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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

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The most selfish characters ever to appear in a novel? : Tender is the Night

Honestly, are these the most selfish, narrow-minded, egocentric, dissolute characters ever to appear in a novel? Sure, I know, there are lots of novels about young people wasting their lives, drifters, beats, hipsters, addicts of all sorts - but few or none with the social advantages of those in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night." In fact, as noted earlier, the dissolution feels much more profound because it is a novel written with such obvious skill and such a beautiful high literary style, and because we all know what a great novel Gatsby is, in which we observe the dissolution through the lens of a narrator, but there' a sense here that I can't shake that Fitzgerald no longer feels removed from these characters, that these are versions of himself and his friends and he wants us to feel sorry for them, to pity them. I sure don't. In sections I read last night, to give two examples, Dick and Nicole Diver, seeing drunken friend off at a Paris train station, witness a woman (whom Nicole slightly knows) shoot a man as the train pulls out of the station. The reaction? Oh, the poor woman, let's make sure she's treated well by the police, I'll never watch a train pull out of a station without thinking of this. Or, how about this? After some contretemps over a mistaken arrest in which a black man is arrested in a case of pure racism and then found dead on the starlet Rosemary's bed, Dick immediately rises to the rescue - unceremoniously dumping the body in the hallway and calling the management - got to protect Rosemary's film career, and who gives a damn about this "Negro" and who cares who shot him? At base, these are horrible people and, at least for a reader today, or at least for this reader, it's almost impossible to sympathize with any of them. Maybe this novel is a tragedy, but if so they get what they deserve.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Fitzgerald squandering his talent - in Tender is the Night

I hate to continue in this vein, but F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night" continues to be incredibly annoying. There are many, many novels about horrible and worthless people who come to ruin through their own foolishness - but few as well-written as Tender is the Night. Just as I feel the characters in this novel are wasting their lives and squandering their talents (not that there's a shred of evidence that any of them are talented - it's just a posited fact from Fitzgerald that we have to accept if we're to buy into the novel at all), I have to say also that Fitzgerald - an incredibly hard and dedicated worker, despite his alcoholism, unlike the characters he's writing about - dis squander his talents on this novel. When you look at his best work - Gatsby, some of the stories, the late writing about Hollywood, which he loathed but well understood - you have to wonder why he spent 7 years on this work, though perhaps it will change course somewhat as Nicole heads toward her inevitably breakdown? I'm about a third of the way through, 100+ pages, and the main character, Dick Diver, has done nothing worthwhile. Section I just read last night he and Nicole travel from the Riviera to Paris with 17-year-old starlet, Rosemary (amazingly, her otherwise thoughtful and protective mother thinks this is a good idea) and, in Paris, allows her to get smashed on champagne, then enters her hotel room, where she flings herself on him and he, nobly, resists the temptation - at least for the moment - but what the hell is he doing? This so-called brilliant doctor/psychiatrist, Rhodes Scholar, and so forth, has done nothing to help a single person and has shown, at least as a character, not the slightest awareness of psychology or medicine or for that matter human feeling. Sorry to beat up on this novel so much, as (as noted above) it has some stunningly beautiful passages and phrases - which shows all the more clearly the ability that Fitzgerald wasted through misdirection.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Children in Fitzgerald: The forgotten, the ignored

A few observations about F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night," such as: is it odd to you that he introduces the theme of incest right at the outset, Nicole Warren's various breakdowns that land her, as a teenager, in a psychiatric clinic in Switzerland, evidently the result of her incestuous relation with her father. Then, after Dick Diver and Nicole marry and Dick meets and is smitten by young ingenue American actress Rosemary, we learn that the movie in which R. has just made her debut is called Daddy's Girl. What to make of that? It's a book in a sense about perverse parenting: The Diver's have two children, but are children ever more ignored in a book than in this one? I have already made the comparison between Fitzgerald and Henry James, in that both write about Americans in Europe who have too much money and too few responsibilities and to a great extent are wasting their lives and talents - but in James, at least, there is some sense of responsibility for and caring for children. Yes, the adults ignore them and are cruel to them - but James does not, he cares about them and understands them and sympathizes with the way they are mistreated - see What Maisie Knew and Turn of the Screw, two examples - but in Fitzgerald the children get less attention that the plants by the side of the road, they're not even described, barely even named - in Tender is the Night the daughter comes out to sing a little lullaby, how sweet, and then is heard no more. There's a certain glamor to Fitzgerald characters, at least when they're younger, but a certain awfulness to them as they mature, or as they don't. They not only have no responsibilities, they are irresponsible.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tender is the Night: Can we like a novel about characters we loathe?

F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night" has some absolutely beautiful writing, the descriptive passages (ride in the funicular up the mountainside on the Riviera), amazingly astute descriptions of people and how their faces and eyes express vast ranges of emotion, sharp and elliptical dialogue that surely is the predecessor of Pinter, Mamet, even Stoppard - and yet, and yet - is it really such a great novel? Maybe so, I'll hold off on my judgment as I'm only about 1/3 through on this re-read, but it's not as appealing a novel as The Great Gatsby because there's no window, no distance, between us and the people who are basically selfish, foolish, and ruinous. In TGG, we see the world of Gatsby through the narrative lens of Nick C., which helps us understand and judge, and also helps us to see that Fitzgerald himself bears a distance from his characters, but in Tender is the Night there is no one between us and them - Fitzgerald uses third person, and it's obvious that his narrator, Dick Diver, is very much an alter ego, and it's hard not to dislike Diver - ridiculous handsome and attractive to women, smart, rich, but in the grand sense stupid and worthless: breaks all sorts of medical ethics as he begins a relationship with a patient (a relationship he encouraged when she was quite young by entertaining from her a series of flirtatious letters), mindlessly idling away on the beach while lamenting (a little) his lost talents, apparently great but not evident to us. And then the young starlet, Rosemary, falls for him instantly, even though (perhaps because?) she knows he's married with kids - and what will he do with her? The children are a total afterthought, by the way. So reading TITN, the question is: can we like a novel about characters we loathe, and perhaps are meant to loathe?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Men (not) working: The idle rich in Fitzgerald's novels

