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

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

Monday, December 31, 2012

Where there's a will: Casauban's death in Middlemarch

Dorothea's terrible and inexplicable decision to marry that nasty pedant Casauban will haunt her even after Casauban's death, as we move into the final third of George Eliot's Middlemarch; Casauban's mean-spirited will contains the clause that Dorothea will forfeit the entire estate if she marries Casauban's cousin Ladislaw: this is a horrible codicil for a number of reasons. First, Dorothea of all people has no particular interest in the inherited wealth except insofar as the money can help her to better the lives of others, such as the tenant farmers in their poor housing (she also wants to support Lydgate's new hospital), but the will implies that she is and can be motivated by greed and self-interest. The will also casts a suspicion on both Dorothea and Ladislaw, implying that they have at the very least been talking about a future marriage; it definitely makes people suspect that they may have been carrying on an affair, which is far from the case. Third,  it makes it impossible for Dorothea and Ladislaw even to be on friendly terms, as there always will be suspicion and whispers around them. Finally, it is like the cold hand of death reaching up from the grave to strangle Dorothea or to touch her heart. What business is it of Casaubon, why should he care, whom Dorothea may or may not marry? D. is tormented by all of these thoughts, and so is L., who is clearly in love with D. - L. decides to leave Middlemarch and pursue a career in law and politics: of all the characters in the novel, he has grown and matured the most, moving from an artistic dilettante to a committed social advocate and reformer, or at least it seems that way. But Dorothea will grow and mature, too, learning from the terrible mistake of her unguided youth - as in all great novels, the characters take a journey, and are not quite the same at the end as they were at the outset. This section contains another great Eliot passage, in which she reflects that if childhood is the season of hope is it hope that elders hold for their children, not that children or youth hold for themselves - and she somehow builds this observation into a reference to the elderly in Peru and their acclimitization to earthquakes - a great example of the quickness and quirkiness of Eliot's mind.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why I like and fear the iPad

Okay, dunnit. I am reading George Eliot's Middlemarch on an iPad. I can't say I'm won over entirely - but pretty close. A few notes and observations: This is literally my 4th try at re-reading Middlemarch: had an old pb edition that I probably read first in the '80s and it was falling apart as I tried to red it; then borroed a Norton Critical edition and the point size was microscopic, sorry, even college students wouldn't be able to read it; then borrowed a two-volume illustrated edition, each volume about 400 pages - but in those days thes elibrary editions were printed on very heavy stock, and each volume weighs several pounds and I literally sprained my left thumb trying to hold the book while reading - so the iPad is a huge improvement on many scores: you can choose the font (though I do like the default Iowan) and the point size (I upped mine slightly from the default - funny to watch the total pages # jump from 1004 to about 1380). Those the iPad is probably slightly heavier than a pb edition, its slim shape makes it easy to hold and manage. And of course it's backlit - best solution ever for reading in bed (which I rarely do, partly because of poor lighting) or in weak light. Yes, I miss some things about actually holding a book, the ability to easily flip back to check an earlier reference (though iPads have a great search feature, which has allowed me to track down passages very easily), the lack of cover art, which often gives a book its own personality (though sometimes misleadingly - e.g., many of the Penguins with beautiful cover art that often has no direct bearing on the novel or the author - it's kind of amazing how seldom authors have any say on the cover art for their books, their "product" you might say), the lack of section headings (at least in the edition of M. I'm reading), and the general cold, techie quality of the book: a book is a comforting object and a physical record of our intellectual life, and with electronic readers, that's all gone. I also am a marginalia scribbler (often, not always) as I'm reading - and the "notes" feature on the iPad is OK for an important notation but not really inviting or easy and not likely to be a source of reference in future readings 20 years from now, god willing, or ever. I should feel guilty that the edition I'm reading is a  public-domain free version - makes me wonder how long any publisher will bother to keep classics in print when competing against zero cost. All told, iPads are great option for many readers or for many books for all readers but I think, I hope, they don't entirely displace the actual physical book in my life, and in my lifetime.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Three problems in Middlemarch

Yes, there are three "love problems," as George Eliot modestly calls them, in Middlemarch, but they're about much more than love, and as these problems evolve and develop we see just how smart and sophisticated a writer Eliot is and we get a real instance of a "problem novel" at its best - issues worked out through character and action rather than through exposition and polemics. First, Dorothea: her husband, Casaubon, has asked her to make an unreasonable promise to carry on his scholarly project after he dies; Dorothea has become aware that his scholarship is a work of folly (Casaubon, too, has reluctantly begun to understand this - and his binding Dorothea to the project is an act of extreme cruelty and selfishness). Dorothea wrestles with her decision: to deny him would be a devastating blow to him and to their marriage (such as it is), but to accept would draw her away from the much more important work she sees before her - improving the lives of the impoverished in Middlemarch. Which leads us to the 2nd problem: Lydgate, the good if arrogant doctor, has estranged himself from all his fellow professionals, who are jealous of his education and his capabilities; he also emphasizes treatment rather than prescription, which has alienated him from the apothecaries obviously; his only ally in building the new hospital is the banker Bulstrade, generally hated by everybody; still he persists in his vision, yet we see that he is being drawn toward unreasonable expenditures by his new, spoiled bride, Rosamund Vincy. What kind of compromises will he be forced into in order to maintain his lifestyle, as we today would call it? Third, Ladislaw has begun working in the service of that old food Brooke, now running for Parliament - it's obvious that to run for Parliament you need a respectable name, not ideas or capacity - Ladislaw knows that Brooke will not uphold any of the progressive views he sometimes espouses, but he persuades himself that he has influence Brooke for the better and that he, too, must make compromises, in order to earn a living and to at least in some way advance the social good - but obviously there will be increasing tension between his ideals and the demands of the campaign.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Class conflict in Middlemarch

As I noted in an earlier post, George Eliot rarely if ever ventures beyond the boundaries of her chose social class - the landed gentry and the rising merchant class of the English villages circa 1830 - in Middlemarch, and she's even aware of that limitation - she has one section in which she acknowledges that she is writing only about the well-to-do but suggests that her readers can imagine the lives of others (she calls the others "loobies," if I remember correctly) if we like - I'll have to re-read that section. She also makes the very trenchant observation that when a wealthy person steals something the courts will look on the matter as a case of kleptomania and everyone will feel sorry for the thief, but when a poor person steals something (like a loaf of bread that they need because they're starving), they'll be convicted and sentenced. I think both Marx and Freud made similar observations - and I think Eliot's passage was often cited in relation to various celebrity shoplifters in recent years who got off with a scolding. That said: Eliot does has one extraordinarily powerful chapter in which she breaks the mold and focuses on one of the poor farm laborers in the village of Middlemarch: Mr. Brooke gets word that one of his tenant's children has killed a little rabbit, and he pays a visit to the tenant farmer to "ask" him to discipline his child. Brooke, to this point, has been portrayed as a lovable, feckless, kind of stupid man who thinks he's smart and artistic, has dreams of "standing" for Parliament and somehow thinks of himself as a progressive, but as far as we can see he has no real values or ideals or even ideas. His aide Ladislaw tells Brooke he'll be vulnerable unless he does something to improve the conditions of his tenant farmers - and we gradually learn that Brooke is a tightwad (when it comes to spending on anything other than his own comfort). When Brooke visits the tenant, we see his character from a completely different point of view: this kindly, Austenian character who's been a bit of comic relief thus far, when seen from the point of view of the tenant, is a horrible and bullying overlord. The tenant farm is a shambles - and Eliot has a great passage in which she notes that a homestead like this is often depicted as a beautiful bit of the rural landscape but in fact is a horror to anyone living within; Brooke arrives and tells the tenant that he is hooding the boy and punishing him - but maybe only for a few hours! - and he expects the farmer to punish the boy - don't hit him, though! - when he's released to return home. The farmer, impoverished and drunk and irresponsible though he may be - give Brooke hell for this, and rightfully so, and Brooke sneaks off, mumbling some of his usual platitudes. This chapter opens up an entirely new dimension in Middlemarch - and shows that Eliot is one of the few writers who can turn a character inside out and who can appreciate and capture the class tensions within the society she has created, without being polemical or didactic.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

George Eliot's unique voice and vision: some examples

I'm going to depart from past practice here - readers of these posts may note that I never have the book I've been reading beside me while blogging - I emphatically do not want these posts to be anything resembling a term paper or an open-book test, so I don't want to be checking the text for accuracy, for details, or for choice passages (an exception: when I blogged a few times about several poems); what I blog is from memory of my (previous day's) reading - the blog helps me to read more carefully and the process of blogging doesn't get muddied in scholarship or pedantry. (I occasionally toggle to another tab to check the spelling of an author's name or the words in a title.) I'm making an exception today in order to capture something of George Eliot's style; to talk or think or blog about Middlemarch solely based on its plot, characters, and themes - vast and copious as these may be - is to miss what is probably the essential element in her work, which is the narrative intelligence (this phenomenon is even more pronounced in Proust - but Eliot is his precursor). There are several famous passages throughout - such as the one in which she notes that if we could hear the grass growing and the heartbeat of squirrels we would go insane - but it's very hard to recall most of her insights, as her writing propels us forward (and to be honest, some are almost intractable). So I'm going to give just a few brief examples, selected through casual scanning through the novel, of Eliot's voice, which I think show her extremely unusual and heightened manner of thinking and of exposition:

When animals entered the Ark in pairs, one may imagine that allied species made much private remark on each other, and we tempted to think that so many forms feeding on the same store of fodder were eminently superfluous, as tending to diminish rations. (This passage introduces the chapter in which relatives gather around the dying Featherstone, hoping for bequest in his will.)

The country gentry of old time lived in a rarefied social air: dotted apart on their stations up the mountain they looked down with imperfect discrimination on the belts of thicker life below. (Perfect image; notes her unusual and striking choice of nouns and verbs: dotted, belts.)

