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

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Friday, November 30, 2012

Literary sleuthing

Lots of things going on in part 4 (of 5) in Alan Hollinghurst's novel "The Stranger's Child," as the characters - well, in particular Paul Bryant, who has become an independent historian biographer writing a life of Cecil Valance (never clear how he supports himself while doing so) look back on the life of the poet, who died in 1918 during WWI. So the novel folds back upon itself - Cecil has been the constant holding it together, though we do lose site of him from time to time as new characters emerge. Paul appears to be a somewhat or even completely repressed homosexual - it was his friend Peter who heavily "courted" him in part 3, and Paul seemed shy and inexperienced - and now he is apparently unattached. In part 4 we see, through Paul's eyes, various publications on Cecil V, including, if I remember correctly, an edition of his letters that his Cambridge lover George Sawle edited and an excerpt from the family-authorized biography by "Sebby" - we don't yet (I think) see the two novel-memoirs, one by his brother Dudley and the other by George's sister, Daphne. Paul, in his plodding and intrepid way, will probably get to those - he's been circling around Daphne, as has the novel, for years/pages - she's the only character to appear in every section, I think (maybe George does, too), and she would have a lot to reveal to a biographer, if she would choose to do so - we'll see. Paul does find the valet who took care of Cecil on his visits to George and Daphne's home, Two Acres - kind of improbable, but just possible enough to not upset credibility, and his interview of the old guy, Jonah, is hysterical: "Every word you say will be important to me." "What's that?" The recording of the interview, the first Paul conducts in his project, is mostly inaudible and the seemingly helpful Karen, who obviously has a crush on Paul and has no idea he's gay, tries to transcribe and makes the mess even worth. Despite all this, Paul stumbles on some documents Jonah has been concealing all these years and still won't give up. So the literary mystery builds. But what is the mystery? It's not that Cecil is/was gay - we all know that from the first chapter. Is it just that others will at last find this out? Honestly, who would care - certainly not by 1975, when part 4 takes place. Intriguing as this literary sleuthing is at times, I begin to wonder if the game is worth the candle: is there some big "reveal" that Paul will (or won't) discover that will make us understand Cecil, Paul, this novel, literature itself in some different way? Or will it just be that he "discovers" Cecil's homosexuality, or doesn't? That's really not enough - I'm hoping for a bigger payoff.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hollinghurst pays an homage to the great Sebald

The bad and the good, the bad first: I understand that homosexuality and homoeroticism were taboo subjects for literary fiction for generations, and in fact this taboo drove Forster away from writing fiction for the latter part of his life, a tragedy, and that Alan Hollinghurst is using fiction, in particular his novel The Stranger's Child in part to examine the different attitudes toward homosexual love across several generations in England - and yet - the many scenes of basically just "randy" coupling - not loving coupling - especially in part 3 of the novel are really not all that interesting or literary or, in this day and age, shocking. If these were scenes of heterosexual love we would dismiss them, and probably the novel, as a cheap thrill - so I know that a deep underlying current in Stranger's Child is the furtiveness and the shame that drives these men to take weird risks and to be reckless and aggressive with one another, much more than a hetero couple would be for the most part - yet the characters are not interesting or in fact developed beyond the fact of their sexual orientation and drive. His more famous novel, The Line of Beauty, is also about homosexual love over a the course of an era, and it begins, if I remember well, with a very graphic, lurid secret encounter and ends with characters deeply aged and ill, victims of their own recklessness during the time of AIDS - a very affecting book. OK, but for the good: there's more to Stranger than the sexuality, and I like part 4 much more than part 3, so far - because to me the heart and soul of the book is the dead poet Cecil and how his lie and death affected generations of his family and of others, how his reputation changes over the years (I really like that H. makes clear in the late stages of the novel that Cecil was a minor poet whose reputation rose because of his tragic wartime death). Though, as noted in previous posts, I have trouble believing in the unity of characters across the large time-jumps of the novel - nothing in part 3, circa 1965, led me to think that Paul the timid banker would become a literary biographer in part 4, circa 1975, I do like reading about him in this new incarnation - his chance encounter with Daphne, now aged and infirm and maybe a little dotty of years of alcoholism, is brought off very well and in particular I like his visit to Two Acres, the scene of the first part of the novel: his discovery of the skeleton of the old place amidst a budding surburban development is great and is no doubt Hollinghurst's homage to the great Sebald - another one of the literary ghosts living in the atmosphere of this novel. Surprising to see that Two Acres, which I'd thought of as a country estate, and it probably was at the outset of the novel, circa 1915, is now part of the London suburbs, even on the tube line.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What The Stranger's Child may really be about

Following up for a moment on yesterday's obscure post, as I was, and am, wrestling with some thoughts about fiction in general - and noting the difference between a novel in which the characters appear to have, with Forster called, dimension, or "round" characters, as opposed to what he called "flat" characters - this is a particular challenge for an ambitious novel that covers a span of time, especially one that covers multiple generations. A novel that takes place in one day or focuses on one central action or conflict gives us a "round" sense of the characters - we see them interact with one another in conflict and perhaps grow and change, but through an organic process - their actions and thoughts have what I called yesterday a sense of the inevitable. When we finish, and even as we are reading, we are completely within in the hands (of consciousness) of the novelist and we can imagine no other course of action for the characters other than what the novelist puts before us. However: in a novel that spans generations - right now I'm reading Alan Hollinghurst's "The Strangers Child" the challenge is greater. In this novel, we meet the central character as a teenage girl in the first section, in section two, 15 years later, she is a young mother; in the 3rd section, she is a cranky grandmother, looking back on three marriages and drinking way too much. Do we see how or why she evolved from one state of her life to the next? Is it "inevitable" from the first section, a teenage girl on a small English country estate being dazzled by her brother's friend, a homosexual Cambridge poet, that she would end up sponging in a small English town off her banker son-in-law? It is not. We could just as easily read the novel and imagine (or be told) that these are three separate characters. What holds the three sections together is merely the author's assertion that he is writing about the same people at different stages of their lives - and it feels like a construct rather than like an organic creation. The obvious comparison is MacEwan's Atonement, whose long shadow casts its pall over The Stranger's Child: as if Hollingworth is rising to the challenge of a conventional novel of the English countryside, of artists and of precocious children, of war damage, of a long span of time - but his novel doesn't measure up against MacEwan's. There is another major theme, however, that sets Hollinghurst's novel (and his work in general) apart - homosexual love (or passion) in various eras, and the cost on the psyche and the body of all the furtive behavior and socially imposed shame. Rather than the war poet, the thrice-married widow Daphne, or any of the other characters, the main "character" seems to be homoerotic passion, as it plays out, secretly (though less so in the later sections) among various couples - and it's the great secret, so far unrevealed, of the poet Cecil Valance's life (but not death).

