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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, February 28, 2013

Why Sleepwalkers is no Magic Mountain

So, nearing halfway through Hermann Bloch's The Sleepwalkers I have to ask myself: Is this book a great novel? Is it even a good novel? So far, to me it's mainly a curiosity. Part One contained some very odd and dramatic scenes, particularly when we got inside the head of the main character, Joachim, and saw people, in particular his beloved Elisabeth, as he saw them: who could ever forget his vision of Elisabeth as a landscape projected on a wall? And the opening scene describing the three-legged walk of J's father was powerful and peculiar. But part one does not stand alone as a great novella by any means - so I wondered how part 2 would add to and develop this opening section. A thin thread ties these two parts together - the main character of part 2, Esch, works for a company that J's best friend in part 1, the businessman, now owns (some 30 years later), although that seems an insignificant and tangential detail so far. Part 2 promises still perhaps to be a story of political engagement and social isolation, which could be a real window onto German society in the early 20th century but to be honest that plot is just not getting off the ground 100 pages in: Esch, intriguing literary outsider though he may be, really hasn't done much of interest as he meanders from ob to job and girl to girl - now he's moved back to his native Cologne to be a promoter for a laldies' wrestling act. OK, but what to make of all this? On some level, we see the aimlessness and alienation of youth in Germany ca 1905 - but that isn't really enough for a great novel. Though I chalk up Musil's Man without Qualities as one of the great unreadables, at least it has the noble ambition of being a complete chronicle of life in its time (in Austria), and you can't even begin to compare Bloch with the works of Mann for depth and thought and range of ideas - even a short story like Mario and the Magician has much more to say about German culture than this meandering narrative. It does have moments of great strength - not only the descriptive passages mentioned above, but some of the complex and comic dialogue - but a great novel has not only its own unique and instantly recognized style, as well as its own sense of oddity and peculiarity, that is, it's a world unto itself, but it has to have some kind of forward movement and evident design, and so far in Sleepwalkers - almost halfway in - I'm losing track of the Bloch's purpose as an artist. I'll keep with him for a while - but somebody give me a clue.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Modernism and the political right

The Anarchist, section two of Hermann Broch's trilogy The Sleepwalkers, is coalescing into a structure similar to what we read in section one: both novellas are pentagrams, with 5 characters in a similar pattern of relationships, in this one the protagonist (August Esch, love that name) in opposition in various ways to: his roommate and co-worker whom he seems to dislike or even at times despise, roommate's homely sister whom everyone seems to think is his girlfriend or even fiancee, the alluring and sexual and foreign (Hungarian) state-magician's stage partner, and the somewhat elderly and more austere magician himself. And the relations are similar: protagonist town between his affections for two women, one conventional and expected and the other an outsider, in language and culture and mores; his opposition and sexual rivalry with the guy who seems to be his best friend, and his subservience to an older man, although that relationship not developed as much as the father-son relationship in part one. But there's a whole other element to this section, i.e., the political, which I'd hinted at yesterday - as Esch feels exploited in his work and he has a friendship with a guy who seems to be a political activist and union organizers. Yesterday I noted that this political novel echoes others of its era, notably some of Conrad's pieces - and today I'd also add a few other works Sleepwalkers calls to mind: James's The Princess Cassamassima, Dostoyevsky's Devils - each of these about loners on the edges of society drawn to left-wing political causes and ultimately (I'm just guessing now in the case of Sleepwalkers) to violence and tragedy - and note that each of this is a literary take on leftist politics from the point of view of a socially conservative, even reactionary, author - this material would be (and was) treated very differently by other authors of the same era, notably for example Steinbeck, Richard Wright, for two examples - that is, a tragic novel in a leftist/progressive literary context looks very different in America than it does in Europe, particularly from the lofty and socially privileged vantage of high modernism. Much as I love the great modernist works of European fiction, their political short-sightedness and biases are something that I have to think about and take into account - but I'll see how Broch develops this material.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

