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

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

Thursday, January 31, 2013

A novel about a crime or a crime novel?: The Round House

I don't know how well Louise Erdrich's The Round House stands up as a crime novel - though the central event is an attack on the narrator's mother and his attempt to find out who attacked her and why - but I am coming to think that the solution to the crime is not the point - the narrator's (he's a 13-year-old boy) search for the evil-doer is a narrative vehicle that drives us through the novel; as he looks at one suspect after another, we meet a number of different odd, outsider personalities on the Indian reservation and, perhaps, if the novel really clicks at the end, their stories will enmesh and affect one another and build from elements into a greater whole. First two suspects that he pursues are a Catholic priest whom, for some reason, he'd overheard his father discussing as a likely suspect, I can't remember why - Joe and two friends follow the priest home and spy on him (no doubt the priest has detected them outside his window), and, when the priest strips in front of his window and they see how physically maligned he is - wounds from the Beirut embassy bombing, they later learn - Joe realizes he could not have raped his mother. This investigation thought remotely possible I guess does strain credulity; and I can't quite figure out why at some points Joe's father, a judge, very dramatically tells him to drop it, to not pursue the facts of the case - but then draws him into his own investigations of the crime. The second possible perp - or at least possible source of information about the crime - is one of the very few white women who'd been adopted by an Indian family and raised on the reservation. Most of this section is her narration of her life story - again, an interest piece in the mosaic, but wandering off the course of the plot. Erdrich is such a strong writer and her material is so abundant and unusual that it's a pleasure to follow her on her tangents, but I am hopeful that she will keep the novel taut and dramatic and not let the strands unravel.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A crime novel that's not really about the crime: The Round House

Louise Erdrich;s The Round House is developing as a crime novel, something of a mystery (we don't know yet who committed the vicious rape and assault on narrator Joe's mother, so it's a mystery in that sense) but the novel is not so much, I think, about solving a crime as about delineating a character and depicting a community, in this novel as in all (?) of Erdrich's fiction a North Dakota reservation - yesterday I mentioned Blackfoot, but from last night's reading see that it could be Chippewa or Ojibwe, not sure - there may be a lot of intermarriage among these tribes in any case so not sure the tribal affiliation matters greatly. Narrator Joe is an Indian teenager, good kid, but occasionally into trouble - smoking and drinking and some illegal cruising, nothing too serious; his mother, who's in some kind of tribal administrative position, is attacked and clearly suffers from trauma - pretty much stops eating and won't allow physical contact with her husband, Joe's father, who's a tribal-court judge. Joe's mission is to solve the mystery of his mother's attack and thereby, he hope, heal the family wound and bring his parents back together, as they had been - a very sweet and loving relationship, by all accounts. Joe and his friends go off to the Round House, a kind of prayer house, seldom used, and the locale of the crime; they find a lot of trash around, all of it potential evidence, including a gas canister that the perp probably used in his attack and tried to hide (in the lake). It's not surprising that the police didn't find this; that's part of the message of the novel, the disposable nature of the Indians and the indifference of the white culture to crimes committed on the rez. There seem to be two possible sources for the act: vengeance because of case that had come before Joe's father, which leads them both to pour through his case files, or some attack on the tribe acted out through Joe's mother - mysteriously, the attack occurred after a call drew her into her office on a Sunday to check for a file. Toward the end of the opening section, in Erdrich fashion, Joe sees a ghost outside his house, watching, and Joe's father, though generally quite the rationalist, assures him casually that the ghost is real - but who is it and why it he staring at Joe's family's house?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Erdrich and Faulkner and what they share

Let's just take a moment, before I get seriously into Louise Erdrich's newest novel, The Round House, to recognize her amazing accomplishment as an American writer: I'm sure I'm about teh 50,00th to compare her with Faulkner, but Faulkner's achievement, devoting a lifetime of fiction to examining the people, the place, the history, and the culture of what he famously called his "postage stamp of native soil" would have seemed to be unique in American literary history, but I think Erdrich has matched his accomplishment, with a lifetime of fiction, in many voices and modes, about the people, the culture, the climate, and the history of a small (Blackfoot?) reservation in North Dakota. Not that their work is identical or in some ways even similar other than in scope, the narrowness of field and the depth of insight and perception, but: in some ways, Erdrich's achievement is the greater in that she has brought public awareness to a fogotten, often marginalized people in a way that no other writer has (though others have followed in her wake); Faulkners's Yoknapatawpha is perhaps a wider field - the various novels focus on a wider range of classes and even races - but he's far from the only writer to chronicle Southern life. Faulkner, however, was more of a groundbreaking writer in style - his "stream of consciousness" took some of the techniques that Joyce and other modernists were developing in Europe and transplanted them to American lit; Sound and the Fury, which daunted so many readers in its time and so many who came to Faulkner in high school, as I did, but now, after decades of postmodernism and contemporary cinema even, seems much more accessible - though my recent attempts to re-read Absalom have been completely unsuccessful. Erdrich's writing, for better or worse, is much more clear, conventional, and accessible that Faulkner's, which in some ways has probably hurt her reputation, making it too easy to shunt her aside as another best-selling ethnic writer, and she's far more than that. The Round House, which did win the NBA last year, is a great example of her work, or at least so far promises to be - as the first chapters introduce a Native American family that is both steeped in the culture of the Rez and also very worldly - the dad a tribal court judge; Erdrich is great at putting the bone in the throat right away, and the novel gets off to a fast start with a teenage boy's mother the victim of a violent crime, which is a mystery and immediately raises questions of culture and jurisdiction: who will see justice done? The local police, the BIA, the tribal court?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Poems in Doctor Zhivago

I think Boris Pasternak could have omitted the epilogue to Doctor Zhivago with no great loss - the epilogue taking place in the 1940s as two of the surviving characters in the novel make their way through (yet another) war-torn landscape, engage in a lengthy nighttime discussion, then pass through the village - people sleeping on the streets because the houses are in ruins - to the river where they will wash their army fatigues. As with many sections of Zhivago, the plot elements are a little obscure and hard to connect with other strands of the narrative, but I think there's nothing essential that we learn here that changes or modifies our vision of this epic novel - except that the last paragraph has the two men looking off toward the horizon with a vision of hope and expectations, quite different from the very dark mood at which the novel would have ended - yet perhaps not an earned vision, you have to wonder what it is exactly that makes them optimistic, both in the world they're living in and in the Soviet society that suppressed Pasternak's work. That said, the final section of the novel is a collection of 25 of Zhivago's poems, and this section - especially in the great Pevear-Volokhonsky translatoin, make a great conclusion to the novel. I wasn't aware that Pasternak, until Zhivago, was known primarily as a poet (and later a translator) - so these are not just random crappy verses forced into a novel for plot points (a la that Alan Hollinghurst novel about a dead war poet), but are truly beautiful lyric poems: some sounds Keatsian, but as if Keats were steeped in Asian literature; each lyric is in short stanzas or short lines, and each stanza ends at a full top - making each one seem almost like a haiku. These beautiful pieces, many on Christian themes and others folkloric or, in a few instances, romantic don't directly tie point by point to moments in the novel - with the exception of the candle burning in the window which recalls Zhivago's view of Lara's first apartment - but they evince the creativity and sensibility that Zhivago was trying at all costs to articulate - they help us see that his struggle to survive, and his irascibility and his serial abandonment was in part a commitment to his artistic vision, suppressed at every turn. In Zhivago, Pasternak created his own literary double, and through his character enabled his own work to endure or, to paraphrase Faulkner, even to prevail - reading these poems we understand not only the character but the consciousness of the author himself.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The ending of Doctor Zhivago - among the darkest in literature

