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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Crossing culture: Naipaul's short fiction

The third and final set of stories in the Everyman edition of V.S. Naipaul's Collected Short Fiction is from his 1970(?) collection In a Free State: first selection is a prologue about a man taking a boat crossing from Greece to Egypt and with a lot of focus on a "tramp," a rumpled old guy who gets boards the boat and doesn't seem to belong and pretty much bothers everyone else just by his presence. Not clear his connection to anything (in this story collection) or to anyone else, and the mystery is: why does Naipaul's narrator focus so much on this guy? The second selection, which I've just started, is a longer piece about a servant who accompanies his businessman boss on a journey from India to the U.S., where they will settle for sometime; the initial section describes the servant's complete inability to accommodate to conveniences such as a flush toilet on an airplane (he's used to living in a cupboard and socializing with the street people, who sleep on sidewalks). You can see, perhaps, what ties these two pieces together: both focus on an underclass or declasse outsider who cannot fit in with the social and cultural norms around him; both involve a crossing from one continent and culture to another; both focus on the transition between cultures. The outsider/loser status of the central character is fairly typical material for short fiction (less so for novels), but what's particularly striking here is Naipaul's fascination with the outsider: clearly a version of himself, moving from one culture of poverty to a new culture of intellect and gentility, and also from 3rd to 1st world. He made his transitions as a scholarship student and obviously as a gifted and talented young man with great prospects, but there must have always been an element in which he much more identifies with the underling - the tramp, the hobo, the liveried servant. He experiences the transition as one of humiliation and scrutiny.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Nastiest story I've ever read

I don't mean to be too much of a sentimentalist and I know that good people can write stories about evil people and evil behavior - and yet - what are we to make of V.S. Naipaul's almost unbearably nasty story The Heart in his collection A Flag on the Island? The story is about a sickly young boy whose parents buy him a dog in hopes that this pet will bring out good qualities, help him socialize and overcome some of his fears. Essentially, the story recounts in gruesome detail the boy's attempt to "train" the dog to love, obey, and fear him: he absolutely brutalizes this poor confused little pet - like the worst possible sadistic torturer. He's really nice and kind to the dog, that kicks and whacks him. Sure the story is well crafted and his a weird little twist at the end - I'll give it away because I don't even want to suggest that you read this story - the boy's father drives over the dog, and there's a hint that he does so in order to put an end to his son's cruel behavior toward the pet. Great way to deal with the problem, huh? I just have to wonder what kind of mind could even set out to write a story like this; why would anyone want to think about this kind of behavior, much less chronicle this behavior, without its being part of a grander scheme or purpose. Nastiest story I've ever read. Most of Naipaul's A Flag on the Island is the title story - a novella, really, which recounts a return visit to Trinidad by an American GI (from WWII) and, in a somewhat surrealistic account of three days or so of drunken revelry as he visits people from his past and sees how they, and the island have changed. It pushes the edge of credibility, but in its antic tone and quick cuts of scenes it falls in the tradition of Cane and Master and Margarita, two other challenging works that incorporate a wide range of styles and moods in a short space and that bring literature pretty close to the style and pace of narrative cinema.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A glimpse of Nailpaul's greatness in one of his stories

V.S. Naipaul's 2nd story collection, A Flag on an Island, in the Everyman edition of Collected Short Fiction, includes two types of stories: from the 1950s, even one for 1950 when Naipaul was about 18, that were not included for one reason or another in Miguel Street, and post-Miguel Street stories from the 1960s. The latter are the better, as you might hope and expect. In the 1960s stories, Naipaul is developing a narrative voice, or, put another way, the narrator becomes a significant figure in the stories; in the earlier stories, the narrator was just an observer and had no personality and no role in the plot. One of the best Naipaul stories up to this point in his career is the Christmas Story, in which a hapless narrator, a devout Hindi who converts to Presbyterianism and takes a job (his father-in-law gets him the work) as a school inspector: he's a very tortured man, torn by his new identity, by the sense that he has abandoned his ethnic origins, shame about his past and about his family, but also the sense that his is not accepted and never will be accepted in the white/Christian island (Trinidad) culture. Ultimately, he gets in way over his head on a school-construction project - we get the sense that there's a lot of corruption in building costs involved, but the narrator never says this directly and may not even be aware that he's a tool - and the narrator, Randolph (his Xtian name) comes up with a scheme to destroy the building through arson. In his weasel-y way, he of course hires some others - schoolchildren maybe? - to do the deed, and things don't work out as he planned. This narrator is an precursor to an Ishigura narrator, particularly in remains of the day: he's cool and rational, and doesn't realize apparently all of the evil around him, the evil that he himself perpetuates: his willingness, even eagerness, to thrash schoolchildren for their own good, for example. This story also takes on directly the theme of a clash of cultures and identities - the great Naipaul themes - which are left mostly unexamined in the earlier stories that focus only on the small Indian-Trinidad community in which Naipaul grew up: the earliest stories don't give a sense that Naipaul would become any more than a regional writer, but the later stories show glimpses of the great world writer he would become.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Portrait of the artist as a young pharmacist: Naipaul's early stories

V.S. Naipaul's early stories (from the 1950s), collected in the Everyman edition, Collected Short Fiction - from Miguel Street and the first from from A Flag on an Island, don't really give a lot of evidence of the great talent to arise: these stories are clearly, as Naipual, notes in one, "sketches," almost like exercises in which he describes either a character or a brief incident, based on his neighbors in the Miguel Street neighborhood of Port of Spain - most of them older men as seen by the narrator and other young boys of the neighborhood. The narrator gradually grows older, from a young boy in the earliest stories to a teenager about to leave Trinidad to study "drugs" (i.e., pharmacy) in England - but these stories are not at all about the narrator, much less about Naipaul: though the narrator bears his name (in one story, I think) there is no sense that this is a portrait of an artist - and in fact Naipaul's decision to have the narrator leave to study pharmacy is a deliberate attempt to remove him from an authorial stand-in. Also, the narrator's father is absent in these stories - almost as if Naipaul were holding him in reserve for the great novel to come: A House for Mr. Biswas (in the first story in the collection, the narrator paints a sign - a hint of Mr. Biswas's profession, but the period setting the 1940s, would make it clear that the narrator is not Naipaul's father in any real way). The first story in Flag is similar in scope - but interestingly it's based not on a neighbor but on the narrator's aunt (Gold Tooth) - written in the 1950s but held back for some reason from Miguel Street - Naipaul was just gradually trying to write about his family and even himself. Also, the Gold Tooth story - in which the aunt begins praying in a Catholic church, even though she's a devout Hindi - is the first glimpse of another great Naipaul theme, the clash and intersection of different cultures, faiths, and continents. Through these early stories, we see hints and demonstrations of the Naipaul wit and precision, but only a glimpse of the three masterpieces that would made him one of our greatest living writers: Biswas, A Bend in the River, and the Enigma of Arrival - each much more complex and sophisticated that these humorous, provincial sketches - but these are the soil out of which those great works grew and flourished.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Violence against women - in some fiction today and years back

