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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

Thursday, May 31, 2012

One of the darkest novels of the century: Hunger

Isn't the sex scene in Knut Hamsun's 1920 novel, "Hunger," among the weirdest every written? Probably pretty risque for its time, this scene has the unnamed narrator, whom by this point in the novel we know to be very odd and deranged, meeting the woman whom initially he stalked and who later seeks him out - they have a date to meet outside her apartment building - he calls her by some weird Lovecratfian name that I can't every remember, something like Ylayeli? - in fact, he has a Tourette-like penchant for shouting out meaningless syllables - anyway, they meet, she let's him know her mother and the maid are not home, they go up to her apartment - he says he'll "sit by the door" and she says he'll do "nothing of the sort" - they sit together on the couch, he begins to unbutton her blouse, to try to kiss her breasts, she eventually pulls away from him, frightened, and then she makes the observation that he is "insane" - this sets him off. He starts to leave, and then goes on a two-page, at least, rant, explaining that he's not insane - and the more he speaks, the crazier he seems of course, and we feel bad for this young woman, she's probably terrified, who knows what this man could do - she's certainly very odd for inviting him to her place after the weird behavior she's observed: and then, at the conclusion, she says: I love you anyway. What on earth are we to make of this? I speculated yesterday that the narrator may be some kind of Christ-like figure, and perhaps she is a like a disciple or like one of the Marys, but the twist is that this god is a mindless god, a god wit no connection to humanity; a bit earlier in Hunger, the narrator seems somewhat like Job: he goes into another long rant about how he's been forsaken by God, that nobody should suffer as he does (starving, impoverished, mad) - but remember that Job was a devout and powerful and prosperous man brought low by God's whim, for apparently no reason at all - we know nothing about this narrator's past, but it does seem that he's always been a troubled, alienated man, not a figure brought low but a marginal figure in need of grace. If the narrator of Hunger is a version of a deity, this is certainly one of the darkest novels of the dark 20th century. Note: I have since learned that the publication date for Hunger is 1890; 1920 is I think its English-language pub date. Makes Hunger even more of precursor than I'd thought.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hunger for what?: Knut Hamsun's troubling novel

Hunger for what? It's evident, reading Knut Hamsun's 1920 novel, "Hunger," that the narrator, a lonely existential anti-hero existing in dire poverty on tiny payments he receives from various newspaper editors who seem to buy his pieces more or less as an act of charity - he is clearly suffering some mental disorder and his essays, which we don't see but which he describes, are obviously either incoherent rantings or completely unsuited for general-readership publication - the man - unnamed - is always on the verge of actual starvation, which drives him to some frantic behavior and at times to delusion. At one point in part 3 when has not eaten for days and goes out in the night to buy a candle so that he can continue to write in the tinsmith's shop where he's been living "off the grid," he gets too much change for the storekeeper (perhaps an intentional act of pity? if so, narrator does not realize this) - he's tormented by guilt for taking the ore/coins - but goes out and buys a roast-beef sandwich, which he vomits - ultimately atones by giving the remaining coins to a street vendor - when he needs them far more than she does, it would seem. Oddly, a woman whom he had earlier stalked through the city is fascinated by him, hangs around in front of his little shack, eventually allows him to walk her home - they kiss - is he actually on the verge of a human relationship? No doubt he will destroy this possibility (he has a weird name for her, something like Yilyali - he's prone to making of monstrous words that sound like creatures from a Lovecraft novel) - so what is he hungry for? Salvation? Redemption? Atonement? As noted yesterday, he is a purely existential character and we know nothing of his background except for a hint that he has worked aboard ships. It would be easy, probably too easy, to seem him as a Christ figure: the city he's in is Christiania, he is suffering - for the sins of others? - but is he really a holy figure in any way or a prophet? Does he do anything for the betterment of others? His hunger may be a metaphor for his emptiness - and the emptiness of life, in Hamsun's view, in 20th-century Europe - the narrator is literally empty of content and he can only be "saved" by finding something in his world for consumption - but when he does, he vomits it out - the world is insufficient to sustain him. He's in this way the opposite of the Underground Man: he's not beneath the world, he's outside of it, above it all. Note: I have since learned that the publication date for Hunger is 1890; 1920 is I think its English-language pub date. Makes Hunger even more of precursor than I'd thought.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The other Hunger Games: Knut Hamsun's weird novel

"Hunger" Weird. What a downer - something so relentlessly glum about European existentialist fiction - which I guess this is - Knut Hamsun, as noted yesterday, a descendant of Dostoyevsky and a precursor to Camus, Sartre, maybe Beckett (Samuel, not Josh). The existential qualities seem to me to be that this novel exists entirely in the moment of its occurrence - there (at least through the first half) not a moment of back story, we know nothing about the history of the narrator, I'm not sure we know his name, although he has assumed several names as part of his delirium - he just is. In the present, he is in dire poverty, suffering on and off from symptoms of starvation, dehydration, and malnutrition. He also had some serious psychological malady - probably a form of bipolar disorder, as he oscillates between manic bouts of composition (he is a writer with some minor credentials - sells small pieces to local newspapers to keep from utter starvation, but as the novel moves along it appears he has alienated his potential editors through his odd and demanding behavior). In part 2 of the novel he has given up his small apartment and moves into an abandoned tinsmith's shot where he is living rent-free; he continues his erratic behavior and is somewhat voluntarily locked up in a police cell, which gets him out of the rain but puts him through a night of utter darkness, which he finds terrifying. I am not at this point sure of the significance of all of his suffering: what is he truly "hungry" for? Spiritual salvation? Social acceptance? Love of some sort (though there are no references to any other human relation, amorous sexual or otherwise)? Family? Fame and success? It is one of the oddest chronicles - from what little I know of Hamsun I believe he became a Nazi sympathizer, and I'm looking to see how Hunger could have a shadow of Fascism - and I don't see it, unless it's an early indication of the author's own delusions and instability. I will keep pursuing this thought through the second half of the novel.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Anti-heroes in European fiction : Hunger

Knut Hamsun's novel "Hunger" (1920, Robert Bly translation) is one of those European vintage specials - lonely and depressed outsider who cannot fit into society in any conventional fashion and imagines himself smarter/better/more ethically pure than everyone else narrates the story of his life, or or a few days in his life: in this case the narrator seems to my nonclinical eye a classic case of bipolar disorder, living in abject poverty (hence the title) in Norwegian port city and his only source of income short articles he submits to the various local newspapers (those days long gone!), he has times when he writes in a frenzy and believes he's creating a work of genius other times when he stares at blank pages - in some ways not atypical of any writer's experience, but here carried to manic extremes, emphasized by his weird behavior - stalking a woman across the city, screaming at a blind man who shares his park bench; when he can no longer afford his tiny room he walks off to a forest outside the city limits and sleeps, badly, on the wet ground - he could be any of the homeless we see today in any city, confused and a danger primarily to themselves, and in some cases harboring a rich interior life - in fact he does sell one of his essays for a pretty good sum to one of the papers, and his account of his life is sharply detailed and painfully honest - he is the literary descendent of Dostoyevsky's "underground man" and the antecedent of Camus's "stranger" - and who would be his American counterpart? Maybe Holden Caulfield, but the contrast between the two - Caulfield sweet and innocent in some ways and full of youthful bravura, and Hamsun's narrator weird and embittered: to make a vast generalization, the American "anti-hero" is an independent advocate who offers a critique of society and, ultimately, heroically turns his back on it (I prefer not to) or heads out for the territory; the European anti-hero is more hopeless and full of despair and completely uncared-for by any other social figure - if you don't fit neatly into a class in 19th- or 20th-century Europe, you are completely underground. Note: I have since learned that the publication date for Hunger is 1890; 1920 is I think its English-language pub date. Makes Hunger even more of precursor than I'd thought.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