Of course when we read a Henry James novel, or story, we don't expect anyone to seriously engage in work - the characters sometimes are described as businessmen or bankers and so forth, but they never seem to have to spend any time at the office and the nature of their work is entirely peripheral to their lives as literary characters. In a word, they're rich. And James doesn't care about how they got to be rich, though there's always a whiff of snobbery - much better socially to inherit money (and titles) than to have to earn it (or have your grandfather earn it for you). But what about F. Scott Fitzgerald? His novels are much more truly American, and The Great Gatsby, for one, is all about making money (not necessarily by working) and creating illusions of wealth, titles, and nobility. And yet - Nick doesn't seem to have to spend a whole lot of time at the office, or thinking about the office. Maybe work was completely different in those days - well-off Yale or Princeton graduates weren't expected to "work" more than a few hours a day, but they brought money into the firm just by who they were and whom they knew - everything connection made is work. Am now reading "Tender Is the Night," and struck by Fitzgerald's assiduous insistence that the narrator, Dick Diver, is a dedicated psychiatrist, even writing a book or two. Of course it's obvious to every reader that he's not writing about Diver and Nicole Warren but about himself and Zelda, and the references to Diver wanting to be a great doctor are coded references to F's wanting to be a great writer - however, it's curious, we know F. worked very hard at his craft, at least when his head was clear - but why is there then such a sense of waste and idleness among his characters? If he goes to the trouble of writing about a doctor, why does he know, or show, so little about medical practice - this guy seems to have nothing to do (I'm only in part 2, 60+ pages in) but take jaunts around Europe and gab on the beach. Nobody works, they just quip. Is it an innate inability to write about the work life of a character? Did people actually live this way? Or is there some thematic reason why Fitzgerald (and James, too) feel compelled to convey their (American) characters as idle and feckless?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Some thoughts on the difficulties of Tender Is the Night

Many years since I first read it, last night started re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night" - saw a note in the intro - which I haven't read (I never read them till I finish the book) that Fitzgerald was disappointed that Tender was not such a huge success, at least in its time. Not that I don't understand and sympathize with an author's feelings about the world's response to his or her work, but re-opening Tender you quickly realize why it took a long time for the world to recognize and accept this novel. It's not nearly as immediately appealing and engaging as Gatsby or for that matter This Side of Paradise: for one thing, the third-person narrator is always a little more daunting; despite the difficulty and unseemliness of some of the material in Gatsby, we enter that world through the eyes and sensibility of Nick, the outsider and innocent looking on as people wreck their lives all around him. Tender Is the Night is in 3rd person, and we don't immediately identify with or even care for Dick Diver, "Lucky Dick" as they oddly call him - he seems at first one of those privileged characters who has it all, and though we know much worse is coming to him, we don't enter right away into his mind or point of view. Also, Fitzgerald uses a few challenging narrative techniques in first few chapters - a very compressed bio in the first chapter, as a shorthand way to give Dick's back story, and the second composed largely of letters from Nicole Warren to Dick, a shorthand, though very effective, way to introduce her character. Third chapter is the first to be more conventional as a novel, but I for one was startled by the frankness and directness with which F. introduced the incest theme, a topic often worked around or avoided in fiction of that era. The startling confession - Nicole's father had an incestuous relation with her - is what truly gets the novel started - but in its day it may also have put off many readers.

Monday, July 25, 2011

An ambigous, dissonant conclusion to W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz

W.G. Sebald's "Austerlitz" winds down toward a quiet, ambiguous, dissonant ending - it should be no surprise the Sebald eschews traditional literary forms and expectations right down the last page, he doesn't build toward a dramatic finish, in which A. dies or the narrator makes some amazing discovery about A.'s life, birth, or death - no, rather, toward the end, A. continues pursuing his research, now in search of information about the disappearance during WWII of his father, Maximillian. His research takes him into the new national library in Paris, where we get several pages describing the horrors of this new building, by this account a Kafkaesque structure whose main purpose seems to be to discourage research, typically Sebald touches, noting the imprisoned garden in the courtyard, the death of entrapped birds that fly against the glass panels - but in short, A.'s research goes nowhere, but he does learn from an official that the library itself is built on the grounds where the Nazi occupiers assembled and stored in warehouses all the materials seized from the Parisian Jewish families, another odd and typical Sebald touch, uncovering the forgotten or repressed artifacts of history. At this point, A. says his last good-bye to the narrator, inviting him to visit in London and noting that a Jewish cemetery exists just behind his house - strange that this would not have been apparent from earlier visits - and the Sebald-like narrator then returns to scene of first sections of the book, to Belgium, where he stays in hideous hotel and then goes on long trek through dull suburb to the prison he had visited earlier and sits and read a book that A. had given him, the very end of which provides a hint - but no more than a hint - that A.'s father had been imprisoned by the Nazis near the German border and had died along with thousands of others in the prison camp, scrawling his name and a last message on a wall. Only Sebald could do this, or would even try (well, Philip Roth did a similar thing in American Pastoral): bring us to the brink of a conclusion and leave the narrative hanging by a thread of possibility.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What recovering memories accomplishes for Sebald's Austerlitz

Transcribed from text sent to this blog earlier this a.m. but not received/posted: Read a but further in W.G. Sebald's "Austerlitz" to point where A. descries to narrator his nervous breakdown and recovery as kind attendant finds in papers name and address (?) of Maria, the woman who took A. to Marienbad and to whom he was cold and distant - this time better luck, as she slowly helps him recover his senses and he seems truly grateful and at last ready to enter into a mature adult relationship. It seems he had to not only recover his lost memories of his childhood but truly to understand that he was born a Jew and this his family was annihilated and that the abqandonment that was the cause of and source for all of his repressions and obsessions is also what saved his life. He has to not hate has parent, in other words. Again, it's important to think of this within the context of European history. Sebald is exploring the guilt and the recovery felt and experienced by modern Germans and by himself - and as I near the end of the novel, I wonder whether to expect a soft, hopeful conclusion so out of keeping with the grim tone of Sebald's earlier work - dark, and obsessed with suicide. Maybe writing this novel in some way helped Sebald himself to recover, on a personal level - before his tragic early death.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Austerlitz and the Nazi propaganda film

As the eponymous "Austerlitz" in W.G. Sebold's excellent novel continues to recover lost memories of his childhood, he learns that the Nazis directed a film based in the Czech concentration camp where his mother was imprisoned and (presumably) where she died, and he actually gets a copy of the film from an archive - turns out to be only about a 15-minute clip - and he makes his own slow-mo version that plays for an hour and he watches repeatedly hoping to capture an image of his mother (he doesn't, apparently) - he of course realizes that the film is a Nazi propaganda horror, that they forced the Jewish prisoners to pretend to be going about the normal course of urban life and included no images of the starvation and brutality that marked real life in the camp. This all may sound familiar, as we now know (not sure if it was known when A. was published ca 2001) that there was in fact such a Nazi film, actually done in the Warsaw ghetto, and that it has since been recovered and is the subject of an excellent documentary, using the actual footage and interviews with at least one of the people responsible for this horrifying film - can't remember the name of the film right now [A Film Unfinished], but saw it within past year and was very moved, and think I remember a reference someone made to Sebald's using similar material. The great subject of his fiction is the appropriation and misappropriation of the past, the way in which memory is obscured by history - and in A., his final novel and most accomplished I would say - he explores not only the forces of history but also the development of a personality, he slowly unfolds and reveals layers of A's personality, even as A. discovers (or actually recounts to the unnamed narrator the process of his discovery) of the secrets of his past, his repressed memories. There is always the sense that A. represents more than himself - that he represents a mode of European history, as even his name suggests, with its reference to the Napoleanic battle of "3 emperors" (recounted in detail in War and Peace, by the way). I'm nearing the end of the novel, and, though I've read it before, I am not sure how Sebald concludes it - knowing Sebald, probably on a note of dissonance and ambiguity.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The layers of meaning in Sebald's novel Austerlitz

