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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, April 30, 2012

Where Willa Cather's narration begins to go awry: cherchez les hommes

Here's where two of her narrative decisions begin to let Willa Cather down in "My Antonia": in the 4th section, A Prairie Woman's History (?), the narrator, Jim Burden, comes home to Black Hawk, Nebraska, after completing his degree at Harvard, and he learns of a lot of changes in the town, or more specifically among the Norwegian/Swedish farm girls who'd come into town to make their fortunes and then, in various ways, had moved on: He learns that Tiny had moved west and made a lot of money in the Klondike and had settle in San Francisco, that Lena - who obviously came onto him during her time as a dressmaker in the college town of Lincoln - has moved west as well and is a very successful and influential dressmaker in SF, and most important he learns that Antonia followed her railroad man fiance to Denver, where he refused to marry her, ran out on her in fact, leaving her pregnant - and she's returned home with her child, a "fallen woman," but still proud and independent. The problem? All of this is told to Jim - we don't see any of it dramatized or realized or unfolding in a narrative arc. He's just gathering information from other townsfolk. Cather would have been better off here with the freedom of a 3rd-person narrator that would allow her to change point of view when necessary (and which she used successfully in Death Comes for the Archbishop). All that said, Jim does go off to the farm to find Antonia - and they have a rather emotional meeting - Jim says to her that he'd wished she could have been his "sweetheart" or his wife, and that she will always be in his life. She tearfully says she has no regrets. A very nice scene, in a very limited way. The problem is, it's hard to understand Jim's emotional-romantic-sexual attitude toward Antonia: if he really is or has been in love with her, what's to prevent him from marrying her right now? If he feels he can't do that because now they are of an entirely different social stature - he's a Harvard-educated city lawyer and she's a farm laborer - he should articulate that, right? The puzzling thing overall is Jim's lack of sexual drive - toward her, toward anyone. He seems to love her even more - now that she's completely inaccessible to him. This asexuality may arise from Cather's strange decision to tell this story from a male point of view - she's a great writer in many ways, but Jim, and perhaps other male characters as well, are so lacking in sexuality that they don't seem real - not in the same way that her ambitious, colorful female characters seem real. The evil men are more vivid and credible, but she's at sea with a nice straight-arrow like Jim Burden.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

What Cather doesn't quite get right in My Antonia

As you read Willa Cather's novel "My Antonia," think about this: Doesn't it seem like an evocation from of an era long gone, like the reminiscence of an old person looking back on his or her youth in a place far away and long ago? Some of this feeling is quite accurate - especially for 21st-century readers who read this novel for a sense of what life was like on the thinly populated prairie and in the small towns in 19th-century Nebraska. Yet Cather wrote the novel in 1918, and it was a reflection on her life on the prairie in the 1880s or 1890s - 20 or 30 years back. That would be like someone today writing a novel set in 1980 - which would in no way have to feeling of a long-ago, bygone time, right? In other words, part of the nostalgic (but not elegaic) mood of My Antonia is purely fictive, Cather's creating through her evocative language. But in another sense, this novel gives the lie to the cliche that we live in a time of rapid changes. We do in some ways - technological, primarily - but in other ways the early 20th century in America was actually a time of more dramatic change: the great settlements, the massive European immigration, the arrival of the automobile, the new prosperity, the political suffrage movement - perhaps there was more change between 1890 and 1920 than in any other era. Finished 3rd section of My Antonia, Lena Linborg, in which the narrator, Jim Burden, goes through his freshman year at U. Nebraska in small university town of Lincoln (the 3rd different setting for the novel, each one somewhat more "settled" but not exactly sophisticated), and in this section Lena, one of the country girls who'd come to town to make her fortune, a "fast" girl in the lingo of the era, looks Jim up in Lincoln and they begin a long friendship - dinner, theater, long walks - which oddly does not lead to romance. Lena certainly seems to want to fall in love with Jim - or maybe just to have sex with him - but Jim shows no interest, or no drive - is this part of the weirdness of Cather's writing a novel from the male point of view, which she doesn't really quite get - particularly when it comes to sex? Ultimately, Lena says she never wants to marry anyone (doubtful - but it does also seem like she's coming on to Jim, telling him she won't tie him down) and Jim decides she's too much of a distraction from his studies and determines to follow his favorite classics teacher off to Harvard - all readers today will be shocked at how apparently easy it was to transfer into Harvard at that time: all it took was a letter from a newly recruited junior faculty member. In other words: connections. Shocking!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Beautiful girl falls for older guy - really? Mostly in (male) fiction

Is there or is there not a certain genre of stories and novels (and films?) invariably by (older) men invariably about how a beautiful young woman is completely smitten with them - intellectually, physically, romantically, sexually - might this in fact be a bit of a male fantasy going on here? How often does it happen in life (not that often), how often in literature (a lot). How often in films (all the time!). And are these stories often by British writers? They are! Such as Ian MacEwan's well written but purely fantastical story in current New Yorker, A Hand on the Shoulder. Ostensibly, story is about a Cambridge student, female, beautiful, recruited for the MI5 or whatever it's called, by a dapper, older don who begins by taking an interest in her intellect but of course pursues her amorously and more or less ditches his inconvenient wife (who conveniently remains stashed away in London) - the girl, Serena?, is crazy about him but at the end he dumps her - making up a really lame excuse for his loss of interest - and she's heartbroken but does in fact get the call from the MI5 and goes on to a long career - she's narrating this as a 60ish woman, looking back on 1972 - as a spy. I could see this perhaps as an early chapter in a novel, in which MacEwan takes on Le Carre, in a more literary pass at the spy genre - he's shown that he can take on all sorts of British literary genre cliches - as his great novel Atonement managed to treat the hoariest of British literary tropes: the country house, the war memoir, upstairs downstairs - and find something fresh and new. As a piece of short fiction - I don't know - it did hold my attention, and MacEwan's style is exxceptionally clean and direct here, but really, I admire MacEwan for telling this story of a young woman throwing herself on, or throwing herself away on, a much older guy but he brings very little perspective to her: why would she be so interested in him unless she were extremely weak and needy (she's not) or an opportunist - which maybe she is, but MacEwan doesn't develop that element of her character at all. Hey, she should dump him - not v.v.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Soime horrifying scenes in My Antonia