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Creation v gamesmanship in the creation of characters

One difference between a novel, or at least a good novel, and a random string of chronicled events, is that a novel(ist) builds a sense of inevitability into the work: we feel when we read a good novel that the events had to happen in the very way that the novelist conveys them, that there is no other way that the characters could have behaved or played out the sequence of their lives. This sense of inevitability is not the same as plot. Plot is a kind of mechanism, a structure that places seemingly random elements or events in relation to one another. Plot gives the elements of a novel shape and dimension - building toward a climax, sometimes referred to as the "arc" of the story. The inevitability of the novel is really the heart and soul of fiction. When we "buy into" a novel, we accept that everything in the novel makes sense, that the characters are whole and not diffuse, and that their actions have irreversible consequences that lead to one single conclusion. (Of course, postmodernists have played with every one of these conventions.) The "inevitable" quality of fiction gets really put to the test in a novel that spans generations: a novel about a single character, particularly a novel that hews to the classical unities of a single time and space and even day, can more easily cohere because it need not stray beyond the lineaments of those unities. But a multi-generation novel is another case: each character may be whole and complete and its sequence of events may feel inevitable, but the offspring of the character is like subsequent random event: just because one character acts in a particular way does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that children of that character will act in a particular was; the 2nd (and 3rd) generation of characters are functionally independent integers. A really good novelist can make us accept the inevitability across generations - as Kate Walbert (?) did in The Short History of Women, which, though maddening in its refusal to tell the tale sequentially, did use one generation of characters to comment on and heighten our understanding of others - and that brings me to Alan Hollinghurst's "The Stranger's Child." I'm now in section 3, and each section is set in a different decade and generation; so far, only one character, Daphne, appears in all three sections. Hollinghurst is really playing with us here - as sections 2 and 3 open, he intentionally does not tell us right off who these "new" characters are, and we only gradually, by indirection, learn which we've met in previous sections and which are new. It's kind of frustrating that the most interesting, and seemingly most important, character - Cecil Valance, the poet - dies after section 1 and appears now only in memory. More frustrating, OK, I can accept that in part 1 Daphne is a young provincial girl begin seduced by her brother's (gay) friend (Cecil), in part 2 she is the wife of Cecil's surviving brother, a wealthy member of the landed gentry, and now, in part 3, she is a 70ish widow living with her dull banker son-in-law. Honestly, the only thing binding these three Daphnes into one character is Hollinghurst's assertion that these characters are the same person at different stages of her life. This structure is an example of authorial imposition or gamesmanship, rather than the author's creation of the sense of inevitability that holds great fiction together as a unified experience in our minds and our memories.

Monday, November 26, 2012

New Yorker discovers Nobel Prize winner!

Now that Mo Yan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the New Yorker has discovered him. Pretty cool, guys. Not that I knew of Yan and not that other magazines were rushing forward to translate and publish him, but it's kind of funny how the New Yorker is always late to the table - as the wealthiest and most prestigious magazine in the U.S. with some literary pretensions, couldn't we expect the NYer to be a little bit more adventuresome in its selections and a little more bold in its discoveries. Well, better late than never - the Mo Yan story, Bull, in the current NYer is very good, a rare insiders look, from the POV of a young boy, on the turmoil in China as the country transitioned to a market economy. This story highly unusual because it is set in a remote country village: the narrator's father, a ne'er do well who is scrupulously honest (about money) but who treats his family poorly, keeps them in poverty, and, as we learn over the course of the story, two-times his wife, makes his meager living as a kind of market seer: he can judge the weight and value of any piece of livestock, cows and bulls in particular, and the village butchers will pay him to adjudicate price disputes. He's in rivalry with an unscrupulous bully who makes a fortune by ingesting cattle with water, and later with formaldehyde, pumping up the weight of the carcass. You can see that this is extremely far from the usual New Yorker territory! It's also not quite what we expect of a story about a young boy's perceptions of his father at the cattle market: none of the idolatry of the powerful and just father. The boy gets enraged at his father for putting up with humiliations; and the story itself is quite brutal and viscous in its portrayal of Chinese village life - no doubt extremely distasteful to the authorities, except insofar as they can claim to have "rescued" Chinese villagers from this poverty and backwardness. Mo Yan gives a great description of the cattle market int he remote village - with the cattle traders traveling to the village in the night and arriving at dawn with their tiny herds (two or three head at most), the butchers arriving after dawn, reeking of blood, the cattle at first docile and oblivious but then increasingly agitated as they literally smell their fate. Story builds to a climax as the father's rival taunts the father, then taunts a bull - driving it into a frenzy. Story ends rather abruptly - but not with the soft and nostalgic kind of epiphany that usually ends childhood reveries, but with a shouted curse of abomination - dark and mysterious.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

More secrects and lies, in Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child

Alan Hollinghurst's "The Stranger's Child" might well have been called Secrets and Lies, as we move along with the weekend gathering of many at the Valance estate, Corley, where family friend "Sebby" is embarking on his authorized (and euthanized) bio of the Valance son and dead war poet, Cecil. The great "secret," though well known to we the readers, is that Cecil was homosexual and in fact that he carried on a serious relationship with old Cambridge pal George, one of the weekend guests present with his stuffy, "bluestocking" wife, Madeleine. What we learn in this section is that George's mother, Freda, who is very unforthcoming when Sebby interviews her about Cecil, in fact had read and saved a very large package of love letters that Cecil had sent to George in the years before and during the war (WWI). This is surprising and not quite credible on a # of counts: doubtful she would have been such a snoop as to read the letters, not really explicable that she (rather than George) would have kept them, and why on earth would she bring them with her to Corley unless she intends to share them with the biographer? Putting that aside, we know at least that she's aware that her son was in homosexual relationship and that it may explain his apparently loveless marriage. Then we learn that George knows his mother read the letters - though I don't think we know she had them with her. At the end of the day, all of the tensions would vanish if everyone could just come clean about George's relationship with Cecil and about Cecil's sexual relationships with George and presumably others, maybe Sebby himself, and old dry diplomatic bachelor of a very British sort. But this part of the novel is set in the 1920s and the British are famously reserved - so everyone acts out through drinking, foolish banter, and gruff treatment of the precocious and needy children - a very ugly scene in which Dudley, lord of the manor, berates the children and sends them to bed, and later falls off the piano stool, dead drunk. I love that it's not really a piano - just a pianola, or player-piano; he has to pump the pedals to roll the music, but he considers it "playing" the piano: these twits will take credit for anything. A good gossippy novel but it feels like very well-trodden ground and it's half-way through and hard to find a character to care about in the least.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A literary mystery

Part 2 of Alan Hollinghurst's "The Stranger's Child," Revel, plays some tricks with us, and it's hard not to feel a bit manipulated by the author: it opens in a country estate with a characters whom we cannot identify at first writing a letter to character we don't know. Only gradually, like a picture coming into focus slowly, do we figure out who the characters are, where the setting is, what the time period is, and what's happened since the close of part 1 as Cecil was departing from his weekend visit at Two Acres, leaving behind a lengthy poem: it's now about 15 years later, the late 1920s. Cecil has died in combat in the World War. Daphne, whom Cecil had come on to at the end of part 1, though we know that he is gay and involved furtively with Daphne's brother, George, is now married to: ta dah - not Cecil (Hollinghurst teases us with that possibility until he reveals that C. is dead) but Cecil's brother, Dudley, who we had not met. They have two young children, Wilifred (?) and Corinna, typical British upper-class kids of the era, talented and precocious and pretty much ignored by their parents. Dudley is some kind of historian or scholar; Cecil is now recognized as one of the talented war poets, whose career ended tragically - perhaps loosely modeled on Rupert Brooke? Another family friend, Sebastien (Sebby, they all have these childish nicknames) is embarking on an authorized biography of Cecil, and he is invited to the Valance estate, Corley (Cecil's family estate and now the home of Daphne) for a weekend to gather info through interviews with those who knew Cecil. Over the course of several interviews and awkward encounters, it becomes clear that Sebby knows that Cecil was gay, in fact Sebby may have had something going with with Cecil. It's also clear that Cecil and Dudley's mother, Louisa aka The General, wants this biography to be sanitized. Also clear that Daphne's brother George does not want to be outed as Cecil's one-time lover; George is now married and trying to distance himself from his past, and maybe from his present. So there are a lot of seething tensions in this section of the book - and also a lot of talk. Someone quips that it's getting to be much like an Agatha Christie (did she write back then?) and that's true. I'm kind of a sucker for literary mysteries - I loved The Aspern Papers, e.g. - so I'm drawn along to see what they discover about Cecil and how that changes everyone's life: but wouldn't it be better if we knew less than we do? If the mystery were kept from us rather than, however improbably, from the characters?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Secrets and Lies: homosexuality and The Stranger's Child

