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

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

Monday, October 31, 2011

Don Quixote: pointing the way toward literature about contemporary life

Volume 1 of Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote" ends with some discourse among the characters, including DQ, on the function and utility of literature - a familiar topic of that era (not of this era), and Cervantes allow the priest to express some pretty sensible views - though maybe literature can drive some people, e.g., DQ, insane, there's nothing wrong with a little entertainment. He wouldn't burn all the tales of chivalry, though he would scour them for immoral and blasphemous elements. Okay, I wouldn't agree with this entirely, obviously, but it's a pretty enlightened viewpoint to allow a cleric to voice - what we're seeing here, and throughout the novel, is the origins of a popular literature that's not entirely about myth, about heroes, about the ancients - though DQ is obsessed with the courtly literature about a time and place that never was, one of the many puzzles of this novel is that "Don Quixote" is showing the way toward a new kind of literature that Don Quixote (the character) could not fathom and would not appreciate: it's the beginning of a literature about contemporary life. (Chaucer touched in this, too, in his poetry - but without the complex development of relationships among the characters over time.) Obviously there's a long stretch between Cervantes and the realism of Balzac or the naturalism of Flaubert - and obviously there are many elements in DQ that are not meant to be realistic at all, they are intentionally fantastical and preposterous - but part of its greatness is the realism of the characters, their humble settings, life on the road, the peasantry and the innkeepers, the village life to which DQ returns, and the tender relationships among and between the characters, Sancho Panza and DQ in particular, but also the priest and the barber who at personal expense and discomfort try to lead DQ back to safety and sanity. It's a novel that pretends to look backward but its greatness is the world of fiction that lies ahead and toward which Cervantes points the way.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Why Don Quixote is actually sane

Readers and scholars for centuries have enjoyed unraveling the labyrinthine layers of narrative the Cervantes embeds in "Don Quixote," one of the first and most intricate examples of metafiction, stories within stories, the frame story of the author himself, the DQ adventures, the reality and the illusion that DQ perceives, the narratives of the people whom DQ and Sancho Panza meet on their travels, the interpolated poems, the many references and allusions to other works of literature, the biographical elements as Cervantes tells by indirection his own life story and his years in captivity, the realistic (somewhat) portrayal of life on the byways of rural Spain in the early 17th century, and of course the parodies and appropriations of various literary forms and styles - and let me add one other element: during the long interlude in Volume 1 when DQ and Sancho stay at the country inn - much of the humor hinges on DQ's insistence that the inn is actually a castle, which he must defend, and that all of the artifacts are various objects of knight errantry and chivalry - and moreover that anytime he or anyone else perceives otherwise it's because and enchantment has been put upon all of them. It's all very funny and ridiculous - and yet - within the terms of the novel, is Don Quixote actually correct? Isn't the inn, for all its realistic details of rustic even primitive comfort, more like a castle than an inn - or at least more fictive than real? Every time one of the characters embarks on a narrative, it turns out that one of the interlocutors is the long-lost brother or the unfaithful lover or some such outlandish coincidence - as if there were only 20 or so families in all of Spain, as if someone can come back from 20 years of captivity and the first person he will stumble upon is his long-lost brother? You'd have to be crazy to believe that. The inn actually is enchanted, and might as well be a castle. Don Quixote is the only one who sees his environment in Cervantes's terms. He's the only one who's actually sane.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Way we Were(n't): Ideology in Don Quixote

Further thoughts on chivalry and feudalism in Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote": moving through Book/Volume 1, we come to the first of the interpolated novellas, the story of the man who was "too curious" - a newly married Florentine who concocts one of those crazy schemes that always seem to turn up in stories set in Italy (and written by authors living elsewhere) in which he asks his best friend to try to seduce his new wife in order to prove to himself that she is virtuous - with obvious tragic results. The story itself is extremely weird and could be and probably has been subject to a lot of analysis, including examination of its homoerotic subtext. Also interesting is the way in which the characters discuss the story, and discuss the role of literature, before one begins reading the story aloud: they agree that stories about the codes of errant knights are a fitting diversion - though the priest has reservations about some of the narratives - and they do enjoy this totally preposterous story about the test of virtue, though one notes at the end how improbable the story was/is. The subtext here is that all of these stories of knight errantry and courtly love are in fact diversions, fictions, fantasies: this era never truly existed, certainly not in the way it is portrayed in literature, but it is a way for people living in a changing society, as Cervantes (and Shakespeare his contemporary) were - to imagine that in "days of yore" everything was done by an honorable code, that things were better - back then - when everyone knew his or her place and knew how to behave. This false belief is a fake nostalgia and is also in fact an ideology: a shroud that the ruling class, fearful about the power it is losing, places over the eyes of all others. It's in some ways no different from what we see today: people talking about how back when they were kids everyone did fine in school with classes of 50 kids (they didn't), the country was better off when everyone has to rely on his or her own resources and there was no government help (it wasn't), that the wealthy have earned their status in society through hard work and intelligence (rarely). In fact is this same ideology and faux nostalgia what made the DQ knockoff, Man from La Mancha, which I've never seen, such a middle-brow success?

Friday, October 28, 2011

How dumb is Sancho Panza?