An excellent very short story: Less is (Lorrie) Moore

As one who was disappointed in Lorrie Moore's most recent book, the baggy and meandering Gate on the Stairs, I'm really pleased to see her moving back to the short story - apparently an ideal genre for her, she has written some of the best American short stories of the past 20 years, taut and funny and disconcerting - with her story Referential in the current New Yorker. Though Moore has written some incredibly sad stories, notably her famous All the People Here about a family whose child is diagnosed with kidney cancer, and though even her overtly comical stories inevitably have a note of loneliness and sorrow, often about a young woman who doesn't quite fit in or who's unlucky in love - these are familiar tropes in much short fiction, especially American fiction, her current story may be her darkest one ever. Moore gets you right from the first sentence, in which she talks of her visits to see her deranged son. What a great and shocking word choice that is! Story is very short and describes a middle-aged woman whose teenage son is institutionalized for odd and self-destructive behavior, very briefly, in just a few sentences, describes the horror of watching the boy over time descend into his madness; woman visits son with her current boyfriend, and the status of their relationship is uncertain - he's kind to the son, but it's obvious that the looming presence of the "deranged" on is a dead weight on their relationship. After a visit they go back to woman's house, woman indicates she might want son to move back home temporarily, and the man obviously backs off - and then it becomes clear to woman that he has another, probably much less complicated and demanding, relationship going on - and she faces her sorrow and isolation. Very powerful - and all in just a few pages, one of the shortest stories the New Yorker has run this year, maybe the shortest. Those of us who've read Moore over many years and have "watched" her mature as a writer feel almost a personal fondness for her - she's been so open about the difficulties of life, without being maudlin or confessional, and I find myself always wishing her the best - reading her stories and thinking: I hope this isn't you, I your life is better than this - and I hope this now, reading this very sad story, leavened only slightly - not so much by Moore's typically tart humor but by the sharpness of her language and the aptness of her choice of words and selection of detail.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why we didn't read Bulgakov in the 1970s

So ultimately what is Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" about?: as the master and Margarita head off to salvation at the end, granted peace rather than "the light," as translator Pevear points out (the light being = fame and fortune and knowledge, which I think connects with Faust and Goethe himself, whose last words were "more light") - it seems to me a novel about a man who writes and unpublishable novel and knows it will never be published and suffers because of this but is ultimately redeemed through posthumous publication, and the novel is the very book we're reading - it's both a bizarre fantasy and a literal predictive document: Bulgakov envisioned his own fate and the fate of the work he was writing and we are reading. It's a novel that in a sense makes itself impossible: we have to recognize it as unpublishable, but then how is it that we're reading it? These complex connections and allusions remind me of fave professor Richard Macksey's description of Proust as "funhouse of the mind" : Bulgakov is the same, but I'm not sure his house is such fun - more like a house of horrors. I'm surprised in retrospect that The M&M was not one of the books in the post-modern canon of the 60s and 70s, when we were enthralled with so many discoveries from Europe and Latin America: Calvino, Svevo, Garcia Marquez, Cortazar - to name a few. But it's as if from the Soviet Union we were seeking and expecting only works of overt political defiance: Solzhenitsyn, e.g. - not antic works of experiment. Ultimately, I can't say it's a great novel, though there's greatness in it - Bulgakov does himself no favors by including not only so many characters with their difficult but by perversely referring to each character by many different handles: the procurator, the professor, the foreigner, et al. It's a book that could definitely benefit from careful study or a group read, but in the end would the game be worth the candle? Some of it is so good, so funny - but some, particularly in Part II, is just so over the top and odd and ungrounded in any known reality that I'm not sure it's worth spending hours unearthing each of Bulgakov's references or drawing together the many strands so that we can follow the life of each of the many characters. One of those rare books about which it's relatively easy to see what it means and very hard to see or to say what happens.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The unique fictional world of Charles Dickens

Friend WS initiated a little online colloquy about Dickens: WS admitted that he'd been dismissive of Dickens for many years, essentially for his whole adult lifetime as a reader, but now - WS now retired and evidently has the time to sit back once again and embark on a really long Victorian literary voyage - he discovers - not too late! - that there's greatness in Dickens after all. I think he especially loved re-reading Great Expectations. WS has been a big influence on my reading over the years - we started out together as under-employed academics and each took very different paths, both of which led us away from reading and writing about literature, at least professionally - but WS has always encouraged me to read and re-read James, to my pleasure (though I'm not sure I could have take on The Golden Bowl or Wings of the Dove), and ditto George Eliot - though I've not read as much of her as I'd like to and always pledge to get back to Middlemarch yet am put off by its length (and by the crappy condition of the pb that I own - stupid reasoning I admit). Someday I will. So it's great to see the he has re-discovered Dickens: what seemed foolish and sentimental when he, when we, were younger readers, and what may have seemed broad comedy or over-the-top caricature now seems wise and humane, and the sentiment seems openly devastating. Several of WS's friends have weighed in, including one daunting e-mailer who loves the late James novels as well as Dickens and the other monumentals: I think many of WS's correspondents must have taught Dickens et al. a # of times because their grasp and recollection of numerous plot points and character detail is far beyond what I can manage even on books I'm in the midst of - a huge advantage of teaching, I think: it makes us better readers. WS raised an important point in one of his posts, commenting on the contrast between the world that Dickens creates which seems to be vivid and real and complete and his utter sentimentality and attraction to coincidence - obvious authorial contrivances. This I think is at the heart of Dickens's style and his excellence: pure fantasy becomes acceptable and credible because it is contained, in his fiction, within a world of seeming realism: he is the opposite of a realist like Zola or a naturalist like Flaubert - his universe, though it may seem to be a realistic imitation of 19th-century London and in fact is inseparable from our understanding and knowledge of that world and society, is actually complete fictive and imaginative - his world is uniquely his own.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why I wish Bulgakov had stopped after Part I of The Master and Margarita

