ulrich's other passion), plus the details of daily life in Bulgaria (of all places) through all these years (the smell of horses early in the century, smell of urine from the alleyways today - a blind man recalling this) - all that said, I wish there were more to this very promising novel than a parade through the events of history, but as it happens, so far, that's all there is: the character does not so much develop as witness and experience; compare with The Tin Drum, which I haven't read in many years, but in that book there were more conflicts and crises for the central character - here is all unfolds like a personal newsreel. We'll see how it develops.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The strangeness of Murakami's stories

What a surprise to see a Haruki Murakami story, UFO in Kushiro, in the current New Yorker, and even more of a surprise to realize I'd read it before, in the New Yorker - is this the first time they've ever repeated a story? Kudos to the New Yorker for doing a timely, themed issue, with an incredibly moving cover image, but in the whole world there wasn't another story you could publish that hadn't already been in the magazine? The UFO story does make a beautiful and sad commentary on the Japan earthquake, as it was in part a reflection on the aftermath of a quake in the '90s - somewhat less severe, but mostly an event that occurred before the presence of all-pervasive instant and social media, which brought the 2011 quake to our lives like no other natural disaster in history. The story is a good window on Murakami's late style, too. He has been one of my favorite writers, his stories even more than his novels, and he always is able to capture the alienation of young, worldly Japanese in a society on the one hand bound by traditions and repressions and on the other hand living in a global culture: his protagonists generally love jazz, drink coffee (not tea), eat spaghetti (not ramen). His stories seem like noirish mysteries - in this one, the protag investigates the sudden disappearance of his wife, evidently suffering from some kind of posttraumatic stress, but they also touch on mysticism and the bizarre - in this one, the protag delivers a mysterious box to Hokkaido, and is met by two odd women. His earlier stories acknowledged the conventions of plot and tried, to some degree, to resolve riddles and mysteries, but his more recent stories - this being an example - the leave mysterious events open and unresolved - at times this is disappointing, but in another way his works are strangeness themselves, like Magritte painting.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hugely ambitious works - but how many are good novels?

I'll hold off for now on judging the merits of Rana Dasgupta's much-praised debut novel, "Solo," as I've only read the first 25 pages or so, but first impression is: pretty impressive. His writing is fine, elegant, and original, without being too self-conscious. Solo falls within the realm, I think, of novels that, at least initially, are showcases for the writer's vast learning - in the tradition of Ulysses (how could any one mind encompass so much). Today, we see novelists like Powers, Vollman, Mitchell, and the late Foster Wallace working this vein: their books may not be great stories, their characters may not be credible, but their work is hugely impressive and, for certain readers, the apex of fiction. Not sure yet whether to place Dasgupta in this company, but you have to scratch your head and wonder: how does he know so much? How does a young writer (he appears to be in his 20s or so), apparently of Indian descent and, from the jacket notes, a bit of an itinerant (educated in England, I think) know enough to write a novel about a 100-year-old blind Bulgarian who sits in his room and ponders or recollects all the events of his long life? It's a history of the 20th century from the perspective of one, and it doesn't have the musty feel of serious research, either. At times the opening sections reminded me of Midnight's Children, also of The Tin Drum, monumental works that try with varying degrees of success to encompass through one character the history of a civilization. Hugely ambitious works - but are they good novels, or little showcases?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A sketch for a novel makes for an unfocused story : Tolstoy's Hadjim Murat

So it turns out I was wrong about Tolstoy's story/novella Hadji Murat, in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories," Pevear-Volokhonsky translation - it's not a minature War and Peace - alternating between two story strands. Rather, most of the novella concerns the Chechen leader Murat and his decision to come over to the Russian side, primarily to build an alliance to take on his Chechen rival and to free his family held captive. Tolstoy spins a number of strands from this main yarn, so to speak - including the section that I admired a lot in yesterday's post about the almost-random shooting and death of a young Russian soldier and the back story on his village and his family. As the novella moves forward, Tolstoy gives us scenes of Murat meeting members of Russian society, Murat narrating his life story to a Russian translator, backroom dealings of the leaders of the Russian army, all kind of interesting but finally, unfortunately, all pulling us away from the main focus of the story and diluting its impact by accrual of too many strands, too many undeveloped details. It's a not a miniature War and Peace but a sketch for a complex novel that was never to be - I found it hard to follow and hard to enter. Murat, the last story in this volume, makes a good complement or bookend to the first story, A Prisoner of the Caucasus, which shows a Russian soldier held by Tartar bands who escapes to freedom, and Murat has some similar material but seen (somewhat) from the nonRussian point of view.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tolstoy works with double strands : Hadji Murat - and War and Peace