After he visits the prison camp where his mother was held outside of Prague, the eponymous "Austerlitz," in W.G. Sebald's novel learns that as a very young boy he and his parents visited the Czech (?) spa at Marienbad - which then leads A., in typically Sebald narrative fashion, in which episodes unspool connected merely by strings of association, to recall his visit as an adult to Marienbad with a woman who, as she puts it, is trying to get him out of his isolation - i.e., she's in love with him, and he is a complete social isolate, unable to engage in any relations with men or women. The visit is a horror - he is obviously very attracted to her and even a bit in love with her, but when they arrive in M. he freezes over (even more than normal for him), he feels a complete and inexplicable dread. When she asks why he is so cold and distant, he can't even try to answer her. End of the relationship. So why would this happen? You might think the visit would bring back a recollection of the only time in his life when he was a beloved child. But in fact it's a completely repressed memory because, apparently, to remember his happy early childhood is to recollect that his family was broken apart by the Nazis and he was shipped away by his mother - and also, to commit himself to any person, lover or friend, is to risk being abandoned once again. This is powerful as a personal narrative and it's also obvious that it is a narrative about European history and about Sebald's own life: the torment of growing up as an innocent child during WWII in Germany. We see why in Sebald's novels the past is always seen as a ruin, and the present is screen that obscures the dim memories of the past, of history, and job of the writer is to probe and to uncover the relics and their hidden meanings and terrors.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sebald's Austerlitz and the recovery of the past

As noted yesterday, W.G. Sebald's "Austerlitz" goes through a turnabout at the mid-way point and now the eponymous A. begins to recollect memories from his own early life - he realizes that his obsession with antiquities and ruins was a defense against his own repressed memories of his earliest childhood as a young Jewish boy in Prague - and he learns that his mother sent him off at 4 on a rescue train to England - now the novel focuses on A's visit to Prague and his (somewhat improbable) meet-up with his old "nanny" and mother's best friend, Vera, still living in her apartment there - and V. fills A. in on his parents' life and death. It's a somewhat familiar yet still harrowing story of the gradual Nazi takeover of life in Prague, increasing restrictions on Jews, eventually A's mother sent off to a prison camp where she dies - A. goes off to visit the ruins of that camp. A few things I find strange: V. is a rather cold and dispassionate raconteur, and you have to wonder is she as good as A. sees her, or even as Sebald sees her? Did she really do anything to help V. or any other Jews? Was help possible? (We know from other accounts that there were heroes, but maybe not many and not in Prague perhaps - see Kieslon's fiction, e.g.) I see V. as a representative of the silence of the German/European public during the Holocaust, witnessing yet unwilling and unable to do anything humane, to take any action. And the very way that A. himself has no memory of his Jewish childhood - he is like Europe itself, erasing its past and oblivious of its history - yet he, as an avatar for Sebald - is fixated on this history and devotes his life to the recovery of the past.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Two types of recovered memory in W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz

W.G. Sebold's terrific novel "Austerlitz" pivots on its axis at about the mid-point: For the first half of the novel, Austerlitz is a typical Sebold character, much like the first-person narrator that Sebold uses in his other works, full of arcane observations that flow along from one another in a seemingly endless stream, or unfold like a skein would be another way of putting it, most of the observations about the ruins of history, forgotten and vanished industrial villages; failed, grandiose architectural monstrosities of another era; out-of-the way houses where eccentrics lived and thrived (or didn't) - you might borrow the Proust title and say that the mission of a Sebald character is to search for lost time, but it's not time lost in his life, in not in search of memories (Remembrance of Things Past would be an inaccurate description - these recovered bits of history are recovered knowledge, not recovered experience) - but as noted halfway through this novel things change: A. describes following a forlorn Indian sweeper through a doorway in the Liverpool Street station, under process of demolition, and finds himself in an abandoned waiting room (typical Sebald space) where he is suddenly flooded with memories and can recall sitting here as a 4-year-old as his new adoptive parents arrive - he was a war orphan shipped to England for his safety and had totally repressed early-childhood memories. With this insight, he launches on a long recollection - now more truly in the spirit of Proust as a recovered personal memory - and notes that his obsession with arcana may have been a defense, a way to prevent the true memories of his childhood from unfolding - and readers have to wonder whether this may be so for Sebald also, to what extent does his fixation on the ruins of vanished civilizations have to do with his unwillingness or incapacity to recall his childhood in Nazi Germany? A. proceeds by traveling to his native Prague to learn more about his early life, which I'll look at in another post.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Austerlitz - W.G. Sebald's one novel about a personality

"Austerlitz" is unique, or nearly so, in W.G. Sebald's work, i that it is truly about a character, a characters (the eponymous Austerlitz) albeit who is much like the typical Sebald first-person narrator - obsessive, weirdly inquisitive, devoted to research and arcana, drawn to the ruins of (mostly) European history, fascinated by grand but decayed buildings and by (largely) outmoded means of transportation (especially trains, but also dirigibles, ferries I think?). In the other Sebald works I can recall he describes in first person his own wanderings and mental meanderings, but Austerlitz he builds the novel mainly on his encounters with A. and the stories that A. relates about his life and about his past, as the two men either sit for hours in one of the Sebald-like settings (a railroad waiting room, a lobby of an ancient grand hotel) or walk through odd neighborhoods (the walk to Greenwich from London particularly striking - I, too, have been to Greenwhich and was struck by its oddity as a riverside village near London with its observatory and vast parkland - and the speculation that provokes on the very nature of time and boundaries). As the character of A. unfolds over the course of the novel, we see him as increasingly sad, isolate, and wounded - after a horrible childhood, a war orphan in a very cold, unfeeling Welsh household, he finds at last some comfort and solace with the family of his servant (fag, as the call it in the U.K.), whose family matches A. for arcana and strangeness - the old uncle who spends the day perambulating around his room, another who was a Darwin disciple and has hug collections of moths and other creatures - but also a loving family, and he actually builds a friendship with the young man, until the man - Gerald (?) - whose only great pleasure is attaining heights and takes up flying - dies in crash. A. is alone - spends years at a tedious job, then retires and tries to write, but develops a hysteric aversion the act of writing and even to words, to letters - narrator Sebald visits him at this stage in his small, spartan East End home. Obviously, Sebald novels do not summarize well nor are they meant to - they are journeys in themselves, and in a future post I'll try to capture the essence of the Sebald "journey," and how Sebald's use of association differs radically from that of Joyce and Proust - but is at times worthy of comparison with these two great titans of 20th-century literature.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The strangeness of W.G. Sebald's narrative style

