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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

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The best story reader I've ever heard: current New Yorker story

Tony Early's story in current New Yorker, Jack and the Mad Dog, or something like that, recalls the stories that John Barth (and to some degree Coover and Donald Barthelme, the pantheon of the postmodern) wrote in the 1960s and 70s, taking on familiar tales, sometimes fairy tales, or myths and re-telling them, sometimes from a new perspective, sometimes as a way to experiment with narrative voice - Barth's best and most famous being his retelling(s) of the 1001 Nights from the POV of Sheherezad's kid sister who allegedly sat at the foot of the bed and heard all the narrations. At the time these stories felt very countercultural and au courant - i'm not sure how well they would hold up today. Early's is in this tradition - a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk looking at his life after the giant-slaying - and it does have some potential as a theme, Jack as fading celebrity or aging athlete - though Early doesn't make much of the plot possibilities - the entire story is a drunken dreamlike fantasy in which Jack is victim of several supernatural occurrences - encounter with a rabid talking dog, meet-up with a swarm of "maidens," some of whom he apparently seduced back in his glory days - mostly, I don't really care about any of this. Why would we read a retelling of a fairy tale? I think either to put the fairy tale in a new light or to put our own lives in some new light - it's not really a way to gain consciousness of an author or a culture, but it's a viewpoint into the nature of storytelling and narrative (that's why the postmodernists were fascinated with this mode). Though Early doesn't capitalize on the potential of his material, he does build a lot of humor into this story - another way in which he reminds me of Barth: this story would work very well if read aloud, would benefit from good timing and delivery. Some of the lines that seem arch when read in print would work well with an audience (e.g., Jack, stuck in a field of corn, exclaims: Shuck you!). Barth was one of the best story-readers I've ever heard - I think of him in a comic tradition extending back to Twain and Dickens; I imagine Early is a great reader as well and, though it's a bit of a back-handed compliment, I wish I'd heard this story rather than read it - like many tales, it's part of the oral tradition more than the written.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Strether - the worst ambassador of all time

Despite my exasperation, chronicled here yesterday, have continued with Henry James's "The Ambassadors" in part for the amusement of seeing how effectively James avoids coming to the point: for example, in section read last night, after a leisurely account of the Strether's pleasure at a Paris morning, Strether receives a telegram. Does he read it? No. Not right off. He ponders, and meanders. Then reads it. Crumples it up. Walks around. Goes out for a walk. Comes home. Goes to sleep or tries to. Walks again. Comes back and writes a letter. Tears it up. Goes to sleep. This is one of the most active sections of the novel in that at least he is doing something - but can't you just tell us what's in the telegram? Not that we couldn't guess - James is no master of suspense, not in these late, laborious novels. We learn later, when Strether has a conversation with the now returned to Paris Miss Gostrey, that Strether's betrothed and Chad's mother, Mrs. Newsome, is sending her sister, Mrs. Pocock (and spouse?) to Paris to see what the hell's going on - as noted, Strether is the worst ambassador in the world, completely unable to fulfill his mission of persuading Chad to come home to the U.S. Strether admits this to Miss Gostrey - he tells her in so many words what we've known all along: he's smitten with Europe and with the people he's met there. He hasn't quite confessed to falling in love with Miss Gostrey - perhaps he isn't in love with her. It's also obvious that he's taken with Mme de Vionnet, but it would be pretty awful for him if he were to become Chad's rival (though it might make a better novel). Of course I think he's really taken with Chad's pal Little Bilham, though that's an area where James won't tread except by insinuation. In any case, the plot of the Ambassadors will never take off like a rocket, but it's slowly building toward a confrontation, and Strether at some point will have to come clean: either he's honorably fulfilling his mission for Mrs. Newsome or he'll have to break off and decide what he wants to do with the rest of his life; presumably, he's on her dime - and Paris might be a lot less "charming," as he would put it, if he's picking up the tab.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Just about had it with The Ambassadors

You know I'm a very patient reader and willing to work on very difficult books hoping to derive from reading them some pleasure, knowledge, experience, all of that - but you also know that I'm not stubborn or foolhardy and have never understood the compulsion to finish a book once started - why? what's the point? whom do you owe that to? drop it and move on - as long as you've given it a fair shot: there are many books that I've soured on for a day or so or that took a while to grab me or that demanded more than usual from me and it took me a while to enter into the world of the author - would anyone fall in love with Faulkner? Joyce? on reading the first few pages? And yet, and yet - I think I've just about had it with Henry James's "The Ambassadors" - I keep trying to like it, wanting to like it - potentially, it's a great set-up: an older man devoid of feeling sets off for Europe to "rescue" a younger man from its clutches and bring him home - but the older man is won over by the charms of Europe, and its denizens, and fails in his mission in some dramatic way (or maybe not - maybe the young man returns to the U.S. and the old man stays in Paris?) - well, no one in their right mind ever read a James novel for its plot, its action, its pacing, or its humor - all of which are either nonexistent, minimal, or soporific. I would like The Ambassadors more if he'd just get it moving - in my mind, I'm comparing it with other James works I've read in the past year or so, Portrait of a Lady, The Princess Cassamassima, The Aspern Papers, to name three - all of which have a great set-up and then a great payoff, the characters move along with their lives, grow, develop, make terrible mistakes, have real misunderstandings, make decisions, and face consequences. In The Ambassadors, the set-up is there, but the characters just talk forever and negotiate slightest, tiniest nuances of feeling and perception - half the time I don't even know what they're talking about, and when I do it seems they take forever to come to any conclusion or point of vantage. This leaden style is a flaw I'm afraid of all the late James novels - I've been completely unable to read Golden Bowl and Wings of the Dove, and thought I would do better with The A's, which I read many years ago and at least managed to finish (for a class) - but now, I don't know, there's something dreadfully wrong with the way he was thinking and writing at this time of his life - either his style or his own emotional hangups just keep getting in the way of his work. William James famously said of his brother that the could "chew a bit more than he can bite off." How true! I've had enough of his chew, or chaw. I'm giving it a few more days - maybe I'm just cranky - but I'm afraid it's going in the drawer along with Golden Bowl and Wings. Good night!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