How dumb is Sancho Panza? I would say: not at all. Certainly he's not well educated but would you suppose that there weren't many opportunities for schooling for people of Panza's social class in 17th-century Spain - education, or the deprivation of education, was the primary way through which the ruling class maintained its control of power and authority. Not until things began to change and there were opportunities for all people to make $, in the cities but not exclusively - we do see in "Don Quixote" the example of Dorotea, daughter of a wealthy farmer (and a good farmer herself), did the class structure begin to break down - and education followed inevitably. Sancho Panza, though, to me, seems to play dumb but he has a shrewd intelligence and a great deal of compassion - he's the only one who truly comprehends Quixote and knows how to protect him. Cervantes makes much of Panza's expectation to become the ruler of an island, an insula, but I think we are not meant to take this seriously - Panza reiterates this hope, but I think he does so in part as a way to maintain DQ's spirits - all he really expects is a chance to do some service, make a little money, perhaps improve his lot a bit through a new donkey or some other opportunities - and perhaps even a chance for some travel and adventure. Obviously, he's in the novel primarily as a comic foil and as a device for Cervantes to bring some perspective on DQ and his delusions - but he also serves as to maintain some balance for Quixote and as a reminder to readers that there is a whole level of social reality not accounted for in the knightly codes that DQ always cites nor in the vast storehouse of literature - up to that point - that rarely if ever included fully rendered characters from the peasantry or working class.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Don Quixote: The last medieval man

Cardenio's crazy story continues in Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote" as suddenly he and the priest and barber come upon a beautiful woman, who'd been disguised as a boy, who's shedding tears, and she begins to tell her tale and we learn that - lo & behold!- she was betrayed by the same evil young nobleman who betrayed Carednio, in fact, she was the noble don's first fiancee whom he dumped when he saw Cardenio's fiancee the beautiful Lucretia (?) - are you following this? Do you need to? Not really - the main point is that this kind of encounter in the remote forests of the Sierra Moreno, two people crazy for love and in despair and retreating from society - could never occur and - it's tragedy played out in a comical key (much like the whole novel). Also what we continue to see here is Cervantes's contempt for the social structure of feudalism, still probably pretty powerful in Spain, especially in the countryside, in his day, and his disdain for the codes of social convention: Quixote with his fixation on the gallantry of knights errant is constantly getting battered by the fates and forces of the world, it's as if he doesn't see the world in which he is living - only the corporeal Panza sees it and experiences the realities of beatings, trauma, and humiliation. Though the period of DQ seems very long ago to us, it was a time of change and upheaval, and DQ himself is a throwback, the last medieval man, doomed to fail, destined for extinction.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Insanity and social class in Don Quixote

About half-way through Book One of Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote" the story takes a strange turn, as DQ meets a man who's gone mad for love and retreated to the wilderness of the Sierra Morenas (?) to live as a hermit; the man, Cardenia (?) begins telling DQ and Sancho Panza his story - how he fell in love with a beautiful girl from his village, they pledged to get married, but his father sent him away to live as a page and companion to some rich lord's son in a nearby town - a great opportunity supposedly -but the spoiled rich son catches a glimpse of the village beauty, sends Cardenia away on a pretext, and gets the beauty to marry him - her father sees opportunity and she is caught - Cardenia goes insane and runs off to the mountains. A few things are interesting about this tale: in the antic and strange narrative style of Cervantes, Cardenia wanrs DQ not to interrupt the tale, and when DQ does, to defend some point of chivalry, Cardenia beats him bloody (the millionth time this has happened in 200 pages - DQ has the constitution of a veteran prizefighter). C finishes his tale later to two other interlocutors. His tale is the prime example so far of feudalism gone crazy - it's not just DQ who's driven nuts by all te knightly tales, but even people in "contemporary" Spain, i.e., 1605, are victims of the insanity of the rules and structure of society - the importance of wealth and title and the impossibility of any shift in class other than through the beneficence of the nobility or through the stunning beauty that leads to a cross-class marriage - a "cinderella" story - and as everyone feels sorry for Cardenia nobody stops for a moment to question the system that drove him to misery and insanity. It's not a wonder that he's insane; it's a wonder than anyone's sane. A further note: according to a footnote, Shakespeare wrote a "lost play" on this theme - hard to imagine it, and I suspect it's well that it's lost, if it ever even existed. I also suspect that Cardenia will be united with his beloved before DQ ends - Cervantes is careful never to show her actually kill her husband or herself - my guess is she's off in a nunnery somewhere, just as crazy as C., a perfect couple.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Two of the first modern characters in literature: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

It's actually quite amazing how many stories and how much mileage Miguel de Cervantes gets out of the very simple premise of "Don Quixote." I keep expecting the novel to run out of gas or out of ideas - but one episode after another, even though they're entirely predictable, DQ will see some perfectly ordinary phenomenon, like a guy approaching on a donkey, and he'll imagine that it's some great heraldic or chivalric encounter - Sancho Panza will warn him, futilely, and try to steer him toward sanity and safety, DQ will charge into action, get beaten and humiliated, Sancho will try to console him, and off they will go - but each episode is unique and funny and, though they illustrate the same theme and ideas over and over, there's a cumulative effect that makes this novel grand, epic - though it is a road novel, a picaresque, it doesn't really go anywhere - except around in circles - yet the characters deepen and become more rounded as the novel builds by accumulation of incident. As noted in previous posts, the overall theme seems to be the death of the antiquated notions (class, caste, a hierarchical society built on accepted notions of rank and obligation) in conflict with a modern view, in which people can survive and thrive based on individual merit and accomplishments - DQ thinks he's living in a feudal world but in fact he is at the dawn of the modern: DQ and SP are two of the first modern characters in literature.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The three sources writers draw on: Imagination, Research, Memory