More literary allusions, echoes, and foreshadowings in The Sleepwalkers

Onto the 2nd part, really second novella, in Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers, this section called The Anarchist (another title I wish I could scarf) - at least from the first few chapters it does seem more conventional than part 1, in this novella there so far don't seem to be the fevered interior perceptions of the (disturbed) protagonist (Joachim, in part 1) and there are not, yet, any of the odd descriptions of characters such as the opening section in part 1 in which Brach spends several pages describing the "three-legged" walk of Joachim's imperious father. So, yes, it's less like Musil - but it does recall other writers of Broch's time or before: the main character, Esch (great name!) is a young man just fired from some clerk-like job because of a dispute with his boss, but he does manage to cadge a good recommendation and, on a tip from a friend who's some kind of organizer or social activist, he takes a similar job in another city in Germany; there he, lodges with a fellow worker and his unwed sister, and it's oddly and generally assumed that Esch will court and marry the sister, though he seems completely uninterested, at least until Esch treats the threesome with comped tickets to a magic show, and there's a little flirtation between Esch and sister. Episode ends with Esch sending a picture postcard to the friend who got him the job and to others at the working man's cafe/bar where they used to (or he used to) hang out and drink. So what's this about? To me, it recalls the many stories of Dostoyevsky about workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries becoming automatons in offices - also recalls Melville, though I'm sure Broch would not have read Bartelby; and, because of Esch's general alienation and dissatisfaction with his job and his station, and his brushing shoulders with the labor organizer (and of course the title itself), this novella is another example of the radical fiction of the early 20th century, a brief flourishing of the polical novel: Conrad's Secret Agent for one; the magic show recalls Mann's Mario of course (an obvious homage), and the alienation Esch is a foretelling of the alienated existential heros of Camus, especially in L'etranger. I'm also interested in seeing the connections between the sections of Sleepwalkers; this novella set in 1903, and The Romantic (part 1) in the 1870s I think - there's a hint that Esch's boss, whom we have not seen yet, may be Joachim's friend from part 1, the businessman, now a prosperous member of the bourgeoisie.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Making us uestion all our assumptions about society: The Sleepwalkers

On the surface, part one of Hermann Broch's trilogy The Sleepwalkers (1938) is a conventoinal story about a conventional guy, Joachim, a German military officer, who is torn between two women, the bar girl Rozena and the genteel and virginal Elisabeth, and also torn between his friendship and rivalry with businessman-pal Bertrand (who we learn is also in love with Elisabether but, unbeknownst to Joachim, sacrifices his love and heads off to India to leave the field clear for J.) and his father the Baron von Kasenow who is at once a tyrtant, a libertine, and a social snob, angry at his son for not coming back to run the estate (after death of brother in a duel of honor) and marry the wealthy Elisabeth. In other words, it could be a hit movie of a TV drama, based simply on the superficial elements of plot - but plot is not what makes The Sleepwalkers so strange and perhaps profound: first of all, the father is no ordinary domineering man but a figure like the evil and terrifying father in many Kafka novels and stories, and his odd behavior, beginning in first chapter when Broch devotes pages to describing his imperious way of strutting down the street to the last chapters in which the father goes insane before our eyes and screams at J. and retreats to a room and tries to rewrite his will disinheriting J., pressing so hard on the paper that his quill pen burst and spurts ink. Hm. And then there's Joachim, who again seems a conventional hero of a bildungsroman on the surface but Broch takes us right into his mind where we see some very disturbing thoughts and images, notably his perceptions of the beautiful Elisabeth: at one time he sees her entire head as emanating from her throat, snakelike; at another he sees her face as a "landscape" and imagines images of her nose projected onto the wall as the silhouette of a mountain range. He is, and we are, deeply disturbed by these images - some kind of sexual loathing - but he moves forward with his plan to marry Elisabeth. The next to last chapter is the scene of their wedding night, which, as you can imagine, is not consummated - and the last chapter is one paragraph, stating that they had their first child 18 months later - so this disturbing relationship, on both parts (E. confessed to Bertrand that she did not love J., but she will marry him anyway) is to all outside eyes completely ordinary, making us question everything about the foundations of our culture. Some great scenes especially in the second half, notably Rozen's "accidental" shooting of Bertrand, Joachim's search in the bars of the city for Rozena, whom he finds cowering and filthy in a ladies' room, the complete mental breakdown of van Pasenow. A very unconventional work, and we'll see how it plays off against the next two parts of the trilogy.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A great work of modernism that's seldome read: The Sleepwalkers

Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkes (I love the title and wish I could claim it, without the article) is one of those novels that sort of hovers on the periphery of the great works of modernism - a lot of people have heard of it (and a lot have never heard of it, I guess) but I don't think it's read often, not anymore at least. German, 1938, and often, with good reason, compared with Musil (and also with Mann and Joyce). It certainly has the epic scope of the great works of modernism, but on the other hand is not as initially appealing as the works of Mann or Joyce - the plot is a little too peculiar, the style is analytic without the free-floating interior life of the great modernists, the language is a bit esoteric rather that lyrical like Joyce or Proust or Faulkner - in short, it's very much like The Man Without Qualities, which is on my list (see other posts) of great but unreadable (or at least unfinishable - by me, and by Musil himself for that matter) novels. Sleepwalkers weighs in at a welterweight 600 pages or so, and is therefore less daunting the Qualities. Falls into 3 sections, each perhaps a short novella in itself; I'm about halfway through the first section, the Romantic, evidently an ironic title as the main character Joachim is anything but: it's a story about oppositions, Joachim the soldier (though he wished he could have stayed home and run the family farm) v his brother, Helmeth, who dies in a duel over honor (something to do with a woman - never made clear to us). Joachim falls in love, kind of, with a bar girl from "Bohemia," evidently quite beautiful but not evidently very intelligent and in a different social class, obviously. To make matters complicated, his father, a hateful and tyrannical man (shades of Kafka here) on a visit to Joachim in Berlin, tries to pick up the girl, Rozena - so this is a real Oedipal struggle going on here. Joachim also, irrationally, fears several rivals, including his best friend and sometimes antagonist, who left the army for the business world. Also, father is trying to set up a marriage between Joachim and a wealthy young woman, Elisabeth, who is virginal - and Joachim is drawn to her as well - he wants both wife and mistress, apparently. This is all the setup for events that will follow - though the novel has the odd sense, much like Musil, of strange and obsessive characters who pass through the world seeming to be ordinary and conventional- making it that much more disturbing and odd than the more flamboyantly bizarre mid-century modernism such as Bulgakov.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Imagine what Proust would have done with a high-school reunion

For older writers, high-school reunions are an irresistibly tempting and alluring theme, setting, "meme" for short fiction - the blending of past and present, the exploration of memory and desire, the inevitable meditations on aging, on death, on the course of a lifetime, the admixture or sorrow and sweetness. Two of our greatest American writers have written beautifully about reunions - Updike (esp. in My Father's Tears) and Roth (in American Pastoral, I think, though maybe not) - following one of my h.s. reunions I sent copies of each to dear friend RSS to help him, us work through some of the feelings and disappointments evoked. Too bad reunions are such an American phenomenon. Just imagine what Proust would have done with a high-school reunion! (They're also good material for films, though usually in a comic vein.) Paul Theroux's story in the current New Yorker, The Furies, takes a somewhat different tack on this material - not entirely successful but worth reading to see how this familiar microgenre can yield new ore. His protagonist is a 50ish dentist who has unceremoniously dumped his wife (funny how this echoes novel I'd been reading, The Days of Abandonment) and takes on a new trophy wife, his hot young(ish) hygienist - so pathetic it's almost a cliche (not of literature but of life). His wife puts a curse on his head when he abandons her - and the curse is fulfilled through the reunion and afterwards as all of his former girlfriends/lovers accost him, torment him with guilt and humiliation, eventually drive his new marriage into a ditch. So this is a reunion story that uses a bit of the supernatural; the conflicts with past lovers are not really typical of the mood of a reunion, where by and large all is forgiven and laughed about - so I don't take this story as an attempt at realism. But I do think Theroux's view is a little schematic - it might be better if his dentist weren't such a total schmuck and if he tried in some way to defend himself and his new relationship - and for some reason Theroux is not at all interested in the mood of the reunion or in the return to a home town after many years and seeing it through new eyes (his wife's) - it's almost as if the events of the story could have taken place without the reunion but through chance encounters over the course of time in a small town or even in the greater Boston area at a series of events and moments. Otherwise, a pretty good story from one of our most consistently challenging and self-challenging writers.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Why we read fiction