When an author's style consumes his or her characters

In one of the most fluid passages in Henry James's "The Ambassadors," James gives us the back story on two newly introduced characters (half-way through the novel) - Chad Newsome's mysterious beloved(s): Mme and Mlle (Jeanne) de Vionnet: through weird coincidence that typically takes James several page to unravel, the protagonist's (Strether's) guide/companion, Miss Gostrey, when to boarding school with the young Mme di Vionnet - you figure the chances, though it does seem to be a small and insular social set - and she fills Stether, and thereby us, in on the character and background of Mme de V., married to a brute, but one doesn't divorce, so they just live apart. It strikes me that James rarely does give back story - he lets almost the entire novel unfold, rather, through his strained and meticulous dialogue and through long passages in which he tells us what the protagonist is thinking: a violation of one of the cardinal rules of fiction writing, show don't tell, but in a violation so extreme that the rule-breaking becomes a new possibility in and of itself: a style unique to James and his sensibility, and I think probably never emulated (Cynthia Ozick maybe an occasional exception - though not an entirely successful one, in my opinion). As we get to know more about Mme de V., James careful sets her well-furnished Second Empire apartment up as a part of a triad: there's the old fashioned and conventional world of Connecticut, that Strether has left behind; the Bohemian world of Paris, to which he is inevitably drawn and which has seemingly won over his quarry, Chad Newsome; and there's now the wealth of Old France/Europe, before which he feels inevitably judged and found wanting (I don't know why - I'd say screw all that with the counts and their collections and lineage and class and race snobbery). In one of the many strange and strained dialogues in the novel, Strether discusses Jeanne de V with Mme de V and we learn, after much feinting and parrying, that she is not engaged to Chad - though why is not clear. He knows it would be bad for her to bring her back to the U.S.? He knows it wouldn't? who knows? There are intimations that he, Chad, may actually be in love with the mother (who's only in late 30s and very attractive), and also suggestions that Strether is falling for him. By the end of their conversation, they have reached some kind of agreement - and they are talking about who is going to "save" whom. Honestly, at times the subtlety of this dialogue is is so extreme that the meaning just vanishes like smoke. Oh well - in a James novel, every character talks (and thinks) expansively like James, just as in a DeLillo (or Carver) story every character is pithy. An author's style that consumes, or assumes, his or her characters can easily become a mannerism or even a self-parody.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why I want to leap into the pages of a James novel and shake these guys up

Who knew?, but Strether (in Henry James's "The Ambassadors") has become quite the ladies' man - shall we count the ways? He's sent on his ambassadorial mission to Paris to "rescue" Mrs. Newsome's son, Chad, and bring him home to Woollett, Conn., to run the family business, whatever that may be - and we learn, amazingly late in the novel, that Strether is essentially engaged to Mrs. N., but hardly in love with her - he's in love with her money. (And contemptuous of it, no doubt, in that it's earned through business and commerce and not just inherited.) He's basically picked up in Europe by Miss Gostrey (?), who calls herself a guide but to me is entirely mysterious - it's not clear what she does or how she earns money - she seems more like an escort, though a chaste one. Strether loves talking to her about all his problems, at great length and entirely circuitously, in the Jamesian manner, and he seems smitten with her - though we suspect she's just angling for the biggest catch. Then, hoping to meet the young woman whom Chad has apparently fallen in love with and who is keeping him in Europe, Strether gets invited to an artist's party - a sculptor who I think may be modeled on Giacometti? - and he's taken again, first with Mme de Villement (?), who it takes him far too long to realize is the mother the beloved - for a perceptive guy, supposedly, he is really thick - and at last Chad introduces Strether to Mlle de Villemont, and Strether is "taken" again. All this said, but I think the person he's really fallen in love with is Chad's friend, an affable young artist called Little Belham - their extensive conversations are extremely flirtatious, whether Strether (or James for that matter) knows it or not. One thing about these James characters: none seems very American. We Americans are known, rightly, and often characterized for, being blunt and direct and open and honest. Not James characters. Strether, for one, is the worst ambassador in the world. It takes him for ever to learn the facts on the ground, when a simple inquiry or two could lead him to the information he needs. When he finally asks Little Belham a straightforward question, LB notes that it was "charming" of Strether not to have done so earlier. There's way too much charm here, if that's what it is, and the characters have way too much time on their hands. Life in a novel can assume it's own pace - novels have a time-world of their own - but I know I'm not alone in wanting to leap into the pages here and shake these guys up and help them find a life, find a purpose - or get a job, at least.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why you shouldn't writing in the 2nd person - and a good new Yorker Story by Mohsin Hamid