Goodness is of a modest nature, easily discouraged, and when much privacy, elbowed in early life by unabashed vices, is apt to retire into extreme privacy, so that it is more easily believed in by those who construct a selfish old gentleman theoretically, than by those who form the narrower judgments based on his personal acquaintance. (I think the first "privacy" may be a misprint? Note the extremely complex sentence structure and the unconventional punctuation; essentially what she is saying is that we delude ourselves into thinking some people are "good" when evidence tells us otherwise - especially is we're hopeful of that person's benevolence.)

The above quotes are all in relation to the death of Featherstone. For good measure, here's the squirrel passage:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of the roar which lies on the other side of silence.

Perfect!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A rare New Yorker debut story

In a rare (these days) New Yorker debut, the current issue of the mag publishes a writer who's apparently just starting out, still in MFA mode, Thomas Pierce, with a pretty good story called Shirley Temple Three, the title the name of a prehistoric mammoth that has been somehow cloned and brought back to life - which gives you an idea of the oddity of the story: about a middle-aged Georgia woman, Mawmaw, whose beloved but irresponsible son, Tony (?), is the host of an Atlanta TV show called Back from Extinction (I think that would have been a better title for the story), whose premise is bringing extinct creatures back to life through science - the show itself, despite its scifi aspects, seems to film as a Wild Kingdom or any one of the Animal Planet specials. Weirdly, they're supposed to kill the animals after the show to prevent further reproduction but in this instance, for some reason, the vet who's supposed to euthanize - she's also Tony's girlfriend - won't do it, and Tony stashes the mammoth at Mawmaw's; she cares for it for a period of time, until it sickens and then ... I won't give everything away. The story clearly owes a big debt to the great George Saunders, who has created a whole genre out of weird, futuristic amusement parks and zoo exhibits - though he hasn't touched yet on TV, I don't think. The characters are not, however, as lost and loopy as Saunders's; here, the genetic line goes straight to Southern Gothic, Flannery O'Connor for sure but without the acidity, or maybe the younger Padgett Powell. Pierce's characters are actually pretty sweet, and Mawmaw works very hard to care for this pathetic animal - it's the animal who's displaced, not the characters. Where the story falls a bit short is in that Pierce touches on a number of promising themes that he doesn't adequately develop (I know, it's just a story, but still), notably Mawmaw's religious belief - we get into some Southern satire here, as she calls on her fundamentalist minister for a blessing and some aid - and how she, or the minister, feel about tampering with the origin, and the creation, of species. Also, like far too many stories, in writing workshops around the world and in the New Yorker as well, the ending feels like a deflation - the story is all about the premises and the conditions, the act of imagination required to just come up with the features of this story - and the resolution of events and emotions becomes secondary. A promising work and a promising writer, however.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Eliot is no Zola: social class in Middlemarch

Not really "fair" to criticize a novel for what it isn't, but let's note for the record that George Elliot's Middlemarch appears to be a novel that encompasses the entire scope of English provincial society circa 1830 but in fact the social classes of the novel are narrowly circumscribed - including only the the shopkeepers and bankers and small landholders who run the village of Middlemarch and, at the upper end, the landed gentry and the well-to-do petit nobility: though Dorothea is seemingly committed to improving the lives and lot of the farm workers and the working people of her village - through her admirable scheme to build better "cottages" for them, and Lydgate has put aside a potentially much more lucrative career in medicine in London to serve the people of Middlemarch (while advancing his research through a new hospital), Eliot never shows us the people who are in need other than through the eyes and perceptions of the landowners and the wealthy. She is no Zola, in other words. In Book 3, we get a glimpse of the class biases in the society of Middlemarch, as the Garth children crudely mock the way the laborers on their little farm talk - and Mrs Garth stresses that they will need to get a good education so that they don't speak like the laborers. The drama of Book 3 involves Fred Vincy, the narcissistic son of the mayor-elect, who gets Mr Garth to co-sign a loan and then blows almost all the money through drinking and gambling and through a terrible horse-trade - he's self-centered and naive, and rather than propose or think of any serious way in which he can repay the debt, he just shows up contrite and penitent at the Garths' and makes the problem theirs: they don't have a lot of money, it's clear, and now they will have to dig into their shallow savings to pay the debt that they didn't truly incur. So Eliot is very sharp and cutting about the irresponsibility of some of the landed gentry who live better than those around them not through their hard work or their merits but just because of the capital they have accumulated through social rank and expectations; but that is not to say that she examines all of society - she doesn't. The issues she examines are unique to that rising class - not the truly wealthy, who can and do afford all sorts of idiotic and selfish extravagance - but not those who have to labor for a meager living day by day with no hope of prosperity. We'll see how the novel develops, but thus far it's a novel of a single social class in crisis, not about the whole scope of society.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Two reasons why Dorthea's marriage is a horror : Middlemarch

So as book two of Goerge Eliot's Middlemarch bloses out and I step into book 3, we are now back to the central (I think) character of the novel, Dorothea, and, no surprise, severalweeks into her marriage to Casaubon she realizes her grave error - it's not so much that he is dray as dust and a pretentious would-be historian-scholar, unlikely ever to begin his massive project on The Key to all Mythology let alone finish it, but, two things: first, he is in no way in favor of female independence, and all her thoughts about subjugating herself to his genius should have been a warning. Not only would that have been a tragic waste of Dorothea's talents and abilities - it's tragic that she (and millions of other women) had to think that the best and perhaps the only way they could make a contribution to scholarship and letters would be as an aide to a brilliant husband/mentor - but, more important to Dorothea, Casaubon doesn't even want her help. Note that throughout it has been Dorothea saying she'll read to him to spare his eyesight, she'll organize his papers so that he can work more efficiently - he never asks this of her, and he never actually invites her to help him out. When it comes right down to it, during their honeymoon in Rome, he seems to want her out of the way - seeing the famous "sights" as he works on his project in the Vatican Museum I see this as two issues: first, he is ashamed of his project, he knows it's way beyond his mental capacity, he knows he can't ever begin writing this monstrous text, and he doesn't want Dorothea to see how pathetic his work actually is and doesn't want her rooting for him and building her identity and the foundation of their marriage on the back of this project because he knows it will amount to a pile of dust. Second - which brings me to the second theme that rises in this part of the novel: he obviously is not a suitable sexual partner for Dorothea, or for any woman; he's a shy old "bachelor," probably not gay, certainly no intimation of that, but also certainly nonsexual or asexual: Eliot never (at least thus far) treats this theme overtly, but it is the underlying current of the novel when we pick up Dorothea and Casaubon 6 weeks into their marriage in Rome: there is no love or affection between them, Casaubon seems repeatedly to pull away from Dorothea, and part of her sense of loss in this marriage must be her sense that she will never have a sexual relation with her husband, perhaps with anyone. Why she didn't see this earlier is a great mystery and perhaps a flaw in Middlemarch, but the outcome or result of this terrible mistake will be the theme of much of the novel I'm sure - as various other relationships among young couples in Middlemarch, each with looming problems and issues (Lydgate falling for the beautiful but shallow Rosamond Vincy, the irresponsible Fred Vincy and Mary(?) Garth, Ladislaw lurking in the shadows of the Dorothea-Casaubon edifice).

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Fancy meeting you here: coincidence in English fiction

I know it's probably mundane of me and these scenes are no doubt central to the novel, or perhaps essential if not central, but I'm getting pretty weary of the lengthy discussions about village politics in book 2 of George Eliot's Middlemarch. I realize that the very nature of the conversations, stultifying and provincial, is essential for our comprehension of the life and values of the Middlemarch community, in 1829 (time of setting of the novel) and that without seeing the petty politics in play regarding the appointment of the hospital chaplain - in which the socially conscious young Dr. Lydgate has to go against his principles, or against his judgment in any case, and vote to select the candidate who's the favorite of the nasty banker, Bulstrade, whose support is essential for construction of the new hospital. The point being in part that nobody is pure, that even in an English village in the 1820s favors were still bought and sold - folks in my state (Rhode Island) think somehow that dirty politics began right here but that's obviously not so. As Eliot goes to great lengths to establish this village climate, an old-boy network in which people have to bend their will to the wealthy and powerful, I feel the air is being let out of the novel - and am glad, well into book 2 (old and young) that Dorothea and her now husband, Casaubon, turn up again - in Rome - as they come across Casaubon's cousin, the young would-be aesthete Ladislaw (as is so true in many English novels, the characters are always running across one another in the most unlikely settings, as if all of England consists of about 100 people - and maybe it does? - the best example of this phenomenon, which occurs so often and in such unlikely ways throughout the course of his sequence of novels, is Anthony Powers's Dance to the Music of Time - quite funny) - in any case, the reappearance of Dorothea will get the novel back on track, and she will obviously come into some kind of relationship with Lydgate, both of them committed to social change, neither one exactly an idealist, and neither with a suitable match: Lydgate head over heels for the beautiful Rosamond Vincy, the mayor-elect's daughter, but it's clear she is far too shallow and weak a personality for him - an unsuitable match in exactly the opposite way from Dorothea's, suggesting the Lydgate and Dorothea are the ones truly destined for each other - though the path to that destiny will be difficult and maybe tragic.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Unique role of narrator in Middlemarch

Thanks KK for pointing out that in fact the is a British TV version of Middlemarch; I'm sure it's good, although I probably won't watch it - it's enough to read the novel, great, long, heavy (literally, a thumb-sprainer in the two-volume illustrated hb edition I'm reading), abundant with Eliot's intelligence. One of the reasons we read novels is to gain consciousness of the consciousness of another - and in Middlemarch we certainy see how Eliot's mind works, her metaphors and analogies and quips and learned asides - the narrator becomes truly the key persona in, almost the protagonist of, the novel - and I think this aspect would be completely lost in any dramatization of the work, which naturally would focus on character and action; second reason we read novels is (often) to gain access to a time and place other than our own. Think of how little we would know about, say, 19th-century Russia if it were not for the great novelists of that century. Same true for many other times and places - even our own time, which accounts for the great and growing interest in world literature. Historians look back on people and events and at their best bring them to life for contemporary readers, but novelists are in a sense cultural historians in their own time. I don't know what Eliot was thinking as she wrote Middlemarch, what her intentions were, but one of the last pleasures - though a difficult one - of the novel is that it is a meticulous record of its time and place (English midland provinces). The long chapter in which she gives us Dr. Lydgate's back story an excellent example: there is little or no action in this chapter, which does not move the narrative (or plot) forward an inch, but it's a record of the history of medicine, the forces that were shaping the science and practice, at that time that is much more vivid (and accurate?) than anything you'd find in any historical or scientific text - all part of Eliot's copious knowledge and curiosity, which makes Middlemarch a near-unique document, though sometimes a challenge as a narrative: her work begs for condensation, but any abridged edition (such as the abridged Silas Marner we were forced to read back in 8th grade) loses the whole point. Without Eliot's narration, these are nothing.

