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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

Friday, August 31, 2012

LBJ: minor president by accident, or great tragic figure?

From the most dramatic section of the LBJ bio The Passage of Power (Robert A. Caro), Caro proceeds to the most dry section I'm afraid: after recounting in detail the scene of the JFK assassination from the point of view of the rising president Johnson, Caro brings the story back to Washington, where, in his inimitable way, he absolutely overwhelms us with detail in his account of the first few days of the Johnson presidency - reading his account of the days probably takes more time than the events covered - like a map bigger than the city it's depicting. Unsurprisingly, the first days of the Johnson administration were more or less ignored by the media, as the only story was really the mourning of JFK and developments around the Oswald shooting. As that dies down, there's a little more interest in LBJ trying to retain as many Kennedy staffers as he can - through his legendary powers of persuasion. He's also thinking about how to make his own legacy and looking ahead to the 1964 elections - so he's building up his liberal creds (and it's quite believable that he was a true 60s liberal, on domestic issues - he came out of the New Deal and it seems he was genuinely moved by the plight of the impoverished and by the victims of racial discrimination - for all his blustering, Caro never calls him out for a racist or anti-Semitic comment, which is far more than one could say about many other pols of his era, Nixon in particular). Johnson begins planning how to get Congress to act on civil rights - some of this planning very arcane, but the overall picture is clear: Johnson building on the good will people around the world held for the late Prez - he's taking on the mantle, and in the process building even greater animosity between him and RFK. Caro does a damn good job with his material - it's obvious that the Kennedy's are the more dramatic and dynamic characters, but he keeps pushing against the tide, making his case that Johnson himself was a figure larger than life, a great but tragic leader - and not a minor president by accident that most would have probably confined him to, had Caro not taken him on for his mangum opus (or opi).

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Love and loss in T.C. Boyle's story

T.C. Boyle is one of those writers whose reputation may suffer a bit because of his productivity - a miniature version of J.C. Oates in that regard - he's written numerous novels and many stories, and despite many great reviews never seems to end up on the best living writers list: perhaps because he's never had that single breakout book that forever will be associated with his name and corpus? Or perhaps because he's tried many different styles and approaches so he doesn't have an immediately identifiable voice like, say DeLillo or Roth. I've admired his work for many years, have read some (not all by any means) of his novels and many stories - have liked his work since the early collection If the River Was Whiskey. His style is always accessible, very often often, and his characters tend to be down and out hipsters, often on the West Coast, a little but stoned, drunk, or just lost. He has a great ear for slang and colloquialisms, and his characters, though often heading nowhere, tend to be sympathetic losers rather than disreputable eccentrics. His story in the current New Yorker, Birnam Wood, is a good example of Boyle's work: narrated apparently by a guy looking back at a failed relationship from early years, when living with young woman just out of college in abject poverty and hippie squalor, and through good fortune they manage to find housing way above their means in a caretaker's apartment on a small lakeside estate (not sure where, probably the East Coast). The guy's a sub teacher wasting his life and talents, and the girl is a slacker but gets a job as a hostess in a restaurant/bar. The only true action of the story is when a guy at the bar essentially follows them home and the girl lets him come in, apparently interested in him, and the narrator walks off into the night. Story ends rather abruptly, but has a good melancholic feeling - the stupid mistakes young people in love make, the vanity of the beloved, the wounded egos, the pain of rejection felt so deeply it can last a lifetime. The title is significant I think: TC Boyle must know the Shakespeare reference, but not sure what the significance to him may be. Is this love mismatch a tragic affair, a war unto the death?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Visions of Dylan: his place as a poet, seen through Visions of Johanna

Bob Dylan is the world's greatest living artist, but that is not the same as the world's greatest living writer, or poet - his art is of a particular type, not lyric poetry (although I believe he's very well read in the lyric, Romantic, and symbolist poets) but song lyrics. You can try to read his lyrics, which have been brought together in at least two collections, and try to "hear" them without the melody and within Dylan's voice - and that's just about impossible to do, and of course why bother trying? The lyrics, the music, the performance are all of a piece - that's what makes him the world's greatest living artist, not one thing or the other. All that said, it's informative once in a while to step back and look at the lyric quality of his writing. Do his song lyrics stand up alone? A few of the great English poets, especially from the 17th century, wrote primarily lyrics - but Herrick et al. really don't stand up well against Spenser, Milton, Donne - not to mention S., whose comedies do include a few lyric interludes. Looking now at the lyrics to what I consider one of the 2 or 3 greatest of all Dylan's songs: Visions of Johanna. There are many odd baroque touches to his writing, many ornamentations, but at base his songs from this period (Blonde on Blonde era) are very simple: all of them are love songs, and generally songs of love lost or unfulfilled (his later CW songs, which have stood up very well against time, are more often about love fulfilled). VofJ is the paramount expression in Dylan's work of this mood: the yearning for the absent or idealized or unattainable woman, whose absence itself makes all around the poet, including the hapless Louise who's "just near," seem tawdry and undesirable. The special element in VofJ is that, in its 5 stanzas, with no repeated lines, Dylan moves deftly and inexorably from the personal to the universal - a comment not only on love and his psyche but on the nature of art itself. The 1st stanza, apparently in loft or apartment somewhere downtown NYC (possibly the Chelsea Hotel?) at night, Louise is nearby but not desirable - the poet lost in his vision of the unattainable. 2nd stanza moves out to a NYC street scene, contrasting Louise with the crude and foolish people the poet meets or sees in the city - he almost could love Louise, but then his feelings for J overwhelm him (I always thought he said that Louise is delicate and seems like Vermeer - was disappointed to see that the published lyrics, and in fact the performed son, says she seems like "the mirror" - an opportunity missed.) 3 stanza seems to describe the hangers-on and wanna-bes that the poet often meets, who pretend to know the ineffable Johanna and in their doing so anger and disturb the poet; 4th is the grandest of the stanzas, describing art (infinity goes up on trial) and the phony appreciation people express toward what they're taught to believe is beautiful - all of which pales beside J. Finally, Dylan concludes the night, brings us out into the early morning on an NYC street, all the feelings of the night are gone, vanished - except for the visions of Johanna. A great poem of love and yearning, mysterious - and inseparable from the beautiful music and the great performances both on BonB and in several concert versions.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Robert Creeley's most famous poem: I know a man

"I know a man" is no doubt Robert Creeley's best known and most-often quoted poem, which is not surprising - it's a great and mysterious poem, yet very simple in language, mood and theme - easy to grasp and actually quite easy to remember in its entirety (though I often muff the "shall we & why not" phrase - "shall we" seems wrong for this speaker). Strangely, it's atypical of Creeley, whose tortuous syntax is usually at odds with the simplicity of his meter, imagery, and word choice - the syntax in this poem is very simple; it could be a piece of found verse. I will quote it roughly from memory: As I sd (that's how he writes it) to my friend, because I am always talking, John, I said, which was not his name, this darkness surrounds us, what shall we do against it?, shall we, and why not, buy a goddamn big car and - drive, he sd, for christ sake look out where you're going." You may have heard the phrase "drive he said," which has been a movie title. So in this poem we get, among other things: opposition between to guys, one more extroverted, a little impulsive, the other focused on the task, or the road, ahead: a hipster version of The Road Not Taken. Also, the idea the individual against the darkness that surrounds him, all of us: not just night, but I think the darkness of everything outside of our life, that is, the darkness of death. What shall we do against it? In Creeley's case, it's : create art, live a full adventuresome life. In others, it's buy something, a bigger car - the clash here of materialism and spiritualism. The reference to a big car is interesting - it makes us think that the poet is driving a tiny crappy car, I always picture an old VW beetle. And what about the friend and his name? Does the poet call him the wrong name by mistake? Or does he give us the wrong name in this poem to protect the friend's identity? Why would he do that? The use of the wrong name adds a mystery to this poem - makes the speaker seem even stanger and more impulsive, he is "always talking" but what he says maybe makes no sense: he doesn't even know his friend's name, or he mis-states it. Yet Creeley calls the poem "I know a man." Which man? The speaker? Or the speaker's friend? In just a few tight lines, this poem gives us the sense of two men hurtling at night along a road - like all of us, traveling along the course of our lives, through darkness, always talking, and if lucky with a friend beside us keeping us on the road.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A completely new perspective on November 22, 1963