Tolstoy's story/novella Hadji Murat, in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories," Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, is a miniature War and Peace (okay, not as great, but you can see the greatness within it): as noted in yesterday's post, it's about the decision of Chechen rebel leader Murat to come over to the side of the "white tsar," that is, the Russian emperor - at first not clear why but it becomes evident that he does so to gain an ally in a struggle against a Chechen rival. These military-political alliances and double-crosses are obviously just as topical and prevalent today as a century ago - amazing to think the Chechen-Russian battle still goes on. That's the "public" or historic side of the story - as it appears the turning of Murat was an actual event and many of the characters are actual Russian historic figures - though none as grand as the actual historic figures in W&P. What makes it similar to W&P is the double strand of the structure, as we see a pointless battle skirmish break out as Murat changes sides and a young Russian soldier is shot - taken to a field hospital - and dies, and then we follow his story back to his village, to his family left behind, his wealthy brother who avoided service because he has a child, the soldier's wife of one year who has already betrayed him - a whole private narrative line to balance out against the great public events of the story. The two strands, as in W&P, will comment on one another and bring out the highlights in one another, like rubbing two rough stones together to polish both.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Death in battle, death in life - some differences between Tolstoy novels and stories

Last story in the Tolstoy collection "The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories," translated by Pevear-Volokhonsky, is a novella, Hadji Murat (?), about a Chechen rebel leader who, for some reason, not clear (to me) from first third of the story, turns himself over to the Russian army. Not clear exactly what the story/novella is about or where it's going, but does include so many Chechen terms that this edition at least appends a two-page glossary. The best scene so far is a representative Tolstoy battle scene, the Chechens far across a field start shooting at the Russian army, for no particular reason, everyone's just assembled and presumably waiting for Murat to turn himself in. Russians start shooting back, it's all random and almost gleeful, as if everyone likes the sound of gunfire and the soldiers just need something to do, and then a young officer gets a bullet to the gut - and everyone realizes that in fact people are shooting at one another, shooting to kill. The officer says he can't get up - it doesn't hurt, but he can't get up, and the pain of that scene is more intense and comprehensible than any number of gory battle scenes - typically Tolstoyan understatement, attention to detail, sense of phrasing and timing, and feeling for the random realities of battle. Oddly, I think this may be the only scene of fighting in this entire collection, as if war was too complex a subject for Tolstoy to approach in short fiction. His short fiction often concerns a character confronting death (Ivan Ilyich, Alyosha the Pot), but seldom through the sudden unpredictability of warfare.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Lifetime in a Few Pages: Tolstoy's Alyosha the Pot

Another very short Tolstoy story, Alyosha the Pot - again very powerful, making me wish he'd written more at minuscule length, condensing all of his capacious observations abut people and their relationships and sorrows into just a few pages. Alyosha is a sweet, put-upon young man, the butt of jokes ("the Pot" is a nasty nickname, but he just smiles at it), becomes a servant, works harder than anyone else, always cheerful, gives all his wages to his terrible father, never thinks about himself - then, the cook in the household, a sweet and shy orphan, falls in love with him, Alyosha has never before felt wanted by anyone, can't even understand what love is, shyly he agrees to marry the cook, when his father hears of it he comes to visit and says Alyosha must call it off, Alyosha in his walked-upon nature complies, has no sense of the sorrow this brings to the cook - why he can't stand up for himself is a mystery - imagine what Dostoyevsky would have him do! - and then Alyosha falls off a rooftop and three days later dies - apparently happy, he tells the cook, see, it was a good thing we didn't get married. Very sad - and yet, his simplicity, his complete acceptance of fate, is sweet in a way, and makes us think he's some kind of holy man, that a salvation is waiting for him as he greats death with a look of surprise. This story is a lifetime in a few pages; another Tolstoy story in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories," The Forged Coupon, is a novel condensed to about 50 pages - not a great story, but impressive how much plot Tolstoy can simply sketch out, as we follow two boys who strike a counterfeit bill and pass it, and the effects this action has over many characters and many years.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The beauty of Cane is that it's rough, uneven, improvisational

Only 6 of us present, but a great discussion last night in book group on Jean Toomer's "Cane." All agreed that the writing was beautiful and the book a bit rough, unpolished - in part because Toomer was a young author (late 20s), in part because he was an ambitious author, trying his hand in many forms and genres, in part because he was writing about material not readily part of the literary landscape - who had written seriously about black villages in Southern Georgia? - and in part because, though you might think from the outset that Cane is a report on southern life from the inside, in fact he was writing about material largely unfamiliar to him: he was an outsider, a visitor, almost like an anthropologist. That's the importance of the 2nd two sections of Cane: we see from them the Toomer, through his various fictional alter egos (Paul, Kabnis, in particular) was someone always on the boundaries and never quite finding his place in any culture, black or white, north or south, working class or high culture. The roughness of the book may be a flaw - some of the stories clearly are weaker than others and could not be published separately - but also its strength, as it gives the book an open, improvisational feeling - and as I noted the whole is more than the sum of its parts, like a great early-20th century painting - a bunch of lines, slash marks, dabs of paint, when seen at a distance or as a whole, creates an astonishing portrait or landscape. As Margot noted, Toomer is the "son" of Woolf and Joyce, and it's really a shame that his literary output was so small, but at least there's this strange book.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