Don't be fooled by the apparently easy-going tone of the narrator, Jim Burden, in Willa Cather's "My Antonia" - although his voice is jaunty and reminiscent, it's a very dark book with lots of disconcerting, even eerie scenes and moments: the most striking and probably the most famous is the suicide of Antonia's father, but what about that strange interlude in which Antonia describes a day when she worked at a thresher and a tramp or vagabond showed up, asked for some beer, then agreed to work binding the sheaves, works for a few minutes, stands up, waves good-bye, and dives headfirst into the thresher! Antonia dryly explains that he was indeed dead, and that the men had to work really hard to get his body out of the machine, and after that the thresher never worked right again. Life on the prairie. The 2nd part of the novel - The Hired Girls - in which the Burden family lives in town, and a # of the immigrant "girls," including Antonia, come to town for better wages and a better life - but still send $ back to the dirt-poor families working the farms - is about, largely, how the town changes when a group of musicians and dance instructors come to town and begin holding Saturday night dances under a tent (this reminds moe of another novel and I can't think which one - Hundred Years of Solitude?): suddenly, there's some life in the prairie town, and Cather explores, tentatively, the sexual drive of the characters: part of the theme is how the respectable boys from the town are interested in pursuing the sexy and more venturesome "hired girls" - Jim himself makes his first pass at Antonia, four years older than he is, and is more or less rebuffed - we'll see what develops. Antonia has been sneaking out for the dances (as has Jim) and when her boss, the seemingly benign Mr Harling, learns of this he forbids her from going to dances again - some strange sexual jealousy here? - and her job is on the line and she quits - good for her, they don't own her body and soul. But she goes to work for a horrible man, the town loan shark, and he makes a pass at her - he's already gotten at least one hired girl pregnant, and sent her off in shame - but things go awry - it's actually Jim sleeping in her bed, which everyone misinterprets. Life is open in all its possibilities for Jim - we know from the preface to the novel that he becomes a successful man in his adulthood - but the possibilities for Antonia are narrow, and scary.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Death on the Prairie: Willa Cather's complete lack of sentimentality

First section - The Shimerdas - of Willa Cather's novel "My Antonia" is sorrowful and powerful, an incredibly sad and vivid conclusion as old Mr. Shimerda, completely displaced and alienated in his new land - Nebraska - drifts off to the barn and in his careful, meticulous manner, with the Old World gentility of taking off his books (so that later, daughter Antonia wears them - waste not want not) shoots himself with a shotgun - my note yesterday that My Antonia is similar in some ways to Noon Wine and to Ethan Frome confirmed here - with the sense in all three of rural poverty and espair, hard-working farmers and farm laborers unable to prosper, driven finally to death (or to a suicide attempt) - though each of these works is a unique creation and there are some real differences among them - EF the only one that's a love story - each completely gives the lie to the myth of the Golden Age of American individualism and independence: we are much better off today when we feel a responsibility as a society for the unfortunate among us. One of the great strengths of My Antonia is Cather's complete lack of sentimentality and her unconventional willingness to paint a bitter portrait of frontier life: one would expect, at least I expected, that the family of Czech immigrants, the Shimerdas, would be colorful and hard-working and that they would rise through their sufferings and hardships to become true Americans - in other words, I expected a cliche - and Cather is much more savvy and humane than I'd thought (as I should have known she'd be, having read Death Comes for the Archbishop): Mrs. Shimerda is a selfish and nasty woman, son is brutal and unkind, even the eponymous Antonia is a complex character and a bit testy at times and stubborn. We'll see how she changes and develops - as part 2, The Hired Girls, begins, the narrator, Jim Burden, moves with his grandparents into a house in town - and it becomes a locus where various country folk meet when they're in town on business or, in one case, when moving into town to find their fortune. I still am a little puzzled about the role of the narrator and what kind of relation he has or will have with Antonia, four years his senior - and wonder again why Cather felt the need for a male narrator - something I think she grew beyond in the similar, but more mature, Archbishop.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Reading fiction to learn about life

