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

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Is Best European Fiction really the Best?

Still trying to discern if there are overriding themes in Aleksandar Hemon's collection "Best European Fiction 2012" - can certainly see from the first 8 or so stories that these are edgier and more unconventional in narrative style than the typical Best American collections, each story very much emphasizes a voice: the one by the Irish writer about a scholar visiting a central European country and his oblique relationship with the young woman assigned to be his guide (or monitor?), with its very short, staccato sentences, is one example - also some inventive use of forms: A story about a woman on an Antarctic expedition that juxtaposes scenes in Antarctica with scenes of her remembering her mother's death - not that these are highly experimental like some American works in the '60s or some contemporary French fiction, which is all about form and style and with very little content - but these stories seem unsettled and, to be honest, not as finely polished as some of the stories you'd typically find in a Best American. Maybe this has to do with the format: one story from each country and each language group (i.e., a story in Gaelic, Welsh, Catalan, etc. - not just Spain, Ireland, UK, etc.) - have to wonder how a Best American would look if there were one story from each state, and just suggesting that makes you see that it would be a distorted view of what's actually the best in American fiction - not that all writers are in NY or LA, but you can see what kind of compromises you'd be forced to make if picking one from each state rather than 50 (or 20) best.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Obession and unfulfilled desire in the Best European Fiction

It's hard (for me) to know whether it's his taste or whether this collection is truly representative of the best European fiction but least from the first few stories in Aleksander Hemon's collection "Best European Fiction 2012" we can make a few general observations: European short fiction is edgier and more ambitious in form than American short fiction - or at least it seems so. This anthology is organized in an unsual way - thematically - so I can't generalize too much as the first four stories were about love and desire - so although I think so far this collection doesn't have much to say about war or politics or the social trends that are rocking Europe (immigration, assimilation, sudden wealth, economic crises, terrorism), it does seem that these push the edges of form and narrative voice in ways that American fiction doesn't: compare this with any of the recent Best American story collections and you'll see the difference: most American stories anthologized are pretty much straight realism/naturalism, although they tend to be about outsiders, loners, and losers. First 4 stories in this collection: a failed artist who develops an obsessive crush on man sitting for portrait; a person living in youthful poverty in contemporary Croatian city and falls for a girl at a club (surprise ending - for some - in this story); story narrated by a dog, who watches his owners despair over lost love (another bit of a surprise ending, which I think brings on a wrong note - should have been simpler), and widow (only story so far about an older person) who develops an obsession with a much younger Sicilian actress - note that each of these, to varying degrees, is about obsession and unfulfilled desire.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hamlet, Iago, and Cervantes: An introduction and a final word on Don Quixote

Finished Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote" - and then read Harold Bloom's intro to the Edith Grossman translation of the novel (I always read intro's last - it's the only way to understand them, and I read them not to direct me while I'm reading the novel but to engage my thoughts once I've finished - I want an adversary, not a guide) - Bloom is as steeped in world literature as any critic alive (or dead, for that matter), and his intro to DQ is very "literary," in that he focuses on 1. the multiple layers of illusion and reality throughout the novel, noting rightly that every character in volume 2 either was a character in volume 1 or knows of the characters from having read volume 1; 2. the relationship between Cervantes and his near-exact contemporary, Shakespeare. Specifically, he compares DQ with Hamlet - sort of a parlor game, if you ask me: yes, they are two of the most profound characters in the history of world literature, and yes both suffer, or seem, from madness and delusions, and yes, both are outcasts from society - but the differences are vast. Hamlet has a true problem that he needs to solve, or resolve - at which he fails. DQ has no clear mission at all other than to fulfill his mad fantasy. He's more like Iago - both motiveless, one toward evil (malignancy) and the other toward good (beneficence). Bloom correctly notes the extreme violence and cruelty, especially in volume two, but completely misses or overlooks the class content to this cruelty - Cervantes is more of a social critic than he lets on. He wisely notes, however, that the Spanish empire was in decline during Cervantes's lifetime - part of the cultural climate of DQ (not only the rise of the renaissance but the death of the empire) and he shrewdly speculates on autobiographical elements in the novel: Cervantes's sense that he gave his life in service to the King and was not recognized, either as a warrior or (in his lifetime) as a writer. Lots to think about in Bloom's intro - though it's better read as an afterword, in my opinion.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The two most despicable characters in Don Quixote