What once seemed absurd today seems like realism

Banjamin Marcus got a lot of notice for his first books, somewhat experimental stories, The World of Wire and String or some such title, he's also a Brown grad I think - making two weeks in a row for Brown folks to appear in New Yorker fiction (old friend Robert Coover's excellent, very short story, Going for a Beer, was in last week). I hadn't read Marcus before, and I like his story - is it really a story or is it a chapter from the forthcoming, as are most NYer fiction selections these days? - Rollingwood, and I'll look out for his future works. Rollingwood is in that fledgling genre of the corporate displaced, usually guys, totally unable to make it in the modern world, low-ranking anonymous employees or anonymous corporations, feckless family men, loners - in other words, the typical modern American short-story protagonist (women in short stories often have a lot of friends, Ann Beattie's stories, q.v., but the men more and more seem to be total outsiders) - Mather, in this story, seems to know nobody except his ex-wife. He's trying to take care of their asthmatic infant, and hang on to a job - but he's evidently been fired without his even knowing that - temps have taken over his desk while he's out for one day. The line of influence here stretches back to most recently that pretty good novel And Then We Came to the End, about corporate disassemblage - but even further back to Barthelme - the guy who finds himself inexplicably assigned to a grade-school class - and before that to Kafka: the absurd, the incomprehensible way in which modern life has its will with so many of us. Yet what at one time seemed truly absurd and comic, today seems more frightfully real, as so many have experienced sudden downsizing and life on the street. Marcus's story could happen to any of us.

Friday, March 18, 2011

One of Tolstoy's most famous stories - deservedly

After the Ball is no doubt one of Tolstoy's best-known, most widely anthologized short stories, not only because it's excellent but also because, nearly unique for Tolstoy, it's actually short - just a few pages and concerning a single action, a single evening. A narrator opens by telling a group of friends that he believes our lives aren't determined by the forces of society or by our internal characters but by chance - and then, in my view, the story he tells goes on to disprove his point: he describes the beautiful woman he was once in love with, an evening of ballroom dancing at which they seemed to be madly in love with one another, at one point in the evening she takes a turn on the floor with her father, an elegant and tall military man who leads her effectively though his great dancing days are over, they make a striking couple; after the ball, the narrator goes home, excited, can't sleep, goes out for a walk, heads toward the girl's home, where he sees a military assemblage as a shirtless soldier, a deserter, walks through a gauntlet of men who beat him bloody with rods - the elegant father leads the man through the gauntlet, cool and impervious, and even beats a soldier who hits the man too lightly. This vision - very strange and unlikely, more like a dream or a revelation (why would this be happening in the predawn?) - lead to the loss of his affection for the girl and a different path in life. A strange story, suggesting that in seeing the cruelty of the father he saw an element of personality never evident to him before, that she would be cruel, heartless - but of course that suggests that her life would not be determined by chance but entirely by the circumstances of her birth and upbringing, right? As with many of Tolstoy's best stories (and in his great novels) a scene is captured and depicted with such startling vividness that it becomes larger than the work itself: an episode in a life can determine a whole life, even if the characters do not fully comprehend why that's so.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Just a story about a monk, till Father Sergius does something really dreadful

Tolstoy's Father Sergius is a strange story, for him, for anyone - I'm about half-way through the 40-pager in the Pevear-Volokhonsky "The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories," so not sure what to make of it in its entirety (obviously) starts off with a really gripping first paragraph stating bluntly, in almost a newspaper lede, that a promising military officer left his beautiful fiancee two days before their marriage and took vows as a monk. Who would do this, why? We then follow in typically Tolstoyan clear and economical fashion the life story of the man who became the monk, Father Sergius. We learn fairly quickly that he left his fiancee when she confessed to him that she had been the mistress of the emperor - he abruptly leaves and heads for a monastery. Seems to be a Russian version of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, a seemingly kind and thoughtful man taking drastic and immediate action when he learns his fiancee has a difficult past. What's with these guys? A wound to their pride reveals a mean and hysterical streak - though in this case it wasn't a hidden streak, Sergius (I can't remember his birth name) had the one fault of a violent temper. The story then meanders for a while - how interesting is the life of a monk in a cave? - until a group of wealthy revelers take a bet and one of the women shows up unannounced at Serguis's cave. Will she seduce him? Now, we're in the world of the one-act play it seems. (Spoiler here): Tormented, Sergius then does something truly bizarre: he chops off his own finger! This guy is even stranger than we'd imagined. We'll see where Tolstoy goes with this story, but it does seem to be saying something about Tolstoy's own self-loathing, his desire to be a holy and spiritual man and the torment he must have felt about his own sexual drive.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Who is the Master? Who is the Man? : Tolstoy's great ambiguous short story