Work colleague A today mentioned that she reads only nonfiction because she reads primarily to "learn things," and I (haplessly) tried to explain that fiction, literature for that matter, is also a way to "learn things" and in my view a far more profound way to learn about our world, our culture, our history, our lives, our fellow human beings that (most) nonfiction. Current reading, Willa Cather's shot novel "My Antonia" is a perfect example: would you learn more about family life on the American prairie and the mid-to-late 19th century from a textbook, a history book, even a journal - or from Cather's beautiful and evocative and thoughtful and entertaining novel - all the cliches and formula apply: emotion recollected in tranquility, an imitation of an action, the consciousness of the consciousness of another - all are in play in this beautiful novel. OK, I'm only about 50 or so pages into it, the character of Antonia is still not finely or fully realized - but just taking this novel as a document about a long-gone time and place, if nothing else, makes this novel well worth anyone's reading: Cather is one of the best at evoking a sense of place and a sense of a world whose ways are long vanished. I still hold her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop to be one of the greatest of all American books, and perfect for book groups by the way - thoughtful and detailed and edgy, an evocation of New Mexico when it was a frontier territory. Antonia is about the Nebraska prairie, and obviously drown from the details of Cather's own early life. I would like to give a copy to any member of the Tea Party or any Ayn Rand follower and clone: reading this novel and seeing the abject poverty in which some of the characters live in rural America, with no social services to help them in any way, reminds us and helps us understand that no, things were not better in the old days, when everyone was independent and neighbor helped neighbor - that's a myth, and our society is far better today for most people because of our shared sociopolitical sense of responsibility for at least the minimal well-being of all. Some of the amazing scenes in the first part of Antonia include the visits to the Shimerdas' home basically carved out of the side of a mountain, where the family is practically starving to death; the introduction of the family and of their exploitation by an unscrupulous countryman; the two Russian men struggling for life - and then the odd back-story we learn about their life back in Russia and why they fled. I can't quite understand the relation between 10-year-old narrator, Jim, and 14-year-old Antonia - is there a sexual element to their friendship? Why is neither, apparently, in any sort of school? Perhaps Cather will take that up later. Book reminds me a little of Porter's Noon Wine and even more so of Wharton's Ethan Frome - American poverty - read these books and believe me you'll learn something about where we've been.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why does Willa Cather compose My Antonia from a male point of view?

Have read only a little way into Willa Cather's 1918 novel "My Antonia," so don't have a whole lot to say at this point, but noted a few things: First, was surprised that that narrator is a male. I'd read the novel many years ago and had completely forgotten that. Why is that important for Cather to do? Why does she need to structure this novel from a man's point of view, first-person no less? Must have something to do with the dynamic between the narrator - Jim? - and the Czech immigrant neighbor, the eponymous Antonia. But there's another element as well: The opening chapters, which pretty much just set up the conditions for the novel - as noted, we barely even glimpse Antonia - are imbued with loneliness and with a sense of the American West and the frontier ethos that is, today, completely consigned to the world of myth. The narrator very matter-of-fact tells us that he's been orphaned (he seems to be about 10 to 12?) and sent from his East Cost home to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. Obviously he hardly knows them, and vice versa. He rides a train out West, pretty much unsupervised, and gets picked up at the station and driven (by cariage of course - setting seems to be late 19th century) to a fairly remote farm in a small town. By today's standards of child-rearing and responsibility, this would be a terrifying journey - material for a whole novel right there - but in the time in seemed to have been a much more acceptable or conventional social arrangement - Jim just adjusts right away to his completely new and alien life. In this sense, I think Cather chose to have a male protagonist because she didn't want to delve into issues of feminism and the expectations of women and women's independence - at least not through her protagonist - and a male protagonist was much more "acceptable" as an independent agent to readers of her time, and maybe later. It would have been a very different topical ground if she had simply written the novel in first person, seemingly like memoir, without the frame story in which an old friend whom she encounters on a train ride leaves her a manuscript he's composed. And that's my 2nd point: frame stories were very vougueish in 19th century and early Modern fiction (e.g., Conrad), and I'm not sure why but they seem to be a bridge between the omniscient 19th-century narrator and the familiar first-person confessional of most 20th-century fiction. Finally, the novel has a documentary feeling to it: Cather is expert at capturing all of the physical nuances of a time and place, and My Antonia is almost a time-capsule record of prairie life long gone.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Must a novel about oppression be oppressive?

The suffering is relentless in Adam Johnson's novel "The Orphan Master's Son," and though I am really impressed by Johnson's writing and by his ability to incorporate research in a narrative, to tranform documentary material into a work of the imagination, the novel is very tough going and ultimately I can't really go with it all the way to the end. I'm sorry. I know the message is very powerful and contemporary - it's shocking to read about the tyranny and literally slavery that an entire national population must endure, right here in the 21st century, and every more shocking and disturbing to think how this country of almost primitive brutality exists as the northern half of a partitioned land and the neighboring country manufactures Hyundais by the billion. I know - freedom and capitalism are not one and the same, but can there be anyone on the planet sympathetic to the dynastic dictatorship of Kim Song Il or whatever the son's name is? That said, how much do we have to read about this occupied and oppressed land to get the point - by the 300th page of torture, terror, imprisonment, thought control, sycophancy to the Beloved Leader - I guess I've had it. As noted in previous posts, there's a whole genre of this kind of novel, not only the Soviet prison camp novels but you could add as a variant the Holocaust novels (Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel), the surrreal novels (Kafka) all variations on the theme of mind-deadening thought control enforced by brutality and terror - I admire Johnson for taking this on, for his courage and perspicacity, but in the end, or actually somewhat before the end, the novel became one relentless drumbeat, the theme pounded into us again and again, and I had to escape and I did.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