Is it because last night I went to fundraiser for Sojourner House, which works to prevent domestic violence and violence against women, or is violence against women coming up a lot all of a sudden in fiction? Or at least the fiction I've come across? Yesterday I posted on Kevin Barry's New Yorker story about an Irish policeman near retirement who sets his sites on an evil young man who's seduced and beaten women all around the county for many years. One of the vivid scenes in the story is the cop's interrogation of one of the victims, beaten and bruised and sucking on a bottle of cheap whiskey. Then, I'm also reading V.S. Naipaul's first story collection, Miguel Street, about the neighborhood in Port of Spain, Trinidad, where he grew up - and the idea of a man beating his wife, pretty brutally sometimes, is just endemic to these stories and, I guess, to this culture - gone, I hope, but maybe not. In almost every one of the stories a husband beats his wife (and sometimes his kids), and it's more or less not only accepted but even made light of, especially by the young boys, the narrator among them, who hang out on Miguel Street - some of the stories even have calypso or reggae music on the theme of wife-beating. Terrible - I know Naipaul is just trying to be honest about the world where he came from - we see some of the same thing in Dubliners, too - but there's a creepy voyeurism going on in these stories, too - unlike Joyce's stories, imbued with sorrow and regret. I'll see how Miguel Street develops - I am pretty sure it charts the course of the growth and maturity of the young artist and his eventual escape to greater prospects in Cambridge - but who wouldn't be troubled by the tone of some of these stories, far less acceptable today than at publication date (1959). The Naipaul (and the Barry) stories make a striking contrast with Stieg Larsson's Dragon Tattoo series, which purports to be a polemic against domestic violence but in fact in my opinion wallows far too deeply in the ghastly and lurid nature of the crimes and chooses to focus on the most sensational and unusual of the crimes (grisly serial murders with dozens of clues left behind) that would a., most likely be solved quickly and b., are the product of such derangement as to be totally atypical and not at all characteristic of the type of violence against women that is truly a social issue: Barry and even Naipaul should be recognized for depicting an actual social problem, though it's hard to navigate Naipual's attitude toward the issue.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Justice perverted - Kevin Barry New Yorker story

In current New Yorker, a story by Kevin Barry, Death Song Ox Mountain?, set in rural Ireland about a feckless cop out of shape and soon to retire who fixes his sites on capturing an evil scourge who is a serial brute toward women. The story told in short scenes some overly lyrical others straightforward and almost hard-boiled covers material that others might treat in an entire novel - a story that's a marvel of precision. In just a few hundred words Berry creates a vivid portrait of this pathetic, wheezing cop and his final effort to rid his small world of evil and violence - and also a portrait of this nasty young man. The story has several twists, notably a scene in which the copy interviews one of the man's victims, perhaps his last victim, an uncouth, drunk woman - a scene that could have been dripping in sentiment and unearned sympathy but that instead is very tough and unpleasant - we can see that the evil guy finds victims perhaps much like him - but we still want him to get justice. Strangely, we also learn that the young scourge is dying of cancer - not sure why this fact has such presence in the story, but knowing of the fatal illness makes us want the cop to just leave the guy on his own to die - and yet - he can't, and doesn't. In the last scenes, the cop tracks the guy down to a hiding place in the mountains, captures him, and then - an a scene conveyed more by indirection than by straight-on description - the cop pushes the guy off the mountainside to his death. The cop accomplishes his ends, but at what moral cost? And then, in a final section, we understand that the evil guy has left his progeny all over the county - evil procreates - and the cop, in that sense, accomplishes nothing but becomes complicit in a perversion of justice: he himself his "died."

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cruel World: Violence in Naipaul's stories

Any reader of V.S. Naipaul's first story collection, Miguel Street (collected in the Everyman Library "Collected Stories") will be struck, I think, not just be the hard times and poverty of the Port of Spain neighborhood where Naipaul sets the stories and where, I assume, he grew up, but also by the hardened and bitter view of the world that the characters share and experience. All of the stories - at least through the first half of the book - are told from the point of view of the young (preteen and maybe early teen) narrator, but the narrator is just a vehicle or a window - he doesn't do much as a character, and only in a few rare moments does he look back on these scenes with the reflectios and perspective of maturity. The stories or scenes are truly sketches, as the narrator calls them at one point - outlines of a plot, details about a neighborhood character, held together by thin strands of connection - more so than the stories in Dubliners and maybe more like Winesburg, Ohio (thought the tone is completely different) - a character in one story appearing as a minor character or even a bystander in another. The stories get a little longer and more involved as the book progresses. The group (4 I think) that I read last night are typical of the collection: one about a woman who has a series (7) kids by 6 different partners, all of whom are cruel and indifferent; another about a feuding couple that moves into a house on Miguel Street and everyone knows that the husband mercilessly beats his wife - she is wealthier and more well-bred than he and no one is quite sure why she stays with him - she's obviously terrified - and nobody can do much to help her, except for the narrator's mother who at least listents to her concerns. Cruelty - especially toward women - is endemic and more or less expected in this neighborhood - and I don't know what that may say about Naipaul and his attitude toward women in his later, more mature fiction. Another story, with less violence but equal desolation, is about one of the characters who's a ragpicker but also, though it's never clear to the narrator, evidently a thief of some sort - always procuring valuable objects and materials that he claims the rich folks in a neighborhood across town just throw away. The 4th one that I read last night (not telling of these in order) was the only tender one of the lot - about a man who sets himself up as a tutor or school teacher (we'd met him in an earlier story, focused on his star student who, as it turns out, is unable to pass any of his qualifying exams). A very difficult world - and narrated with a cold, cruel eye - and also, I have to say, with a sharp wit: some of the dialogue is very funny.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sketchy stories: Miguel Street - V.S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul's first book of stories, published in about 1959, was Miguel Street, collected with his other stories in the Everyman edition of his "Collected Stories" - it's quite a surprise to read these some 50 years post publication - not sure anyone reading them in 1959 would have predicted that Naipaul would become a Nobel Laureate, but then again: a lot of writers begin with the material of their childhood, presented pretty much raw and unedited. Miguel Street is Naipaul's Dubliners, up to a point - but it's also notable that he refers to these stories, very accurately I think, as sketches: each one is a short sketch of one of the characters on the street or in the neighborhood where he grew up, in an Indian enclave in Trinidad (in the capital Port of Spain, I think). Dubliners is the view of the city as seen from the consciousness of a young boy, but Miguel Street is less about the narrator and more about the characters who surrounded him and influenced him - some of the sketches are pretty funny, some are very poignant, particularly B. Wordsworth, about a a vagrant who more or less latches on to the narrator - obviously a young Naipaul - and teaches him about literature and about sorrow and loss. Many of the other stories or sketches are full of violence and bullying - a very tough neighborhood character who scares all the young boys, a brutish husband who beats his wife and kids. Another one of the very strong ones tells of the frustrated aspirations of a boy studying for Cambridge - his tutor tells the whole neighborhood that he is a genius and will pass with honors, but he fails repeatedly and gradually lowers his expectations for life and settles into a menial job. You realize how little chance these kids had of making anything out of their lives, and how their estimates of someone who is a genius fall far short of the mark - it's truly a series of stories about class and colonialism, though all set among one class, in one colony. Part of the mystery of the stories is how Naipaul himself was able to rise above these unpromising origins - in a sense, every one of the stories is a boast: See how far I've come in the world. He was never known for his modesty or timidity. There's a certain coldness about the stories, too - he's not looking back with love and sentiment, but as if through a glass at a peculiar specimen. Of course he was also using these sketches - just as an artist uses sketches - trying his hand with some of the material he would pull together and shape in his great early novel A House for Mr. Biswas.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

