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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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Condescension and the novel

Finished reading intro to Henry James's The Princess Casamassima - after initial highly abstract and almost comically impenetrable discussion of his narrative technique - doesn't he want us to read this novel? - James at last devotes a few paragraphs to the theme of the p c as he sees it - a young radical who becomes disillusioned because he comes into contact w a different and more beautiful way of life - yet the tragedy is that he is so honest and sincere that ha cannot renounce his revolutionary vow to commit an act of terrorism. Is it possible however that one would see the injustice of society and commit to act in some way other than terrorism? Is it possible that the young radical would see a different kind of life and reject it w contempt? James has a capacious mind but it seems at times that James is not able to fully accept a working-class character as a complete person - the working-class men and women are in his view, doltish and benighted until freed from the narrow perspective of their class - thru contact w the nobility or, as in Hyacinth's case, thru their noble blood. We readers can actually see around the edges of James's characters more precisely, and with greater sympathy and understanding, than he can - his imagination is capacious but his empathy is limited by his own class prejudices - he's the master, and the master of condescension as well.
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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Henry James

I've commented in earlier posts about how The Princess Casamassima is a terrible title for a novel that's largely about a working-class guy and his induction into a terrorist cell bent on overthrowing th British nobility. Who would surmise from this prissy title that the book is about the downtrodden and forgotten of 19th century London and the struggle of a young man to find his place in the world? If there's anything more inept about James's novel than it's title it would be James's preface - written some years later and seemingly designed to dissuade readers - fussy slow paced with the interminable late James sentences weighted down by leaden subordinate clauses. It is amusing to picture James walking the London streets and observing and slowly pulling together the characters of this novel. But his tortuous attempt to explain his thinking and his decisions are so self conscious as to be ludicrous - compare this intro of any of the one Conrad provided for his collected works and you'll see the striking difference. James wrote very well about the work of others but his only explication of his own works should be found in the works themselves

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Three things that are wrong about The Sense of an Ending

Book group last night, with exception of J. who loved the book because of its meditations on history and how we can "know" the truth about past events in the absence, or even presence, of live witnesses, was universally disappointed in Julian Barnes's "The Sense of and Ending." Because? Let me count the reasons. 1. Ridiculous plot. There is no reasonable way to accept or even explain why the mother of Tony's girlfriend some 40 years after they'd ended their college romance would bequeath him 500 pounds and the diary of his friend, Adrian, who'd committed suicide - other than to serve as a plot device. Further (spoilers to come), there is no reasonable way to explain how or why Adrian would have had an affair with his girlfriend's mother and even gotten her pregnant. 2. Meaningless plot. If you want to go so far as to accept the largely implausible plot, you're left wondering: what does it mean and why does it matter? Ultimately, at the end, the narrator, Tony, learns some lurid and to a degree tragic facts that explain why Adrian broke up with his girlfriend 40 years ago and may even explain Adrian's suicide - and so what? Tony has lived for 40 years without thinking about these people - imagine a much stronger plot - it isn't hard to do - in which Tony is deeply involved with old girlfriend (Veronica) throughout his life and what he learns at the end causes him to reconsider and reevaluate all of his ideas, conceptions, values. This novel isn't it. 3. Just briefly - manipulative narrator. An unreliable narrator - a la FM Ford, Ishigura - is one thing, and a novel full of doubt and mystery and ambiguity - e.g., Atonement, which perhaps is haunting Barnes a bit - is one thing, but here we don't have an unreliable narrator, in which we know more than the narrator does, but rather the opposite - a narrator who withholds from us crucial bits of information for no reason other than to build tension and mystery in the plot: that's fine if the narrator is Marlowe or Spade of Spenser - although even they don't withhold info so much as reveal info in a straight narrative sequence - but this narrator has no reason to do so - he's supposedly trying to understand how we can gain knowledge of the past, but this novel, despite the sophomoric discussions of the young men in the opening scenes, does little or nothing to examine the questions that Barnes initially sets forth.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The opportunities James missed at the end of The Princess Casamassima

Inevitably, Henry James's "The Princess Casamassima" ends tragically - we could see the conflict building within Hyacinth, as he falls in love with the inaccessible and cruel P.C., sees her drawn toward his more charismatic friend, Paul, feels a class aspiration (his noble blood rising?) and feels increasingly uncomfortable with his working-class roots and with his radical politics, but because he is a painfully honest young man feels compelled to make good on his commitment to assassinate someone in service to his radical - in short, he gets a small glimpse of the nobility and yearns to join that class but feels too ashamed of his origins to actually do so - a vast oversimplification but that's the essence. Can't help but feel that James handled the ending of the P.C. poorly - it's already a long book, but in the Jamesian manner he's far more interested in interior drama than in actual drama - Hyacinth's suicide, like his meeting with the German radical, takes place offstage, so to speak. Imagine what Dostoyevsky would do with those two scenes - or Stendahl. In fact, rather than a suicide, it would have been more satisfying to have H. arrested and to have him go through self-mortificaiton or reflection or justification or to achieve self-knowledge in prison, on trial, on the gallows - but, no, James just does away with him. Too bad. Another odd element - H. was just becoming physically close to his childhood friend, Millicent, but he backs away from this intimacy - in almost any other novelist's hands, Millicent would save H. in some manner - but not in Jamesland, where physical intimacy and mature emotional love between adults is a dark and unexplored country. There's a sense that H. killed himself not only because he lost the Princess, who would only have destroyed him, but also because he could have won Millicent.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

If I could read only 20 novels...