The central and no doubt most exciting (and newsworthy) section of Robert A. Caro's LBJ bio The Passage of Power focuses on the fateful day of November 22, 1963. Not sure if the story has ever been told before from this point of view - that of the Vice-President who becomes president on JFK's death - Caro perfectly captures the chaos and confusion of the day, and, in perhaps the most memorable "take" from the section we see Johnson standing alone, Lady Bird seated beside him, in a cordoned off room in Parkland Hospital - having no idea whether or not he's president, his mind working through. Caro also emphasizes the great sense of danger everyone felt - nobody knew right away whether LBJ or in fact the whole top echelon of U.S. government was targeted - some exciting, dramatic scenes as LBJ and entourage rush through the hospital corridors and then take a back route in unmarked cars to Love Airport. Final part of the section has LBJ in AF One as he begins to plan out the details of assuming the presidency: getting the oath of office, and literally staging the swearing in - very important to him that there were many witnesses and that Jackie Kennedy be present to symbolize peaceful and orderly passing of power in time of crisis and distress - hence, the famous picture of her staring like someone possessed, Johnson looming over everyone, the plan cabin jammed with people, all trying to get a look - photo included in the book, but I think the many thousands or words are necessary for us to fully understand the implications of the photo. Johnson made one very controversial call that day, to RFK, probably completely unnecessary and in and in bad taste, and leading to further animosity between the two. Mostly, in this section, we see LBJ emerge once again as a decisive and powerful figure - as if he'd been mummified for 3 years as veep. We almost forget, reading the section, the horrible elements to his personality that Caro laid are in earlier sections, particularly his bullying and his refusal to listen to views contradictory to his own, which ultimately led him to become a war president and led to his undoing.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

LBJ the corrupt

2nd section of Robert A. Caro LBJ magna-bio volume 4 covers the years of Johnson's vice-presidency in, for the maximalist Caro, in pretty succinct fashion - understandably, in that the whole point of the section (or one point of the section) is to emphasize the insignificance of the vice-presidency - the only rel function being to stand and wait. The drama of this section is that Johnson entered the veep-ship with the zany idea in mind that he could continue to be a powerful figure in the U.S. Senate, in part because of the role of the veep as "presiding" over the Senate, and he pushed and lobbied to be able to retain his influence as Majority Leader - and was shocked to find that Senators were not so eager to hand over power to the executive branch. He had the mistaken belief, which Caro repeats many times, that "power is where power goes," that is, that as a powerful leader he could exert control even from a powerless position - but he was completely wrong: his power was by virtue of his position, not by virtue of his personality per se, and he gave up that power when he left the Senate. Resigned to his new role, he thought he could be a great influence on the President, but found himself excluded from all key presidential decisions and meetings, having less and less private access to JFK himself, in part because RFK continued to despise Johnson. Frustrated, Johnson began to speak out on Civil Rights and received a lot of praise for that - and JFK became interested in Johnson's views of Civil Rights legislation, but at the same time JFK was realizing that he didn't need Johnson's help in the 64 elections and that it wasn't clear that Johnson could even deliver his home state because of various rifts in the Texas Democratic establishment: hence, the fateful trip to Dallas. All this under the shadow of investigations under way re LBJ's personal fortune - Caro makes it clear that LBJ was completely corrupt in his use of government influence for personal gain - that would very likely (in my view) have led to an impeachment: all that quashed after the assassination, as the media was unwilling to go after the new president during a time of national mourning and uncertainty.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Notes on Robert Creeley - so seemingly simple, so difficult

Like so many others, way back when I was in college and grad school Robert Creeley was my poet-hero - thousands (like me) wrote bad to at-best mediocre imitations of Creeley poems - I don't think mine ever approached his excellence. And of course he was there first, figuring out a unique use of verse and lyric in a vision and style that was his alone - to write a "fake" Creeley poem would be like an artist painting his or her own Pollock or Rothko - maybe possible, but essentially pointless and verging on infringement. Creeley's poems came as close as possible in English to being entirely about language - the are all short, apparently simple with very short lines and stanzas, with almost no metaphor or simile and with a focus only of feelings and incidents - never about ideas, and never lyrical in the traditional Romantic-lyric mannner. He was a descendant of Williams (and of his much-less-talented mentor, Charles Olson) but far more austere that either. It's important that his verse is only apparently simple - when you look more closely at his poems, the structure and syntax of the sentences is as more complex that any other writer's - save maybe Mallarme and perhaps some of the poet-philosophers, like Wittgenstein (whom I imagine was also an influence). Looking now at the title poem of his most famous collection, "For Love" - I had this almost memorized when younger, and now I'm not sure that I could even explain most of the passages or sentences - though the overall mood of the poem is very plain and obvious, simply a paen to love and how it overwhelms the poet and dominates all his emotions, despite its complexity and ineffable qualities, much like this poem itself. A typical passage (quoted without the line breaks): "Today, what is it that is finally so helpless, different, despairs of its own statement, wants to turn away, endlessly to turn away." Creeley asks a question that he will not or cannot answer, and therefore punctuates it as a declarative rather than as an interrogative (a typical Creeley device); also, Creeley known for odd use of adverbs as in "finally" above. Can we figure out each line? Perhaps: despairs of its own statement probably = in some way his despair as a poet unable to express the most allusive and overwhelming of feelings? One other striking quality of Creeley's style is the mixture of this very complex syntax with devices of simple, colloquial speech and direct address, as in: "If the moon did not, no if you did not I wouldn't either, but what would I not do, what prevention, what thing so quickly stopped." A very difficult passage - but the direct address, and the interruption of his own thinking process (No, if you did not) makes it seem simpler than it is. Final note: I crossed paths with Creeley several times later in life and was very impressed and moved by what a nice man he was, very thoughtful, great with students and with other writers - and he spoke very much the way he wrote, in a way that I've never heard anyone else speak, ever.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Why Auden was wrong (Musee des Beaux Arts)

Apologies to old friend E.M., but - though W.H. Auden's famous poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" contains some beautiful imagery, evocative phrases, and a masterful sense of composition - Auden was completely wrong on a number of levels. Auden asserts at the outset that "About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters" - and then he goes on to observe how many Renaissance paintings focus on a great event, often religious: the birth of Jesus, the Crucifixion, and then, as he describes in the most detail in the 2nd (of 2) stanzas, Icarus' plunge into the sea - and in all instances the canvas contains scenes of everyday life - dogs playing, children skating, a horse scratching "its innocent behind on a tree," and a ploughman too absorbed in his work even to look up at a body falling from the sky "into the green/water." Okay, maybe that's possible: life goes on elsewhere while suffering occurs, each of us locked in our own lives and unaware of or unconcerned by the suffering of others. But the world doesn't seem that way to me - even on the superficial level, people are deeply interested in suffering - have you ever zipped past a car wreck and not slowed down to look? Everyone does - that's why we have traffic jams. What do we read about in the paper every day, other than suffering? Auden's wrong about that aspect of human behavior - and also about the artists. Do you think they were trying to show that suffering occurs "while someone else is eating..."? That wasn't their point or their point of departure: I figure that the conventions and expectations of Renaissance art mandated that serious artists depict serious scenes - from religious life or from mythology, primarily. But artists were bored by that restriction and pushed against it constantly - they were more interested in everyday life, the life on the streets, in the fields, and so on. They included and often even highlighted these elements - but it took centuries before the curators of taste recognized the world around us as suitable material for serious art. I wouldn't say that the old masters were trying to depict a human attitude toward suffering - they were trying to depict humanity and to push the scenes of suffering to the margins. The Old Masters understood the place of suffering in art: out of the picture.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Facebook and fiction: Characters meeting again after many years