More than any other writer, W.G. Sebald works through a series of associations, developing a narrative through an unending sequence or cascades of strange connections, so that in reading his novels you feel, yes, this is all tied together, it all makes sense, but you also feel an odd dislocation - how did I get here? It's as if the gravity changes all around you, and the world you thought you were in suddenly (or gradually?) has a new set of dimensions. To explain, here is a brief summary of the first 100 or so pages (first third) of his most novel-like fiction, "Austerlitz," which begins with narrator (Sebald himself?) describing a time in his life when regularly visited Belgium (he never tells us why - perhaps research for his writing), and on one visit in the Antwerp station waiting room he comes upon a sympathetic figure, Austerlitz, who discusses at great length the train station and other Belgian architecture; they meet again by chance several times in Belgium (Sebald know how unlikely this is), and discuss fortifications; Sebald goes to visit one such, later it became a prison - a strange and scary place, Sebald includes pictures; S. describes that he later moved to Germany, and A. would not respond to his letters; years later, S. losing vision, takes train to London to see specialist, afterwards in train station meets A., again by chance, conversations resume, after some discussion of the Liverpool Street station, A. describes his childhood, long account of miserable family in Wales, his time in boarding school, learning that he is adapted war baby, real name is A., scholarship to Oxford, and his friendship with his servant/fag, Fitzpatrick?, and time with F's family in Wales - an educated family, full of eccentric scholars and collectors. Where is this novel going? Hard to say for first-time reader, but it has that strange, almost hypnotic qualities of a long train journey, and you feel you're always in the hands of a great thinker, a great and entertaining traveling companion, and you'll go along for the ride.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sebald - a true literary descendant of Proust

Following my own summer-reading-list suggestions from yesterday, took pb of W.G. Sebold's "Austerlitz" to the beach - not typical beach reading (though woman in nearby chair was reading the daunting Wolf Hall) - yet wherever and whenever you read it, Austerlitz is an astonishing book. I remember only the plot outline, which as in most Sebold books is not really the point, and I remember that it is more ambitious than his earlier collections, which are really collections of stories or essays or whatever we would call his work, built around a single theme, but Austerlitz is the closest he ever came to writing a traditional novel, yet it's traditional only in that it has a central character (the eponymous A.) and over the course of the novel we learn his life story. Sebold comes as close as any late-20th-century writer to capturing the mood of Proust, in the way in which he establishes moments or memory, observation, or insight and then lets his thoughts follow that insight across a long, unspooling strand - it's not free association but carefully guided association - but for Proust it's a literary mission to pull together the strands of his own life, to understand his past in the search for "lost time," but for Sebald it's not his past he's in search of but a hidden past of our culture. Austerlitz, typical of Sebald, begins in a strange and somewhat forgotten locale - in this case Antwerp - where the narrator meets the title character in the waiting room of the railway station, begins a long discussion of the architecture of the station and then moves on (in subsequent random meetings) to discussions of the strangeness of Belgian architecture and design, including a visit to a former prisoner compound and fortification and a discourse on the Palace of Justice - then a later meeting between the two in a train station in London. Railroads - another link between Sebald and Proust (and another Asperger-like syndrome, perhaps?). As this novel unfolds, we come to see that Sebald is exploring all of European history, its greatness, its ruins, and ultimately the horrors and guild of World War II. Every one off the passages in Austerlitz is strange and disconcerting, and you might think he's making up these scenes and locales and bits of history - but he does include photos, most of which look like post cards you could pick up in a junk shop - to give a patina of reality, one of the edges and odd dualities of this very odd and haunting novel.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

My suggested summer reading list - Classics and others

What is it about summer reading - do people really want a "light read" for the beach? I don't think so - I think summer reading is a time to read a much longer book that you would never be able to get to, or through, during the rest of the year or to go back and read a classic that you'd missed or forgotten because you'd read it so long ago. People ask me for reading suggestions and, despite how much I read, I'm often stumped - realizing my taste is not in the maintstream and for that matter that everyone's taste differs. A web site like goodreads can help people find books that others with similar tastes have liked. But here, in response to latest request, from AR @ work, are some thoughts:
Classics: great time to go back and read some. AR mentioned just finishing a John Irving novel, so why not go back to the Ur-Irving and read Dickens: Great Expectations stands up to any re-reading, and someday I'll re-read Bleak House and Little Dorrit. (Tried Our Mutual Friend a few years ago but couldn't get through it). Last summer I re-read Moby-Dick and really enjoyed it. Friend PP is recommending re-reading Jane Eyre, too. And of course there's always Anna Karenina and, for the daring, War and Peace. I re-read Proust one summer - but maybe he's more of a winter writer, requiring darkness and concentration.
Recent novels: when people think of contemporary fiction, we think of books published within the past few months, but there are a lot of excellent books from, say, the past 10 years that people aren't talking about much any more but if you haven't read them, they will still bring great pleasure. Among the longer ones that I think make for good summer reading: Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, God of Small Things, Atonement, The Known World, Snow Falling on Cedars, Jhumpa Lahiri's novel whose name I can't remember right now [The Namesake], Cold Mountain. For those with a little more taste for the exotic: Austerlitz, Mr. Mani
And finally some 20th-century classics that are not so well known or are too often overlooked: The Leopard, Confessions of Zeno, The Rabbit quartet (Updike), Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Could this get you through a summer? Or two?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Why Eudora Welty is a great writer

Here's some of what Eudora Welty isn't: her stories have humor and some of her most famous, generally her early stories, have a lot of humor and are easily seen as precursors to the darker and more allegorical work of F.O'Connor, but Welty increasingly moved away from Southern Gothic style as she matured. Her stories fall outside of the expected modes: they are not about a single action with a crisis or conflict and a (somewhat ambiguous) resolution. They are not, on the other hand, about a single epiphanic moment, a snapshot of life ending on a poignant phrase or image. To the extent that there is an arc at all, it is a flattened arc - her stories more typically involve a few hours of passing time or, if longer, a journey from point A to B, but without a real shape or conclusion. Some of her characters are the outsiders who typically populate American short fiction, but her stories are rarely driven by character - they tend to have many characters, each sharply drawn but not fully rounded. Finally her stories extremely rarely explore social themes. So what makes them so great? First of all, the vividness of the writing, beautiful descriptions not only of landscape but of feeling and perception - she pays a slight homage to Proust in one of her late stories, but the influence is present through much of her work. Second, the subtlety of her characters and their behavior - she doesn't explain anything, just presents the action as it unfolds before us, and her, and often requires us to really work to figure out what's going on - just as we do in life. I admire her for her willingness to try different themes, styles, even topics - she obviously could have made a whole career writing about the Southern types that we see in her first stories, including the famous Petrified Man and Why I Live at the P.O. - but she pushes herself to look at a wide variety of character, most sharing her Mississippi roots. Some of the great stories include Death of a Traveling Salesman, Music from Spain, The Bride of the Innisfallen, No Place for You, My Love, and possibly Where Are the Voices Coming From? - and you can see, if you read each, that they share a sensibility but that they're markedly different in topic and approach. At times her stories are exasperating with their subtlety and refusal to offer narrative compromises, but when you read through her "Collected Stories" you can see that she is a unique voice and at her best a truly great writer.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Welty at sea: Trying to write about young romance and sex in Going to Naples