At the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies (see elliotswatching) last night, not all talk was about politics and comedy - at least for me - as I discussed current reading with P.D., who has a huge interest in warfare and the military; he admired me for reading War and Peace, and I told him, as I've told many, W&P is very long but, other than the quirks of Russian nomenclature, it's not difficult - and that he ought to try it, even if he reads just the War chapters (he'd be the first). We got into discussion about reading classics; he asked me my "favorite" novel - a difficult question, but I did note that I could probably get by for the rest of my life be reading and re-reading only 20 novels. Which ones? Well, off the top of my head, here's a list (unranked, with no more than 2 per author):

1. Sentimental Education
2. Madame Bovary
3. War and Peace
4. Anna Karenina
5. Brothers Karamazov
6. Crime and Punishment
7. Swann's Way
8. The Past Regained
9. Magic Mountain
10. Bleak House
11. Great Expectations
12. Ulysses
13. Middlemarch
14. The Great Gatsby
15. A Passage to India
16. Moby-Dick
17. Pride and Prejudice
18. The Known World
19. Don Quixote
20. Absolum, Absolum

I know, too white too western too male. And what I would miss reading novellas and stories. And what else is missing?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Terrorism and talk: The strangeness of James's The Princess Casamassima

The prince enters the picture - quite late in Henry James's "The Princess Casamassima" - we'd met him much earlier in the novel, but only briefly, as he's estranged from the Princess and seems to want her back in his life (or in his control?), and you could kind of guess that he would play a role in the denouement, otherwise why even have her as a married Princess and not a divorcee?, and now we find him lurking outside the downscale house the Princess has rented in Paddington and spying on who comes in and goes out - and he's convinced that she's taken a working-class guy as her lover, when in fact - he sees her with Paul M., and they're on their way some kind of secret terrorist cell meeting, probably to try to get the hero, Hyacinth, out of his vow to become an assassin in service to the cause. So the Prince has it all wrong - he can't really imagine anyone acting out on their ideals, assumes everyone acts on their passions, as he does, but on another level he has it right: the Princess is on a course of self-destruction. Does he make it worse by intervening? He has one of those Jamesian discussions with Madame Grandolfi, the Princess's confidante, and she of course is an evil and meddling influence - she will betray the Princess, no doubt. As with many, all?, James novels, there's a lot of talking, even as we move closer to the dramatic conclusion, and it may turn out to be the only novel about terrorists that ends not with a bang but a whimper.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

No love, no sex, no action - odd anywhere the novels of Henry James

Nearing the end of Henry James's "The Princess Casamassima," the novel courses through a series of lengthy one-on-one scenes involving long, intricate passages of dialogue that explore various nuances of feeling and belief: Hyacinth (working-class hero of the novel, in love with the Princess, pledged to become a terrorist assassin) and his best friend, Paul, in Greenwich, in which H. tentatively probes P. to see if he, too, love the P.C.; Paul visits the P.C. in the working-class neighborhood she's moved into, trading down, and strikingly, as she apologizes for her bleak surroundings, he says it's the kind of home he'd dreamed of; Vetch, H's benefactor and father-figure, visits the P.C. and urges her to release H. from his pledge to become a terrorist; and of course H and the P.C. It would be odd anywhere but James - but at this point, after at least months of nightly meetings and discussions, there is no expression of love, much less of sexual drive, between Hyacinth and the Princess - James is a great writer, but there are some areas through which he never treads. Hyacinth's pledge to the German radical to take on a mysterious assignment, when it comes to him, to assassinate someone and pay the price, becomes ever odder as we near the end of the novel: will we ever know what H. is called upon to do? It's another version of The Beast in the Jungle, but instead of the protagonist waiting a lifetime for the mysterious great action to occur - it's we who are waiting. In Jamesian fashion, there's a great deal of talk and analysis and subtle probings of the emotions, all circling around an action that never occurs, a black hole at the vortex of the novel.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Each one wishing for what the other has got: Two displaced characters in The Princess Casamassima