Thanks to friend WS for sending me recently several links to good articles and essays about various odd facets of literature - last night read Harvard Gazette interview with critic and novelist and rof James Wood - made me want to pursue some of the words he mentions, as it seems we have similar literary tastes, an interest in realism, naturalism, and high literary value without sacrificing it all on the altar of postmodernism or European decadence and self-abnegation. I wish I'd sent him (and spouse Claire Messud?) Exiles to read and review, too late alas. Especially like reading Ian MacEwan's essay on giving up on (reading) fiction. What serious reader hasn't had those thoughts at one time or another? As if we'd read everything of value already (as if!) and every new novel we come across just disappoints or disappears from the mind. MacEwan, in those fits, decides for the moment that fiction isn't really all that important, it's just a matter of he married her, she married him, she left him, etc. - so he decides to read nonfiction only, bios science philosophy - until he realizes he realizes he's missed the whole point. Fiction - as I've argued in several previous posts - is the ultimate realism. Imagine for a moment our world as it would be if we did not have novels (and, to take this further, add plays and films as well): first of all we would know virtually nothing about any other culture on this planet, past or present. We would know our of village and family only. Second, even if we could know, from nonfiction, the facts about other cultures and times (the history of the Civil War, say), we would know little or nothing about the interior life of anyone from the past (can you understand 19th century American without having read Hawthorne, Melville, and James?); we would also have no understanding about the how others think and imagine, about the way the human mind works - other than from conversation and observation, much of which is superficial, trivial, or simply functional. Fiction forms our ideas of consciousness and of the imagination - it is innate and essential to the human spirit, and I am sure that people told tales to one another long before the development of  a written language. Fiction is our way of making sense of the world. Clearly, TV and cinema has opened the world of fiction and narration over the past century in ways previously unimaginable - and that I think has had as much or more to do with the quality of life in the late 20th century even than the advance of technology.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Abandonment of the novel: A book that's all situation and no plot

OK I'll probably finish reading Elena Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment because it's pretty short and I'm now about halfway through so why not but honestly is it really such a great book? On the evidence half-way through, not really - in an odd sense Ferrante has benefited I think from her abjuration of publicity: I think I would never have heard about her much less talked about her with friends and sought out her book in the back shelves of the Providence Public Library if it hadn't been for the intriguing fact that nobody knows who she is. Days of Abandonment is clearly well written scene by scene and is a subject and treatment that resonates with many women readers - but not women only, as I'm all for her as she struggles to keep her life together after being cruelly, suddenly, and mysteriously abandoned by husband, Mario. But over the first half of the novel, it's a story that just doesn't move from its premises - one rant and rage after another, one crackup or failing after another, as she tries to find out why Mario left, with whom, where he's gone. Scene by scene, the novel is excellent; for ex., last night I read a scene in which she came home and her young children were inside and it takes her a while to realize, how did they get in? The she sees that the lock had been jimmied; she surmises Mario came back surreptitiously to grab a pair of earrings (that had been his mother's), all very creep - more evidence of what a shit M. is, if we needed any more. She decides to replace the locks; two workmen come to do the job, and they stink up her place and make lascivious comments, till she gives it right back to them and more. OK, a really good scene, very credible, and establishing the narrator's forthright and even reckless character. But I would expect this novel, any good novel for that matter, to establish its premises and then move on: she should be unraveling the mystery of Mario's disappearance, learning about him and about herself and her children, or else moving away from him toward some new episode in her life. I don't necessarily think this novel should or even remotely could become a Hallmark movie, but couldn't it at least have been a topical and emotional best-seller about abandonment, like, say Sue Miller's The Good Mother, an infinitely better book? But maybe Ferrante has some surprises in store in the second half, so I'll stay with he, for a while.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The silence of Ferrante - something allegorical in TheDays of Abandonment?

Started the short novel The Days of Abandonment by the Italian myster7-woman(?) Elena Ferrante - the author who has never given interviews (maybe something online once though) or made any public appearances or even identified herself (or himself? - certainly seems to be a female writer). I admire Ferrante's honesty, her unstinting belief that the work exists in and by itself and that the identity, personality, image, and personal history of the novelist are not relevant and in fact are potentially distractions or deterrents - yet of course the irony is that Ferrante has received more attention for her lack of identity than she ever would have had she gone the standard author's route and posed for photos that would have been ignored. Anyway, the book - is at least initially (50 pages in, but I suspect some plot twists and maybe even some postmodern contortions may come) a woman's deeply embittered account of her life upon being abandoned suddenly and inexplicably by her husband of 15 years. The narrator is 38, with two young kids, in first paragraph she exits her husband - he says he's leaving and walks out. The next 49 pages are extremely caustic, and with good reason - her husband is a complete prick, tells her nothing about where he is, disappears for 38 days (something significant about that? some religious parable working here?); she hears from friends that of course he's with a new woman, but a wall of protection seems to exist around him and his new life, for no apparent reason; the narrator indulges in sad fantasies about the current sex life of her husband, and she makes a few pathetic attempts to win him back, to no avail. The writing is very powerful, and I can see how this book would become almost anthemic for many women who have experienced the same kind of cruel desertion; but I'm hoping that some kind of plot does begin to take shape - there are indications that the narrator may build a relationship herself with an older (53) musician who lives in her building. There also seem to be some allegorical themes developing: the abandonment may be a spiritual and religious abandonment and well as a marital one; there are also many references to the gradual decay of her household, the increasing disorder, an invasion of ants and of a lizard - are these elments allegorical as well? Do they echo or reprise the 10 plagues on Egypt? Well, Ferrante, for one, isn't saying.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

