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

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Saturday, December 31, 2011

What Letting Go foretells - and doesn't foretell - about Philip Roth's career

Nearing the end of Philip Roth's very compelling debut novel (1962) "Letting Go," and making some final observations - interesting to look back at a great writer's first novel to see what it foretells about his or her then-nascent career - in Letting Go we see, as I've noted in previous posts, many of the elements that Roth would explore and develop across his great career. But notably - Roth has been criticized, often unfairly, for two things: insensitivity toward women (definitely true in some of his novel but not all) and cruelty toward his fellow Jews (largely an unfair criticism - he finds his own family and community a great outlet and target for satire, humor, and wrath - but so do most great writers). In Letting Go, however, the women are generally the stronger and more sympathetic characters by quite a stretch - the men, including the central figure, Gabe Wallach, and his counterpoint and antagonist, Paul Herz, are feckless, failures - despite their great education and (in Gabe's case) upbringing. Gabe's father is a bit of a fool, too - dependent and needy, until in his widowhood he finds a new wife, whom Gabe disdains. Second, as to Jews and Judaism, though interfaith marriage is a major theme in LG - the Herzes are cut off from both families because of their marriage - Judaism is a really minor theme in this novel, which takes place largely in the academic communities of Iowa and Chicago but really takes place within the walls of a few apartments and restaurants - the characters are pretty isolated from all communities (it doesn't feel terribly like an academic novel, despite its setting - Gabe and Paul could just as easily be colleagues in a law firm or an insurance office) - the streets of Newark and the angst of American Jews, which will be so important to Roth as his work develops, are only a whisper here at best.

Friday, December 30, 2011

How Philip Roth's style has evolved

As noted in previous posts, we don't read Philip Roth's novels for plot, but his first novel, "Letting Go," while it's by no means tightly constructed, in fact it "sprawls" across several sets of characters, many years, several settings, and a few shifts of narrative point of view, is a good old-fashioned story in some respects - not a potboiler, but not literary fiction as we know it today; in fact, it makes me nostalgic for those years, not all that long ago, when literary fiction and popular fiction were not so far apart. I don't know LG was a best-seller or a BOMC selection, but it certainly might have been - much less imaginable today. Roth's style evolved - his great novels of the 90s and the 21st century have a very open structure, not really snapping to a conclusion - but as I near the end of Letting Go I can see that he's building toward some emotional climaxes: a few highly dramatic scenes and developments (spoilers here, obviously): the death of the young boy, Markie, pushed out of bed by his sister - nicely told from the sister's point of view, though children have never been Roth's forte; the Herzes' adoption of a baby girl, with the threat of legal complications (we'll see how this works out). Ultimately, the great theme of this novel, as of so many of Roth's work, is the relationship between parent and child, particularly father and grown son, and we see these relationships from a number of different angles throughout this book - though as the book evolves, the main character's dad, Dr. Wallach, becomes less of a plot element (and less involved in son's life, as he prepares to remarry). Also, I note that literature - which was a main theme in the first section of the novel, as characters discuss at some length Portrait of a Lady, almost evaporates from the plot: there's no real sense, by the half-way point, that the main characters are literature profs; they could as well be ad execs of accountants or anything.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Yorker fiction editors: This is the best you've got?

You're the fiction editor of The New Yorker, probably the best read and most distinguished general-interest magazine in the world, one of the very few anyway that still publishes fiction, you have about 50 issues a year, meaning there's no reason you shouldn't be publishing the 50 best stories in the world every year, right? And sometimes I have to just shrug my shoulders and say: This's the best you've got? I do admire the NYer editors for a few things: they have recently made an effort to publish actual short stories and not novel excerpts, which half the time are basically like movie travelers touting a book about to be released. They are interested in world literature and have increasingly sought out stories in translation, often by writers little known in the U.S. (Cesar Aira a recent example). But this week, an Israeli writer named E. Keret (I think), a story called Creative Writing - come on. The very short story is about a couple, recently lost a child through miscarriage, woman enrolls in writing course, writes three stories, each of which Keret summarizes briefly, each sounds like it could be a good Murakami story (e.g., woman gives birth to a cat), but they're not stories, their ideas, sketches. Then the man enrolls in a course, writes a story about a businessman who's actually a fish. He can't come up with an ending for the story. End of story. Honestly, conceptually this might be a good idea if the "creative writing" of the man and woman revealed something to us or to them about them or their relationship or their ability or their inability to communicate, or it it lead to change, brought them together, or apart, or something - but this story is only half-told, if that - it's a story that would show a lot of promise in a workshop (and maybe that's the point? is there a deep and underlying irony that I'm missing, a story about workshops that is a workshop story?) - but is it one of the best stories of the year? I don't think so.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Three great scenes in Philip Roth's Letting Go: Each could be a short play

I wonder why Philip Roth never tried his hand (at least I don't think he has) at writing plays? He's such an expert at dialog, and not just at creating dialog (or triolog, at times) that seems realistic but also at using dialog to illuminate character, to examine and exhibit the mind at work, and (to a lesser extent) to advance the plot. I've mentioned in recent posts a few of the great scenes in Roth's first novel, "Letting Go," and I continue to come across more as I read deeper into the book - and can't you imagine (if you know these scenes) each one as a one-scene play or as material for an acting workshop?: the central/Rothian character Gabe Wallach taking the shy, pregnant young waitress out to dinner to discuss with her the procedures of adopting her expected baby? They sit in a sort of touristy lakeside Chicago restaurant and he awkwardly tries to draw her out and then to get her to discuss the pregnancy. Very deft and troubling scene. Or, Libby at her first meeting with her psychiatrist, at which she dances around her problems and then, at his gentle urging, bursts out with all of her frustration about her marriage and the crush she has on Gabe - then, after the doctor mentions the bill, she threatens to jump out the window. Or, Paul Herz returns home after learning of his father's heart attack and discusses his parents and his miserable life with long-ago girlfriend now comfortably married and living in a modern (circa 1955) Brooklyn apartment, as the baby sleeps beside them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Top 10 books for a liberal, free-thinking woman

Friend PM writes on behalf of daughter E, who would like to read a book that "would change the way she thinks, preferably contemporary," "geared to a liberal, free-thinking woman." Any suggestions? Yes!