As one falls, the other rises: The eponymous Princess Casamassima, a wealthy but dubious aristocrat (is she Italian? who is she? how does she claim a title?) who tries to align herself with the radicals of the working class to overthrow the her own (ruling) class in 1880s London, actually gives up (most of) her wealth and moves into a kind of dowdy working-class neighborhood (Paddington). There's something totally strange about her: what motivates her? hos can she be both so committed to revolutionary ideals and such a callous person: she flirts with the novel's hero, Hyacinth Robinson, and treats him more or less like a pet or like an object in a collection: see, I'm friends with - maybe even in love with - a measly little bookbinder. Horrendously, she continues to ask him to take her to see the worst slums in the city - as if she's a tourist, gaping at the wildlife. As she tries to identify with the working class, Hyacinth, spurred by his association with her and with Lady Aurora and by his travels through Europe on the tiny inheritance from his stepmother, seems to be developing a taste for elegance and cultural beauty. In short, as the book nears its conclusion, we have to entirely displaced characters, "each one wishing for what the other has got," to quote the un-Jamesian Bob Dylan.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Culture is the opiate of the people?: The end of radicalism in The Princess Casamassima

Hyacinth Robinson, the working-class radical who's agreed to become a terrorist assassin in order to overthrow the British ruling class, inherits some money when his beloved stepmother, the dressmaker "Pinnie," dies - 37 pounds, I think - and with this modest inheritance he becomes: a Henry James character! Yes, this character so unusual even unique in the world of H.James, walking the dismal streets of London at night and meeting in the back rooms of pubs to plot the overthrow of the government, now decides to take the gentleman's tour of Europe, where he admires the beautiful architecture and the high culture and generally pines for the woman that he left behind, the eponymous "Princess Casamassima." Yes, he's in danger of becoming one of the Jamesian feckless, privileged introverts - all on 37 pounds, which obviously went a lot farther in the 1880s than it would today. But wait, all is not lost in this novel, because we still need to see how the forces of politics, social class, and romance will intersect: someone will be destroyed, but who? You have to wonder, as noted in yesterday's post, where James's sympathies laid: he makes such a compelling case for the inequities and oppression that would drive any thinking young man with sufficient bravery to take radical action, yet he also seems to be saying, on a different level, that exposure to the beauty of high culture alleviates all of the inequity and oppression of class society: to culture is the opiate of the people. We'll see if Hyacinth gets deracinated, or emasculated.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Conservatism and the novel: Are great novelists reactionaries by nature?

This is probably a question for a book, not a blog, but: Why are most of the great novelists of the Modern such political conservatives? Maybe this is a gross exaggeration, but as I try to think of the major examples of those who've taken on expressly political themes, most - all? - portray those who want to change society as bloodthirsty radicals who either have no commitment to their ideas or are so rabidly and blindly attached to an ideology that they destroy themselves and others and bring no lasting justice or progress. I'm thinking about this as I read Henry James's "The Princess Casamassima," shockingly political for James, and highly sympathetic to the injustices suffered by the working classes - the 99 percent - in 19th-century Britain - and though I'm not sure where it's going it seems inevitable, as the main character is about to become a political assassin - that James is setting him up for destruction. Think also of Conrad (The Secret Agent) and Dostoyevsky (The Devils): the world view of these great novelists seems to be that the only course of action for a progressive is terrorism. There may be counter-examples - I ought to re-read Middlemarch to see, and thinking also of The Magic Mountain, which at least gives equal weight to nihilism as part of a debate on the course of history: but is there something innate to the qualities of being a monumental writer and adopting a fundamentally conservative world view? Is it the selection of who had, at that period of history, the wherewithal to become a novelist? Something about the forces of 19th-century and early 20th-century history itself? Or just a generalization that does not hold up to scrutiny?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Will the Princess Casamassima destroy the working-class hero?

Part 3 of Henry James's "The Princess Casamassima" begins with the working-class radical Hyacinth Robinson visiting the country estate that the P.C. has rented for the summer - he's never seen a place of such luxury and beauty, feels very out of place and strange, she's her typical eccentric and off-putting self, has her officious butler waiting on Hyacinth, which makes him even more uncomfortable, he has no idea how to ac around servants, gives word she'll see him at such and such a time, meanwhile her companion, Madame Gandolfi (?) tells H. not to get his hopes up, she often fails to keep appointments, but the P.C. does in fact meet with H. and takes him (along with Madame G.) for a carriage ride around the property, and keeps trying to persuade him to stay longer - she has no comprehension that he has to work to earn a living (typical of so many Jamesian characters, but in this case she poses as an ally of the workers), at last offers to pay him to work for her, which he decides to accept. The meeting that H. was headed to with the radical German at the end of part 2 is entirely glossed over, so we have no idea what kind of plot of scheme H. has pledged himself to engage in - he's like a ticking time bomb. The question is, will the P.C. destroy him, deracinate him, dominate and control him - or will he destroy her and her kind? James has never do directly or powerfully taken on the issue of class conflict: what a surprise, coming from this author!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The making of a terrorist: A Henry James novel that resonates with us today