Can there be any doubt that the duke and duchess (unnamed, as far as I can tell, much like Sancho Panza's donkey) are the two most despicable characters in Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote"? I thought we were pretty much rid of these snobs and louts, but, no, as DQ works his way home, defeated, beaten, depressed, and humiliated, the send out their thugs to grab DQ and SP and divert them, bring them into the castle, where they are once again subjected to harassment humiliation and, in SP's case, two some physical abuse. Oh, what fun it must be for these two members of the so-called nobility to torment someone who is obviously weak and mentally disturbed! I don't know anything about the history of criticism of Don Quixote, but I sure hope that this has been remarked upon by all readers - and I hope readers and critics don't write this off as "irony": how "ironic" it is that the unlettered SP and the simple DQ behave with greater nobility than the aristocrats, and so forth - no, it's not "irony" - what Cervantes is showing here is the true conflict of class relations, one class contributing nothing to the good of society, totally undeserving of its privileges, which it holds onto through force and intimidation, and exploiting in every possible way the class that is "below" it: this is a system bound to implode, and in fact was beginning to do so in Cervantes's time. He saw through the contradictions of his era, and captured this in his great novel. Have others seen this as well? I hope so.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Two brief criticisms of Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote" is one of the great works of world literature - which is to say that it's not perfect - greatness is sometimes measured by or appreciated through its imperfections, and even Homer nods - so here are two brief criticism: Why is DQ so mean to Sancho Panza, even at the end, insisting that SP carry out the ludicrous instructions that DQ allegedly heard during his visit to the Cave of Montesinos (?) indicating that SP had to lash himself several thousand times in order to free Dulcinea from her enchantment. DQ, so morally sensible in many regards, should drop this issue and stand up in defense of his loyal squire, not keep insisting on self-laceration. Second, aren't there just a few too many interpolated tales that involve women going around disguised as handsome young guys? What's the point of this? I know, it's a familiar renaissance trope (perhaps more plausible in the days before everyone had eyeglasses), but still - these stories get very repetitive in this book of great variations. But maybe there's a special point to the final such story, as DQ is being welcomed as a hero in Barcelona: Here, DQ offers to go to Africa to resolve this crisis, but he is refused an a boatload of men sails off to rescue the man held captive - and the succeed. Is it important for DQ to see that he is not needed to rescue everyone in distress and to right all the evils of the world? That the world can go on without him - that he's been superannuated? Perhaps this final episode, in which DQ plays virtually no role, is an important gateway that will allow DQ to retire meekly to his village, with SP following and the donkey bearing the battered arms.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Don Quixote

As Don Quixote and Sancho Panza head toward Barcelona where DQ will (he thinks) participate in a tourney, the have yet another strange encounter: DQ feeling very depressed and unable to eat - he is apparently evaluating to whole purpose of his quest and of his life - a spiritual moment that reminds us of the outset of the Divine Comedy perhaps - as SP eats heartily and tries to console. As day breaks they see dead bodies hanging in the trees above the - a truly ghastly moment that is soon interrupted by the arrival of Roque (?) a well known bandit from Catelonia. R recognizes DQ and shows him great deference and courtesy and escorts him into Barcelona. Once again the layers of reality and illusion and narrative structure are almost labyrinthine. We have a fictional character meeting a historic character within a novel and the historic figure recognizes the fictional character from having read the book about him - and of course the novel we're reading purports to be a historical account written in Arabic and translated by Cervantes and in the second volume it refutes the accuracy of a pirate sequel - so in all of this who is the real DQ and what does it mean for a character in a novel to be "real"? The reality of a character in a Booker - regardless of whether the author bases his character on a historical personage - is the life that they take on in our mind and in our culture. Isn't it fair to say that DQ is at least as real as others who have lived in flesh and blood? We are almost like the character in this novel ourselves - we feel we know DQ and would recognize and honor him if we came across him. Their behavior - the duke the bandit the guests at th inn who recognize DQ as a celebrity is just like ours - and in that sense we too are characters in Don Quixote.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Don Quixote

As Don Quixote and Sancho Panza leave the castle of the duke and duchess and move on toward what will be their last series of adventures they have an encounter that , as Sancho notes, is unique in this novel: neither they nor anyone else is hurt, robbed, or humiliated during the course of this one. DQ and SP come across a group of men transporting some shrouded figures DQ asks what the shrouding might conceal - uh oh, we expect him to begin another manic delusion and destroy whatever is under wraps and to provoke more violence but no - he sees these are statues of saints and he carefully explains the great works of each (though he thinks each is a saint and a knight as well). SP is deeply moved by DQ's intelligence, and DQ begins the most moving passage of self-reflection in the novel: these saints were committed to a holy and spiritual cause and he is in a carnal and earthly pursuit and he wonders how he will be judged in comparison - which raises explicitly for the first time: What exactly is his quest? Is he a holy saint in some way? Is there something sacred in his seemingly absurd belief that he can wonder the earth in the hopes of protecting the weak and righting wrongs? Is he existing on two levels, the sacred and the profane? And are we to be judged in our reaction and response to DQ and others like him, the mad and homeless of our day?

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Is Sancho Panza fit to govern?