Some last thoughts on Anthony Doerr's "Memory Wall" after last night's book group, at which everyone was impressed with the quality of this story connection and with the unusual connections among the stories - both in style and in theme, all the more striking because the settings and the characters are so dramatically different. I talked about the dichotomies or dissonance among the stories: the attraction to great moments of historical crisis (e.g., the Holocaust, the Depression, Apartheid) or personal tragedy (the many characters orphaned in early childhood or late adolescence) set up against the sweet, optimistic, almost sentimental endings to the stories: characters do good things for one another, the world is apparently not as horrible and random as it appears (to some). Also the contrast between the rather exotic settings, not what you'd expect from a writer based in Idaho, and the rather formal traditionalism - at least 80s traditionalism, with the many short segments - of the form. We talked about wither the title story, in which memories are "harvested" from the brain - is a form of sci-fi, and I suggested, no, more like futurism: in fact, the memory wall (a literal wall in which the cartridges, each of which contains a bit of the character's memory, as arranged - an these cartridges are stole and sold on the black market - people want to experience the memories of others) isn't all that different from You-Tube, in which we can "experience" the "memories" of strangers around the world. Other characters throughout these stories struggle to reclaim their memories - which is, after all, what a writer does. I noted that writers draw on three (and only three?) sources: memory, imagination, research. Oddly, for all his interest in memory and how it's our memories that give a shape and a meaning to our lives, in my view seems to draw primarily on imagination and research. I would suspect - I'm not sure - that he hasn't been to all the places he writes about and that the characters (with possible exception of Robert in Afterworld?) are not portraits of the artist.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A writer drawn to disaster and tragedy: Anthony Doerr

Book group meets tonight to discuss Anthony Doerr's collection "Memory Wall," and M and I got in an advance discussion yesterday, she noting that Doerr is interested in times (and places) of great human disaster and tragedy, notably the Holocaust (in Afterworld, probably the most interesting story in the book), Apartheid (in the title story - extremely unusual narrative), the Depression (the last story, an appendage to the collection), the flooding of the gorge for the Chinese dam - and yet I think that's true and that Doerr has a generally optimistic and positive view of our world and of people, though there is great suffering and endurance of pain in his stories the characters, generally, maintain a positive view of life and emerge better, stronger, more humane. Generally - but not always: in Village we end with the images of growing seeds, in the title story we see the young man donate funds from his sale of the fossil to care for the ailing boy - these are strong images, but a bit sentimental, reminding me at moments of complex fragmented movies such as Crash (which I felt was dishonest), but in the later stories in the collection there is a darkness an a shadow of death that makes the stories feel more real and more chilling - the woman in the last days of her life in Afterworld, and the sad and lonely young man in the final story missing out on the richness in life because of his ill health and the collapse of the economy all around him in Detroit in the 30s.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

New Yorker, are you listening to me? And: thoughts about cell phones and fiction

Is it possible that the editors of The New Yorker are listening to me? Has anyone else noticed that after several years of using the fiction pages of TNY mainly to give us advances of novels soon to be released and to offer minor works by world-class writers late in their career who don't need the boost or the $, finally TNY is coming around to, a least occasionally, printing a real story and to introducing a young author. Current issue has a story, Sun City, by a writer who just published her first collection, Caitlin Horrocks - a very good story that focuses intently on two women coming together uneasily after a death: youngish woman goes to Arizona home of her grandmother and deals with the aftermath with grandmother's "roommate" - it is unclear, at least through most of the story, whether grandmother was involved in a relationship with her roommate; the granddaughter is out as a gay woman, and this has produced various tensions in all of her family relationships. This isn't totally my kind of story, it's kind of bleak and very circumscribed in its action and scope, but it's very effectively told and faces real social and family issues in a direct and striking manner. Only other character in the story is the daughter of deceased/mother of main character - who appears from time to time through cell-phone conversations. What a great new device the cell phone is - for authors! Allows them/us to bring a character or voice into a story at any time or place, without the narrative setup of a phone call - builds in an editing and splicing capability that we never had in narrative. Remember Richard Ford's American Trilogy - it seemed to me that his protag was on the phone all the time, talking with current loves and exes. Would be much easier for Ford to script these scenes today!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Is there anything new that fiction writers can tell us about the Holocaust?

You would think that there would be nothing new that fiction could tell us about the Holocaust, with virtually all survivors and witnesses gone - though a few books in the past few years have surfaced or resurfaced (Suite Francaise and the novels by that Dutch writer, Keilson) and you could even add the recently rediscovered novel of German resistance, Every Man Dies Alone - but honestly what more can be said? - one would think - but then something comes along and we realize that great writers are always imagining new ways of thinking about our world and in fact eras of trauma and conflict will have resonance and ramifications in our thoughts and imaginations long after they have faded from memory into history - that's what I'm thinking after reading Anthony Doerr's really odd and compelling story Afterworlds, in his collection "Memory Wall," about an 80ish woman living in Ohio near Lake Erie (has Doerr ever written two stories with the same setting? is he ever at home?) who was in a Jewish orphanage girls' in Hamburg through the war and, through the actions of a benevolent rescuer, was the only girl not sent off to the death camps - and now nearing the end of her life she has strange and fragmented memories of her childhood. Doerr stories are - at least in this collection - all composed of short segments, or fragments, which at times can be an affectation but in this story a very useful and deliberate structure and technique in that the fragments aptly represent the way she is thinking - broken bits of memory that barely cohere - and they introduce us into her consciousness, one of the true and rare accomplishments of a good writer. As a counterpoint, her grandson, a college student working on a paper about the war, cares for her and helps to draw out the shattered pieces of her memory. Strong concluding story to an excellent collection.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Loss. Learning. Memory. Three themes in the short stories of Anthony Doerr