I haven't read the epilogue (set 15 years or so after the "ending" chapter, during World War II, I think) or the final chapter (Zhivago's poems) yet, but the conclusion of the main part o Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago is about as dark and inauspicious as anything I can think of outside of tragic drama (and even in the great tragedies like Lear and Oedipus Rex, there's also the sense of catharsis - some vision of the future even with blood still on the ground or stage). Compared with say the "sad" ending of Great Expectations, the ending of Wuthering Heights, of Crime and Punishment, even Cekhov stories and plays, of Anna Karenina -the deaths at the end of Zhivago are so bleak and meaningless and crushing - once again, as noted in previous posts, it's an inside-out novel, and rather than the deaths being the result of character and action, they're the result of the brutal forces of Soviet society, at least as Pasternak saw and experienced it that destroy the lives of Zhiavago and Lara. But is that fair? Does Zhivago leave his wife, then Lara, then his third common-law wife because of the brutality of the society that will not allow him to express his thoughts and feelings except through underground publications? I think there's a sense that Zhivago is mentally as well as physically ill; his abandonment of the third wife is so odd and unanticipated that it seems the act of a deranged man: he retreats to the solitude of a little room, in the same neighborhood where his wife and child live, to pursue his thinking and writing. We all can appreciate his devotion to his literary vision during a time of oppression, and we can obviously see that through Z. Pasternak is expressing his own deepest needs and fears as a writer in Soviet Russia, but it's also a very heavy-handed way for Pasternak to bring these events to their conclusion - and yet, I admire Pasternak for not succumbing to convention and ending the novel with Z reunited with Lara, forgiven by Tonya, recognized by the world. The ending is not what we expect, but in it's way it's far bolder and grander than what we expect, a relentless vision, an obsession almost, with the evils of Soviet communism, pursued to its inevitable sordid conclusion: two great literary characters who die in poverty and obscurity, alone.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Nearly flawless story in current New Yorker - Kevin Canty

Don't know much about Kevin Canty, well nothing really except the brief bio note in current New Yorker, and I guess I've read a few of his pieces that may have been in the NYer or elsewhere in recent years, but his story in current New Yorker, Mayfly, is the only one I can recall right now and it's quite impressive - short, tight, well-paced, believable, striking in some ways. On some level it's pretty familiar terrain: a young (unmarried and childless) couple travel for a weekend visit to another (married, slightly older, 3 kids) couple, both relationships unhappy ones, a la Tolstoy, each in its own way, and the lines criss-cross in some surprising ways during the short visit. What's impressive to me is how efficiently Canty tells this story - it's material that could be stretched out to novel (or feature film) length, but the gain in length would I think be a loss in impact. His spare style evokes other great western writers (he apparently teaches in Montana, and story, though beginning in Utah, mostly takes place in rural Colorado), especially McGuane, even Carver, and, inevitably if you're going to include fly fishing in your story which he does, Hemingway - not to say Canty's on those Olympian levels but that's the field he's working. I don't want to give anything away in the story, but let's just say that over the course of the weekend the central character - the guy in the couple making the visit - learns some things about his girlfriend, about the guy he's visiting (an old college or grad-school friend), and about himself; story ends a short time later as he and his girlfriend are trying to reconstruct their relationship - and with a very intriguing and unusual "objective correlative," in this case a pair of striped panties (which I doubt Eliot ever considered as a likely objective correlative) that will always remind him of the difficult weekend and of the knife edge on which his current relationship rests. If there's a flaw in the story, I'd say it was the brief opening section when they're crossing the desert and driving through a cloud of migrating Monarchs - a very forced image that didn't reveal enough about the characters or their relationships - story could well have begun on arrival at friends' house. And why do the women smoke? Not too many do so these days, and smoking always seems to me like an authorial convenience, giving the characters something to do so that you don't get a series of he said, she said in dialogue.

Friday, January 25, 2013

An incredibly sorrowful ending : Doctor Zhivago

Whatever else you might feel reading through Doctor Zhivago, there's no doubt that the ending (I'm not quite there yet) is incredibly sorrowful - even though, as I've posted several times, I think the Zhivago-Lara relationship is a little sketchy and, on Zhivago's part, also exploitative - or at least self-indulgent and a betrayal of his wife and family, by the end it's clear that they are deeply passionate about each other, that in another world or another life (or another novel?) they would have found each other in life much earlier and, most of all, that their love is doomed by the powerful forces of a brutal and ruinous society that throw obstacles in their path at every turn: another instance of the inside-out nature of this novel - the socio-political background is so powerful that it crushes and extinguishes the relationships in the foreground. In the more typical romantic epic, the characters are finally united - but this is a tragic, rather than a "comic" epic - it's a romance more on the lines of Wuthering Heights, or of the "sad" ending to Great Expectations - a love that could never endure. Z and Lara are living in pastoral poverty, really almost on the verge of starvation - great imagery of the wolves howling at night and creeping ever closer to their tiny, isolated house - when the man who'd abuse L. when she was a child turns up once again and convinces them that there's a death sentence out on both of them, that L's estranged husband and protector has been killed. We know it's a lie, and I'm surprised Dr. Z took this info on faith, but it appears that's what he does - he ships L off to K, apparently (maybe there's a surprise in the epilogue) never to see her again, then learns he's been duped, her husband is still alive. In the final chapter (before epilogue and poems), he travels once again through great hardship into Moscow, looking like one of the many ruined war veterans haunting the city, ghostlike. Whatever our views of Pasternak's politics and objectivity, we feel for Z as a character - he has endured so much in his passage through history, suffered his whole life, and to what cause, for what end? At the end, he is alone and forsaken, having accomplished nothing - except for the poems that bejewel the final chapter.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A version of pastoral in Doctor Zhivago