Friday, December 21, 2012

George Eliot: dialogue master

Is there a movie or TV version of George Eliot's "Middlemarch"? Probably, knowing the British obsession with classic British fiction, there is a version - though it seems far more cerebral than the Dickens or Austen works that adapt so well to screen, large or small. I'm not sure how well the first book, Dorothea Brooke, of the novel would play: what makes it is largely the wise authorial stance of the author and the opposition of ideas as played out in character (or caricature): Dorothea wanting to do good, but weirdly entirely subjecting herself to the will of a much older man who seems to share none of her passion for social justice - and the incomprehension and puzzlement of others in the small village of Middlemarch who puzzle at this liaison. That said, the 2nd book, Old and Young, seems considerably more cinematic, and I'm particularly struck by the great, sharp dialogue: the young man Fred, son of the town mayor-elect, sucking up to the wealthy relative whom he hopes will bequeath him property, and Fred's courtship of his sister's much more plain but much sharper best friend: their dialogue cracks with sharp attacks like Beatrice and Benedict. Eliot's facility with dialogue surprised me, and there was little hint of it in part 1; I wonder the extent to which her talents were sharpened as she proceeded through this project: surely, I think, she would have made Casaubon less of an obvious mismatch for Dorothea is he had a do-over.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

When two "bachelors" arrive in town in an English novel, what will happen?

George Eliot begins to open up "Middlemarch" about 100 pages into the first section, and the novel seems slowly to evolve out of its Austen-ian origins and toward a 19th- or even a 20th-century sensibility - from Austen to Zola in 100 pages. Initially, we had two sister, a feckless guardian uncle, and two rival suitors, one dashing and kind of dumb and the other highly intelligent for dry and soulless. Reader, she marries him: Dorothea marries Casaubon, to just about everyone's dismay, and Eliot sends them off for a few chapters, out of the novel and into a honeymoon in Europe. And then we see Middlemarch as a town begin to take shape before our eyes: we meet the mayor-elect (?) Vincy and his daughter, Rosemond?, universally considered the town beauty and the best student in Mrs. Lemon's school for young ladies where, among other skills, she has learned how to properly enter and exit a carriage. The men gossip and talk politics - some of which is totally lost on us today with footnotes (whigs v. whom? who knows or cares?), but we do get the sense of a conservative, constrained, insular community. Most important, two new men make an appearance: Ladislaw, Casaubon's cousin, a recent college grad who doesn't know what he wants to do with his life other than dabble in the arts and see Europe and sponge off his rich cousin - a familiar type in literature and in life - and Lydgate (an interesting decision to have these two potential antagonists have names beginning with the same letter - why would she do that?), the doctor newly arrived in town, with some advanced ideas. Both men are "bachelors" and young - so in the world of the English novel, they will both become entwined in one way or another with one of the Middlemarch maidens - or perhaps not a maiden. And perhaps the same one. Eliot is extremely smart, adorning every chapter, every page, with sly asides to the reader - not really typical of the genre of English novelistic storytelling - she constantly pulls us away from the plot to discuss with us aspects of social life, human interaction, and politics. Obviously politics and activism and social causes will become a dominant them, as Dorothea has made plain that her main cause is improving village housing (new cottages) and it's clear that her new husband doesn't give a damn about anyone but himself. How's that going to work out for her?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The horrifying indifference toward Dorothea : Middlemarch

As you might expect, all of Tipton is in a tizzy about Dorothea Brooke's decision to marry the "elderly" (50, I guess that was old in 1860?) Casaubon - a decision we know to be a dreadful one because of George Eliot's trenchant portrayal, caricature almost, of the old reverend - just reading any one of his comments to Dorothea during they're engagement and you'll laugh - he's a totally ludicrous character and it's impossible to see why a bright and attractive (and wealth) young woman like Dorothea would choose him - not only because of his pedantic, dry, dull behavior but also because of his utter contempt for an intelligent woman. Eliot is making a point - and a good one - about the subjugation of women in all of the professions - Dorothea, obviously highly intelligent though not well educated (because of her gender), wants to marry Casaubon to completely subjugate herself to his will and his so-called genius (D. should be able to see that his project, Te Key to All Mythologies, is absurd and if he hasn't made serious progress by age 50 he never will): she says in particular that she would like to read to him - even text that she cannot understand (Latin and Greek, e.g.) to spare his eyes. OK, so we know it's a terrible decision, and so does her sister, Celia, and so does the neighbor Mrs. Cadwallader, though her motives are more personal pride and pique - she'd had another match all set up, and now that's fallen apart - but the men just let her have her will. That's an interesting and surprising twist: of course allowing a woman to make her own decisions is good, and there are plenty of novels in which the parents force on the child an unsuitable marriage; here, they let her make her choice out of pure indifference: she's an orphan in the care of her feckless and foolish uncle, and Eliot makes it clear that he'd just rather not be bothered with her; he likes the Casaubon is wealthy, so he won't have to worry about her finances, or more accurately he won't have to spend any $ on her, and other than that he washes his hands of her. Eliot shrewdly sees some of the contradictions in her society and her point women need the same freedom as men, not more not less, in education, marriage, lineage, property. No father or guardian would allow a son to make such a terrible decision about marriage; the uncle's indifference toward Dorothea is more horrifying than any form of oppression. We all know Dorothea is on her way toward doom; the question is, how will she rectify her fateful decision, if at all?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Austen's Powers?: Comparison between George (Eliot) and Jane

Began the daunting task of (re)reading George Eliot's "Middlemarch," after long search for an edition with readable type and weighing less than a concrete slab (WS loaned me an old two-volume hb). When you begin Middlemarch you know immediately that you are in good hands with a really super-intelligent author - one of those very rare authors (Joyce is another) about whom I feel that, if I were to devote a lifetime of study, I might (but probably still couldn't) understand all that their novel encompasses and contains. Even in the first 40 pp. or so - so many trenchant and unusual observations - comparing, in the preface, Dorothea Brooke with Saint Teresa, for example, or some of the sly asides such as the sentence in which she contemplates for just a moment how a cat (Murr, she names it I think) might contemplate our behavior. At first blush, Middlemarch seems very much like a late-edition Austen novel, but that's not so: they're similar initially in that, like Austen, this is a novel about marriagable sisters, both attractive, one (Celia, the younger) slightly more so, the older, Dorothea, extremely intelligent - much more than the men around her. The male guardian - in this case, an uncle, is, like the dad Emma, is somewhat foolish and feckless and can't really keep up with the daughter's thinking. Like Austen, the setting is English provincial, and the plot, again initially, focuses on the confusions of love: Dorothea, smart as she is, is amazingly obtuse about love and courtship, and thinks that one of the dashing young men is after Celia when it's obvious he's interested in Dorothea (she's much like Emma in this naivete). Okay, but there are vast differences between Austen and Eliot: style first of all - Eliot much more apt to use metaphor, analogy, and authorial aside - which is to say, her novel is more self-consciously a literary text, whereas Austen's is more a transparent lens through which we see, seemingly without authorial intervention, the behavior of the characters. Most important, Middlemarch is far more "political" than anything Austen wrote - Dorothea is motivated by trying to improve the lives of the villagers, which will be central to the plot, whereas in Austen the main characters are essentially oblivious of the social and historical forces around them. One disappointment, however: why must Eliot make Dorothea so obtuse about love? It's obvious to all readers from page one that Casaubon is dry as a stick and totally unsuitable to her - why can't she see this? She's naive but far from stupid. As their unhappy marriage is essential to the story, why didn't Eliot make him at least attractive in some way? I think about portrayals on stage of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, and how I have long argued that it is much more effective to make him handsome, dashing - at least a possible match for Olivia. To my knowledge only friend AW did so in an actually production, and the results were great - same principle here: Eliot would have done better to make Casaubon a plausible match for Dorothea.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The most geographic (and peripatetic) of writers

I enjoyed the many great elements in Richard Ford's "Canada," especially the keen sense of space and geography and the access to the consciousness of a young man from a rather ordinary, if solitary, family who faces a great crisis in life and endures. Typical of Ford, Canada is a highly introspective novel, in which the protagonist/narrator examines all aspects of his thinking and behavior. It's unfortunate that Ford let the plot of the novel get away from him: he's trying something very difficult and challenging here, presenting a novel with two great action scenes - a bank robbery and a double-murder, both telegraphed in the first sentence - as told by a first-person narrator who witnesses neither. The novel is not so much about these dramatic events as about the effect they have on a character. Where the novel becomes a bit unhinged, I would say, is when Ford essentially erases three of the main characters from the novel at the half-way point: he went to great pains to depict the family of 4, as mom and dad careen toward a bank robbery and prison, and I - like most readers, I suspect - expected the novel to be about this family, both before and after the robbery. But, no - the twin sister and the parents vanish from part 2 of the novel, as the narrator goes off to Canada, where he is taken in by a strange and quite cruel man - and this man, Remlinger, becomes the main character in part 2 - yet we don't really care about him or believe in him, his actions are all very sketchy as the narrator, Dell, doesn't know him and can't explain him: he would be an interesting lead character in a novel, I think, but seen obliquely he makes no sense, neither to Dell nor to us. The very short part 3 brings us to the present, with Dell as a 60ish English teacher reuniting briefly with his twin, now dying of cancer: this doesn't feel like an earned conclusion, there's so much about Dell's life in between that we don't know and never will, even more so about his sister Berner's life - the only purpose seems to be for Berner to give Dell the notebooks their mother kept, which explains how Dell could have known the details about the bank robbery and other personal matters. Ford is a writer with a deep and abiding interest in geography - his books examine many different places on the continent, and reader's of author's notes have for years noted that Ford is among the most peripatetic of authors. He has beautifully captured a sense of the landscape in Montana and in Sask., Canada, but it does seem at times that he lets his interest in geography and his skill at rendering a sense of place overwhelm the story - I appreciate he didn't want to write a "thriller" or a who dunnit, but the novel seems willfully deflated of narrative affect, which is a shame, a missed opportunity.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Uncanny timing re. the publication of Creatures in current New Yorker