Anyone who's been to a political meeting, particularly on a college campus, particularly in the 60s or 70s, will recognize all the types in the gathering of working-class radicals in the back room of the Sun and Moon pub in of all places Henry James's "The Princess Casamassima" (you would not expect this kind of gathering in a James novel, especially with this title!): the spewing of ideology, the posing and posturing, the grandiose ideas, the idealism, the grumbling and despair, the complete incapacity for coming to any kind of consensus or conclusion - all very realistic and evocative. This scene closes out part 2, about half-way through the novel, as our hero, Hyacinth, stands rises to speak to the group to refute one who said that none was brave enough to risk his life, his "bones," in their quest to smash the ruling classes - Hyacinth says he would risk anything, and at that moment his mentor, Paul, accepts him as one of the group. H. steps outside of the meeting - a great description of a dreary London street at night - and Paul and others follow and they get a hansom and take H. off to meet the German radical who is visiting secretively in East London - as H. sets off on the next stage of his evolution from naif to - what? terrorist, presumably. More than almost any other James novel, this one has strange resonance with readers today.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The cruelty of the Princess Casamassima

I'm not exactly racing like the wind through "The Princess Casamassima," and that's not entirely Henry James's fault, well maybe a little his fault, not that he'd care - it is without a doubt a Jamesian novel in some ways, very self-reflective, weaving its way through incredibly long sentences with dozens of subordinate clauses, each slightly clarifying the preceding clause and breathlessly anticipate modifier in waiting. But in other ways, as I've noted in earlier posts, it's highly unusual for James: very focused on class relations, on class conflict, on the lives of the less privileged, on rage against society. In the second part of the novel, about 200 pages or so in, The eponymous princess emerges as an potentially evil and destructive character: Paul warns the "hero," Hyacinth (!) that the Princess is a "monster," but H. can't see that - he's star struck. In the section I read last night he goes to visit the Princess in her town house - she's very eager to learn more about him, but it's as if she's studying a curious specimen or traveling to a quaint village. He doesn't pick this up at all; he talks about wanting to see her again and she's very excited about this - which he takes entirely in the wrong way, and then is stunned that she apparently goes off to her country house or some such place and leave no message about when she may return. He goes to great trouble to bind a book of Tennyson poems for her (that's his trade - bookbinder, but wishes it were poet), and the footman gruffly suggests he can leave it for her, but H. wisely decides not to leave it : he will give it to her when he sees her again. Cruel woman, thoughtless - she thinks she's a radical humanitarian, but she has no empathy. In fact, is she a princess at all? Or did she just marry into rank?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Depiction of working-class life in The Princess Casamassima: realism? sentimentality? or cynicism?

So Paul Muniment, the working-class radical who has befriended "our hero," Hyacinth, wanrs him that the eponymous Princess Casamassima is a "monster." What can that mean? Somehow he sense what Hyacinth feared initially: that the P.C. thinks she's on the side of the working class, that she thinks she wants to dedicate her life to social justice and equality, but that in fact she is using others and likely to destroy the lives of others in the process. We'll see how this plays out - but it's clear that Hyacinth is setting himself up as a victim, totally smitten of the beauty of the P.C., and likely to do anything for her - which will inevitably lead to tragedy and destruction. Meanwhile, Paul is smitten with another aristocratic lady, Lady Aurora, who has devoted herself to helping Paul's invalid sister, Rosy. I suspect that she will continue to be a very good-hearted and thoughtful person - a contrast to the Princess. It's striking how this second part of the P.C. gradually drifts toward the milieu of the aristocracy: drawing rooms, townhouses, etc. - this is a world in which Henry James felt more at ease, obviously, but we have to give him credit for, at least in the first part of the P.C., some very moving and evocative descriptions of the misery of working-class lives in late 19th-century England, and I hope he maintains that sensibility throughout the novel and doesn't succumb to Dickensian sentimentality or Conradian cynicism.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Princess Casamasssima: A dangerous character

As foreseen: "our hero" Hyacinth (!) Robinson meets up with his friend, the affable working-class radical Paul and he tells Paul that the Princess C., whom he'd just met at the theater, would love to meet him - and then Hyacinth is a little surprised the Paul spurns: Paul doesn't trust any Princess or other member of the ruling classes who says they support the working classes, he knows that when the moment comes to its crisis the aristocracy will identify with its own and with its own interests and will betray the working-class radicals in a heartbeat. He also intuits that the Princess is essentially "slumming," that she wants to meet working-class men as a sort of adventure and as a way to prove (to herself primarily) that she's not imprisoned by limitations of her class and her upbringing. Of course we have seen examples of many privileged people who have put their advantages aside and worked for radical reform of society, sometimes including violent ends - only a few of the great revolutionary leaders of the past century have actually been working-class or peasants. And then think of the student radical of the 60s - many of whom were children of privilege. But we suspect that Paul is right and that Hyacinth is wrong, that H. is blinded by the PC's beauty and charm and by his wishful thinking, that she will turn out to be an evil or dangerous influence - especially in contrast with the woman who is selflessly devoting herself to Paul's invalid sister, Rosy, and who, we suspect, may be building toward a romantic relationship with Paul.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Beware the aristocrat who claims to be a friend of the workers: The Princess Casamassima