Perhaps this is a result of the influence of Facebook but - has anyone else noticed - a # of stories of late include the device or plot element of a brief encounter in adulthood with an early flame - generally someone who caused great emotional or physical harm - and the late encounter generally proves to be unsatisfying, non-climactic: Didn't Tessa Hedley have this theme in a recent story? and Margaret Atwood? And it seems to me - though I may be wrong here - that Alice Munro has used this motif in a # of recent stories, including her most recent, Asmundsen (?), in the current New Yorker. This theme makes sense for Munro, a writer in the autumnal stages of her great career; most of her recent fiction - and many of her earlier stories, too - are notable in that they encompass an entire life span of a central character. The late-life encounter is a way for her, and apparently for other writers as well, to present a dramatic conflict of youth and then resolve the conflict or revisit it without building the story out to the length of a novella: the final encounter is generally a little coda, like a grace note at the end of a song or a closing image in a poem. Munro's current story, like so many of hers, takes place mostly in a small, rural Canadian town in the 1940s (war era) - young woman arrives from Toronto to work as a teacher in a sanatorium, and begins a relationship with the san's doctor. (Spoilers here): they head off to a nearby town to get married by a JP, and immediately before the ceremony the doc tells the woman he can't and won't go through with it - no explanation - and puts her on a train back to Toronto. Many years later they pass each other in the street, say a few casual words, and move on. I love many things about this story - but not the ending; I think Munro owes us more than these few words between the characters - some hint at their (or her) emotions and some clue as to who the doc is and why he broke off the relation so cruelly. Actually, we can see (evidently much more than the teacher, Vivian, can) that the doctor (Dr. Fox - interesting name) is a real self-centered bastard, enjoying his sexual prowess as the only man around (everyone else at war). That said, why would he lead her to brink of marriage and then break it off? There are some hints - perhaps Munro's reference to the letter "S" and to two boards crossed bracing a broken step - i.e., : S - X - is a pretty solid hint - but to what end? Is the doctor gay or repressed homosexual? Or is it that his only interest in the teacher is the sex - he feels (for a time) obligated to marry her (she was virgin when they'd met, and he's kind of old-fashioned in a creepy way), which he later shakes off? Anyway, no one's better than Munro at establishing the milieu of these lonely Canadian outposts many years ago, and of a young, often provincial, woman just beginning to make her way in the world, against many social conventions and low expectations.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A long way from Shakespeare: JohnBerryman's Dream Songs

John Berryman's Sonnet 14 from 77 Dream Songs doesn't age well. In youth, I loved the strange opening line (by which the sonnet is known): "Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so." But why? The hipster attitude, I guess, when we thought everything around us was dull, square, and conventional. But why this lament about every aspect of life: the sky, the sea, our (or, the poet's) own emotions, people (pretty big category there), literature especially great literature, his own writing (Henry, who bores him, is the protagonist of the Dream Songs), "valiant art" (as opposed to literature?), and gin. I guess it's vaguely amusing that all of these things bore the poet - but why do they bore him? He says nothing about their qualities or about his qualities of mind - though we are given to understand that Berryman was another one of the disturbed, probably alcoholic poets of his generation (like so many, he took his own life. What saves the poem from dreariness, to a degree, is the peculiar ending: a dog disappears with its tail, and, in the poem's truncated last line: "leeaving/Behind: me, wag." That line always gets a laugh of recognition, but what is it saying: the poet is actually a version of a dog, servile and a sycophant? Or else, the poet is abandoned by his art: the dog disappearing, leaving him with nothing to do but lament his status (bored with everything) and behave mechanistically (wag), and not able even to finish a full line of verse (last line only two measures). Berryman's talent was fragile, as he must have known, and the line between creative genius and mad ramblings probably never so blurred as in his work. He pushed against the edge of form: choosing to write sonnets that aren't really sonnets at all. Back to that first line, with its off-beat enjambments: it sounds little like a line of verse, and I was surprised to count and see that, sonnet-like, it does have 10 syllables. But impossible to read it rhythmically: we've come a long way since "Shall I compare the to a summer's day?"

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

5 scenes in Robert Lowell's For the Union Dead

"For the Union Dead" is one of Robert Lowell's great poems, and it means much more, I think, to a reader who actually knows the Boston landmarks, has seen the St. Gauden's relief sculpture in memory of Shaw's Black Civil War battalion - when I first read the poem these places meant nothing to me, but now they're part of my lexicon of memory. The poem has, by my rough count, five elements: 1. the ruins of the South Boston aquarium (which provides access to a memory of Lowell's childhood and also the imagery of bubbles rising, that Lowell will return to at end of poem) - this location isn't very clear to me and, I think, wouldn't be particularly near the Boston Common - I actually wonder if the poem would be stronger if he'd sliced out the references to the aquarium, giving it more unity of place?, 2. the Boston Common, which at the time of the poem is being ripped apart to build the underground parking garage - I wasn't around then, but I imagine it was seen as a great project of civic betterment, which Lowell looks on with horror, bringing more cars into the city - he deftly describes how the underground work shakes the foundations of everything, including the nearby State House, and that leads to 3. the St. Gauden's bas relief, propped up by a plank, and this is the heart of the poem, Lowell thinking about the bravery of leading a near suicidal mission during the Civil War, and the heroism of Shaw (and his troops) and the scorn he must have faced for leading a "Nigger" battallion - and this is his monument, placed in jeopardy by the shovels gouging the earth - which leads to a break in the poem of one stanza, 4. describing the typical New England green with churches and their spires of "sparse, sincere rebellion" (great phrase) - so different from this Common, being torn apart, and at last, near the common, a store window on Boylston street showing a safe that has supposedly endured a nuclear blast - linking the Civil War to the then most-recent war - and showing the contemporary exploitation of images of death and the tawdriness of the street culture, even in so-called cultured old Boston. Lowell touches on many themes in this poem, but the overall, I think, is the valor of sacrifice and its ultimate meaninglessness - the monuments propped up by a plank while the heart of Boston is ripped apart in the name of progress.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Robert Lowell's Skunk Hour - a lonely, dark poem

Robert Lowell's poignant poem Skunk Hour seems to revolve around the plaintive line near the center of the poem: My mind's not right - this line, sadly , made especially memorable because of what we know of Lowell and his lifelong battle with mental illness (depression, or bipolar disorder?), the wages of being a confessional poet and displaying your life as on a screen. This poem is a short and slicing portrait of a small village on a New England coastal island - referred to here as Nautilus Island, but not sure if that's a real place: seems to be like one of the Elizabeth Islands (which would explain his odd choice to refer to Queen Victoria's century). The poem is one of decay and dissolution, a brief catalogue of the things - like the poet's mind - that are "not right" : the hermit woman "in her dotage" who buys buildings and "lets them fall" to preserve her view; the "summer millionaire" who left and had his yawl "auctioned off to lobstermen." The bastions of New England village life are now a wreckage: which leads the poet to some real wreckage - he drives off, alone presumably, to survey the town from a hill, listening to (or overhearing?) a C&W song, Careless Love - but he's alone, unloved, and perhaps suicidal - as he looks at the "love-cars" parked near one another he feels especially desperate - that's when he declares that his mind is "not right." But something lives in this dying place - the skunks, marching up Main Street, it's almost a nightmare vision - but also in a weird way reaffirming, he sees at the end a mother skunk with her "kittens," digging in the garbage, unafraid of him. So what to make of this? It's a poem that seems to move across the island, to different points of view - the first part across water, the second from the top of a hill at night, the third from the poet's back steps - he's a wanderer, searching for some sign of life, or of companionship - but there are no relations in this poem. The people he describes - the hermit, the millionaire, the "fairy" - are all isolate, and so is the poet: all that lives together are the family of skunks. Notably, he references Satan in Paradise Lost: I myself am hell. It's the isolation of someone fighting for his sanity, and finding no solace in the world, and its beauty, that surrounds him - he's dismissive of the beauty and unengaged with people - a lonely, dark poem. The teetering rhyme scheme - most of the stanzas contain one rhymed pair, but randomly placed - adds to the mood of uneasiness and uncertainty in the poem - the sense of order is hinted at but just out of reach, as each stanza hints at a pattern the breaks apart.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