Here are 10, though I have to admit that for me contemporary kind of means within the last 100 years. If the list were truly of contemporary books - last decade or so - I don't think I could recommend many that meet the criteria. Great books endure for a reason. So, alphabetically arranged by author:

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. Shocking, provocative futuristic novel, maybe even more on point today than when written in 1980s or 1990s.

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. Hugely powerful short novel, well ahead of its time, a woman's coming of age and into herself - with dire consequences.

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A story, not a novel, widely anthologized, and a rightful classic - absolutely foundational work of feminist literature and thinking.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. Why not include one male author on the list? One of the greatest accounts by a male author of the life of a woman - in this case, a 19th-century dairy worker who's victimized but who fights back.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. A classic, one of the great works of African-American fiction by women. Florida, in the 20s/30s - a woman struggles through many relationships, poverty, triumphs, endures.

The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing. Maybe a little dated but one of the first great works to link feminism, literature, progressive politics. The bible for '60s feminist thinking, especially in Britain.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, by Alice Munro. Short stories. Don't let ridiculous title deter you. Munro is one of the two greatest living short-story writers, and this is one her best collections. Go on to others if this one moves you, which it will.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. The feminist counterpoint to Catcher in the Rye. Everyone has to read this at some time in their life. Woman starts out on her own in the New York literary/magazine world.

A Short History of Women, by Kate Walbert. Very strong and unusual book that follows a number of characters over a long span of history. The only true contemporary novel on this list.

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. Probably her best novel and a amazing account of one day in the life of one woman.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Some great scenes in Philip Roth's Letting Go

Reading slowly through the Three Women section of Philip Roth's "Letting Go," some truly harrowing scenes - perhaps most memorable the day in the life of Libby Herz, which begins with her waking, disheveled, trying to write a poem, scribbling lines she can recall from Keats et al., then a surprise visit by a guy from the Jewish adoption agency, it's obvious that he can see that she's very disturbed, she knows that, too, then off to an appointment with an analyst, she tells him (and us) things we hadn't known about the interior life of their marriage, then freaks out when he tells her the cost ($25!), returns home (buying then returning a sweater at Saks, which she can't afford, they live in dire poverty), at home looks at a book from the rabbi who converted her, then decides to be a good Jewish wife, starts making latkes, as Paul returns home with Gabe Wallach - Roth deftly stays within Libby's POV, and we can only imagine who she looks to Gabe and Paul as they enter - she's obviously frantic, disturbed, manic, flour on her face, a huge pointless mount of grated potatoes - and then they get in a huge argument, as Gabe tells them he knows of a woman with baby for adoption (obviously the friend of his girlfriend from whom she's been borrowing $) and Libby screams at Gabe, falls to her knees, says she doesn't want help, he retreats - some truly powerful writing in this section - the novel as a whole just meanders along without any great defining shape, but along the way there are great moments of drama, of comedy, and of insight - somewhat true of Roth's whole career as a writer.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Psychoanalysis and the novel: Roth, Hamlet

When you think of how much much mileage writers (and directors) have gotten from psychoanalysis as comedy, it's striking once in a while to come across a novel in which psychoanalysis is used in a straightforward manner for character development and insight - maybe especially striking that Philip Roth uses a visit to a psychoanalyst in this way in "Letting Go," when we think of his most famous (perhaps also most notorious) novel, Portnoy's Complaint, which is in fact structured as one long "complaint" from patient to analyst. In LG, one of the main characters, Libby Herz, a clearly disturbed, perhaps hypochondriacal, young woman, on verge of some kind of nervous breakdown, as she and husband are living in poverty, looking into adopting a child, which obviously makes her anxious, she has a terrible visit with man from the adoption agency, feels she has blowntheir chances, and then off to an analyst. Well, even in the 1950s I doubt you could call an analyst in the morning and make a 1 p.m. appointment - but that quibble aside, Libby's visit to Dr. Lumin is a great scene and Roth uses this narrative opportunity to have Libby reveal to the doctor some things - her lack of sex life with husband Paul, her attraction to novel's main character and sometime author stand-in Gabe Wallach - that she has never said aloud even to self - in this way analyst visit is something like an interior monologue but actually dramatized: imagine Hamlet's soliloquies as 50-minute sessions with a shrink.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Two wrenching scenes in Philip Roth's Letting Go

Examples of great, difficult, scenes in Philip Roth's writing, from 4th section, Three Women, in his first novel, "Letting Go" - the section begins with Gabe and Martha, now living together along with her two young children, preparing for a diner party (we gradually learn that guests will be Libby and Paul Herz, Gabe's main antagonists and counterpoints in this long novel) - and Gabe and Martha squabble painfully, relentlessly, mostly about $, but it's obvious that it's not about $ it's about power and the difficulty of two adults building some kind of relationship and commitment - she obviously wants G to marry her, though does she really love him or does she just want to be married, to have someone to help her with her kids, her life? - he's obviously not ready and not ready for her - as his eyes, and mind, keep wandering onto others, imagining what life would be like with them, etc. - the dinner party is a horror, they all say terrible things to one another, it's almost Albee-esque. Second wrenching scene, as this section continues, and we are now in the mind of Libby Herz, aware of her weaknesses and frailties, her hypochondria, her inability to do anything with her life, and we see through her eyes the terrible poverty in which she and Paul live - a few years earlier it would have been and was genteel grad-school poverty, la bue, as in nostalgia for, but now Paul is a prof at U Chicago, they should be more prosperous, comfortable, but their lives are terrible, he is trying to write a novel, he obviously never will, he obviously will not keep this fill-in job, they are destined for trouble - and then she gets a visit from the guy from an adoption agency and the visit is a horror, she is obviously disturbed and unfit and she knows this - she is ruining everything. Where can this lead but down?