Thank you, Jay McInerney and Junot Diaz, but can we just put a moratorium on 2nd person narrative? Despite Mohsin Hamid's current New Yorker story, The third-Born that insists on addressing me, the reader, as "you," I have to tell you I am not and never will be a third-born child born in a mid-eastern or Asian (country undefined) village and raised in poverty by a mom mostly single while dad is off in nearby city for most of the year earning a meager living as a domestic cook and sending the money home to support the family. No, that's not "me," but it's the protagonist in Hamid's story - and quibbles about the narrative choice aside it's an excellent piece of writing (not a story most likely, as it ends quite abruptly and there are references throughout to the future life of the young protagonist - who grow up to become wealthy somewhere somehow). One of the great things that fiction does for all readers is provides access to the consciousness of another - and also to the details of daily life of other people and other cultures. Hamid's piece, short though it is, is a vivid account of the poverty of the rural village, with the young boy near death at the outset from various diseases and infections, and you get the sense both of the tenuousness of life (for the young especially) in these impoverished conditions and the insularity of the families (they live in a family compound in a village). The essence of the story is the journey, strapped Romney-style to the roof of one of those crazy, careening third-world buses, from village into new domicile, equally impoverished, in the city, where family will try for some independence from the clan - the new surroundings all seen in sharp detail by the young boy who marvels at seeing for the first time paved roads, traffic, electricity. It would seem this story has been told before - and I guess Naipaul has touched on these moments and emotions, and so has the under-appreciated Rohinton Mistry - but Hamid tells the story with a great deal of precision; if this story is part of a novel-to-come, I think it will be well worth reading.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Whom does Strether really love?: The Ambassadors

In Book Third (!) of Henry James's novel "The Ambassadors" (which not only is not about my junior-high rock band but also, contrary to earlier assumption, was written and published just after The Wings of the Dove - so it really is late, not near-late James - though I do find it more readable than Wings in that it is, at least, somewhat driven by plot and conflict and character, the staple ingredients of most fiction - yet, qualifying a bit further in a Jamesian mode - there are passages that I'm reading about which I just writing in the margin: Huh?) the protagonist, Strether, at last meets his quarry: Chad, the son of the wealthy Connecticut woman whom he (Strether) plans to marry (and secure his waning fortunes - though he seems able to roam about Europe for months at a time with no discernible income, as do all the characters in this novel and most in most of James's novels - infuriating - don't these people ever work a day in their lives?). Strether is a tormented character. Ostensibly, he's a 55-year-old widow who is dead to the world, a man without feeling. His mission - to find the Bohemian Chad and bring him back to Connecticut and into the fold and into the head office of the family business, whatever that maybe - has led him to meet some young people whom he would never have met before - and he's, whether he knows it or not, "won" over (Jamesian quotation marks there). But there are complications: he's supposed to me in love with Chad's mother (whom we have not met in this novel) but there's obviously little affecion for anything but her money. Meanwhile, he's been taken in, or taken up, by an American woman who calls herself a "guide," and it's obvious he is falling in love with her - or thinks he is (I suspect that she, Miss G., is falling for Strether's friend Waymarsh - we'll see); I also suspect that Strether is really falling for Chad's young friend, Little-Belham: they "cute meet" when Strether spies Belham on a balcony, and then spend a lot of time together at the Louvre and elsewhere, and it's obvious to a modern reader - though maybe not even to James - that Strether is smitten. That's the secret subplot of The Ambassadors, I think: all this struggle about love and marriage and obligation is a kind of cover or screen to hide the homo-erotic desires that James's unleashes, for a few moments, at the outset of the novel and hints at throughout.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

What The Ambassadors is "about" (as James would put it)

Finished "book 2" (of 12 - isn't the term "book" kind of pretentious for a 30-page section) in Henry James's "The Ambassadors" and taking stock of the central question: what is The Ambassadors about? (Or, as James would put it, what is The Ambassadors "about"?): definitely the central James theme of the new world - old world conflict, as it centers on two middle-aged American men, Strether and Waymarsh, traveling (together) through Europe: Waymarsh has been there for some time and is thoroughly sick of Europe and wants to return - he's ended a bad marriage and is, apparently, kind of hyperkinetic and fairly well off; Strether, the main character of the novel, is 55, widowed, and lost his only child to diphtheria some years ago - he feels guilty about more or less ignoring his son after his wife died. Oddly, we don't learn much of his back story until well into the novel, and even then it's rather glancing - but what we do learn is that Strether is emotionally dead: he has few connections with people, few or no interests; he is also for some reason ashamed by his American background, which is less socially prestigioius than that of Waymarsh - he's from some small Connecticut town (fictional name), where a woman , presumably of about his age, named Mowsley (or something like that, has sent him on a mission: to "rescue" her son, Chad. Chad is living in Paris, with some sort of Bohemian, as they'd say then, young woman and dabbling in the arts - in other words, he seems "lost" to his straightlaced New England mother. Strether has no idea how he will rescue Chad or for that matter whether Chad needs to be rescued - but we can see the outlines of what is most likely to happen: encountering Chad in Paris is likely to convert Strether rather than to revert Chad. We'll see. Several underlying and unexamined themes: the homo-erotic attraction between Strether and Waymarsh; the odd relation between Strether and the woman who latches on to him in England and considers herself to be some sort of "guide" - but to today's readers would seem much more like an escort - who is she and what does she really want?; and the back story between Strether and Mrs. M. from Connecticut - why has he undertaken this task for her (she's quite the nudge, writing to him almost daily) and what will he get in return? Money? Status? He does not by any stretch seem to be in love with her.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sounds of Silence: James's dialogue in The Ambassadors