In Irons: political prisoners and oppressive regimes

The second half of Adam Johnson's novel "The Orphan Master's Son" comes on as a bit of a surprise: at the end of the first section we're told, by the apparently unreliable narrator (whose point of view seems to be that of a North Korean official of sensibility?) that the protagonist of the first part, Jun Do, as he enters a North Korean prison camp, is never seen or heard from again. But as soon as we egin part 2, we know more than the narrator: the 2nd part of the novel is the interrogation of Commander Ga, and we know that Jun Do has been and is being mistaken for Ga - he has a tattoo on his chest of the image of the North Korean movie star - and Ga's wife - Sun Moon, so many assume that he must be Ga. We know otherwise. The narrative, which was a pretty straightforward account of Jun Do's life in part one, gets a little complex in part 2: there are two teams of interrogators, a bunch of old war veterans who just torture the subjects to draw confessions out of them through pain, and a more sophisticated modern group that uses psychology, though relies on pain as a final recourse. Jun Do has received excellent training in pain resistance. So on we go - mostly, this half of the novel seems to be an account of the horrible life in a North Korean prison, where the prisoners mostly mine for ore throughout the brutal seasons, especially the winter. We learn the story of this part of Jun Do's life in bits and pieces, out of sequence, as he confesses - and these are interlaced with chapters that are seemingly transcripts of NK radio broadcasts. The outline I have so far suggests the Jun Do escaped, impersonated Commander Ga, went to his home, met Sun Moon and her children, either abducted them or helped them escape to safety somewhere, and was caught - but these details may rove inaccurate. The novel has more a plot in the 2nd part, but its strength is still the vividness of its depiction of life within a horrible regime: it's a far more stark and graphic depiction of totalitarian prison than we;ve seen in other books of its kind over the years - from Darkness at Noon, Ivan Denisovitch, Gulag Archipelago, and onward. Or downward.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The art of machismo - Junot Diaz's fiction

Junot Diaz is a bit of a guilty pleasure - I've really admired his work since reading his first collection of short stories, and I think I've ready pretty much everything he's written since - including most recently his story Miss Lara (?) in the current New Yorker - which is in many ways prototypical of his work. Why guilty? - although his stories are moving and funny and vivid depictions, realistic if exaggerated, I would guess, of contemporary East Cost urban Dominican-American culture as experienced by a an American-born teen with aspirations both carnal and intellectual, mostly in that order, it's hard not be serious off put by his objectification of women, and I have to think that he gets a pass on this in ways that Anglo-American or Jewish-American writers would not and have not - his unrelenting machismo attitude of women is tolerated in his fiction because it's condescendingly seen as a form of urban realism whereas I can't imagine other writers getting away with this - two of the best, Updike and Roth, have been criticized often for the much tame versions of the same viewpoint, you'd expect Diaz to be vilified - and yet, and yet - his vision of women is really just a limitation of the vision of his characters, isn't it?, not necessarily the author's vision - and equally important, in his best stories, such as this one, hie characters grow from innocence to experience and the are really not bad guys overall, just limited (initially) by their youth and by the expectations of their culture. Also, they tend often (not so much in this story) to be nerdy outsiders themselves - the neighborhood scifi geek, the reader, the thinker - the author? This current story is quite remarkable in that it encompasses, seemingly effortlessly, a span of many years, as the main character's view of women in general and of his particular beloved, an older woman who initiates him into love and in a way into his manhood, and how his view of her grows and evolves until he is beyond her - similar in an odd way to Flaubert's great A Sentimental Education but in just a few pages, a few thousand words. Worth reading.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The most powerful element of Adam Johnson's novel "The Orphan Master's Son" isn't the great deprivation that the North Koreans live with every day and that he depicts so vividly - especially in the scenes where the hero, Jun Do (I have to admit I didn't get the phonetic reference of his name until one of the American characters caught on - John Doe - but it's the sense that they live in virtual slavery: the horrible thought that a country that claims through its ceaseless propaganda to be a progressive people's republic consigns its citizens to a role in life almost entirely determined it seems by circumstances of birth - and the terrible oppression, characters constantly afraid of saying anything critical of the beloved rule - in one scene, the fishing boat boarded by American sailors who ransack some of the rooms and take down the pictures of the beloved leader - and that's the greatest fear the fishermen face, returning to port without those pictures they may face death. This sense of slavery most heightened among the women: the beautiful widowed fisherman's wife will now be assigned to a party official and she has no say in the matter - just plain slavery, brutal,horrible. Is it all true? The novel is very compelling, but, as noted in early post, really has no plot per se - just moves along episodically through Jun Do's life. Nearing end of part 1, that is, almost half-way through the book, Jun Do goes to the U.S. with some kind of delegation, serving as interpreter - not sure quite what to make of these scenes, oddly they seem more proscribed and formulaic than the scenes in North Korea - Johnson doesn't do much with the yearnings for freedom that Jun Do may - or may not - have - he's not a character with a lot of interior life: he's a window through which can catch a glimpse of a horrifying world.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The lazy and incompetent Pulitzer judges

I don't read enough new fiction these days to offer a list of suggestions for the book that should have won the Pulitzer Prize, but like all other readers and writers I am pretty much outraged at the ludicrous decision of the Pulitzer judges to award no prize in fiction for 2012. None? Nothing? I can see that perhaps they didn't like any of the three finalists that the screening judges presented; I haven't read any of them but maybe they thought one was too weird, one was unfinished and perhaps unreadable, and one was only marginally a book, as it had been published in a magazine some 10 years ago as a single story (or novella?). But then - any judges who take their work seriously would have demanded more submissions from the review panel or offered something themselves. Presumably, they're literate and widely read and knew all year they'd face this responsibility - should have been thinking about what their choices would be, discussing fiction with the friends and family, poking around and looking. But, no, we don't like these three so the whole year of fiction is a loss? Ridiculous. Didn't like Charles Baxter's collection "Gryphon," to name just one strong potential winner? To award no prize is to make a powerful though absurd statement about the state of letters in America today or else to simply admit to the world that we're lazy and incompetent readers who wear our responsibilities lightly. Which is it, oh you mighty judges?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A novel with no plot - but with great writing: The Orphan Master's Son