So finally, in part 2, 150 or so pages in, we meet the eponymous Princess Casamassima in Henry James's novel - and we can immediately see that there will be various forces contending for the soul of "our hero," as James calls him, Hyacinth (!) Robinson, the young bookbinder who has become attracted to radical political ideas and ideals and imagines a working-class revolt that will destroy the British aristocracy - as in the French Revolution but with more enduring effects. Despite his attraction to radical ideals and to activist political groups, Hyacinth feels that he is acting sometimes in bad faith, has he has the romantic notion that he may actually be of aristocratic birth - in fact, he's been raised by a stepmother as his mother is imprisoned for murder. At the end of part 1, he takes a young woman, the flirtatious and completely apolitical Milly Henning, to a popular show at a theater, and there, at the outset of part 2, a mutual friend brings Hyacinth into one of the boxes to meet the Princess - a beautiful young woman who likes to meet different "types" to broaden her horizons and who expresses deep sympathies for the working class and says she would be glad to give up all her advantages to right the injustices of society. The novel will obviously explore how she changes Hyacinth and whether she can be true to her expressed ideals or whether they are just postures that she adopts without thinking of the consequences- consequences that no doubt Hyacinth will feel, not her. Beware the aristocrat who claims to e a friend of the workers. The Princess C. also will no doubt be contrasted with the other noble lady who visits the invalid sister of one of Hyacinth's friends - a gentle and charitable soul, perhaps to be contrasted with the egoistic and maybe delusional Princess.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Has there ever been a less apt title than "The Princess Casamassima"?

Till now I have been posting on the strange similarities between Henry James's "The Princess Casamassima" and the work of Dickens - strange and surprising because was the ever a novelist whom we think of as less engaged with the struggles of the working class, poverty, illness, and class prejudice than H.James? But his descriptions of the Newgate (?) prison and of the dreary lives of the working class in London, deprived of opportunity, consigned to poverty, the rage that a bright and creative young man feels when he realizes there is wealth and prosperity all around and he will be cut off from that forever because of happenstance of birth - these are themes that I've found virtually nowhere else in James. As I finish part one of the novel, however, I'm looking forward: Dickens may have deeply influenced James in writing this novel (the lively invalid sister chattering away in her bed is a truly Dickensian type), but this novel looks forward to the dark, political work of Conrad - notably The Secret Agent, with its sense of conspiratorial groups meeting in secret around London, a society about to explode because of the pent-up rage and the crushing, oppressive social system. What I really wonder about this novel, however, is how on earth did James come up with such a terrible title (completely unexplained in the first 150 pages or so) - even if this Princess becomes a major character, has there ever been a title that less aptly captured the mood and themes of a novel?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

So atypical of Henry James - The Princess Casamassima

"The Princess Casamassima" continues to surprise me - a completely different area for Henry James to explore; not only is it focused on a working-class character and his troubles making a living and his despair about the poverty that he sees on his daily (and nightly) walks throughout London, but it also includes a romantic element that's not entirely enshrouded in feints and hesitations and concerns about appearances and proprieties - could the opening chapters be any more different from the genteel tea party that opens Portrait of a Lady? In chapter I read last night the young man, Hyacinth Robinson (?) - yes, that's his first name - and young woman Millicent Henning go on a long walk through London - he's taking her home, after she surprises him with a visit to the old "Plice" where she'd grown up and he still lives. Millicent now a somewhat fashionable if course woman about town, and we're not sure why she's interested in striking up re-acquaintance with Hyacinth - but it's obvious that she knows what he does not: that he's actually the child of a murderess who died in prison. She hints about this and tries to find out how much he actually knows about his origins - and we're not sure how much she actually knows or why this information is important to her - a very good set-up for a long novel, which will probably take these two characters through many permutations.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Dickensian theme and a Jamesian theme in The Princess Casamassima

As noted in yesterday's post, Henry James's "The Princess Casamassima" feels in some ways more Dickensian than Jamesian, and this holds true through the first 4 chapters (60 pages or so), as in the 3rd, the dressmaker, Mrs. Pynsent?, takes the 10-year-old boy, Hyacinth (!), to see his mother, who is dying in prison and about whom he knows nothing. She tells him the woman wants to see a young boy because she never sees children in prison, and she had a son named Hyacinth as well (one of so many boys named Hyacinth) - the boy is obviously disturbed by this visit, and his elderly mother just keeps saying in French "he hates me" or words to that effect - which he cannot understand. James gives a very good and amazingly creepy description of the prison (Newgate?) and it effect on the whole section of London (Battersea?), a section of the novel steeped in gloom and despair. Then we jump forward in time, without warning, in the next chapter - Pysent is now quite elderly and the neighborhood urchin girl (Henning?) whom we'd glanced earlier returns for a visit - now she's a fashionable but still working class and kind of "cheap" - and wants to see her childhood friend, whom she calls Robinson (good thing) - so clearly their relationship will develop, and James has established the very Dickens-like story line of characters chafing against their social class and the very Dickensian (and Jamesian) story line of characters ashamed of their humble origins. I imagine his treatment of this theme will be very Jamesian (not Dickensian), but we'll see.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Starting The Princess Casamassima and welcome to the world of - Dickens?