A few observations on reading further into Henry James's "The Ambassadors" (named after my junior-high rock band?): I continue to be amazed that James in any way shape or form thought that he could become a successful playwright. Despite all the strengths of his novels and stories - his skill at dialogue is horrendous, or, perhaps more charitably put, his dialogue is well suited to the meandering pace of his novels but would (and apparently did) feel interminable when actually uttered by human beings. No person (other than James?) spoke or speaks the way his characters do - they speak as he writes, they are literary creatures above all else. Not only does the dialogue seem or sound nonhuman, but the conversational passages to on forever - for pages and pages, anyway - and cover very little ground. This characteristic would be infuriating anywhere else but in a James novel - but the tortured dialogue is in fact very appropriate to the James milieu. In The Ambassadors, for example, the two male protagonists, old friends Strather and Waymarsh, if I have the spellings correctly, talk at great length on first reuniting in England in oblique phrases, nuances, broken statements - they imply a lot but say nothing directly to each other, and they should have so much to discuss. Of course, that is the James world, so little said and so much left unsaid. You want to jump into the page itself and grab these two guys and shake them and say: just ask one another how it's going, tell him about your ex-wife and your troubles, tell him about the woman from back home who's sent you here to "rescue" her son from Europe, open up a bit! They can't and won't; they're Jamesian, but not typically American. This reserved quality becomes infuriating in the final James novels, but there's enough subterranean drama in The Ambassadors to push this work forward: two men, each on a mission, with two mysterious women on their periphery.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Braving late James: The Ambassadors

Started Henry James's "The Ambassadors" (amazingly, this was the name of my junior-high school rock group - saw uncool a name as to be retroactively avant garde), which I haven't read since, I think, college - and came to it with some trepidation - through the first 5 or so pages I thought - can I really possibly read this? These nuanced, tortuous, ever-qualified sentences about minutia? But gradually my mind accustomed itself to James's style and what at first seemed daunting and impenetrable gradually (only 20 pages in, so we'll see) has come to seem like a distinct and confident narrative voice, a world and view unto itself - and isn't that what all great (or most great) writing does - gets us to experience the world from the point of view or consciousness of another, establishes a way of writing, a vision, that is unique to that author - in the same way that a great composer's work is easily identifiable from a few phrases, or a painter's from a glimpse of a single canvas? I have to say that The Ambassadors, circa 1900, is about as late in James as I'll ever go - I've tried with no success at all to read the latest James - the Golden Bowl, the wings of the dove - his style in his latest years becomes so wrapped in itself as to slow the novel from slow to glacial to stasis and to smother the life out of it. Ambassadors has a touch of that - its far more sinuous that Portrait of a Lady or Princess Cassamassima, both of which I recently read or re-read. He becomes ever more difficult - and ever more distinct - as his career progresses (analogous to Beethoven's quartets?) - and much pleasure as I get out of his novels I continue to think that he worked best within the constraints of what he might call short stories but would call novellas: Turn of the screw, aspern papers, for two examples. If you can plunge in and get used to the cold temperature, there's a lot to gain from near-late James, however: he does a great job setting up the tensions among characters in Ambassadors right from the start, and the scene is seething with repressed and misdirected sexual energy and ambiguities, whether James even knew this or not.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Not lost in translation

Friend WS (not William Shakespeare) takes me to task for suggesting that one of the qualities of enjoyable literature is the beauty of the language - and then citing Proust. To make that claim, he asks, shouldn't I have to be reading Proust in the original French? Good point, to a degree - I'm sure P.'s fiction is even more beautiful in his original language, but I don't agree that you have to read Search of Lost Time in French to appreciate and experience its beauty. Frost said that poetry is what's lost in translation - and that's true, for poetry. We (I) rarely read poetry in translation and even more rarely remember or can quote a line of translated poetry (exceptions: Cesar Vallejo in Bly's translation). But prose fiction is somewhat more pliable, even really difficult prose like Proust's - and I do think I should give full credit to the translator(s) when I praise the beauty of Proust's writing, so hats off to Lydia Davis for her translation of Swann's Way. With some great translations, like the Volokhonsky-Pevear translations of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov, I'm never struck by the beauty of the language but by the beauty of the writing. With Proust, it's different. The beauty of Proust's writing isn't so much about the choice, sound, cadence of individual words and phrases (that would be more true for Joyce, and perhaps for Faulkner too) but about the very nature of his observations - the choice of details, the evocation of particular places and moments. I notice the same phenomenon in some of the Thomas Mann stories that I have just finished reading, but Mann accumulates specific details from the outside - a cold-eyed and scrutinizing observer - he can detail every object in a room, every article of clothing, every facial feature - whereas Proust can isolate just one detail (the red shoes of the duchess) and elevate it, perseverate on it, to such a degree that the detail stands for the entire character or the entire scene. So there's a beauty of language that comes from the sense and sound of the words, and there's another kind of beauty that comes from the referential quality of the language - the images that the language evokes and conveys. You can appreciate this beauty in any good translation.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The most nonsexual sex story ever: by Leonid Tsypkin

This week's (maybe last week's? - delivery here sucks) New Yorker story is from a Soviet writer, Leonid Tsypkin, who apparently was born in 27 and died in the 80s - story was from about 1972, if I remember correctly - and he was one of the million Soviet/Russian authors who had a complete separate career, as a physician or scientist or something - those over-achievers. The story, The Last Few Kilometers, is really nothing more than a moment out of a life: a middle-aged man is riding a train home, through the bleak outer suburbs of Moscow, having just had a sexual liaison with his "mistress" - he's completely enervated, in fact you'll probably never find a story about a sexual liaison with less sexuality: he's completely lackluster and indifferent, has no great desire for the woman or really for anything. The story is as bleak as they come - and in that sense a pitch perfect description of the ugliness of the late Soviet period - the squalid houses by the railroad tracks, the drab one-room apartments, the lousy and overpriced food (the central motif of the story is the chicken and rice dinner she cooks for him - he drops a drumstick, he later sees it in the kitchen - she's going to rinse it off and consume it later - thrift, thrift), the pathetic statuary and emblems glorifying the workers, who in actuality, like the protagonist, are tired, with the life beaten out of them - completely ugly story that captures its moment, in just a page and half, as sharply as anything written in the period. Nevertheless, it's just a fragment - possibly a piece from a longer work - which I suspect would be pretty much unreadable. Not all Soviet life (or art) was like this - I recall being really impressed with the excitement about the underground art and music scene in Moscow in the same era in the works of V. Aksayomov. But I can surely imagine that the Soviet authorities wanted nothing like this published under their noses - ever. I know nothing about Tsypkin's publication history, but I'm not surprised we're seeing this story in English now for the first time.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Enjoyable Mann