I very rarely do this. Almost always, I read the introduction after I've finished the novel. Because they're very rarely introductions - they "give away" too much plot of assume too more foreknowledge of the book, and I find I get a lot more out of the intro when I read it as a post-script - though, also, I like to wait till I post on the book before reading the intro or any criticism, so I can get my own thoughts into words before letting another's take on the novel guide or steer my thinking. Anyway, as noted in yesterday's post I've been at a complete loss in efforts to make sense of at least some of Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita," so puzzled and frankly kind of bored by the weird surreal turns of events in the 2nd part of the novel I read Richard Pevear's introduction - he's always smart and a good reader of literature as well as an excellent translator - I can't say that reading what he wrote made me love The M&M, but he does emphasize the importance of the novel in its time - an amazing statement to the Soviet reading public in 1966 about the possibilities of fiction - one of their own had produced an experimental, post-modern work not only in Russian but a good 25 years before the American and European writers got there. The M&M was a huge breakthrough and Soviet readers were drawn to it like heat-scorched men to water. So I appreciate what a shock it must have been and what a powerful effect it had - but really is it a great novel beyond its peculiarity? It started out so, I was for a while really enjoying the whimsy and the multiple layers of meaning - but the 2nd half goes in a wrong direction, at least for me - long surreal, dream-like episodes in which a character wreaks vengeance on behalf of the Master, a writer without an audience, silenced by critics and editors - Bulgakov, of course. I salute his bravery and his willingness to devote years to a work they he knew would never be published in his lifetime - but if the first half of the book is about life in an oppressive, terrorist state and the second half is about the writer as hero - which do you think is more interesting? Or more significant? We'll see where it goes in its final 70 pages.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Yesterday's avant-garde is today's quaint

Somebody throw me a lifeline please because at this point, halfway through Part II, I don't understand what's going on in Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita." Obviously from the first chapter this is a novel of comedic fantasy, satire, and social criticism - with Satan coming to present-day (1930s) Moscow and creating havoc as he appears in various guises, leading a number of characters to disappear - obviously analogous with the Stalin-era purges - and others, particularly members of the literary community to the mental hospital. Then in Part II we meet a new character, the eponymous Margarita, who is in love with one of the maddened writers; OK so far. The M. rubs herself with some magic oil that the Satan character (I think) provides her and she is transformed into a witch; she hops on a broomstick and flies all around Moscow - the novel is now a Chagall painting I guess. One stop takes her to the apartment building where one of her rival literary critics lives - and she destroys the apartment (as well as nearby apartments of innocent neighbors). Well, who has yearned for vengeance on an idiot critic or a corrupt literary editor? Still - it's no great thrill to read of vengeance enacted in such a surreal and preposterous manner. Margarita then is invited to the "devil's ball," where they treat her as a queen and she meets a legion of famous killers and despots - including a # of people who've poisoned their spouses, as the Pevear-Volokhonsky footnotes explain. But can they explain what the hell's going on in this novel? Can anybody? It seems that Bulgakov at this point is just writing on the edge, pushing his narrative as far into the surreal as he can - and I don't really get the point. I can understand that when The M&M was first published in the 1960s, 25 years after B. wrote it, it was seen as a precursor to the many experimental works with multiple plot lines and unreliable narrators and even magic realism that emerged in that era - but today it feels not avant-garde but quaint, and extremely confusing.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nothing is as it first appears: The Master and Margarita

As predicted, Part II of Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" does in fact introduce at last the 2nd title character; Margarita as it turns out or as best as I can understand it anyway to be the secret lover and devotee of the master - no, not Henry James, but the writer we'd met in Part I whose novel in progress about Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion remains unpublished and - in the weird Soviet way - even though unpublished gets bashed by the critics. Margarita takes it upon herself to try to rescue the singed pages and embers of the master's manuscript, which he'd tried to destroy by fire. So in this novel we see the author confined to a mental asylum, we see the acolyte who apparently rescues his works and, perhaps, enables their publication? (Margarita), and we read several chapters about Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion - so we know the master's works have been published and we're reading them - and we also know that Bulgakov did not publish the novel we're reading in his lifetime, so the master is apparently a version of Bulgakov himself - and isn't he also making himself therefore analogous to Jesus, and his manuscript analogous to holy scriptures? Yes, but not really - because our point of access to the Pontius stories is the trickster character sometimes identified as Satan - so the message is also that what may appear to be holy scripture is actually the devil's work: in short, the odd novel is full of complexities and built on many layers and it would take a team of readers to figure it all out - if in fact the novel can be figured out - The M&M doesn't feel like a Swiss watch so much as like a pinball arcade with lots of things happening all around us as we read: magic shows, beheadings, street riots, disappearances, mad men, prophecies, police raids - in part it's a portrait of its era of tyranny and oppression, particularly as the literary set of Moscow saw, lived, and experienced the time - and in part it's a fantasy world in which all emotions are brought to extremes and in which nothing is what it seems to be or as it at first appears.

Monday, May 21, 2012

What's the meaning of the title : The Master and Margarita?

I've mentioned in recent posts several books that Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" reminds me of, and here's another one - though I doubt Bulgakov would have read it but it does seem like a possible influence: Melville's The Confidence Man - another novel about a trickster who appears in many guises and causes havoc, a very difficult novel - much like The M&M - which, as it moves toward the end of Book I, goes back to another eye-witness account of the crucifixion, this time as seen by the disciple Matthew - what is this all about? What Bulgakov just trying to provoke the Soviet censers? He must have known this book would never be published in his lifetime - if it were, it would be been the end of his life, in any case. As everyone moves inexorably toward confinement in Stravinsky’s mental hospital – I have to wonder, what’s the significance of the title? The Master seems to be the writer whom we’d met in the hospital, a man at the end of his wits because he has been unable to publish his novel about Pontius Pilate (a version of B. himself, obviously), but who is Margarita? No doubt she will appear in some guise in Part II – and she is evidently some reference to Faust’s enticing beloved, but how she fits into the scheme of The M&M, however loose that scheme may be, is completely beyond me at this point.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Looking for the unusual in a short story

I always look for the unusual in a short story, a form in which fiction writers can push boundaries and try things that they won't or can't do in a novel - the commitment of time and emotional resources is too great to risk going down a wrong path - and Maile Meloy's story The Proxy Wedding in current New Yorker is unusual - in some respects - and very traditional in others. The unusual: it's rare that we see a story that encompasses a great span of time successfully; most contemporary stories are about a single event, emotion, insight - sometimes a single character. Meloy's follows a high-school student who has an unrequited crush on a fellow student across the span of his years in high school, college, and early career as a composer - he and the girl cross paths a number of times over the years, particularly through the oddity that her father, a lawyer, hires the two of them to perform the role of a proxy couple at weddings, generally of servicemen overseas. So again and again they take wedding vows, and he has a tremendous love for her, but to her he's just a friend - she later marries, breaking his heart, but he's never been able to declare his love: like the old country song You Don't Know Me. Ultimately, her marriage breaks up, they perform one last proxy wedding, they kiss, at urging of the proxy couple linked in on Skype, and voila, magic - they're in love. OK, isn't it pretty to think so? Story is very well narrated and moves along briskly and, though Meloy doesn't go into a lot of depth about any one moment or scene, I could almost imagine this making a good movie - the story itself is like the outline for a screenplay (and in a sense reminded my of another rare story that covered a long swath of time, Brokeback Mountain) - and the story is very much in debt to a particular film: Four Weddings and a Funeral, right down to the Auden quotations. I'm sure it was everything Meloy could do not to end her story with the words "I do" (she uses them a few paragraphs from the end, but fortunately carries story on for another few beats), as did the movie.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Trying to give you a sense of what it's like to read The Master and Margarita