D.H. Lawrence the anti-Strindberg, and the precursor to Raymond Carver?

WS suggested D.H. Lawrence's The White Stocking and, yes, it's a very good story about strife and jealousy in a young marriage - in some ways a story atypical of Lawrence, but by the end Lawrence uses this vehicle as yet another way to convey his omnipresent themes. The story, fairly simple in plot, begins with a 20ish married (two years) couple waking on Valentine's Day the wife received some letters in "the post" including an unsigned Valentine with pearl earrings wrapped in a white stocking. She confesses to her husband that her former boss at the factory sent them to her, which of course provokes rage - and a flashback, as we see the couple entering an xmas party two+ years back, when they were just starting to date, and the factory owner essentially hijacks the young woman as his dance partner for the night (he's the host of the party as well) and the guy, who doesn't dance, retreats to the card room and plays cribbage. Back to the present, and the husband in a fit of jealous rage smacks his wife across the mouth. She bleeding, humiliated - but tamed like an animal, it seems. So here's the weirdness of DHL: women used to say and maybe still do that more than any other male writer he "got" female sexual drives; this story's a great example, as he very ably conveys the woman's attraction to two very different men, the big and domineering factory owner and the clumsy but endearing man she eventually marries - lots of physical description (her hsuband's skin white like marble, e.g.) and also lots of Lawrentian blather about melting and fusion. Still, all to the good, women can recognize these feelings and men can comprehend them. But then we get to the dark side of DHL: his depiction of the female need to be dominated and humiliated (or is it the male need to dominate and humliate?), subjugated, (he's the anti-Strindberg actually, but each perverse in his own way). It's this perverse and thank god outdated view of sexual relations that has no doubt moved DHL out of the pantheon and to the margins of the literary canon. Too bad because as I'm seeing from re-reading a selection of his stories (Penguin edition, complete in 3 volumes) there are some really fine ones: The White Stocking, in its evocation of a tumultuous xmas party at which relationships shift and realign, certainly evokes Joyce's The Dead, and his intimate portrait of an edgy and still inchoate marital relationship is a precursor to the great work of Raymond Carver.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Themes and disorder in The Round House

Book group took on Lousie Erdrich's The Round House last night and the response to the book was generally one of disappointment, many seeming to agree (me included) that the book started off with a lot of promise as a tense mystery/coming-of-age story with the added interest in examining the culture of Indians of the Plains, both their history and legends and contemporary life on the reservation, with a focus on the injustices of the legal system - well, you can see, that's a lot of material for one novel to bear, and the novel wasn't up to carrying that weight. After the promising opening, when Joe's mother is assaulted and he feels he must figure out who did so and why - and then must avenge the act - the novel gets lost, or we do, in its many loose strands. By far the most sympathetic readers was RR, who made an eloquent case for the novel as one in which a young boy has to choose between letting the justice system take its course and bring the assailant to justice, which it can't, or taking justice into his own hands: the Indian way v. the way of the system (the white system). He avenges the crime, kills his mother's assailant, and thereby becomes a man of the tribe. Excellent and thoughtful analysis, but I wish that were the book I'd read. It wasn't; I was completely puzzled by the clunky mechanics of the crime and by Joe's "discovery" of who did it, puzzled by the enormous ellipses in the novel - how come we know nothing about what's happened in court? how come, and JRo pointed out, we never get a sense till very late in the novel that Joe must act because justice failed? And for me, most of all, if Joe takes the law into his own hands: why does this tight-knit community allow a 13-year-old to be the killer, rather than an adult? What do his parents, particularly his father, a judge, think about this behavior? In my view, the killing is such a major plot element that it shouldn't be the near-conclusion but should come at the heart of the novel and Joe should confront his father and should confront his feelings and should, as an adult writing this tale many years later, should have some wisdom and reflection. That said, I admire the scope of the novel and thought her writing was pretty strong throughout, clear and sensible and sometimes, especially in the dialogue of the elders, very funny; others, notably BR, said this novel pales when compared with Erdrich's sometime counterpart Faulkner; and M noted that we barely discussed the sexual shaming of Sonje and her difficult relationship with Whitey. Much to discuss in the novel, but to some degree that's because of its disorder rather than its scope, sad to say. Many recommended reading JCO review in NYRB, which I plan to do.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