If I remember correctly Marisa Silver was one of the writers that the New Yorker "discovered" back int he day when they focused at least one issue a year on debut fiction - she was then writing about troubled people on the fringe of the entertainment industry in LA and she continues to write good short fiction as her field of vision has widened. Her story in the current NYer, Creatures, is an excellent piece - very well paced and plotted, characters sketched in very economically, like many stories focuses on a brief period of time in the "present" but raws on the characters' memories and back stories to give the short piece a near-novelistic sense of depth. In brief: storyis about a professional couple recently relocated to a wealthy suburb (she's a doctor he's a furniture maker who's sold his designs to a Starbucks-like company and made a fortune, presumably without a college education) and their preschool child. The child's preschool teacher calls them in for a conference because the son has been aggressive in school, pretend-shooting with a stick, scaring other kids. The parents don't entire see eye-to-eye on the matter, the dad making light of the issue to a degree and avoiding serious discussion with the child; the mom taking the issue more to heart - very typical of many families, it would seem. Then we learn something about why the dad pushes this issue aside: he was involved in some terrible incident as a child (he recalls telling his now-wife about this on one of their first dates, before they could get "serious," and she accepted him even after his confession - we learn later in the story that the shame of this incident caused him to be a loner throughout high school - thinking no girl would want anything to do with him). So what was the incident? Silver deftly weaves it through the present-day narration; I won't give anything away because there is a big surprise at the end, but we do see that it had to do with the dad's relation with a younger neighbor when they were preteens and a deer-hunting excursion with the neighbor's dad. The timing of the appearance of this story in the NYer is weird and uncanny, as the whole nation sits stunned through the pre-holiday weekend trying to make sense of the school shootings in Connecticut, when in fact they make no sense (though why it is still legal to buy semi-automatic weapons is beyond comprehension and shameful). Silver's story is a great examination of the consequences of violence - and it's eerie to think how the dad in this story, so easily, could have taken an entirely different course in life, and that maybe his darker side, for some inexplicable reason, is being enacted or, literally, "played out" through his son.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The problem with first-person narrative: Richard Ford's Canada

Richard Ford's novel "Canada" is a good example of the perils of first-person narration. Ford uses the first person a lot, a very suitable mode for his sensibility as writer, which involves characters prone to rumination and introspection and who are often (Bascombe, in particular) literary types who in fact might write down their thoughts, so the first-person narration does not strain credibility. (Updike wisely used third person for his Rabbit novels, which are about as introspective as a third-person narration could ever become.) The problem Ford has to deal with in Canada is that he is telling a story with several great dramatic scenes, and the narrator is not present for at least one of them (the bank robbery, which led to the arrest of his parents). Ford works that out by having the narrator, Dell, now an older man looking back on his childhood, indicate that he had access to a journal that his mother kept - so, OK, we can accept that he can tell us the events of the robbery, even though almost all of the first part of the novel works so well because, from the child's POV (15 years old at the time of the events of the novel, in 1960) he had only the vaguest understanding of what was happening in his family, as his father plans the robbery and draws the timid mother into his orbit. The 2nd part of the novel involves Dell's living in almost slave-like conditions working for a man who owns a hotel/bar/hunting lodge in Saskatchewan. There are many hints, even from the first paragraph of the novel, that this part of the novel, too, is drawing toward a dramatic conclusion - a murder, in fact - though in his fashion Ford does not rush the pace of the novel but rather spends a lot of time allowing the character to explore and reflect on his loneliness and fear and his naive hope that his boss,the hotel owner Remlinger, will actually shelter and protect him and become a replacement for the now-absent father. So how can Ford build toward the conclusion? Unfortunately, only in the clunkiest narrative fashion: he has the totally odd and unlikable character Charley spend about 10 pages telling Dell Remlinger's back story, his right-wing political past that led to a bombing death of an innocent man, his flight to Canada, and now the likelihood, 15 (?) years later, that two Americans are coming north for vengeance. Well, first, why would Charley tell all of this to Dell? Second, why would Remlinger have told any of this to anybody, let alone to Charley? And how would either Remlinger or Charley have any idea that two men were coming north to find Remlinger? They say he was tipped off, but that seems preposterous. And why would Remlinger just wait around for them to arrive (maybe we'll find out why, but not clear yet). Anyway, a really fine novel, but you can see toward the end where Ford's sensibility and narrative decisions bump up hard against the requirements of a plot-driven narrative.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Huck, Holden, and the narrator of Richard Ford's Canada

On this day of sadness for schoolchildren in our area and in our country, I'm thinking about the extremely sad Part 2 of Richard Ford's novel "Canada," a fairly abrupt and unexpected change in the tone of the novel - after part one carefully built to the denouement in which the narrator's (Dell's) parents are arrested and imprisoned for robbing a bank - and Dell indicates that after visiting them in prison he will never see them again - they are more or less erased from the novel, or at least from the foreground of the novel, and Dell is smuggled north to Canada where he is to live with the brother of one of his mother's acquaintances (friend would be overstating it). Essentially, he lives the life of a slave - placed in a horribly decrepit prairie building, order to work endless hours "swabbing" the filthy rooms in the crappy hotel that his so-called benefactor owns, put in the care of a scary little man with strong indications of sexual perversion. Dell is extremely cool and blase about all of this - very unhappy and lonely, but it's a lonely novel - populated for Dell with no friends and no relatives beyond immediate (now broken) family. Over time, he gets to know his benefactor, Arthur Remlinger (?), somewhat better, but it's unclear to any reader why Arthur would have agreed to or wanted to take Dell under his so-called care: Dell gives him free slave labor, but there's a lot of risk involved in illegally sheltering him, so why? One of the most poignant scenes involves Dell's lonely bicycle trek to a nearby town where he hears there's a school for "wayward girls" and for some crazy reason he thinks they'll take him in - of course they don't. This kid needs someone to look out for him and care for him, but he's completely alone in the world - the fact that he is now looking back on his childhood as a adult with apparently a normal life (I think he says he's a professor?) is quite astonishing, but what saves the book from foundering on its own improbabilities is that Dell himself is aware throughout as to how odd and improbable his own life events are. There are quite a few events in this novel, but it's not a dramatic story, it's more a story of mood and reflection and deep sorrow (someone will probably try to film this book, but I doubt a movie could capture the mood well and would probably just cheapen the narrative by making it too vivid - the beauty of the narration is how much Dell tells us by indirection and nuance). Though his Bascombe trilogy is a very adult-centered series of novels (a child is a central character in Independence Day, but he is enigma rather than a fully opened character), Ford has written well about the perceptions of children in a number of his stories and in at least one novel (Wildlife); Canada develops one of the strongest and most unusual teenage narrators in American fiction: a character ans lonely and independent as Huck or Holden, but, unlike them, a character longing to be taken into a family and a society and rejected or ignored at every turn.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Stephen Millhauser's best story

Friend WS has been recommending Steven Millhauser stories to me for some time, and I've felt overall that his stories tend to be a little mannered and "academic" - that is, not quite experimental but stories written to showcase the writer's talent and imagination rather than to reflect on or examine or re-create aspects of our known world, stories that earn tenure and prizes but not readership - nothing wrong with that but a matter of taste in what we read. Nevertheless, WS and I often agree on writers - in short stories, we both greatly admire Carver, for example - so I keep meaning to look further into Millhauser's work, and then - pleased to see a story by him in most recent (to me, mail is slow around here) issue of the New Yorker, A Voice in the Night, read it, and you know what - it's an absolutely terrific story, the best by him I've ever read and one of the best American stories I've read in some time. It does have his imaginative reach and stylistic flourishes, his signatures, but in this case he devotes those skills and talents to telling a beautiful and complicated - on the surface, at heart it's actually quote simple - story about a life, about his life. Story is actually three narrative threads running along simultaneously: Millhauser's re-telling of a Biblical story, when the very young Samuel hear the calling - a voice in the night - of the Lord and pledges to serve the Lord; of the writer, Millhauser himself, as a 7-year-old, first hears of the Biblical story and waits in the night for some kind of calling, which he anticipates and fears, and of the current 68ish Millhauser, insomniac, up in the night hearing noises: Millhauser uses this tripartite story to reflect on Judaism, the conflicts the young boy feels assimilating in a suburban Connecticut community, his complex of feelings about his father, a professor, devoted to his non-lucrative work, about the clannishness and difference of his people and his faither; and in then, perhaps most moving and powerful, about the older man, wondering about pledging himself to service of the Lord, known he did not do that, he couldn't even practice a religion, but that he has devoted himself, his entire life, to his art - a beautiful sentiment, and this story, on top of Millhauser's many awards and recognitions, shows that he has served his "god" well and truly. A Voice in the Night captures in just a few pages some of the mood and culture that Roth (and to a lesser extent Bellow) have devoted hundreds of pages to expounding - Roth's work is monumental, but there's something also very striking and satisfying about the economy of a story. As Strunk and White put it: a sentence should have no unnecessary words, just as a machine should have no unnecessary parts; Millhauser's story, though by no means minimal(ist), is a great example of economy in telling.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sense of place in Richard Ford's Canada