Some (recurring) themes in Athony Doerr's excellent story collection "Memory Wall" include: Loss. Doerr seems particularly drawn to stories about or characters who have experienced sudden, dramatic, tragic losses: in Procreate, Generate, the young woman is a survival of a trauma in which her parents died together in a car crash when she was about 20 and on the cusp of a serious relationship; another story is about a 14-year-old girl whose parents die of cancer within months of each other and she is sent to Lithuania to live with her grandfather (is this possible?), another is about Jewish orphans in Hamburg on the eve of the Holocaust - not cheery stuff, obviously, but Doerr is more interested in how these characters survive and triumph, less in their suffering - strangely, these are stories of hope. Learning. As noted in earlier posts, Doerr is a realist for the most part (a partial exception is the title story), and he's very interested in a wide variety of topics - almost each story, you can bet, will include some delving into arcana, whether it's neuroscience, fertility, Lithuanian language - he's always pushing the boundaries of what material can fit into a story and what material breaks the seams. Memory. Even if the title of the collection didn't tilt us in this direction, it's obvious that memory and recollection is a topic of deep interest to Doerr, almost an obsession that he works over from story to story: what would it be like to be deprived of our memories? to experience the memories of another person? to be suffering from strokes or Alzheimers and to have your memories called into question of dismissed as figments and visions? Writers need memories the way we all need air and water, but most writers simply delve into their memories to create their fictive worlds - few question the quality and particularities of memory itself the way Doerr does. His stories are not built from his memories (few, if any, seem likely to be autobiographical) but they are about memory itself and how memory imbues the texture of our perceptions and our lives.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Esoteric, exotic, mosaic - three things to note about Anthony Doerr's style

A few oddities to note about the stories of Anthony Doerr, especially in his current collection, "Memory Wall": the settings. This guy apparently lives in Idaho but he is widely traveled, at least in his reading and imagination. The first four stories in this collection are set respectively in S. Africa (in the undefined future), Wyoming (Laramie - but could be anywhere in the rural West), the Korean DMZ (story actually set in Idaho but much is about the DMZ as related in letters), and China, in the territory flooded by the great dam (an epoch and place captured in several Chinese movies). Each feels authentic, as if Doerr really knows the landscape and the people. Is this what happens when you live in Idaho? You travel in other ways? 2. The esoterica. He's a very learn-ed writer, particularly in the sciences and engineering. Don't know if that's part of his background or just an interest. In the more successful stories he incorporates the learning into the test - the title story, for example, needs the knowledge of paleontology and neuroscience to make any sense, but at times he does seem to show off a bit with lists of esoteric items: types of trees, birds, fossils. 3. Narrative style: he likes to break things into short mosaic units, generally to very good effect, enabling him to work two or three plot lines almost simultaneously and to deftly weave the strands together (as in title story), but the small units can be a device of tic that break up the gentle flow of narrative. It was a very popular style in the 1980s but you see it less often today.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What Anthony Doerr's Memory Wall may really be about

The title story in Anthony Doerr's collection "Memory Wall" is unconventional, to put it mildly. Not that it's a totally weird or experimental story - what makes it so unusual is that it is in tone, style, and structure entirely conventional contemporary realism, but there is one element - a central element, that is out of the world of futurism and scifi: a doctor (in South Africa, the setting of the story - unusual for an American writer, but we'll get to that) has developed a device to help Alzheimer's patients recover memories by downloading memories from the brain onto "cartridges" and then, later, playing those cartridges directly into the brain. Story is about an elderly woman, one of the patients of the Dr. Amnesty. It turns out that there's a serious black market in these cartridges - and also, one of her memories will unlock the mystery of the location of a valuable fossil much sought by collectors. Two guys break in, steal her cartridges, complications ensue. Now there's an incredible buy-in required to accept or believe in this (long - 70 pages) story, and I didn't buy in all the way - not just to the scifi-like premise but the to impossibility of anyone's actually recovering the exact right memory (out of billions, presumably) and using it to track to down clues to the location of the fossil, etc. Yet once you get past this suspension of disbelief, this story touches on a lot of powerful themes - class, race, poverty, crime, medical issues - it's set in an indeterminate future - but I also wonder about its allegorical significance: is it maybe really about a country coming to terms with its racist past? (The doctor's name is no coincidence.) Is it about our willingness to forget the horrors of our history and the costs of resurrecting dead memories? Or the healing in doing so?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Cervantes and Shakespeare - the end of feudalism and the origins of the modern