We gotta get out of this place: Lawrence and emigration

The story Daughters of the Vicar continues to expound, expand on, espouse Lawrence's perpetual themes and contrasts: the aspirations of the sensitive and urbane souls living among the crude and violent families of the mining towns in Nottinghamshire, the contrast between relationships with strong sexual bonds and repressed relationship, between instinct and learning - though in this story seen largely from the female POV, in contrast with most of DHL's early works that in one way or another present and develop these conflicts from the male, his, POV: his suffering, his devotion to his mother, his fear of his father, his struggle with his father to win his mother's affections. Here the story built on 2 sister, the Vicar's daughters, and as this long story evolves it becomes more clear that older sister, Mary, has chosen a nonsexual marriage with the socially acceptable young vicar - who, despite his physical frailties dominates her and is her "master" - and younger sister who, as story ends, has just had sex with and is about to marry one of the miners, supposedly beneath her in class and learning, but a strong physical presence and presumably a good man and potentially a good husband, as evidence by his devotion to his cranky mother - yet there are dark elements here, just as there are hopeful elements (from DHL viewpoint, anyway) in the older sister's marriage: her husband isn't so weak that he can't be the "master" of the household; and in younger sister's marriage the husband, despite his tenderness, has been essentially virginal his whole life - he's 30, and spent 10 years in the British navy no less. So it's unclear what to make of these relationships, or what DHL makes of them, except to say that every one of his portraits of the mining towns is bleak and dark and nearly hopeless - you could say that either of these two marriages could work out well, but we suspect that they will not - there are two many cracks in the foundation, so to speak, from the either marriage to hold up successfully over time. There's talk of emigration to Canada - and I sense that's where Lawrence's heart is: the mining towns such as his own native town are toxic environments to love, sex, art, and all fine feeling, and the only way to truly prosper (not financially - intellectually, physically, sexually) is to get out. For Lawrence, more than for almost any other writer, environment influences character and fate - one of the themes of his writing, and of his short, peripatetic life.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The D.H. Lawrence drinking game

WS notes that DH Lawrence's problem is that he had no "self-irony," i.e., he never laughed at himself. How true! Is there any other major writer with less of a sense of humor? His serious tone is the counterpart to his incredible commitment to his work and his sometimes polemical tone - he wasa high priest of the arts and of sexual liberation, at least as he saw it (all mixed up with male dominance and romanticism of the working classes, ideas that today seem quaint), and later in life of a sadly conservative politics - if I remember correctly some of his later novels such as Kangaroo idealized a form of autocracy that verged on fascism - even hinted as Nazi-like idealization of the powerful ruler, etc., some very dark elements in DHL indeed. To light up Lawrence, how about a drinking game? Start a Lawrence story or novel and every time he uses the word "loins," down a shot. See who wins, you or DHL. Seriously - been reading his very long story, nearly a novella, The Vicar's Daughters, ot a very exciting story but interesting to see the Lawrentian family/class/sexual dynamics tansplanted from the usual ground - the sensitive and artistic son struggling with the brutal coal-mining father, and loving and romantic mother town between her love for father and son - to a female-axis household, the two daughters each playing out a different strand of the psychodrama, the younger, Miss Louise, obviously in love with the working-class lad in the village who has gone off to join the Navy (the Vicar's family, the mother at least, very contemptuous of the family as a bunch of no-good, alcoholic miners); the older daughter, Miss Mary, building an attachment to the substitute vicar, a frail and sickly intellectual - in one way, he, too, is a Lawrentian figure, struggling through his illness, but also it strikes me that this is DHL's take on Middlemarch, the beautiful woman falling in love with a sickly intellectual, to the complete puzzlement of her sister and of others in the village.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Comparing 2 Lawrence stories: Prussian Officer - Thorn in the Flesh