No doubt Adam Johnson's "The Orphan Master's Son" is a nontraditional novel - and not nontraditional in the metafiction or experimental or avant garde sense so endeared by my colleagues and friends at many graduate writing programs but nontraditional in that - at least for the first 100 pages or so - there's narrative but essentially no plot. It's not that the novel is inaccessible - it's totally accessible, and completely fascinating reading, a vivid and horrific account of life within the isolated and strange and oppressive country of North Korea - amazing that Johnson can imagine all of this (is it accurate? it seems so) or learn all of this (how could he even have done this research? is it based on a source document, as I've heard?) - I probably would lose interest - and I'm not sure yet that I'll finish this rather long novel - because I tend to favor novels that have strong character development and a satisfying, not to say traditional, arc to the story, and this has neither (there's a central character, Jun Do, but we have little access to his interior life) - except the writing is great, scene after scene - the ones I've just finished have Jun Do, at about age 20, working as a radio spy aboard a fishing trawler, he picks up strange frequencies at night and the fishermen aboard are fascinated by his work - and then they're boarded by an American Navy vessel - all told dramatically yet simply - and scenes like this will keep me interested and keep me reading, at least for a while - but can a whole novel progress without a central conflict, without a path of development for the central character?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

An indictment of one of the worst regimes on the planet: The Orphan Master's Son

Not making a rapid progress through Adam Johnson's long novel "The Orphan Master's Son" but am very impressed with what I've read to date - the first section a powerful account of the misery of life in North Korea as experienced by a young boy in an orphanage (he repeatedly reminds everyone that he's not an orphan - his dad runs the orphanage - but he's motherless and treated as badly as the orphans) who gets drawn into a unit of the North Korean army? navy? and assigned to kidnap Japanese people from the shore. Did this really happen? Not something we heard about in the West till this novel, as far as I know. The story builds toward the kidnapping of an opera star - not sure what the motives of the North Korean powers might be for these horrific actions - not ransom, apparently, perhaps trade for North Korean prisoners? The motive isn't obvious and none makes a lot of sense other than creating international mayhem. Meanwhile the hero, Jung Do (?), has at least one strong opportunity to escape - as well as an opportunity to let his victim escape - but he doesn't do so. Why is that? Fear of the unknown, or of getting caught and killed or condemned to an even worse life? Not clear how this is shaping up as a work of fiction, but it's hard not to read it as a documentary indictment of one of the worst regimes on the planet.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Fact and fiction and how they play off one another in The Orphan Master's Son

I don't know how it will play out but the first 50 or so pages of Adam Johnson's novel "The Orphan Master's Son" are quite harrowing - describes young man's upbringing in a North Korean orphanage - far beyond the horrors of orphanages in the standard Victorian or Dickensian version - and then his induction into a military unit where his job - he's about 16 years old - is to take a small skiff to the Japanese coast and kidnap people who they can spy at dusk walking alone on the a beach of a pier. It's horrible and ruthless, though the young man Jung Do, does have sensibilities - yet of course he has no choice and no option but to go along or be killed. It's very tense and difficult to read this - and yet it does raise some questions: Is this entirely a work of the imagination or is it, as I've heard, based on sources? If it's based on sources, why isn't it a nonfiction account? If it is fiction, is it true to a North Korean experience and if so how true? Is our reaction to it, or my reaction, a response to the novel as a work of fiction or as a representation of life in a country today? Would the novel carry the same emotional weight if it were a clearly fictionalized country - or someplace in a future century?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why read? Why write?

Many great ideas and conversations yesterday at buffalo English department reunion. I have long been thinking about why we read and have settled on basic need to have consciousness of the consciousness of others. Imagine a world with monetarily and by extension w no films or tv either and all we would know of were those we know from our own experience and contact - family friends neighbors. There would not be a human universe so to speak. Which is why we began w tales a myths later scriptural writings. Discussion about how lit helps us as people learning from the experiences of others. But I'm not sure it's meant to make us better people it's meant to make us people we read and we write to comprehend others who live or have lived and to articulate our own experiences thoughts emotions and dreams. One smart comment among Many was that reading comprehension is fine you got it you understand it buy unless you can communicate that comprehension what use is it in fact what value or validity does it have? How do you know you comprehend? I spoke on the 4 and only 4 things on which writers draw: experience learning emotion imagination. I should write a handbook on that ... Someday

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Buffalo reunion reading 2

Several different types of style at public readings evident last night. Range from true improvisation - poet takes mike w nothing more than a theme and sees where it will take him - why not try this w theme suggested from audience? - to performance in which text almost immaterial to very slow careful reading in which audience can hear each word (cb) to one poem after another w minimal intro or context to very careful establishment of context for one poem (Af) to a lot of talk and before each piece read (me) - which way's best? Maybe all maybe the variety of styles at a single reading is the best experience for all.