Tolstoy's Master and Man is truly one of his great stories - everything about it is smart and credible and provocative and slyly ambiguous, starting with the title itself: it's a story about two men, yes, one obviously the master, Vasily, who more or less commends the muzhik/serf/peasant, Nikolai, to come with him on a foolish journey to a nearby village to try to get a bargain price on some woodlands. Yes, Vasily is mean and selfish and though he thinks he's smart he's actually stupid - nobody should have set out on a journey like that in a Russian blizzard, and when he had an opportunity to stay overnight at a friend's home in a village he stupidly and cruelly pushed onward into the storm, toward misery and death. It would be easy to make him a caricature, a truly hateful man, but Tolstoy has that great capacity to create, even in the limited space of a story it seems, fully rounded characters. Vasily has some redeeming qualities, and the story puts him to the test. So actually, who is the master? The peasant Nikolai turns out to be much more in control, and (spoiler here) - he is the sole survivor. But that would be too easy and irony. Nikolai himself isn't perfect, though he is trying to overcome his faults. It seems to be a story almost entirely about these 2 characters, but there are also two others: the very intelligent horse, who becomes a kind of barometer for human sensibilities, anyone who mistreats a horse is of a lower order, regardless of his social caste; and, at the end, God - as Vasily discovers God when on the verge of death and at last redeems himself and does something noble to save Nikolai's life - and I have to think that Tolstoy slyly meant the "master" of the title to refer to God or a spiritual presence - who really is the master of our fate? My concerns about some other Tolstoy stories in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories," more than abated when we see once again that Tolstoy can express his grand ideas even within the confines of the short (for him) story.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The kind of story that made him Tolstoy the Great : Master and Man

With Master and Man, in the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich & other stories," we get back to the kind of writing that we love in Tolstoy, that made him one of the great writers in the history of world literature. In Kreutzer and The Devile he demonstrated that he was not Dostoyevky and not meant to be, totally out of touch when trying to establish characters on the verge of insanity and on the fringes of society, the outcasts and aliens that populate so much of 20th- and 21st-century fiction, especially short fiction. Master and Man is truly Tolstoyan - about social class, about the interaction between two fairly conventional characters, and the collision of forces within the mechanisms and conventions of society. First half of the story establishes the wealthy but greedy landowner, Vasily, and his servant, Nikita - Vasily has to head off to make a land purchase in a neighboring village at a price that's very cheap, needs to get there before someone else scoops up the land (never mind that he has no qualms about paying way under market value), enlisting Nikita's help they set off in a terrible snowstorm and lots of things go wrong as they lose the road, go around in circles, finally taken in by a large family but Vasily insists they just arm up and then push on - Nikita, in his muzhik way, just goes along, he's completely dependent and subservient, but far wiser and kinder than Vasily (master). Much of the drama of the story develops from how they treat of mistreat their very smart horse: it seems cruel to bring the horse out again into the storm, but Vasily is totally unfeeling on this matter, and Nikita just hopes for the best. Use of animals to develop themes is another Tolstoyan signature.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The fecklessness of the men in Jean Toomer's Cane

The stories in the 2nd/middle section of Jean Toomer's "Cane," which the excellent intro to the 1970s edition that I have explains were written last and included because publishers initially thought the book was too short, differ from the rest of the book in several significant ways: most obviously, they are not set in south Georgia but in black (or racially mixed) communities in the north, mostly Washington, D.C., but the last (and longest) story, Bona and Paul, in Chicago - for unity of sensibility it would have been smart to set all in D.C., I think. The intro (wish I could remember who wrote it) also notes wisely that these stories differ in tone, in that Toomer enters the minds of the characters and tells us what they're thinking, whereas the pieces in the two Georgia sections simply describe the characters and their action and dialogue - it may be that the Georgia sections are therefore too oblique, ambiguous, even obscure - but they're also mysterious and imagist, whereas the Northern sections feel more conventional and definitely more diadactic: Toomer has certain views on race and he uses his characters to convey these, sometimes heavy-handedly. What holds all sections of Cane together would be the fecklessness of the male characters: whether bourgeois blacks, a young mixed-race man trying to pass, southern black men, a northern black man visiting the south - none of these men can effectively deal with his sexual drive, with any sort of relationship with women, in any way: these relations all lead to violence, humiliation, and self-abnegation.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Praising Cane : Jean Toomer's literary innovations