So Sancho Panza has finally had enough - when some of his "subjects" barge into his room at night, convince him that the castle is under attack and that he has to be their fearless leader - they strap him, naked, inside two shields and tie him tight so that he can't move - he topples over, they trod all over him, battering him once again, then they cheer and thank him for leading them to victory. They take him back to bed and he basically passes out - at which they feel a slight bit of remorse. These are the subjects of the duke and duchess (never named) who are getting such pleasure out of tormenting SP (and Don Quixote as well). Then, to their surprise, when Sancho awakes he says he's had enough of this, he was never meant to be the governor of an "insula" and he had no idea how stressful the work would be - he'd rather govern his herd of sheep or goats, and so long as his faithful (never named) gray donkey has enough grain he's happy, and he saddles up and leaves - to their mild amusement. Is Sancho really unfit to govern? Obviously not - he's shown himself to be more wise and thoughtful, let alone more compassionate, than those in power. To paraphrase the great contemporary writer William Trevor - from the conclusion of one of his stories: The failure was the world's, not his.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bullying in Don Quixote

Return after brief interlude to Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote," where I left Sancho Panza as the appointed governor of what he considers an "insula" but is actually a village - where a number of people, paid by the duke, try to trick Sancho and make him look idiotic: the so-called doctor who tells him he shouldn't eat anything, the various disputants who come before him to resolve their quarrels - and time after time Sancho proves himself the smartest of the bunch, and everyone's amazed that an uneducated peasant shows such intelligence, wisdom, and judgment - and would actually make a great ruler. Just like, even today, people cannot accept that a poorly educated tradesman's son from the provinces could write the finest literature in the history of the world. Throughout this entire section of the novel, SP and DQ himself - still held inactive on the Duke's estate but yearning to head off for a tournament - both prove themselves far better men than their so-called superiors. The duke, ever trying to make things miserable for others just to entertain himself and his coterie, sends a delegation off to see Teresa Panza and tell her about her husband's elevation to the governorship - now, Teresa may not be as smart as Sancho and may fall for this and decide she'd like the life of luxury - she seems to be a character heading for a fall - but is it really her fault if she does overreach and then suffer in disappointment? Or is she just another victim of class-based bullying?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Another possible explanation for why Henry can't thrown (in The Art of Fielding)

Small (6 of us) book group discussion last night on Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding," not universally loved but generally liked and admired - I think we all felt the book was easy to read and yet, surprisingly, carried a lot of baggage and we divided down the middle on what aspects we liked and didn't: some (including me) liked the baseball story and the focus on the young men coming of age and others preferred the trials and tribulations of Affenlight pere and fille. As noted in other posts, I built up no sympathy for Affenlight despite Harbach's best attempts and Pella remained an enigma. I was interested throughout in the story of Henry and Schwartz. Harbach doesn't tie the strands neatly together at the end - and I like that, the sense of openness at the conclusion of the novel - and I can see why the novel is such a commercial success, a coming of age story, with cinematic (and sequel) possiblities - Henry a very likable and sufficiently enigmatic character. The novel, by and large, is about his journey (and Schwartz's to a lesser degree) from innocence to experience. I offered a possible explanation as to why Henry lost the ability to throw: remember, despite his loss of fielding skills, he remains a good hitter, even improves his batting (and kinds of wins the final game with an at bat as well): he has moved from defense, a reactive skill in which he is devoid of body and intellect, to offense, in which he has to think about everything (the battle of wits with the pitcher and catcher in the last at bat) and has to do something aggressive to put the ball in play: strike at it, literally. As he matures as a person, he becomes a hitter, not a fielder. This interpretation leaves unanswered why he would throw the ball at Owen's face: repressing homoerotic feelings? Anger at Owen's privileges and privileged relation with Affenlight? Owen should not be reading on the bench during a game - no team would allow that, excepting of course the Red Sox.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Diamonds are forever: The ending of The Art of Fielding

Well, yes, Chad Harach's "The Art of Fielding" does conclude on the diamond, as it should, though - as I expected and hoped - not in a Chip Hilton heroic magical ending but with a touch of sadness and missed opportunities. It's truly a coming of age novel, particularly in regard to the main and by far the most interesting character, Henry - the shortstop who loses his ability to throw. We never actually do learn why that happened - a psychologist whom he's seeing toward the end offers some pat explanation about an oedipal conflict with the older player, Schwartz - but it almost feels as if an editor made Harbach splice that explainer into the text. The national championship baseball game strains credibility in a number of ways: a player would take a phone call during the game? He would share some bad news he heard with another player? A player would deliberately put his face in the way of a fastball? And they'd let him stay in the game afterwards? - but the game does move the story toward its real two-part conclusion: the burial at sea of Affenlight (a scene coyly reminiscent of Four Weddings & a Funeral) and Schwartz hitting grounders to Henry, very nice last scene. M and I agree that we never warmed up or got to the character of Affenlight (or his daughter, Pella, for that matter) - I find it troubling that Harbach at least seems to want us to feel sympathy for Affenlight - he's meant to be, I think, a grand failure, something like the father figure in the excellent novel Gorgeous Lies - but in fact it's absolutely impossible to believe he would be so reckless and in fact unethical in having a relationship with a student, male or female. From the outside, he looks like either a predator or a fool - but from the inside of the novel, he's meant to be heroic. To me, this turns out to be a very readable and smart novel though I wish it were focused on the players rather than the adults.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Is there joy in Westish?: Suspecting we're not heading toward a happy ending in The Art of Fielding