Friday, December 23, 2011

What Roth does well (and not so well)

What Philip Roth does well (and not so well), based on obvservations from a lifetime of reading Roth's fiction and in particular my current reading, "Letting Go":
evocation: he creates a sense of place (and time) as well as or better than anyone, right alongside Updike, among his contemporaries, and Proust, among his predecessors. Roth's Newark is one of the most vivid places in all of fiction.
dialog: his dialog can be among the wittiest and sharpest, especially the many struggles between son and mother or father, most famous in Portnoy's Complaint but present throughout - many long scenes told entirely through dialog, as we watching the workings of two minds grappling
Jewish angst: His trademark, and present in every one of his novels, right from the start, issues of interfaith marriage, fitting into American society, obligation to religion and family, faith v secularism, and in later fiction issues about Israel and the Holocaust
Esoterica: his characters know about so many things and wear this knowledge lightly, but we as we read him we learn about everything for new criticism in the 1950s to the glove-making industry
Battle of the Sexes: some of the most punishing scenes of marital and couples strife (especially in Letting Go), and lots of great writing about adolescent angst (in early works of course but also in newest novel, Nemesis)
Crazy Jews: the peripheral characters are a cast of eccentrics and weirdos of almost Russian proportions - plenty of these in Letting Go, including the Herz uncles and parents and the Gabe Wallach's dad - Bellow is the obvious influence here
But not so well:
Plot - you would never go to a Roth novel for plot, but, as noted yesterday, his novels together make up a vast compendium of a novel about the sensibility of the author, Roth himself
kids - are there any believable kids in Roth's fiction? He seems to have very little sense of how to portray young children - life for him starts with adolescence, with puberty - at least life in the novel.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

What Roth hath wrought: His novels are really about one single character

Someone - John Cheever? - warned young writers against writing short stories - you'll burn up too much of your material. The implication being: each short story could develop into a novel. Maybe so, though I think there are fundamental differences between the forms that go far beyond length: there's the sense, which I've posted on before, that stories focus on misfits and isolates and novels encompass entire societies and therefor their characters tend to be more conventional, even if rebellious. That's a very broad generalization but I hope based on truth - despite the many exceptions we can think of. Philip Roth of course began his career with an astonishingly good collection of stories, and then went on to write his first novel, "Letting Go," which is in 6 sections, each something of a novella. The sections do not exactly grow organically - I suppose you could read them in various orders or could skip an entire section - but all of them are tied together by the main character, the guy who narrates some of the sections, Gabe Wallach, a sometime stand-in for the author. Roth was obviously not worried about burning all of his material: in Letting Go he works through many of the major themes of his life up to that point (Jewish childhood, struggles with father, early marriage and romances, academic life - though not Newark, and not the Army, both of which he wrote of in Goodbye, Columbus - Newark would become his Yaknapatawpha), yet somehow he knew that he could go back to this well again and again over the course of the long writing career that lay ahead of him. Letting Go is full of incident but it's not plot driven - none of Roth's novels are. We don't read him for plot but for character, setting, observation, discussion of ideas, comedy, and in a sense all of Roth's novels are about one character and his evolution and development, his struggles with his family and his community, his faith and his art, his sexual drive and his depths of guilt - Roth himself.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A single day - Thanksgiving - in section 3 of Philip Roth's Letting Go

Philip Roth's first novel, "Letting Go," continues to grow and expand, to build a whole network of characters and relationships that touch on the central character, the narrator Gabe Wallach (who has much in common with the author) - and I have to laugh at myself, as my first impression of the novel, based on the first of the 6 sections, was that this would be a very simple narrative about 5 rather lonely and isolated characters - not so - the 3rd section, which takes place on Thanksgiving Day, introduces yet more characters: Gabe visits his father for the Thanksgiving break (at this time, Gabe is an English prof at Chicago) and we learn that dad and his pal, Gruber, both widowed, have taken a 4-month tour of Europe, and now, at the dinner, Gabe learns that his dad is to be married to a 54-year-old whom he'd met on the crossing - and she is immediately set up as his rival (and a possible alcoholic); Gabe also visits Paul Herz's family in Brooklyn, hoping to open a window of communication - they have been completely estranged from Paul since his marriage to Libby, a "shiksa." The visit fails - the dad is in terrible health and the mom feeds off his incapacity; Gabe then visits a couple his age in the same building, the husband was one of Paul's childhood friends - a typical conventional Brooklyn Jewish couple (Miami! Danish-modern furniture! crappy best-sellers!), and Gabe is drawn to the wife - as he has been drawn to Libby - he is drawn to the dangerous and unavailable, and his love life seems to be circling Paul; finally, we also meet divorcee in Chicago whom Gabe has just started dating and learn of her complex relation with her kids, her whacked out sister, and a lawyer who's pursuing her and who comes to her place for Thanksgiving - a complicated day! This is not a novel that takes place on one day a la Ulysses - it takes place over many years - but this section is a tour-de-force account of a number of lives that intersect and cross on this single day: unity of time, if not of place.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Philip Roth and the long shadow of Saul Bellow

The second section of Philip Roth's 1962 novel, "Letting Go," concerns Paul and Libby, young couple, ostracized by both families because of the interfaith marriage, struggling to get by in poverty in 1950s Detroit - she dropped out of Cornell to marry Paul, he drops out of grad school in Michigan and takes an auto job - and then she gets pregnant, and much of the section concerns their decision about whether to abort the fetus and if so how to go about this. Thankfully, this section of the novel feels very dated, as our medical care for pregnant women has so much advanced since those dark days - still, an important period piece to read today to remind us of the possible consequences of abandoning current laws. This section shows Roth's early indebtedness to Saul Bellow: Paul is a typical early-Bellow hero, a smart young Jewish guy facing a huge life crisis and best upon from all sides by eccentric older Jewish busybodies who act as if they're his allies but are really in it for self-interest or just to destroy him - in this case, it's his two eccentric uncles who give him bad advice about marrying Libby, or not, and in the second part two elderly guys in the rooming house who embroil him in their legal quarrel. The whole section is a ghastly, harrowing account of a young, idealistic couple, struggling through urban poverty - I wonder if Roth set it in Detroit, which feels a little like alien territory for him, to get out of Bellow's long Chicago shadow. At end of section, it gets tied back to the initial narrator of the novel, Gabe Wallach, Paul's grad-school friend and rival.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Did I say the characters in Letting Go were isolated? Check that - I just got to part II.