I'll try to give just a little sense of the oddness of Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita," though it is hard to capture the essence of this novel, hard to convey the sense you get when reading it, hard actually to read it - but completely captivating in its bizarre way. For example: a long chapter near the mid-point in the novel involves the main antagonist, variously known as the foreign visitor, the consultant, the professor - and in this guise as Wolford the Magician (we intuit from the outset and are so informed later that he is in fact Satan come to visit contemporary, i.e., 1930s, Moscow) - conducts a magic act in a theater crowded with the Moscow elite. The act gets off to a sluggish start but become ever more complex and astonishing and ultimately leads to Wolford's beheading of a member of the audience - the man's body sits in a chair and his head is off to the side, screaming in agony and distress - bring me back to my body! - and blood is spurting out from the severed neck. People in the audience scream in terror and pity, and the financial manager of the theater - Rimsky (man characters named after composers, for some odd reason - who knows?) is very upset about potential revenue loss. Wolford relents and reunites head and body. An incredible magic act - no reader would believe it except as pure fantasy concoction - but then we think, what does it mean? It means something on an emotional level and also on a political level: think of the societies where dissenters and outcasts are executed, for example. And how does the rest of the society act while the tyrants behead their opponents? Perhaps with some distress - but also, hey, the show must go on. It's all for entertainment. That's a bit of the mood of this odd novel: the following chapter involves a would-be author who could not get his books published - because they're about Pontius Pilate and they don't meet literary standards of the day - yet even those who won't publish him go to the truble of writing articles denouncing his unpublished writings - so he burns his manuscripts and plunges into madness and despair - in fact all outcast characters, including the now traumatized beheaded man, revert to the mental clinic (run by Stravinsky) - and again the story seems odd and unlikely but think about those - even Bulgakov himself - whose works are suppressed and then they're denounced, without even the benefit of publication. The M&M is on one level an antic romp like many other comic novels - a form particularly popular in the 60s - and on another is a political expose, much more pointed and powerful than, say Darkness at Noon, because of the breadth of its vision of society - not about just one prisoner in despair but about a whole culture - and on a third level is metapolitical, an expose of the horrors of the human mind and of human behavior in extremes, like Kafka but more grounded in a local habitation.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Read and surreal in Master and Margarita

The genius of Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita," difficult as the story line is to follow at times - damn those Russian names! - is the way in which Bulgakov uses comedy and fantsy to convey the horrors of life in an oppressive police state - there are echos of Kafka throughout but in a way the knife is even sharper in that with Kafka (e.g., The Castle or The Trial) you know throughout that you're in a surreal and dreamlike landscape in which the individual is crushed by the oppressive forces of a bureaucratic society, but in Bulgakov it's like super-Kafka: if you knew absolutely nothing about Soviet Russia and the police state and the disappearances of anyone who spoke out against the state you cold just read through the whole novel, presumably, and think it's a funny, offbeat, eccentric tale about a shaman-like character who - the foreigner, the professor, the consultant, Woford the magician as he is variously called - who is a trickster or confidence man and who shows up unannounced and leads people on to ill fate: one man gets beheaded, another accepts a petty bribe and then is set upon by the police and hauled off, others leave the city for no apparent reason and nobody can find them - and it all seems surreal and impossible and dreamlike, that is, Kafkaesque, until you take a step back and say, yes, but this really happened, and happens still in totalitarian states: people vanishing in the middle of the night or day for that matter, people calling home to say they're away on a sudden trip and never to be heard from again, people startled in the middle of dinner by a visit from the police and taken away. Is it crazier to imagine this to be the work of a shaman, of is it crazier to imagine this to be the work of a political tyrant? Is it more insane to imagine people do this to one another in order to maintain power? Bulgakov takes the horrors of oppression and turns them inside out, like a glove, and makes tragedy into broad-stroke comedy. And as we read him, and try to imagine his world as if it were real, we see how it would be impossible to live in his world - yet we realize that, surreal trappings aside, people did live in that world, and still do, a world in which people can disappear suddenly and it's not magic, it's brute, oppressive force.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The dead and the disappeared in The Master and Margarita

Have to say that Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" is getting pretty good - it reminds me a little of its near-contemporary (re date of publication) Confederacy of Dunces, in its over-the-top insanity and its bleak yet comical view of society - also of the very dry Man Without Qualities in its satire of a moribund society. As noted previously, novel gets under way when two literary gents encounter an incarnation of the devil (various called a professor, a consultant, and a foreign visitor) who tells them he was present during Jesus' life and then predicts the death of one of the men by beheading; when that death shortly and gruesomely comes to pass, the other fellow, a renowned Soviet poet named "Homeless," goes insane - or at least seems to - he wanders the streets of Moscow in his underwear, turns up at his literary club, where he friends tie him in napkins (!) to subdue him and bring him into a mental clinic. The more Homeless tries to explain his circumstances, the crazier he seems - though we "know" that he's sane - which in a sense means that if we believe the first chapters we're insane, too, right? All of this is pretty funny, but what makes the novel stranger and darker is the talk about people who have "disappeared" - could be just another bit of super-naturalism, but we're in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, and these disappearances are far more sinister - we know that the Soviet police are monitoring everything and everyone and ruthlessly suppressing any dissent. They'll tolerate a few drunken writers, as long as they'll praise the state once in a while, but not any real social commentary or questioning of authority. So The M & M is comic hi-jinx that masks a bitter social commentary - a literary mixed-genre that develops in many oppressive societies - even the S.U. - think of the few radical Soviet works published in the last days of the empire, like Aksymyov's (?) The Burn.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ahead of its day or behind the times?: The Master and Margarita

Either Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" was ahead of its day or behind the times - I can't (yet) say which. Written about 1940, last work by Bulgakov, not published (in Soviet Union) till 1963 - and if you look at it as a work from 1963 it seems kind of old-hat - yet another experimental weirdo surrealist novel with a devil as the main character and with journeys through time and space (the 2nd chapter is a narrative describing Pilate's interrogation of Jesus, which the Devil character, generally referred to as the foreigner, claims to have witnessed; in 3rd chapter the Foreigner witnesses one of his predictions coming true - one of the literary Russians he's befriended dies by a beheading - so what does all this mean? who knows?) - but as a work from 1940, especially in Soviet Russia, The M & M is sort of progressive, not politically but artistically - though, granted, Gorky and Gogol, earlier in the century, had done some explorations of the surreal and the macabre (The Overcoat, The Nose, e.g.) - so how to place Bulgakov's novel - for a reader today? Clearly, it's not as shocking or unusual as it must have been to its first readers, and it's not as powerful a political artifact as it must have seemed in 1963 - a lost and suppressed voice rising up from the grey Soviet empire. Though in first three chapters parts are pretty funny in an odd way, not sure where Bulgakov is going with the narrative and not sure if he'll carry me with him over 400 pages, but I'll stay with it for a while out of curiosity about this literary oddity, if nothing else.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Things I didn't know about The Master and Margarita