Looks as if Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding" is building toward an ending - and the ending looks as if it will be exactly where it should be, on the diamond. As the Westish baseball team enters the national div III series (against Amherst - funny!), the central character of the book, Henry, flies down to SC and joins the team - he expects that he's there as a spectator but can anyone be surprised that he's, first off, drawn onto the field and into the dugout? And isn't it inevitable that he'll get into the game? I hope so! I also see that Harbach is a shrewd and unconventional writer that he will not turn this work into a Chip Hilton novel - I would guess that everything doesn't turn out just perfectly for Henry, that he's not fully reconciled with his quirky, difficult friend, the older star player Schwartz, that there is not joy in Westish at the end of the series - but we'll see. Over the course of several posts I have expressed some reservations about this highly praised novel, but by and large I have found and am finding it very compelling to read - a good story line, well-conceived central characters, a very sure hand at writing, not so stylish as to be flashy but well crafted, well observed, and some nice literary touches and allusions as a bonus. I question Harbach's portrayal of Affenlight, the college president, and of his daughter, Pella, who's to me an improbable figure in this story, but he's very good on the college ballplayers and the overall feeling of teamwork, competition, success, failure.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why Henry can't throw: The Art of Fielding

Pretty close to the end of Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding" and I'm glad to see that college prez Affenlight gets what's coming to him - or what we all could see and he could not: he is obviously jeopardizing him job right from the beginning as this 60+ college prez begins a relationship with one of the students. Hello? Is it possible that Affenlight wouldn't realize the impropriety of this? Is it possible he wouldn't see how the board of trustees or for that matter his campus rivals would use this to oust him - or much worse? The whole Affenlight angle is to me a distraction in this otherwise pretty strong novel (not because it's a gay relationship, I don't care about that one way or the other - same plot demise could have and would have developed had the student lover been a woman - in fact, we are expected, I think, to have more sympathy for him because he's a just-emerging gay man - had he been with a woman student we would have seen him as more of a lech and a predator but in this case we seem him as more of a pathetic old man, an Aschenbach) - but I'm much more interested in the main story line about the baseball team as it moves toward a national championship and as the shortstop and central character to the novel, Henry, comes to terms with his sudden, inexplicable ability to throw. Maybe the inexplicable will be explained in the last chapters? Please don't attribute this failure to a repressed homoerotic desire or anything so simplistic or reductive. Some things can't be explained - they just are.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

An echo of Thomas Mann? - in The Art of Fielding

Nearing the end of Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding" and am glad that much of this portion of the novel focuses on the struggles of Henry as he tries to come to terms with his sudden and inexplicable inability to throw a baseball - forces him to think about his role on the team, his future prospects, and his waning friendship with one-time mentor, Schwartz. Issue of Henry's sister who got drunk on a campus visit seems to have been simply dropped from the story (wish there were more about Henry's awkward and changing relationship with his family - an important coming-of-age in college theme), and his sexuality, is, oddly, barely developed in this novel that by and large is very frank and open about sexuality - is repressed homoeroticism his issue, after all? I'd glad, even though it's late in the novel, that H expresses concern and puzzlement about Schwartz's abandoning him during his first months on campus - I never understood that and didn't believe it and think H would have been mor puzzled by it than he seems. If he is a latent homosexual, his story does in that way link with Affenlight, the college prez, who wrote his one important book on homosexual themes in literature and who now, in his 60s, comes out as a homosexual and has an affair with an undergrad. This aspect of the novel really troubles me: how would we read this if the affair were with a woman undergrad? (To be fair, one of the characters makes this same observation, but she's just worried that the girl might bring a harassment charge.) Clearly, the relationship is exploitative and unhealthy and verges on abusive and I think we shouldn't just write it off as an old man at last being liberated from sexual taboos. Then again, I'm not sure yet how Harbach will resolve this theme: Affenlight definitely reminds him - his name is almost an echo - of Mann's Aschenbach: both of them pathetic, brilliant men with no self-knowledge or self-awareness, who take on increasingly risky behavior at their own peril.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Plot v story: elements of narrative in the novel

Difference between a plot and a series of events that happen to a character: a plot involves a character confronting an object or obstacle or challenge, meeting the challenge (or failing to), and growing or changing in some way - a dialectical process. A mere story line is a linear series of events involving a set of characters and a setting or settings drawn together by these events, without necessarily any causative or formative relations among the characters (and setting). Some really great novels (including most picaresque novels) don't truly have plots - e.g., Don Quixote, which I'm reading right now. I'm also finishing up Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding," which has both kinds of story lines going: I really like the "plot" line, which involves the ballplayer Henry and his sudden and seemingly inexplicable loss of the ability to throw the ball - and also his gradual maturation and the development of relations among the teammates and the team's fortunes rise and fall. I wish the novel focused in this plot, but unfortunately (for me) there are numerous other strands that just seem to be a series of events - and therefore much less interesting. I'm reminded of an offhand comment one of M's friends made years ago, that novels are basically just gossip - and that's true, at the most fundamental level, but I'm afraid that parts of Fielding don't rise above that very much, while other elements are really intriguing and promising.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A little disappointed in The Art of Fielding, so far