The last story in Eudora Welty's final collection of stories, Going to Naples (in The Bride of the Innisfallen, in "Collected Stories") typifies the strengths and weaknesses of Welty's late work (though not really that late - early 50s, and she lived and wrote for another 20 years or so): whole story takes place on shipboard, bound for Italy, in the lower decks, with a mixed group of Italians returning home after or for a visit, and mostly Italo-Americans, particularly a young woman Gabriella, from Buffalo, large and high-spirited, in search (or so her mother hopes) of a good match. There's plenty of high-jinks comedy, some scenes - the night of seasickness, for example - very well described, a huge cast of characters sharply defined. And yet: it's a story, much like a voyage, that takes us from point a to point b, but, also like a voyage, without any significant arc or crisis. Are the characters truly changed by the end of the voyage? Have we learned anything from observing them? Like many of her longer stories, it's a snapshot, or more precisely, a video, of a period of time, a sequence of events, but without enough revealed to us - there's no denouement, conclusion, or evident point. Reading these late Welty stories makes it clear that she continued to push the edges of the form, but that her thoughts were turning more toward novels - stories didn't really suit her temperament at this point in her career. Going to Naples is one of the very few Welty stories that takes place outside of the South and does not concern Mississippians in any way; she does a great job sketching this motley crew of characters, but she's a little "at sea" when trying to describe young romance - as in other Welty stories, the sex scene is so quick and ambiguous that you have to read go back and re-read to (try to) determine whether it happened at all. In her later stories, Welty tried to push her subject matter well beyond the limitations of her experience - she should not be and did not want to be typed as a Southern regionalist - but in some instances her material falls apart, whether because of too much discretion, indirection, or incapacity of imagination, it's hard to say.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Eurdora Welty's indifference to her readers' expectations

Eudora Welty wraps up her short story - long story, really - Kin, in "Collected Stories," with the two cousins, Dicey, visiting Mississippi from the North, and Kate, going in to visit with old Uncle Felix, who is lying apparently on his death bed, in a room cluttered with memorabilia and artifacts from his long life. The girls actually hardly say a thing to him; most of the talking done by Sister (Aunt?) Anne, a somewhat bossy, mannish presence who takes control of everything and everyone. The story, somewhat unusual for Welty, is in first-person narration by Dicey, but it actually feels like 3rd-person to some extent, in that Welty doesn't use the narrative strategy to have Dicey reveal much about her interior life. She describes all she sees much as an omniscient third-person narrator would. One exception, though: in the room with Uncle Felix she sees an old toy, a stereopticon, and she recalls looking at pictures through this when she was a little girl in Mississippi - it's a moment that's certainly meant to be a tribute to Proust and the episode in volume one of the "magic lantern" that through its varied light patterns on the walls of his room. Apparently Uncle Felix also enjoyed this toy, but Welty reveals little about this connection. The main "episode" in this non-eventful story occurs when Felix mutters some words that nobody can comprehend: Hide. Daisy. Some other words. As far as I can see, Welty lets this utterance hang out there as a mystery - she doesn't provide an answer as to what Felix may be recollecting or trying to convey. Shortly after this utterance, Anne intrudes, takes Felix's temperature, and Dicey oddly tells Anne that her aunt would have come along for the visit but she can't put up her (Anne). Kate and Dicey depart laughing; does this make sense? Or, more to the point, is this a satisfactory use of the material that Welty has developed so carefully? At this point in her career - this is from her final book of short stories - she is clearly pushing against the boundaries of the form, thinking more about developing novel-length narratives - and Welty's well-known and justly praised subtlety does not serve her well here: my sense is I've traveled a long way with her in this story without sufficient explanation or reward. It's a wonderful set-up for a story, but Welty obstinately refuses to meet our expectations for the form, she won't tie loose ends together or even provide a dramatic climax. Reading Welty, you always feel you're in the hands of a master writer, but at times the writer's indifference to her readers' expectations is disconcerting, disappointing.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Could we expect more political engagement from Eudora Welty?

Eudora Welty's "short" story Kin gets moving after its first two sections as the story takes on some high comedy, in a great scene that, I think, would film very well: the two cousins, Dicey (?) native Missisippian now a 20ish adult visiting home for the first time in many years, and her cousin Kate (?), go off on their visit to the elderly Uncle Felix (?), and on arrival they see a crowd of townspeople, standing on the porch, dressed up and somber. When the aunt arrives to greet the girls, Kate bursts into tears and asks: When did it happen? They (and we) assume that poor old Uncle Felix died before the girls could pay their visit - but we soon learn that, no, in fact, an itinerant photographer has set up shop in the parlor and all the country people have come by to have their portraits taken. Apparently it's nearly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A good comic scene, and a great way to introduce us to the remoteness and quaintness of life in rural Mississippi early in the 20th century. As with other Welty stories, she sets a very slow and deliberate pace, so I'm not sure how she will develop this material, and she observes but seldom if ever judges - she accepts social conventions without challenge, there is virtually no commentary on the racist social structure of the era or on the privilege (all relative) enjoyed by some (all white) at the expense of others (mostly black). I know we can't expect those of another time and place to hold or even recognize the values obvious to all of us today, nor can we expect all writers to be politically bold (we can expect them to be intellectually and artistically bold), but by the time Welty was writing her late stories - the early 1950s - change was all around and we could hope that one of the great Southern writers would at least draw some attention to or inspiration from the forces of justice that were soon to upturn her world.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A short story that unfolds like a novel - Eudora Welty's "Kin"