As noted in a previous post, there are "versions of the pastoral" in Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago - and now I note, following up on yesterday's post, that just as he turns the historical epic inside out, he also turns the pastoral inside out, or at least he does so to a degree: Doctor Z is a pastoral novel in the sense that Zhivago and Lara escape from the brutal, harsh world into a retreat of their own making, much like, mutatis mutandi, Rosalind and Celia escape from the cruel Duke in As You Like It or Spenser's (and Ovid's) shepherds find peace and tranquility in the forests and meadows: it's rural v urban, country v court, innocence v. experience - many versions, as Empson noted in his famous book on the topic. In Doctor Z the version is something like freedom v. oppression: they escape the world in which men are deprived of their property, conscripted into service, sometimes sentenced to death for no reason other than the convenience of the state authorities; in Lara's little apartment, across the street from The House with the Figures (a kind of city hall, apparently) they are, for a time, seemingly safe. But how is this inside out? For one thing, they are "escaping" also from the mores of society and, in Zhivago's case, from a version of domestic bliss. He is torn by guilt about this, at times - but only at times; otherwise, he finds it pretty convenient to be with the beautiful Lara, and to be far from the obligations of marriage and parenthood. One could say that the craziness of the times makes marriage difficult or impossible - but his and their contempt for conventions, and in his case for a perfectly lovely wife and son, is a dark thread shot through their pastoral fabric. Moreover, their pastoral is anything but idyllic: a house teeming with rats, a foreboding visit from the man who abused Lara in her youth, death threats - and ultimately an escape back to the small house in the country - a pastoral within a pastoral no less - where Zhivago had lived for a time with his family, before he was impressed into the army. The pastoral, in this novel, is an escape - but an escape into a world that is dark and tenuous and filled with anxiety and trouble, not a vernal summer idyll.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A novel turned inside out: Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago is a great or at least a near-great novel despite turning the conventions of the novel inside out; it's clearly one of the great examples of the historic-epic, but in the other great examples that come to mind the novels work because there's a great story, generally a love story, that plays out in the foreground against a richly detailed background of historical events, unfolding and evolving over time and affecting the lives and fortunes of the main characters. Prime examples: War and Peach, Tale of Two Cities (which I have to re-read, it's been many years), and, despite its obvious obtuseness and reactionary sentiments, Gone with the Wind. In Doctor Z., Pasternak devotes almost all of his attention to the background; the truly memorable and power moments in the novel are the flight from poverty in Moscow, the long train journey into the Urals, settling into the tiny village farm amid poverty and uncertainty, Zhivago's 18 months pressed into service with the Red Army in Siberia, Zhivagos two-month journey by foot back to the Urals (this told in retrospect not in real novel time), and settling in, with Lara, in the ravaged small city under Red Army control. Some of the elements and incidents in this passages are indelible: the soldier with his limbs amputated, the wailing of the peasant women who come upon a deserted village, the snowbound trains in Siberia, the apartment full of rats, the people crowded around the public square reading dicta posted on the walls, and many more - and these combine and cohere into what I can only call a cinematic vision of life in this time and in these places. Yet what's lacking is the foreground - for all this excellent description and historical recollection, Z and Lara are actually quite sketchily drawn, their relationship is not entirely convincing, and the minor characters are extremely confusing and sometimes arbitrary. The novel is not about these characters, it's about their world - and it seems that literally nobody else was brave enough or capable enough to describe this bloody period in Soviet history. It's completely obvious why Soviet authorities would have repressed this novel - because it's hard to imagine a more unsympathetic portrayal of the revolution, which in Pasternaks' treatment is dismal and cynical and brutally cruel.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lara as the romantic idea, and what that means

One would guess that Boris Pasternak's depiction of the Russian Revolution in Doctor Zhivago stands alone in Russia, and in world, literature - a uniquely despairing even cynical view of this world-changing event. Of course he had the perspective of forty years, looking back at the events from the 1950s, but still - his portrayal of the Revolution, as seen from Zhivago's point of view, is relentlessly dark. In short, Zhivago is conscripted or impressed of maybe you could even say kidnapped - hauled away by some troops as he's on his way home and sent off to the Siberian front to be a medical doctor for some of the Red Army troops who are fighting the last remnant of the whites. We don't really see military action, but we see the behind the scenes and back in camp action - and it's unrelenting deprivation and idiocy: the commanders are crazy (one a severe cocaine addict, snorting stolen medical supplies), their objectives are unclear, in fact this whole section of the novel is kind of difficult for the reader, maybe intentionally so - very hard to distinguish among the characters, with their various aliases, the complex histories, which Pasternak relates rather sketchily - but it's easy to get at the essence, Zhivago believing that he's wasted his life, wondering and worrying about the family back home (his wife was pregnant with second child when he was abducted), and from time to time looking up in the sky and seeing visions of his mistress, Lara. It's actually amazing to me how important an emotional role she plays in his life and how little they are actually together - in fact, how seldom she appears at all in the first half of the book. Essentially, she's a vision and an ideal, a man's romantic fantasy - about how his life could be or could have been with another woman - when of course being with that woman entails none of the obligations of raising and supporting a family, dealing with the diurnal tasks, fatherhood, social obligations, professional obligations, etc. Thousands of guys have gone through this, and left their wives for the other woman - and then found that what looked like love and freedom and passion soon became something else - that essentially they were escaping or trying to escape a web of obligations and commitments, which every relationship ultimately entails, unless it dies.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A pastoral idyll in the midst of Doctor Zhivago

The Zhivago family completes the long railroad journey from Moscow into the Urals and settles in at the old farmstead formerly owned by Tonya Z's family - the long chapter that describes their arrival in the small town and their acclimatization to the rural life is another example of Boris Pasternak at his best - so beautifully capturing a mood and a sense of time and place (without really moving the story forward). The Zhivagos face a number of problems, notably that they would be victimized and ostracized if it were widely known that Tonya's mother was a landholding aristocrat or that Yuri Z is a Moscow-educated doctor. The family now settled in the farmstead almost turns them away, essentially to die in the snow, but they grudgingly give the Zs an outbuilding in which to live; much of this chapter involves their description of their repairs to the house, preparation for winter, etc. It's truly a pastoral idyll in the middle of the epic novel, as Yuri Z. comes to believe he has truly found some kind of happiness - though the word of his being a doctor has gradually spread, and people come to him for treatment and advice, paying in produce. One piece of this section is a diary or daybook that Zhivago keeps for a short while, which is clearly a window into Pasternak's own views about art and about politics - much of which would have and did deeply trouble the Soviet officials who repressed this book (this on top of Pasternak's overall cynicism or harsh realism, take your pick, about the course of the Russian Revolution). Zhivago begins spending some time in the city - about a 3-hour horseback ride away - doing some library research, and lo whom does he behold but Lara, who in one of those Dickensian coincidences that happen in fiction but seldom in life, is living in this same city - and it also turns out that her (estranged) husband, once though dead in action, is now the commander who held and then released Z. at the train station. Z. begins regular visits to Lara, and their love affair begins - and he is torn by guilt. Just as he's pondering confessing all to the now-pregnant Tonya, he is waylaid by a military posse and impressed to be a military doctor serving in Siberia - and off he goes, as we enter another phase of his epic journey.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A great section that shows the strengths and weaknesses of Doctor Zhivago

The long chapter that ends book one of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago is a stunning set piece and in an dof itself is probably why Pasternak won a Nobel Prize (declined) and why this novel became a best seller and ultimately a vast and romantic movie - in other words, it shows both the strengths and the weaknesses of this novel. In this section, the Zivago family - Dr. Z., wife Tonya, son (?), father-in-law Andreyev (?) leave the poverty of post-war, mid-revolution Moscow in 1918 and head to Tonya's old family estate in a remote village in the Urals. The journey is by train - first we see the complicated and scary decisions about what to take (you have to be able to carry everything yourself), what to sell, what to leave behind, then the cab (harse-drawn) ride through the city at dawn to the train, then the tumult of trying to find an outbound train - tickets are really scarce, there's terrible crowding, everyone has to carry a sheaf of documents which may e of no use anyway, trains are cancelled or commandeered - finally they get on one, bedding down in a freight car along with some other sketchy passengers  - the train is also carrying soldiers bound for the front and conscripted workers, prisoners mostly it seems, being sent of to dig trenches in the west. The long train ride - several days at least - during which Tonya leaves the train at certain stops and barters cloth for food (in one memorable transaction she acquires a "halfy," half of a roasted hare). At one point they're snowed in by a blizzard and everyone has to get out and shovel the lines clear over several days - intensively beautiful - some of the finest passages are conveyed from Dr. Z's POV, and we truly see his (i.e., Pasternak's) poetic observations and sensibilit; at the end of the section, Dr. Z wanders from the train and is picked up as a suspected escaped prisoner - he could easily have been killed but it the commander knows he's not the one - commander vividly drawn and he hints - and we can be sure - he will cross paths again with Zhivago. The whole episode is more cinematic than poetic - it's not so much the language of the passage as the accumulation of detail that enable us to see and feel this journey as if we are in it. All to the good, but it also feels that it's a passage that lives by itself and, though necessary to the structure of the novel, is somewhat apart from the novel: Pasternak is weak, compared to the great Russian masters whom he emulated, on creating characters and relationships among them; half-way through the novel, no character is especially vivid: it's a novel about a historical backdrop, a time and place, and characters who move through and among this time and space - not a plot- or character-driven story but a panoramic epic. Clear that Pasternak is poet (and translator) more than a novelist, but his strengths are so great in these regards that they outweigh, most often, the clumsiness of his narrative construction.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Why they censored Doctor Zhivago