Fun as it is, I do think Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding" is becoming ever more a melodrama and less and challenging work of literary fiction - for those who don't care about these distinctions and just want to enjoy reading a good book, have at it - there's nothing wrong with Fielding and it's entertaining and snappily written, but I have to say it's not living up to the potential I saw in the first few chapters. Maybe I was expecting a book much more about baseball - it's an element, but a fading element, in this tale of campus romance and, most disturbingly, a strange homosexual courtship between two real unequals, the college president and an undergrad - wouldn't he realize what a serious transgression this is and resist the temptations? - and I expected more of a literary book, perhaps because of the many Melville references in the early chapters, but these themes move to the sidelines, so to speak, and although we get a literary allusion here and there (some funny snatches of Keats and Eliot, e.g.) it's a book that's mostly dialog-driven and without a lot of complexity - more like a tapestry, with strands woven together, than a symphony, with echoes and resonance. It's a good novel, highly entertaining, but a little less than it promised at the start I'm afraid.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fielding Average (The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach)

I'm still enjoying (about half-way through) Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding," but I have to say I'm a little disappointed that it's not the book it started out to be, or at least not the book I expected it to be. The first few chapters led me to think of this as a coming-of-age college novel largely about two guys on the same baseball team with very different backgrounds, temperaments, skill sets. The older student/player recruits the younger one to come to his small college, and the younger is at least initially quite a misfit - few friends, no social skills. But the novel does not move in expected ways. First of all, Harbach moves the characters pretty quickly through time - three years of college in a flash. Second, he doesn't really explore the gradual maturation of the younger character/player, Henry, but moves on to other issues and other characters, particularly the university president, a repressed homosexual, and his crush on one of the ballplayers (Henry's roommate, Owen) and the arrival on campus of the prex's daughter, Pella (like the windows?), leaving her husband without a leaving a note (very improbable) and beginning a relationship with the older player, Schwartz, who laments that he has been rejected by all law schools. I find the story, though still very well written and compelling in its way, moving toward more conventional melodrama - but that may be just me and my mistaken expectations. I am mostly interested in Henry - who now, half-way through the book, seems on the verge of losing his uncanny skills at fielding - a Bill Blass experience, or is it something more overtly psychological, like his repressed homoerotic jealousies coming to the fore and interfering with his game?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Was Melville a baseball fan? Was Luis Aparicio a writer?: The Art of Fielding

(Putting aside Don Quixote for a few days to catch up with book group): Started Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding" and find it very well written, easy to read, easy to like, hoping for the best (in this year of, as I begin to look back on it, slim pickings for new fiction, at least for new novels) - From the first 60 or so pages in which Henry (long last name) gets recruited to play shortstop at a Division III small somewhat elite Wisconsin College (Westish - modeled on Beloit perhaps?) and finds himself very much lost and alone, except on the diamond: this genre of an outsider, often a working-class kid, making his or her way at an elite school, has been pretty well trodden ground, most often from a woman's POV: Sittenfield's Prep, Lorrie Moore's The Top of the Stairs (or whatever that disappointing novel was called), Tartt's The Secret History (one of the best), and perhaps from the guy's POV Farrelly's Outside Providence? - here the twist is first of all the baseball novel, more familiar ground here (there are echoes of The Natural) but the college setting is very intriguing, and the homoerotic elements: Henry's roommate, Owen, is gay (and the college prez has a crush on him); Owen gets injured by a thrown ball (an echo, unconscious?, of Irving's Owen Meany?) - and as you can see the novel is also dense with literary allusions - the college itself has adopted Melville as its mascot (yes, in Wisconsin, which Harbach explains with a bit of fancy footwork). Non-baseball fans, who will still like this novel I think, may want to know that Henry's idol, the great (but not real) shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, is modeled on the great (real) Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith. I think the real Aparicio did write a well-respected manual on fielding, didn't he?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Don Quixote and the Duke: Who's the better man?

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are separated for a while toward the end of volume 2 of "Don Quixote," as Sancho goes off to be a "governor" of a small village, in a scheme set up by the Duke and Duchess (never named - somewhat like Sancho's donkey) and DQ stays behind with the Duke and Duchess as a sort of a knight errant in residence - and the story give accounts of both men in alternating chapters. Though much of the comic energy of the novel comes from the interplay of the two, the separation nearly the end is thematically significant - as what we see is that, in different ways, both men are far superior, morally and even intellectually, to the nobility that has adopted them as their playthings. DQ gives SP excellent advice on governing, and in his governorship DQ proves to be wise and shrewd and doesn't fall for the idiotic tricks that they try to play on him: for example, a so-called doctor counseling him not to eat anything - and SP threatens to send the doc to jail or worse. DQ is subject to continued teasing, as the young women on the estate pretend to be madly in love with him, and though he kind of believes that he shows his moral solidity as he rejects their advances, vowing faith to Dulcinea. Of course he's a bit ridiculous - but who is the better person, him or the Duke? DQ does, however, show signs of cowardice in these later sections, and we wish he would stand up more boldly for Sancho. But it's important to see these two against the background of people who would torment and ridicule them - simply because they can.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Deceiving Don Quixote: how volume 1 differs from volume 2, and which is more humane