Well scump on me as we used to say in 7th grade, but there I go in yesterday's post writing about Philip Roth's first novel, "Letting Go," and noting how it's an especially lonely novel because through the first 70 pages or so it introduces only 5 characters, each of them lonely and alienated in his or her way - and then I get onto the 2nd section of the novel, Paul Loves Libby, and suddenly we get a whole slew of new characters and a complex web of family relationships - a much more traditional or conventional novel in that regard. I almost wonder whether each of the six sections of the novel is like a standalone novella, with characters linked across them - more novelistic than Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus, which consisted of six novellas or long stories linked by theme (Jews!) and setting (mostly Newark and environs) and tone (witty, ironic, self-reflective). Anyway, 2nd part of Letting Go takes two of the characters from Part 1, Paul and Libby Herz, and goes into the background on their marriage and how the interfaith marriage, mid-1950s, was received by Paul's family and in process we met his two very eccentric uncles and his dreary and controlling failure of a father (Roth's great theme - patrimony). Can't tell if this will be a "sprawling" novel as the dust jacket unhopefully put it or a complex novel with many interrelated strands - in either case, it's still for me very compelling and thoughtful and literary in a way we seldom see in fiction today - smart and thoughtful without being clever or contrived or gimmicky (talking tigers!, voices from the dead!) or trendy (zombie! vampires!).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Loneliness of the Long-form writer: Roth's first novel

Philip Roth's "Letting Go," which even the Library of America jacket blurb calls a "sprawling" novel, doesn't seem, to me, to sprawl particularly, not in the first section anyway - though it is very long for a first novel, or for almost any novel that would be published to day - but what I really note in the first section, aside from the obvious quality of the writing and the early establishment of themes and tropes that would be with Roth throughout his long and great career, is the loneliness of the protagonist, Gabe Wallach, and in fact of all the characters - partly because there are actually so few characters. Generally, short stories work be establishing only a very small # of characters and concentrating the action (there are exceptions - Ann Beattie for one); novels tend to open up much more and to be an opportunity for the writers to expand the universe of people, to develop or at least to sketch not only the protagonist or the narrator but a world of people. Roth began as a novella/short story writer, and Letting Go, his first novel, still carries some of the short-story sensibility - though at much greater length. In the first 75 or so pages, there really are only 5 characters, no minor characters or peripheral characters introduced at all: Gabe, his father the dentist back in nyc, his sole grad-school friend Herz and Herz's wife Libby, and the girl whom he starts to date and then rather abruptly pushes away, Marge. Each of these characters suffering from a great deal of loneliness and isolation - even though four are in a large university setting in the prime of their lives, supposedly, and one, the dad, has an active dental practice in New York - but it does not feel that way, they feel as isolated as characters in a French existential novel of the time, The Stranger, say.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Philip Roth's surprisingly excellent first novel, Letting Go

There's a paragraph about 50 pages into Philip Roth's first novel, "Letting Go," in which he describes the character Herz and his Salvation Army overcoat - as good a descriptive paragraph as Roth ever wrote, maybe as anyone ever wrote, comic, precise, a true sketch of a whole character through observation of this tattered, over-sized, second-hand overcoat - and an obvious nod to Gorky and the Russian greats as well. I am struck, in reading (for the first time) this 1962 novel at how surely Roth established his style and his themes right from the outset of his career: the comic dialog between the protagonist (a Rothian character, Jewish intellectual in the Midwest trying to establish independence from his loving but overbearing family,in part through attractions to and liaisons with people, women, from the Protestant heartland) and his overbearing but very needy recently widowed Dad: a tennis game in which the dad keeps up a steady chatter, a scene in the dental chair (dad's a dentist) when dad examines son's teeth - but it's not about the teeth, it's about the father feeling abandoned (there are plenty of schools in New York!) and the son feels infantalized. This novel could truly have come at any phase during Roth's long career,though it's maybe a bit more provincial and conventional that some of the great works that were to follow.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Gripes of Roth: Letting Go

Started reading "Letting Go," one of the Philip Roth novels I haven't read, in the Library of America edition (if possible, I'll go back and re-read Goodbye, Columbus & 5 other stories when done with LG): it's interesting to see, in this, Roth's first novel, some of the themes emerge, even in the first 50 or so pages, that will be with him throughout his great career: son's caring relation with his father played off against his desire and need to break free, the Jewish intellectual guy's fascination with the "shiksa" bride and the tensions of mixed marriages. It's quite mature as a first novel - though not his first book - which may be because, though it's a university/grad-student novel, like so many first novels then (the 1950s) and now, grad students (Roth included) were older then - often completing military service. In LG, the narrator is, like many Roth characters, a guy living alone - in this case in grad school, English, Iowa - gets drawn into the mix of a difficult grad-student marriage - a type familiar to anyone who's gone to grad school of the slightly older student responsible for a spouse (and kids often - though not here) who can't really enjoy the bohemian/bou of grad life and is struggling to keep a family afloat through several jobs. Two other quick notes: how odd it is to find a novel so literary - could never be published today I'm afraid - epigraphs from Thomas Mann and Wallace Stevens and much of the first chapter involves discussion of Henry James and Portrait of a Lady - can you imagine any book like that published now? Also interesting to see what Roth themes did not emerge early in career - such as alienation, Jews, Newark - or at least haven't emerged yet.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The New Yorker gets in the holiday mood with a story about date-rape and murder