A puzzling twist at the end of the first part of Alan Hollinghurst's "The Stranger's Child," as young Cambridge poet Cecil makes a play for Daphne. We know that Cecil is homosexual and is involved in a furtive affair with George - and is visiting George's family at their "modest" estate, Two Acres - and much of the drama, such as it is, of the first section of the novel involves the secret trysts between George and Cecil and their fears that they'll be discovered by any of the members of George's family - even the older brother, Hubert, whom Cecil has perspicaciously identified as also homosexual to George's surprise, though not to ours). Part of this secretiveness is, sadly, a statement about the mores of the times: novels of and about this period never dealt with the issue of homosexuality directly and openly, which is, allegedly, why Forster put aside fiction writing for the latter part of his life - he couldn't write openly about what was most important to him, our loss. In any case, as Cecil and George are motivated by fear of discovery; even though the ostentatiously pride themselves on their "candor" and Cecil in particular is flamboyant and dramatic (as well as talented, supposedly, and wealthy), the shame of discovery is evidently enough to drive their behavior (though they are anything but discrete). So Cecil makes a play for George's sister, Daphne; I'm guessing he does so to throw everyone in George's family off the scent - they'll think of Cecil as a cad and a womanizer and won't even imagine that he and George are involved. All told, that's pretty cruel to Daphne and I hope she can sense Cecil's lack of sincerity and affection. Cecil leaves her with a 5-page (!) poem about Two Acres - as noted in yesterday's post, Cecil's writing, what Hollinghurst is able to create of it, is to me just doggerel - but I can accept on faith that he's as talented as say a young Rupert Brooke. The first section of the novel is promising but a little claustrophobic: very few characters, a tight setting, and a very circumscribed plot: George and Cecil trysting in the underbrush and hoping nobody will spy on them or catch them out.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The homosexual theme in The Stranger's Child

As you might expect, Alan Hollinghust's novel "The Stranger's Child" does get more explicit about sexuality as the first section, Two Acres, moves along - for the first 50 pages or so I thought I was reading a novel written in 1910, not just set in 1910, but eventually Cecil and George begin talking about "cunts" and then engage in pretty aggressive sex (which Hollinghurst decribes more by indirection, not nearly as graphic and explicit as the sex in the park at the opening of his excellent novel The Line of Beauty). I'm not sure what themes he is developing, aside from the very familiar British theme of social class in conlfict at a country estate - the sexuality is definitely central: sometimes when I read a novel about homosexuality I wonder how it would be different, or how my reaction would be different, if the novel were about heterosexuality. In this novel, in part I'm thinking that if the relations were heterosexual there would be no novel at all - the main theme Hollinghurst seems to be working is the enforced shame and furtiveness that the characters have to endure because they are homo- rather than herero sexual; the sister, Daphne, seems completely oblivious of the sexual attraction between her brother George and Cecil, and even George himself seems unaware that his older brother, Hubert, is homosexual as well. I believe the novel covers a long span of time, and it will be interesting to see how the characters and their behavior change, if at all, as homosexuality becomes less of a taboo and more of a reasonably accepted norm - if it does.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

When will the English ever give up on the country-estate novel?

Will the English ever give up on the Upstairs, Downstairs theme, the country house (or estate) novel, the boys coming back from Oxbridge - ever? It's been more than a century - time to move on, don't you think? Admittedly, Ian MacEwen did a great job with this overly familiar material in Atonement - I almost suspect he took on the project as a dare, using not only one of the most overdone British themes, the country-estate novel, but the other one as well: the bombing of London. But he had a great plot and vvid characters; he covered a broad sweep of time, and his story was full of surprising and saddening twists - startling, without being sensational. Not sure yet what to make of Alan Hollinghurst's "The Stranger's Child." So far it feels like a novel that could have been written 100 years ago - it's not only of the period just before World War I but it actually seems to be in the style of the era. Focus at least first section, Two Acres (the name of the modest apparently estate) son comes home with his Cambridge friend, a promising young poet, Cecil, and introduces his friend to mom, sister Daphne, brother Hubert, and assorted neighbors. Every reader knows that the two guys are a couple, and it's astonishing that nobody else quite figures that out; Hollinghurst's twist on the old U/D theme is that just about everyone (the guys, anyway) is homosexual or at least seems to have latent homoerotic drive. There's a lot of insinuation in first 50 or so pages but not a lot happens - they're setting up the story that lies ahead, I guess: various references to the war, which I'm sure will affect everyone's life in various ways. There's a good reason why literary protagonists who are meant to be creative geniuses are rarely writers: usually the novelist will create an artist (Lawrence) or a musician (Mann). If you create a writer as your protagonist, a poet, anyway, you're going to have to give - rather than describe - examples of his or her work. Hollinghurst is up against a real obstacle here: is Cecil meant to be a great poet? Everyone seems to think so, but the verse H. creates for him is simple doggerel and schlock. I hope this novel moves off in surprising ways, but the first 50 pages seem like very well-trodden ground.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

They're all nuts: Dostoevsky's characters

Just in case you were beginning to think that the beautiful Aglaya Epanchin (?) is a sane character and potentially a stabilizing influence on Prince Myshkin, who is deeply in love with her - you realize that this is a Dostoevsky novel (The Idiot) and that they're all nuts! There are occasional level-headed characters in Dostoevsky, but not many - and almost none in this totally mad one, The Idiot. Aglaya to start with: she seems to be in love with Myshkin, or at least to be friendly toward him - she invites him to meet her at night in the park on a bench for a private rendez-vous and then, to his disappointment (I think, he's pretty naive) and our surprise, she tells him: let's be friends! When they're spotted by her mother, everyone gets upset - would he be a good match for her, probably not, not rich enough, and presumably kind of weird and simple-minded. Somewhat later, they get in a dispute, and Myshkin leaves the Epanchins for hims dacha - but she sends Kolya after him and has Kolya deliver Myshkin a hedgehog. The next night, they're all around a table - The Prince and all the Epanchins - and Aglaya doesn't say a word until she finally blurts out, asking him about the hedgehog. He doesn't know what to say, ultimately understands it as a declaration of love. He says he loves her and wants to marry her. She asks him a series of blunt questions - how much $ does he have, etc. Ultimately, she asks him something sort of stupid and bursts out laughing and runs out of the room. She and her sisters laugh - she's just been incredibly cruel to Myshkin for no reason at all - or at least she says she cannot marry him because of his sordid history with Nastasya, a weak explanation for her bizarre beahvior. She's totally weird and crazy - but in that sense no different from the others around her: Nastasya, who rejects several offers of marriage and runs off into the night with the rogue Ragozhin; Ippolit who reads aloud his two-hour confession and then tries to shoot himself in the head (he misses); Rogozhin, who tries to stab Myshkin out of odd jealousy; the drunken Generals; the insinuating and obsequious Lebedev; and on it goes. Who's exempt? Only young people (Kolya, for one) and of course Myshkin himself, the eponymoyus Idiot: part of the message of the novel even with or perhaps on account of his naivete and social awkwardness, he's the most sane of the characters and would make the best "match" with any of the eligible young women: but he'd spent his youth being "treated" in Switzerland and he's therefore damaged goods - just like Nastasya, who's a fallen woman because she was Myshkin's consort for several months (he probably never touched her - he's the most seemingly virginal character in the novel, maybe in all of literature).