Friend WS (not william shakespeare) asks which are the most "enjoyable" of Thomas Mann's stories - which raises the question of what exactly constitutes and "enjoyable" story. I enjoy reading anything with beautiful and elegant writing (Proust), with insight into life and personality and society (James, Forster), with innovation and verve (Hemingway, Faulkner, Munro), with concision and precision (Carver, Chekhov, Trevor), with humor (Allen [Woody], Perleman, Moore, Beattie), with news about our lives and other lives (Baxter, Yehoshua, Jones [E] ) - so where does Mann fit in? All of the above - well, not a lot of humor nor a great deal of innovation or concision, either. But for elegance, insight into society and the human heart, and careful construction - yes, many of the stories in the collection I've just finished. Death in Venice is easy to overlook because it is so familiar to most of us, but is there a better story about vanity, ruination, narcissism, decay, perversion - not necessarily enjoyable stuff, but you can't stop reading. Of the somewhat lesser known pieces in this collection, I'd note 3: Maria and the Magician is an absolutely haunting examination of evil - ostensibly about Hitler and Mussolini, but by extension about any charlatan or horrifying political-religious leader today. Tonio Kroger is a story that speaks to every young or aspiring artist - seems a little romantic reading it later in life, but it gave me great hope and encouragement when I read it as a young man. Finally, one I'd never read before, Tristan, is an early version of what became Mann's greatest novel (Magic Mountain) but stands up really well on its own for all that - shows better than other Mann's astounding ability to create a scene and to sketch a character with careful and surprising selection of details - and the plot is very odd and disturbing - without realizing it at first, we're actually reading a murder mystery. The oblique endings to many of these stories foreshadow the work of thousands of contemporary short-story writers and is Mann's clearest connection to the open form that Joyce perfected in his early stories (Dubliners).

Monday, September 17, 2012

Thomas Mann

M asks why I am re-reading Thomas Mann - stokes me that of the 3 great modernists - Joyce Proust Mann - he is the most conventional and accessible. His style not experimental but really the last flourishing of 19th century naturalism- the tradition of Flaubert an stendahl - but w a grander sense of philosophical and political issues. His novels are battles of ideas. His stories less so but still include conflict of ideas and of characters against a fully detailed socio historical background. Mario a chilling forecast of nazi power. Tonio one of the greatest statemena of the suffering of a young artists. Walsungs and disorder excellent portraits of dysfunctional families. Venice one of the great stories about a ruined life and perverse desire. Interesting how his stories establish themes he will explore in depth on his novels - tristan an obvious early look at the themes that would become magic mountain.

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Thomas Mann The Blood of the Walsungs

The Blood of the Walsungs is one of Thomas Mann 's early stories and it shows - way over the top in its portrayal of a completely crazy German bourgeois family in which the brother and sister Siegfried and Siegelund act out the incestuous relation of their namesakes from die walkire. It's not strange enough that they do so but I think it would have been a better story if Mann didn't have them attend a performance of the opera -- it made the parallels in their relationship too apparent. It was as if he had the courage to write about incest in 1905 but had to cloak his story in allegory to make it more acceptable. Interesting how he could be overt about the sexuality but oblique about the anti-Semitism - there are hints that the family is jewish but Mann cannot say so directly, not sure why. If he had this would have been an example of decadent art that the nazis would have siezed upon and exploited toward their evil ends.

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thomas Mann The Blood of the Walsungs

As in his story disorder and early sorrow Thomas Mann in The Blood of the Walsungs creates in a few deft strokes an extremely narcissistic and insular bourgeois pseudo-artistic German family - in this case consisting of a domineering father devoted to his rare books and boastful about how he made his fortune in coal , a feckless and unattractive mother, a bullying and self righteous militant oldest son, a sister who holds herself aloof from all, and brother-sister twins - 20ish - w similar Wagnerian names who walk around holding hands. One of them is engaged and the story concerns visit of her fiancé for dinner a few days before wedding. Why anyone would want to marry into this clan is beyond me. However he does - and subjects himself therefore to hours of mockery and abuse. The family has its own wit and its own moral code - and what are we much less the hapless fiancé to make of the incestuous attraction at the least between the twins? These Mann characters are the obvious ancestors of Salinger's Glass family. Interesting to compare the smug prosperity of the German family at time of this story - 1905- w the deep economic anxiety of similar families in later Mann stories from 1920s or so such as Disorder.

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Friday, September 14, 2012

Thomas Mann a man and his dog

This story or is it really an essay? Gives us a different view of Thomas Mann - not the great tortured modernist intellectual but just a guy who loves his eccentric and devoted dog - which of the two is more devoted or more eccentric is open to debate. Story not significant because of its ideas but because of how it forms or changes our ideas about Mann. Have to like him more than Eliot and his cats and way more than Nabokov and his butterflies! Author's relations to animals do tell us something about their styles and sensibilities. Eliot austere and indifferent. Nabokov cruel and distant and analytic. Mann? More humane and empathetic than one would at first think.