One of the themes that guided me when I thought about and wrote about British renaissance literature (Shakespeare especially) was the conflict between the closed, structural, hierarchical "Elizabethan world view," not so different from feudalism, and the rising of the idea of a modern world view: capitalist and bourgeois, but also at more focused on the individual, on human values, on freedom, on exploration - things opening up through trade and commerce, through the rise of the a capitalist class, through colonization. You see these conflicts so clearly in works like The Tempest, and I explored them in plays where the conflicts were less immediately apparent, that is, the comedies - maybe pretty obvious in the Merchant of Venice, much much harder to elucidate in the pastoral comedies such as As You Like It. You can see the same conflict emerging in "Don Quixote," by Shakespeare's exact contemporary, Miguel de Cervantes - Quixote with his obsession with feudalism and its value system, now lost in a world that no longer recognizes codes of honor and conduct, but in which every person has to struggle for survival and prosperity - the beginnings a modern world view - yet in Spain, at this time, the rural culture is not as advanced as in England - parts of Quixote seem almost Chaucerian, with the hardships of travel, the corrupt innkeepers, the goatherds, the traveling monks and friars. Moving forward in the novel, I will continue to look for hints at or evidence of the modern sensibility - it is clear that Quixote is a relic and a queer throwback, but not clear what is to replace him and his world view.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Reading Exiles at the West Orange Public Library

What's Elliot reading? - Today, reading from his novel, Exiles, at the West Orange Public Library - a real kick, kind of a homecoming for me as this was the library in my home town, the library I grew up with, and as I noted to the (small) crowd (gathering), I did my senior hours in the library basement, straightening the 800s, which no doubt helped set me on a course toward my lifelong devotion to literature. Some very intelligent questions posed about Exiles and the world it depicts (or tries to). One man asked why the resisters all had high and noble reasons why they would not fight in Vietnam and none said they were scared and just did not want to fight - and the answer is because none did say that, there was pretty much a universal sense that this group did not oppose war or even fear war (many had willingly entered the service) but opposed this pointless, criminal war. Could Spiegel really look so much like Aaronson that he could pass for him? I think yes, definitely over a short time, especially after Aaronson was out of the country for a few months - he wasn't intimately friendly with the other resisters and he could probably pass if just running a meeting. If any were close friends then, no - but they did tell the truth to his few close friends. Why was Kent State never mentioned? Exiles does mention the Cambodia bombing, which precipitated Kent State, but I did not want the novel to be "about" external political events, even though they were contemporaneous, but rather I wanted it to be about these people and their struggles and the relationships - also, I wanted to maintain the sense of isolation from America, so Cambodia would feel more like something Swedes would discuss, but Swedes would be less likely to be moved and troubled by Kent State. A good reading, and I wish there had been more.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A development in Don Quixote's character - during one of the most famous episodes in the novel

The episode in "Don Quixote" in which Sancho Panza gets tossed in a blanket - a frightening event to which he will refer many times over the course of the novel - occurs about 100 pages in, that is, lass than half-way through book one (it's actually surprising how many of the famous episodes do occur in the first hundred pages or so - notably the windmill tilting) - it's a framing episode for the entire novel I think, a case in which Don Q leaves the inn without paying (he thought it was a castle - when he relizes it was just an inn he explains that errant knights never have to pay for the lodging because of the many valiant deeds they perform) - he hobbles off on Rocinante, leaving Sancho behind to pay the price so to speak - and Sancho gets tossed many times in a blanket by some of the ruffians at the inn - oddly, he doesn't get hurt at all, whereas in many other instances he is badly beaten, but this is the episode that stays with him in memory and fear: because it is so humiliating, because he is so out of control, perhaps because of the strange thrill he may have gotten from being tossed in the air. Strikingly, Quixote hears Sancho's cries and returns to the inn and is about to charge onto the scene to rescur his squire, at which point the men let Sancho go free. We see here a development in Quixote's sensibility, willing to put himself at risk not for an abstract ideal but to save the life of a devoted servant - and friend. More on class relations - the breakdown of the feudal order and the rise of a new way of thinking - in future posts.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Another reason why Don Quixote is one of the greatest novels

As Don Quixote proceeds on his wanderings through Manchega and Andalusia and continues to get beaten and battered in his various encounters, as he mistakes windmills for giants and inns for castles and the people he encounters as potential foes in arms, what strikes me is not so much the abuse that he takes, plentiful as it may be, but the sense of loyalty and kindness that Miguel de Cervantes develops through the novel - not only Sancho Panza's deep loyalty to Quixote - he says he's staying with Quixote because he expects Quixote to make him emperor of an island, but he's no idiot and he obviously realizes that Quixote cannot provide him with anything and he continues to stay with Quixote out of pure kindness - but also the various maids and damsels and innkeepers they meet along the way. The bedding and provisions are often horrible, but the people seem to recognize immediately that Quixote is a harmless lunatic and they tend to his needs and even coddle him in his amusing delusions. There is an obviously an element of class conflict and even hints of class exploitation throughout the novel, as noted in yesterday's post, but what we also see is the kindness of the working class and of the peasants - it's a novel with a great deal of violence (and humor - as in Sancho Panza's hilarious pledge never to take on any knights in battle, Quixote need not worry, and as for any knaves he forgives them beforehand for anything they might ever do to him)- but it is not a violent novel, it's truly a work of tenderness and compassion. The strange coexistence of this tenderness and the very rough conditions of life and the abusive treatment Quixote (and later Panza) endure make for the novel's greatness.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The funniest line in Don Quixote