More teasing, or bullying if you will, of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, nearing the end of volume 2, as the Duke and Duchess arrange for an elaborate performance, something like a masque, in which a bunch of bearded men got up as "duennas" call upon DQ for help in avenging some kind of wrong or mortal insult - the lead duenna speaks very elaborately and formally, further deceiving DQ into thinking he is truly an knight errant being called upon to help an innocent person in distress. I guess there's humor here but it's also, as noted in yesterday's post, a form of cruelty: the Duke and Duchess are amused by SP's simplicity and DQ's insanity. DQ wants only to help people, and they are deceiving him - unlike his friends the barber and the priest who at their own expense and on their own time go to great lengths to find DQ (in volume 1) and then deceive - but only in order to get him home and to help him recover - these cruel people are deceiving DQ only to plunge him deeper into his madness, for their own pleasure. The contrast could not be more obvious - but what is the meaning? I think much of it is Cervantes's commentary on class relationships, then (and now). There also may be a sly way of making the readers themselves, us, feel uneasy: are we, too, complicit in getting pleasure through the sufferings and delusions of another?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Which volume of "Don Quixote" is more cruel?

Which volume of Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote" is more cruel? The seemingly obvious answer is the first volume, as DQ gets beat up and pummeled at every turn - knocked down by windmills, by the herds of sheep, by the mourners, by the falling hammers - and SP gets beaten and bruised as well and, famously, tossed in a blanket. Their physical sufferings are extreme and go pretty much beyond the standard - he modern standard, anyway - for farce and comedy. But in fact I think volume 2 is more cruel to DQ (and perhaps to SP). In volume 1, all of the sufferings are brought about by DQ's strange, mad behavior - it's is own delusions that get him into trouble and in harm's way. In the second volume, DQ is now in that strange double landscape, as a character in a novel whom the other characters recognize as a character in a novel. Though his physical sufferings are far less extreme, his emotional sufferings are far worse. Notably, the Duke and Duchess take him and SP into their estate and treat them, at least superficially, very well: feeding them well, providing clothing, etc. But essentially they are mocking DQ, getting great pleasure and amusement out of his obvious mental delusions. In effect, they are treating him like a diversion, a toy - they are cruel, bullies who use the sufferings of others for their own pleasure. To them he's an object of derision - as we see in so many pastoral novels of the era, in which the nobility find the bumbling peasants and fools to be amusing props and decor for their "natural" life. Their behavior is inexcusable - though it's entirely typical of their social class at that time, and maybe today as well.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

All you need to know about class relations in Don Quixote

Posted yesterday on why Sancho Panza's donkey has no name - and last night read further into Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote" and came upon an interesting section - SP and DQ are invited into the estate of a wealthy Spaniard whom they meet on their travels and he treats them as visiting celebrities, seating DQ at the had of the table, and so on - it's all part of a cruel trick, in that he and his family have read the first volume of DQ and are completely enthralled with his mad antics and with SP's naivete and homespun wisdom laced with proverbs and malaprops - another one of the meta-fictional elements of this novels, in which characters in the novel are recognized by others as literary figures - in other words, characters in the 2nd half of the novel have "read" the first half of the novel, which strangely makes the 2nd half of the novel more "real" in that the characters recognize the fictive quality of the first half - but then how do the fictive characters manage to infiltrate part 2? Anyway, what's striking about the visit to the estate: SP suddenly remembers that he forgot to take care of his donkey and asks a duenna (a rather regal older woman) if she could find someone to feed his donkey or maybe she could take care of him herself - of course she is morally outraged that someone would have the temerity to suggest she should take care of an animal. Here, again, we see the tender humanity and sympathy of SP, who worries about the comfort of his animal - he doesn't "name" the animal and anthropomorphize him but he appropriately cares about the animal's comfort and well-being; but the wealthy lady is appalled that anyone could ask her to look after an animal - that's something servants, or peasants, do. She probably names all her pets, but when it comes to taking care of them she wouldn't lift a finger. In a microcosm, in a few sentences, this tells you all you need to know about class relations in Cervantes's time - and still?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What is the name of Sancho Panza's donkey?

And of course the answer is: Sancho Panza's donkey has no name. Isn't this odd? Miguel de Cervantes is very specific about the name of Don Quixote's horse, Rocinante, so why doesn't the donkey, which accompanies DQ and SP on all of their journeys, except for an interlude during which he is stolen, then recovered, have a name? On the most obvious level, it's a class thing: both among people (DQ is of the gentry, although there are insinuations that the "Don" of his title is of recent and shady acquisition) and SP is a peasant. Also, a horse is of a higher "class" of animal than a donkey. But still, why no name? I think there's a sense in which the capacity to and the desire to name animals is a sign of luxury, of having too much time for games and frivolity: to name an animal is of course to anthropomorphize it, and a peasant, who has to work the animal to near death, may someday have to sell or trade it, is less likely to give his animal a name so that he is more able to see the animal as a tool or a commodity. There's also a sense in which names are emblems of accomplishments: the various monikers that DQ acquires over the course of the novel are a testament (his testament) to his deeds of valor. But SP earns no sobriquet, nor does his donkey earn a name: they're just functionaries, means to an end - or at least that's what DQ thinks, though we know better.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Don Quixote's lowest moment