There are times when shorter is better: Caro's LBJ bio

Finished part 1 of the very lengthy Robert Caro LBJ bio (4th volume), Lyndon Johnson: the passage of power. All volumes of this massive work focus on power, Johnson's acquisition and use of it, and, ultimately I suspect, his loss of it - this book focus on Johnson's inauspicious rise to the presidency. First section is about the campaign of 1960, almost entirely about the campaign for the nomination and very little about the actual campaign itself - where LBJ's role was no doubt pro forma, the same speeches repeated ad nauseum - Caro makes it clear that LBJ was vital to the ticket, that JFK could not have been elected without Texas and other Southern states that Johnson helped to carry. But the heart of the first part of the bio is about Johnson's deep aspiration and dive to attain the presidency and his unwillingness till too late to seek it openly: he feared (rightly, I'm sure) devastating humiliation in any primary outside of the South, and figured his best chance was to hope for a deadlock and emerge as a backroom candidate (unlikely, I think, but never was to be tested). Once JFK wins nomination on first ballot, Caro begins most exciting part of this section, the maneuvering and duplicity toward JFK's selection of LBJ for VP nomination: Caro makes clear that LBJ wanted it, having looked at history and realizing he would have a good chance of becoming president is he took on the VP role (I'm not so convinced) and was therefore willing to give up Senate leadership - figuring he could take power with him rather than leave it behind; JFK knew he needed Johnson's help in the South and West. Hence, a match was made: over objections of RFK, whom Car consistently depicts as irascible and almost demonic. The stories Caro tells are mostly very captivating, but there is far too much detail here for most readers and, for that matter, too much repetition for any reader: Caro is never content to make his point once and move on; he has to make his points repeatedly, quoting anyone and everyone, even if they're telling him the same thing over and over. He and his editors (if there are such things any more) are incapable to choosing the best material and "killing their darlings." The book is monumental, no doubt, and has made Caro a lot of $ and fame, but there are times when shorter is better.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The most over-the-top language of any great English poem: Ode to a Nightingale

The English Romance Poets of course were also known for their "visionary" poems, which were solace for a lot of "trippy" undergraduates back in the 1960s - who imagined that if they (we?) got high and jotted down some notes we were working in the tradition of Coleridge and Keats. Coleridge's Kubla Khan is probably the most famous of the vision poets, and especially notable because of its abrupt ending (and the legend that Coleridge wrote it in one sitting and was interrupted by a visit from a "man from Pawling" - wherever that is - the totally pedestrian nature of the visit, smashed against the divinely inspired act of nearly spontaneous composition is what makes the poem so emblematic of Romance poetry - a concept about poetic composition that lived right through the Beats, with Ginsburg's famous epithet, first though best thought). A greater visionary poem, however, is Keats's Ode to a Nightingale. It's a poem that really does take us on a journey along with the poem - or along with the poet's mind - from a depressed state, roused by the beauty of the call of the bird, following the bird's call in imagination across a vast landscape (both internal and external - the essence of Romance Poetry, the indelible link between the emotions of the poet and the conditions in the natural world - weather, topography, seasons, light/darkness). Probably no other great poem includes such over-the-top language. When Keats wants some wine it's: O, for a draught of vintage, that hath been cooled a long age in the deep=delved earth. Some of the truly astonishing passages include his description of the misery of human life that the bird "hast never known": The weariness, the fever the the fret, here where men sit and hear each other groan. And most striking of all - again, tied into Keats's romantic and tragic sense of his own mortality and imminent death: Now more than ever seems it rich to die, to cease upon the midnight with no pain - one of the great lines in English poetry, right? Finally the sound of the bird fades - he feels forlorn, and the world "forlorn" "Like a bell" "tolls" him back into himself. In other words, he begins to become conscious of his language, rather than of his experience (and emotions) and becomes aware of himself and the poem ends - and he's not sure if he had a poetic vision or simply a dream. Do I wake or sleep?, is the famous last phrase.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The touchstone for Romance Poetry: When I have fears

John Keats's justly famous sonnet "When I Have Fears (that I may cease to be)" is s touchstone of romance poetry, establishing in a succinct, dramatic, yet classical form (Shakespearean sonnet) all the tenets of the movement: focus on the unique voice and inner feelings and emotions of the individual poet (interior passion rather than the cool reflection of classical 18th-century poetry, an opposition put forth memorably by MH Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp) and the ascribing to the exterior world - nature - the interior emotions of the poet. Keats states the themes of the sonnet in the last line - love and fame - and all builds up to that point. The first quatrain establishes his fear of an early death (and of course he did die very young, a year or two after writing this poem - the biographical facts make this poem more plaintive and haunting), especially a fear that he will die unrecognized as an artist (before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain - this would be extraordinary hubris, except that Keats had the talent to make such a statement; happily - his work is still known and beloved; sadly, there is so little of it); the 2nd quatrain takes this theme in a slightly different direction - not about producing a massive volume of works but about writing something of extraordinary beauty - will come back to that point in a moment. 3rd quatrain shifts to love: Keats in despair that he will never "look upon" his beloved and will never "take relish" in the power of "unreflecting love" - is he saying here that he has never had sex with his beloved (Fanny)? Seems unlikely, but possibly so; I am always struck by his apostrophe to her, in which he calls her "fair creature of an hour": what is that supposed to mean? Why "of an hour"? It almost seems as if he is addressing not a woman but a bird, a butterfly, or a delicate flower. The final lines, which brilliantly spill from the end of the 3rd quatrain, are the plainest and simplest in the poem - after some very elaborate and difficult imagery, the closing couplet is straightforward: Then on the shore/of the wide world, I stand alone and think/till love and fame to nothingness to sink" - everyone can understand that emotion - alone, on a shore, pondering the enormousness of the land, the ocean, the sky, and realizing the insignificance of our thoughts and cares against such greatness - and the poet alone on the shore is a strikingly beautiful image with a bit of sad foreshadowing of Keats's (and Shelley's) death. The 2nd quatrain is to me the most odd and interesting: When I behold, across the night's starr'd face/huge cloudy figures of a high romance." I have puzzled over the meaning of this: a high romance - I think this is not his love for a single woman but the entire sense of his place in the cosmos - again, the romantic notion that our interior thoughts are expressed by nature, or in this case by the vast heavens. His goal as an artist is to "trace their shadows" - that is to find meaning in this vastness, to put the exterior world into context by capturing, at least its outlines, through art. Just some thoughts - could think about this poem forever and not solve all of its mysteries, which is part of its power and allure.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Dry Salvages contains one of my favorite passages in poetry