If memory serves me well: Memoir and Fiction

Memoir is the raw material of fiction - a memoir, you could say, is to the novel (or story) what a stand-up routine is to a comedy show. Memoir gives us just the character straight up with the events in sequence - no shaping of events into plot, no development of conversation into dialogue, no establishment of atmosphere except as the central character perceives and can describe, no authorial voice or point of view, and so on. Memoir itself falls into a few different categories: memoir of someone famous, which we read because we want to know more about that person's life and times, as opposed to memoir of someone "ordinary," which we read because of the quality of the memoir itself (exceptions about to every one of the principles stated so far, by the way). Some memoirs are double: Frank McCourt became famous because of his memoir, as did Maya Angelou, to cite two examples. Obama's memoir, though well received, became famous when Obama became famous - but not as a writer! Once in a while someone famous actually writers a really good memoir: Bob Dylan's Chronicles might be an example. I'm thinking about all this having finished reading Jeannette Walls's very good "memoir" "Half Broke Horses," the quotes because it's really her grandmother's story that she wrote, as half a ghostwriter half a researcher, while taking some fictive liberties with material: because she's not claiming pure veracity, she's comfortable making up dialogue and maybe even interpolating scenes and events (she doesn't specify which, if any). No doubt I will always prefer the novel, with its capacious nature and qualities, its infinite variety of form and character, its unique (I think) capacity to give us the consciousness of the consciousness of another - but a good memoir is like a straight shot. Walls's is very good from start to finish, and it does, as noted in previous posts, rub shoulders against some really fine fiction on similar grounds, such as My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop. There's definitely an art to writing a great memoir: having the material in hand, recognizing it, teasing out the universal while never losing sight of the particular, selection of detail, memory for a telling moment or comment and the ability to grab it and get it right.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A ghosted memoir: Half Broke Horses

It's not the kind of book I would ordinarily read and, as noted in yesterday's post, despite its self-definition as a "true-life novel," it's not really a novel at all, but still: I'm finding Jeanette Walls's "Half Broke Horses" to be very enjoyable to read and truly informative about a way of life in the American West much mythologized and no doubt long gone. She tells the story of her grandmother, raised on a very poor ranch, went off to Chicago to find her way, didn't, and returned to the Southwest to work as an itinerant school teacher in places so remote they couldn't get a college-educated teacher to take the job - then she marries and runs a ranch with her husband - book is filled with great stories, most told in just a page or two, about the episodes in her life - many tragic, some quite funny (her quips are especially funny: about a donut machine: Think how fortunate you are to live in a country where people don't have to make donuts by hand!). The book is really a ghosted memoir, but what makes it so special and unusual is that it's the story of one who would be unlikely and probably unable to tell the story (at least in book form) herself - so people like Lily Casey (Walls's grandmother and subject) lead these eventful, epochal lives and nobody gets to tell the tale. Here, Walls does so, preserving her grandmother for posterity and enabling us to understand her consciousness - which is one characteristic that memoir and novels do share.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The elements of fiction - and what makes a nonfiction novel

I've been making some notes about plot and fiction, and the book I'm reading now provokes some further thought: Jeanette Walls's "Half Broke Horses" is touted as a "true life novel" - which is exactly what? I guess fiction, or novels, exist on some kind of continuum, in that all of fiction uses the same elemental material: experience, imagination, knowledge, and emotions. To a degree, all novels are "true life" though they vary in the extent to which the novelist/author uses his or her experience and the extent to which the author uses knowledge. Historical fiction is based mostly on knowledge, but not entirely - to make a story about a past era come "alive" the author draws on personal experience such as the way soldiers might talk and behave, the look of a city or a battlefield that they may have visited, and so forth. Norman Mailer, most famously, reversed the equation, writing what he called a "nonfiction novel" about Gary Gilmore's crimes and his execution: the facts were all something Mailer researched and learned, but the novel was full of Gilmore's imagined interior life, Gilmore was as much of a literary character as any other figure in any other novel - yet the novel carried an added frisson because we knew the events were real. Walls's novel "true life novel" might better be called a "fictive memoir": she's writing about a real figure, her grandmother apparently, so the facts are events are not at all familiar to us - but part of our pleasure in the book is our sense that these things - the hard life for a young girl on a ranch in Texas and New Mexico in the early 20th century, her early forays as a schoolteacher in Arizona and later as a factory worker in Chicago - really happened. Wallis, apparently, drew on family lore, memories, maybe documents to create for her grandmother the memoir that her grandmother might have written. It's entirely credible and very well written, and if you like these kinds of memoirs, and there are many, you will love this book - but don't think of it as a novel because it isn't, in my view. The author's use of the imagination does not make a book a novel: this book has no plot per se, no arc of a story, no development of character other than through the concatenation of events that constitute the narrator's life story. Will remind you of other find writing about women in the American West, notably Willa Cather.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A New Yorker discovery : Callan Wink

Callan Wink, a rarity in a number of ways, appears to be a New Yorker discovery - these days we very seldom see a relatively unpublished author appear in the New Yorker, so it's great to see them take a chance once in a while - it was easier for them to do so back in the day when they published two stoires per issue, now we're grateful to get even one - Wink had at least one previous story in the NYer - unusual in a second way in that he writes about working-class people, ranchers mostly, in the West (he apparently lives in Montana): I know this area has been tapped before, most notably by Proulx and by McGuane and by Ford (though with the latter two it's more often the new West of real-estate booms and vacation ranches). Wink writes with a real authenticity, and he avoids the self-conscious, ostentatious style of a lot of writers so eager to show that they know the technical details about stuff like milking goats and repairing antique watches. He writes with an easy confidence - without his belaboring the point, you get a quick understanding that Wink is on familiar and comfortable territory, he's not a drive-by tourist writer, done a little research and packed the material up as his own. Especially appealing about his story in the current NYer, Breathalians (?), is its confident focus on a preteen protagaonist - 12-year-old on ranch, where his parents have just broken up and mother lives in an outbuilding alone and kind of crazy or at least eccentric, dad lives in main house with much younger woman whom initially he'd hired as a hand. The boy, August, just beginning to understand what all this is about: his father having sex with a woman just a little older than he, the sudden and sad death of the dog he'd been raised with, his mother off her hinges smoking like a fiend and wearing bizarre clothing and believing she can subsist on only air (hence the title of the story) - so much for the young boy to take in, and he doesn't understand it all, yet, without overdoing the sentimentality or the drama, Wink shows us how the boy struggles against his dad while still loving (and maybe fearing) him, and how he takes on a brutal and unpleasant task (killing stray cats in the barn) and all that this violence expresses and unleashes for August. Though the setting is Wink's own, the qualities of the story evoke some of the work of McCullers, Salinger, Powell, among other fine writers who have written about sensitive and observant young people trying to make sense of the adult life - the passions and cruelties that they don't quite understand - unfolding around them: the action is outside of them (Member of the Wedding, for example) but the drama is within.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Looking at a shelves in the library