Not hard to see why the Soviet powers cracked down on Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. Let me count the whys: First, I'm now reading the very moving section in which Zhivago returns to Moscow after his service as an Army doctor on or near the front on World War (I), and the city is in complete and dire poverty; his wife, Tanya, has arranged for them to rent out most of their house and live in just a few rooms, no servants (well, maybe one?), and most of peoples' lives are consumed by attaining the bare necessities, like firewood. You're a Soviet censor circa 1957; sound too familiar? Ouch. Even so, perhaps they could have tolerated a look pre-Revolutionary poverty, but this section of the novel then moves into the era of the Soviet Revolution, 1918 ff, and things are no better, in fact there's now all kinds of political turmoil, fear of riots in the street, assassinations. No, that's not a view they would tolerate in 1957. Even worse, if we are to accept the hardships of life during a revolution, you can be sure that they would not want the figure of suffering and endurance and ultimate triumph to be a bourgeois well-educated doctor. Strike three. Further, the novel is notable (and disturbing to the Soviets) for what it excludes: there is no depiction at all, let alone a romantic and heroic depiction, of the working classes or the oppressed serfs and peasants. How could Pasternak expect to get away with that - writing a novel about a doctor and part-time poet? Finally, even though a third of the way into the novel Zhivago and his soul-mate Lara have had almost no interactions (amazingly - that's not how I remember the story from first reading), it's OK to write a historical epic but the focus should be on the forces of history (and the triumph of the proletariat), not on love and romance. Strike five, and Pasternak was out. Of course the Soviets were idiots and thugs and Doctor Z is an excellent if not a great novel, but the state censors were so blind to the power of literature to change peoples' lives and raise consciousness and awareness (or maybe they weren't so blind; maybe their oppression was a perverse recognition of the power of literature?) - butMoscow and the USSR would have been a more healthy, stable, and prosperous society if its people had been able to read Doctor Zhivago in 1957.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Tessa Hadley's recent stories reaching a deeper level

I've been kind of lukewarm toward the stories of Tessa Hadley that I've read in The New Yorker over the past few years and wondering why she's become such a go-to girl for the fiction editor(s) but her previous story, about a girl who goes for a ride with some guys as she tries to get away from her overprotective family and then things get way out of hand and now her current story in the NYer, Experience, about a 20-something recent divorcee who is house sitting in London and becomes strangely involved with the life of the absent homeowner, first curious about her life as any and every housesitter would be and is, then snooping among locked-away possessions in the attic, makes some odd discoveries about the personality of the absent woman (some of this a little improbably - who keeps a diary anymore? - seemed like a trope out of a 19th-century novel, but convenient to convey plot info), then, when woman's ex boyfriend stops by and housesitter, Laura, knows way more about the relationship than she should the story gets interesting. In the British way, the story cools down before anything really weird or violent takes place - everyone's very civic and civil in the end, as Laura moves on with her life, but the story does end with a kicking line. All told, I think this and  previous story show a deeper level of thinking in Hadley's stories, as she continues to explore the lives of contemporary British (usually London?) women, mostly younger women, often (though not in Experience) of the working class - and this story shows how in a few deft strokes at the outset Hadley can establish character and mood. I very much like the first-person narration here (often, I don't), in which Laura truly seems like one who is reflecting back on her life, on her then-innocence, from a vantage of experience: we sense the sadness and isolation of the recently divorced woman as she struggles to build a life from the broken pieces of the life of another.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Pasternak's place in literature

In some ways Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago seems like a classic of Russian literature, a 19th-century magnum opus 75 years behind its time - with its echoes of Dostoevsky (the smoky crowded Moscow apartments, the extremely dramatic nearly insane actions like Lara's botched attempt to assassinate her much older, estranged lover) and Tolstoy (the battlefield scenes, in this case during World War I, and the lengthy passages in which the characters discuss or reflect upon the nature of existence and the state of the world) and Chekhov (the interest in the sciences, especially medicine, the loneliness and isolation of provincial life) - but in others ways it's a near-contemporary (near-contemporary because no best seller today would be so long, compelx, or ambitious - 1957 was a different era) blockbuster best seller, a grand love story that covers the entire scope of the lives of the two central characters, spanning a vast region of geographic space and many tumultuous events (war, revolution). What it isn't: it does not seem like a great 20th-century novel - there's none of the narrative inventiveness, self-consciousness, or artifice that we associate with postmodernism - it seems nothing at all like the other great books of its era, on any continent. Granted there were few great Russian novels of that era: Bulgakhov might be one, and his masterwork Master and Margarita is so bizarre and inventive that it almost self-destructs. Solzhenitsyn came a little later, and his works are political and relistic; Pasternak stands alone as a romantic. As the novel moves along, it becomes clear (to me at least) that Dr. Z and Lara had crossed paths only twice - once in the tiny apartment where L mourned the death of her mother (?) and then on xmas even when L. tried to assassinate her former lover. We move forward in time and each marries a childhood companion: Z marries Tonya or Tanya, in a marriage that seems happy but somehow (to us) unpassionate; L. marries Pasha (?) Platinov, and he is a disturbed young man - is there a hint of repressed homosexuality? - who leaves for the army and is apparently killed in action (in novelistic terms, since we never see that, we do expect him to return from the "dead"). Z and L., doctor and nurse, find themselves assigned to same military hospital; Z. mentions L in a letter home, making his wife jealous - he says she has completely misinterpreted him, he has no attraction to L (true at that time) - but obviously she picked something up that Z himself was not aware of: the fact of his mentioned L in the letter was a clue that a wife would find disturbing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The difficulties and the beauty of Doctor Zhivago

Despite the rocky beginning, which I discussed in yesterday's post, Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago (1957) does begin to take narrative shape by the 2nd or 3rd section, about 70 pages in - it's probably not the material that so many remember from the famous movie - Yura and Lara are both about 20 by the end of the 2nd chapter and they've not actually met each other, though their paths have crossed at a few dramatic moments - but at least the two main characters are coming into focus and the many secondary characters are fading into the background. Yura, raised by a wealthy benefactor (a relation of some sort?) and raised alongside her daughter, a young woman who seems like a sibling. But the mother, in her dying moments, urges Yura to marry her daughter, and so that seems destined. But then there are the Lara chapters: she's raised in poverty, her mother works in or maybe owns a small dressmaker's shop, and has an ugly affair with their landlord, at least twice her age - she eventually breaks away from that, has a relationship that seems to be heading toward marriage with a young man (Platinov?). When her brother loses a great deal of money gambling, she plans to go the lecherous landlord, actually a wealthy bachelor lawyer, and ask for money to pay off the debt - she brings a gun - eventually her plan changes and she gets the money elesewhere, but brings the gun to an xmas party, one of those all-night Russian bashes, and of course a gun in a novel (of play) is bound to go off - leads to some chaos, Zhivago, now a young doctor, treats one of the wounded, or is about to, when he gets word that his stepmother is dying - rushes home. It's one of the times he crosses paths with Lara; he also has seen her some years earlier in some kind of deathbed scene, is it her mother dying of pneumonia?, I don't remember, when she is sulking tearfully in a corner, her head resting on a table I think. There are certain plot elements linking them, too, but these are even more obscure to me: her landlord-lover was I think a lawyer involved in the affairs to Yura Z's late father (killed himself because of some kind of debt issue). The novel is like a photo image gradually coming into focus: some of the early scenes are completely obscure to me (not obscurely written, but their function in the novel is unclear), but as we go further into the work the pieces, or many of them, begin to cohere. Some of the writing feels like warmed-over Dostoyevsky (the death scenes, the smoky apartments, the all-night bouts, the expounded philosophy) but others are extremely beautiful, especially as Z begins to realize himself as a poet and begins observing the images around him and thinking about how to shape them into art: a journey across Moscow on Christmas eve, a lone candle in a window.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Surprisingly difficult beginning chapters in Doctor Zhivago