I know it's kind of crazy to write a short blog post on T.S. Eliot's "The Dry Salvages," or any of the 4 Quartets for that matter - these poems are as complex and dense and allusive as Ulysses or King Lear and, though I've come back to them time and again over the course of my lifetime of reading, I doubt I'll ever fully understand them - and I doubt anyone can without the aid of a key to Eliot at their side. That said, The Dry Salvages contains some extraordinary passages and some profound ideas that I will just touch on hoping to bring a little more attention to these poems, probably not read all that often today and, even among Eliot readers, probably overshadowed by the more accessible Prufrock and the more dramatic Wasteland. First, TDS has one of my favorite passages in all of poetry, which I can quote by memory but will also look up: We had the experience but missed the meaning,/And approach to the meaning restores the experience/In a different form..." - This passage perfectly and aphoristically captures, for me, the sense that we have later in life (or for that matter at any time in life) of trying to recall, recollect, or recover through writing (Proust, q.v.) any experience we have had in life - how returning through memory changes the experience and how accumulated experience (and wisdom, possibly) can change not only our memory of past experience but the past experience itself. If I every am so fortunate as to have a collection of stories published I would probably use this passage as an epigraph. And I'm not sure that Eliot's intended meaning is exactly what I draw from the passage, as he is apparently talking about religious vision: "the sudden illumination." TDS is obviously imbued with religious meaning, beginning with the opening passages about gods and the river god - and the ocean, and seafaring men and those who make their living from the sea. These first two sections of the poem are some of Eliot's best lyrical writing and one of the finest pieces of writing I know of about the New England coast - an element or a quality (and a region) that we don't often associate with Eliot. There are obvious religious connotations to fishing - and he makes these darker and deeper through his descriptions of the clanging buoy bells (Under the oppression of the silent fog/The tolling bell/Measures time not out time, rung by the unhurried/ground swell), like an angelus, Eliot notes. Then the poem opens and expands into discussion of Kirshna and Hinduism (readers of The Wasteland know of Eliot's interest in Asian religious thought - and at the end TDS becomes quieter and more compact - the lines are much shorter, and the imagery is spare, almost removed. One weakness of Eliot's verse, even in his greatest poems, is that he sometimes becomes too hortatory and declarative - notice how, when he becomes "preachy," he falls back on forms of the verb "to be," just making declarations and not allowing us to see and feel the truth of these declarations through images and turns of phrase (the rest is prayer, the gift half-understood is Incarnation, etc.). Though the end of TDS to me feels strained, there is far too much material in this poems to encompass in brief notes: literally, you could study every line.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Prufrock: The most shocking line in English poetry

It's sort of a mystery to me why T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was the ultimate cool poem for the literary intellectuals of my day - when we were in high school (and before we read Howl, I suspect). How much of it could we have comprehended? And I don't mean on a literal level: the poem appears daunting at first reading, but once you realize that it's all the personal reflections of a single narrator and that it's constructed in a series of scenes, visions, observations, and self-realizations, that his mind moves forward and backward through a series of emotions - from hope to despair, by the famous concluding lines (human voices wake us and we drown) - it's not a particularly difficult poem. The language is pretty simple, the allusions are far from obscure, even to a high-school sophomore (then, at least). So what was cool about it? First of all, I suspect that the very contemptuous tone of a young author (and reader) toward an elderly man too timid and socially inhibited to take any action: intellectual, emotional, sexual. We weren't going to be like him. We wouldn't measure out our lives in coffee spoons. Second, I for one was struck by the language - and still am. I've said before (though maybe not on this blog) that I think the 3rd line of Prufrock is the most shocking line of poetry in English literature. After the sing-song opening couplet that almost sounds like opening to a children's book of adventure or rhyme: Let us go then you and I /when the evening is spread out against the sky" - then comes the shocker" "like a patient etherised upon a table." This line tells us that this poem will break with all convention, that literature will hereafter never be the same: a couple can dissolve, the meter can be smashed, the rhyme scheme abandoned, and the use of simile can and must be astonishing. Who would have thought that's where Eliot would be going? Later in the poem he compares the fog to a cat, nuzzling and licking - far more conventional and less disconcerting - and I think he does so to show that he can, if he wishes, use metaphor in a more conventional manner. But the evening spread out like an etherised patient shows that metaphor is a weapon of attack on our sensibilities: it's an image that on one level makes no sense and is hard to even envision - what exactly do you see when you picture the evening like an etherised patient? - but also shows a glimpse of a dying, menacing, frightful world beneath and behind the conventional view of things - societal, and literary.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What William Carlos Williams saw outside the contagious hospital

Another great William Carlos Williams poem is the first poem and the title in his collection Spring and All (which also contains The Red Wheelbarrow); this poem sometimes known by its haunting and scary first line:By the road to the contagious hospital. Typical of Williams, this poem seems to be a simple description of landscape and fields in late winter or early spring - dried weeds, "patches of standing water," "upstanding twiggy stuff of bushes and small trees," and so on - very depressing, the kind of landscape few would pause to describe. But Williams empowers the landscape with the first stirrings of life as "dazed spring approaches" and "one by one objects are defined - it quickens." A few things going on here: first, we know that WCW was a physician, I think primarily a pediatrician and ob-gyn - so there's an obvious echo or reflection in this poem of the experience of watching and tending birth - though he's talking about plants it's obvious he's talking also about the overall experience of birth: "they enter th enew world naked, cold, uncertain..." Also, important to think of this poem in a literary context: WCW announcing in this book in particular a fresh new vision of American letters, clean and clear and full of new life. His celebration of spring is a echo of course of the Canterbury Tales' opening - and also, I suspect (though I'm not sure of the chronologies here) an answer to this antithetic American-born near contemporary, T.S. Eliot and the Wasteland: the dull roots stirred in Spring and All are not cruel, but life-affirming. In Eliot dull roots are stirred; in WCW they "grip down and begin to awaken." Finally, what do we make of the locale: this stirring of life taking place in the barren land that presumably serves to isolate the "contagious hospital" - the pestilence and disease all around, only doctors and medical staff ordinarily cross this boundary (like Charon, crossing the river - isn't that also in The Wasteland?) - but in this instance, the poet finding life and regeneration - through his profession, and through the forces of nature that sometimes cure and heal, but in all instances experience the "profound change" of spring and resurrection from the dead.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Why so much depends on the red wheelbarrow

Starting with a really "simple" poem, one of the few that I can quote from memory, of course it's very short and almost zen-like in its simplicity (and ambiguity) - William Carlos Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow," which goes in its entirely: So much depends/upon:/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens. This poem, and many others by Williams, moved and inspired me very much in college and grad school days, when I was trying to write poetry and was a disciple in the church of simplicity and clarity. The Red Wheelbarrow captures a single image in space and time, and seemed to me then, and now, very much like the poetic equivalent of an impressionist or post-impressionist painting. It's an image in and of itself, with no outside reference whatsoever - or is it? At one time I thought so. I would have told you, back then, that Williams is showing how the completeness and complexity of a composition depends on the perfect arrangement and selection of the objects: for space, color, and composition. I imagined Williams looking at a painting in a museum or gallery and being struck by its beauty and realizing that the composition would not have succeeded without the red wheelbarrow - so much does depend on it. Later, I came to realize that the poem had a deeper social meaning as well: so much depends on the red wheelbarrow. This poem is also a meditation on work and a way of life: a perhaps struggling or impoverished farm, or at the very least a family farm (a few chickens poking around in the yard - this is not agribusiness) - and so much depends on the proper tools and equipment, perhaps the entire livelihood of a family depends on the ability of the farmer to get his or her daily tasks done. Without the wheelbarrow - even with those healthy chickens pecking away - the family will not endure, not in the country anyway. Finally, what about red? The colors of poem are very important, red and white and the extremes, and the mysterious "glazed with rainwater" in the middle: a bluish color perhaps, but cracked and shimmering. It's just rained, which is good for the farmer - but what is the wheelbarrow, on which so much depends, left out in the rain? Not good care of an important implement. Note that Williams titles the poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" - emphasizing its importance, whereas the text refers only to "a red wheelbarrow" - as if could be any old wheelbarrow. The text of the poem does not quite realize the significance and importance of that object - as we do, from the title. What has happened to the farmer? Where are the people in this poem? They are hidden, behind the beauty and the mystery of the simple images.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Biography v literary fiction