You would think, from the title alone, that "The Princess Casamassima" would be classic Henry James, steeped in old world aristocratic pretensions, a long complex story of the titled and entitled - and yet - in the first 20 pages or so - for a minute you'd think you're reading Dickens. As James establishes the plot, a young boy who's been raised by a dressmaker in some remote and unfashionable London neighborhood, receives a visit from a "lady," who apparently is connected with the prison, and she wants to bring the boy (or have the dressmaker do so?) to meet his mother, who's imprisoned for murder. The boy up till this point in his life (he's 10) has no idea that his mother is behind bars, no idea about his birth parents. James establishes the scene as kind of shabby, with obvious Dickens echos (not only the opening and the general theme of Great Expectations, boy rescued from his social class, and the fantasy of secret nobility?) but also the street-urchin milieu: when dressmaker/stepmom can't find the boy she sends a neighborhood 8-year-old girl to go looking for him, and there's a sense that the children live largely unsupervised on the streets and that the destiny of these two will entwine. All this said: the writing style is astonishingly non-Dickensian, with long meandering sentences with a million clauses and subclauses and changes of direction and establishing a point and then working around it or backing off from it - that is, the style is Jamesian.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Great title, good story, one quibble : on Michael Chabon's piece in the New Yorker

We mostly think of Michael Chabon as a novelist - and a novelist who's done very well with the long form (Kavalier & Clay), but actually some of his best work has been short fiction - I remember a very interesting story with the great title of S Angel (from a weirdly folded map of Los Angeles, I think) and another excellent one about a young couple house-hunting in the Seattle area - realtor takes them to a house owned by his ex and complications ensue - so it's nice to see a (relatively) short piece by Chabon in the current New Yorker, with another good title, Citizen Conn (ha!) - not a great piece but it does stand alone well on the strength of its two vividly drawn central characters, an old comic-book illustrator, Feather, living alone in a Santa Monica nursing home and his one-time partner, Conn, who had edged him out of the business and now is trying desperately to make amends before Feather's blown away on the wings of death. Nice setup - and of course it seems like an outtake from Kavalier and Clay. My quibble with the story lies with the other two characters, the narrator, a rabbi working in the home, and her husband, a professor who was a huge childhood fan of Feather's artwork. This foursome has great potential, too - imagine the possibilities for a story, series of stories, or novel about a (female) rabbi assigned to a nursing home - the stories she'd hear! But I think Chabon doesn't do much with these two characters, they add very little to the story - he would have done better in this short space to focus on the two old guys, protagonist and antagonist, Cain and Abel. Still, some wonderful passages in this story and, for all I know, Chabon may be working on or planning to publish more about these two, or about these four.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Literature and Failure: James Salter's Light Years

The last section (5) of James Salter's 1975 novel, "Light Years," is the best section of the book and though not enough to entirely redeem this unusual novel - some of the best writing and most vivid passages you're likely to encounter anywhere, yet they're held together by the thinnest veil of a plot and the characters are generally dislikable - the final section does give the book a coda and, unlike so many novels, does establish a definitive conclusion. In the last section, the two main characters, the now-divorced couple Viri and Nedra, live out the last years of the lives and stutterstep toward early death: Viri, dispirited after the divorce (he realizes what he had and what he's lost) goes to Rome for a year (nice deal) where he improbably meets a 30ish Italian beauty, marries her, and slowly learns that the marriage is empty. In more or less alternate chapters we see Nedra, who has a good relationship with her now-adult daughters, reflecting on her life as she becomes ill and dies - she realizes she has accomplished little or nothing with her life - just lived it (couldn't that be enough?); Viri, meanwhile, realizes he will never be a famous architect and that he has lost everyone he's close to: Salter leaves him, at the end, about to step into the Hudson, near the house that they'd owned when young (at the outset of the book), presumably to his own death. This section is the best in the book, despite its obvious gloom, because Salter gets some distance from and perspective on his characters and we realize that the book is meant to be an examination of failed lives, as seen through a series of snapshots or video clips so to speak: in this sense, think of the difference between Light Years and the somewhat similar Tender Is the Night, in which Fitzgerald thought he was chronicling the lives of great and beautiful people, whereas Salter know he is telling the life stories of selfish, naive failures: this becomes clear at the end, but was it worth the journey to this point? Failure is definitely a suitable topic for literature, but you would hope and expect literary characters to fail grandly - to go out crying, as Melville (I think) put it: No, in Thunder.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Maybe there's something I just don't get about James Salter's Light Years