Picked up Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" at the B Public Library (after rejecting a beat-up old copy at the P. Public Library - wanted the Volkhonsky - Pevear translation, as they have set the current standard for Russian translations, although their footnotes are pretty weird - very seldom do they comment on the work itself but generally on the many topical references along the way) - M&M is one of those novels that show up on many lists, and that I'd never read, and in fact knew very little about: Item: I bet I thought for a long time that it was a Latin American work of magic realism (no, Margarita is not a cocktail). Item: Once I learned it was a Russian novel, I imagined that it was from the great period of the 19th century. Item: Once I learned it was a 20th-century novel, I imagined it was from the early century, maybe contemporaneous with Chekhov. And finally I've learned it was written in 1940 or so, just around the time of Bulgakov's death, and published in 1963 - so it didn't even enter the canon until around the time of Ivan Denisovich - though was much less known and less discussed at that time. Not sure of the quality yet though the first chapter, in which two literary pals drinking apricot soda (!) on a park bench encounter of spectral figure who engages them in discussion about the existence of God (they're good Soviet atheists). I suspect the Margarita of the title is a reference to Faust, which is quoted in the epigraph. Wonder how this somewhat surreal novel will compare with its near contemporary, One Hundred Years of Solitude, another world-lit novel that entered the canon forever and established Garcia Marquez as among the greats. Bulgakov, it seems, will stand on the reputation of this novel alone - too bad he was never able to savor his fate, or his fame.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Unpacking the obscurities in The Tiger's Wife

As usually opinions in book group ranged pretty wide regarding Tea Obreht's novel, "The Tiger's Wife," with L leading the voices in support - said it was of Nobel quality - hey, I wouldn't wish that on any 26-year-old writer, Nobels come at the end of a career and with very few exceptions mark not the pinnacle of a writer but a much-belated recognition of a writer in decline - in any case, maybe she'll earn the Nobel or some other prize someday because she's obviously a writer a great talent, rich imagination, and blessed with a complex and unconventional history and background that has provided her with, if anything, too much material. I like the book, but probably less than most in the group, by the time I finished the novel. We spent a lot of time trying to unravel not only the meaning of her many fables but of the specific facts on the ground: some thought that the narrator, Natalia, follows the "deathless man" away from the crossroads at the end of the novel, some thought the "deathless man" married the sister of the tiger's wife - but we really couldn't be sure whether these were facts, implications, or mis-readings. Just two examples of the obscurities of The Tiger's Wife. I think allusion is fine, complexity is fine, indirection is fine - but willful obscurity is not really fair to the reader and can verge on confusion and chaos - at some point you begin to wonder whether the writer has control over her material. This may well be a book that demands a second reading, or at least improves on a 2nd reading - many of the great works of literature do need at least two readings to get anywhere near their full import - but to ask that much of a reader you have to really make us believe that the payoff will be profound, the the end is worth the journey. I'd say our discussion did illuminate some points but did not really resolve the central mysteries. For example, T pointed out that The Jungle Book, which the grandfather carries with him throughout his life and loses in a wager to the deathless man, is his connection to life and civilization - yes, maybe so, but why? why that book in particular? and why would the Deathless Man (whom we late in the book learn is like the Angel of Death) want the book? and in fact did he get it? Too many questions left unresolved - or even unexplored. Despite all this - some really wonderful scenes, and some of the fables are great on their own, regardless of their loose connection to the plot - she's like a modern-day Chaucer. I particularly the names of the songs sung by Luka the guslar player: e.g., "Now that the rain has stopped (should we rebuild the village?)"

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Fiction and metafiction: Europe and the U.S.

Hadn't heard of the Swiss writer Peter Stamm until this week's New Yorker, which includes a very elegant story by him, Sweet Dreams: seemingly very simple narrative account of a young couple just getting used to sharing an apartment, living together, making all the decisions and accommodations that young coupes do make - which couch to buy, what to have for dinner - we learn that the young woman is a bit sexually timid, even cold, and over the course of the story, she has a breakthrough and becomes much more sexually aggressive and fulfilled - but sadly her awakening is in part out of a desire to keep him, a fear of losing him - he's slightly flirtatious with a waitress (who's also a neighbor) and we sense that something will happen there - or if not with her, with somebody else - and he's much more reluctant to say that he loves his partner and to talk about their future - all done very subtly and beautifully. The most striking thing about the story is, however, the way in which Stamm plays with the narrative voice and the point of view: (spoilers here if you haven't read the story): a character, man in dark coat, appears in the story, the woman sees him on the bus with them when they're on their homeward commute, and he looks at her and he's somewhat menacing. We expect him to reappear, and he does in a surprising way: He is it turns out a Swiss author, and the woman sees him later on a TV talk show describing how he wrote his most recent story, he'd seen an earnest young couple on a bus and wondered what they were talking about, what their life was like. So it's one of these self-reflective stories, a fiction about a fiction, that keeps us thinking: what does it mean to read (or to write) a story? In what sense is a character in a story "real" - and can any one character be more real than another? Is the author (in the story) real and the couple not? Are they all fictive? Fiction is an imitation of an action - but it's also a construction of words. Very provocative story, and I might like to read more by Stamm - but I do feel that this "logocentric" fiction is kind of passe in America, out with the 1970s and all the crowing back then about the Death of the Novel - but this playing with form still seems to be an endless fascination for European writers. Why is that? Is their society, fraught with upheaval, in some ways like the U.S. in the 1970s? Is metafiction a provence of the the intellectual elite - who still hold sway in European letters, though not in American literary fiction (except the fiction most steeped in university writing programs and English Departments)?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

My trouble with The Tiger's Wife

Some further thoughts on Tea Obreht's novel "The Tiger's Wife": as readers of these posts may have noted, I tend to prefer novels that are in the realist/naturalist style, and that I don't particularly care for experimental narratives or fabulists or fantasies or, for that matter, historical fiction for the most part. As noted previously, I like many things about The Tiger's Wife, but I think it became a little unbalanced in the second half of the novel: Obreht started out with a fairly traditional, realistic first-person narrative: the narrator, Natalia, a 20ish doctor, is traveling with another young doctor - her friend? lover? never clear - named Zora to deliver medicine to an orphanage across the border, in the country - Serbia? Croatia? - that was recently enemy territory. She learns from a phone call that her beloved grandfather, also a doctor, has just died under mysterious circumstances - and I thought the book was off to a great start: will she deliver the meds? what happened to her grandfather? how will Natalia resolve her family obligations and her medical commitments? In first few chapters, we see he arrive in the village near the orphanage, meet a family that will host her, learn a little about the village history, confront some strange people who are digging up the soil in the vineyard in hopes of finding an abandoned corpse - and we also in "flashback" learn about her youth with her grandfather. Each of these sections tells us in some way about a different era in the long history of the Balkan wars - though Obreht is intentionally and sometimes maddeningly vague about the historical details - she clearly wants this to be a story about universals and not about the particulars of one time and place. Where the novel starts to fall apart, in my view, is that as it goes along we read more and more about the tales and fables her grandfather relates and less and less about what's happening in the present - ultimately, the fables seemed the weaker part of the mix, and the novel began to lose me. Obreht had a chance, I think, to bring it all together - if the fables had a big payoff that could really bring us back into the present and resolve the mysteries of grandfather's death, the diggers and their search for a body, and most of all: Natalia and her friends and family. It's as if the fabulist element, rather than clarify things for me, just occluded the story and made it difficult for me to know who is Natalia? What is she writing about? Where is she coming from? It's as if the fables are a way for Obreht to avoid the difficult work of really opening up the narrator's character, making her real and complete, and resolving the plot in a credible and satisfying way. She abandons the best part of the story and takes refuge in fantasy: where anything goes because anything can be imagined. It's a good novel, and maybe Book Group tomorrow night will help illuminate some of the more obscure points, but it falls short of its promise of greatness: I'd hope in a future novel that Obreht could open up a little more, really tell the story of families, of a community, struggling to live through a time of war. Parts of this novel show that she has the talent to do it.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The multiple strands of The Tiger's Wife: allusive, and elusive