Book group choice for the summer is the current (4th) volume of the Robert Caro LBJ bio, so that's what I'll be reading for much of the time over the next few weeks - a rare divergence from my regular diet of literary fiction. Makes me think about the essential differences (and similarities) between literary fiction and serious biography. They have much in common: in both cases we examine and experience the development of a character over time, conflict between characters and between a protagonist and society, a general arc of a story through which a protagonist confronts an obstacle or challenge and overcomes the challenge (or dies trying). Both also use character as a lens through which to see society at large, in a particular time and place. But reading a biography, as an experience, is not at all like reading a novel: in a biography, for the most part, we already know the arc of the story (not true in reading a memoir, which is why memoirs are like a shortcut to fiction, often) and we read to examine the interstices and to deepen our understanding. Starting the LBJ bio, I "know" everything that's going to happen, but along the way will have the knowledge expanded with new understanding, new (to me) information. I'm not a huge fan of historical fiction, and I think part of the reason is that it feels to me like a cheapened biography: I want and expect or at least prefer it when novelists create a world, rather than expropriate the world: historical fiction sometimes seems to me parasitic, and often really dull. But can you imagine the reverse?: a biography of literary character? A biography of Hamlet, Shylock, Pip, Mrs. Dalloway? It's been done, tried (the Hours, q.v.), but again I feel cheated and disappointed when a novelist expropriates the work of another: it makes the original work of fiction into a specimen, flattens rather than deepens. Rather than blog on Caro's bio over the next few weeks, I will be, on the side, sneaking in some poetry, so while reading Caro I will post on various poems I am reading - mostly, poems that have meant a lot to me over the course of my reading life and that I hold, to some degree, in memory and that I return to from time to time. I'll try to explain why.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Short fiction and proper nouns

Justin Taylor story in current New Yorker has the appealing title of After Ellen; I'd considered using a similar title to something I was working on, but now won't (won't use that title and probably won't work on it either). Taylor's story is one of those New Yorker gut-checks on what's going on with "youth today," in other words, in the generation least likely to read the New Yorker I suspect. Story is about a guy (Scott?) who leaves the eponymous Ellen suddenly and without real reason or explanation: they're recent college grads living together in Portland (Oregon) with appropriately edgy "jobs" as a party DJ (him) and intern at a video company (her). Story begins with his packing his belongings and writing her a brief breakup note and heading off for his sister's place in LA, but he never gets there, stops in SF and eventually rents a place there and settles in, a bit. Not really that much to the story, and, as with so many NYer stories it ends suddenly and unsatisfactorily: I understand that it's been OK for about 100 years (since Dubliners?) to write stories that don't conclude on the level of plot, but if that's the case the story should end with a defined mood or image. This doesn't, which makes me think it's not a story but a clip for a longer piece? And would I read the longer piece? Maybe, but there are some issues: first of all, Scott is a dick, a thoroughly unlikable guy who for some reason is pretty lucky with girls. He's brutally cruel in his breakup with Ellen (whom we never actually see), entirely self-centered, and completely dependent on dad's $: for ex., on way to LA he decides to hole up at an expensive downtown hotel, using dad's credit card, and running up the room service and mini-bar bills fiercely over the course of a week. In a longer piece, he might grow and change or else get his come-uppance, and I'd probably read that. Taylor is a good writer but is victimized by the brand-name shorthand that has plagued young American writers for 30 years or so: he's careful to name check all sorts of things and places, such as Scott's car (Jetta), the hotel and motel he stays at (Omni, Econolodge). Story comes with its soundtrack (and actually in this area Taylor could have done more, given that his protag is a DJ) and lots of place names: Portland and SF are obviously the generational meccas, and we get the names of various neighborhoods and even SF landmarks (Dolores park) - but these names become the stand-ins for actually describing these places, how they look and feel: the ones I know, I can picture, but when Scott ventures to a neighborhood I don't know, I have no image in my mind at all, just a place name. Compare this to the way, say, an Updike would describe resettling in a new city. Proper nouns become the shorthand for descriptive, lyrical, evocative writing.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Does the ending of Wuthering Heights make sense?

So Emily Bronte softens up at the end of "Wuthering Heights" and gives us a sentimental, happy ending - much more in line with conventional, Romantic English fiction of her era, in which the ultimate, final, highest goal is assimilation into the society rather than, as in America, rebellion and striking out for the territories of floating across the ocean clinging to a coffin. Improbable as it may seem, Catherine in the last chapter becomes sweet and solicitous and builds a kinship, then a friendship, then a romance with her one-time antagonist Hareton; and even Heathcliff seems serene, visionary, and beatific as he ponders his end and - at last - is quietly buried beside Catherine, where, as he'd said earlier, he'd opened the side of her (and ultimately his) casket so that their bodies could entwine in death (poor Linton on the other side of her excluded for all eternity - the only character in the novel that, weak though he may have been, never deliberately hurt anyone). Do we buy this ending? Not on the surface - the characters are not true to who they were and how they behaved throughout the course of this harrowing novel, but the strangeness of the ending is very apt: the fixation on death and on the decay of the corpse, and, even more striking: that last lonely character, poor Lockwood, the narrator and the window through which we have seen the whole story of Wuthering Heights. Lockwood is like one of the characters in almost all Shakespeare comedies, at the center of the action throughout but alone and somehow sorrowful at the end: Antonio, et al. He returns to the extremely isolated WH and makes a difficult trek out to see Cathy, hoping to win her affection, but he is too late - he missed his chance, he didn't act when he could have helped her, and maybe won her - he seems very old, Prufrockian, at the end. Strange what an isolated world Bronte has created here: she famously lived with her creative siblings pretty far from the center of action in England, but obviously had ambitions of her own, which pushed her and her sisters to try really hard to publish their works. The characters she's created, however, live as if apart from everything and everyone else: it's obvious, in that sense, why Cathy would fall for Hareton: there's no one else, in their world the choice among mates is limited to two or three possibilities, and most of them are your cousins, or even your half-brothers. The Bronte world may have been sufficient because of the great creative talents of the sibs, but WH itself is a strangely encapsulated minuscule society - a horrible place to live, and difficult to escape. That's perhaps why we know so little about Hethcliff's life in his three-year absence or about Earnshaw's fateful visit to Liverpool: there is no world, within this novel, beyond the confines of this tiny settlement: the moors, Thrushcross Grange, the village of Gimmerton (which we never really see) and Wuthering Heights itself.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Heathcliff the sociopath

No doubt the most memorable, striking, and horrendous "scene" in Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" isn't actually a scene at all because (like most of the novel, actually) it's reported to us rather than actually presented first hand: I'm talking about the scene when Heathcliff digs up Catherine's gravesite, pries or smashes open the lid on her casket, and beholds her corpse of 18 years - and then his recollection, if I have this right, that he did the same thing on the night of her burial and embraced her dead body. These are really strange and powerful scenes by any measure - and I think Bronte breaks all the rules here and thereby makes these moments all the more powerful: if she as the author/narrator were to present and describe these scenes, we'd feel that it's way over the top, it could never happen, it's an author pushing her material way too far; however, by giving us this information through the deranged Heathcliff - we actually can and do believe them - that is, we don't necessarily believe they could or would have happened, but we can definitely believe that Heathcliff would tell say these things - perhaps just for the shock value or for self-aggrandizement, or maybe they are "true." As the novel moves toward its conclusion, it becomes all the more apparent that Heathcliff, often described as Satanic, devilish, evil, and so forth, is truly a horrible character, and in fact, more than being Satanic, I would describe his as an anti-Christ: he has born misery and been mistreated, but instead of learning for his experiences and growing, becoming a better person, making the world better for others because he has suffered - that is, instead of becoming a progressive or a revolutionary or an artist - he treats people as horribly as he was treated - worse, even. He's not an Iago - Iago's malignancy was unmotivated - but he's a beguiling sociopath. Our prisons are full of people like Heathcliff; our novels are not.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Three mysteries in Wuthering Heights