The second half (part 2) of Richard Ford's "Canada" takes place in the eponymous country - part 1 ends with the parents, Bev and Neeva, imprisoned on charges of bank robbery and the twin children (15-year-olds) essentially abandoned. The sister takes off with her teenage boyfriend, presumably to live in Utah or SF and maybe get married, what a dismal prospect for an intelligent young woman, leaving the son, Dell - the narrator of this novel - alone. He makes it pretty clear that he was never to see his parents (or his sister apparently) again, so the novel is embarking into a very different phase. We're concerned that the state of Montana may pick Dell up and send him to a state orphanage, where he, a frail and intellectual kid, will not thrive at all. Then his mother's acquaintance - it would be a stretch to call her a friend - picks Dell up and drives him north, without telling him much about their destination, which turns out to be he brother's piece of land in the midst of Saskatchewan - she leaves Dell there, in hopes that he'll be better off with her brother than he would have in an orphanage. It's a very scary journey for the kid, into a foreign country and a completely alien life. The ranch-hand type who's detailed to take care of Dell is a very threatening guy, possibly an abuser; the brother, who runs a hotel, seems uninvolved and crude, though intelligent (a Harvard grad, improbably). The kid is left in a crappy bunkhouse and is told he'll be doing chores around the place, so it's unclear whether he'll ever be able to resume his education - all in all, a terrible predicament, and one would think there might have been a way to get him some kind of better care, perhaps with his estranged grandparents. Reminds me a little of the harrowing memoir by Richard Rhodes about the cruelties he faced as an orphan. Ford remains terrific an maintaining narrative tension throughout and at creating a sense of place - earlier in the novel very well captures the sense of a western mining town, and he perfectly conveys the oddness of the border crossing and the adjustment to a new but only slightly different country. It's a quality that my sister and I call "bugginess," which is hard to convey or explain: the sense that everything is the same except for some slight differences that make everything thereby all the more disconcerting, differences such as different currency (though still called a dollar), different style of housing (in Canada, houses built to look like one another but each on a distinctly separated tract), slightly weird place names (the border crossing called the Port of Willow Creek) - few other writers touch on this, though William Gibson did so in describing England from the POV of an American, and I think Updike touched on it also regarding border crossings and highway signage.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Affirmative, acceptant, joyful fiction: Where art thou?

WS posts a comment clarifying his request for suggestions on a certain type of book, not just upbeat or positive or "feel good" or integration (or re-intergration) into society (see my post from two days ago, Seeking Upbeat Books, December 9, 2012) but, in his words: "More affirmative in basic attitude throughout—loving, acceptant, joyful, enjoying in spite of pain, suffering, disappointment, conflict, and all that. No naiveté. This is Shakespeare in the comedies—often willfully affirmative. The Tempest too: knowingly create a benign fiction to promote happiness. But most of all Chaucer, loving both pedantic clerks and bawdy wives." Wow, a tall order - for a couple of reasons. First, I've written a lot about Shakespeare's comedies (many years ago, not the comedies but my writing) and as anyone who's read what I've written knows I see a lot of dark elements in even the "sunniest" of the comedies that most if not all other critics have ignored; similarly, I also have written about Chaucer, and found a lot of dark elements there, too - especially the anti-Semitism. That said, I do understand the more widely accepted views of both S and Chaucer - and I know what WS (not William Shakespeare) is getting at: there is a sense in both but especially in Chaucer that by presenting a wide selection of characters he is presenting a vision of the whole of his world, the whole of his society. It's an illusion in the case of both writers, but an effective ploy, and without question both are capacious and inclusive writers, in ways that pretty much no one else has been able to emulate. I think some of my examples from the post two days ago, however, still stand, especially Cervantes (and for a modern example Zadie Smith's White Teeth) and in a weird way Stephen King's It. Beyond that the selections are more difficult to suggest - WS mentions Rabelais, whom I had thought of, too, but I've only read a tiny bit of him years ago in French class so I can't really claim knowledge there. I think part of what WS is seeking comes from the "maximalist" novels - as discussed in an essay in the current NYTBR, by chance. The greatest of all is no doubt Ulysses: just as Ch. creates the illusion of a whole world by depicting a gallery or portraits, Joyce creates the illusion of a whole world by capturing every aspect of one city in one day (and all of world literature, as well). The other monumental books of the Modern era would be far too dark, and limited in class, to mean the WS criteria: thinking of Magic Mountain, Man Without Qualities, Search of Lost Time, and for good measure Moby-Dick and Gravity's Rainbow. Which leads me to conclude that the writers with the capacity and the will to cover a vast scope of the world, in either one great novel of a series of novels (e.g., Faulkner) do not as rule create a "benign fiction to promote happiness." Perhaps writing is too isolating an art form, and so the great writers are removed from the world, in their cork-lined rooms real of metaphorical, rather than engaged in the world in a life-affirming way? Dramatists, court poets, and let's add filmmakers, have to work in consort with others to create their art, which may lead to a very different world view. For examples outside of literature - affirmative in basic attitude and wide in scope - I would look perhaps to great movies: Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game coming to mind first and foremost.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A novel I can't wait to get back to: Richard Ford's Canada

About 1/3 of the way through Richard Ford's "Canada" and finding it one of the few novels, and the first in quite some time, that I really just keep wanting to get back to - a great pleasure to read! Not that I haven't read other great novels recently, but most of them have been daunting monuments such as The Idiot or The Ambassadors, whereas Ford can write serious literary fiction that also has a driving plot line and engaging characters, the plot being this: a 70ish man, seemingly a retired professor, is writing an account of the crucial episode in his boyhood, back in 1960 in Montana, when his father and mother, two seemingly ordinary and upright citizens, got involved in a bank robbery and a murder. Ford tells us this in the first sentence of the novel - and he thus sets himself a real challenge: Canada may be a crime novel but it's the opposite of a who dunnit. We know from the first words who dunnit, and the novel is about exploring why and how (and who). Ford is known for his ruminative prose, full of parenthetical qualifications (like this one) - and Canada is typical of his work in this way: he doesn't rush into the action, but has his narrator, Dell, spend a lot of time describing his parents (dad a retired army pilot, mom a part-time school teacher) and his twin sister (smarter and more advanced than he, and far more rebellious) and their town (the mining town of Great Falls, though the family had been peripatetic - part of the theme is narrator's desire for stability, both in family and setting - while sister, Berner, talks about running away from home with her boyfriend, the narrator, Dell, is afraid of moving and missing the start of high school, at which he wants to learn about beekeeping and chess). I suspect that Ford may have written this novel, in a sense, to correct the missteps of his disappointing The Lay of the Land, which was so widely anticipated but poorly received; I love his work, but had a lot of trouble with Lay of the Land, which carried, which was entirely about rumination and observations of the changing (New Jersey) landscape and never picked up any steam, any direction, or any conflict - just zipped across the land from point to point, like the narrator, Bascombe. Canada, by contrast, is full of tension and great scenes - and not where you'd expect. The great scenes are the family scenes; smart and interesting choice to have the story told by one of the children - we're constantly with Dell as he tries to piece together what's going on in the family through inferences, secret observations, and overheard bits of conversation - as dad plans the robbery to get the family out of a dangerous financial fix.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Seeking upbeat books with a broad spectrum of characters

Friend WS (not William Shakespeare) makes an intriguing request: suggested readings among books that have a generally positive (i.e., upbeat, though he didn't use that word) outlook and that include a broad spectrum of humanity - books he describes as "Chaucerian." Hm, well without getting into whether Chaucer is actually upbeat - there's an incredible amount of wanton cruelty and overt anti-Semitism in some of the tales - I know what WS is getting at - and not many books fit his criteria, at least not among serious literature. There are a few obvious examples from classic fiction, with a heavy tilt toward British literature which, a noted in many previous posts, tends to move toward the comic, integration of the protagonist into society, rather than the tragic, exclusion or alienation of the protagonist - far more typical of American (not to mention French, German, Russian) literature. But here are a few thoughts: Fielding. The first to come to mind - Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews the prototypes of the "bildungsroman," the education of a young man and his integration or acceptance into genteel society, with many comic episodes along the way. Don Quixote/Cervantes. Far too much cruelty, suffering, and (mental) illness to be a perfect example, but it's such a great novel and does ultimately have a warm sense of humanity and friendship and a very vast array of characters and classes. Dickens, maybe?, though probably the lesser and more sentimental novels rather than the great trio of Bleak, Expectations, Dorrit, which have far too much darkness to make this list. (Not Austen - far too narrow a social spectrum, and a sense of unease and unrest beneath the apparent placidity of the comic conclusions.) Forster, maybe - at least Howards End, reaching a "positive" conclusion after much struggle along the way. Among contemporary novelists, there are a few possibilities, though I can't help but think that no great novelist really wants to be described as positive and upbeat. Great novels are almost always about a struggle between equals or a collision of forces, and even if the endings are not tragic there is usually a great deal of darkness and despair along the way. A few writers, however, may fit the criteria of positive outlook and broad social spectrum, including: Nick Hornby. Being labeled as an upbeat writer is the albatross around his neck, but so be it: High Fidelity for one is a very pleasing novel that fits the bill. (Movie is good, too.) Ann Tyler. Her reputation seems to have slipped over the past ten years or so, perhaps because she has become more mainstream and conventional and less quirky and original - however, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist may qualify for this list. Garcia Marquez? Maybe Love in the Time of Cholera could qualify; honestly, I don't remember the conclusion that well. There are probably a number of immigrant tales that meet the upbeat/spectrum criteria - maybe Gary Shteyngart's Russian Debutante's Handbook? Then there's popular fiction - a trove of upbeat novels that include a wide range of characters - though often presented in a formulaic, generic, or superficial manner. One exception is Stephen King, who writes very well within his chosen genre. His long novel It may come as close as horror fiction can come to meeting the WS criteria. That's all I can come up with on the spot. Open to further suggestions.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The 5 most disappointing books I read in 2012

No one in their right mind could put together a list of the 10 worst books of the year - why would anyone read 10 horrible books? I start every book with the hope and anticipation that the book will be great and that I will enjoy the reading experience, will think about the book, will learn from it, will come back to it (or to other works by the author) in future readings. But inevitably we choose wrong or authors or reviewers or friends or fiendish awards panels mislead us - so here is my list of the 5 most disappoint I read (or started to read) in 2012 (in order by author):

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending How did this novel win the Man Booker Prize? You mean, there could be politics involved? I'm shocked! Nobody in this novel behaves in any remote way like a person from this planet. The plot is so contorted and contrived as to defy belief. The writing is flat and uninspired. Barnes is generally a good writer and has done some fine stories and at least one (Flaubert's Parrot) excellent novel. Reader, go elsewhere.