Re-reading Jean Toomer's "Cane," as it's the next up for book group, which was postponed for a month, and I am trying to recall the novel, and still I'm worried: will the group make anything of this unusual work? Will they kill me for suggesting it? I hadn't read it since grad-school days, and can see that what struck me as revolutionary and inventive then seems a little tired and trite today - but I think the key is to understand Cane as of its time and place - and as well ahead of its time, too. Toomer's innovative style: he draws on many literary genres to create a portrait of the black community in the 1920s: short stories, drama, verse, song, even a bit of graphic arts. In some ways he's a precursor to (or at least a cohort of) Joyce, and definitely a precursor to the beats and later the metafiction writers of the 60s and 70s. In theme, he found material that no others were writing about: the "talented 10th," the educated young men of the black community who were breaking boundaries and exploring boundaries of race and culture - so a lot of the moments in Cane are about black men alienated from their families and roots, trying to "pass" in the white world of the cities, moving to the South to try to help poor blacks and feeling unknown and unwanted. In mood, the stories do feel very dated and sexist: almost all are about the bewitching power of southern Black women and how they drive men to extremes of behavior. In structure, the work (it's not exactly a novel and I don't think Toomer every called it a novel) is loose, almost random seeming - an emptied notebook - but I think it's meant to move not chronologically but like a musical composition in three movements.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tolstoy as precursor to the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

The conclusion of Tolstoy's story The Devil (in the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich and other stories") is further evidence of his uneasy, even incompetent, Tolstoy was with the short story form. He effectively establishes a character (Evgeny) with high moral standards and the best of intentions, a man who tries to maintain a working estate and be faithful to his wife, but who is tormented by his sexual drive and the almost bewitching attraction of one of the serfs who works on his estate - but instead of developing this conflict and its personal and moral repercussions over hundreds, even thousands of pages, as Tolstoy does in the grandest and most subtle and moving fashion in his novels, e.g., with Prince Andrei, Pierre, Levin, et al., faced with the extreme pace (for him) of the short story he has to bring this matter to a diabolical and tragic conclusion: bring out the firearms! Even Tolstoy didn't know what to do - and so this story has two endings, in one of which Evgeny absurdly shoots himself, leaving no explanation to anyone (but the readers) and in the other in which he hideously shoots the serf in the back and is sentenced to nine months in prison (a precursor to the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll?). As with Kreutzer sonata, Tolstoy seems to be trying to channel Dostoyevsky, writing at a high, fevered pitch, drawn to drama and extreme behavior, but this mode does not suit his temperament at all and these stories read almost like parodies.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A fundamental difference between novels and short stories

As noted in previous posts, there is a fundamental difference between the world view of a novel and the world view of a short story: Novels, because they tend to be about an entire family or society and they encompass a greater range of character and feeling, tend to be about inclusion; the protagonists may be social misfits but they tend to want to fit in and belong, and the course of a novel is often about accommodating the protagonist to his or her society. Short stories, because they encompass only a moment of feeling or action, tend to be about misfits, outcasts, outsiders, aliens, oddballs, and weirdos - characters who cannot fit into society and never will and don't want to. This is of course a vast generalization, and you can cite numerous exceptions, but it's a useful polarity, and it helps us understand Tolstoy. I'm reading the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of "Ivan Ilyich and other stories," and it strikes me that Tolstoy was essentially unsuited to the story, his best characters are too societal, too conventional for the form - they want to fit in, and they feel like they've strayed from one of his great novels. The protagonist in The Devil is a good example - a good man, trying to maintain his grandfather's estate and his new marriage, tormented by his sexual yearning for a peasant woman. It's a perfectly good story, but doesn't have the knife edge of the greatest Russian stories (Chekhov). Ivan Ilyich is a much greater story because of the way illness and death throws Ivan into isolation and alienation; Kreutzer Sonata is Tolstoy's attempt to create a Dostoyevskeyan madman and he can't do it - the character is noncredible and unlikable, in contrast to Dostoyevsky's endlessly fascinating Underground Man.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The longest journey (with the most tedious passenger): The Kreutzer Sonata Tolstoy's