Monday, November 19, 2012

Roth retires

A few thoughts on Philip Roth's public announcement that he has finished writing fiction and that his Sunday NYT interview will be his last: Very few if any writers have ever done this, announce publicly that they are retiring from writing fiction. Some have just plain stopped, but most continue as long as they are physically and mentally able. Roth's two most notable contemporaries, Updike and Bellow, wrote fiction right up till their deaths - Updike I think moving mostly to poetry in his last year, as he was dying of lung cancer, and Bellow working in the less mentally demanding for of the novella. Roth I think mentioned Koufax in his interview, which is very apt - both for the Jewish all-star connection and for the sense that only Koufax retired while he was still pitching at a Hall of Fame level. I'm really glad that Roth's final book, Nemesis, was one of his best and was a reflection back on the world of Newark in the 1940s that was the marrow of Roth's literary contribution. Roth told the NYT that he recently re=read all of his fiction, in reverse order, stopping after Portnoy - and he ended with apride in what he's accomplished. He should - his work, in its various phases, is among the greatest of our time - From Goodbye, Columbus to Portnoy to the Zuckerman novels to the great works of his late phase, in particular The Counterlife, American Pastoral, Plot Against America, Nemesis, and even - which the NYT mentions - the unlovely Sabbath's Theater if for nothing else the scenes on the Jersey shore. I hope that Roth will still win the Nobel that he deserves and that was denied inexplicably to Updike. I also hope he'll continue to write in some manner - would love to read more of his literary criticism and reviews, and I wonder if he's every seriously thought of writing prefaces to new editions of his works, as did Conrad, James, Hardy, et al. Roth has brought pleasure and understanding to millions of readers and has been a friend to a great many writers as well - a life of contribution to arts and letters, and writing life that I hope is not yet quite completed.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Stories and novels - quel diference

I once wrote a story - about a period in my life when I worked in a warehouse for a summer job and over the course of the summer got into a labor dispute with the boss and, meanwhile, a friend in Vietnam was shot down and died, all pretty much based on truth, a good story I thought though it was never accepted for publication - I remember in my writers' group a general consensus that I could take the material and build it into a novel - which also may have been true - but that my thought was I'd go to all that work and someone would read the novel and say: you know, it should be just a short story. The real accomplishment would not be writing the novel but writing a story that has the scope (if not the depth) of a novel. That brings me to Maile Meloy's story, Demeter, in current New Yorker: Meloy is, from this and what I remember of others of her that I've read, that rare kind of story-writer who does convey novelistic material within the very tight conditions of a short story. Some others do this - Alice the Great Munro being one of the best - and there's a subtle line of distinction between the "novelish" stories that really work and those that just miss. Demeter just misses in my opinion, though it's an admirable effort. For one thing, there's too much reflection and back story. The actual surface events of the story are very simple and take place in one day: the title character drops her daughter off to spend the next half of the year with father (Demeter's ex), and Demeter goes for a swim in the town pool, interrupted by a sudden storm - and she helps the crew cover the pool and then romps about with the youngsters. During this time, Demeter reflects on her marriage and, thanks to encounter with the daughter of a man she'd had an affair long ago with - he's now dead, and his death is somewhat entwined with the breakup of her marriage - the nub of the novelistic quality of the story - she ponders various aspects of her life and her loves and her mistakes. So, too much of the story is in reflection rather than the action and events of the story itself; second, the epiphanic element - Demeter joining the kids and running across the covered pool surface, literally walking on water, feels a little forced - as does the chance encounter with daughter of ex-lover: in this small town she would surely cross paths with her all the time, not suddenly and unexpectedly. These may be quibbles, but they do make the story feel a little bit engineered for authorial purposes rather than organic to the material and the vision of the piece. Provocative story that the has a lot of nuance and potential - maybe she should turn it into a novel? Just kidding - but I'd read more by her.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Character and the novel, as seen by Dostoevsky

Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoevsky rarely steps aside to address the reader directly, and when he does it grabs your attention (well, everything D. does grabs your attention); a striking example of one of his rare addresses to the reader is the opening Part 4 (the last part) of "The Idiot," in which he begins by mentioning one of the characters, Varva, which had me going back to the list of characters at the opening of the novel (in the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation) because I couldn't remember who she was - but Dostoevsky of course is one step ahead of us - he knows we don't remember this character, which leads him to a little aside on "ordinary" characters: he notes that writers tend to portray characters who are extraordinary in any of a variety of ways: their accomplishments, their extremes of behavior (for good or ill), the eccentricities, the exaggerated qualities - their the tallest, the most beautiful, the strongest, the ugliest, and so forth. This characterization is of course true in particular of Dostoevsky himself, who is always writing about extremes of character and behavior, but is generally true of much if not all fiction: few writers portray the ordinary, and why should they? Portraying an ordinary character - and D. mentions a few in his own novel, although I question whether Ganya/Gavra is truly ordinary, with his extreme passions for women who are out of his reach - you have to punch your weight, as Nick Hornby said in High Fidelity - is in face quite a challenge, as each descriptive tool in the arsenal, whether of appearance, statements, observations by, observations of, actions - gives the character some particularity and separates him or her from other characters in the novel, in literature, and in life. Going back to Austen for a moment: aren't most of her characters actually quite typical of their class and their time? But by the act of articulating them as characters, Austen makes the a-typical, makes them distinct unto to themselves. Characters in novels are in that sense always a-typical because we have access to their consciousness in ways that we never have access to the consciousness of another in life. That is, if we were to meet these, or many of these, characters, they would be indistinct; conversely, if we were to "read" any of thousands of people whom we meet or know or even encounter, each would be distinct and unique, a-typical. Of course through the late 19th century and into the 20th century, literature became increasingly concerned with the lives of ordinary people, though often under extraordinary circumstances - and this is especially true of drama, more than of fiction (think of the differences between classical tragedy, Shakespearean tragedy, and modern tragedy: from Oedipus to Lear to Willy Loman).

Friday, November 16, 2012

What is "quippy"?

You tell from the title alone of David Gilbert's near-current New Yorker story, Member/Guest, that he's a clever writer who pushes across boundaries and defies expectations. I don't know anything about his work other than this story and the bio blurb in the issue, which noted that his forthcoming novel is called & Sons. Smart and enticing. But about Member/Guest - it does push boundaries, and it makes me wonder: Is this a story, or not? On the surface, it's about a quartet of girls, basically spoiled and mean New York girls summering in the Hamptons with their insufferable parents. They're at a beach club, and, over the course of the story, the first, squabble and quarrel, then the main character, the not very attractive but pretty smart Becket converses with her parents, then she drifts over to the clubhouse and has a conversation (for the first time) with the 40ish guy whose job is to admit members (and their guests) and to turn away hoi polloi who wander in from the beach. After talking with him, Becket rejoins her friends, they go for a swim, kind of threaten one another in a snide but playful way, and then race toward the shore. End of story. What's up with this? First of all, the writing is admirable and witty in that particular New Yorker style - I call it "quippy" - characters trade quips are improbably clever for the level of perception and intelligence that the characters actually evince, which of course makes us understand that it's the writer, not his characters, who are the clever ones (the best writers convince us that their characters are more clever than they are! - q.v., Lorrie Moore). I don't for a moment believe these girls would trade quips about the Aeneus, let alone quote poems in Latin - but there you go. We've long ago given up on the idea that a story must have an arc of a plot - it need not, but if not, it needs to have some kind of design, building toward a perception, an emotion, an observation, or a transformation of character. A great story cannot be just a succession of things that happen - and I'm afraid that's what we're dealing with in Member/Guest. There's less here than meets the eye - unless, as with so many NYer fiction selections - this is a snippet of a longer work in which we would see these characters interact, conflict, and evolve. There are hints of deeper meanings: the guest-checker is a potentially interesting and weird character, and I wonder if he has some classical counterpart, not Charybdis but some figure who determines, on instinct alone, who gains entrance and who is turned away at the gates. The story doesn't make much of this symbol or metaphor, but, again, maybe that's something Gilbert develops further elsewhere. I don't consider this story a great success and am not sure why the editors selected this from the vast field of world fiction, but I would read more by Gilbert, as he's obviously an intelligent and funny writer, with plenty of trenchant observations about a certain set, albeit a dislikable one.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Confessions of a dying man - in Dostoevsky's The Idiot