Last night read only the first part of Eudora Welty's story Kin, in "Collected Stories," one of her last stories, though only from the early 50s - she once again is pushing the boundaries of the story form, it's a story that seems to be paced like a novel but without the back story and narrative depth that we expect of a novel - maybe more like a novella, but if so a short one - making it, what? A very long, even-tempered short story - a genre for which there is literally no market today and which we therefore seldom see any longer. Should withhold overall comment on Kin (one of her few that appeared in The New Yorker), but will note that it establishes an interesting premise: Mississippi-raised young woman returns home to visit her family (various complex first-second and third cousins and great aunt and uncles - impossible for us - and for the protagonist herself - to keep track of) for the first time since childhood. Lots of possibilities to develop here, but suffice it to say that in the first two sections of the story Welty does not do so - only hints at potential tensions and family secrets. The protagonist and her same-age cousin are obligated to go off to visit one of the great uncles, and the aunt has to stay at home for undetermined reasons - health? family history? I might have glossed over the explanation - Welty is a master, or a demon, at putting key info into only a phrase or sentence. One would think that this kind of story would truly examine the clash of cultures - north v south, urban v rural, e.g. - and would explore how two young women have matured in different ways, what it means to leave home (or to stay at home) - though I'm not sure that this is Welty's intention or mileu. She rarely touches on sociopolitical themes, even though she lived through a time of great torment and upheaval. We'll see where she goes with this story. I wonder about her novels - have read none other than the novel-like Optimist's Daughter, but it seems she really wants to unfold things at novel-like pace rather than rush into the action as most story-writers feel (rightly) compelled to do.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Why Eudora Welty is not (merely) a regional Southern writer

Read Eudora Welty's "Collected Stories" all through recent vacation through NY state and Pennsylvania, a great collection to read through and to get a sense of Welty's career, world view, and place in literature - secure. A few more stories before I complete the collection, but am now reading through some of her final stories, though her career as a short-story writer is kind of odd, virtually all seemingly compressed into a 15-year span within her long and productive live. In the final collection, The Bride of the Inisfallen, we see Welty trying to expand the scope of her work and continue to try new voices, narrative strategies, and subject matter - not all successfully. I appreciate that she did not want to be pigeonholed as a regionalist - the curse of many Southern (and Western) writers, and her pushing the limits of her form is what makes her greatest stories what they are: elliptical, demanding, subtle, and profound. But she still must have been aware that there are vast areas her fiction never explored, particularly sexual relations and mature adult love relations - and she took on these universal themes in two of the stories in the final collection, the title story and the first in the collection, No Place for You, My Love, two excellent stories and her first foray into The New Yorker. So expanding her scope worked for her and for her career. But not all the stories in the final collection are so strong - Circe, for example, a very weak attempt to tell an episode of the Odyssey in modern voice and from a woman's point of view. Does Welty really add anything to the legend here? In a different vein, the story of the Southern woman who prays for rain and the boy on a fishing expedition with his dad goes back to Welty's more traditional material, but the story feels tedious and meandering - it's as if she had to try this one to know that she'd drawn all she could out of this material. Writers sometimes begin by writing what they know and then develop that material for the rest of their lives - Faulkner, Melville - whereas others use their native ground as a starting point and then move on toward other, more surprising, destinations and challenges.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Allusion and hints of meaning - Eudora Welty's The Bride of the Inisfallen

"The Bride of the Inisfallen" is typical in some ways of Eurdora Welty's late "Collected Stories," beautifully written start to finish, rather long by today's standards anyway (stor from the early '50s), many characters, most of them introduced with a single broad brushstroke or a moniker (lady with an unusual hat, the young American girl reading her novel, the "man from Connamara") - actually I don't think any of the characters have given names (that's not typical of Welty). The plot is more direct and straightforward than in Welty's earlier stories but, as in No Place for You, My Love, this one involves a journey - from London by train and boat to Cork, Ireland. Story line easy to follow, but the significance is elusive, in that Welty in her late stories almost always works by allusion and by hints of meaning. In this case, we follow the railroad compartment full of people on the long journey, learning bits about each of them, but not until the last pages do we focus on one character, the American girl, and on her story - yet what is that story? We get only a hint. She is leaving behind a husband in England, and thinks of sending him a telegram with the words "England was a mistake" - but she tosses the message away and in the last gesture of the story enters a crowded pub full of "strangers." Most writers would build this whole story from the girl's (I would call her a woman, but Welty doesn't) point of view, but Welty builds her personality up by contrasts with the others - she's a silent vortex around which the story revolves. Is it enough? I'm not sure - it's a long journey to take to end with only a glimpse of a mood and a sliver of information. I've come to think that Welty's stories, more than those of almost any other writer, demand re-reading - she's very rich with detail but parsimonious with what is usually essential information in a story, she doesn't build it up for us but trusts us to pick up little bits of information and build the narrative, as we do with the life around us every day. It's a great story for mood and feeling - but its significance is hard to perceive on first reading, like a landscape viewed through a fog. Finally, worth noting that this, the title story in her final collection, is to date her first story set outside the U.S. and for that matter one of only two or 3 outside of the South.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Welty out of her element in historical fiction, and 2 notes on one of her best stories

Eudora Welt's story The Burning, in her 4th and final story collection and in "Collected Stories," is her first (and only?) historical fiction, her attempt to examine the effects of Sherman's torching of Southern plantations, the effect on the women left behind - black and white. Despite the strengths that we have come to anticipate and expect from every mature Welty story - some fine description, as the two sisters and their slave enter the scorched Jackson, her elliptical style in which characters are introduced by mere mention and key events described by indirection, which keeps us fully attentive to every line of her fiction and creates the illusion that we are stepping into a world fully formed, no introductions or back story necessary or possible - The Burning does feel a bit Southern Gothic cliched, the Southern women tough but in despair, the slaves loyal and bewildered, the Union soldiers course and aggressive - what does this remind you of? Welty does put some of her own touches on the story - the key event, suicide of the sisters, though improbable, is quite a shocking scene, and the return of the slave girl to the plantation is very poignant and trobling. But altogether not Welty's ideal element. Two other notes on one of her very best stories, No Place for You, My Love, it's clearly one of the best and most effective uses of alternating point of view in any story, omniscient narrator but the focus back and forth between the man and the woman. 2nd, wouldn't any good editor encourage her to begin with the fantastic 2nd paragraph - she looked like a woman who was having an affair ... - rather than the tepid and largely unneccessary first one?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What took The New Yorker so long to recognize Eudora Welty's talent?

The Wanderers, the last story in Eudora Welty's 3rd collection, The Golden Apples (in "Collected Stories") is basically unreadable, despite some extraordinarily beautiful passages - e.g., Virgie sitting in the rain on a stile and surveying the town of Morgana, which she is soon to leave - but the story is meant to tie together all or many of the strands of the preceding stories in the collection, to make this modest work into Welty's version of a Faulkner novel, many interconnections in a small town, but honestly, though several of the stories are excellent, the characters from one to another are not signficantly distinct and I literally could not recall some of them or their histories and had no sense of where I was through 90 percent of this very long story. Welty's indirection, which serves her very well in her best, most challenging short stories, does not serve her well when she tries to build these stories into a novel. The next story in her Collected Stories is the first one in her 4th and final collection, story called No Place for You, My Dear, or something like that - amazingly, it was the first of her published by the New Yorker - what took them so long to recognize her talent? - and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is her most New Yorker-like story to date: about mature, sophisticated Northern visitors to the South, a man and a woman meet at a restaurant in New Orleans and head off toward the delta, each of them married, though they learn little about one another's lives, the story imbued with sexual tension and guilt and, as is typical of many Welty stories, nothing much happens between them overtly bt there's a great deal of internal emotional turbulence. The drive to the delta is one of the best passages she's every written - Walker Percy (The Moviegoer) had his character take a similar journey, perhaps in homage?, so did Richard Ford more recently I think. If this story were ever filmed, John Hamm/Don Draper would obviously play the guy (and maybe January Jones the girl?). Truly one of Welty's best stories, free of the mannerisms and weakness for sudden melodramatic violence that mar some of her other great ones.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