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Thomas Mann a man and his dog

Poor Thomas Mann spent so much time and effort writing books w unprepossessing title like death in Venice or about dreary subjects like sanatoriums when all along he could have been writing best sellers. Who knew? But then we come across the novella A Man and His Dog that seems to be about just that - no hidden allegories or meditations on life and art and freedom and free will and fascism and anarchy - at least not yet - and I'm seeing here the predecessor to my dog skip or whatever that book was called and it's many imitators and I see that Mann could have been onto a genre - man acquires ugly runt puppy that misbehaves and they come to love one another and a movie deal is in the works. Compare this w Kafka's dog diary from the point of view of the dog ( food provided from above on response to ritual dances) - about as far from a potential best seller as any dog book ever written.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Thomas Mann disorder and early sorrow

Along with Joyce's the dead Thomas mann's disorder and early sorrow stand as one of the great 20th century stories about a party in this case an evening gathering of some 20ish folks in the home of a distinguished German prof of history. The party guests are friends of his two older children and two younger ones about age 6 hang on the fringes. The family is weirdly interconnected and insular despite many social connections and though prosperous by any measure - servants abound - there is much talk about inflation and hard times - this is Germany in 1925 - the house is in poor repair for ex. It's a story of mood and forebode rather than action. The prof is envious of the success and social skills of his guests and wishes his own son and artistic dilettante would match up. The climax comes when young daughter cries and cannot sleep because of one of those infantile crushes on one of the guests. The prof cannot console her. The young man comes to her to wish goodnight and the prof admires and despises him a story about first feelings of love and loss about a father realizing his children are growing and have grown away from him. Hence the two poles of the title. Unlike Joyce's party story this one has a peculiar poignancy as we suspect the family is German Jewish bourgeois intellectual and we know as Mann did not that their way o life or even their life itself was on the verge of extinction.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Thomas Mann Mario and the magician

The ending of Mario and the Magician - the waiter marion is drawn in from the sidelines - we of course have waited through the whole story to learn what role he will play - and the magician - the avatar of a fascist leader - hypnotized the shy and reluctant Mario and elicits from m or surmises info about the woman he loves from afar and then compels m to kiss him in front of the whole audience. This kiss that m plants on the magician's cheek is the ultimate and unbearable humiliation. Mario returns to his place in the crowd pulls out a pistol and assassinates the magician. A few observations - first this is another hint at Mann's ambiguous sexuality - the homoerotic drive and the unbearable shame of the exposure or public expression of this drive. Second - what to make of the political stance of the whole story? On one level it's a frightening examination of the mechanism of fascism - the mind control the stirring of the crowd the appeal to secret desires and fears the references to local and national pride and xenophobia the emphasis on will and on obedience the character of the beguiling charlatan - but ultimately isn't it also saying that the Germans (and italians) were the victims of a greater force and not responsible for their decisions and actions?

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Monday, September 10, 2012

Thomas Mann mario and the magician

Lest anyone doubt the political allegorical nature of Mario and the magician the perverse eponymous magician turns out to be more of a hypnotist whose skill lies in getting unwilling members of his audience do do strange things - stick out their tongues or double over in cramps eg - against their will. Mario keeps up a running commentary and says how this work is so hard for him. He towards the end speaks about obedience and will - that we all have will but a powerful figure can overcome another's will and exert obedience. Obviously he is like a fascist political leader perverting the will of the masses especially of the working-class men. Oddly on the surface his mesmeric performance has no political content - he is not controlling his audience for any end other than entertainment ostensibly. But there is a menacing undercurrent of racism - references to the fatherland and the hint that the narrator and his family may be outsiders and victims - possibly Jews though that is never stated. It's at one a very bold and insightful story and a defensive and protective story never overtly stating the real intention or the real affect of the nazis and fascists - it wasn't just about controlling the will and Their followers were not just innocent hypnotized victims of a charlatan.

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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Thomas Mann Mario and the Magician

After reading Tonio Kroger in which sociopolitical issues are consciously (though not entirely) repressed as the story focuses on devoting life to art (but why is Tonio mistaken for a thief when he revisits his home town - artists are thieves) Mario and the magician is overtly political - clearly a roman a clef about the kfascist movement in Europe
In the 30s. Narrator and family vacation on Italian coast and feel slight and mysterious snubs and exclusions - like Jews in Germany (interesting that Mann sets it in Italy) narrator has his own class and race prejudices , which keep story from sentimental and bathetic. Family goes off to purported magic show extremely ominous thanks to mann's great foreshadowing and the scary entrance into the performance hall with the workers and fishermen around the perimeter and narrator's naive belief that they are friendly w his children.

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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Thomas Mann Tonio Kroger

Tonio keeps heading north. After a few days in Copenhagen that Mann does not describe in detail Tonio heads for a remote Baltic resort in Sweden. Here he is largely alone and at peace ( he is fortunate to have plenty of family money - his bourgeois resources support his bohemian tastes as his Russian girlfriend notes) he has an odd encounter w a drunken young man on the boat which I thought was strongly homoerotic reprising them of first section but Tonio rebuffs the man contemptuously linking him w the foolish amateur poets he despises. At seaside resort Tonio sees Hans and the dancing school girl both of whom he'd loved and both of whom knew him when he was weak and humiliated and shamed. He does not approach them. He watches them through a glass door always on the outside. He sees another young woman who falls on the dance floor remind him of his youthful uncertainty. There is a sense that this whole encounter or non- encounter could be a hallucination. Also a sense that now there is something hard and cruel about Hans. Mann has a youthful premonition of the personality of the nazi prototype in Hans - stupidly secure in his social position indifferent to others contemptuous of the weak and the different.