The young man dying of consumption, Ippolite, continues reading aloud his confessional essay, his account of his life, over three chapters in Dostoevsky's "The Idiot," essentially boring to death everyone at the all-night party - but not boring us: this interpolated confession is one of the oddities that we come to expect and appreciate in Dostoevsky's fiction, much like The Grand Inquisitor episode in TBK; in fact, in the ruthless examination of his morally ambiguous life, Ippolite is like a younger (but more mature, in the literary sense) version of D's Underground Man. The key to his confession is that he did and said a horrible thing to a young father grieving the death of his infant - presumably, the infant died of cold because the father could not afford to provide enough heat for his apartment - and Ippolite blamed the father. The father - Surikov? - politely escorted him out of the house: Go, sir!. Ip. claims to have no feelings about this, but then recounts how he helped a poor medical student work his way out of poverty, by calling on some old school connections: he also claims to have no feeling about his rescue or we could say his "saving" of the medical student and his family. Ip. is acting Christlike, toward the medical student, and perhaps symbolically resurrecting the dead baby (one of his dreams also suggests this). But then Ip. describes the painting of Christ taken from the cross that he saw in Rogozhin's house - the same painting that the Prince saw and was moved by. Ip. explains the strangeness of the painting: what kind of world are we in, what are the forces of nature in this world, that could batter a man's body so? Is it enough to challenge one's faith? For Ip., it is - it's his avenue into atheism and nihilism. That leads him to ponder his own suicide - and the thought of becoming a mass murderer so as to spend his last days more comfortably in prison. He ends his narrative, tries unsuccessfully to shoot himself - which leads us back to the Prince: it's not toward dawn, there's the possibility he may yet be challenged in a duel, various suitors are turning to him for help and advice: they now see him as a sage, and, again - though they don't state this - as a Christ-like figure of suffering and wisdom. He falls asleep in the park and is startled awake by the arrival of Aglaya - his true love interest, though how this will play off against his passion for the fully deranged Nastasya is unclear.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Prince Myshkin's qualities and Dostoevsky's style

So who's the other great novelist, aside from Dostoevsky, who almost never uses metaphors or similes? How about: Jane Austen. Though the two writers share that stylistic trait, it's actually had to imagine two authors more different in theme, mood, and temperament - Dostoevsky always heated to a fever pitch, with characters who are murderers, philanderers, drunkards, political extremists, terrorists, and tragic heroes - with loud parties that go till dawn at which everyone gets drunk and tears each other apart or spills their emotions and a torrent of confession and abasement. And Austen - a close-knit culture of generally shared mores and decorum, sharply defined social classes and expectations, subtle jealousies and betrayals, the quintessential comedy of manners. Part 3 of Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" builds to a long bacchanal at Prince Myshkin's - it seems everyone invited themselves over to his (rented) dacha to celebrate something or other - at which the dying young nihilist who turned up at Myshkin's demanding that Myshkin relinquish his inheritance has now been won over by Myshkin's saintliness and he embarks on reading, aloud, the long tract he's written explaining everything that's gone wrong in his short and doomed life. Not exactly the highlight of the novel - but we are seeing, through this device, the influence that Myshkin has over others: the women who love him, and even those who approach him with vitriol and hatred. It belabors the obvious to note that Myshkin is a Christlike figure, not only for his suffering on behalf of others, but in his capacity to attract acolytes, a following, converts.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Dostoevsky's style: Whose is it like?

Nastasya Fillipovna makes her grand appearance in Part 3 of Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" (she was unseen, though heard from, in Part 2) as she barges into a lawn concert, with her retinue of admirers, blurts out to Evgeny that she's surprised to see him there as his uncle has shot himself to death that morning after it was revealed that he'd stolen government funds - Evgeny now is ruined! Her boorish behavior leads to a string of insults, and she grabs a riding whip and slashes a soldier across the face; he leaps at her, Prince Myshkin intercepts him - and he demands to know Myshkin's name. Myshkin may not know, but any reader of Russian fiction does know what this means: duel! In the next chapter, Aglaya, who's been estranged from Myshkin, asks him aout his dueling experience, which is none. So we're building toward another highly emotional and dramatic scene, so typical of Dostoevsky. I've noted before that in reading Dostoevsky (I am now adopting the Pevear-Volokhonsky spelling of his name) you are constantly aware that you're reading him - his style and his elements of composition are as distinct as a watermark: highly dramatic action, emotions at their most extreme pitch, a constant clash between passionate and libertine characters and others, or at least one, reserved and saintly character. For all that, Dostoevsky's actual writing style is surprisingly unadorned and straightforward - few authorial interventions, scenes and characters presented mostly by dialogue and action rather than introspection. Most of all, and I'm sure others have noted this, Dostoevsky almost never uses simile or metaphor. Simile and metaphor are most often the building blocks of literature - from Shakespeare, through the great Romantic poets, and definitely most of the Modernist fiction of the 20th century. But they're absent in Dostoevksky. Is this true of any other great writer? Yes - and it's a writer about as different in temperament from Dostoevsky as any writer could ever be. Will answer in tomorrow's post.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Whom will Myshkin marry?

Strangely, the "love interest," the seemingly insane but beautiful Nastasya Fillipovna, does not appear in the entire Part 2 of Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" - though she does pass by one of the characters in a carriage and shouts something to him about promissory notes that he won't have to repay - she does this, it seems just to embarrass the character, one of the many who has fallen in love with her. The central relationship, however, between Nastasya and the title character, Prince Myshkin, goes nowhere in this entire section: Myshkin has returned to Petersburg and then gone out to one of the suburban dachas in hopes of finding Nastasya, and everyone around Myshkin knows he's enamored, that he proposed to her on the night that they met, and that in fact she is in love with him as well - but they can't seem to get together. That's partly Myshkin's socially awkward personality, and in part Nastasya's self-destructive behavior - as we saw at the end of Part 1, she elects to run away from Myshkin's marriage proposal (and from at least one other potential suitor, Ganya) to abase herself with the crude Rogozhin. Now, she's "damaged goods," that is, she has a reputation as a prostitute and as an manic and tempestuous woman - but her reputation does not daunt Myshkin. In fact, it seems to entice him: he's exactly the sort to marry someone in order to save them (from themselves). As readers, with more knowledge - and more common sense - than Myshkin, we know that this marriage could never work, not even in a Dostoyevsky novel. He may be a saintly character, but he seems also to be a tragic character, too vulnerable and naive to survive in the backstabbing world of Russian nobility and intelligentsia. If he is to marry anyone, I suspect, it will be the beautiful young Argalya (?) Epanchin, who, at the end of Part 2, has completely broken off any relation with Myshkin - surely a sign that they're destined for each other.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Dostoyevsky-Romney connection