Looking ahead - it seems my reading pattern fluctuates, moving in what I guess might be a sine curve, reading a lot of classics for a time but then need to come up for some air and read some contemporary pieces - and then I start to pull back, to feel that really the best literature is the literature that endures, that in any given year there may be one or two books that will be read years from now, so why spend so much reading time with books that are just fair creatures of an hour? - but then, when I find myself immersed in James or Joyce I often feel I need some news about the world around me - and so it goes (between these waves of reading I tend to go with story collections when traveling, because I can't really focus on an unfolding narrative when I'm interrupted a lot by travels and relocations) and I do manage to read almost every New Yorker short story sometime during the week (force of habit - also "read" the cartoons). On a bit of a contemporary jag now and have picked up (from library) Half-Broken Horses (?), which I think got a lot of positive attention a year ago and looks, after a brief glance, quite accessible. What else did I look at on the shelves?: the new book by Ondaatje, which BR recommended to book group (I might give it a try to see if I agree, but not sure I'll have the patience for such a stylized book), looked also at something new by Ishigura, and an Everyman edition of Naipaul stories (I'll almost definitely pick that up eventually). Was hoping to see on shelf a copy of that German novel about Majorca that draw a rave in the NYTBR on Sunday - not sure if it'll ever make its way to library shelves around here, though. Waiting on a countertop near me: Absolum, Absolum, which I kind of abandoned in mid-stream of consciousness, but to which I've vowed : I shall return. Yes, during my next foray into the classics.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Plot and The Marriage Plot

A few more words about plot, and that'll be it - I took some hits myself on this topic, when some reviewers of Exiles opined that the novel really didn't have a plot, just a series of things happening, and I took that pretty hard (vowed to stop reading reviews, probably won't have any more books to be reviewed anyway) because plot is really important to me and I thought Exiles had a pretty good, intricate plot - but it did get me thinking about the difference between events and plot. Think about plot in a movie or TV series, where the constraints are much tighter and the demand for entertainment is much stronger: as J has remarked, in the whole series The Wire there's probably not a single moment you'd want to, or even be able to cut: that's because every moment in the series contributes to advancing the plot or developing character. Novels have the space to do a little more: there can also be segments that establish a mood or sense of place (movies can do this visually, whereas novels have to use the same materials - words - to create mood, character, plot, everything). In a novel with a great plot, though, every "event" will move the story forward and develop the story - not just advance the story one more notch in time. If novels were just accruals of events, they would have no shape whatsoever, and no ending (some don't). Jeffrey Eugenides's "The Marriage Plot" is in danger, at the mid-point, of becoming too much of a series of events - it's not clear that all of them develop character or advance (that is, by adding to our knowledge, by slightly changing in retrospect all of the antecedent events) plot: For example just finished reading segment in which Madeleine's mother and sister come to visit her on the Cape, sister of verge of divorce (first time we meet her in the novel) and first time the two of them are meeting Madeleine's boyfriend, Leonard. And what of it? I don't come out of this feeling that I know much more about either of the two main characters, just that they've had an encounter with two new characters. We'll see where this goes - there have been many fine scenes in TMP and Eugenides writes in a thoroughly accessible and entertaining style - but wondering how he will shape his material and how he will have these diverse elements converge into a plot and a sense of an ending.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Plot, doo-wop ballads, and The Marriage Plot

As noted from friend PP the other day while running, all love songs come down to this, as captured in the great, under-appreciated doo-wop ballad Gloria (not the familiar GLORIA, but the earlier song by the Cadillacs): "Gloria, it's not Marie/It's Gloria, it's not Sherry/It's Gloria/But she's not in love with me." That says it all. Yet that statement of yearning and loss is a mood, an emotion, a state of mind - but not a plot. That mood, powerful though it is, can sustain a song or a poem, maybe a story, but not a novel, which brings us to the dangerous straits Jeffrey Eugenides is traveling in "The Marriage Plot." The danger is that, provocative title aside, his novel has mood and event, plenty of events, but not really a plot. A plot, in essence, needs to have a shape and dimension, and over the course of a plot the characters or at least one character has to learn and to grow but not just because of the passage of time or the occurrence of random events but because of the events, predicaments, situations, problems that the character has to face and to overcome or solve or not. I've noted in earlier posts that The Marriage Plot is a great antidote to the daunting book I read previously, James's The Ambassadors, which for all its flaws and tics and annoyances had a well-designed plot in which the protagonist, Strether, embarks on a mission to "save" a young man and ends up becoming much like the young man and betraying the person who sent him on the mission. The Marriage Plot, so far, is about a young woman graduating from college (Brown) who is in love with a fellow student who is brilliant but mentally troubled and is the object of the love of another fellow student, also brilliant but socially awkward. The lives of the three characters keep moving along, sometimes together and sometimes in parallel lines, but it's not clear, at least yet, the degree to which the characters actually affect one another. The main character, Madeleine, is growing and maturing through the course of the novel - so far, the few months after graduation - but it's an intellectual maturation, based on her reading, her studies, and, at the point I've just reached, a conference she goes to on feminism and Victorian fiction. As a long-ago English major, I actually love reading about her courses and her thesis and her thoughts - an incidental pleasure of this novel - and I think a large part of Eugenides's readership also finds the academic matter smart and enticing - he's read a lot of the books we've read, has smart things to say about them, and is pretty good at skewering the academic fadism that swept and still sweeps campuses like Brown - easy target, true, but a palpable hit.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What our world could be like in the not far distant future: George Saunders's story

I've been a George Saunders fan since coming across a stray (review) copy of his first book, Civilwarland in bad disgrace (?), and have enjoyed reading just about everything of his since then, including story in current New Yorker, The Semplica-girls diary. We say of many writers that they have a unique style, and many do, maybe all great writers do, but Saunders has not only a style and voice that are distinctly his own but also a unique way of seeing the universe. He writes a futuristic fiction that is both a trenchant examination of the margins of contemporary society - his characters are the outsiders and losers that so often populate American fiction, and many tend to be office drudges or working-class dullards, not the introspective literary outsiders much other American fiction - and an imaginative postulation about what our society could become of taken to weird extremes: a famous story, for example, about human denizens of a zoo-like theme park where human behavior is on exhibit (no other writer has written more or better about theme parks), or this current story, a diary written by a terrible writer who takes on the grandiose task of recording his daily thoughts in a notebook so that posterity can have a record of his time and place - the trick is that, on one level, his thoughts and observations about his family feuds and financial struggles are so mundane as to be ridiculous, he is hardly a de Toqueville or a Pepys or an Anais Nin - but in their sheer banality they become almost by indirection a searing and hilarious account of contemporary domestic life: as if one of the characters in The Office were to chronicle his or her life story. Then, there's the odd angle, the bizarre element, that always edges its way into a Saunders story, in this case the Semplica girls of the title, always abbreviated as the SGs, which, we gradually figure out, are Third World refugees hired by some shadowy company to work under contract as living statuary on the lawns and in the gardens of the wealthy - the diarist in this story hits a small lottery jackpot and leases four SGs, attempting to keep up with wealthy neighbors, and things don't quite work out. Saunders has the social-class chasms in America down, and a few moments with his story give us the creepy sense of what life could be like here, sometime down the road, if the right-wing policies of less taxes on the rich and fewer services for everyone else gets to play out its hand: chaos and madness, all coated with a sheen of banality and moral indifference.