I admire a lot about Tea Obreht's debut novel, "The Tiger's Wife," as is obvious from many of these posts. She has a great story-telling ability and a crisp and clear writing style illuminated by many striking similes and perceptions. I have to say that The TW was a bit of a disappointment at the end - Obreht has grand ambitions, which I admire - so much more ambitious and thoughtful than most first novels, which are often just obliquely presented memoirs - as she takes on the great themes of war, reconciliation, and memory. Some of the novel, particularly in the first half, is a surface narrative about a young doctor in an unnamed Baltic state just after the tenuous peace agreement takes weak hold; gradually the novel becomes more dominated by stories and fables, related to the narrator, Natalia, by her grandfather, a doctor who has died just before the start of the novel. The element that drives the plot is her need to find out why her grandfather traveled to a remote village to die She, or we, or I lost site of this over the course of the novel, and the 2nd half is a series of loosely linked village stories about an escaped tiger, a woman who befriends the tiger, her abusive husband, other villagers called in to help stalk and kill the target - and other slightly related tales about the "deathless man" who, toward the end, we realize is something like an angel of death, come to earth to name and claim his victims. It's very hard for me to fathom the meaning of all of these tales - and I'm not sure whether Obreht really intends us to find them literally meaningful or just atmosphere and evocative. In notes at the end of the pb edition she talks about her need to not explain everything in the novel, but I have to wonder whether it's all explicable, or if it's a loose connection of stories and events unified by a sense of place and by a single narrative voice? This will be a good book for book group to take on, and we'll see if multiple readers can make sense, or more sense, of the multiple narrative strands that Obreht has tossed us. Lots of great material here, but I'm not sure that Obreht really has command of all of the elements she's released. Maybe we can explicate all of the symbolism - but how much does an author owe her readers? It's OK to expect us to do some of the interpretive work - many of our greatest works of fiction are difficult and allusive (and elusive) - but we do need to be confident that in probing the meanings we'll arrive at a greater whole, a more profound understanding of the entire work.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

TheTiger's Wife: A very ambitious work, but can Obreht reolve all these plot strands?

Nearing the conclusion of Tea Obreht's novel, "The Tiger's Wife," and there's a lot she has to pull together in the final 50 pages or so - she has several fabulist stories going, and the threads connecting them to the main, real-time plot, are thin, but we'll see if she can reel it in - the tiger that escaped from the zoo in a 1941 air raid and settles near a village, the deaf-mute abused butcher's wife who befriends the tiger and is konwn thereafter as the Tiger's Wife, the man who would not die, the butcher who becomes a wife abuser because of his childhood of mistreatment - all of these stories narrated to the narrator by her grandfather, like her a doctor, who dies at the outset of the novel in a remote village - and the surface plot is the narrator's attempt to find out why he died in such a remote place - why was he there? - and also the narrator - Natalia's - attempt to bring medicine and vaccines to children in an orphanage. The orphanage and the village where grandfather died are in the "enemy" country just after the resolution of the civil war - probably they are Bosnian's in Serbia? Croatia? Obreht intentionally leaves the geography opaque. In section just finished, Natalia returns to the orphanage after side trip to clinic where grandfather died, carrying bag of his last belongings, which in keeping with tradition she will not open till after the 40-day mourning period; in the village she learns that the "differs," a group of men from another country altogether who have been digging up a vineyard in search of the body of a man from their village who needs a proper burial in order to end an epidemic claiming lives in the village - a lot of plot mechanisms under way here - have discovered the body - preserved in a suitcase - and now must follow a ritual of cleaning the bones and leaving the heart behind. Natalia agrees to carry the heart (a fake one, by the way) to a crossroads and stay with in through the night. Why? Anyway, toward dawn a figure arrives at the crossroads and examines the heart. Well - I'm as puzzled as you are. Some (M) have said that they've loved this novel but couldn't understand all of it. Others have said that a lot comes clear in the last chapter. I do love many things about it, but have to say I wonder where it's going and how Obreht will get us there. Very ambitious work, but has she over-reached?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Realism and allegory in The Tiger's Wife

About 200 pages in on Tea Obreht's novel "The Tiger's Wife" at last to the chapter named The Tiger's Wife, which gives some sort of explanation as to who the TW is if not why she is the TW: as we had maybe suspected, the deaf-mute, abused wife of the butcher is the one the villagers call The Tiger's Wife - because she befriended the escaped tiger by offering the cat various delicacies from her husband's shop - when husband learned the tiger was in their vicinity he went off to kill the cat to protect the villagers - but the episode ended up with one of the hunters, inept with a shotgun, blowing his own head off - perhaps intentionally - as a side matter, the butcher found a pork shoulder near the tiger and knew or guessed that his wife had offered the pork to the cat - though it seems to me he would have suspected that the tiger stole the meat, right? Anyway, he goes back to his village, hurls the pork at his wife, then beats her - as he has been wont to do for many years. OK so why is she considered the Tiger's Wife and why is that identification to important to Obreht and central to the novel? This is a novel that functions well on a literal level and also functions on a symbolic or allegorical level, but at least up to this point - 2/3 of the way through roughly - the symbolism is evocative, suggestive, but elusive: it seems that the tiger symbolizes some form of freedom, repressed for years (kept in a zoo) and at last freed - but dangerous. And the "wife" - maybe symbolizes some kind of devotion to the cause of freedom and independence? Does all this somehow play into the Balkan history and to the Serbo-Croatian War? Obreht is pretty careful not to identify her novel too specifically with the literal events of the war or with widely known (if known at all) Croatian landmarks and locales: the novel has the mysterious sense of taking place in an imaginary space, and I'm thinking it might have been better and more profound reading experience if readers didn't know, from the jacket blurb and elsewhere, that Obreht is Croatian-born, came to the U.S. at age about 12 - and now only 26- and blessed with that remarkable sensitivity to language that enables those who learn English as a second language to write even more beautiful and striking prose than that of native writers: Conrad the best-known example, but more recently I think of her countryman Aleksander Hemon - his prose, and Obreht's, seems always to have a sense of how to use a familiar word in an oddly angled way or to find the right odd word to fit snugly into the odd corner of sentence.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Three debut novels: Z.Smith, A.Roy, Tea Obreht