Let's just keep going, why don't we?, with more great scenes from James Salter's "Light Years," including vivid account of friend Peter's slow death by scleroderma, in which body slowly turns hard as rock; the now mid-40s divorced Nedra decides to take up acting and tries to join an experimental troupe in Vermont, is rejected, but takes up instead with the leading male actor; younger daughter Danny gets married to the brother of one of her lovers - each of these moments so perfectly rendered, yet I still have the same problem with this novel that I've discussed in previous posts, its lack of coherence, its stunted narrative, and its unlikable characters. Has ever a novel contained such polarities - in some respects so great and in other respects dismal? I will probably finish it tonight and will try my best to come to terms with this novel - maybe there's something here that I'm missing entirely, maybe by the end I will look back and see a brilliant portrait of a failed marriage and two failed lives? Maybe - but I just keep seeing these people, in particular the central characters, Viri and Nedra, whom we first meet as young parents and are now edging past divorce and into middle age, as selfish, self-involved, privileged, and ungrateful: Nedra always wishing she could travel and be wealthy - she is and she does, by most accounts, and wishing she could be an artist - which requires a talent and dedication she does not seem to have; Viri lamenting the failure of his marriage, not that he did much to help it, and his obscurity as an architect - but maybe it's a justifiable obscurity, as there's no evidence that he has talent other than for working well with clients. Characters in novels often fight against the boundaries and restrictions of their lives and their culture, but these characters don't fight against anything, they whine.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Reading pages v reading a novel

I keep touching on the same themes as I read through James Salter's 1975 novel, "Light Years," but it keeps striking me that this is the classic example of a "writer's writer," for better or for worse. I'm completely blown away by the beauty of some of his descriptive passages and by Salter's ability, in a few deft word-strokes, to evoke a scene - and it's not as if this novel is full of long, meandering descriptions as in Proust - Salter's are much more compact, Proustian detail conveyed with Hemingwayesque efficiency: short sentences built on the solid foundation of nouns and verbs. he is also great at conveying an action or an interaction: lots of the chapters or passages in the book are accounts of a dinner or dinner party, and there are some terrifically memorable action scenes as well, such as a character (Arnaud) get jumped and beaten on a NYC street far too late during a rough time in city life. All that said: what's the end game here? The problem is that the scenes do not cohere particularly well, characters introduced and then dropped, actions not developed or followed through. The book takes place over a fairly long period of time and I suppose the structure, such as it is, is that we see the characters evolving through snapshots of their lives at different stages - some like Mrs. Bridge, but far more lyrical and sensual. This style is not designed to win a wide readership, in fact it's rather off-putting - especially in that the two central characters are not particularly likable or sympathetic - or even, for most readers, recognizable. So I find myself admiring Salter's work greatly page by page and wishing the pages would cohere into a better novel. As it is, this is a page stopper, that is, a writer's book.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

James Salter's Light Years: Great Writing Squandered?

About halfway through James Salter's 1975 novel, "Light Years," and am distressed at what seems to me to be a great talent misdirected (at least for this novel - I have really admired some of his other writing, especially the late stories): On the one hand, Salter gives us some beautiful writing and beautiful scenes: skating on the frozen Hudson, with a little girl ill with cancer being dragged along on a saucer by her dad; description of industrial Altoona, where daughter sits by hospital bedside of her dying dad and we understand why she left this town; surprisingly beautiful scenes of domestic tranquility: in the surf on Long Island, gathering for an Easter holiday; many long well-oiled dinners among friends; even a few very passionate sex scenes. All this toward what end, though? The central people in this novel, Viri and Nedra, are empty, vacant, a privileged couple with beautiful daughters (much remarked upon constantly) who cheat on each other and who both - particularly Nedra - feel they want something more out of life, something undefined: Oh, let's go to Paris, let's go to Italy, let's drive to the city and spend money. They remind me, to a degree, of the Diver family in Tender Is the Night - wealthy, intelligent, and frivolous - but at least in Tender events happen to move the plot along, whereas Light Years is a series of scenes, snapshots, moments that don't lead to any developments or changes in the characters - just accumulating evidence that they don't appreciate what they have and they don't know where they're going. Maybe novel will take shape in second half, and maybe some see this as a beautiful portrait of a a broken marriage but I'm thinking it's some great writing squandered.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A peek ahead at the next novel from T.C. Boyle?

The prolific and highly readable T.C. Boyle has a story, Los Gigantes, in the current New Yorker - he's published there quite often, and some of his stories, often collected in the Prize or Best American anthologies, have been very memorable and distinct, in his early years a lot of them about bedraggled East Coast heavy drinkers and misfits and in over the past 15-20 years or so more often about West Coast parrotheads and hangers-on - segments of American society not often chronicled in literary fiction. Boyle's novels range very far afield in theme - have read only a few of them but I know he's written about Alaskan settlers, patent-medicine pushers, Frank Lloyd Wright - anyway, I suspect current story is part of forthcoming novel as it had the feeling of an introductory chapter and did not have the well-crafted arc of narrative and precise ending that Boyle usually establishes: this story set in unnamed Latin American dictatorship where the President has hired or commandeered a band of giant men to mate with giant or super-strong women in hopes of siring a cadre of super-toughs to defend the regime (president had been a cattle breeder); story narrated by one of the giants, who tries to make an escape from the military outpost (which feels like a prison) where the giants are captive. Story obviously very far-fetched and owes some kind of debt to the great George Saunders, who has written many stories about people "captive" in various theme parks, and perhaps to Ishigura (and others?) who've written about breeding of humans for various purposes - none beneficent to the captives. This piece very readable and, though it doesn't stand up well as a story, suggests Boyle's next novel may be pretty good and, as is typical of his work, will go off and explore a completely new direction.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A 1970s novel about 1950s values - but will they explode? Light Years