Monday, October 15, 2012

3 key points about Caro's LBJ bio volume 4

Robert A. Caro's 4th volume of the LBJ bio, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, was, at last, our book-group topic last night. Except for a few gaffes, i.e., one couple among us reading the preceding volume of the massive bio, discussion went well. I (M and I were hosting) started off with 3 points that I thought were the most striking elements of Caro's bio, that is, they were new information or a completely new perspective on the well-worn and well-known material: First, the account of the day of the assassination, November 22, 1963, and the days immediately after, the most traumatic American shared moments of history until 9/11, was as far as I know the first time these events have ever been recounted entirely from the POV of the VP. What was particularly striking to all of us: Johnson's (and actually Jackie Kennedy's) capacity to make really important decisions about the protocol of the transition of power under great pressure and with no precedent. That could lead you to think that LBJ knew about or even conspired in the assassination. We did talk about that angle, but there was general consensus - at least, I believe - that had there been any conspiracy at all involving LBJ Caro would have found it: his research has been exhaustive and there'd be plenty of people eager to spill the beans on that rat out LBJ. Second point, I don't think it had ever been reported that part of LBJ's decision to accept the vice-presidential nomination was a calculated examination in which he determined that he could not win a presidential election and the VP was, historically, his most likely avenue to the presidency (further conspiracy evidence?). Third, the essential question of the book is whether LBJ's vacillation about whether to run or whether to declare his candidacy in 1950 through early was smart (though ultimatley erroneous calculation, as his way underestimated the character and the appeal of JFK) politics (LBJ reasoned - I think correctly - that he would have been trounced in primaries outside of the South and would have therefore put himself out of the running - his best shot being to wait on the sidelines and hope for a brokered convention) or whether his vacillation was from his deep fear of defeat and humiliation - he certainly had that fear, and Caro details his relation with his father and his shame at his father's ultimate failures - so I don't discount LBJ's fear, but I don't think his decision not to enter primaries was because of that fear. LBJ was not a popular or attractive figure; he won his elections in Texas only because he cozied up to bosses and to other powerful figures. Getting the Democratic nomination in Texas was all it was about - people didn't vote for him because they like him or even loved him; he was their only choice - and he still almost lost. LBJ knew he was not electable.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Paris for beginers: Eugenides perfectly captures a moment in time

The second part of Jeffrey Eugenides's "The Marriage Plot" is truly like a 2nd novel (though there are definite plot links between parts one and two): this section follows Mitchell, a half-Greek Brown-grad intellectual from working class Detroit, in other words someone probably having a lot in common with the author, as he begins eight postgrad months abroad with his college roommate, the wealthier,smoother, more sophisticated Larry - almost no mention of the link to part one, but Mitchell is deeply in love with the part one protagonist, Madeleine, who, also, is much more sophisticated and apparently attractive than he is. The difference, however, isn't just a shift in plot focus: this section of the novel is in an entirely different style. As noted in yesterday's post, part one was driven by lot points and dialogue, and Eugenides had no particular interest in evoking the milieu of Providence - the city just provided him with a database of proper nouns, street names and such, that he drew upon. Part 2 is different - Eugenides begins with a really terrific description of the streets of Paris, not a tourist-brochure kind of description but an evocation of the way Paris, Europe, seems to a young guy arriving, for the first time, after one of those crappy charter all-night flights. He perfectly gets the note of two guys traveling together, and of the tension and awkwardness that builds when one has a girlfriend in the city and the other doesn't - these triads are really important to Eugenides's fiction. To me, every note of this section, so far (p. 160 or so) rings true. I'm not sure where Eugenides is heading with this - I left off where Larry and girlfriend break up and the two guys are heading off, eventually to India - so whether the plot sprawls - getting farther and farther from the relations established up to this point and into new adventures, or whether he brings these forces back together and in some way unites Mitchell with Madeleine, or doesn't, we'll see further on. I do like this section very much though, and wonder if Eugenides could have opened the novel with the arrival in Paris? Whether he has stitched together what might have begun as two separate projects? Middlesex, also, united at least three very different types of material, if I remember correctly - and it makes me curious about how Eugenides works and about his sense of design: does he have an overall vision of the plot from the start? Or does he write separate pieces and figure out ways to unite them into a whole?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ah, Providence - setting for Eugenides's The Marriage Plot

Jeffrey Eugenides's "The Marriage Plot" lives very well within the boundaries he created for this novel: unlike his previous two novels, TMP isn't particularly concerned with establishing a sense of place. The setting is particular - Brown University/Providence circa 1980 - but Eugenides doesn't capture or evoke Providence in particular and he doesn't seem to want to (I know he could have, based on how well he gave me a feeling for Detroit, where I've never been, in his other words). In TMP, the setting could have been anywhere - he could have made up a school and city, as with The Art of Fielding or Prep, two recent successful school-based novels, and everything would have been just as good - he uses lots of Providence and Brown names and locations that will be familiar to Brown grads and to Rhode Islanders, but they're just proper nouns - if you haven't been on these streets or in these theaters or restaurants, they won't come alive to you in any way (he's good at describing professors and their offices - but here he uses no real names except for the name of the Brown prez at the time - his contemporaries must enjoy figuring out who inspired each academic character or type) - an exception to his use of accurate place names is the hospital where Leonard arrives after his breakdown: there is no Providence Hospital; he would have gone to Butler, but Eugenides wanted a scruffier urban building, and he may have modeled the hospital on St. Joseph's in South Providence. In any case, this novel is about plot and event, as the title suggests - and we follow essentially three characters, two guys, Leonard and Mitchell, in love with the same girl, Madeleine - the entire first section takes place on graduation day with much flashback and back story. Their intricate dance of romance is very typical of the age and the era, there's no really big drama or crisis - just lots of hookups and longings and impetuous break-ups and general angst about what to do after college and about parental pressure. But Eugenides keeps the story moving along rapidly and gracefully, and it's very compelling to read - not the deepest or most original novel of all time, but enticing like candy or good gossip. Have finished part 1 - which ends with graduation ceremony that Madeleine (unlikely) does not attend; onward toward the first summer post-college.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Battle of the Books: Eugenides and The Marriage Plot

Jeffrey Eugenides's "The Marriage Plot" is not as self-consciously literary as his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, nor as grandly ambitious as his second, Middlesex, but just a good gossipy novel about a time and place: college students (brown) circa 1980, post sexual revolution, post co-ed dorms, but pre-Internet,vcell phone, social media, atms, easy travel, etc. His main characters, particularly the protagonist, Madeleine, are English majors at Brown of various persuasions, and much of the satiric humor in the novel is at the expense the the deconstructionists who reigned in that era - they were the cutting edge, the ones who, as Eugenides neatly explains, glorified the reader at the expense of the writer, emphasized "text" rather than novel or story or poem, were against interpretation rather then for exegesis. As Madeleine realizes: they glorifed readers because they themselves were readers. Well, Eugenides is a writer, and here's his sweet revenge - and in fact he's writing exactly the kind of book that the decons would despise or ignore - just a story, lots of sex, lots of relationships good and bad and tumultuous, just as life is then or now for 20-somethings in college. His heroine, Madeleine, is much like a Franzen heroine: wealthy, pretty, athletic, Ivy, in other words very privileged, but also pretty miserable and torn about what to do with her life, frustrated that so much of her life is tied in with having a boyfriend (that's what makes novels tick, to a degree) but unsure where to go or what to do on her own - she's hardly, at least 100 pp in, any sort of feminist avatar. So we'll see where he takes it - more than almost any other writer I've delved into recently, he's conscious of the literary tradition all around him - his characters, as noted, are English majors and their conversation is peppered with literary references, and he tends to describe a room not by its draperies and color schemes (cf James) but by the books on the shelf. Where does Eugenides fit in among the literary lions he's got his sites on? I think he doesn't really want to fit in at all - like his heroine, he turns his back on texts and anti-texts and the difficult classics his characters (and thereby he) quote from at will. He's just telling a story in the most traditional of all genres, as noted in the title of this novel (which is the title of Madeleine's senior thesis).