On friend AF's recommendation last night started reading Boris Pasternak's DoctorZhivago (1957), which I hadn't read since college - amazing that it has stood so long, from its days as a best-seller sensation and now a classic, joining the lists of Pevear-Volokhonsky translation projects and sitting beside Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. My memory of the novel, which is very vague and entirely polluted by my memory of the super-romantic film version, is that it's a romance story about two characters, the eponymous Dr. Z. and his beloved Lara, separated for many years by his exile to Siberia, then reunited much later in life? In great poverty and illness? A story about the war? About Stalinist repression? Obviously a book that did not find favor in USSR during Pasternak's lifetime, so he must have gone after some of the icons and sacred truths. I'm very surprised, however, at the difficulty of the first 30 pages or so - if you didn't know ahead of time that young Yuri and Lara - I think they're each about 10 when the novel begins - this would be even rougher going, as Pasternak introduces many, many characters in a series of short chapters, and their relations to one another are, at least initially, very obscure - in other words, the opening chapters are not like any of today's best sellers and would probably put off any publisher who happened on this in his or her inbox. Nevertheless, we do get early glimpses of Lara, living in poverty in Moscow with her (widowed?) mother and suffering the advances of the lecherous landlord; we see Yuri mourning the death of his mother (and in another chapter, what appears to be the suicide in a leap from a train of his father - doing Anna Karenina one better). And then there are many other characters whom I cannot recall or track; as P-V note in their translators' note, the names are whimsical and obscure even to Russians - thanks, Boris, I appreciate that! - but I guess it helps to know this as we do then realize we don't have to pay a great deal of attention to all the patronymics.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Four easy pieces: Why Munro's fiction v her "memoirs"

As has been widely reported, the last four "stories" in Alice Munro's latest collection, Dear Life, are more like pieces of a memoir: Munro's unusual note in the book describes them as largely factual and true, and as probably the only autobiographical pieces she will ever write. Having read them, I have to say that, other than the title piece "Dear Life," they are not wholly satisfying. (In fact, would these four pieces be of such interest if we were not reading them seeking clues as to who the "real" Munro is?) Munro is not a memoirist; she evidently has no desire to explicitly write the story of her life, and in these pieces she seems to keep bumping up against the strictures of the form. The pieces are tiny little fragments of her life - animosity toward younger sister, visit to a local dance with her mother that they leave when her mother realizes one of the women there is "loose" - and each of the pieces has insights into Munro's character and personality and family history (it has never been so clear that her mother and father had such different personalities and temperaments, the school teacher and the mink farmer). But, in the end, we know so much more about Munro and her way of thinking, her perceptions, her life course and her way in the world, from her many stories than from these short fact-based accounts of her childhood. And I think that's the way it is with all great writers - their fiction they write is the true window into their souls - not their letters, their memoirs (if they've written any), their biographies (if any have been written about them). From Munro's many stories, we understand so much about her childhood in rural Canada, the years of discovery in Toronto and Vancouver, the breakaway from an unhappy or unfulfilling marriage, the feeling of independence and fear as she tries to establish herself as a writer, the journeys back East by train and the strange encounters along the way, the later years near Lake Huron in towns haunted by ghosts and stories of the past, the life frequently intersecting with the lives of farm girls and working girls - and where they went and what became of the them and how lives in a small town can be on collision courses and people can destroy one another - so much more than what Munro can tell, or has told us, had she tethered her imagination to the facts of her life. That would have been too easy; she's taken the harder, braver course and given us access to her life, and to many others.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

How Alice Munro takes on the most tired of narrative cliches - and writes a great story

Anyone who's ever read through the "slush pile" (which I do not disparage - said pile has been my only point of entry for all my publications) for a magazine or for a short-contest knows that you will repeatedly come across certain tropes, perhaps the most common and and annoying of all being: and I woke up and it was all a dream! That format is an easy way for a writer to get away with any sort of ludicrous, bizarre, impenetrable material in the narrative and then - to the reader's supposed surprise - explain it all away as a dreamscape; or, another variant, to build up a really tense situation - a crime or horror scene, pursuit, et al. - and then rather than concluding with any dramatic or satisfactory resolution, snap, you wake up - and sometimes, in the weakest of these stories, the events begin again in waking life. Okay, so why is Alice Munro working this most hoary of tropes in her story In Sight of the Lake, in her latest collection, Dear Life? The only reason she would take this on would be to write the definitive dream-awakening story, and of course she nearly does so. Sorry to be giving away spoilers here, but it does take a while for readers to realize that we're reading some kind of dream narrative, because Munro is able to keep her narrative just on the edge of plausibility. Briefly, the story, in first-person narration, is about a 70ish woman who sees her doctor to discuss recent loss of memory and he recommends she see a specialist in a nearby town; she drives to the town and has trouble locating the office. This behavior is possible because the very essence of the story is that the woman is losing her short-term memory and behaving oddly in other ways as well - but gradually, eventually, we begin to sense that it's not her behavior only that's out of alignment: for example, does it make any sense that she would drive alone to this town the day before her appointment and stay over night? At first, I thought this was a fault of the narrative, but began to realize it was the point of the narrative; similarly, she sits down in a private garden, and the owner escorts her on a walk through town looking for the office - again, almost possible, but not quite, a little bit off - and we sense that this dream is a retelling, in a new form, of the entire course of this woman's life, ending, as it does, in a nursing home with locked door. It's a nearly perfect story, but I will have the temerity to offer a suggestion (when I was in the great writing group in Providence, PAWs, we used to pride ourselves on our critical approach to one another's stories and probably to everything, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, you name it): why the last short section in which the narrator does wake up, in presence of her nursing aides? I'd say just end it when she's locked in the nursing home - leave it slightly open and ambiguous - Munro's readers, educated in her style, will get it.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Stories by two great writers in one week: Munro, Trevor