Well The New Yorker gets right into the holiday spirit with Margaret Atwood's grim little story about an abuse victim turned murderer - think of what you might get if you cross-bred an Alice Munro story with a Joyce Carol Oates story and it's this, Stone Mattresses. Like everything Atwood writes, it's well crafted and compelling in its way and provocative - I'm just not sure what it provokes. Story is narrated by a woman about to go on an Arctic cruise, where she at first vows not to flirt but immediately begins eyeing the men and looking for not a mate but for a victim - & and it turns out, quel chance!, that the first guy who sidles up to her is the very guy who 50 years or so back had taken her, than a shy and sheltered young teen, to a dance and brutally raped her - and, in a Hardyesque turn, she got pregnant, was sent away to a home, where to she gave birth - and then went onto a life that consists of a series of marriages and then easing her husbands toward death (too much or too little meds, etc.) - after this longish Munro-like digression into that tale of young troubled woman coming of age in small Canada town, we get onto the main story, in which narrator, Verna, deftly lays a plan to avenge her wrong by bashing in her suitor's head with a rock. As she says, she's read a lot of crime novels. But is this crime credible? And, more to the point, what does Atwood expect us to think about this act of vengeance? No doubt the guy deserved it - 50 years ago - and no doubt all of us have had vengeance fantasies, but honestly, is this civilized behavior in any way? By the way, I think Jonathan Franzen's treatment of this issue - date-rape and its aftermath - in Freedom, was very effective, much more sensitive and sensible, and much more credible. But this story may be a jolt of catharsis for some, even as it will horrify others. Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Two thoughts about Bartleby

Re-reading Herman Melville's great short story (or very short novel, if you like) "Bartleby" for the #? time - prompted in part by a discussion at work about a column that called Bartleby the first "occupier." You know what? That's ridiculous. I saw the column, kind of skimmed it, so maybe I missed the point, but in going back to read the source - well, calling him the first occupier either totally misunderstands the story or the movement, or both. Bartleby is a strange and ruined man - we learn at the conclusion what ruined him - and his refusal to take on any work assignment that's not to his liking and ultimately his refusal to remove himself from the office where he's made his hovel of a home is not meant to be a protest or a statement or any kind of will for change - it's a mode of despair and complete alienation, a cry from the soul of a person completely obviated by the 19th-century world of business, the tedium of daily office life, the inability to connect with any other human being or to have any kind of spiritual, artistic, or personal life outside of the life of wage labor. Is this a novella particularly linked with the 19th century? Obviously we no longer have scriveners in the workplace, but people chained to their keyboards are the 21st-century equivalent. At my own workplace, we have recently experienced a very sad episode of an employee who was obviously mentally deranged for a period of time - and no one really knew how to deal with this situation or to reach out and comfort this employee and bring help. In some ways, though this co-worker was nothing like Bartleby, it was a similar situation - just as real today as then: we are caught in our work and our responsibilities and unable to reach across a gap to help another other than through the protocols of work. Today, we have HR referrals, medical leave, and so forth - but these protocols are bureaucratic and designed to protect the employer's interests and they don't really cure the ailment of a tormented soul.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Realism, Surrealism, and the perplexing oddities of Cesar Aira's fiction

Cesar Aira's "How I Became a Nun" is an intriguing and highly perplexing novella. It verges on greatness but doesn't quite make it over the top, for these reasons, I think: As I noted in a recent post on one of Aira's stories that appeared in The New Yorker (it was the first I'd heard of Aira), he has a very peculiar style: his story - and this novella as well - at first appears to be a very straightforward piece of realist or naturalistic writing, and then Aira slyly works into the narrative one or more totally bizarre observations, events, or images - and at first you think, well, that's odd, but maybe that's how things are done in Argentina, and it takes a while, as you proceed with the reading, to realize, wait a minute, he's created an entirely surreal world of fiction, every bit as strange as the weirdest of Kafka or Borges,m and maybe even more weird because of the creepy way he slips these elements into his fiction. In How I Became a Nun, for example, we begin with a straightforward account of how the narrator moved into a new city and her dad took her to have ice cream for the first time and, to her surprise and his annoyance, she hates the taste - and he forces her to try to eat her ice cream. In some ways, a typical set-up for a story about a young child and ongoing control struggles with father and adjustment to a new city, etc. - but, no, it turns out the ice cream has been poisoned (OK, we can accept that - and for the moment don't even question how odd that is) and then the dad gets into a fight with the vendor, kills him, goes to prison, the child is then hospitalized for a year (is that possible?) and in the hospital is visited by strange visions - possible, maybe, but things are getting weirder - and eventually you realize you're in a different world - not this one - though it looks a lot like this one. Aira could a great novelist, and I will no doubt read more of his works, but some of the elements in this novel are just oddities and perverse: why is his narrator sometimes and boy, sometimes a girl? why is does the title apparently bear no relation to the text? Why, at the end (spoiler, obviously) does the narrator actually die? If he could rein in the eccentricities just a little and make this work slightly more approachable, give it more of a structure, this would be an even stronger piece.