My usually infallible (!) memory was wrong, and there's no surprise twist at the end of Tolstoy's story The Kreutzer Sonata (not sure what story I was remembering, in which an on-train confession leads to an arrest upon arrival at the station), it just ends with the protagonist, Portryzbyn (?), finishing his narrative of how (and why) he killed his wife in a fit of jealousy. If there's any redeeming qualities in this demented story it's that the killer seems to feel a bit of remorse at the end, as he has just a glimpse of an understanding that there's a sacredness to human life and that it was horrendous to kill someone over a fit of jealousy. As it happens, he may well have been correct - his wife may have been having an affair with the music master - Tolstoy deftly leaves that aspect of the story ambiguous. One way or another, it's a long journey and a long night in a railroad compartment with this disturbed man and, by the end, I have to say: What for? Skip this story, and read some of the other great Tolstoy works. In the Pevear-Volokhonsky translations I'm reading, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich and other stories," the nex piece is a story called The Devil (for Tolstoy, a short story seems to clock in with at least 50 pages), which tells of a young many taking over an inherited estate that his father had driven into debt and trying to make it prosperous - while also trying to live a moral life in the provinces. He will remind readers of Levin, from AK, and maybe a bit of Pierre from W&P - though in this story Tolstoy treats his sexual drives more directly than he does in his longer fiction - initial part of the story is about his need to have sexual relations in this remote village, where privacy is impossible, and later about his marriage - and will inevitably draw these elements together for some kind of moral anguish.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

One of the most unpleasant stories ever written : The Kreutzer Sonata

It takes him a while but at last - 1/2 of the way into the 100-page story The Kreutzer Sonata - Tolstoy gets down, or lets his insane protagonist get down, to telling the story. The first 50 or so pages are an unrelenting rant against women, marriage, sex, culture, a misanthropic diatribe that is so extreme as to be almost comic. We learn near the outset of the story that the protagonist is a well-known killer (gradually we become aware that he was apparently acquitted of killing his wife on the grounds of insanity - easy to believe!). Why exactly the narrator would sit back and listen to his fulminations over a two-day train ride I don't know - I read the story a long time ago and seem to remember that there's a twist and that they arrest the guy at the end of the journey on some other charge? Anyway, as we at last get down to the plot the protagonist begins to tell of his wife's boredom and how she begins to play the piano again and takes up with the music instructor - and how he becomes increasingly jealous (why? who knows? till then, he seemed to want nothing to do with his wife, but I guess it's a blow to his ego). Honestly, this has to be one of the most unpleasant stories to read, ever - definitely Tolstoy's worst. We know that Tolstoy was an eccentric with some odd view of marriage, especially about his own marriage, but he also had high standards for his art and this story falls well below those standards - I really don't know why it is famous and anthologized so often.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tolstoy's nastiest story - maybe his worst

Tolstoy's story The Kreutzer Sonata, which I'm reading now in the Pevear-Volkhonsky translation in "Ivan Ilyich and other stories," is a great story in its peculiar way - obsessed man on long train journey tells a stranger of his horrible marriage and, ultimately, of his crime - but also a nasty piece of art that I didn't enjoy reading the first time I read it and ditto now on re-reading. The madman's narration is filled with loathing, contempt, and most disturbingly a vitriolic misogynism - he hates women, marriage, his marriage, his wife, etc. I'm about half-way through, and have heard him talk about the horrors of his honeymoon, the fake affection he's felt for his wife, his guilt over his early debaucheries, his supposition that all marriages are as horrible as his, and so forth. The action, so to speak, picks up in the second half; the first half is all venting. The question confronting us is: to what degree, if any, does this man speak for Tolstoy? Tolstoy's frustrations with his own marriage are well-know and often chronicled (and filmed), but clearly this character isn't Tolstoy, he's a lunatic. And yet: what would draw Tolstoy to write about this material? How could he make himself do it if he didn't, in some shred of his consciousness, believe it? Writers aren't their characters (Shakespeare is not Iago), but there's something particularly creepy about this instance - partly (mainly?) because it's not a tale of horrible tragic action but a long exposition of unrelenting nastiness. Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground is similar - but far more sympathatic because of the deep sorrow we feel for the Underground Man.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The scariest, saddest, most powerful story : The Death of Ivan Ilyich

L Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" has to be one of the scariest, saddest, most powerful stories ever written. Yes, it's difficult to read, because of the graphic depiction of an anguished death, presumably caused by stomach or intestinal cancer (very hard for me because of the uncanny parallels with my father's death at 56). Yes, it's brutal in the treatment of Ivan's sufferings, not so much physical (though these are real) as moral, psychological, and existential. As he sickens, he becomes increasingly aware first of the shallowness, self-centeredness of his so-called friends and his family - an particularly galling scene occurs when his wife and daughter prepare to go to the opera and very uncomfortably talk with Ivan and it's clear they can't wait to leave his world of sickness and morbidity. Ultimately, his despair takes on a spiritual dimension - he questions first why would God do this to him (a pale echo of Job, as his sufferings are not beyond the norm but frighteningly within the norm), then whether there is a God, finally realizing his life has been meaningless, you live, you die, that's it, and he has barely lived. And then, there are brighter elements - the care that the peasant servant gives him (typically Tolstoyan sentiment, and very credible), and finally a very obscure spiritual awakening, an acceptance of is life and his death that brings him a moment of peace at the very end - mysterious, almost ineffable. Tolstoy knew more about death than any writer ever - see the amazing death scenes in War & Peace - and here it's distilled to about 50 pages, unforgettable.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Three stories of suffering - Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich and others