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot Really wanted to like this one - I am a fan of Eugenides's two previous novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. Both did a great job capturing the essence of a time and place (particularly Detroit during the race riots, in Middlesex) and offered thoughtful and moving into the lives of young adults who for one reason or another are outsiders or misfits. Marriage Plot also, for me, had the enticement of a Providence setting. And yet - the novel was strangely flat and formulaic, had no real sense of time or place (except for the section on the young man's arrival in Paris, which really captured that unique and unforgettable but hard to convey experience); just one thing happening after another with no real insight of development. Sorry, but couldn't finish it.

 James Salter, Light Years The curse of being known as a "writer's writer" is perfectly evidenced in this novel from 1975: has there ever been a book with such beautiful passages and such flimsy construction, such self-involved and unlikable characters? You could pull out various sections and passages and study them - but the novel as a whole left me cold, at best.

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King We can't entirely blame DFW for this monsterpiece. He wrote it, but I would guess that he never would have sanctioned publishing the manuscript in this form. I admit I've never read a DFW novel, and this is probably not the place to start - though I have admired his "short" stories and his nonfiction essays and journalism. My feeling is that, sadly, he was totally lost in this material - endless drivel about the life and times of an IRS worker, as if he'd taken on the challenge of building a novel out of the least promising material imaginable. Had he lived, he might have found a good novel within this dross, but I couldn't.Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts Yes it's a classic, yes there are many important themes that one can elicit from careful study of this 1930s novel, but classics can get better with age - or worse. This is a case of worse, much worse. What once may have seemed bold and experimental in style now seems deeply mannered. And even worse - the sexism, the cruelty, the debauchery of the characters makes for a completely unpleasant reading experience.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The dark and disturbing conclusion to The Idiot

As Richard Pevear discusses in his introduction to Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Idiot," apparently Dostoevsky began with the concept of creating a "beautiful" character who is Christ-like; it would seem his initial intent was to have Prince Myshkin function in the novel as some kind of savior, one who rescues the sinner (Nastasya Fillipovna) and brings her to salvation - and the novel seems to be heading that way until the very last chapters. Prince Myshkin is indeed beautiful and in a sense too good for the world in which he lives, completely unable to lie or dissemble and incapable of thinking others will do so, which makes him vulnerable the plots and machinations of others in his tight little Russian social set. In the last section, when he intrudes on the meeting between the two great rivals for his love, the tempestuous but innocent Aglaya and the fallen woman, Nastasya, he rejects Aglaya and aligns himself with Nastasya because "she looks so sad" - in other words, he must save her rather than choose the woman whom he probably should marry. So what happens? The wedding with Nastasya is planned but on the day of the wedding she runs off with the wealthy Rogozhin, who has been Myshkin's antagonist from the outset. Myshkin, completely out of concern for the well-being of N., follows them to Petersburg where ultimately he finds them in Rogozhin's apartment: Rogozhin has stabbed her to death, using the same knife with which he'd once attacked Myshkin. They spend the night in the apartment, weeping, delirious. A group of friends finds them, with the dead N., the next morning. Finally, in his coda, Dostoevsky brings us up to date on all of the characters: R. sentenced to 15 years in Siberia, which he takes stoically, A. marries a bounder who claims to be a Polish wealthy emigre but turns out to be a fake, Prince Myshkin ends up back in the Swiss sanitarium, completely deranged, as his doctor calls him: an idiot, just as he was immediately before the novel began. So he is not a figure who redeems but a figure who suffers for his innocence and in a sense brings suffering rather than peace to others - a much darker novel that we (or even D?) has expected, darker than C&P or the Brothers K., with its beautiful conclusion with the young boys pledging their friendship in memory of the one among them who died. D. may be saying that there can be no human embodiment of Christ on earth - which may be the significance of his several meditations on the painting of Christ at the Tomb: what if Jesus were only human?, he asks. Would he have subjected himself to such torture? Would anyone worship one who did so? In a way, The Idiot may be an exploration of that question - what happens to one in this world who is pure and good? The answer is ugly.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A day in the life: Antonya Nelson's current New Yorker story

I have always like Antonya Nelson's writing and am glad to see her story Literally in current New Yorker. That title alone tells you something about her style - witty, clever, impish, observant - funny like Lorrie Moore but not as depressed. She writes really well about adolescents - her primary protagonists. Current story is a good if not great example of her work: story of a broken family in mid-America (Houston, in this case - many of her stories set in Midwest or Southwest cities), in this case father widowed (wife died several years ago in car accident), working in ad department of a a newspaper, raising a teenage daughter and 6th-grade (I think) son; story centers on the mingled relations between this family and the family of his maid/housekeeper, whose son is clearly a troubled and highly nervous boy who's best friends with widowed dad's son (I forget the names, unfortunately). The main speaks only broken English; dad tries to converse with her, but this used to be the wife's forte, and the relationship is now difficult, but friendly and pleasant. Maid is a single mom, her ex (husband? boyfriend?) is in and out of the picture and apparently, at least to the son, a scary and dangerous figure. Nelson does something sort of surprising - in an Alice Munro-like swerve, she focuses the story initially on the teenage daughter, as we watch her prepare her Catholic school uniform ahead of the day in school - but then the daughter kind of vanishes from the story, which turns out to be about the boys. A lot happens in the short one-day span of this story: the boys, allowed to stay home from school (improbably, I would think) hop on a bus and go to the maid's apartment in a pretty raw part of Houston (also improbable, for well-behaved and timid 6th graders, but possible) - when the dad and maid cannot find them, they panic, then make a guess as to where they'll be, drive to the maid's place, find them there and also, in the hallway, the scary estranged dad. He gets into the apartment, and eventually the broken nuclear family - dad, daughter, son - convene at the end of the day. I feel that something's kind of missing from this story - or, put another way, it's a missed opportunity. All this set-up about the dangerous estranged father and then, pouf, nothing happens with him. No doubt that's Nelson's intention - the scary dad is not much different from the conventional middle-class dad - but it seems as if the story never brings all the events together to a conclusion, even and open-ended conclusion, an epiphany or a statement of mood. Still, very good writing in the story, well delineated characters, and maybe Nelson plans to do more with these characters in an other piece.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Ten Best Books (I read) in 2012

For one reason or another, two themes have dominated my reading in 2012: Increasingly, I'm drawn to reading classics rather than contemporary literary fiction. I find myself drawn back to some of the works I'd read much earlier in my life that I've largely forgotten or new translations of works that I'd read previously or lesser-known works from writers with whom I'm pretty familiar. Second, I find myself often drawn to short stories and novellas - in part because I find shorter pieces more accessible when I'm traveling and in part because I'm always scoping for good material for our book group, which does very well with novellas and less so with longer pieces of fiction. So the list of the 10 best books I read in 2012 is dominated by these two themes, and, to my surprise - I didn't realize this until looking back over my year's reading - the list contains no novels published during the past year, not even close. Here's my list, alphabetical by author:

Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights Hadn't read it since college, and found this novel much darker and creepier than I'd remembered. I think my view of the novel had been altered by the movie version and the popular culture, which tends to romanticize Heathcliff. In fact, he's monstrous and scary. And the mysterious story of his origin haunts the entire novel.

Willa Cather: My Antonia Just a great account of life on the American prairie, told with a complete absence of sentimentality - some really chilling scenes of death and privation, if that's your cup of tea.

Anton Chekhov: Stories Still the greatest writer of short stories ever, with many of his best covering the entire span of his short writing life brought together in the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, notably Ward No. 6, The Darling, In the Ravine, Lady with a Little Dog, Gooseberries - the list could go on. Read them all.

Henry James: The Princess Casamassima Totally atypical James - his most overtly political novel, with a terrific opening scene at a debtors' prison, the closest James ever came to Dickens and Dostoevsky.

James Joyce: Dubliners All 20th-century short stories derive from Dubliners, in which Joyce single-handedly redefined the parameters of and potential for short fiction - clear, open, enigmatic. Franz

Kafka: Selected Stories The darkest of the great 20th-century European writers, no doubt best known for The Metamorpohsis, but there are other great stories in this (Modern Library) collection, notably In the Penal Colony and The Hunger Artist - all with Kafka's unique vision of the nightmarish desolation of contemporary life.

Thomas Mann: Death in Venice and Other Stories The title story is by far the best known, but there are other great stories in this collection (Vintage) often overlooked, notably Tonio Kroger and Mario and the Magician - the most thoughtful and analytic of the great European modernists.

Carson McCullers: Collected Stories Not a uniformly great collection but worth reading for Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Member of the Wedding, the first a real oddity and the 2nd one of the great pieces of writing about adolescence, and antecedent of Catcher in the Rye.

Katherine Anne Porter: Pale Horse, Pale Rider Three excellent novellas gathered in this collection, Noon Wine being the most famous but the other two, though less anthologized, are fine, particularly Old Mortality, an exemplar of economy in storytelling.

Marcel Proust: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower The great 2nd volume of the new translation of In Search of Lost Time, in which, after hundreds of pages of anticipation, Marcel finally meets the love of his life, Albertine Simonet - this volume, much of which takes place at a French seaside resort, is the most joyous volume in the great work, which grows increasingly dark and troubled over the course of time.