D.H. Lawrence was incredibly prolific in his shortened life - the Joyce Carol Oates of his day - and it's obvious that to create so many works, stories, poems, novels, essays, he reworked lots of material - some of this for creative reasons and others no doubt to turn a buck. Interesting to read two stories in sequence in vol 1 of Lawrence's Complete Stories (Penguin, 3 vols): yesterday posted on The Prussian Officer, and the next story, A Thorn in the Flesh, is a companion piece in a way: both are about a German army troop, in Officer the protagonist is an orderly who's severely beaten by his commanding officer, kills the officer, flees from the troop, and dies of exposure - an extreme and disturbing story. Flesh is about an ordinary soldier, Bachmann, on a drill, panics about having to climb a ladder up a rampart because of his fear of heights, pisses himself while climbing and is shamed and terrified, at the top of the rampart an officer berates him, Bachmann accidentally knocks the officer off the rampart (he thinks he may have killed the officer and later learns he did not, flees the troop (as in Prussian), and takes refuge with his "sweetheart," a maid in service to a local Baron, and eventually is caught and led back to the barracks to face uncertain punishment. Lawrence is extraordinarily good at entering the consciousness of a character - we viscerally feel Bachmann's fear and shame as he faces his phobia. In Lawrence's day and in his mind, this may have seemed a more daring and unconventional story than Prussian, in that in this story Bachmann has sex with his sweetheart in a scene that by today's standards is allusive and over-written but in 1920 or so would have been considered pretty graphic. Actually, today, we see that it's far more conventional than Prussian, in which the sexual element is furtive and twisted - the sadistic homoerotic attack on the orderly is far weirder and more disturbing than Bachmann's tryst in Emilie's virginal bedroom. Flesh is hindered by Lawrence's weird and archaic philosophizing - Emilie wants to be dominated by a powerful man, etc. - but its structure and ending seem more contemporary: the melodramatic double death of Prussian compared with the simple scene of the soldier being led away while Emilie and the Baron watch, and the Baron says something like: What a fool. What's with the flesh reference, though? I don't see Bachmann as a Christ-like figure in any particular way.

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Reconsidering D.H. Lawrence

At suggestion of friend WS have re-read D.H. Lawrence's story The Prussian Officer; had last read Lawrence 40+ years ago, and who wouldn't say the same. Lawrence was an enshrined member of the "canon" back when I was in college and grad school, considered avant-garde and groundbreaking, ranked among the greatest modern British novelists alongside Woolf and Forster. Probably no author's reputation has slipped further over the past two generations of readers: where as one time Lawrence was considered progressive (at least regarding social mores, not politics) and even feminist, today his views seem quaint, odd, and reactionary. Who could stand reading Women in Love or The Rainbow today? Even WS, once a Lawrence acolyte or fan at least, tried The Rainbow and could barely, or maybe couldn't, make it through (over The Rainbow?). Yet maybe it's time to reconsider Lawrence a little bit - he may be one of those authors, James is another, appreciated in later years for a different aspect of his work. If The Prussian Officer is a fair example, I think maybe we can appreciate Lawrence today best for his short stories: if the novels seem daunting and tendentious, the stories - at least this one - are compact and dramatic. No doubt, elements of his stories do seem very dated as well: there is so much fustian (is that the right word?) description of landscape in Prussian, far more than in contemporary style or taste. Yet for all the dressing-up, it's a minimalist story at heart: only two characters, barely a line of dialogue, and it centers, in Aristotelian fashion, on a single action and a single day: in short, the sadistic officer severely beats his orderly, the orderly suffers from the injuries during a long and painful march the next morning; the orderly, no longer able to endure his suffering and fear, kills the officer with his bare hands and then runs from his brigade, and dies of thirst and exposure. The bodies are laid out side by side. Presumably, other soldiers see the orderly's wounds (deep bruises from being kicked in the ass) and piece the story together. This is simply a great psychological story, which has us deeply involved in the orderly's consciousness throughout - we suffer with him, as in few other stories. It's also a story about class oppression and about cruelty and sadism. One aspect probably not much talked about a century, or even 40 years, ago is the homoerotic element: the officer's attack on the orderly fulfills some kind of sexual drive (he is unhappy with women, and he is enraged that his orderly is writing a love poem to his "gal"); the beating, and it's aftermath, with of silent guilty and refusal to make eye contact, is much like a rape and post-rape trauma. An extremely powerful and disturbing story.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The conclusion of The Age of Innocence