Back to Tolstoy - another great Pevear-Volokhonsky translation (nothing will stop those guys!), this time of "The Death of Ivan Ilyich and other stories" - remembering again what a pleasure it is to read Tolstoy, with his nearly transparent prose, as if you are living right within the story, the narrator himself, the novelist, seems to vanish, to disappear from the process. It's the opposite, say, of Proust - an equally great writer, but when you're reading Proust you're constantly aware of the writer and the writing (Dostoyevksy, too, though in his case you're aware of the narrative as well, yet always conscious that D is telling the tale in his own hyperdramatic manner). The first three stories in the collection are all, each in its own way, about suffering: Prisoner of the Caucasus (supposedly a true account) about a soldier held captive and his escape, very powerful tale, today would be told as a buddy movie, guy gets out of captivity with help from a young girl (whose dad is one of the captors), another prisoner physically unable to escape - is ransomed, last haunting line of the story is that when they got him home he was all but dead; Diary of a Madman (unfinished) is a very revealing story about Tolstoy's own life, as main character suffers from severe paranoia or trauma of some sort and when he realizes that he should give his belongings to the poor he feels a return of peace an sanity, though he knows others will believe him insane - an allegory of Tolstoy's last days (at least as T would like to see them). Am still reading the title story, but I'd forgotten how the opening section is about the reaction to the deathly - all of Ivan's friends and coworkers wondering how this will affect them/their careers and thankful it's not they who'd died.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Reasearch v Experience : Two Ways to Think about Fiction

Having recently read (and posted on) James Joyce and David Foster Wallace, let me propose a axis by which to examine and understand fiction: We can group fiction writers into one of two categories: those who writer from personal observation and experience and those who write from research and learning. Most writers fall into the first category, but many of the greatest and most ambitious fall into the second: DF Wallace certainly, and let's add Pynchon, Powers, Vollman, to name a few contemporary writers. You can start thinking about where writers fall on this continuum, and then a few crazy things start to happen. First of all, you'd think that the "researchers" are writers who don't want to are unable to reveal elements about their lives - they would never be ones to write a memoir - but things fall apart. Pynchon's novels are hardly confessionals, but what about Vollman, with all of his dogged research - don't we end up with a vivid picture of him as a writer as well? Then on the other extreme, whose writing has been more personally revealing that Salinger's? Yet he famously absented himself from the public eye. So it's really more a matter of style and predilection. Some great writers, like Roth and Updike and Bellow, draw extensively, again and again, from their personal experiences. Others, never. And yet: one mark of the truly great, the geniuses of the world, is that the rise above the continuum and do both at the same time: Melville's personal narrative of a whaling voyage combined with all of the world's knowledge about whales, Joyce's acute personal memories of Dublin plus the entire corpus of English literary style and reference, and others like Thomas Mann, who evolved more toward the research spectrum later in his career or Proust, who made his own life the subject of the most exquisite and diligent research - he turned the continuum inside out, so to speak.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Learned, witty, strange, arcane - stories of David Foster Wallace

Posthumous story Backbone by David Foster Wallace in the current New Yorker, and it's impossible to tell exactly how to read this: is it part of the apparently forthcoming posthumous Wallace novel (as we know, most New Yorker "stories" these days are not stories at all but well placed promos for forthcoming novels - trailers, really)? is it a story completed late in his life and never published? is it a fragment left behind, unfinished, and published now? Backbone doesn't have the sense of a completed story, no obvious narrative arc and no fully developed characters, and it ends more with questions than resolutions: who is this young man who embarks from earliest childhood on the odd quest to kiss every part of his own body, becoming a contortionist and yoga phenom in the process? And who is his misfit father, a failed salesman, who dubiously observes, or actually fails to observe, his son's bizarre metamorphosis? And who is Dr. Kathy, the chiropractor, who abet this bizarre behavior? Yet aren't most contemporary stories more questions than answers (like this post!) and more enigma than resolution? All of Wallace's writings push boundaries and explore the marginalia of behavior, so this one is very typical of his work - learned, witty, strange, and arcane - not something that I've been drawn to a lot, but a body of work that can't fail to impress any reader: like a towering monument. I loved some of his nonfiction - I remember an account of the Illinois State Fair (in Harpers I think) that was extraordinary, and there's no doubt that it's a tragedy that he didn't overcome his demons and continue to write. So few writers of genius - terrible to lose even one.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Novel v memoir: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