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why The Marriage Plot is the perfect antidote to James's The Ambassadors

Holding off judgement for the moment on Jeffrey Eugenides's novel "The Marriage Plot," but started on it the other day for two reasons primarily: I really liked his two previous novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, though they were quite different, in fact in part because they were quite different, but both captured a real sense of time and place, mostly (particularly in Virgin) suburban Detroit in the late 70s during a time of change (Middlesex had a number of other European settings as well), and, second reason, I was (and am) really curious to see how if Eugenides can capture the same sense of place for Providence in the 1980s, the setting of The Marriage Plot. It's a campus novel, the campus being Brown - I was here at the time, but not at Brown - and am curious to see if his Providence rings true as a place, if he captures the sense of Providence at that time (pre cell phones social media the web the net et al), and if he captures the world of American Ivy academe. There are many academic novels, generally comic rather than tragic and highly satiric rather than naturalistic: think Lucky Jim and various works by David Lodge, Zadie Smith, Francine Prose, to name a few off the top. Also a few Providence novels at or near the 80s - Geoffrey Wolfe's eponymous novel most notable. Before I even think about evaluating The Marriage Plot, I have to note another reason why I picked it up : it's the perfect antidote to several weeks of late Henry James. The Marriage Plot is the anti-Ambassadors: a plethora of characters, event-driven, lots of back story, scenes pushed forward through dialogue, dialogue quick and quippy rather then intricate and obscure, open and direct about sex and about human relationships, youthful and American, broadly sarcastic rather than maddeningly subtle. I don't know if it's "better" than The Ambassadors, and it's definitely not as literary or structurally ambitious - but so far (50 pages) it's far more accessible and a lot more fun.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The wise and the weird: Bob Dylan's (114th?) Rolling Stone Interview

Friend AW sent me the Bob Dylan Rolling Stone interview (M. Gilmore)with the warning that it's incredibly weird and even disturbing - and, yes, I guess so, but also a lot of wisdom and shrewd observations and some insights into what makes Dylan what and who he is (world's greatest living artist, for one): first, the weird. A large segment of the interview builds off a moment when BD gets excited, stands up, walks over to a bag he's left on a another table in the restaurant where Gilmore's interviewing him, and gives Gilmore a book about a Hells Angel, apparently written by a guy named Zimmerman, and about an early Hells Angel named of all things Bobby Zimmerman who died in a cycle crash in 1964 (Gilmore's research reveals that the crash was actually in 61), right around the time BD was injured in a crash, went silent at the peak of his creativity, and returned to performing and recording changed in many ways. Dylan riffs about how he seems to be a transformed or even reincarnate version of his Hells Angel namesake: it's hard not to see this as some kind of Dylan put-down or playfulness or hostility or maybe it's just plain weirdness, but over his career there have been many instances of his toying with the press and with interviewers - and also many instances of his interest in motorcycles and his odd fascination with outlaw gangs (the motorcycle black madonna two-wheel gypsy queen - to quote one reference). I can't make too much out of this oddity in the otherwise pretty serious interview. Among the highlights for me are BD's great description of the way his music is perceived: he notes that people don't and cannot sing along with his songs (they do, sometimes, on a few of the anthemic choruses: How does it feel?) because they're so personal: he's writing and singing strictly about his own emotions - however - in doing so, he notes, he helps people understand and even express their own emotions. A great description of his art - or anyone's really. He has some wise things to say about live performance, which he truly enjoys, and about the phases of his career. He also makes it clear that, despite the way it appeared, he was deeply honored by the Medal of Freedom, and he mentions the other winners present with him with a kind of reverence (I'm sure they were reverential in return, at least I hope so) - I suspect this portion of the "interview" may have been in an e-mail exchange, it didn't seem spoken. Finally, we're all always surprised by the range of his knowledge and interest in all phases of popular music, but who knew that Bing Crosby was his Dad's favorite crooner? I'd love to know what BD is reading and listening to at any given time - I bet the list would be eclectic and enlightening.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Further thoughts on the ending of The Ambassadors: a great novel with great limitations

Perhaps in yesterday's post - I'm not even sure - I may have said that at the end of Henry James's "The Ambassadors" Chad decides to stay in Paris as the protagonist, Strether, returns home - but in fact they both return to "Woollett," Connecticut (one of the essays in the Dupree volume that I finished says it's meant to be Worcester, Mass.) - Chad, having tired of Mme de Vionnet, goes home to work in the "advertising" side of the family biz. Well, first of all, we hardly care about Chad - he's a cipher, and it doesn't make a bit of difference to the reader whether he stays or goes. I didn't pick up in first reading how he's so willing to dispose of Mme De V. - he's as shallow and egocentric as Strether. Anyway, our investment is really with Strether, who, after telling Little Bilham in the key scene of the novel that he has to "live" - decides essentially to go home to wither and die, to turn his back on his one chance at love. James, in his preface to Ambassadors, says that the character of Miss Gostrey is kind of a foil, a novelist's device to elicit thoughts and ideas from Strether. What a horrible thing to say about one of your own characters! She's as much a real character as any of the others in this novel, and Strether's cavalier treatment of her is abominable. Some of the essays suggest that Chad will go home and eventually marry Mamie, his sister's sister-in-law: what chance to do you give that marriage? He'll cheat on her, remembering his good old days in Paris and the now long gone Mme de V. - the classic older woman, cf Flaubert's great Sentimental Education. One of the best essays on the Ambassadors, appended to the Dupree edition, is Forster's selection from Aspects of the Novel: he essentially says that Ambassadors is not a difficult novel (I disagree) and that it has an almost perfect structure (I agree) but to obtain that structure James has a severely limited # of characters (true) and, most important, severely limited characters (double true): James's characters, though they seem to be worldly, are narrow minded and at base all alike - they all think and speak like the author. As Forster notes, he achieved his ends, but at a very large cost.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The ending of The Ambassadors: Why Strether runs away

As I said upon finishing Henry James's Portrait of a Lady: How could you?! I'm saying it again on finishing The Ambassadors - a daunting, challenging, often exasperating, sometimes incomprehensible novel, whose plot, when you come right down to it, is pretty simple: 50ish widower sent by his similarly 50ish fiance, the wealthy Mrs. Newsome of Connecticut, to Paris to "save" her son, Chad, and bring him home to run the family business (pointedly, the characters never dare to mention exactly what object of manufacture has made the Newsome fortune) finds himself free at last in Paris and more or less in love with a beguiling woman with a dark past, Miss Gostrey. Ultimately - end of novel - Chad decides to stay in Paris with the older married woman whom he loves, Mme de Vionnet, and the protagonist, Lambert Strether (great name), get this, decides to go back to Connecticut. Novel ends with a series of heartfelt dialogue meetings: amazingly, Strether is deeply distressed and shocked, shocked!, to learn that Chad's relation with Mme de Vionnet is anything but chaste and pure. They actually take off for a weekend and share a room and presumably have sex! I know mores and times were different 120 years ago - but not all that different. The world must be peopled. Finally, Strether has a long meet with Miss Gostrey in which he tells her how deeply he feels about her - but he's going back to Connecticut. What a coward, what a bastard! He actually ends by thanking her for loving him - but has no problem leaving her in the dust as he returns to the staid, comfortable life of Connecticut, a life he will hate. He is a heartless and selfish man, there is no other way to look at it - except that also, you have to suspect, he is running away from the sexuality and sensuality of Paris. All's well when he can engage in these lengthy conversations with Miss Gostrey, but when confronted with the image of sex in a relationship, that is, when he learns to his shock and shame aout Chad and Mme de V., he runs away - a sad and sorry little man. The busybody Mrs. Newsome deserves him, and he her.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