Don Quixote's lowest moment comes deep into volume two - just when I'd been thinking that actually he's not as crazy as he seems, he can actually be quite valorous and he breaks up the fight that could have ruined Quiteria's wedding, and so forth, he and Sancho Panza are set upon by some villagers who take offense at Sancho's braying, thinking that he's mocking them (reference back to a long story about two guys who go off in search of a lost donkey - don't ask) and one of the men knocks Sancho off his donkey and they start pummeling him - and what does DQ do? He takes off for the hills. Now you can't actually blame him for his fear, nor for his unwillingness to take on a much larger group - though he's perfectly willing to do so when the group is unarmed or unprepared or peaceable or purely one of his figments (e.g., the windmills) - but here's an occasion - the 2nd actually (the blanket tossing in volume one being akind of a touchstone for Sancho's judgment of DQ) - in which he's really needed. Now, suddenly, he sees things clearly and assesses the odds and takes off. Fortunately, SP is picked up off the ground and put on his donkey (never named, BTW) and sent after DQ. Then, perhaps worse, DQ has a whole raft of excuses: he wasn't running away, it was a tactical retreat, etc. Almost as bad as the statement he's made a few times that knights can never fight commoners, even to protect their squires. How very convenient and self-serving! Reminds me of he famous RI politician who suspiciously withdrew all his funds from a credit union just before the credit union collapsed - and he defended himself saying, it wasn't a withdrawal, it was a transaction. Hm.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A strange interlude in Don Quixote

Someone - I think it was a translator of the Divine Comedy (Palma) - remarked that all great works include some passage or section that is totally strange and, initially at least, apparently not in sync with the rest of the work (in the DC it was a section about Mantua) - and I think that's true and I think in Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote" that section involves DQ's descent into the Cave of Montesino (?), a whole section, that, even in this episodic novel, feels like a divergence, and DQ, Sancho Panza, and a relative of someone they meet along the way who's pretty much identified only as "the cousin" and who serves as their Virgilian guide, travel off for a few days to visit this legendary cave, into which they lower DQ by rope so that he can explore the interior passages. The psychological interpretations are pretty obvious and heavy-handed, but what else does DQ's descent into darkness represent? He believes he was down there for 3 days (they say it was only an hour) and that he met a whole society of people who recognized him and prophesied his success - of course this is more of the mock-heroic tone of the novel, echoing Ulysses' descent in the Odyssey and Aeneis' as well I think - but in this case the visions are full of grandiosity and delusion - or are they? Is DQ actually seeing in some ways his future as a figure in world literature, is he actually envisioning the literary stature of Cervantes that he, DQ, will secure? Or is it some strange sense in which a character is able to foretell his own evolution and development - because surely DQ does learn and grow of the course of this long novel, his madness never abates but his discourse seems increasingly wise and, in the later chapters, his valor actually helps people out of predicaments (he stops the rioting at the wedding of Quiteria) rather than creates havoc for himself and others.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What Don Quixote has to say about the Tea Party

There's a little pause in the middle of book 2 of Miguel de Cervates's "Don Quixote," as DQ and Sancho Panza are invited to attend a wedding - a wedding with a bit of a back story as the bride is marrying a very rich man to the great despair of her much less wealthy beloved - we can guess how this will work out - but meanwhile SP goes to sleep and wakes to the aromas of the wedding feast, and Cervantes enjoys (or seems to enjoy) writing one of the more descriptive passages in this often action-driven novel - it's another example of mock-heroic writing, which Cervantes perfects, as the wedding-feast descriptions recall the descriptions of feasts and sacrifices in the Iliad and Aeneid, if I recall correctly. An oddly poignant moment occurs as DQ watches SP asleep and goes off in a reverie about how SP, like most peasants, has no cares in the world and is completely dependent on his master, DQ, who is the only one who has to worry about providing - an obviously ridiculous perception, but one that many of the ruling class share then - and today (that's why we can tax the billionaires - they provide for us all!). Cervantes is well aware of this, and it's one of the so-called ironic moments in the novel - though I would argue that irony is not the best mode in which to portray or think about these class relations: on one level, yes, Cervantes is wiser than his characters and as DQ articulates one position we are placed in another - cool and detached and wryly aware of his limited perceptions - but a more profound way to look at this scene is through dialectics: DQ articulates one position, SP a completely different position, and by the interaction and confrontation of the two, both are changed, transformed into a new, more creative sense of class relationships: a partnership, mutually dependent, forging ahead together.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Why did Edith Grossman kill The Knight of the Mournful Countenance?