At last, at the conclusion of James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," Dedalus breaks free from everything holding him in Ireland/Dublin, especially free from his faith (though as his best friend, Cranly, notes he thinks about Catholicism an awful lot for someone who professes to have no faith), from his family, from his friendships. Dedalus, speaking of course for Joyce, enunciates his famous credo, the trilogy that will now guide him: silence, exile, and cunning (you have to wonder what he meant by silence - Joyce/Dedalus give no evidence of a predilection for silence, here or ever), and, how did he put it?, forging in the smithy of his soul the uncreated (?) conscience of his race - in other words, he sets of for what he knows will be a lonely, challenging, perhaps impoverished life - and of course part of the beauty is that we know of Joyce's suffering and of his ultimate success. Even the poignant end note, which shows that it took him 10 years to write this short novel and that he did so in a remote corner of Italy - so far from the scenes that he re-created in his imagination - the distance was vital for his creativity. Joyce's choice of articles in the title are important: this is clearly not the portrait, and not of an artist - but one way of looking at the particular artist: others would be entirely different in their provenance. This novel of course has some beautiful moments and some daring (for its time) narrative strategies, and by the end it is a broad, if not comprehensive, examination of the maturation of the mind of a writer and of the initial forays in the creative process (a terrific account of Dedalus trying to write a villanelle gives as good a sense as anything ever written of what it's actually like to write a poem) - that said, a large part of the beauty of this novel is understanding its place in Joyce's work: it would not be a great a novel had the artist not gone forward to write Ulysses. But it is a beautiful, short novel, a work of imagination (which Joyce aptly compares with the transubstantiation of the church). Today's Joyce would no doubt cash in with a memoir, touting it and setting for the exhibition of his life for all to see on the talk shows and the blogs. Which one's the artist?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Stealth, cunning, and exile : Is Dedalus precocious or pretentious?

So Stephen Dedalus enters college, and James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" moves into a new phase, this time a day in the life of a precocious (pretentious?) undergraduate, told mostly in dialogue - not surprising that Joyce's next work would be a play. On the plus side, there's a lot of undergrad-ish ribbing and humor, and Joyce aptly captures and skewers the tone of repartee among smart guys in a boys' school, which hasn't changed all that much in a century, though there are no more boys' schools (at the college level, anyway), and he gets to showcase a bit: his love of aracana and ability to recall (or research) details and info from a huge range of subjects (the guys rib one another in Latin as they engage in talk of politics and aesthetics, but the lecture they're attending is on physics), as this section a clearly a prelude or rehearsal for the narrative experimentation and the range of ideas in Ulysses. On the minus side, even if it's Stephen Dedalus/James Joyce, the natterings of a precocious/pretentious undergraduate can become awfully tedious. How seriously are we to take, or care about, Dedalus' theory of aesthetics (tragedy and comedy hold us in stasis and other art forms are kinetic?) - is Joyce setting forth his own theories, or just letting a smart kid prattle? I couldn't follow all the lines of reasoning and don't think I was expected to do so. We do see further signs of the emergence of the artist, particularly in Dedalus' refusal to sign a peace petition and his scorning of Irish nationalism (an echo from the great story The Dead) - instead, devoting himself to art, individualism, and in the memorable phrase from later in the book, stealth, cunning, exile.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Joyce's first great epiphany (in Portrait of the Artist)

After you get through the tedium of the sermons in James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," you come to a beautiful section of the novel: Stephen Dedalus goes back to his room (he's in a boarding school, called a college but would be at today's h.s level; he's 16, we later learn) and shudders in the fear of sin and damnation, becomes ill, decides to reform his life and go to confession, and wanders through the streets of Dublin (foreshadowing of Ulysses) and finds a church, gives confession, the priest is very thoughtful and kind, Dedalus feels he's on a new course in life. Then, the next section of the novel, he's a bit older, and a priest comes to him in his room and suggests that Dedalus might have a "vocation," so he wrestles with that idea - gos home to his family, now living in difficult poverty but with a certain spirit - they all sing together, for example - and we see him (I'm not totally sure of the sequence here) deciding he cannot shut his life up as a Jesuit priest - he wants to live in the world, struggle with ideas, make something, create - the beginnings of his thinking of himself as an artist. He looks down from a bridge, sees some boys diving from the rocks, then sees a beautiful girl standing in the water and he follows her - this is the first of Joyce's great "epiphanies," a moment or an episode that has an emotional meaning far beyond the bare facts of the event - the kind of moment we all have in our lives but that's very elusive, difficult to capture even in the mind much less to memorialize it in language and art.