As Prince Myshkin settles in at Lebedov's dacha outside Petersburg during Part 2 of Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot," story takes a few twists: first, Myshkin, apparently pretty well recovered from his seizure and fall down the stairs (nobody says anything about a stab wound, so I guess his "encounter" with Rogozhin on the landing was part of his pre-seizure hallucinations?) hosts a very large gathering comprising the Epanchin clan, the Ivrogin (?) clan, some other visitors - way too many people, even for a Russian novel! This is one of those scenes that's unnecessarily daunting to an American reader - those names! It can't help but bring to mind the Woody Allen-Diane Keaton parody in his "Russian" movie - and the only way to get through it is to do what I did and dog-ear the helpful list of (main) characters at the front of the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation and refer back often. Once you get through the initial hours of this gathering, something really weird and interesting happens: a group of four has assembled outside and they demand to meet with Myshkin about some issue. Someone lets them inside, and they immediately assail Myshkin with the charge that he has appropriated his inheritance when in fact his benefactor left a son and heir who collected nothing - and they demand the M. turn (all of?) his fortune over to this bastard son. They get Kolya to read a very long polemic on this case, in which one of the four attacks the Russian nobility, the entire class system, etc. This shows Dostoyevsky at his most politically conservative and vitriolic - he absolutely despised radicals and nihilists, for their ideas and for their ruthless tactics. His portrayal of these four is savage, and the polemic that is read aloud is actually quite "spot on" in capturing the tone and tactics of many progressive publications, then and now. The group will no doubt remind many of the recent Occupy movement - ascetic, disheveled, strident, not very clear about any particular goal or issue - an all too easy target, and it's obvious that D. has no sympathy radical movements of any kind. This issue becomes considerably more apparent and dramatic in his most overtly political novel, The Devils or Demons. Here, after the group presents its demands, the Prince's ally Ganya gives a strong rebuttal: he's proven that the young man could not be the son of the Prince's benefactor. In fact, the young man is somewhat like the Prince earlier in the novel: socially awkward, not very articulate. There's even some joking that he is "the idiot." Clearly, the Prince will take on his double as some sort of cause - he will provide him with benefaction even though he owes him nothing - part of D's vision of a benevolent nobility taking care of the needs of society through its own generosity and charity. Would that it were so - similar to the Republican-Bush-Romney solutions for American social issues and inequities. Tolstoy got this right; Dostoyevsky is in a dream world.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Dostyevsky's most powerful passage

Let's check off some of the totally weird and amazing things that happen in Part 2 of Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot," elements of the novel that no other writer could imagine, bring off, or get away with, depending on how you read Dostoyevsky (and novels): after Myshkin visits Rogozhin and learns from R. that R., cannot ever marry Nastasya because N. loves Myshkin: R bring M through the long, dark corridors of his grim house and M stops and marvels at a gruesome painting of Christ taken down from the cross - the painting is very long and narrow, much like a coffin?. R. takes M. into a dark room where a strange old lady blesses M - the lady is R's mother, senile and blind possibly. M. and R. discuss atheism: M. recounts, I think, 4 incidents that happened to him since his return to Petersburg, among them an old derelict who sells him a cross, claiming it was silver when it is obviously tin, at an inflated price of 20 roubles; a mother nursing a baby tells M. that the baby smiles at her just as God smiles on a repenting sinner - god loves humankind as a baby loves its mother. (Odd, we would think of the dependency and the relationship the other way usually). M. sees that R. is carrying a sharp knife, and recalls N's saying she will go by either the knife or by water. Myshkin then embarks on a long ramble through Petersburg, trying to track down N., eventually learning that she has left for a dacha, perhaps for some time - during this long ramble he senses an epileptic fit coming on; D.'s vivid account of the feelings an epileptic undergoes is one of the most strikes passages D. ever wrote and completely strange and peculiar to most readers. The entire long chapter is jumpy and broken and disordered, much like an epileptic's mind pre-seizure, and the kind of writing that would become very familiar in the 20th century but was completely original in ca. 1867. Myskhin eventually gets back to his dreary hotel, which he hates, and has a vision of a set of eyes that have been following him throughout the day and evening. He climbs a scary stone staircase; at the landing, R. confronts him, or so it appears, and stabs him with the knife (M. had also looked at a similar - or the same? - knife in a store window during his rambles) - and M. has a seizure and falls down the stairs, striking his head. One would think he'd be seriously injured, but that doesn't appear to be the case; but what about the stabbing? Did it happen - or was it part of the hallucinatory frenzy of M.'s troubled mind? Sometimes what makes novels great is their heightening and intensifying of the familiar; sometimes, the opposite: their exploration of realms that are totally dark and obscure, as in Dostoyevsky. I also think that all great works have at least some elements that are strange, unsettling, unexpected - Dostoyevsky's novels, without being surreal or experimental in form, are more or less built on such elements, the entire works are strange and unsettling.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Dostoyevsky's characters and their maladies

Part 2 of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" gets off to a bit of a slow (for him) start, as Myshkin, returned to Petersburg after some time in Moscow claiming his inheritance and refashioning himself as a new man (but not at all changed emotionally or psychologically)visits several Petersburg acquaintances, notably the two he met on the train in the first chapter of the novel: Rogozhin and Lebedev. His real interest is in Nastasya, whom we learn had been involved in various tempestuous episodes with Rogozhin in Moscow, and now has apparently vanished to a dacha outside of Petersburg. It's not entirely clear to me why Myshkin is visiting Lebedev and Rogozhin, but I think his main motive is he wants to clear the air before making any supplication to Nastasya: he would never pursue her unless he knew that Rogozhin was out of the picture. This section of the novel is a little less dramatic because the scenes of Nastasya's mania and Rogozhin's obsession are described rather than dramatized before us - like the great scene of N.'s birthday party that concludes Part 1. Still, Dostoyevsky gives a great description of Rogozhin's squalid Petersburg digs, and he builds the conversation between R. and the Prince to one dramatic moment: when Rogozhin informs Myshkin of what all readers already know - that Nastasya, inexplicably, is in love with him (the Prince). The novel, from here forward, will concern what the Prince does with that information: he is, as he noted in the first chapter, completely ignorant when it comes to women, and Nastasya is a dangerous and self-destructive woman - so how the two of them approach each other will be quite a scene I would guess. How do we characterize them? Today, we'd probably say that N. suffers from bipolar disorder, with her extreme mood swings and self-abasement and self-destructive behavior and inability to commit, plus had a history of childhood abuse. And the Prince? Perhaps today we would find him somewhere on the autism spectrum - his literal-mindedness, inability to pick up social cues, and incapacity for self-censorship.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Dostoyevsky as an antidote to Henry James