Another great creation of Miguel de Cervantes in "Don Quixote": the sidekick. What would literature (or movies, or TV, or commercials?) be without the sidekick? It's almost as if he realized the need for Sancho Panza some chapters into the novel - he needed a naive but (somewhat) level-headed observer to give us perspective on Quixote's bizarre behavior and also to bring a bit of humanity and even sentimentality into the story: my mother was right - it is a very violent story, but the leavening presence of Sancho Panza makes the violence more palatable - he's so kind to Quixote, so sweet and touching. He also gets to say probably the funniest line Cervantes ever wrote: When Quixote looks up at the windmills and gives a rather lofty explanation as to how he's going to attack this legion of giants, Panza says simply: "What giants?" At that moment, he just begins to understand the true craziness of Quixote - after that point, he doesn't try to reason with or argue with Quixote, but just gently coaches him along and tries, in his fallible way, to keep Quixote in one piece and out of trouble. There's probably a lot to be said and a lot has been said about the class relations in Quixote - how the nobility goes through life and can't see the struggling working class (the goatherds, e.g.) who make their pampered lives possible, as they create their idealized, and delusional, worlds - Quixote's behavior in that way not so different from the Dukes who take off for Arden or for an island in Shakespeare's comedies (I've written quite a lot about this) - except that unlike Shakespeare's nobility Quixote himself is a bit of a ruin and not a very apt representative of the ruling class.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What Don Quixote contributes to world literature

I'm really surprised, so far, at what a delight it is to read Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote," how easily the story flows, how funny, how strange. I remember that my mother tried to re-read the novel when the new (Grossman) translation came out and she found it too violent, and I guess it is filled with pratfalls and combat and head bashing, but it's also a great story and fully captivating, at least to me. Think of the many contributions Cervantes made to world literature with the publication of Don Quixote in, what, 1615? First of all, he established for all time one of the most memorable characters in the literature of the world. Second, he pretty much gave shape to the picaresque novel - what till then, for the most part, was a shapeless form or a collection of related stories, became a narrative line, a process of growth and change, a movement from innocence to experience and finally to understanding (Dante did this to a degree, but through more of an allegorical process, rather than through a narrative of maturation through experiences and events and conflicts.) He also established the parameters for metafiction - a novel that is in some ways about being a novel, a novel that looks at itself and laughs at itself, as the narrator continues to posit that these are true adventures of a noble knight. He also establishes, I think, the first modern narrator, totally observant of characters and events but also a personality in himself, and a conduit linking the story with the reader.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How Don Quixote got away from Cervantes - he started out writing a satire, but ...

Let me be really cranky and immature and say that I started (re)reading Miguel Cervantes's "Don Quixote" last night and the first thing I need to point out is that this new edition (Grossman translation - excellent) from Ecco is just too damn heavy (literally). It's a 945-page hardback; many years ago I read the old Modern Library edition, perfectly fine, loved the novel - I think it was the book I was reading when I entered college - or maybe had just finished it? - haven't come back to it since, not sure what re-reading will add or could add - we all know, from the popular culture and the Broadway adaptation the lineaments of Quixote's character, and I remember of course from first reading that Cervantes goes through a great deal of commotion at the top of the novel building this up as a parody of chivalry - he tells us right from the first pages that DQ had literally gone mad from reading too many tales of knights errant, and he decks his book out like many popular trash novels of his day, with many epigrams and poems of praise - all this humor was lost on me when I was 17 and to be honest it's not all that funny today: what is obvious is that this book got away from Cervantes and become much bigger and grander than he'd anticipated - he thought he was writing, or he started out to write, a simple parody or satire and ended up writing one of the great works of world lit. But can I keep reading this edition? It will kill my hands - why couldn't they have published it in 2 volumes?

Monday, October 10, 2011

David Lodge story: Oubliette

David Lodge's story Oubliette in the current Nee Yorker is one of those unusual stories that is pretty short but covers a long spam of time. This technique is difficult to accomplish successfully because stories by their nature tend to build upon a single event or conflict and tend tonnage only a few characters (not always ann Beattie being a notable exception). Lodge tells in a few pages the life story of a young girl who has a conflicted relationship with her mother and over time as her mother gets I'll she learns to care for her mother and finally to grieve for her. Lodge succeed by keeping the characters to 3 the father being the other - he says that Ther were no sins or friends or relatives - a bit of a stretch but it serves his purpose in telling. Vast story efficiently. Like most stories this one does have a single central event - the day in which the mom gets irrationally enraged and locks daughter in the attic. Hence the title - however this odd event let's daughter and dad realize the mom is very ill (Huntington's it turns out) thus the 2nd meaning of the title. From this one event -the breakdown and what everyone learns from it - Lodge builds the strands for his whole story. It was a single event that had repercussions across a lifetime. It's mYbe not a great story - Lodge tries to give the story a New England setting but it feels generic it really could take place anywhere - still a very impressive feat and it truly feels like a complete story And not like a peak at a longer work in progress or in proofs.

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Yasumari Kawabata The Sound of the Mountain

Nearing the end of The Sound of the Mountain it becomes increasingly evident that Shingo, the troubled main character, is responsible for the dysfunction as we would say today of his own family - he laments that his son is an unfaithful husband but look at his own behavior - he thinks nothing of hiring geishas I.e. Prostitutes and continues to take his young secretaries out "dancing" - the apple doesn't fall far from the tree so to speak. He sees himself as a victim but he is just as much a perpetrator - much like Japan itself at that time? Also worth noting: the scene in which the family learns through a newspaper story of the shameful and craven suicide attempt by estranged son-in-law is a microcosm of the whole book - their pathetic attpt to maintain calm and decorum and to. Change the subject - only the unfavored daughter has the capacity to cry out in anger and pain.