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Friday, April 13, 2012

Buffalo reunion reading

Had a great reading tonight at the Albright-Knox gallery in celebration of buffalo English reunion and was honored to join with other alums bit especially two from my entering class - Charlie Baxter and Alan Feldman. Charlie read a great excerpt from his buffalo Novel the soul thie describing a party back in the day so vivid I can imagine I'm there right now w grad students arguing about the 18th Brumaire and Alan read one short poem about his love for his daughter that explains in a subtle way why he and nan are ao happy in their house and community. We all tried to convey what buffalo was like in our time and how time has changed is and all around us and what has remained unchanged despite the passage of years.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

The ending of The Dead

"He thought" is one of the dullest statements in fiction - it's almost a cardinal rule that we convey literary fiction through action, dialogue, and description - and to a much lesser extent through rumination and exposition. James Joyce's The Dead, the final story (or novella) in "Dubliners," breaks the rules and breaks the convention: the entire final section of this justly famous story takes place in the mind of the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, as he observes, infers, and to a degree elicits information: what he learns through these observations and reflections is a complete reorganizing of his life, he sees himself as fatuous and crude, his poetic and artistic yearnings as absurd, and he learns through inference that his wife, Gretta, had loved a young man who died for love - a passion that Gabriel can never feel or evoke. Joyce conveys all this so subtly and beautifully, with great understatement, that it feels natural and flowing - it's not "stream of consciousness," but it feels as if we are within the stream of Gabriel's thoughts and memories. We might expect that he would use this information to completely turn around his life, to come to some grand conclusion that will end his marriage or worse - but that's not Joyce's way, he never builds toward an ending but just presents a bit of a life almost as if in real time - he's not so much a modernist, in Dubliners, as the last naturalist. The ending of the story, Gabriel reflecting on the snow covering all of Ireland, falling on the living and dead, has been probably over-interpreted - but it's definitely part of Joyce's reflection and comnmentary on his homeland, his disgust with the sense of self-importance and stupefaction that he seems to have loathed (yet been drawn to) in so many Dubliners of his time. The end of The Dead shows why Dubliners feels like such a dark and hopeless book - with all the new information Gabriel has, he can do nothing except slide into his own darkness, waiting to be buried by the white snow.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Would you publish The Dead?

You're an editor of a literary magazine and a 60-page story comes into your inbox by an unknown author about a long party during which people argue politics, sing, dance, and at the end walk back to a hotel through the snow and the main character surmmises that his wife was truly in love with a young man who died a tragic early death. Do you publish James Joyce's The Dead? I'd like to say yes, of course, it's a great story, an entire novel, an entire society, compressed into one evening's reading - and yet, it's not set in New York or LA, not much really happens at least on the surface, it's not particularly funny, it's not groundbreaking - wouldn't you, or I, be more likely to pass? Looking back as I re-read The Dead, I can see that it is, in fact, groundbreaking - another great example of Joyce's open form of story-writing, not compressed into an arc of a plot of a twist of an ending but just flowing along easily with the events of a period of time - a later, final version of literary naturalism, which had, till Joyce (and maybe Chekhov?) seems more like a form suited for the expansiveness of the novel. It's a very European story - about characters trying to fit in rather than to break away, about conventional people and their foibles rather than oddballs and their eccentricities. Gabriel, the protagonist, is one of the most conventional and self-conscious of all literary heroes. It's hard to say, half-way through, why the story is so powerful, but several scenes and moments to remain in the mind: Gabriel's eager assumption of the task of carving the goose, his pompous preparation for his after-dinner speech, his strange sense of guilt when upbraided by the self-righteous woman who taunts him as a "West Briton," Mr. Browne's foolish jocularity and his sense of isolation as the only protestant in the crowd. Gabriel's wife does not really emerge as a character - yet.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Symbols of religion - death and resurrection - in Dubliners

Grace, the penultimate story in James Joyce's "Dubliners," is clearly overshadowed by the famous final story in the collection, The Dead, and rightly so, I guess - the three or four stories preceding The Dead each have the feeling of a prelude, of Joyce's working on some themes and ideas that he will pull together in the final story. Grace is no doubt, as evident from the title, the most overtly religio-symbolic in the collection, as story that cries out, perhaps a little too loudly, for interpretation - as do some of Flannery O'Connor's stories, to cite an American counterpart. A man falls down the stairs and is found injured on the floor in what I think is a men's room in a Dublin pub. Nobody knows who he is or how he got there. Eventually, two other men - one of whom is a slight acquaintance - help the fallen man to his feet and bring him home. The symbolism here could not be more obvious - especially when we later learn that the fallen man had been drinking with a loan shark known as the Irish Jew. Story gets a little more complicated and strange back at the fallen man's home, where several cronies come to visit him in convalescence and they make plans to bring him to church and to get him off the "boose" - but, again, it seems that the friends are some version of the Gospels, preaching the word? This story, unlike most of the others in Dubliners, is one that points beyond itself and is interesting for what it represents and suggests and less so for what it directly conveys.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Oops, my mistake - missed a key point in yesterday's post on Closely Watched Trains

Letting yesterday's blog post stand even though it's a testament to my stupidity - or, to be fair (to myself), evidence of how difficult (for me) or different anyway it is absorbing a story by listening as opposed to by reading - we were finishing Brohumil Hrabal's novella "Closely Watched Trains" the other night and M. read the last chapter aloud as we were driving home from Cambridge - and - amazingly, I totally missed the point that the narrator dies in the last scene of the novel. It's kind of an odd death, as he's a first-person narrator, so you have to imagine or accept the the novella itself is one of those life-flashes-before-your-eyes in the last moments - but, still, he clearly dies, shot by a German soldier as he completes the act of sabotage on the munitions train (he shoots the German soldier, who dies also) - cannot quite remember the end of the movie but I think in the film he's shot by a German sniper but he doesn't kill the German soldier in return fire. Book group universally like Closely Watched Trains - moved by the humor, the sense of bureaucratic life and state service in a totalitarian state, the overt sexuality, the comic array of characters; I noted that the book among many other things is a journey from innocence to experience, on the part of the narrator, and also a sly and subversive anti-authoritarian text - posing as a novella about the resistance to the Nazi occupation in WWII but unmistakably to its contemporary Czech readership a novella about resistance to the Soviet state - the Soviets got the message and banned this book. Wonder why Hrabal, however, never attained the international reputation later enjoyed by Kundera?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Resistance, submission, and male fantasies - in Closely Watched Trains (the novella)