Part 2 of Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" - some months later - Prince Myshkin returns to Petersburg from Moscow, where he has claimed his inheritance, and now he's a rich man, but he wears his riches poorly - he's awkward and uncomfortable in his expensive clothes that don't quite seem to fit him right (everyone knows someone like that). We know what his quest will be: he needs to find Nastasya, whom he had impulsively propose to on the day that they met - those Russians! - and who spurned him, and two other suitors as well, and took off into the night with the no-good Rogozhin, telling everyone that, though she turned aside a "bid" of 100,000 rubles, she's basically nothing but a whore. Myshkin is obviously still in love with her, to the extent that he even understands his own feelings, and has now returned to claim her - or, more accurately, to save her - he is clearly one of Dostoyevsky's "holy fools," not exactly a religious character but one who lives in the world and slightly apart from it, like a saint or even like Jesus himself, minus the preaching. Part 2 seems as if it will take place mostly in a dacha outside of Petersburg, so we'll see a whole different Russian cultural subset - and I don't think it will have the unity of time as did Part 1, which amazingly took place all in one day. How good is The Idiot? It doesn't have the well-engineered plot of Crime and Punishment, nor the scope of The Brothers Karamazov - but it's still Dostoyevsky, passionate, kind of insane, a panoply of characters every one of whom lives full out, at the furthest extremes of their emotions. I am, in part, still recovering from reading James's The Ambassadors, and I think I picked up The Idiot in part as an antidote: James's characters spend pages, or hours, picking at the frayed edges of their emotions and never come right out and say what the mean or feel, and their actions are all measured and repressed and tenuous. Dostoyevsky characters are the exact opposite - in particular Prince Myshkin, who is labeled as an "idiot" because he has no self-censorship - he comes right out and says what's in his mind or hard, he (and the others) make impulsive decisions, and they do everything in the broadest possible strokes - impervious to embarrassment and self-consciousness. James's novels nearly die from the lack of life, from oxygen starvation, from bloodlessness - Dostoyevsky's overwhelm us with the tumult of life at its most extreme and emotions at their highest pitch.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Crazy dramatic scenes in Dostoyevsky

Amazingly, Part 1 of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot," 175 action- and character-filled pages, all takes place during a single day: from Prince Myshkin's arrival in Petersburg, his visit to the Epanchins where he is taken in as a possible relative, his getting lodgings with Ganka, his many encounters with the family and tenant in the lodging house, his evening visit to the party at Nastaysya's where she is "courted" by several men, including G. and R., both of whom want to marry her, as well as General Epanchin, flirtatious, and T., contemptuously - and ultimately,Myshkin himself, who proposes to N., whom he has just met that day. An incredible Russian day culminating in an absolutely insane gathering at Nastasya's where emotions are played out and the highest and most extreme pitch: Nastasya abases herself in front of all of her company, tells them all she's just a courtesan (a whore, more accurately), encourages a bidding war from her hand in marriage - refuses G., following the advice of Prince M., who knows G. despises her and who can never do anything but say exactly what's on his mind - then the Prince proposes to her, and she accepts, think she will live in poverty with him and then - amazingly, he reveals that he is about to inherit millions - and then she turns him down, says she'll go off drinking with R., and refuses a large wad of cash that R. has brought to "buy" her - and insists on throwing the cash - 100,000 rubles! - into the fireplace. Everyone watches in horror, but a last she pulls the wad, only singed, from the flames. People talk about the dramatic intensity of Dostoyevsky's writing, and there are few examples as powerful as the evening at Nastasya's that ends the first (of 4) parts of The Idiot: many will find his style disturbing, and at times challenging, only in part because of the difficult (to English-language readers) Russian names, but also to the careening of emotions, which Pevear and Volokhonsky very well capture in their great translation. If you want more placid writing - there are many other great Russian writers - although even Tolstoy couldn't resist a dramatic and self-destructive party scene (with Pierre, in War and Peace). We read Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy for a way in and we read Dostoyevsky to be knocked out.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Saintly characters in Dostoyevsky

As noted in yesterday's post, Prince Myshkin is obviously no idiot - though he is strange, socially awkward, idealistic, ascetic, almost childlike, highly empathic. He embarks on a ridiculously long discourse in response to a simple question when he's having dinner at the Epanchin's - and it's the first any of them have met him - in which he begins by talking about the horrors of execution, the peculiar feelings and sensations of the condemned when they know, as no other can, that in a few moments they will cease to exist - it's a topic of great interest to him (and to Dostoyevsky?) - he een describes a lengthy discussion he had with a man whose execution was called off at the last moment (interestingly, Tolstoy dramatizes an episode like this in War and Peace, if I'm remembering correctly - which shows the difference between a dramatized scene and a narrated scene, inevitably, even in D's hands, much weaker). Myshkin then goes on to explain how he has difficulty relating to adults (women in particular, I think) but always connects with children, and he describes the cruelties in his village that people visited upon a poor, sickly woman named Maria - she was loathed and scorned in part because of her extreme poverty and also because she ran away with a traveling salesman of some sort and came back "shamed" (a theme that Hardy picked up in Tess, I think) - by Myshkin, after noticing children in the village stoning and mocking Maria, gradually brought them around so that the children all loved her and helped her and ultimately decorated her grave. Obviously this is a theme that D. picks up later in the Brothers Karamazov - and I would say with much greater effect in The Brothers K, for these reasons: the saintly young man working with the children (in Brothers K it's to get them to support and love one of their comrades who is dying of consumption) is part of the action of the novel and not something recounted at a distance by the protagonist; the saintly young man in the Brothers K exists in contrast with his licentious brother, so his action as a savior is set up against a conflicting force rather than in isolation; the saintly brother K is wrestling with the idea of devoting himself to the church, and we see a strong relation between him and one of the monks, whereas Myshkin's relation with his mentor, Dr. Schneider, is left vague and unexamined; there's a greater poignancy in the boys rallying for one of their cohort than for the weakest and poorest in the village. Still - Myshkin is becoming an ever more complex character in his own right, as D. has him extemporize at the dinner and, in the next chapter, we see him settling in the rooming house where he will no doubt end up playing some kind of mediating role in the many romances, engagements, and affairs swirling around him, which he (and we, to a degree) can barely keep straight or understand.

Monday, November 5, 2012

He's no idiot: Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin

I kind of wonder about Dostoyevsky's title, "The Idiot." Would love to hear from someone who knows Russian - but - the title seems wrong to me. No doubt that, in English, it's a great title - mysterious, provocative, eye-catching, memorable. But is Prince Myshkin really in any way an "idiot" in the sense, mostly derogatory, in which we actually use the term in English: idiot is somewhat like a playground taunt, a derogatory term aimed at someone who behaves stupidly in a comic, bumbling way. It also has a less acceptable use as a derogatory term for someone with severe retardation. More broadly, it can describe someone who's stupid, ill informed, or incompetent in some specific field: I'm an idiot when it comes to math, e.g. Prince Myshkin fits none of these (partly, that's D's point, I get it) - but his behavior, in the first few chapters anyway, wouldn't elicit the term "idiot," at least not today. Perhaps: simpleton, though that's a very old-fashioned term. Mostly, he's just a weirdo - his behavior is odd, not quite fitting the social norms, but he seems intelligent if socially awkward. For example, he gets off the train to Petersburg and the first thing he does is visit General Epanchin because the General's wife may be a distant relation - even though he knows that she ignored a letter he'd written to her some years back. (D. doesn't preserve the letter, but it must have been very odd - the servant remembers it.) He talks his way into seeing the general, more or less awkwardly planting himself at the elbow of the secretary and asking some odd questions about where he can go to smoke. When he sees the general, he fully confesses that he has nowhere to stay, that he's carrying all his belongings with him - but he has not the slightest sense that this behavior is socially inappropriate and a real imposition. Fortunately for him, the general is sympathetic - but he cannot process that the right thing to do would have been to get a place to stay, and then pay the visit (of course he has no money, but he doesn't even seem to see this as a problem or issue). In other words, he has some kind of behavior disorder, maybe a form of autism?, along with his epilepsy - but he's intelligent and expresses deep thoughts and feelings of empathy - note his moving disquisition on capital punishment and his thoughts on the fears that a condemned man must experience. So, no, he's not in any sense an idiot - that's clear - but I wonder if anyone would actually see him or describe him as such. Good title - but it steers us in the wrong direction as we try to get a bead on Myshkin's character.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Idiot Wind: The opening chapter in Dostoyevsky's novel