Three incredibly confident, assured, capacious debut novels that brought us news of cultures unfamiliar to many readers of English-language fiction: Zadie Smith's White Noise, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, and now, though I haven't finished it yet, I'll add Tea Obreht's "The tiger's Wife," each of these novels pushing the boundaries of literary convention, full of humor, a wide range of characters and cultures and voices, strongly driven by plot - and each somewhat different in topic and focus: Smith's about the multiracial cultures of contemporary London, the funniest and most political of the three; Roy's about southern India and the most romantic and lush of the three, and Obreht's about a wartorn Balkan state the most fabulist of the three. As noted in yesterday's post, The Tiger's Wife contains 2 mysteries - why does the narrator's grandfather go to a remote Balkan village to die? What does the tiger roaming the Balkan countryside symbolize? and I will add a 3rd, from section I read last night: who is the man who would not die - whom the grandfather meets in the 50s in a Balkan village stricken by a TB epidemic and again in the 70s in a church among many consigned to death in the crypt? I will take a guess, but we'll see what more we learn about these mysteries along the way: the tiger represents a freedom of space and the man who would not die a freedom of time: each an element of of the spirit of the Balkan country (Croatia presumably) as it tries to endure and heal from civil war.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Tiger tales: Two mysteries in The Tiger's Wife

There are two mysteries (at least) in Tea Obreht's novel "The Tiger's Wife": first, why is it that the narrator's (Natalia's) grandfather goes off to a clinic in a remote village of the neighboring Balkan state (Bosnia? Croatia? - Obreht is careful not to identify her narrative with precise geographical or cultural markers, though it's evident that she is writing about the Balkan wars and in particular about the tentative and tenuous peace after the war was resolve by treaty) to die a lonely death? Was he trying to help some patients or war victims? Was he trying to connect one last time with Natalia, who was on her way to deliver medicines to an orphanage relatively close by? Or is there some other reason why he would leave behind his family - who apparently didn't even know or notice that he was mortally ill with cancer? - to die unnoticed and alone? Natalia is expending a lot of energy trying to resolve this mystery - including, what happened to her grandfather's belongings after he died? Why was nothing shipped back home along with his body? The second mystery is: what do all these fables about a tiger roaming through the European landscape signify? The tiger apparently escaped from a city zoo during an air raid in World War II, and then headed north and settled in near a small village, where a deaf-mute butcher's wife began feeding the tiger slabs of pork and other meats. A group of men head off to the woods to kill the tiger, but the episode ends with one of the men shooting himself to death - in what seems to be a suicide, not an accident. I doubt Obreht expects us to take these tiger tales literally - but then what do they signify, as symbol or allegory? I expect the novel to draw these two strands together over the course of the second half, and I expect that the answer to one of the mysteries will be the answer to both.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Realism and magic realism entwin in The Tiger's Wife

I'm cautious not to judge a book too quickly, from the first 2 sections, about 80 pages, of Tea Obreht's "The Tiger's Wife," I'm very impressed - aside from the excellent writing, in which she gives beautiful and vivid descriptions of a series of events during wartime in Serbo-Croatia (wish I knew or remembered more about this history - not even sure the dates of the war, but by various cultural references the novel seems to center on events in the late 80s or early 90s?) - main character, Natalia?, is a young doctor on a mission bring meds to an orphanage in one of the neighboring states, a very tense journey taking her across a few borders in wartime, but as with other excellent war-time fiction, we also get a sharp sense of what life is like for ordinary people, not just combatants, during the events of war: on her journey to the orphanage she stops to make some phone calls, she's near a barbecue stand, we see what the people eat, we see the soldiers jostling, flirting with some girls - Obreht renders the whole scene with photographic exactitude. The call she is making - responding to messages - is about the death of her grandfather, a doctor who late in his life was forced to give up his public practice and see patients secretly because of the war - he was under suspicion. The grandfather is the central figure in this novel apparently - over the first 80 pp we move around in time quite a bit, we see Natalia in high school, when all the kids are pretty much allowed to run free, nobody has any boundaries or ambitious and parents can't or won't set limits with society in turmoil - and we see her even younger as she visits the city zoo with grandfather - he's fascinated with the tigers, perhaps too heavy-handed as symbolism, but it's a way for us to understand this character, his demands on and expectations of his granddaughter and her attempts to live up to his ideals, which puts her in conflict with her mother. Near end of section 2 there's a very dramatic scenes in which an interrogator comes into the apartment and tries to elicit info from the grandfather, who resists, to his peril. Also, the grandfather tells a rather long story about a patient who "could not die" - despite drowning, gunshots, etc. - a bit of fantasy or magic realism twisting its way into this realistic novel - I think there will be other such strands as well later in the book - and it will be interesting to see how these elements coalesce, what point Obreht is making, whether she'll be able modulate and integrate the different elements. Story has obvious Christian-allegorical themes - but also is about the tenacity of the people, or of the country itself - not actually named but evidently Croatia - in time of war.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Louise? She's all right. Don't underestimate Erdrich's fiction.

I can still remember the excitement of reading Louise Erdrich's first novel, Love Medicine - such a fresh new voice, at once innovative and accessible, and a report from the field - a community not often written about - the Native Americans of the Midwest, told sometimes from a very traditional, internal perspective and also, at times, from the point of view of a young member of the tribe who has moved away, grown, gone to school, and maybe come back or maybe not. I read all of Erdrich's books for some time, but have to admit that I have not read all of her work in more recent years - it's almost as if her success was her undoing, many had followed her and her voice was no long unique, I began to associate her with best-selling, book-group fiction, and though always enjoyed reading pieces I came across did not rush out to grab her next new novel. I've come to think I've been underestimating her recent work, based in part on her story, Nero, in the current New Yorker. She's always been a great storyteller, very drawn to traditional plots and to the dictum of show don't tell - lots of action and emotion in her stories, and not a lot of needless rumination. Again - easy to underestimate that talent, and write her off as just a raconteur. Nero, as just one example, shows there's a lot more going on in Erdrich's fiction than just good yarns from the rez - this story is extremely well crafted, and traces a period in the life of a young girl, very much from her point of view, though recollected from years later, and story working on 2 levels: the eponymous Nero is a ferocious guard dog in the girl's grandfather's butcher shop, and as the girl tentatively cares for and befriends the dog, the dog leads her to the discovery that her uncle is courting a neighboring woman - a dnagerous courtship because of the extraordinary fierce jealousy of the girl's dad - story leading to a ritualized fight between young man and potential father-in-law. The girl has little overt reaction to this fight - but we can see a little bit around the edges and see that she's learning, in silence, about the strange ways of adults - the jealousy, the sexual drives, the domination. The dog becomes a symbol of this, and, at the end of the story, when the dog dies and the girl and her uncle bury the corpse, we can see or sense that an episode in her life has passed - that she has learned about the frightfulness of adulthood. Erdrich's stories seem to be conventional and circumscribed - but at their best they're as grand and universal as I.B. Singer or other great writers who have concentrated on a little postage stamp of native soil, to quote one of 'em.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Who's the corrupt one in Daisy Miller?