Later this week: The most disappointing books I read in 2012.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

An outsider at his own party: The Idiot

Back to The Idiot!, which I'd put aside to read this month's book-group selection. And I admit, though I'm pretty well able to pick up where I left off, I have absolutely had to go back maybe 20 times to check the dog-eared character list that Pevear-Volokhonsky helpfully put at the front of the volume. After the uptight timidity of a British snooty upper-crust novel, it's great to jump back into Dostoevsky's world of dramatic and eccentric misbehavior. I pick up as the Prince is seemingly engaged to Aglaya Epanchin, though who can keep it straight, she's constantly insulting him and chasing him away, pledging her love and then wounding him mortally - and this bizarre beahvior continues: the Epanchins are planning a party to introduce Prince Myshkin to their "set," and Aglaya, with good reason, is worried that in some manner Myshkin will make a fool of himself - as noted many times, he's not really an idiot but more of a naif, or a holy fool - he says whatever comes into his mind, without any self-censorship or social awareness - today, we might note that he has some form of autism, but in Dostoevsky's time he was just a misfit, an object of ridicule, but of course more honest and open than any of the other characters in the novel. Anyway, Aglaya, instead of trying to put him at his ease, suggests he's likely to get excited and make a clumsy gesture and knock over her mother's rare Chinese vase. Of course this leads Myshkin to obsess all night about this possibility, and as you can imagine he's a wreck by the time he enters the party. He's quiet for a while, as Aglaya suggested. But then one of the guests mentions the benefactor who raised the orphaned Prince and the Prince Myshkin becomes oddly excited and animated and goes off on a long rant against the Catholic Church and in favor of old traditional Russian nobility - a real conservative rant of the deepest order - clearly this is Dostoevsky speaking through his character. He creates quite a scene, of course knocks over the vase, and then, I think, falls into a seizure - his second of the novel. So only the "sick" man can speak the truth (or what D. sees as the truth), and society cannot accept anyone who violates the conventions of nicety and decorum. He's the outsider at his own party and, were it not for his money (his sudden and unexpected inheritance early in the novel), he would be a beggar on the street, a horse driver, a peddler, or a peasant - ah, the bounties of birth, or of wealth, or both.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Book group : thumbs down on Stranger's Child.

Consensus opinion at Book Group last night was not kind to Alan Hollinghurst's "The Stranger's Child" - even JRi, who suggested the book, said she didn't like it as much on 2nd reading. Hm. Opinions ranged from the downright negative - B in particularly expressing the view that his writing was terrible and commonplace - a view I disagree, with, BTW - B. said that he continually uses the verb said, which I think is a totally appropriate verb for moving dialogue along and I hate authors who self-consciously search for elegant variations on that verb - and that he uses too many adverbs - I would agree that adverbs are a hindrance, but I didn't notice any preponderance. I found his writing pretty good - quite a few passages that I "checked" or marked with an enthusiastic "Ha!" That said: I can't help but feel that the book was very poorly constructed: the long narrative span seems cobbled together with the great shifts from section to section making the narrative needlessly difficult to follow and in a weird way allowing Hollinghurst to take whatever liberties with the characters he wants: Daphne can "become" a mean-spirited alcoholic because the author can just assert her status, rather than have her grow and evolve, as a more traditional narrative would do. More important, I think he let the opportunity for a good literary sleuth story slip write through his hands, as he tells us all or most of the "secrets" right in the first chapter and the few that he withholds, about Corinna's parentage for example, are irrelevant to the plot of the novel because Corinna (and Hubert) are minor characters at best. I did note the 3 major themes of the novel, as posted in recent days: homosexuality and changing attitudes toward it over the century (L strongly agreed), the change of taste over time (led to some discussion about whether the War Poets and Tennyson are still worth reading - I'm encouraged to look again), and the literary sleuth. JRi also discussed the famous British issue of class, upstairs/downstairs, etc., which to me is always hovering in the background but never brought to the forefront in this novel. Also, the issue of British schooling, and of the life of a biographer: I noted that biographers (and journalists) are thieves, in Janot Malcolm's famous observation, but conceded these are different from historians. (In Stranger, Paul is like a thief and Sebby and the others who wrote about Cecil are cover-up artists.) We were let down by the soggy ending, and generally just without a lot of enthusiasm for this novel. I pointed out that Line of Beauty is a far better novel, tighter in structure, elegaic, and moving, if rather graphic (opening chapter, if I remember). I also admired his homages to MacEwan and Byatt (friendly or not-so-friendly rivals?) and to the late great Sebald (the visit back to Two Acres my favorite part of the novel). I may in fact go back and read In Memorium.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Three themes in The Stranger's Child

Some themes in Alan Hollinghurst's "The Stranger's Child," in preparation for book-group discussion tonight: homosexuality through the century, which I think has to be the main theme of the novel. Virtually every male character in the novel is homosexual, which shows suggest either very narrow social circles, English life is quite different from American, or intentional decision on Hollinghurst's part to use the novel to explore this particular theme. We see the evolution from part 1, when Cecil and George go off into the woods around Two Acres for furtive sex, and nobody, apparently, has even a hint of an idea that they're other than friends from Cambridge - homosexuality is a deep secret (though probably not at Cambridge, where the novel never takes us) through various other degrees of secrets and shames to the final section when homosexuality is just an accepted part of London literary society, several of the homosexual couples are married, and the whole driving "mystery" of the novel, was Cecil a gay writer?, is totally uninteresting to all the characters - they'd long ago moved beyond the phase of "outing" writers. Second theme, the changing of taste, and therefore, reputation, over time. At first, everyone is gushing over Cecil's poetry, which struck me from the excerpts in the first chapter as juvenile and derivative (didn't know if this was Hollinghurst's limitations or his intention), then he becomes a famous war poet, then that reputation slips as people realize he was being appreciated largely for the romance of his life - a hero's death in war, a career cut short - and by the end he's clearly a second-rate poet largely forgotten; similarly, the views of architecture regarding Corley, Cecil's family seat, at first seen as a beautiful country estate, by the end as a Victorian monstrosity, and then as a curiosity. Third, literary and historical sleuthing - though this theme doesn't really open up until part 4 (of 5) when Paul Bryant becomes a literary biographer and tries to learn the secrets of Cecil's life. I really wanted to like this part of the novel, but it unfortunately falls flat and has little payoff: far too much presented to us in narration and in conversational summary, the "mysteries" to Paul are largely material that we have known from the outset of the novel, and the one big reveal - Corinna is actually a "stranger's child" - that is, Cecil's daughter - and not Dudley's daughter, is no big deal to us as Corinna plays almost no role in this novel. It's a very long journey for a very small amount of info. The novel is clearly a response to the challenge laid down by Atonement - can you write a contemporary English novel about all the cliches of English fiction - landed gentry, country estates, wartime England, boarding schools, university life - spanning multiple generations, and have anything fresh to say? Also a response to Byatt? Answer is yes, to a degree - their novels did not do much with the theme of homosexuality, but did a lot more with social class, a topic of no great interest to Hollinghurst.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The literary sleuth at work in The Stranger's Child

So a couple of discoveries as we move through part 4 of Alan Hollinghurst's "The Stranger's Child," following Paul Bryant, literary sleuth, as he gathers string for his bio of the war poet Cecil Valance. First, Paul interviews George Sawle, now 80+, whom we met in the first chapter - Cecil's boyfriend at Cambridge, who later comes on to Cecil's sister, Daphne - indicating either his bisexuality or his duplicity, and perhaps getting engaged to her shortly before he died in the war. What Paul learns: according to the doddering George, a retired history professor (watched closely by his mean-spirited wife, fellow historian Madeleine): Cecil would fuck anyone. In other words, George's brief relation with Cecil was one of Cecil's many (no surprise) and perhaps Cecil had plenty of girlfriends as well as boyfriends - a mild surprise there. During the course of the interview, George touches Paul, "feels him up" as H. puts it - indicating what? Most likely that Georg has been bi or homosexual throughout his life, that his (childless) marriage with M. has also been loveless? Not sure what to make of it - except that nearly every guy in this novel turns out to be gay. Hm. Then Paul moves on to a conference at Oxford, where he sets out to interview Dudley, Cecil's younger brother and a writer himself, who had written a memoir with some information about Cecil. Dudley - also watched closely by his sharp-eyed 2nd wife, Linette - give Paul some key info about his first wife, Daphne (George's sister, the one whom Cecil may have been engaged to): he indicates that Daphne's first-born, Corinna, was actually Cecil's child, from that final war-time liaison when Cecil and Daphne may have become engaged. That's kind of interesting - but so what? Corinna is a very minor character - first seen as a child, then later as a mean-spirited adult and piano teacher whose professional career went nowhere. Now, dead of lung cancer. So not clear what Paul can do with this info other than use it as a bit of juice in his likely never to be finished biography. Paul then goes off to interview Daphne herself, the climactic achievement in his literary sleuthing, and we'll see how that goes. Given his bumbling - tape reocrders and batteries that fail, drunken bouts, episodes of shyness and insecurity - I have my doubts as to his success.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Literary sleuthing

Lots of things going on in part 4 (of 5) in Alan Hollinghurst's novel "The Stranger's Child," as the characters - well, in particular Paul Bryant, who has become an independent historian biographer writing a life of Cecil Valance (never clear how he supports himself while doing so) look back on the life of the poet, who died in 1918 during WWI. So the novel folds back upon itself - Cecil has been the constant holding it together, though we do lose site of him from time to time as new characters emerge. Paul appears to be a somewhat or even completely repressed homosexual - it was his friend Peter who heavily "courted" him in part 3, and Paul seemed shy and inexperienced - and now he is apparently unattached. In part 4 we see, through Paul's eyes, various publications on Cecil V, including, if I remember correctly, an edition of his letters that his Cambridge lover George Sawle edited and an excerpt from the family-authorized biography by "Sebby" - we don't yet (I think) see the two novel-memoirs, one by his brother Dudley and the other by George's sister, Daphne. Paul, in his plodding and intrepid way, will probably get to those - he's been circling around Daphne, as has the novel, for years/pages - she's the only character to appear in every section, I think (maybe George does, too), and she would have a lot to reveal to a biographer, if she would choose to do so - we'll see. Paul does find the valet who took care of Cecil on his visits to George and Daphne's home, Two Acres - kind of improbable, but just possible enough to not upset credibility, and his interview of the old guy, Jonah, is hysterical: "Every word you say will be important to me." "What's that?" The recording of the interview, the first Paul conducts in his project, is mostly inaudible and the seemingly helpful Karen, who obviously has a crush on Paul and has no idea he's gay, tries to transcribe and makes the mess even worth. Despite all this, Paul stumbles on some documents Jonah has been concealing all these years and still won't give up. So the literary mystery builds. But what is the mystery? It's not that Cecil is/was gay - we all know that from the first chapter. Is it just that others will at last find this out? Honestly, who would care - certainly not by 1975, when part 4 takes place. Intriguing as this literary sleuthing is at times, I begin to wonder if the game is worth the candle: is there some big "reveal" that Paul will (or won't) discover that will make us understand Cecil, Paul, this novel, literature itself in some different way? Or will it just be that he "discovers" Cecil's homosexuality, or doesn't? That's really not enough - I'm hoping for a bigger payoff.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hollinghurst pays an homage to the great Sebald