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Thomas Mann Tonio Kroger

Tonio decides to head north ostensibly out of a deep desire to visit Denmark ! But we know as does his russian artist girlfriend what he's really up to: a visit to his home town. He gets off the train and checks in to a hotel. He experiences what we all have on return to home town - everything seems so much smaller and the walk that he thought would take all day is over in minutes. He goes to his old home and surprisingly is able to enter and wall around and he soon realizes that it is the town library. Mann had an opportunity for easy irony there but doesn't take it - Tonio does not speak w. contempt about people in the library who fall short of his exalted standards for high art or about seeing old men in what was once his room reading trash. No he just leaves and leaves town the next day - surprisingly Mann does not have him meet up w old acquaintances not w old boy crush Hans. Interesting how his journey is toward the north the opposite of aschenbach in death in Venice. For Tonio art is about devotion to the rational and analytic not to the romantic and passionate.

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

The completion of the Romantic idea of the artist: Tonio Kroger

The third section of Tomas Mann's story Tonio Kroger contains one of the greatest dialogues about art and the life of the artist(in the broadest sense - art, writing, music, etc.) - Tonio speaking (it's more of a monologue than a dialogue actually) with a Russian woman friend, a painter, in her atelier - they're both about 30 and at the outset of their careers - Tonio now a somewhat bohemian poet, left his home town in Germany, father dead, fortune mostly gone, out of touch with his mother who's remarried and traveled. Tonio discusses how artists must be sensitive to the society and world around them but must always be alien and outside of that society, looking in - that the suffering of the artist is inevitable and part of the cost of devoting one's life to art, and in fact that the true artist must give, and give up, everything - a lifetime of devotion to the calling. In one of the memorable moments, Tonio describes a military man who stands up at a party and asks permission to recite some of his poetry - how pathetic and banal. Tonio remarks that cone cannot pull a leaf from the laurel tree of art without devoting one's whole life to the effort (he says it way better than that! - the story is full of astounding aphorisms). The painter friend makes a few remarks about the importance of art for society, leading people to greatness and high aspirations and broader perspectives - all very palliative and probably true, but not nearly as romantic and dramatic as Tonio's focus on the suffering of the artist. This story summarizes and completes the great Romantic idea of the suffering artist - and has inspired and in some ways comforted thousands of young aspiring artists and writers who feel lonely and alienated and drawn to a way of life that may offer much suffering and little recognition. Whether Tonio's (and Mann's) vision of the artist is accurate or simply self-dramatizing is another matter - but the story is an encapsulation of a world view that dominated thinking for a century (the opposite from the appollonian view of the artist, serious and analytic - and probably much more like Mann himself). Reading this, you have to think ahead to Proust and Joyce, the other two great modernists who essentially stepped outside of life in order to capture their world through writing.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What Thomas Mann, Bob Dylan, and The Cadillacs have in common

Haven't read Thomas Mann's stories (other than Death in Venice) in many years; went back to the old vintage pb volume I've had forever, am re-reading Tonio Kroger - not sure how well I understood this, or anything!, when I first read it as a teenager, but coming back to it - the homoerotic elements are so overwhelming and obvious especially in the first section, I wonder how much I understood of that years ago - and I wonder that more critics don't comment on this (maybe they don't because it's so obvious): Tonio has a huge boy crush on the tall, handsome, Germanic fellow student, Hans, who's much more popular and conventional and intellectucally limited. Both Tonio and Hans are sons of the leading burghers in the city, that is, they're socially equal, but Hans fits in much more - he's closer to the societal ideal. Tonio is ans sees himself as an outsider - not a particularly good student, dreamy, artistic - and not conventionally handsome, as least by the standards of his community - he's dark and "southern" (taking after his mother, who is apparently Italian). In 2nd section of the story, when Tonio humiliates himself in dancing class, his affections have now passed on to a beautiful German girl - again, the most popular girl, the ideal - who barely notices him - whereas he snubs the other artistic girl in the class, who's clumsy and not so attractive: this is the oldest story in the book, right? A sentiment that's been captured in millions of songs, notably two of my favorites: Gloria (It's not Marie) by the Cadillacs and Visions of Johanna, by Bob Dylan (Louise she's all right, she's just near ... she makes it all to concise and to clear that Johanna's not here). Well, that's not all Mann is writing about - the story is also apparently some kind of lament for the pains that the artist must suffer, especially in youth, to develop his or her sensibility - a truly Romantic notion, persevering into the 20th century.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

LBJ - the tragic figure

It's by every measure a biography that focuses on politics, the use of power, and history without a look at the personal or private life (other than family background, early education, childhood influences). Yes, it's overwritten at times. Yes, the author makes the same point repeatedly. Yes, the author drives home every bit of evidence that he can unearth or assemble. Yes, the hardbound edition is so heavy that it hurt my hands and just to read it. Yes, the author is overly interested in the press coverage of his subject - though of course he's writing about the glory days of American newspapers, when every city had at least one and usually two or more major dailies, each with its own Washington bureau, editorial pages, op-ed columnists, plus there were several competing wire services all covering every facet of the presidency for a readership that in retrospect seems to have been amazingly literate and perspicacious. All true - yet Robert A. Caro's "The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power," is a damn good bio, thoughtful and opinionated and full of rich material and easy to read - it helps us understand not only LBJ but the whole political era of the 1960s and the assumption and use of power anywhere at any time. Caro is in awe of Johnson, but it's not in any sense a sycophantic book - he's in awe of Johnson as one might be in awe of a monster, we see LBJ as a powerful man and potentially as a great evil man. This volume (#4) of the bio series presents Johnson at his most pitiable (a feckless VP) and at his best (a champion of civil rights), but Caro is wise enough to peek around the edges of this bio, in the last chapter in particular, to remind us how Johnson would meet his doom through his foolish and stubborn pursuit of "victory" in Vietnam - a classic tragic hero, rising through his talents and character and then falling from grace through his own hubris.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Home on the Range: LBJ in Texas