Monday, December 12, 2011

One of the strangest mental breakdowns in literature : How I Became a Nun

"How I Became a Nun," by Cesar Aira, continue to be totally odd and totally compelling, as I'm now about 2/3 through this novella- to give you an idea of what happens, the kinds of things that Aira imagines: the narrator (whose gender alternates seemingly randomly between boy and girl) goes to see his (or her) father in prison - father was imprisoned for killing the ice-cream vendor who'd sold the son/daughter poisoned strawberry ice cream at the start of the novella - and as they're waiting for the father in what's probably a visiting room the girl/boy wanders off and moves down some corridors and ends up in a skylight, where he/she spends the night while everyone's frantically in search - on discovery, thinks about saying he/she was in hiding as part of a plot to spring father from prison. Even weirder scene, the young boy/girl in 1st grade, not yet able to read, sees lines scrawled in the bathroom, goes back and copies them in notebook, of course they turn out to be vile swear words - when mother at home sees them, she comes to see the teacher, and the teacher comes back into classroom and totally flips, her language breaks apart, she tells the class to shun the boy/girl (Aira), he/she is evil - it's one of the strangest and most compelling and spooky breakdowns I've ever come across in fiction. Not sure where this novella is leading, but Aira clearly in the tradition of Kafka, Borges, Bolano (maybe) - and he deserves greater recognition.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Another excellent Latin American writer: Cesar Aira

Following up on a recent New Yorker story by a writer whom I'd never heard of, and by a subsequent recommendation from a reader of this blog (thanks!), I grabbed a copy of Cesar Aira's novella "How I Became a Nun." Should have probably finished it in one sitting, but didn't, so I'm not sure yet how to judge this novella or even understand it - but the first 30 pages or so are very compelling. Starts off as the narrator describes a childhood memory from age 6 when she (or he?) first encountered ice cream. She or he? The title of this novella would lead you to suppose the narrator is a woman, but in the first section, which is generally described in the most realistic, natural fashion - an account of the trip to the ice-cream shop, where child tastes strawberry ice cream, finds it repulsive, father brutally insists that child eat the ice cream, at last father tastes it, realizes it is awful, fights with the ice-cream vendor - the pronouns shift, sometimes narrator is he or son, sometimes she. At first I thought this was a translation of production issue (there are other typos in this edition), but no - its obviously Aira's way of making reality both concrete and shifty, elusive. Story builds as the ice cream, poisoned apparently, leads child to enter hospital for an extended, lonely stay, replete with observations of strange, surreal events, such as the dwarf who visits daily and offers prayers. So - here's another original, powerful Latin American writer, obviously working in the long shadow of Borges, but with an original voice.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Four disappointing books I read in 2012

Last year I posted about the most disappointing books I'd read, but most of the books I read this year were quite good, and the few that weren't had some redeeming qualities, so this year's list may be more about me and my reading preferences and less a true catalog of the year's biggest losers. Readers of this blog will know that I read (or at least started) several books by debut novelists in 2011, and none blew me away - but I'll put those novels aside: they're only disappointing relative to your expectations, you can't really expect a young novelist to rise to the level of some of the greats I read this year - Tolstoy, Cervantes, William Trevor. Maybe they'll get there. But there were a few books that disappointed me this year, for various reasons, so here's my look at four disappointing books I read in 2011:

Tender Is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Okay, it's beautifully written at times, and the story of Scott and Zelda is powerful and romantic and tragic, but is this novel really any good? I found it very hard to care about the characters or believe in them - they drink, they fight, they act like spoiled rich kids, it may have been shocking and moving to read this novel - 70 years ago - but I found it tedious and unlikable. Dick Diver is supposed to be one of the world's leading analysts, but nothing in the novel makes us believe he's any more than a drunk - the only "analytic" work we see him do at all is fall in love with a young, vulnerable patient.

The Accident, by Ismail Kadare. I did like his collection of novellas, Agamemnon's Daughter, and I give this Albanian expatriate great credit for his bravery in writing from exile about a horribly cruel regime, but this short novel - about a taxi crash and the relations among the people in the vehicle - starts off well but then goes nowhere, endless existential drivel and never coming to a point. The plight of the European intellectual? Who cares?

The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil. Jeffrey Eugenides, discussing 1980s student bookshelves, amusingly refers to the "point-scoring Robert Musil" - even more so today with the beautiful 2-volume edition. I want to read it. I've tried! More than once! And though it starts off as if it will be a great, monumental novel about the decline and corruption of an early-20th century European kingdom (Austria?), after several hundred pages I find myself completely lost, just waiting for the characters to take shape and to do something. I guess the title should have been a warning. This one, for me, goes down with Finnegans Wake and Gravity's Rainbow: I'm sure they're great, if you persevere, but I don't have a lifetime to do so.

The Poorhouse Fair, by John Updike. Readers of this blog will know that Updike for me is one of the great writers of the century, especially his 4.5 Rabbit novels and every story he ever wrote. I've read almost all of his fiction from the past 20 years but haven't read all the early works, so this year I went back to this novel, his first. Essentially, it's amazingly good as a first novel and a very unconventional theme and setting (a home for the elderly) for a young novelist, and the sex and profanity must have been bold in 1950, but ultimately I was only interested in the book as a window through which to view the author Updike would become. The novel itself seems really dated and not all that compelling.

Let's hope for no disappointments in 2012!

Friday, December 9, 2011

The European and the universal in the Best European Fiction 2012

Finished the very interesting Aleksandar Hemon anthology "Best European Fiction 2012," and following up on yesterday's post am thinking more about what's "European" about this collection. Many of the stories, including some of my favorites, are not intimately connected with any one country or language - they really could take place anywhere - adding another favorite from near the end of the collection, the Spanish story called Today about a one day in the life of a 30ish man going off his meds. But a few of the stories offer news and views into a particular culture - one story about some Ukrainian thugs opening up a gay nightclub, another about a middle-aged actor visiting his more successful brother somewhere in the Rhineland (the description of the landscape and the wine bars gives a real sense of place), one about two women who fall for each other at a club (a little glimpse of contemporary European youth culture), I think one or two comment at least obliquely on the Balkan wars, the Scottish story the touches on ethnic/religious rivalries in British football. But overall the best are the universal ones: is that just my taste (or my limitations)?, or does it say something about the best short fiction: very difficult to truly develop a sense of place and culture in short fiction, short fiction being more about a single action or a single character, and therefore less culturally bound, more universal in theme (and appeal).

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What's "European" about the Best European Fiction 2012?