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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Yasumari Kawabata - the Sound of the Mountain

Toward the end of The Sound of the Mountain Shingo has a "series of dreams" that become ever more strange and sexual particularly regarding his obvious attraction to his daughter-in-law Kikoku who is neglected and ill-treated by his son shuichi Shingo is aware of the sexual content of his dreams and is ashamed again a major theme of this novel and makes me think that this seemingly domestic story is in fact Kawabata's trenchent analysis of postwa Japanese society - not that this novel is an allegory it's more sophisticated than that it's as if he is trying to get at a universal truth through a single example or instance - really isn't that what great literature does? Otherwise Madame Bovary would be just a story of a frustrated wife and hamlet of a troubled teen - not that K is on this level but he is trying to come to terms with his entire culture in a time of great upheaval and he does a great job.

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Friday, October 7, 2011

The great shame of Japanese society

Things get increasingly worse for the Ogata family in Yasumari Kawabata's novel "The Sound of the Mountain," this family that at first, on the surface, seemed to "typically" Japanese - reserved, reverent of elders - and gradually we see how everything's unhinged - the daughter-in-law, who's the only person in the family whom the main character, the patriarch, Shingo, seems to like let alone love, has an abortion, because she can't stand the idea bearing a child by her husband Shuichi (Shingo's son), and then we learn that Shuichi went to his mistress to get the money to pay for the abortion - this family is steeped in pain and guilty and shame. I'm starting to see that ever more so in the background is the Japanese humiliation during the war (the novel is set in the mid to late '50s): a few references to the poverty, and occasionally Shingo will see Americans, on the train or in a park, and the Americans are clearly the occupiers - and we can only imagine how the Japanese must have felt about that - completely betrayed by their so-called Emperor. Isn't it one of the great mysteries how Japan - despite its lust for power and territory - could have sided with the Nazis? Could any two people have been any more different? This must have been some of the shame seeping into Japanese society after the war, when the survivors looked around and wondered what it was that they'd done. Kawabata plays all this out through the intense and private domestic drama of a single family: as in the nation itself, things are not as calm as they seem on the surface, in fact they're horrible.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A novel that becomes more mysterious as it moves along: Sound of the Mountain

Yasumari Kawabata's novel "The Sound of the Mountain" kind of sneaks up on you - it's told in a very low-key, unaffected way - the narrator must simply describing in a series of very simple sentences and paragraphs rarely longer than a sentence or maybe two - as an objective observer, much like Ozu's famous "Tatami point of view" - a year or so in the life of the Ogata family (household of four, with another daughter and her two young children in and out of the scene) - and at first it seems rather slow-moving and even placid, the family does not seem extraordinary in any way, but as the novel progresses we see the deeper fissures in their lives and we see that it is a highly dysfunctional family, blown apart by stress and by hypocrisy and by repression - by about half-way through we see that the beloved daughter-in-law, Fikoku (?) has had an abortion because she could not stand bringing a child into the world with her unfaithful husband, the partiarch, Shingo, sees himself as a failure because his two children are great disappointments and are unhappy in their marriages. Part of this is the unraveling of the Japanese extremes of courtesy and decorum, but also the post-war society is always there in the background as well, as increasingly there are glancing references to the ruins of war: the fallout shelters they had to build in the mountains behind the family home, Shikoko (?), the unfaithful husband the sullen son, has a Tokyo girlfriend who is willing to wreck his marriage becuase her husband/boyfriend had been unjustly ripped from her - a war victim. This novel becomes more powerful, and more mysterious, as it moves along.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Should Bob Dylan win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

I say: Yes. In some ways, sure, we can say that he's not really or not primarily a "writer," that there some innate difference between being a songwriter and a writer of poems (a poet). Dylan's works are not often read and for the most part, though there are many beautiful and imaginative passages, are hard to appreciate aside from or apart from the music and the musical performance - it's all of a piece. And yet, on a more basic level, at its essence, as wise critic Leslie Fiedler used to put it, literature does two things: tells a story or sings a song. That's it. By that definition, Dylan's work is not at the periphery of literature but at its heart. His songs will be heard and loved for as long as there is a civilization on this planet - I'm sure of that. His songs have moved and inspired and puzzled and troubled and provoked millions of people for many years and will for many years to come. He has influenced the thinking of thousands of musicians and thousands of other artists as well, helped us to see and understand our world in new and different ways. He's written about the great and vast issues of politics and love and war and racism, about spiritual issues such as grace and salvation and devotion and most of all about love in all of its peculiar manifestations. What more can we ask of any artist? The Nobel committee has made in the past honored performers (wasn't there some actor named Po or something from Italy honored within the past 20 years?) as well as more traditional writers, and they have overlooked far too many great writers - the list is long and shameful (most recent tragic occurrence was the snubbing of Updike). Dylan would be a great choice - and, next year, Philip Roth.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Giving the lie to our cliched notion of the Japanese family: Kawabata