When Jews rooted for an anti-Semite

Lara Vapnyar's story Fischer vs Spassky in current New Yorker is a great account of a strange and vanished time and place - the era when the Soviet Union seemed unassabilale, information was tightly controlled, East-West tensions were huge, Jews were an oppressed minority (maybe that's not so vanished), and at least in some quarters chess champs were international celebrities. This could only be in Russia in the 1970s or so - her story focuses on an older Russian immigrant in America, working as a home health-care aide, tending a man who's dying of cancer, and on the one particular day of the story she hears a news report of the death of Bobbie Fischer, which prompts her to recall her view of the Fischer-Spassky match when she was a child in the USSR: her parents, and many Jews, were apparently huge fans of Fischer, which was all a component of their hatred of the Soviet Union - her parents were talking about emigrating and weighing the risks of even applying to do so - in many cases, Soviets denied the applications and then made the families suffer so it was an all-or-nothing risk. Father decides they will apply if Fischer wins; mother, secretly, wants to stay - so the chess match becomes a symbol of the marital conflict, of East-West conflict, of Jew-other conflict. Vapnyar captures really well the feeling of living in a dacha during hot summer months, the difficulty of trying to get information about this distant chess match when they knew Pravda, its name to the contrary, would never print the truth. The story is tinged with sadness, as we learn that the father died shortly after emigrating, the mother remains underemployed - life in America isn't all they'd hoped, but it's an opportunity for their children and way out of an oppressive life. She mentions the Fischer to the old man from whom she's caring, and he only notes how Fischer was crazy and anti-Semitic. I guess the story is tinged with irony, also - the many Soviet Jews rooting for Fischer - did they think he was Jewish? did they know he was half-Jewish? - when in later years Fischer became (maybe always was?) a paranoid anti-Semitic monster: They should have rooted for Spassky, who apparently was a generous opponent and a gentleman. We are all products of our environment, to a degree - but not in predictable or easily delineated ways.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The conflict at the heart of The Ambassadors (and James)

Strether is about to enjoy his country repast, sitting in a pavillion beside a lake or river, one of the most beautiful passages in Henry James's "The Ambassadors," when he notices a rowboat coming by with a woman under a parasol - and then, he's shocked to see that it's Chad and his beloved, the married (but separated) older (but not much) Mme de Vionnet. The three of them recognize one another and after lots of awkward moments that James analyzes in great detail and over which Strether perseverates for for days, they have dinner together, engage in awkward conversation, then ride by carriage and train back to Paris. The observant Strether notes that Mme de Vionnet does not even have a shawl on this chilly evening - and her surmises that she and Chad were to stay somewhere in the country and that she's actually left her clothes back on the room overnight. OK - so honestly, even a century ago, what's the big deal? He certainly knows by this point in is travels - and we obviously know as readers - that Chad and Mme dV are involved with each other, that she's the reason Chad is staying in Paris and not obeying his mother's wishes and returning to Connecticut. Is it such a shock that they're together for a weekend in the country? Aren't they together all the time in Paris? This episode is another example of the weird ellipses and obscurities of James's style and sensibility: his characters, Strether a great example, are comfortable with what they don't know; Strether knows on one level that Chad and Mme dV are involved in a sexual relationship, but as long as he doesn't see it, as long as he can pretend that everyone's relations are like his - full of endless dialogue and picking over little social niceties - then he's comfortable. As soon as the relationship is right before his eyes, he's knocked off his pins. That's a very Jamesian sensibility: there's a whole sea of emotions in turmoil just below the surface, but the characters (and author) try desperately to maintain a surface calm, an air of reason and placidity. In The Ambassadors, it plays out as a conflict between Paris and "Woolett" Connecticut, but it's really a conflict within the characters, and at times between them.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The most beautiful passage in James's work?

The Pocock clan and their assorted followers head off from Paris to send some time in Switzerland or who knows where - leaving the protagonist, Strether, back in Paris in mid-summer to lick his wounds. Actually, he's pretty happy to be left behind: he ponders the various couplings and couplings off that are possible among the Pococks and their beaux - I honestly can't keep all the matches and mismatches straight - but the key point is that, by their departure, they leave Strether more or less isolated in Paris except for Chad (not sure if Mme de Vionnet stayed in the city with him, I think she did - Waymarsh goes off to Switzerland loosely attached to Mrs. Pocock, if I'm remembering right) and, most important, Miss Gostrey. Strether has one of those long Jamesian dialogues with Miss Gostrey, and it's probably the most important in the novel: he comes as close as he, or any James protagonist perhaps, can ever come to declaring his love. It's only just now dawning on him that he loves her - it's been obvious to us all along - and that his engagement to the never-seen Mrs. Newsome was a terrible mistake and that, in being "dished" as they put it by her via her ambassador, Mrs. Pocock, he's been "saved" - he can, if he has the courage to accept it and the brains to realize it, have a new life with Miss Gostrey. She in turn tells him why she disappeared from Paris suddenly and without explanation for several weeks: she has some kind of past that she was afraid the newly arrived Mme de Vionnet would reveal. To Strether's credit, he doesn't ask her to explain - the one time is indirections and demurrals are apropriate. Then Strether, wanting to get away for a while, takes a train ride out to the country, eats a meal at an inn, and walks through some parklike grounds - this pastoral interlude is by far the most beautiful passages in the book and one of the most beautiful in all of James - whose descriptive passages tend to be trenchant and detailed but cold, without feeling: this (and opening scene of Portrait, to site another example), is an exception and has the warmth and emotional content of some of the beautiful passages in Flaubert.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Ambassadors builds, at last, toward its moment of crisis