Reading Charles May's blog entry on Corrie shows me how fallible memory can be - my recollection of the details of the various endings of Alice Munro's great story Corrie all veered in various ways from what she actually wrote - although I'm glad that I at least did remember that the endings in the two versions (that I read, there's a yet a 3rd) did differ - and I think the original was the sharper and more poignant, at least holding the possibility that she tells that bastard off and moves on with her life. This is an especially fortunate week for lovers of the short story as we not only have at hand Munro's latest collection, Dear Life, but the current New Yorker brings us a new story by William Trevor - and I do go with the accepted opinion that they are the two greatest living English-language short-story writers. That said, I don't think Trevor's current story, The Women, is one of his best although it is representative of many of the themes he has been recently examining: in this case, a young woman raised by her single dad whom she believes to be widowed but whom we know had been deserted by his young wife; the girl never met her mother. She goes off to a boarding school where she begins to notice two middle-aged women essentially stalking her; eventually they approach her, invite her to visit them at home, offer her flowers, actually know her name. All this would be creepy and mysterious, except that of course we know or can quickly surmise that one of the women is actually her mother. So the story touches on the great themes of loneliness (the girl's, her father's, her mother's) and class (a sub-element is her struggle to fit in at the boarding school, where she feels isolated and a little bit bullied) and the vagaries of love and the lives of quiet desperation that so many people lead (the quick portrait of the mother and her friend-housemate is very striking and mysterious: are they a lesbian couple?) - but isn't it obvious that the story could be improved with better narrative construction, holding back some elements so that we, too, are puzzled by the appearance of these women? Shouldn't the girl's discovery of her origins have some effect on her behavior and on her relationship to her beloved father? It's a story that needs both less and more - and perhaps this story is part of a longer piece over the course of which the relations among the characters will unfold and develop. So whom am I to be telling William Trevor how to write?

Friday, January 11, 2013

One of Munro's greatest stories - but why did she tinker with it?

I see at least from the headline in Charles May's excellent blog on the short story that I'm not nuts (or maybe I am but not about this): that Alice Munro has made some changes in her great story, Corrie, between its New Yorker appearance and its publication in her latest collection, Dear Life. Why would she do that? I mean, either way it's a terrific story: about a smart, sassy attractive woman with a lame foot who gets involved in a long-term affair with a married man; (spoilers coming) when he reports to her that a former cleaning lady in town has spotted them as a couple and begins a blackmail scheme, the woman, Corrie, who's pretty wealthy and single, agrees to pay the blackmail. Much later in their lives, she learns that the scheme was a scam: her lover has made the whole thing up and pocketed the biannual blackmail payments and used them to help support his family. In my memory, in the original version Corrie outs him, but in the book-published version she never confronts him with the truth (nor confirms the lie), but just goes on making the payments: making the guy a kind of gigolo and Corrie rather pathetic and dependent. The story has lots of emotional twists, and it remains one of Munro's most vivid depictions of an adulterous (or maybe of any) couple - but I think I prefer the original. Or maybe I am nuts. Two adjacent stories in Dear Life make another of the Munro mirrored pair: both are about another Munro trope, the "couple" that builds a life together outside of marriage and without a sexual relationship. In Pride, a guy with a harelip and thereby a terrible self-image, is befriended by a wealthy and seemingly popular young woman, and they essentially spend their whole life together - but he, in Jamesian or a Prufrockian way, feels he has missed out on his whole life - very sad story. (The suffering of the malformed is a big  Munro theme as well, and at times that echoes Flannery O'Connnor.) The mirror story is the much longer Train, about a returning war vet who appears at a farmhouse where the woman running the small dairy farm takes him in for a night and then, following his doing a number of chores, essentially for their whole life, though again they never seem to have a sexual relationship - his sexuality is in fact somewhat ambiguous as is his whole personality. There's obviously something he's running away from - it's unclear why he never would have made contact with any family members or friends after returning from WWII - and the story (he moves to Toronto with her when she's hospitalized, falls into a job as a building super) is rather long and, at least on my first reading, very difficult to parse, with a # of typically Munro late-introduced characters and plot elements.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Alice Munro's unusual narrative style

Another set of mirror-image stories in Alice Munro's collection Dear Life, both of which appeared in the New Yorker and now collected and with, I think, some revisions and additions: Gravel is like the first story in the collection, To Reach Japan, brought to a higher pitch. We again see a typical Munro "heroine," a 30ish woman with a few children and with an artistic bent (or pretensions) who leaves her conventional but loyal and faithful husband for another man or, more often, just for a dash at freedom (really the same thing). In this case, the woman takes her two daughters (she's pregnant with a 3rd child) and moves into a trailer in the countryside with her hippie-ish, narcisstic new boyfriend, devastating the husband left behind. But - unlike in To Reach Japan - she pays a huge price: in both stories a child is endangered because the mother leaves her alone while having sex with new squeeze; in this story, the child drowns, which leads to guilt and ruination for a lifetime, particularly for the narrator of the story, the younger sister who couldn't save the drowning girl. Very powerful story. The bookend to Gravel is Haven, about a teenage girl left in care of her childless aunt and uncle for a year while her parents pursue missionary work in Ghana. Again, issue of abandoned child - though child not at all vulnerable - as parents (in this case as a couple) go to find themselves. The issue here focuses not on the girl but on the aunt and uncle - here the aunt is completely subjected to the will of her overbearing, dominant, cruel husband. He's not an abuser outright of anything, but he can imposes his will on her in every possible way: she's a crushed woman, and doesn't even know it. She makes a feeble attempt to befriend some neighbors, in part by inviting her husband's estranged sister over to the house, which infuriates husband - hard to believe she would actually do this, knowing him, but maybe there was a sense in which she wanted to provoke him, perhaps to break up their marriage? Unfortunately, the story wobbles its way toward an unlikely conclusion when the sister dies and they all go to a funeral. Munro is well known for her unconventional narratives, not always bringing them to a sharp conclusion, but this one seems to have spun off the rails. Another story in the collection is the excellent Leaving Maverly, a good late example of Munro's unusual narrative style: the focus of the story shifts several times in the first pages, as we're not sure until well into it who will be the protagonist and who will be a peripheral or marginal character. Gradually, we see that the story is about the small-town policeman and his ill wife (another one of Munro's entwined, childless couples), particularly in regard to his relation with a young woman in town who eventually runs away from her very strict parents, then returns to town - all over a long period of time. Story would be stronger, in my view, if Munro hadn't surprised us so much with the young girl's character - she doesn't even hint, when she introduces the girl, at her rebellious and impulsive nature; also sory would have been stronger if there were no final meeting between girl and now-widowed policeman; that scene feels unlikely and forced into the picture.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Alice the Great and her new collection of stories, Dear Life

Any new collection of stories by Alice (the Great) Munro is an occasion, and I'm really please that daught gave me a copy of Dear Life for xmas, which I know am reading - though of course I've read about half the stories already in various issues of the NYer. Re-read one last night, Amundsen (name of remote Canadian town where story takes place ca 1945), and is it just me or are there passages or even sections in this book-published version that did not appear in the magazine version (it seems the trainride back to Toronto included some extra material, for ex). Also read for the first time the initial story, To Reach Japan. The two make an interesting set: Japan is relatively short for Munro, is not one of her greatest stories, but touches on a number of her perennial themes: a woman with a literary bent is in a dull marriage, in Vancouver in I think about 1960, and struggles for her independence and her freedom to write. Two notable things about this story: the story builds to a point of dramatic crisis, unusual for Munro, in which the woman temporarily loses her 5-year-old daughter on a train, finds her perilously sitting between cars, and feels guilt and remorse - in particular because she left the sleeping daughter to engage in quick sex with just-met fellow passenger. The near tragedy and the burden of guilt is a little high-temperature for Munro. Second unusual element is that, though we are meant on some level to sympathize with the woman, who is enchained to some degree by family and marital obligations (in this sense, Munro is the Canadian daughter of Tillie Olsen), the woman is truly a shit to her husband - engaging in affairs and quick flings, with no attempt to hide this from their young child - while he seems dull and provincial but in no ways bad or evil - even quite tolerant of her aspirations and yearnings for freedom. Story puts us into a moral quagmire. Not so Amundsen, in which the guy is truly a complete shit (the stories make nice bookends or mirror images with with to begin the collection), seducing the young narrator schoolteacher, bullying and bossing her at every turn, totally self-centered - shows how vulnerable and naive she is that she agrees to marry him, and then he abandons her - an awful guy, and there are slight hints that he may have a secret sexual life or perhaps no sense of his hidden homoerotic desires. In Munro fashion, the two cross paths many years later in Toronto - she gives us the barest glimpse of the narrator's present-day life, married and maybe not totally happy in that - and it's a bit of a disappointment that the two do not exchange some information (which I think they would do) instead of just passing on the street and saying hello - but that's Munro, her stories are so successful because of her unconventional structure and the odd way she focuses carefully on some narrative elements and breezes through others.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Great but unreable v great but unknowable novels