Wondering as I continue to read through Aleksandar Hemon's anthology "Best European Fiction 2012" what exactly is European about the stories other than place setting and language. Noted in earlier posts that the European writers, if this is a representative sample, tend to be more engaged in experiments with form and voice than American writers (several stories wrote in one paragraph fragments, one in sentence fragments, one in essentially a long take, one with interpolated news bulletins, another in the 2nd person, one with paragraphs assembled in random chronological order) - but I don't know that this is exactly avant-garde - seems a little derriere garde, as American writers were more interested in formal experiments in the 70s and 80s than they are today. Of course the setting of a story is often revealing and important - but many of these stories could I think just as easily be set in the U.S. Could the same be true of American stories? Could they be transposed to the U.K. or to Europe? Sometimes - as we're in a much more global culture today than we were 50 years ago, and many stories today are about rootless, alienated people - they'd be the same in any setting. But I think there's something more particularly American about the best American fiction, an openness of style and point of view, that would not hold or make sense in a European setting: can you picture an Ann Beattie or a Charles Baxter or a Tom McGuane of a George Saunders story transposed to Europe? Much less a Raymond Carver or a John Updike or a Eudora Welty?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The funniest story in Best European Fiction 2012

Really enjoyed Duncan Bush's story Bigamy in Aleksandar Hemon's anthology "Best European Fiction 2012); Bush is Welsh, writing in English - is there a reason why by and large I've liked the English-language stories in this collection the best? Certainly part of it may be that they're writing from the same literary tradition I'm steeped in - but then again one reason to even pick up an anthology like this one is to get some news from other cultures, other tongues. I'm wondering if in part it's that the selection pool for English-language stories is so much deeper: for the stories from other languages, the anthologists had to wait for the story to appear in translation. Perhaps many of the very best are not translated into English, ever? Anyway, Bush's story is probably the funniest in the collection: a bunch of (construction?) workers on a break read and discuss a news item about a bigamist who's been outed - a truck driver with two families, two lives, in two towns in Wales - and they discuss how this could be possible, all the possible slip-ups and difficulties, and the story then ends with one of the characters, the narrator, reflecting on how his long-time girlfriend can tell in seconds if he's been out at a bar or pub flirting with another woman. It's just the right haunting and serious note on which to end this story of boisterous jabber about a seemingly innocuous or curious incident in the news.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Best European Fiction and the long shadow of Joyce

Judging from Aleksndar Hemon's selections in "Best European Fiction 2012" many European women fiction writers are working in the long shadow of Sylvia Plath (suicide, death, sadness - maybe we're all under that shadow?) and Irish writers work under the long shadow of Joyce. Obviously. But the surprise is that the Scottish writers in this anthology falls under that shadow as well - but maybe that's because he's of Irish ancestry (maybe even birth) and living in Scotland: anyway, can anyone read the McLoughlin story about a young boy (lad) who goes with his Dad to a football (soccer) game and not think about Portrait of the Artist? We have the same perspective strictly and artfully limited to the perceptions of the boy, as he is both spectator and participant in a Dad's day at a riotous football match: his first visit into a pub, a long bus ride to the match, the young boy's scary perspective on the tumultuous events of the match, the dim awareness of the cultural tensions (the boy and his Dad rooting for a Celtic team playing a Scottish team - and the sense of being an outsider and in an under class), the fear of separation and of injury, minor humiliations - and most of all the language, with the very particular Scottish-Irish idioms and phrasing, such as: He didn't understand, but. This story isn't on the Joycean level - what is? - in that there's no true epiphany - but a very well crafted story that brings us into the life and consciousness of another.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The two best stories (so far) in Best European Fiction 2012

The two best stories so far (about 2/3rds through it) in Aleksandar Hemon's collection "Best European Fiction 2012" are both about children: what does this say about European fiction? about Hemon's taste as an anthologist? About mine as a reader? Can't really generalize but though there are quite a few good stories in this anthology the tops so far for me are a Norwegian story (by someone name B. Breiteig) about two misfit boys at some kind of boarding school who slip away from authorities and the narrator, led by a very troubled youth, enter the crafts room or shop and proceed to do a great deal of damage to all the crafts projects - and maybe to each other. They're caught in the end, and you know the results will not be good - reminds me a little of the 50s novella Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and this story, being Norwegian, is particularly haunting as an odd foretelling of the crazy massacre of Norwegian campers that happened just a few months ago. The other really good story is a Swiss (French language) story, by someone named Revaz?, also about kids but this not from their POV and not misbehaving kids but just the opposite - it's in the form more or less of a letter from a woman who runs an orphanage telling the kids she'll be away for a few hours and leaving instructions: at first, it's just wash your hands, serve snacks to the younger children, that kind of thing, but gradually we realize this woman is totally abandoning the children and leaving them instructions about how to get on with the rest of their lives without any adult supervision - at once very strange and horrifying, but on another level you realize, to a degree, that this is what school - what life - is all about: leaving us on our own.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The 10 Best Books (I Read) in 2011

This year a lot of my reading involved classics, and many of those books I read by contemporaries were collections from a lifetime of work. 2011 was, for me anyway, a weak year for new fiction, particularly for new novels. Professional critics will have their ten-best lists of new fiction, but most readers don't or can't read enough new fiction to make any sensible judgment on the best new fiction of the year. Why should we? For me, it's important to return from time to time to the great books I've loved and to read for the first time some that I've overlooked. So my ten-best list for 2011 is really the 10 Best Books (I read) in 2011:

Selected Stories, by William Trevor. Retrospective story collections were definitely among the best books published in late 2010 or 2011, and this collection makes it clear that without a doubt Trevor is one of the greatest writers of our time.

The New Yorker Stories, by Ann Beattie. Another great collection that gives a terrific complete overview of Beattie's remarkable contribution over so many years to American short fiction.

Gryphon, by Charles Baxter. The third great story collection from the past year shows novelist and old friend Baxter's great skill and broad range in short fiction.