So who's the corrupt one? Who's the fool? Henry James's great short (for him) story Daisy Miller would is very tricky: the surface information of the story, the facts as presented by the seemingly objective 3rd-person narrator, would suggest that Daisy Miller, a 20ish American woman touring Europe with her indifferent, narcissistic mother and her bratty kid brother, is irresponsible and even, in the terms of the day, "loose": she goes out in public accompanied by a young man without a chaperone, she's even willing to walk about an park in Rome with an Italian man, finally she sits with the Italian guy under moonlight in the Coliseum. This just isn't done - and many people, including the 27-year-old American Winterbourne (no first name) advise her about this. But she's typically youthful and typically American: she'll do things her own way, and she gets the "cold shoulder" from the American community in Rome and, ultimately, in a bit of symbolism far too heavy-handed, she gets "infected" by the Italian miasma and comes down with a fever and dies. OK, she's the one who suffers - but is she wrong? I think her behavior, though unconventional, is acceptable and were she a stronger (or luckier) character she would be heroic rather than tragic. The corrupt one is Winterbourne - seeming to offer her advice and counsel, but actually in my view more or less stalking her, jealous that she's turned her affections elsewhere (even though it's obvious that the Italian guy pursuing her is no good and is only after the Miller fortune). Everyone remembers that Daisy dies, but the last moments of the story had slipped from my memory, at least - Winterbourne realizes that he blew it, that he could have had Daisy's love if he hadn't been, in her words, such a "stiff." At the end, he goes off into his meaningless life - we never learn about his family or his fortune or what it is he does all day other than allegedly "study" - apparently last heard of (by the narrator) back living in Geneva and interested in a "foreign lady" - he's no different from the Italian fortune-hunter who pursued Daisy Miller. The real corruption is the total lack of a sense of purpose or role in society other than one's own self-advancement. As Winterbourne realizes, too late, he'd lived abroad too long.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The great themes of Henry James in capsule form

As friend of W.S. wrote in an e-mail that he forwarded to me, Dickens didn't corner the market on great literary names. Henry James for one was no slouch in that department - not sure what she cited (something from the Golden Bowl, that I once found unreadable - but who knows maybe I'll try again), but I'd add: How about Caspar Goodwood, from Portrait? or how about Winterbourne, from Daisy Miller, which I picked up last night. Daisy M. was on the reading list in my freshman British Lit course a million years ago - I think it stands, alongside Turn of the Screw, as James at his most accessible, and probably a better choice for an intro Brit Lit class (do they even teach this anymore? I hate to think - does anyone still read Chaucer? Spenser? Milton?) because it introduces in capsule form many of the great James themes - especially Americans abroad and the clash between the seemingly sophisticated and cultured Old World and the seemingly boorish and ill-mannered New - but the trick is that the Old World is enervated and corrupt. If only the wandering Americans could see that, they'd be far better off. Daisy Miller, first (of 2) parts, takes place during a very short time span when Winterbourne meets Daisy, and her bratty kids brother, Randolph, on a veranda or walkway near a fancy Swiss hotel where they're both staying - Winterbourne offers to take her to visit the Castle at Chillon, she agrees, and they go without an accompaniment: scandalous! The point seems to be that Daisy is a flirtatious, loquacious American without culture - but she's stylish and very pretty. The tragedy of her life - all of us can see it coming - is that she tries to be something she's not. She would be far better off at home in Schenectady or somewhere else in the States, meeting people her age, learning something, doing something to help others or to help her family and friends at the very least - instead of these ridiculous "tours" that Americans with far too much money indulged in a century ago. The more disturbing character, though, is Winterbourne - who the hell is he, what does he do all day, how did he come upon a fortune that allows him to do nothing but travel and visit? What kind of indulgent life is this? James had his face pressed up against the glass - he socialized with many people like Winterbourne - and I suspect he despised them: he was engaged all the time, with his art. But as an author he doesn't really take a stance - just lets Winterbourne play out his role. He eviscerates W. with one sharp sentence, though - something like: His friends thought he was a friendly and amiable sort and his enemies thought - but, of course, he has no enemies. Not an exact quote - but the unspoken thought behind it is that the author is cunningly protecting W. - that we will know far more about him that W. knows about himself. We are his enemies.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Jim Burden's fear of "his" Antonia

Finished Willa Cather's "My Antonia" and read through the intro and other supplementary material in the Oxford Lit edition that I borrowed - I knew almost nothing about Cather's life and still of course know only the outlines of her life - but I give her a lot of credit, based on what I know - born with few advantages, uprooted early in life and moved (with her family, unlike the fictional Jim Burden) to the Nebraska prairie, and in this uprooting and this somewhat isolate life she found material to last her a lifetime. She obviously was an outcast and misfit in her society - dressing like a man for most of her adolescence, a behavior or decision that would be reasonably well accepted today, especially in metropolitan areas, but must have been very difficult for her in 19th-century Nebraska, to say the least. Her sexual orientation plays no overt role in My Antonia but, as at least a few critics cited in the intro have noted, sexual orientation plays an oblique role in our interpretation of this ambiguous and complex novel: does she write about Jim Burden and his heterosexual attraction to Antonia because unable to recognize or publicly express her own longings? Is her lesbian orientation part of the reason she cannot develop Jim as a character with a sex drive of any sort? Could be interesting to compare My Antonia with another great novel of a young man attracted to an older, unavailable woman: thinking of Sentimental Education - but notice the differences, in Flaubert the man eventually could get what he desired so deeply, but by that time his youthful desires mean nothing to him. Jim Burden, in My Antonia, on the other hand, finds a fulfillment in Antonia - in a way feels warmest toward her and closest to her - when she does become unavailable: he's not drawn to her when she is a single mother working on a farm and maybe he could have had her for his "sweetheart" or his wife, as he wistfully says (but he does nothing to make this so) - he's drawn to her when he sees her as a happily married farm wife with a brood of 12. He can only feel close to her when she's not available, when she's not a threat.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The strangest thing about Willa Cather's My Antonia

When you get right down to it, the strangest thing about Willa Cather's "My Antonia" is that the narrator, Jim Burden, has absolutely no feelings about losing his parents when he was 10: the novel begins (after the short frame-setting preface) with Jim, a 10-year-old boy from Virginia, whose parents both died "within the year," I think is how he puts it, and he's sent, with a fellow who worked for his parents on their Virginia farm (?) half-way across the country to live with his grandparents on a farm on the Nebraska prairie. Never at any point in the novel, to my recollection, does he express any thoughts about his parents or any feelings about missing them, about being lonely, isolated, abandoned, anything. This blankness in his heart helps understand or unravel his confused feelings toward Antonia at the end of the novel: the next-to-last section concludes with Jim's visiting Antonia, after he's finished college and is about to enter law school, and she's an unwed mother working on a very isolated prairie farm: their lives are obviously going in completely opposite directions. Their reunion is in "silence and tears," as Jim notes (quoting Byron, according to a footnote), and he says he always wanted her as a sweetheart, wife, mother - and that she will always be part of his life. The telling word there is: mother - that's what he's really wanted from Antonia, whether he understands this or not. This feeling becomes more open and apparent in the last section, Cusak's Boys (?), when Jim 20 years later visits Antonia on her farm - he feels bad about staying away for so many years - he wants her in his life forever, but he just doesn't want to be with her, apparently - the novel's odd avoidance of sexuality ? - but when he sees her all his affections for her reignite - but in a very pristine and asexual manner - because she's married, a strong and busy farm wife, with a brood of I think 11 children - all of them lively and helpful- the family is quite a team. In some ways it's a pastoral ideal - but Cather, with her characteristic tough-mindedness, makes sure we also see the hardships and difficulties of prairie life: when Jim arrives on the farm, the boys are lamenting the death of one of their dogs - but then life moves on, there are chores to do. The novel ends with this grand and idealized version or vision of Antonia: Jim doesn't want "His" Antonia as an object of sex or desire, he wants his mother.