The bad and the good, the bad first: I understand that homosexuality and homoeroticism were taboo subjects for literary fiction for generations, and in fact this taboo drove Forster away from writing fiction for the latter part of his life, a tragedy, and that Alan Hollinghurst is using fiction, in particular his novel The Stranger's Child in part to examine the different attitudes toward homosexual love across several generations in England - and yet - the many scenes of basically just "randy" coupling - not loving coupling - especially in part 3 of the novel are really not all that interesting or literary or, in this day and age, shocking. If these were scenes of heterosexual love we would dismiss them, and probably the novel, as a cheap thrill - so I know that a deep underlying current in Stranger's Child is the furtiveness and the shame that drives these men to take weird risks and to be reckless and aggressive with one another, much more than a hetero couple would be for the most part - yet the characters are not interesting or in fact developed beyond the fact of their sexual orientation and drive. His more famous novel, The Line of Beauty, is also about homosexual love over a the course of an era, and it begins, if I remember well, with a very graphic, lurid secret encounter and ends with characters deeply aged and ill, victims of their own recklessness during the time of AIDS - a very affecting book. OK, but for the good: there's more to Stranger than the sexuality, and I like part 4 much more than part 3, so far - because to me the heart and soul of the book is the dead poet Cecil and how his lie and death affected generations of his family and of others, how his reputation changes over the years (I really like that H. makes clear in the late stages of the novel that Cecil was a minor poet whose reputation rose because of his tragic wartime death). Though, as noted in previous posts, I have trouble believing in the unity of characters across the large time-jumps of the novel - nothing in part 3, circa 1965, led me to think that Paul the timid banker would become a literary biographer in part 4, circa 1975, I do like reading about him in this new incarnation - his chance encounter with Daphne, now aged and infirm and maybe a little dotty of years of alcoholism, is brought off very well and in particular I like his visit to Two Acres, the scene of the first part of the novel: his discovery of the skeleton of the old place amidst a budding surburban development is great and is no doubt Hollinghurst's homage to the great Sebald - another one of the literary ghosts living in the atmosphere of this novel. Surprising to see that Two Acres, which I'd thought of as a country estate, and it probably was at the outset of the novel, circa 1915, is now part of the London suburbs, even on the tube line.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What The Stranger's Child may really be about

Following up for a moment on yesterday's obscure post, as I was, and am, wrestling with some thoughts about fiction in general - and noting the difference between a novel in which the characters appear to have, with Forster called, dimension, or "round" characters, as opposed to what he called "flat" characters - this is a particular challenge for an ambitious novel that covers a span of time, especially one that covers multiple generations. A novel that takes place in one day or focuses on one central action or conflict gives us a "round" sense of the characters - we see them interact with one another in conflict and perhaps grow and change, but through an organic process - their actions and thoughts have what I called yesterday a sense of the inevitable. When we finish, and even as we are reading, we are completely within in the hands (of consciousness) of the novelist and we can imagine no other course of action for the characters other than what the novelist puts before us. However: in a novel that spans generations - right now I'm reading Alan Hollinghurst's "The Strangers Child" the challenge is greater. In this novel, we meet the central character as a teenage girl in the first section, in section two, 15 years later, she is a young mother; in the 3rd section, she is a cranky grandmother, looking back on three marriages and drinking way too much. Do we see how or why she evolved from one state of her life to the next? Is it "inevitable" from the first section, a teenage girl on a small English country estate being dazzled by her brother's friend, a homosexual Cambridge poet, that she would end up sponging in a small English town off her banker son-in-law? It is not. We could just as easily read the novel and imagine (or be told) that these are three separate characters. What holds the three sections together is merely the author's assertion that he is writing about the same people at different stages of their lives - and it feels like a construct rather than like an organic creation. The obvious comparison is MacEwan's Atonement, whose long shadow casts its pall over The Stranger's Child: as if Hollingworth is rising to the challenge of a conventional novel of the English countryside, of artists and of precocious children, of war damage, of a long span of time - but his novel doesn't measure up against MacEwan's. There is another major theme, however, that sets Hollinghurst's novel (and his work in general) apart - homosexual love (or passion) in various eras, and the cost on the psyche and the body of all the furtive behavior and socially imposed shame. Rather than the war poet, the thrice-married widow Daphne, or any of the other characters, the main "character" seems to be homoerotic passion, as it plays out, secretly (though less so in the later sections) among various couples - and it's the great secret, so far unrevealed, of the poet Cecil Valance's life (but not death).

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Creation v gamesmanship in the creation of characters

One difference between a novel, or at least a good novel, and a random string of chronicled events, is that a novel(ist) builds a sense of inevitability into the work: we feel when we read a good novel that the events had to happen in the very way that the novelist conveys them, that there is no other way that the characters could have behaved or played out the sequence of their lives. This sense of inevitability is not the same as plot. Plot is a kind of mechanism, a structure that places seemingly random elements or events in relation to one another. Plot gives the elements of a novel shape and dimension - building toward a climax, sometimes referred to as the "arc" of the story. The inevitability of the novel is really the heart and soul of fiction. When we "buy into" a novel, we accept that everything in the novel makes sense, that the characters are whole and not diffuse, and that their actions have irreversible consequences that lead to one single conclusion. (Of course, postmodernists have played with every one of these conventions.) The "inevitable" quality of fiction gets really put to the test in a novel that spans generations: a novel about a single character, particularly a novel that hews to the classical unities of a single time and space and even day, can more easily cohere because it need not stray beyond the lineaments of those unities. But a multi-generation novel is another case: each character may be whole and complete and its sequence of events may feel inevitable, but the offspring of the character is like subsequent random event: just because one character acts in a particular way does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that children of that character will act in a particular was; the 2nd (and 3rd) generation of characters are functionally independent integers. A really good novelist can make us accept the inevitability across generations - as Kate Walbert (?) did in The Short History of Women, which, though maddening in its refusal to tell the tale sequentially, did use one generation of characters to comment on and heighten our understanding of others - and that brings me to Alan Hollinghurst's "The Stranger's Child." I'm now in section 3, and each section is set in a different decade and generation; so far, only one character, Daphne, appears in all three sections. Hollinghurst is really playing with us here - as sections 2 and 3 open, he intentionally does not tell us right off who these "new" characters are, and we only gradually, by indirection, learn which we've met in previous sections and which are new. It's kind of frustrating that the most interesting, and seemingly most important, character - Cecil Valance, the poet - dies after section 1 and appears now only in memory. More frustrating, OK, I can accept that in part 1 Daphne is a young provincial girl begin seduced by her brother's (gay) friend (Cecil), in part 2 she is the wife of Cecil's surviving brother, a wealthy member of the landed gentry, and now, in part 3, she is a 70ish widow living with her dull banker son-in-law. Honestly, the only thing binding these three Daphnes into one character is Hollinghurst's assertion that these characters are the same person at different stages of her life. This structure is an example of authorial imposition or gamesmanship, rather than the author's creation of the sense of inevitability that holds great fiction together as a unified experience in our minds and our memories.

Monday, November 26, 2012

New Yorker discovers Nobel Prize winner!

Now that Mo Yan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the New Yorker has discovered him. Pretty cool, guys. Not that I knew of Yan and not that other magazines were rushing forward to translate and publish him, but it's kind of funny how the New Yorker is always late to the table - as the wealthiest and most prestigious magazine in the U.S. with some literary pretensions, couldn't we expect the NYer to be a little bit more adventuresome in its selections and a little more bold in its discoveries. Well, better late than never - the Mo Yan story, Bull, in the current NYer is very good, a rare insiders look, from the POV of a young boy, on the turmoil in China as the country transitioned to a market economy. This story highly unusual because it is set in a remote country village: the narrator's father, a ne'er do well who is scrupulously honest (about money) but who treats his family poorly, keeps them in poverty, and, as we learn over the course of the story, two-times his wife, makes his meager living as a kind of market seer: he can judge the weight and value of any piece of livestock, cows and bulls in particular, and the village butchers will pay him to adjudicate price disputes. He's in rivalry with an unscrupulous bully who makes a fortune by ingesting cattle with water, and later with formaldehyde, pumping up the weight of the carcass. You can see that this is extremely far from the usual New Yorker territory! It's also not quite what we expect of a story about a young boy's perceptions of his father at the cattle market: none of the idolatry of the powerful and just father. The boy gets enraged at his father for putting up with humiliations; and the story itself is quite brutal and viscous in its portrayal of Chinese village life - no doubt extremely distasteful to the authorities, except insofar as they can claim to have "rescued" Chinese villagers from this poverty and backwardness. Mo Yan gives a great description of the cattle market int he remote village - with the cattle traders traveling to the village in the night and arriving at dawn with their tiny herds (two or three head at most), the butchers arriving after dawn, reeking of blood, the cattle at first docile and oblivious but then increasingly agitated as they literally smell their fate. Story builds to a climax as the father's rival taunts the father, then taunts a bull - driving it into a frenzy. Story ends rather abruptly - but not with the soft and nostalgic kind of epiphany that usually ends childhood reveries, but with a shouted curse of abomination - dark and mysterious.