Nearing the end of Henry James's "The Ambassadors" and I wouldn't say the pace picks up (it couldn't slow down) but the moment comes to its crisis: first, the protagonist, Strether, engages in a long and typically almost impenetrable discussion with his sometime friend Waymarsh, and the upshot is that their relationship is now strained and compromised and in fact they are becoming rivals - though Waymarsh's designs are really foggy. It appears, as best as I can make out and recall, that Waymarsh is in some kind of relationship with Mrs. Newsome's daughter, Sarah (aka Sally?) Pocock, and Waymarsh becomes an intermediary, setting up a meeting to between Strether and Mrs. Pocock to talk about the mission that has brought both of them to Paris: an attempt to "save" Pocock's brother, Chad, and bring him home to America to run the family business. Strether anticipates this meeting with S. Pocock, indicating he will be more honest and direct than ever before in his life (what a relief for the reader!). He doesn't entirely make good - it's still not a terribly easy chapter to understand - but we get the main point: Pocock is furious at Strether and even more so at Chad for taking up with the married Comtesse de Vionnet. So be it - but what about S.Pocock herself, prancing around Paris on the arm of Waymarsh, while her good but doltish husband, Jim (James sometimes has it as "Jim," for whatever reason: maybe he resented the shortening of his own surname, Henry Jim?) heads for a "good time" at the Varieties. At this point, inevitably, the characters, and Strether in particular, are facing a choice: attempt to fulfill your mission and bring Chad home, or if failing that return to home and report; or stay in Paris and make a new life, perhaps a more honest life. Mrs. Pocock pretty much makes it clear to Strether, as clear as anything is in this miasmic plot, that her mother, Mrs. Newsome, is through with him. But what did she expect, or suspect? He's so clearly not in love with her - did she think for any reason that sending him off to Paris on this foolish mission could win his heart? Or maybe she didn't want to win his heart - maybe shipping him off to Paris as her ambassador was her way of pushing him out of her life. We don't really know - she's the central character, in a way, but she doesn't have a word to say throughout the entire novel.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Christian-allegorical reading of The Ambassadors?

Think about it - is there a possible allegorical reading of Henry James's The Ambassadors? You have first of all the great unseen and unknown God: in this case, Mrs. Newsome. Over the whole course of the novel (I'm not quite finished yet, but more than 3/4ths) we never see her, never read a word of hers in dialogue or letter, never see anyone respond to her directly - yet she is the force that has put everything in motion (I hesitate to say "into action") sending first one (Strether), then a 2nd (Sarah Pocock, her daughter) out to Paris as ambassadors. And what is their mission? To "save" Chad (her son) and bring him back to the U.S. to run the family business. In that sense, Strether is a Christ figure, sent into the world to save, or redeem, mankind and to forgive the sins of the world (the corrupt life of Europe, the adulturous relationship with Mme de Vionnet). But will Chad be saved? Can he? Should he be? There are many forces around him in conflict with Strether - notably, it seems increasingly clear, Waymarsh, who may be his rival in pursuit of Mme de Vionnet - is he a satanic figure after all? This reading does not account for all of the complex character relations, some of which I literally cannot keep straight - but it does seem clear that toward the end of the novel we seem hints of a comic-romantic conclusion: everyone finds his or her mate, even Little Bilham, whom Strether is trying to link up with the Pocock daughter, Mamie, and the hapless 15-year-old Jeanne de Vionnet, for whom Chad has arranged a despicable match with some count or other. Odd that the men, not the women, make the matches. The most allegorical element is the "fallen world" of Paris - Strether, and the other Americans, are captivated by the European way of life and engage in relationships and affairs - all hinted at, none portrayed directly - that would never be tolerated, in that they they would never tolerate, back in "Woolett," Connecticut.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The two big themes of The Ambassadors: Sex and Money

Despite its many idiosyncrasies and its lead-footed plot and its circuitous dialogue and its occasional complete obscurities of reference and phrasing, when you get right down to it, Henry James's "The Ambassadors" is much like many other novels: it's about sex and money. That may not be obvious to most readers, at least at first - nothing in James ever is obvious, and he was no doubt far too insecure to write directly about sex and far too much of a social snob to write directly about money - everything in James is by indirection. But sex and money are at the heart of this novel: Strether wants to marry Mrs. Newsome, or thinks he does, for only one reason, and that's to latch himself to her fortune. There's not a moment in the novel when he has an affectionate or loving word for her or even thought about her - she's basically the tyrant back at home who sent him on this pointless, Herculean task: bringing son Chad back home to run the business. Money's the allure - and James associates money with crass American values (the least sympathetic character in the novel, at least from James's point of view, would probably be hapless Jim Pocock, the American businessman, in Paris intent on having a "good time"). Well, it's a good thing those Americans are back home making money, for who else could foot the bill for these three-year sojourns in Europe? The novel contains no sex scenes, but it's clear that part of the excitement of entering Europe is the sexual awakening that the characters (the male characters, in any event) seem to feel and experience: Strether has obviously built some kind of relationship - consummated or not, James doesn't even really hint - with Miss Gostrey, a high-cultured escort, essentially. Strether's friend Waymarsh, though he's hard to pin down, has hitched himself to Miss Barrace, but as we near the end of the novel he definitely seems interested in the beautiful Mme de Vionnet; and of course Chad himself, the object of all this ambassadorial effort, has also fallen in love with Mme de Vionnet, an older woman - a relationship that would be far out of the conventional norm back in the U.S., but is OK in Paris - he of course will never leave (or if he does it will be the death of him). Then there are the homoerotic undertones, particularly surrounding Strether: his physical attraction to Waymarsh at the outset of the novel (which may be what drives Waymarsh away from him for much of the narrative) and his obvious infatuation with the artist Little Bilham, with whom Chad might be enjoying on the side: there's a general sense of Europe as more free, liberated we might say today, than the U.S. - a reversal of the usual expectations and assumptions. Anything's accepted there, whereas, as James repeatedly notes, the social conventions in Connecticut, where Strether is from, are very severe. These sexual relations and tensions and the force that propels the novel, and it's a force that James himself seems in some way to be fighting against: the many circumlocutions and prevarications that make up this long narrative seem to be a defense against the characters' taking any direct, dramatic action as well as a defense James himself erected that keeps him from directly confronting the sexual power latent in his material.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The arrival of the Pococks and Strether's duplicity: A new twist in The Ambassadors

The Pococks arrive from America, and Henry James's "The Ambassadors" takes on a new tone: these are the sister and brother-in-law of the matron Mrs. Newsome, along with their eligible daughter whom they think, ha!, might be further enticement for Chad to return to Connecticut. The protagonist, Strether, meets them at the station and becomes a guide for Mr. Pocock; Pocock (both, actually) are send-ups the uncultured American boors. Actually, I find them kind of refreshing - first of all, it's the only dialogue so far in the novel that seems credible and that is completely understandable. Till the arrival of the Pococks, everyone in the novel spoke circuitously, ambiguously, and elliptically - that is, as James writes. I understand that James sees Pocock, a boorish and bumptious American who wants to have "a good time" in Paris - he winks and nods at Strether right from the start, and wants Strether to enter into an alliance with him and against the restrictions of his wife (and sister-in-law) - perhaps we're meant to see him as crude, and I certainly have no great affection for the bigoted, Babbitish, American businessman - but at least he speaks his mind. Strether, on the other hand, is increasingly contemptible, and, as noted previously, he's the world's worst ambassador. Not only has he wasted everyone's time as he supposedly tries to bring Chad back home when in fact he's doing no such thing; now, he's concealing from the Pococks his obvious attraction to Miss Gostrey, he's covering up for Chad, and he cannot acknowledge that he wants to stay in Paris - let him! Let Mrs. Pocock take on the mission of "saving" Chad. Paris is, for the likes of Strether, like the Land of the Lotus Eaters - he's had a taste, and he will never leave (or at least so he thinks - we'll see how much Mrs. Newsome's $ serves as a magnet to draw him back). James has some fun - for him - with the Pococks because they're so simple, but, whether James know this or not (he probably did know it), their simplicity shows up the fussiness and phoniness of those around him who are supposedly their "betters" - or at least it does to me.