As Yasumari Kawabata's 1950s novel "The Sound of the Mountain" moves along we become ever more aware of the incredible tensions and repressions in the postwar Japanese family: in this family, the patriarch, Shingo, obviously does not care for either of his children, is pretty cold and indifferent to his wife (thinks nothing of asking the young secretary in the office to go dancing with him or of spending time with a so-called Geisha - a whole other story, told a few times since the 1950s obviously, would be from the point of view of these minor characters, the office girl or the geisha, about why they feel compelled to spend any time outside the office with the lecherous old man) - the only one he cares for is his daughter-in-law, Kikuyo (sp?), and why is that? Because she continues to cater to his every need and whim, doesnn't complain about his son/her philandering husband, and perhaps on a psychological level because she has no children - making her seem more "available" to him in his fantasies. We have the cliched notion of the Japanese family with its reverence for elders and extreme politeness to the point of repression and beyond - and this quite contemporary-feeling novel gives the lie to all that, the family seething with anxiety and drowning in hypocrisy.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A mostly forgotten work of Japanese fiction: The Sound of the Mountain

Yasamari (?) Kawabata, of Japan, won the Nobel back in the 1960s or so, and one of the first books published in English after he did so was "The Sound of the Mountain." Who reads it today? I started it yesterday and so far very pleasantly surprised by the novel - from the late 1950s, set in Tokyo (a suburb, I think) - very much focused on one family: an elderly (actually, in his 60s but seems much older) man facing intimations of his death (hearing the sound of the nearby mountain is a sign of death approaching), name Shingo, and the novel explores his complex web of family relations - he and his wife, much more spry and youthful seeming than he (though he notes that in younger years she seemed to be the older one), have two grown children, son and daughter, son lives with them and works with father in same large office, his wife is very sweet and it's obvious that Shingo favors her, maybe even drawn to her sexually. Their other daughter, and two children, comes to stay perhaps to live with them, her marriage in some kind of shambles, the parents obviously find this daughter troubling and difficult. This could remind you in some ways of any of the great Ozu movies, but the relationships are a little more '50s modern - seeming less steeped in traditions of reverence for the elderly and for families. The sexism is amazing to look back on, and seems particularly a facet of Japanese postwar culture: the men, even the very respectable 60ish Shingo, ask secretaries to go out dancing with them after work - nothing you wouldn't see on Mad Men - but in this case there is little or no effort made to keep these relations from the wives - it's all just expected as part of being a Tokyo businessman. Oddly, through the first 50 pages or so there is no mention whatever of the war, the bomb, or the painful recovery from the devastation of the war, let alone any mention of what any of the characters might have done or not done during the war years. It's a domestic drama with a lot of strange, perhaps culturally determined, aspecgs.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Charles Baxter's most reccent stories - a move toward open plot structure

The last 3 stories in Charles Baxter's collection "Gryphon" show how Baxter's style has evolved toward a more open structure. Mr. Scary (another great story title!) is about a 12-year-old boy, obviously a social misfit, and story is mostly told from the POV of the boy's grandmother, who is his primary caretaker, and we learn over the course of the narrative that the grandmother and the boy's mother (never appearing in the story) are or were both unconventional, social rebels - though the grandmother is now in a second marriage with a sweet and totally conventional guy, and she's a little bored with him. Like most of Baxter's most recent stories, this one is a little less about plot and more about character and mood - and like almost all of his stories it build to an equilibrium, with the characters regressing toward the norm: the boy is a little less "scary" at the end, agreeing to play a baseball game with some neighbors. Wish the story didn't end with a ball snapping into a glove - seems too easy an image, and baseball is way over-used as a literary device. Final two stories, The Cousins and the Winner, both follow same course toward openness. The Cousins a particularly strong and unusual story: revolves around a very dramatic death, possibly a suicide, but that incident told of just in passing, and the story about a series of conversations before the death and after, with the surviving spouse. Baxter in most recent stories exploring how to give a story its direction by indirection and by reflection.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The ambiguities of the Modern West: A new Tom McGuane story in The New Yorker

Tom McGuane steps in with another one of his New West stories in the current New Yorker; The House on Sand Hill Cove (?) brings us another typical McGuane character, western and independent and kind of foolishly macho - makes a ridiculous pass at the teenage babysitter, totally hopeless and pretty much wrecking his marriage (contrast with Cheever's great story about a pass at a sitter) - but blunt and open and probably a totally good guy, if you're also a good guy (relationships with women are another matter). Like many McGuane characters, though he's living among the outdoors types he's got an indoors job, in this case a lawyer with a really diminished practice - this story feels very contemporary, and you have the sense that the lawyer's business was very hot when everyone in Hollywood was buying ranches in Montana, but now it's gone dead. Interesting that in this story he takes on issues of the ruination of the Old West and the pretentious fake westerners - the character buys a house from an old cowboy, foreclosed, left it a wreck with animal carcasses and hides all over the place, that's what the beloved cowboy image has become, the cowboy disappearing somewhere into the "great Basin" (whatever that is - McGuane drops in Westernisms and local references to help make the landscape feel specific and exotic, as did Annie Proulx), and this contrasted with the lawyer's friend who tells tales of his Western cowboy past, none of which is true. McGuane, like so many others, is a literary descendant of Carver, and he's also a literary brother to Richard Ford, maybe Sam Shepard - all of whom thrive on both the openness and the ambiguities of the modern West. A good story.