James Salter's "Light Years" really does feel very old-fashioned - up to a point. Though it was published in 1975, it's set in the 1950s and clearly has the 50s values and mind set: a totally male-dominated world in which men are priapic and full of sexual ambition and conquest, women are basically shoppes and consumers and sex objects, and children are more or less ignored, kind of disposable props that give a family the right domestic look and balance. Everybody seems to have plenty of money, though they complain about money, and nobody seems to work very hard - languorous lunches and afternoon sexual interludes seem to be just a part of daily life. And yet - Salter does have 20 years of distance on his material and I detect a certain satiric or even rebellious undercurrent that I think he may develop as the plot courses, or more aptly meanders along. When the main character, a Manhattan architect named Viri, begins a tryst with his secretary, I thought - here we go, another male-fantasy novel, what would she see in him, other than his authority over her, couldn't she do better? And then - surprise - Viri's beautiful wife, Nedra, is having an affair as well - so they have secrets from each other and this seeming smooth marital veneer is full of cracks and fissures. And, then, 2nd surprise, Viri drops in on secretary (Kaya - can't anyone be named Bob or Jane in a novel?, esp in the 50s?) - and she's with someone, she won't let him in. Good for her! - and for the novel - we'll see what tensions develop, or explode.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The curse of being known as a "writer's writer"

James Salter is one of those guys who bears the curse of being known as a writer's writer, which means exactly what? The other writers read him? That only writers read him? Started reading his novel "Light Years" last night and from the first 40 pp or so do get an idea of what the term might mean: writers can immediately appreciate his fine style, an almost unique blend of lush, even poetic description within a Hemingway-like syntax - short sentences (and some - too many, actually - fragments) with strong and unusual verbs. First sentence of the book is something like: We dashed the river, which could mean so many things: dashed across, turned it into a dash by moving along it quickly, used it as a dashboard? or some weird neological zeugma of did and crashed = dashed? I actually have no idea. But I was very caught up in his beautiful description of the Hudson around West Point/Poughkeepsie and then of the fine account of a dinner party among friends, the taut dialogue a precursor to (and influence on?) Raymond Carver - all to the good, and yet - the book, published in 1975 and set in the 1950s seems very dated - even for 1975. In first several chapters no theme or conflict established and characters are rather hazy: Mad Men-era characters with lots of serious drinking and spending; the main character, guy named Viri (they all have odd names) is an architect who commutes down to NYC; his wife actually drives down to NYC regularly to shop for groceries and clothes, parking (often illegally) right on the street - how much does this date the story? Prehistoric, right? They do have kids, and one couple, best friends, but in 40 or so pages I can't figure out the relations or in any way where this novel is going: Salter devotes lots of time to a chapter in which Viri orders handmade shirts- another retro touch, even in 1950 I think. It's easy to see from what I've read so far why Salter is still read and admired - but also why he was never particularly popular or famous outside of the narrow cult, i.e., a writer's writer?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Sense of an Ending and an ending that makes no sense

So, let's be kind. Maybe it was Julian Barnes's year to win the Booker, maybe they figure, hey, there are only about 20 British writers anyway, so let's just rotate the award among them - and Barnes's turn came up in 2011, even though the only book he published in 2011 was, is - pretty dreadful. (I also note that apparently there are only 3 British actresses over 50 and that every British movie or TV show exported to the U.S. must star at least one of them.) I've liked a lot of work by Barnes over the years, particularly some of his stories and Flaubert's Parrot - but his latest, "The Sense of an Ending"? The first half, as noted in earlier posts, is an older man's account of his prep-school and college life in the 60s, and it's so devoid of texture and detail that it reads like an outline for a novel rather than chapters of a novel. Also, pretty familiar ground covered by dozens, maybe thousands of other novels: cliques and suicides and sexual yearnings and frustrations. Then the novel jumps to the present life of the narrator, Tony Webster, as he reconnects with his college girlfriend when he receives a strange bequest in the will of her mother. This plot development raises some obvious questions: why did the mom leave Tony $ in her will? What is the secret behind the early suicide of Tony's school-age friend Adrian? Is he about to build a new relation with old girlfriend Veronica? Barnes answers these questions to a degree - but the answers are utterly preposterous, and they're presented in about the clunkiest narrative sequence you can imagine - plot and factual details withheld from us for no reason other that Barnes's attempt to create some conflict or drama, wildly improbable coincidences and conclusions, and ultimately, I can't avoid saying it: An ending that makes no sense.