This will be the last time: I tried once again to get absorbed in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, having set it aside some months ago when I got mired in the extremely long chapter in which Quentin's northern preppy roommate, Shreve, narrates to Quentin a great swath of the history of the Compton family post Civil War, and after each of Shreve's ludicrously detailed, operatic passages - completely impossible as examples of anyone's speech, ever - Quentin simply says, "Yes," and Shreve goes onward - Faulkner's really having fun her making fun of his own loquacity as a narrator and, I believe, his taciturnity as a social being. In any case, I literally could not get through this chapter, or for that matter this novel - it would be simply impenetrable if not for the lifeline Faulkner (or some merciful editor) tosses us with the cast of characters and the timeline at the end (similar to the preface F. added to later editions of Sound and Fury, which to first readers must have been entirely daunting - much less so today). A, A! is, however, impenetrable: many list it among the great books, but I have to put it among the great but unreadable books, alongside Finnegans Wake, Man Without Qualities, possible Gravity's Rainbow. These great but unreadable - honestly, who's finished any of them? who's understood them? - novels stand alongside others that a great but unknowable, books so vast in their scope and in their authorial intelligence that we can read them - I have - but that it seems no number of readings could possibly encompass everything the author has in his (or her, if you like) mind: Ulysses, Moby-Dick, In Search of Lost Time, to name three, each of which I've read multiple times (at least 1st two volumes of Proust) and feel each time I can never "get" it all and am not meant to, or perhaps not able to - but just to approach the mind of the author, to gain some access to the conciousness of Joyce, Melville, or Proust, is enough, more than enough.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Oh, Canada: Ford's novel appeals to wide range of serious readers

Opinions at book group on Richard Ford's Canada were overwhelmingly positive, ranging from exalting, I think led by JRo, calling it the best fiction he'd ever read about the alienation of a young man, trying to find his way in a difficult world, to those on the less positive end, mostly me and JRi, who admired the writing and the introspection of the novel but found it very difficult to abide the improbabilities of the plot - I in particular concerned about how Ford essentially abandoned his plot, moving the novel in the second part completely away from the characters and situation he so carefully established. Can anyone really accept that a 15-year-old boy would never make any attempt over a lifetime to find out what happened to his parents? Can anyone explain why the crazy man Remlinger would have wanted the narrator, Dell, as a witness to the double-murder? Other examples as well - but, still, the novel is full of beautiful passages - again, I think that Ford is one of our best chroniclers of geography - and a lot of smart rumination: it's almost like an anti-novel, there's are significant plot elements, but Ford folds the novel inside out and instead of building up the plot he wears it down: the two central crime scenes are not even witnessed by the narrator, Dell; rather, Ford tells everything by nuance and indirection. Dell sees the world as if through a haze, making him a very unusual narrator to be sure. I noted in discussion that most first-person novels about the adventures of a young person are quite distinctly written in the voice of a young person, e.g., Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird; there are exceptions in which an older narrator looks back on events of his or her youth (not talking here about a full life story such as Copperfield - only about novels that cover as short span of time): e.g., So Long See You Tomorrow, among the greatest. Ford takes that stance as well, an older narrator looking back - though he does very little with that triangulation; it's surprising that he doesn't build toward a revealed knowledge at the end, esp in the 3rd section when Dell meets up with his estranged twin sister, now on the verge of death. Canada is an unusual, almost unique novel - appealing, if our group is evidence, to a wide band of serious readers, with enough true plot and strong characterizations to keep all engaged, but also plenty of high romance to give the novel a style and a careful, deliberate pace.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Middlemarch ranks among the world's great novels

E.M. Forster famously (and quaintly) said that "English poetry fears no man" [ sic ], but that English fiction is just not on the same level as the other great European (and American, I would add) fiction: can any English writer stand up to the level of Proust, Mann, Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy? Well, without getting into a debate on the relative merits of Dickens, Woolf, Cervantes, and Austen in comparison with Melville, Cervantes, Garcia Marquez, and Lampaduso, let's just say that George Eliot's Middlemarch holds its own as one of the great works of world literature. Though seemingly a "provincial" novel, not only in our past but in Eliot's as well (by about 40 years), admittedly a novel about one social class with few or no appearances of working-class people or of urbanites, few novels can stand up to M. for its intellectual scope, its vivid characters, its well-designed plot, and most of all Eliot's shrewd, intelligent, often quirky narrative voice. Though the novel (more or less) begins and ends with marriages, it's by no means a comedy of manners (a la Austen) and though it follows the course of several characters as they learn, grow, and change over time (about 2 yeas, with a coda), it's not a bildungsroman (a la Fielding, Dickens) - nor is it a tragedy, either, though it imbued with hubris and with sorrow and pity. Though the term is dull, I guess Eliot was right in describing her novel as "study," but not a study that pins characters to the page but that brings them to life. The concluding chapter (before the finale, that follows the characters over the course of their lives but beyond the scope of the central narrative) ends with a flash of youthful enthusiasm - life goes on, despite the losses and defeats that some of the characters experience: the end is a precursor to the end of Forster's great Howards End, in fact. The "finale" chapter has its own kind of poignancy, as Eliot shows us how the characters live "beyond" the novel: how lives that can seem to be successful (Lydgate's prosperity treating wealthy Europeans for gout) can in fact be almost a tragic defeat, and how lives that seem simple and ordinary (Dorothea and Ladislaw) can be lives of great meaning and beauty - as she wisely notes that so much of our history is truly about those who rest in unvisited graves.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A title with layers of meaning: The Lost Order

Not a great story, but lots of things I like in Rivka Galchen's "The Lost Order" in current New Yorker - first of all, the title itself, with its layers of meaning. The story is apparently about a woman (first-person narrator) who's lost her job and is at home wrestling with self-image issues (weight gain, much of the first section focuses on her attempt to "not cook spaghetti"). The first event of the story is a call, with the caller listed as "unavailable," in which the caller apparently mistakenly places a Chinese takeout order. Oddly, she listens, converses, doesn't set him straight - this is kind of interesting and sets up a real tension, and we can see the significance of the title right away: the order that doesn't get placed, and the lost order in her life as a result of her lost job, etc. I was surprised about a third of the way into the story to learn that she is married, as her husband calls (from work?) and asks her to look for his lost wedding ring - another intriguing if a bit heavy-handed symbol. Ultimately, she does so; I was surprised again to learn late in the story that she is some kind of attorney - from the outset she seemed so much a type, the typical American story protagonist misfit outsider and loser - that I had trouble adjusting my expectations: as if we moved right out of a George Sunders story and suddenly (gradually?) into an Anne Tyler story. Story doesn't really go much of anywhere, and the twists at the end don't exactly tie it together: I do wish she'd made more of the phone call, driving further with the menacing tone of the story, had her narrator do more than receive the call and leave it in puzzlement. And did anyone else notice that this story shifts midway from first person past - to me, an elegant way to tell a story, as it places the narrator at a safe, retrospective distance from the events - the faux-cinematic and much overused first person present? Why? In any case, there is much to admire here, too - the quirky narrator, the jaunty tone with the background notes of menace, the social angst - and I'll look for more work by Galchen, whom I'd never read before.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Is Middlemarch really a "study of provincial life"?