The "Serenity" chapter of the Robert A. Caro LBJ bio The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power is the closest Caro gets to the personal or private side of Johnson's life, a bit of a glimpse into his family life back at the ranch, with some interactions between LBJ and Lady Bird and visits to some of his quaint cousins and uncles - but of course all of this was for show, as Caro is well aware - an attempt to stage an LBJ personality that's very different from both the highly cultured and preppy athletic culture of the Kennedys and the cloakroom wheeler-dealer that the media knew of LBJ from back in DC - here they can see him in stetson and boots, riding a big horse, herding Herefords, eating bar-b-q and just being folksy. Caro details the glowing press accounts of the 12-day xmas visit to the ranch - a successful effort by Johnson to manage his image: today, it would be handled by high-priced media consultants, and it wouldn't be so easy to pull off, either. For one thing, it's amazing that nobody in the press pushed the envelope on how the hell does a U.S. Senator build up a fortune like this, so out of line with the simple homes all around him, so out of line with the fortunes of his relatives (maybe they assumed Lady Bird had a lot of $?). Then, Caro gets into the darker side of LBJ, showing how in his private phone calls from the ranch he spent a great deal of time muscling weak-willed Texas newspaper editors to quash investigative stories under way - typical of the era, maybe still (though less so, newspapers rarely controlled now by local publishers), but still despicable and pretty amazing that a president would get so involved in what LBJ himself called "chickenshit." All his careful image management would fall apart, in a few years, thanks to his stubborn pursuit of the Vietnam War and his persistent lying about every aspect of the war.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How things get done in Washington (and elsewhere): Caro's LBJ bio

Robert A. Caro's LBJ bio, 4th volume: The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power is above all else a political biography. If you're interested in LBJ's personal life - his family life, relations with Lady Bird and daughters, his affair (with a Congresswoman, HD Douglas maybe? it's alluded to in the book but not discussed in any detail) this is obviously not a tome (or series thereof) that you want to devote a great deal of time to reading; however, no other bio of a famous political leader, at least no other bio for a popular readership, goes into such great depth about the actual machinations of power: that was Johnson's great theme, and strength (his stubborn personality was his undoing) and Caro's great passion. The story in this volume is quite dramatic at times - building to a crescendo with almost the minute-by-minute account of the Kennedy assassination and LBJ's first few days in office as he assumed the power of the presidency: it's unique to have this story told from LBJ POV, but I also wondered at times if Caro truly wished he were writing about JFK. As the book moves toward the conclusion (of this volume) Caro focuses on LBJ's effort to move a civil rights bill through a recalcitrant Congress - in particular, the Senate, dominated by conservative Republican committee chairs. Caro keeps saying how these men (in particular Sen. Russell) were smart and totally honest, but they were also totally racist: Caro doesn't say so bluntly and directly, but their terrible opposition of civil right legislation shows them for what they were. Johnson played both sides of the fence at times, but clearly did support New Deal initiatives and civil rights laws, and the latter part of this volume details - and I mean details - how he got the legislation through. There's probably way more than you'd ever want to read about the 1964 budget and the Mundt legislation on wheat sales to the USSR - but the volume does give a vivid sense of how things get done in Washington, or in government anywhere - or how they don't get done. Caro stays close to his theme of LBJ as a brilliant legislative mind and as the best one-on-one salesman and persuader ever - these are qualities that served him well in the Senate, that were ignored when he was VP, and that later served his ends as President - but only for a time (until Vietnam got in the way).

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Take me Out: Baseball books

Friend LK who knows nothing about baseball will be going to Fenway Park for an event next month (my condolences) and wondered today if there were great books about baseball. Yes, and no. Practically every American writer is a baseball fan, or so it seems - something about the sports that, more than any other, requires close observation, has a long and mysterious history, involves a great deal of the imagination - after all, what is it to root for a baseball team over many years other than to follow a constantly unfolding drama or family saga, much like a Tolstoyan novel? - and many think that there must be great literary material in baseball, but the sad truth is that the facts suggest otherwise (maybe because most writers probably played right field). Some think Bang the Drum Slowly is a great novel and I don't know, I haven't read it, but if we make a litmus test that the novel should be beloved by both fans and by the indifferent. Would it really stand up? Last year's The Art of Fielding was a very good first novel and did capture something of the mood and spirit of college baseball, but the novel at the end good lost in an academic quagmire and was victim to its own ambitions - a good novel but not a great novel and not entirely a baseball novel, either. I never read Roth's The Great American Novel, and am put off altogether by the title. My nominee would be Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, one of the few that conveys the sense of how history lives in the heart and mind of every true baseball fan - baseball wears its past, its traditions, more than any other sport (perhaps in part because the statistics made cross-generation comparisons possible, even easy). The Natural was good if too dripping with meaning, The Thrill of the Grass was also good but is now inseparable from the movie (Field of Dreams), Prayer for Owen Meaney used baseball as a starting point but that's all. The best writing about baseball is definitely nonfiction - The Boys of Summer, for one; the must less well known A Playe for a Moment, by old friend John Hough is worth re-discovering. My favorite childhood book was the Roy Campanella autobio It's Good to Be Alive - don't know how well it would hold up today and don't intend to find out. And then there are the many in-season narratives, all of which began with the bespectacled Jim Bouton's The Long Season. I'm sure I'm leaving out many, but these come to my mind right away.