Book group tonight taking up Brohumil (?) Hrabal's novella "Closely Watched Trains," from the 1950s, best known to Americans from the Czech film of same name from about 1965, which won the best foreign Oscar and got Americans, at least some Americans, interested in Eastern European films - I'd seen the film pretty recently but never read the novel; the film is more or less faithful to the novel (Hrabal co-wrote the screenplay I think) - though in my memory the film ends with the death of the young hero as he sabotages the German munitions train passing through occupied Czechoslovakia - and that's not possible in the first-person narrated novella (unless it were a Latin American novella, by Aira, say). The novella, like the film, very tart and funny and sexy - gives a bit more background on the family history and somewhat less on the sexual frustrations of the hero - in the novella he attempts suicide before the action starts - the story begins with his return to work at the train station after a 3-month medical leave (we do get a series of flashbacks to the suicide attempt - breaks in the sequence but easy to follow) - it seems to me that in the film he tried to commit suicide because of his sexual frustrations whereas in the novella it's more because of his troubled family history and ostracism in the village? Not sure if my memory's correct here. My only trouble with the novella is its rampant male-centeredness (even sexism): yes it's a sexy story and yes it's no doubt accurate about the crude sexual comments of the dispatcher et al., but there's also an operative male fantasy that the women will offer themselves up to the hero (and the dispatcher) one after another - the women really don't seem to have personalities or even any discrimination, they're just bodies and available. On the positive side, the novella, like the film, is probably best appreciated as a surreptitious and bravely subversive attack on the communist regime and the Soviets - told as if it's about Czech resistance to the Nazis during WWII but obviously carrying a message about resistance during its own era - both politically and artistically. In that sense, the book is just like the characters Hrabal describes - cooperative state servants on the surface but secretly planning to blow everything to pieces.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Dubliners, drama, documentaries: Joyce the precursor

Two of the later stories in James Joyce's "Dubliners" are two of the more difficult for contemporary readers - used to think it was just me, but no, it's all of us: Ivy Day in the Committee Room and The Mother both have a lot of references to then-contemporary Irish politics and events. Obviously Joyce trying to work new and more expansive themes into his stories at this point, but these two feel a little closed rather than open - but of course they're leading up the grand final story of the collection, The Dead, that so beautifully and seamlessly brings together political, historical, personal, familial, and amatory themes. Ivy Day in particular, though, is perhaps the best early example in Joyce of his "cool" approach to writing fiction: he is simply, or so it seems, capturing an event or a moment in real time, without shaping the story at all in any traditional literary manner. Ivy Day, heavily dependent on dialogue and on the carousel of characters on and off the "stage," seems like a play - and maybe Joyce thought of it that way himself, at least at first? - and seems like a precursor of Mamet. Joyce captures in words the kind of unmediated reality that much after his time documentary filmmakers have been able to capture so effectively: can you picture Ivy Day as a Frederic Wiseman film? In contemporary Boston, or Providence?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Dubliners is both of its time and very contemporary - like all great literature

Clearly as we move through James Joyce's great and seminal story collection, "Dubliners," the characters get older - it's like a biographical study using multiple personalities to chart the course of a life - and the mood gets even darker. The sorrows and frustrations that the young men feel in the first three or four stories in the collection still feel like the sorrows of youth that they can maybe outgrow or learn from or move beyond - as Joyce himself did, into exile. But the older characters later in the collection are bitter and lonely beyond repair - a terrifying portrait of the life of a city that Joyce both loved and despised, from afar. Think of three of the later stories: A Little Cloud, Counterparts, and A Painful Case. Each begins in an ordinary enough way: two old friends, one in from abroad, meeting for a couple of drinks; a beleaguered clerk harassed by his boss slips out for a pint; a solitary, cultured man meets a lonely woman at a concert - and then see where these stories go, how they unfold: in the first two cases, the protagonist goes home and takes his anger and frustration out on a young child; in the 3rd case, the man rejects any overture of love and sentiment and then reads that the woman he spurned was knocked down and killed by a train: he's a man without feelings looking back on an empty life (as in James's Beast in the Jungle?). These stories are even more profound when you consider how groundbreaking this material was a century ago - a hugely influential, painful collection that feels both of its time and very contemporary - like all of the greatest literature, in that regard.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The delicate beauty in the stories in Dubliners contrasts with the starkness in the lives of the characters

I'd forgotten how incredibly sad James Joyce's "Dubliners" is - or maybe the sadness didn't strike as profoundly when I first (last?) read the collection, when I was very young and all possibilities were open before me - now looking back at Dubliners after such a long time, what I see is the sorrow in people's lives - the sense of how they're trapped by their culture and their circumstances (something Joyce and Trevor do have in common, at least thematically) - the next batch that I read last night includes Eveline, the young woman planning to leave home with a man she's met, leaving her selfish and abusive father and heading for Argentina - but she just can't bring herself to leave (most readers expect the more typical "surprise" - that he would be a cad and never show up at the pier); the Two Gallants, in which a very coarse young man brags about taking advantage of women, and his more self-effacing friend spies on him throughout an evening - leading to an ending that I don't quite understand even yet, in which he shows in triumph a gold coin - did he get her to give it to him? why?; and the famous After the Race, about a young man who gambles away a great deal of money, wasting money and time, wasting his life - you can see that each of these characters is trapped - the first three stories focus on schoolboys, and these three focus on people in their late teens or early 20s, ready to start a life, but it looks as if no life lies before them. The delicate beauty of so many scenes in these stories contrasts sharply with the darkness and suffocation of the lives of the characters.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Innocence to Experience in the first 3 stories in Dubliners