What a tangled web we weave: as Bulstrode sits watching over the very ill Raffles, his blackmailer, he hopes and prays that Raffles will die, ending his troubles; calls in Lydgate, whom he'd just deeply insulted by refusing to loan him 1,000 pounds. Lydgate arrives and is cool and distant of course, but he's an honest professional and gives a sensible course of action for helping Raffles, whom he diagnosis as suffering from alcohol poisoning (obviously). Bulstrode, feelign remorse, relents and gives Lydgate the 1,000 pounds. Bulstrode leaves Raffles in the care of one of his servants, and when the servant obviously misunderstands the dosages he lets her proceed, thus killing Raffles (I covered a muder case once that was kind of similar - a nurse charged with homicide for administering too much morphine, while the dr. washed his hands of the matter.) But as it happens, Raffles had blabbed about Bulstrode's evil past, and word gets out in Middlemarch, and the people get suspicious, thinking not only that Bulstrode wanted Raffles killed, but that he paid Lydgate the 1,000 to do the deed (Lydgate's been running around town paying off his debts). So now not only is Bulstrode besmirched, justifiably, as truth will out - but Lydgate is also, and it does look pretty bad for him; it will be almost impossible for him to prove his innocence. Another great example of the tight weave of Eliot's plot, and her attention to both character details and to the social and political life of the community; the subtitle of Middlemarch is, I think, "a study of provincial life" - she is very sly and knows how dry and dull this sounds. This novel is much more than a study - but on the other hand, part of its beauty is to show the complexity of life in a seemingly "simpler" time and place.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Tale of two Georges: Eliot and Romney

Has Romney read Middlemarch? Couldn't help but think of him and his ilk in the great, painful scene during which Lydgate, completely tapped out and a thousand pounds in debt thanks to his lavish taste and his spoiled and narcissistic wife, goes the evil banker, Bulstrode, who's backed Lydgate as a benefactor of his new hospital, and asks for a loan. First, Bulstrode completely puts him off, questioning him in some detail about his medical condition (I doubt he pays anything for this medical consult - it's just among friends, don't you know, a professional courtesy), then he shocks Lydgate by telling him he's moving out of Middlemarch and giving up his interest in the hospital; we understand the reason for this move  (he's trying to avoid the shame Raffles will bring on him when and if Raffles reveals that Bulstrode stole another's inheritance), but Lydgate has no clue: yet it's quite clear to Lydgate that the hospital, and therefore his medical practice, will fall apart without Bulstrode's support. Bulstrode tells Lydgate to merge with the general hospital in town, but L. knows that the physicians there hate him and will ruin his modest practice. At last, Lydgate asks Bulstrode about a loan; Bulstrode's advice, given as if this is a benefice, is to go bankrupt and clear out his debts that way. Yes, let the marketplace take care of everything - who cares who has to suffer in the process, as long as the truly wealth remain untouched and unhindered in their practices. His advice to Lydgate was pretty much Romney's economic viewpoint: GM should have gone bankrupt, college may be tough for some kids to afford but there are plenty of other opportunities, etc. - cruel, careless, obtuse, and entirely based on self-interest. Politics and political analogies aside, this is a terrific moment in the novel and shows George Eliot's strengths as a writer quite well: it would be easy to get a lot of mileage out of this scene by making Lydgate an aggrieved good guy, but Eliot is more subtle and nuanced than that: yes, Lydgate nobly pursues the medical profession, but he is also a fool and snob in many ways, and his near-bankruptcy is of his own doing, a result of his vanity and his weakness before his wife (though he tries awfully hard to bully her into submission). The characters in Middlemarch are seldom "types" (though Bulstrode and Raffles come close), but they are "round," complex, and surprising.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The estate of the novel: Inheritance in Victorian fiction

What would a Victorian novel be without the inevitable dispute about a legacy?, and George Eliot's Middlemarch has not one but two (entwined) disputes. The more unusual one involves Casaubon's horrific bequest in which he orders that his widow, Dorothea, will forfeit her estate if she marries his cousin Ladislaw. How this could be enforced is never exactly clear, but imaging that it would or could puts the two of them into a real moral dilemma: first, it implies that they already have a passionate relationship, which they do not; second, it makes it seem as if Ladislaw, if he were interested in D., which he would have been, is pursuing her because she is wealthy. D. believes that, marriage aside, she should share the estate with L., who was deprived unfairly by Casaubon because his mother married out of the class (an itinerant Polish intellectual). Of course they could both just say the hell with it, we're in love, and we can live without this bequest - although D. does want to use the funds to bring about social improvement. The second dispute is a bit more Dickensian: we learn rather late in the novel that the evil banker, Bulstrode, has apparently deprived Ladislaw of a rightful inheritance by telling his aunt (?) that the long-lost nephew, L., could not be located and was most likely deceased; Bulstrode knew that was a lie and married the aunt and later inherited all of her (rightfully, L's) money. He confesses to L and offers him what is probably only a minuscule share of the forture; L., always a man of principle, declines the offer as morally debasing. So he has no fortune, no home, few prospects, and, seemingly, no chance to win Dorothea, who will not marry him and forfeit her opportunity to use her money for the benefit of others. We'll see how long her resolve - or his - can hold.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Male v female characters in Middlemarch

Trouble brewing on two burners in George Eliot's MIddlemarch: Fred Vincy has started working for his prospective father in law, Garth (Mary's father), and it's obvious that he's completely incompetent at office work and that Garth sr. will have to put up with a lot if he's ever to train Vincy to participate in let alone take over the business; moreover, Fred V. is now realizing - only because Mrs.Garth has told him directly - that his courting of Mary has put off another more suitable partner, Rev. Farebrother: a much more stable, less selfish, more mature man. Will Fred step aside, or will he step up? Meanwhile, the Lydgate family in deeper trouble: Dr. Lydgate, married to Rosamond Vincy (Fred's sister) has gotten into serious debt - his income has fallen (in part because of his arrogance and his opposition, justified but still, to all of the other Middlemarch doctors) and he's tried to live way above his means, in part because of the habits of his own well-to-do upbringing and in part to satisfy the Rosamond's tastes: Rosamond is a social snob, pure and simple; she knows she's the best-looking woman in the room, and she does just about anything to charm Lydgate's cousin, Captain Lydgate, a "baronet," more of the noxious and pervasive British class structure. Eliot is pretty doctrinaire in creation of her female lead characters - they're either all good (socially committed, Dorothea and Mary) or narcissistic and naive (Rosamond, Celia); the male characters are more nuanced I think - but Dorothea, as the central character when all is said and done - will learn and grow and suffer in pursuit of her noble ideals.