An example of postmodern fiction in the post-postmodern age

TP in book group often asks - though I think he knows the answer - "is this postmodern? - so for TP and for anyone else he wants to see a textbook example of postmodern fiction in the post-postmodern era check out Julian Barnes's "Homage to Hemingway" in current New Yorker. This is a textbook example of self-reflective fiction, fiction that in some ways is about itself and that requires us to think about and examine boundaries between fiction, nonfiction, memoir, art, reality. Sometimes this can devolve into gamesmanship, adroitness, and cleverness, but the best postmodern fiction, like this one, also tell us something about life and about personalities, in other words, they give us the traditional pleasures of fiction - consciousness of the consciousness of another, a mirror held up to nature, an imitation of an action in words - while also making us think about what fiction is and isn't. In this story, Barnes creates a protagonist so much like him that we of course suspect or believe that he is writing an essay or memoir: a writer describes three writing workshops he's run at various stages of his career, the promising young writer, the successful novelist, the mid- or late-career novelist plagued with doubt. Could it be Barnes? I suspect Barnes's career is much more successful and he's much more self-confident than the character he creates, but all writers have moments - ranging from episodic despair to true suicidal doubt and gloom - in which they question their gifts and their capacity. A submotif in these 3 stages Barnes describes is his using Hemingway as an example of great talent sometimes obscured by his bombastic personality, and describes a Hemingway story, which I can't recall, about 3 episodes at railway stations - Homage to Switzerland, I think he called it - and the parallels with the story we're reading are apparent. One of the women in the seminar, later joined by others, argues that H. is obviously sexist in that the women in the story are unnamed; the Barnes protagonist a first defends H. but then goes on to say what if I were to write a story and name the women but not the men, would that make a difference? Yes, they say. He notes that he did so (obviously this story - though that may be the first time we notice that) and then he says, ends the story with: But nobody would publish it. Ha! There's the joke - once we've read the story, we realize that it's by definition fiction, it is published (in the NYer no less). Though this could be just a bit of a gimmick (remember Laurie Moore's famous ending to The Only People Here are People Like Us, something like: Here'e the story; where's my check?), I think Barnes also leads us to reflect on the boundaries and limitations of fiction - through the whole story we are in a sense judging Barnes, inevitably we think he's writing about himself, just as we judge Hemingway by his stories, but at the end, showing that this is clearly "made up" he says: don't judge me (or any writer) by or identify us with the characters we create. Which is of course a half-truth: everything writers create is an expression of themselves and is a result of their own lifetime of experiences and observations and feelings. We write one thing - but not another - and those choices to define us - to a degree. But there is always a degree of separation between writers and their art. The magnitude of that degree is a one of the key integers of postmodern fiction.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A very teachable Eudora Welty story, for those who like symbolism and allegory

Eudora Welty's story Music from Spain, in her 3rd (1949) collection The Golden Apples (in "Collected Stories") is very strange, like many of her late 1940s stories, full of passages of extraordinary beauty and precision - the lengthy description of the climb along the rocky edge of Lands End on the Pacific Coast in San Francisco, for one example - but unlike some of the other stories of this era the narrative is rather straightforward, following one man, MacLain, through the Odysseyan course of a terrible and eventful day and in the process learning a great deal about him: he begins the day slapping his wife across the face for no apparent reason, then, angry at himself, mortified, he heads for work but doesn't report, keeps walking, comes across a Spanish musician whom he and his wife had seen perform (the night before) and spends the entire day walking the city with this man, who speaks no English - an extraordinary narrative feat, by the way, in that Welty completes virtually the entire narration with no dialogue between the two main characters - at end of the day MacLain almost pushes the Spaniard off the cliff, the Spaniard picks MacLain up and carries him from the edge, they share a cup of coffee, MacLain abandons the Spaniard in a remote part of the city, heads home and is more or less welcomed in by his wife, without any discussion of the morning incident - behind all this is the tension between them over the death of their young child, for which he blames her. A very teachable story, which would be better known if it were not so long and therefore rarely anthologized if ever. It did feel like a very long journey for a relatively small payoff - unlike The Whole World Knows, about the breakup of a marriage and an affair with a young woman that has a very dramatic conclusion - in Music from Spain the story ends softly and quietly. One reason story so "teachable" is because of the symbolic and allegorical aspects that, as is typical of Welty, are underplayed, almost to the point where you wonder if she's even aware of them (which of course she is): the homoerotic elements, which become quite explicit during their physical struggle on the cliff, when MacLain imagines something throbbing in his mouth!, and the Christian allegory, as in Moon Lake, a man in crisis saved by a redeemer figure.

Monday, July 4, 2011

One of Eudora Welty's best stories: The Whole World Knows

Eudora Welty's rather long short story The Whole World Knows (I like the title but couldn't recall it exactly and had to look it up after completing this post), about the dissolution of Ran McLain's marriage, in her collection The Golden Apples in "Collected Stories" - is definitely one of her most imaginative and one of her best. As we see from many stories building up to this one, Welty increasingly experiments with narrative strategies and with multiple points of view within the same story - sometimes to the detriment of her material - there's sometimes too much of the author's hand/handiwork, and, speaking of hands, sometimes you want her to reach out a hand and help you through the difficult narratives but she just won't, doesn't. In Whole World, she uses these narrative devices to excellent effect - sometimes just pretty straightforward 3rd-person omniscient narration focused on Ran, but at other times we're right in his head as he indulges in fantasies of attacking the guy his wife had an affair with, other times she has one of the bank customers carry the story forward in monologue, addressed to Ran at the teller window, elsewhere Ran addresses a "father" (we can easily surmise this is a form of confession). Most of all, I think among all the stories up to this point it is one of the fullest examinations of a character in time of personal, emotional crisis and one of the best portraits of her smaltown/small city community, named Morgana. Ran throughout is carrying on some kind of relation with a much younger woman - it almost seems like she's a teenager, but evidently that's not so - toward the end he takes her for a night of drinking in Vicksburg, a beautifully told sequence, drinking on a barge, then driving in the night to the river's edge, then to a little rental cabin - as is true throughout Welty's fiction the sex is quick, violent, cruel, unsatisfying - and in this case the characters flirt with suicide, homicide - the end a bit unclear but the fact that the story is a confession does give us some clues. Like all great writers, Welty is excellent at fathoming the consciousness of others, she is extremely observant of the details of the life around her, she has a very limited sphere yet she knows that territory intimately. This story is one of her deepest explorations of mature (or immature?) adult love. Her view of love is not comforting in any sense, but the characters and their struggles are real and poignant and full. Next story in collection - Music from Spain - I'm still reading, opens with a dramatic action, unusual in its precision, for Welty, and then becomes a day of wandering. Also unusual in that it takes place in San Francisco (albeit among transplanted Missisipians). Will look at it more fully in future post.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