Inspired by fellow blogger Charles May have started re-reading James Joyce's "Dubliners," surely one of the great if not the greatest story collections of all time. On coming back to Dubliners after many years I'm struck right away by how contemporary each of the (first 3 at least) stories feels. It's partly attributable to what the editor of my edition calls an "open form," that is, a conscious and direct rejection of the well-crafted popular stories of the 19th century, in particular those with plot twists and clear conclusions. These stories are all moments in time (or more accurately in remembered time) with no shape other than the duration of the event - a form so obvious and common now as to seem to be a cliche (many writers, including the great Irish contemporary William Trevor, push back against this openness and strive often for stories with an arc, with a definitive conclusion); Joyce's open style is as influential and enduring as the free or open verse of his modernist contemporaries Pound and Eliot - what was then avant garde has become the norm and is often misappropriated by those who think the open form is a lack of form and lack of constraint - it is a constraint and a discipline, in another way. The first 3 stories: each is a memory of a different type of first encounter - first meeting with death, with escape, and with love - and each ends with a sense of awakening to danger and disappointment: the dead priest in The Sisters was humiliated, the boys in The Encounter are threatened by a vagrant man and not as "free" as they'd thought, the young man in Araby never buys a gift for the girl he's been admiring - that is, life is full of difficulties and disappointments, and moving from innocence to experience is a matter of encountering sorrow and shame - and perhaps much later understanding these emotions.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Differences between Holden Caulfield and the Glass family

If you knew anyone like any of the people in J.D. Salinger's Glass family, which you don't, wouldn't you just like to stuff a rag in his, or her, mouth and tell to just shut up? Is there a more insufferable character in modern literature than Zooey Glass, so self-centered and full of himself, posing and posturing, imagining that he's sensitive and solicitous and artistic, and in fact he is impervious to the apparent suffering of his sister, to the feelings of his mother, to anyone but himself - he yammers on giving dubious advice to sister Franny for hundreds of pages - for hours. Here's the tragedy: we know from Catcher in the Rye and in fact from various enlightened passages in "Franny & Zooey" that Salinger could at times be a great writer - but reading F&Z it's not a surprise that he stopped writing altogether less than a decade after his great success, it's surprising that after Catcher he wrote anything at all - or published anything at all. F&Z is a meandering mess of a book - published in The New Yorker and widely read in its day for people who were looking for, hoping for a glimpse of that talent that created Holden Caulfield - but you won't find it, because, though by H.C. and the Glass family face the sorrow of genuine disappointment in the world, with H.C. it's because the world is not good enough and with the Glasses it's because they're too good for the world, or so they believe. Contrast Salinger's development, or lack thereof, with near contemporary Updike and his sense of how to open up a character through plot, through action, as well as through voice and introspection. Updike characters live in the world and Salinger characters (other than H.C.) live on the page.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Salinger's later works and the anti-Holden Caulfields

Could there be a more self-centered, narcissistic family in all of literature than the Glass family? Granted, the Glasses are prototypes for many subsequent literary clans dominated by a charismatic but irresponsible paterfamilias - but J.D. Salinger clearly went way over the top in creating this family, over the course of multiple novels or collections (three novels + at least one short story) - been reading "Franny & Zooey," from 1955-57 - two novellas, focused on the 2 eponymous youngest Glass siblings - in the first shorter novella Franny clearly on the verge of some kind of nervous breakdown, fainting spells, nausea, she ditches her boyfriend, talks about the meaninglessness of everything she's studying in college (a much more neurotic version of H. Caulfield's obsession with "phonies"), and the longer novella, Zooey, about the 25ish youngest son, an actor, and the entire novella of 200 pages (not quite done with it yet) takes place in 3 scenes: Z. in a bathtub reads to himself a letter from older brother, full of pomposity and bad advice; Z's mother, Bess, comes into the bathrooom and tries to persuade him to reach out to Franny, who's home sick and neurotic; and 3rd scene incredibly long conversation with F. in which Z. criticizes her recent religious obsessions - none of the conversations realistic but even taking them as over the top parody of self-important upper E. Side Jewish-Irish theater family, with some hilarious descriptions of the furnishings, the contents of a medical cabinet - honestly, can we like either of these people, any of them? They're all so narrow and mean, while imagining themselves to be so smart and high-minded and cultured. These are the anti-Caulfields: Catcher was Salinger's greatest work because everyone can identify with some aspect of Holden - but his other works brought him to a dead end because he created a set of suffering characters whom nobody can identify - nor would we want to.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Precocious kids and jd Salinger

Have started jd salinger story or novella or what have you Zooey (1957) and got to thinking about precocious kids in fiction. Zooey about Salinger's Glass family of 7 famously precocious ones whose lives each in its own way take shape beneath the shadow of the suicide on honeymoon of oldest child Seymour this novella focused on one of the younger glasses Z who at this time is a successful tv actor reading a long letter of advice from older brother buddy a failed writer on crappy teaching job all the glass kids former child radio quiz stars. So about precocious kids in lit - isn't it really an author's cheap trick i mean do any Salinger kids other than caulfield sound in any way like children? Or what about other such novels - edisto? Or incredibly loud close (which i have not read btw )? No the precocious child is a sneaky way for the author to work his or her own voice and views into the story without accepting full ownership - they seem all the more smart and original because they're a child's and would seem puerile if presented as those of an adult which in fact they are.

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