Three mysteries in Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights": first, where did Heathclifff really come from? The highly dubious account from Mr. Earnshaw just doesn't stand up to reason - that he was going to Liverpool (sixty miles away) on business for 3 days, walking the whole way, and he promises to bring back gifts for his two children, Hindley and Catherine, and he comes back with this dark, "gypsy-like" waif under his coat and more or less forgot the 2 promised gifts. Does it make any sense that he saw this urchin on the street, took pity on him, and brought him home? Of course not - the only likely explanation is that Heathcliff is his out-of-wedlock son, whom he's claiming to raise. The arrival of Heathcliff may explain the early death of Mrs. Earnshaw. The odd provenance of Heathcliff may explain why he has one name only: Earnshaw won't claim him as one of the family (an Earnshaw) but won't deny him (with another last name) either. Also may explain the dangerous attraction between Heathcliff and Catherine, and the morbid jealousy of Hindley. My guess is that Earnshaw never even went to Liverpool - that he claimed Heathcliff in some nearby village (he could not have carried him for 60 miles). Second: where did Heathcliff go for his three years of absence, when he matured into a handsome and dangerous and love-sick man? There's speculation that he went into the Army, but that seems unlikely to me - he has no military presence whatsoever. He seems to have made a fortune somehow, and it appears that he returns to WH to claim Catherine, only to learn that she has married Linton. Where did he go and why was he completely out of touch - or was he? Was he in London, America, in prison? He never says - perhaps he was trying to learn the answer to the first mystery, that is, trying to figure out who he is and where he came from. Third: what happens while Ellen/Nelly is held prisoner in WH, captured during her visit to WH with Cathy, and held by Heathcliff in an attempt to engineer a marriage between Cathy and the mortally ill mil-toast, Linton. Perhaps Bronte will answer this mystery by the end of the novel - but it seems extremely odd and tantalizing that she builds this hiatus - the gap in the transcript - right near the climax of her story. What happened that Ellen could not see and cannot narrate?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why Bronte's world in Wuthering Heights is amazing

Continuing on the topic of the characters in Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights," I do have to note that, reprehensible as he may be, Heathcliff is at least a character with strong feelings and emotions, even if he acts on and uses those feelings in a cruel and destructive manner; similarly, at least Catherine also has strong feelings - a love of Heathcliff that essentially tears her apart and takes her life - but, again, her emotions are terribly misdirected: whether she married the wrong guy or not, she certainly has no loyalty or even compassion for her husband and is thoughtless about her about-to-be-born child, Cathy. The other characters, as noted in yesterday's post, are dislikable in a panoply of ways. How shall we count them? Ellen, who narrates most of the novel, because more reprehensible as the story moves along; in the section I read last night, for example, she coolly listens to Cathy's long confession about her secret visits to her cousin at WH, Linton - and when Cathy begs her not to tell her father of these visits, Ellen says she'll think about it, give her a day, and then she immediately walks up to the father (Edgar) and spills the beans. Nice, real trustworthy companion. A snitch. And how about the crew under Heathcliff's domain at WH? Linton, sure we feel sorry for him, what chance did he have under a brutal dad like Heathcliff, but as the novel moves along he becomes ever more of whining wuss, unable to stand up for himself, expecting everyone to serve him and to cater to his whims and needs. We also kind of feel sorry for Hareton - through Heathcliff's cruelty, he never learned to read, but that wouldn't necessarily make him mean and vindictive. On the other hand, you'd certainly hope that young Cathy would feel some compassion for Hareton, but instead she mocks him for what she considers his stupidity - which is really just his lack of an education and his rustic accent. She has absolutely no sense of the advantages of class. Her father, Edgar, rightly upbraids her for this. So, wait - is Edgar a likable character? He could be - we feel sorry for him, too, widowed young and apparently never got much satisfaction out of his marriage anyway, he always knew he was the 2nd choice - but he proves every bit the feckless father and uncle, unable to help his nephew, Linton, entrusted to his care, and unable to help his daughter, Cathy, except by basically imprisoning her (he's the Prospero figure; she, the Miranda). Bronte has done something amazing here - creating a complete and vivid world of characters that has moved and startled readers for generations, all the more amazing in that none of the characters is remotely "good."

Monday, August 6, 2012

Is there a single likable character in Wuthering Heights?

Honestly, is there a single character that you like in "Wuthering Heights"? And I don't mean in the movie WH, which makes Heathcliff into a dashing, doomed, Romantic character - Byron on the Moors or something like that. I mean in Emily Bronte's novel itself - because as I re-read it after many years I'm surprised at how utterly despicable a character Heathcliff is; and, even though it's easy and maybe even politically correct (and maybe even accurate!) to say that he's a product of his environment, that his evil character was formed by his mistreatment, and in that sense he's a representation of all the mistreated and the oppressed, and their evil behavior and animus to those more privileged is the understandable and appropriate reaction to class oppression - all true, I think - but a truly noble (not to mention likable) character would grow and mature and learn to do something productive with his life: dozens of Dickens heroes are subject to oppression and mistreatment in youth and they rise beyond that to become noble characters. Why not Heathcliff? Maybe Bronte is simply more honest about the personality of the oppressed - Dickens the sentimentalist, and Bronte (like Shakespare, see Caliban in The Tempest) the perceptive realist. Well and good - but what about the other characters? Are any of them likable? They range from the meek and spoiled (Isabella, Catherine Earnshaw/Linton) to the nasty and bigoted (Joseph), to the milk-livered and narcissistic (Linton and Edgar Linton) to the crude and irresponsible (Hindley, Hareston), and finally to that busybody Nelly/Ellen Dean, who narrates virtually the whole novel: she's everywhere and in everyone else's business and never stands up to anyone or does one single courageous thing in her life, utterly betraying young Catherine, whom she supposedly loves, by ratting her out for her love letters to Linton. She's another echo of a Shakespearean type: the nurse and priest in Romeo and Juliet, the priest in Much Ado, the Duke in Measure for Measure: characters full of hot air and full of themselves who basically just get in the way of everyone else and have no spine: I shall no longer stay!, is the Priest's pathetic final (I think) line in R&J, as the two lovers are about to die. Okay, maybe Catherine is likable in some ways, she's probably the most sympathetic of the characters - but don't we all wish she'd been able to act on her passions rather than shrivel up and die when faced with them? Or, failing that, just turn Heathcliff out and be true to your husband. She's torn apart by her passions, but in a pathetic, not an ennobling, way.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Heathcliff is not how you remember him from the movie

For those who, probably from the movie version of "Wuthering Heights" (it's Olivier playing Heathcliff, a David Lean production I think?) imagine him as a dashing, romantic figure embroiled in a tragic and ill-fated love affair with Catherine - please read the book. It's much more evil and stark than you - than I - had remembered. In fact, though we feel sorrow for Heathcliff because of his isolation and mistreatment during his youth, there is nothing worthy or noble about the adult Heathcliff. He's a thoroughly evil character - a very sick man, obsessed and dangerous. In the first half of the book we see his horrendous and unjustified verbal attacks on the hapless Edgar Linton and his relentless cruelty to his wife, Isabella - and in the 2nd half of the book his behavior is worse, more reprehensible, as he insists on raising his estranged son upon Isabella's death. When the frail and sheltered young boy enters the WH household, Heathcliff is just horrible to him, tormenting the poor kid and humiliating him. H confesses to the ever-present servant, Nelly, that he hopes to make a match between Linton and his cousin, Cathy Linton - though H's real motives are of course dark and obscure. He's in some way trying to play out in the next generation the great and unconsummated (we assume) love between him and Catherine - but why and to what perverse end? Perhaps marriage among close family members was not as unusual in 19th-century rural England - but it's obvious that the two are terribly mismatched and that Linton is not likely to survive even to full adulthood. Bronte frequently has her characters describe Heathcliff as a satanic and monstrous, and Wuthering Heights itself as a hellish place - and I'd have to agree.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The 3 generations in Wuthering Heights