Haven't said a word yet about Edith Grossman's translation of Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote" - it's obvious a very readable, smooth translation, she's one of the best no doubt (hasn't she done a lot of Garcia Marquez translations as well?) and she rises to the very difficult challenge of translating a comic, popular novel of 400 years ago: how do you both maintain the colloquial style but keep the novel true to its 17th-century origins and to Cervantes's style? There are no off-putting anachronisms, and she captures the many layers of tone in DQ: sometimes DQ talking in a very formal, stilted way, as if out of one of the novels that Cervantes mocks, and other times the characters, especially Sancho Panza, are very earthy, salty, and conversational. I do have a quibble, tho: I don't know the Spanish original but Grossman decides to have SP dub DQ as "The Knight of the Sorrowful Face." Maybe that's a more accurate translation, but how could anyone do better than the now-familiar moniker: The Knight of the Mournful Countenance? Sometimes translators should just leave fixed ideas alone: Are we really better served by In Search of Lost Time? I know it's a more accurate translation than Remembrance of Things Past, but I think Proust would have (might have) like the cadence and the allusion of Remembrance. What about L'Etranger? It's generally known as The Stranger. In that case, I would go with the more accurate (but less homophonic with the French) The Outsider. But what about Le rouge and le noir? Why does one recent translation decide to call it Scarlet and Black? That's ridiculous - I know French uses articles where English does not but that doesn't mean English never uses the articles. Let it stay The Red and the Black.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

What would Alice Munro do? Or William Trevor?: workshopping a story

Tessa Hadley is obviously a really talented writer - her style is smooth and clean and she deftly sketches a character with just a few strokes and creates a scene - usually a British small-city or town, often industrial of "council housing" - very efficiently. She's become part of the New Yorker stable - and I have to give her, and the editors, credit in that she's one of the few they publish (though more and more lately) who actually write short stories (and not novels to be chopped up for publication by the yard). That said, her stories don't really excite me very much, they're all kind of flat and tepid (maybe intentionally, to mimic the midwinter, midlands British climate and landscape she's drawn to?). Her latest in the NYer, The Stain, is a good example - so let me be a little presumptive and "workshop" her story, much as we would have done back in the days of the Providence Area Writers: woman takes job as housekeeper for elderly man who has a crush on her and tries to fob off $ on her, which she rejects. What would Alice Munro do with this material? Or William Trevor? One thing - Hadley misses an opportunity by having her protag learn about the man's past (a South African apartheid enforcer) when the man's son insists on telling her. Wouldn't it have been better if she'd found out through some action? Or, if the son has to tell her - shouldn't it change her in some dramatic way? Maybe she was willing to take the $ until she learns, then in moral righteousness rejects the money, then learns that the son was lying to get her off the inheritance? There's a lot of dramatic possibility here, but the story never catches fire.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The growth and development of Sancho Panza - and of Cervantes

Some time back, when I was in the midst of Volume 1 of Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote," I posted that Sancho Panza was not as dumb as he seems, that he's actually pretty sly and self-aware, that he certainly knows that DQ will never provide him with the governorship of his "insula" but that he sees DQ as at the least a patron who can provide him with a fairly large amount (by his peasant standards) of money - but as I progressed through Volume 1 I had my doubts and almost wrote a post retracting that view: in plenty of scenes and episodes in the latter half of Volume 1, SP really does seem to believe in the "insula" (he makes a big deal of DQ's not becoming an archbishop, which would lead to a less suitable post for SP, as if DQ was likely to become anything). Now in Volume 2 I see that my original instinct was right: in this Volume Cervantes is much more careful about portraying SP as very shrewd, aware exactly of DQ's delusions, and focused on what he can get from serving DQ - as well as on how, in his extremely kind and humane manner, he can help keep DQ from self-destruction. All this presupposes that SP is a person - and not a character: the real truth is that his character evolves both through organic development through the course of this great novel and through the growth and development of Cervantes as a novelist: the SP that he portrays in Volume 2 would have been impossible for him to conceive, imagine, or project as he was first sketching out this character in Volume 1, some ten years previous. Yes, literary characters evolve over the course of a novel - and so do novelists.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How volume 2 differs from volume 1 of Don Quixote

As Miguel de Cervantes begins Volume 2 of "Don Quixote" you wonder - is there anything more to say, aren't the second volumes (exception: Godfather 2) usually just pale reprisals of the first volume, an attempt to cash in on the success of the first volume - but Cervantes takes the issue head on, makes it clear he's writing this in part because someone else had come through with a fake continue adventures of DQ - he's claiming what's rightfully his. Volume 2 begins with some of the metafiction that has endeared DQ to so many scholars (and readers) as a visitor explains to DQ and Sancho Panza that their exploits are now famous around the world because of the chronicle of their lives - and DQ and SP and others engage in a critical discussion of the novel in which they appear, which in fact invented them - the novel turning in upon itself, like an origami figure folding up - you can see why Borges was drawn to the labyrinthine devices of this novel. It's also obvious in Volume 2 that Cervantes is ever more aware of what made Volume 1 such a success - it's more about the characters and their interaction, and less about the action: in volume 1 there was a lot of slapstick and farce in the first chapters and it took Cervantes a while to establish DQ and SP as characters, but in Volume 2 he really lets them unwind and expound - including long discussions between the two, and between Sancho and his wife - there's a danger in pushing their eccentricities and traits too far to the extreme, but Cervantes pulls away from that brink and just makes them delightfully nutty and bound to each other - a relationship he will develop as the peripatetic novel takes its course.