What Eurdora Welty writes about - and what she ignores

Moon Lake is another one of the longer stories that Eudora Welty wrote in the late 1940s for her 3rd collection, The Golden Apples, in her "Collected Stories" - truly, though some excellent description and some fine passages in Moon Lake it's not one of her better stories - she was obviously pushing the boundaries with some of these stories, either developing material for novels or working toward a novella, but Moon Lake is a long journey with less of a payoff - much as I love the description and appreciate how well Welty could bring off some of these passages, I felt at times, why am I reading this? What's happening? The multiple points of view, with the characters not clearly delineated, do not help, either. Story about girls - some of whom we've met before in other stories in this collection - at a summer camp, some of the girls from proper Southern families, another large group of the girls are orphans, obviously tougher, deprived, needier - one, Easter, emerges as the leader, and she's the one some of the other girls try to befriend. Welty very well captures the tensions between these two groups, Easter wanting the friendship to a degree but also knowing the differences, pushing the others away, being tough. Loch, whom we'd met in the first story in this collection, is the only boy around, a loner, a Boy Scout hired to be the bugler. Though there are many intimations and hints of action and danger all through this 50 page story, the central action doesn't take place till very near the end when Easter, poked by one of the black kids who kind of hang around the camp (the boy who pokes her is the son of the camp cook I think) falls into the lake, nearly drowns, is rescued and "resurrected" by Loch. The religious symbolism is painfully obvious, right? If you didn't get it - just look at her name. At the heart of the story, though this is not made too obvious, is Nina, the character who is most evidently the young Eudora Welty, observant, creative, a bit of a loner - the one who will later resurrect all this material into art. The issue of race in Eudora Welty's fiction again is a troubling matter here - the black characters always on the margin, nobody really questioning this or troubled by it, and Welty herself can't seem to see or doesn't care to see anything but the stereotype, the convention, of the black characters, ambling around, doing nothing but fishing and slouching and getting into trouble - they have no interior life in her fiction, at least through the 40s. Obviously she re-creates the world that she sees and that she knows, but her fiction is without any political edge of social conscience. This story calls to mind the recent excellent Munro story about girls at summer camp and the cruelties inflicted. I, too, have written about camp, in a story (never published) strikingly similar in structure to Welty's - which I'd never read till this week. But it seems the events she writes about are true and likely and resonant across the genders, the decades, and the culture.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Why A Worn Path is Eudora Welty's best-known story

Poked around a little yesterday looking up Eudora Welty on Google and noticed a few pages citing A Worn Path as her best, or most famous, short story, so went back in her "Collected Stories," which I'm reading, to re-read A Worn Path - I think I just skimmed over it earlier in the volume and didn't post on it at the time, not sure why - anyway, I can see why it's a famous story but not sure it's her best - it's famous because it's relatively short, easily anthologized, very teachable - also a very good story that, like many of Welty's, is simple on the surface but conceals a lot of significance. Well, actually not all of her stories are so simple on the surface - some, particularly later in her career, require a lot of work. Not this one at least superficially: an old black woman, Granny, walking a difficult path from her country home to the city (Nathcez), we don't at first know the purpose of her journey - in Natchez, she goes to a hospital where they provide her, grudgingly, with some medicine for her grandson, and she sets off to return, stating she will buy him a little toy with a few coins that the hospital staff gave her. Superficially, it's a story of her love and devotion to her grandson. On a deeper level, it's about the whole perverse nature of Southern, and American, society at the time: the obvious incredible poverty of this poor woman, and a health-care system that will do nothing but provide her with a bottle of medicine, and then proudly writes that off as "charity." Also, the sense that it's OK to consign her to the margins - she's threatened, jokingly and mockingly, by a hunter she meets on the journey, and just never really treated as anything other than a cute and quaint old lady - to a degree, even Welty is guilty of this, in that she doesn't really let us see Granny as other than a type - as noted in other posts, black people of the South never emerge as true characters in her (early) fiction, and this portrait of Granny becomes for many an indelible picture of black Southerners of the time - but read some of the Southern fiction by black writers, for a contrast, who show black people in the fullness of their lives and their aspirations and their struggles against racism - imagine how Zora Neale Hurston or Jean Toomer would have portrayed Granny, not as a type but as a rounded character. Finally, however, there are obvious allegorical elements to the story: woman goes on a journey, faces obstacles, attains her goal - a journey of life and salvation (at least that's what we'd say if this were a Flannery O'Connor story).

Friday, July 1, 2011

Eurdora Welty's longest story (to date) and why it doesn't work (for her)

Eudora Welty's June Recital, one of her longest stories, in the Golden Apples collection (her 3rd) in "Collected Stories" is quite a challenge for readers, or at least was for me, with its multiple layers of time and its fairly large cast of characters. Welty is an odd writer, in that sometimes she writes in very broad strokes and sometimes she uses indirection and subtlety and suggestion - and often, as in this case, in the same story. The first part of this long story involves a young boy, Loch, and his furtive observations of the goings-on in a seemingly abandoned house next door: a couple sneak in the back door and head up to the bedroom, an older women enters and starts filling the fireplace with old papers which she ignites. We wonder what role if any Loch will play - it's a Rear Window situation, he's confined to his room by illness. His sister is drawn into this a bit - and you can see that there are two stories: the comic zaniness - or is there murderous intent, or just coincidence? - in the old house and the more conventional literary Southern family in the foreground. Then the perspective shifts, we see things from the sister's POV, and we learn the background of the young couple, actually of the girl, a one-time piano prodigy now confined to playing in the movie theater (this must be in the 20s). It will not be a surprise (possible spoiler though) that the woman burning the papers is the girl's old piano teacher. Motive never clear, at least to me - Welty indulges in some broad comedy as two drunken fishing buddies stumbling home discover the house afire and put things right. All this still, very improbably, witnessed by Loch. There's a lot going on in this story and it has elements of Welty at her best, but overall seemed to me like a long journey to nowhere - too many loose ends and needless ambiguities, and really too much disparate material to tie together in one narrative unit. I appreciate that she's breaking a few boundaries here and trying something new, for her (and for fiction generally at that time) - the expansive format Welty was exploring has, in more recent year, been very accomodating for Alice Munro, but Welty seems a bit lost in the vast space of this narrative.