Collected Stories, by Eudora Welty. Among the books I read in 2011 from the library back shelves were two other great short-story collections. Reading Welty's entire short-story corpus, you see that she had a narrow range and narrow social scope, but incredible insight and perspicacity.

The Death of Ivan Ilych, and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy. Despite my slamming of The Kreutzer Sonata (which I think is unlikely to harm Tolstoy's reputation), this collection, in the Volkhansky-Pevear translation, has some extraordinary pieces, and it's a great way for those daunted by W&P or AK to begin to understand and enjoy Tolstoy.

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. Moving on to the best novels I read this year, DQ has to top the list: two of the greatest characters in world literature, very funny, very thoughtful, sharply critical of society in its time and, by extension, in ours, easy to read though not to hold - wish I'd read it on a Kindle.

Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust. Wait, maybe this one should top the list? In the Lydia Davis translation, every page, every sentence, every phrase is full of insight and beauty. No doubt Proust is not for all tastes, but every writer from the past hundred years has learned from Proust and lives in his shadow.

Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald. A totally quirky novel that in the short time since its publication has become a classic and has influenced many young novelists and essayists. Many have tried, but none can write about time, place, history, and memory better than Sebald - his early death was a great loss to us all.

Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson. I'll make this a plus-one by adding the other Keilson novel published in English in 2010/2011: Death of the Adversary. Two great and totally forgotten novels from the mid-20th century by the Dutch writer who died this year at 100! Both these novels, about Europe under the shadow of the Nazis, are strange and sad and give, hard as it is to believe, a completely fresh perspective on their tragic time.

In a future post: Some books that disappointed me during 2011.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Best European Fiction? France is so far out it's back in

You tell me - how surprising is it that, in Aleksandar Hemon's anthology "Best European Fiction 2012," which includes one "best" story of the year (the "year" appears to be the year the story is available in English, not the year of original publication, which seems to range through the past decade) from every (I think) European country and even language group (e.g., one each from England, Scotland, Wales) the most straightforward, simple, and conventional story in the first half of the book is the story from: France! What happened to all the sons and daughters of Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes? What happened to all the metacritics and hypertext addicts, the constructionists and the deconstructionists, the postmodernists and the even the existentialists? Helas! What we get is a rather pleasant story titled something like Juergan, the Best Son-in-Law in the World, about a young woman and her husband devoted to her mother (living in Bavaria) who help her out when she's lost her cat (yes, there's a little twist at the end, as well as an author's note that she wrote this story as catalog text for a photo exhibit) - and yet - I think Hemon's selection of this story to represent France in 2012, alongside a Slovakian stories written as one long and indiscernible paragraph, is a bit of a hyperjoke in itself - France is so far out that it's back in.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Post Magic Realism: Story from Argentine writer in The New Yorker

Argentine writer Cesar Aira (crossword-puzzle makers around the world are thanking heaven for providing this name) appears in The New Yorker this week with a story called The Musical Brain - I've never heard of Aira, and wonder if TNY sees him as another one of the Latin American writers whom they will introduce to a wide, English-speaking audience (the most recent being Bolano - too late for Balano to enjoy the renown, sadly): This story though not perfect (it ends kind of nowhere, and I wonder if it's actually a piece from a longer work?) is really distinct and unusual. The long history of Latin American magic realism and highly imaginative writing (e.g., Borges, Cortazar) very evident in the ancestry of this story, yet Aira puts his own touch on the material - you could almost call it post-Magic Realism. Story begins as what seems to be an ordinary memoiristic story - mature writer recalling moment of his youth when he had dinner in a fine restaurant with his family - and then something strange happens in the restaurant: people bring boxes of books up to an older woman at a head table. We think, how could this be? What? And then Aira explains it was some kind of fundraiser and we're thinking, OK, maybe the customs are different in Argentina, and we go on thinking this is a realistic story and then another odd thing happens - and it really takes quite a while before we get our bearings and realize that this whole fictive world is like a dream-state, vivid and real memories mixed with surreal events and circumstances (two feuding dwarfs entombed in a blood-filled statue, e.g.) - but all told with a cool, controlled tone and diction. Aira is clearly in the tradition of Kafka, as well - and I hope we'll see more of his work in English.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

That qualities that make Alice Munro one of the greats of our time

Leaving Maverly is the latest story from Alice Munro in The New Yorker, along with the good news that she has another collection due out next year - this story shows some new direction in her work, as well as the qualities that make Alice the Great one of the two greatest short-story writers of our time: We have the familiar Canadian smalltown postwar (i.e., late 40s early 50s) setting (though less emphasis on the Canadiana than usual) and we have the Munro quality of an ambling plot that develops and finds is shape as it moves along. First few paragraphs describe a young girl who has to leave her job in a movie theater and recommends a replacement, and the crotchety theater owner is skeptical but hires the girl. From the first 10 paragraphs or so, we think the story may be about the girl leaving the job, or more likely about the theater owner - then we begin to learn more about the new hire and we think it will be about her, and then we learn that she needs someone (a police officer, as it turns out) to escort her home, and the story turns out to be, primarily, about him and his invalid wife: we learn the whole back story of their courtship and marriage, and then we follow them across quite a swath of time, as is typical of many recent Munro stories. The young theater ticket taker leaves town and from time to time crosses paths with the police officer - finally seeing him when he's working in a hospital where his wife is mortally ill. OK, that's all pretty familiar Munro territory - but this story, also like some of her more recent, is quite compressed and tells a lot (not enough, perhaps) by indirection. The police officer is kind of dull and mundane; the most interesting character and the one who really goes through conflict and changes is the young girl, who is raised in a strict household, rebels, joins the counterculture, divorces, in the end oddly comes onto the police officer - what has changed her? What has happened in her life? Most writers would make the story about her - but Munro always defies expectations. In this case, the story is not one of her greatest - it feels as if there's a lot of empty space in this story - but it's a precis of her late writing style and of the decisions and chances that she always takes.