Right from the start Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" establishes two vivid characters - each so distinct and unusual - and each a true Dostoyevsky "type": the two men meet as strangers on a train, a long train ride from Poland to St. Petersburg - it's striking first of all because they're both traveling third class, and it's obvious that they're both well educated and probably well off: one is Prince Myshkin, the title character, D. describes him as pallid and austere looking and notes that you can tell from a glance that he suffers from the "falling sickness," that is epilepsy, as D. himself did I think: he's a Prince but in that weird Russian way he has the title but apparently very little money, and even his title, as they two men (joined by a 3rd, a hapless clerk, Lebedev?), discuss, is perhaps doubtful or minor - who can understand this peculari clinging to royalty and rank so prevalent in European fiction (and life) in the 19th century (and still) and so odd to Americans. Myshkin returning from several years of ineffective medical treatment, and he has no money and no prospects but plans to call on some distant relatives, the Epanchins?, and ask for aid. The newfound companion, Roghozin (?), is a "swarthy" type also returning after time abroad - a completely different personality. He's passionate and amorous and wildly impulsive - apparently stole money his father had entrusted to him and used it to buy diamond earrings for an indifferent woman (Nastasya) he was courting - infuriating his father, leading to exile. Myshkin, on the other hand, is mild and naive, a "holy fool," and uninterested in or inexperienced about women - these two are clearly the prototypes for two of the brothers in the later great novel The Brothers Karamzov: one frenetic and impulsive and passionate, and the other spiritual and ethereal and charitable, one a victim and the other a victimizer. As always with D., even in a scene of a discussion on a railroad journey, the story is told at a fevered pitch and characters take impulsive actions that are so odd and unexpected as to be probably not credible - except in the world of Russian fiction - they are not just Dostoyevsky characters but they are Dostoyevskyan.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Got no home: Naipaul's immigrants and others

The two short stories in V.S. Naipaul's book (which evidently was mostly a novel or novella) In a Free State (brought together in the Everyman's edition of Naipaul's Collected Short Fiction) present two parallel takes on the immigrant experience: in one, an Indian servant comes with his "sahib" to Washington, D.C., essentially escapes or skips out on his "master" and takes up a life of near poverty and exile working in a restaurant - when he's afraid he'll get caught and deported, he presents himself to a black woman with whom he'd had a brief and unpleasant sexual fling and asks her to marry him, which would provide him with secure residency status. The 2nd, Tell Me Who to Kill, is about a Trinidadian (presumably) immigrant to London who lives in extreme poverty, sacrificing everything and working hard so his brother and flatmate can get an education; it becomes obvious to him at last that his brother is not studying anything, just wasting time and money. The older brother then loses his savings in an ill-fated investment in a curry shop. Ultimately, the younger brother gets married to a white British girl and the older brother, the narrator of the story, is left with nothing - though there's an implication that he's involved in a relationship with another man. So both of these stories present the bleakest and darkest version of the immigrant experience - not the great American (or British) melting pot story, but an immigrant crushed by poverty, racism, and indifference, confused like a stranger in a strange land, angry and embittered but with no clear or evident outlet for the anger (see title of the 2nd story). This India-immigrant experience completely different from that of, say Jhumpa Lahiri or Rohinton Mistry - Naipaul's descendants, the children of the educated immigrants who've made it though never quite assimilated (as their children do). If Naipauls stories, from the late 1960s, have true spiritual descendents, they would be the immigrant fiction of Andre Dubus (House of Sand and Fog - Iranian immigrants), Lorraine Adams's Harbor, or Andrea Levy's Small Island - though each of these is far more political and nuanced than Naipaul's stories (to be fair, that's also a comparison of novels v stories). Interesting that, through the 1960s, Naipaul didn't write about immigrants that were in any way like him, though In a Free State includes two short essays, nonfiction apparently, that have a narrator much like or same as Naipaul observing travelers who don't fit in among other tourists.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Dictation, please: Writers who dictate, or don't

Have weighed in over past few days in a conversation about Dickens among WS (not William Shakespeare) and some English-majors of long ago from DU - subject of Dostoyevsky came up: in discussing authors who work well when read aloud (including Dickens) someone mentioned that Dostoyevsky dictated his work, so it probably also works well when read aloud. Maybe that's true - but I don't think that's why he dictated. Dictation for a writer in the 19th century had to be a break from the drudgery and even hand cramps of writing out a manuscript - something writers were not relieved from until the typewriter (Twain, and Henry James, which led I think to the absurd sentence constructions of his late novels). I don't think I could ever dictate; when I was writing fiction I tended to work slowly and methodically, making lots of changes as I went along (and maybe not so many needed on final edits), and actually discovering and revising plot elements as I proceeded. It amazes me that D. could have had the capacity to dictate an entire novel - he must have held it perfect and clear in his mind before beginning. Stendahl also dictated - the entire Charterhouse in a few days, if I remember right. Some contemporary novelists have taken to dictation in a digital manner: Powers has written an essay about how he dictates to his laptop using voice recognition. Edward Jones apparently has his work entirely whole in his mind before he begins writing - he may as well dictate, if that's the case. I don't think an elaborate stylist such as Proust or Joyce could possibly have dictated their work; Proust is known for his elaborate handwritten revisions, right down to the final proofs. Milton had to dictate because of his blindness - but of course he knew the plot already going in. I do think that reading the work aloud helps a writer craft not only the plot but also the style and tone of the piece: every writer I've ever known makes notes on the manuscript during a reading, and is constantly discovering (and correcting) infelicities of phrasing that looked good in type but sound off key when uttered.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Class v caste: Naipaul's In a Free State

The selection One among Many (?) from V.S. Naipaul's aptly titled In a Free State (in the Everyman edition Collected Short Fiction) is a stranger-in-a-strange-land motif: Indian lower-caste servant travels to Washington, D.C., where he will live for a time as the servant/cook for his boss, a high-level bureaucrat or businessman of an upper caste: in the first part of this section, the servant timidly begins to roam around D.C. and explore its wonders, and Naipaul is very good at providing the world from his very limited point of view: he gets confused in the hallway of his apartment building and ends up going to sleep in the hallway on the carpet, which reminds him of sleeping on the sidewalk back in India; he walks the city and is very surprised to see a group chanting Indian prayers with horrible accents - the Hare Krishnas in what I think must e Dupont Circle. He's particularly interested in and curious about the blacks whom he sees in D.C. - he understands that they are the victims of the same kind of caste system he experienced in India, but he doesn't quite get their culture and behavior. Improbably, he has a brief sexual liaison with a black maid working in his building; then, later, he roams the city streets during the riots after MLK assassination - that's about where I left it last night. There's much potential here: as noted yesterday, this is the emerging Naipaul theme of cultural crossovers and the prejudice against and underestimation of a repressed (and in this case uneducated) minority, and the opportunity to use the class system of the U.S. as a commentary on the caste system of India, or v.v., is very tempting - but this promise will be fulfilled only if Naipaul can maintain sympathy for his narrator, and not make him an object of ridicule or contempt.