As I'm about to move onto the "3rd generation" in Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" (actually, some of whom we met, as adults, in the opening chapters - Lockwood's arrival at Thruschcross Grange and his initial visits to WH), I'm going to pause for a moment and take stock of who the characters are and what their relations are to one another. Strange that even as I'm reading the novel I can't keep track of all of these names and relations - it's as tough as a Russian novel in that regard - partly because Bronte is oblivious of or indifferent to the advice that all novice screenwriters receive: give each character a different and distinct name, and by all means do not give them names beginning with the same letter. Well, Shakespeare didn't follow that advice (Edgar/Edmond, Orsino/Olivia, e.g.) so Bronte won't either: Shakespare being by far her most permeating influence: note even the name Heathcliff (which oddly seems to be both his first and last name, like Madonna or Cher?) - and its obvious reference to King Lear. Anyway, here's a brief summary of the characters, which if nothing else will help me keep them straight during 2nd half of the novel: Oldest generation: Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw, of Wuthering Heights. (Is there a senior Linton generation, at Thruschcross Grange?) The Earnshaws have two children, Hindley (son) and Catherine. Then, Mr. E goes off, supposedly, to Liverpool, and returns with a foundling whom they will raise: Heathcliff (hard to believe that he's not E's son and the half-sibling for Hindley and Catherine). As they mature into adulthood, the Lintons enter as tenants at TG: brother and sister, Edmund (?) and Isabella. Linton marries Catherine Earnshaw; Heathcliff marries Isabella Linton. By end of first half: the elder Earnshaws are dead, Catherine dies (despair?), Isabella departs for London area and we learn that she dies shortly. And Hindley dies (alcoholism). There are 3 children in the next generation: Hindley's son, Hareton (did he have a wife? who is Hareton's mother) and Catherine-Heathcliff daughter, also Catherine (Cathy), both of whom we met as 20-somethings in first chapter. And Isabella's son, named Linton (at this point, he's referenced but hasn't appeared in the novel). Framing all this: Lockwood, the new tenant at TG, who puts together all these pieces into the novel; and the servants: Nelly/Ellen Dean, of TG and the Lintons, who narrates almost the whole novel to Lockwood, and Joseph, of WH - both of whom "endure" through all 3 generations of characters.

Friday, August 3, 2012

A curiosity at best: Fitzgerald's "new" story in The New Yorker

I'll guess that the author of The Great Gatsby had a pretty good sense of what among his literary materials was suitable for publication and what was not. F. Scott Fitzgerald's TGG is no doubt the most perfect (if not necessarily the best) American novel - that is, for its style, economy, plot construction, evocative qualities, breadth of vision or scope, and psychological insight - the things that matter in literature. Moby-Dick may be grander, The Scarlet Letter may be darker, Light in August may be edgier, and so on - but TGG seems flawless - nobody would want to, or need to, change a word (other than maybe the gambler's accent and the anti-Semitic slurs his accent entails or implies?). Thought FSF is not primarily known for his short stories, there are some great ones - and I think they're best when they're closest to the actual events of his life: he never wrote a memoir (today, he probably would have), but his stories touch on the deep sadness and trouble of the life of a talented alcoholic. His weaker stories, in my view, are those that rely on a plot gimmick: I re-read Benjamin Button a few years ago, after the movie release, and was underwhelmed, and I was totally bored with Diamond as Big as the Ritz. What a surprise in current New Yorker to find a one-pager by FSF, Thanks for the Light, apparently recently found in FSF's unpublished papers. Though story is OK, it probably should have stayed there - though who can blame the NYer eds for jumping at the chance to publish an unknown till now FSF story, maybe the last one? Story tells of a woman in the mid-West in what is probably 1920s, a corset and girdle saleswoman, who calls on various clients and is obsessed to distraction by her need and desire for cigarettes. So many of the people she meets don't allow smoking in their office or disapprove of the habit and don't allow it around them, etc. - and she's driven to distraction, sneaks off for private puffs, etc. You don't have to be a genius to figure out that FSF was really writing about his own addiction to alcohol - and having some fun by making the protagonist as unlike him as possible and with a different addiction. The joke is on Fitzgerald, in a way, in the course of history - as he was taking a shot at the whole Prohibition era and trying to show how amusing it would be if we treated cigarettes as an object to be banned - and of course today that's come to pass: we do ban cigarettes in most restaurants and offices, and many people ban cigarettes from their homes, cars, etc. Anyway, the story sheds little light on Fitzgerald - it's mainly a curiosity, and though FSF probably knew it wasn't worth of publication, it's OK to have it among us, in the light.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The most vituperative outburst in literature: Wuthering Heights

Nelly visits Heathcliff and Isabella at Wuthering Heights and it's obvious that Heathcliff is mentally deranged. He lashes into Isabella with the most vituperative, scornful outburst in the history of literature (maybe some passages in Shakespeare, an obvious and pervasive influence on Emily Bronte's style and composition) can compare, but not much else. His apparent, stated motive is to get Nelly, the servant, to arrange for him to have some time alone with Catherine during a surreptitious visit to Thrushcross Grange. But in his anger and contempt, he seems not just a passionate man, which he is, but a dangerous man with an unbalanced mind. He'll do anything to get near Catherine again - which makes us think at least as contemporaries, that her own safety is endangered. His hatred for Catherine's husband, Linton, is irrational and misplaced: Linton did nothing overt to ruin Heathcliff's life, and there's no reason why Heathcliff should despise and destroy him - at least no rational reason, but Heathcliff isn't a rational guy. In some ways, he's like Iago, full of motiveless malignity, but unlike Iago he claims to be a man in love - not just a man "in hate." Yet what kind of way is that to go about winning Catherine's heart? Of course, she may be just as perverse as he is - drawn to his over-topped passion and to his obsessive and excessive behavior - which is far more than vengeance against those who wronged him throughout his childhood (it's notable how small a role Hindley, the real childhood antagonist, plays in this part of the novel). Heathcliff's animosity against the world is born from his sense of complete alienation and displacement: the bastard child, of a different race, abused and mistreated throughout his life by his intellectual and physical inferiors - a Caliban, in fact.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

These characters are tearing one another apart: Wuthering Heights

The constant refrain in Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" is how evil Heathcliff is - he's satanic, hellish, etc. Yet is he any more evil than any of the other nasty characters in the novel? Obviously not - it's a very dark novel, characters in a lonely and deprived environment, each competing with one another for a little more of the parents' diminished attention and, later, for a little more of a chance at mature, adult love and affection. Today, we'd look at Heathcliff as a product of his environment - he became "evil" because of the mistreatment by his stepbrother (half brother, I believe), Hindley - and Hindley was evil because of his own shortcomings and his jealousy of the newly arrived Heathcliff. In other words, we'd be tempted to analyze the family dynamics of WH, as I'm sure many have done. I'm not sure that's where Bronte was going, though: I don't know if she believed that characters could be formed; she seems to think that character is innate from birth - maybe. Will keep watching this as the novel progresses. She's also interested in creating a small and isolate society with all of its inherent tensions and jealousies and neuroses - the Brontes, of course, famously lived an isolated life on the moors and relied on their own fervid imaginations for pleasure and escape. The Bronte characters don't have those imaginative games - so they go at one another. Halfway through WH, after Heathcliff has a big blow-out scene with Catherine and her husband, Linton - seriously humiliating the much weaker and less dashing (but more socially acceptable) Linton, Heathcliff strikes a mortal blow by running off with Linton's sister, Isabella. This is devastating not only to Catherine - who obviously is in love with Heathcliff and married Linton because of diminished options - but also to Linton, who feels defeated and sexually humiliated by his stronger, sexier rival, Heathcliff. These characters are tearing one another apart - I had no idea that the novel was this dark or this tumultuous - not having read it for possibly 40 years.