Reading the last chapter of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence my memory of my first reading of the novel - alas, not that many years ago – comes back to me: in part, because the final chapter is so unusual and such a surprise, in part because in all reading beginnings and endings are the most powerful and rhetorically significant, which is one of the principles that Strunk and White set forth in Elements of Style and which holds true at every level of composition, chapters, paragraphs, sentences, lists. The chapter is so striking because it jumps forward about 30 years in time, to 1910 or so (Wharton wrote the novel in 1920) and we see that the Archers have had a long and apparently happy marriage; previous chapter ended with revelation that May was pregnant, and we didn’t know whether Archer would abandon her for Olenska, and in final chapter we see how his fatherhood completely transformed his life: yes, he realizes that May is dull and conventional, but they apparently raised four children very successfully, and the children adore him. We find him now a widower of two years, who has become a public figure, even entered politics for a time at urging of T. Roosevelt, but is at times sad and wistful, not missing his late wife but missing his life, knowing it could have been so much more, or so he thinks. In last scene, his son takes him to Paris for a last jaunt before son’s marriage, and son arranges a meet with Olenska, whom Archer has not seen in 30 years and of whom he knows little. In final moments, son goes up to Olenska’s 5th-floor apartment while Archer sits in a park on a bench and eventually walks back to his hotel. In a way that’s a very beautiful and honest moment: he realizes that it is better to hold the ideal image of Olenska in his mind than to confront someone so changed and so different from him, after her many years in an entirely different set. There’s also something a little odd and creepy about this scene: his sitting on a bench, an observer, almost to weakened to go up to the flat, he seems literally like a dead man or a ghost. And why does his son stay in the apartment so long, without checking on his dad? There’s something oddly sexual about that, too. Assuming Archer lives and moves on with his life, it is obvious he will marry someone from his “set” and forever regret the loss of a more adventuresome life, which he did not have the courage to pursue.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Wharton's characters: The excellence of The Age of Innocence

One of the great things about Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence is the way in which she manages to evoke, or perhaps provoke, contradictory attitudes toward her characters. Archer, the protagonist, is easy to dismiss as a spoiled rich kid who never had to work a day in his life, lounges around the law office doing very little, focused far to much on society and social mores and codes, indifferent to his wife whom he married because she was a "good match" and a beautiful trophy, to weak and afraid to make a bold move and pursue his wife's cousin, Ellen, the one he seems truly to love, expecting Ellen Olenska to sacrifice all on his behalf while giving up very little - and so on! - but then, we also realize, wait a second, we can also see him as a man of true feeling and intellect who is unfairly trapped and caught amid social conventions, misunderstood and unappreciated by all around him, the victim of a terrible mistake in marrying the wrong woman, unwilling, at least for a time, to abandon his wife and her family, torn apart almost literally by his conflicting emotions and desires, a man with so little emotional, romantic, and sexual experience that he doesn't know or understand love and makes a terrible mistake. He's far better than most of the men in his crowd - crude and narrow-minded, biased, anti-Semitic - in fact, it's hard not to like Archer, or pity him - he's an American tragic figure, a man who's wasted his life, an early incarnation of Willie Loman perhaps. We can hold both views of Archer in our minds simultaneously, or in oscillation anyway, because of Wharton's deft skill and penetrating observations. Same - duality of vision - with other characters, though maybe to a lesser degree: May Welland (Mrs. Archer) is frivolous and shallow, like most of the women in her set, but maybe that's just the role she's be relegated to by her society, as she does prove to be a shrewd manipulator of Archer and a formidable presence when her marriage is under threat. She turns out to be much smarter than we'd thought at first - we underestimate her. Olenska is both a femme fatale and a victim of fate, a threat to others (women) and a champion of sacrifice and self-abnegation. All of us have these dualities and puzzles and mysteries - who knows the complex things various people we know or know somewhat must think about us? Only a really fine writer captures all these nuances of character - it's the difference here between rounded and flat characters, as Forster described them. Wharton's are fully "round." Two additional notes: Is there even a possibility that Archer is a repressed homosexual (see yesterday's post), and his passion for Olenska is just a screen or a code, a way to step away from his passionless marriage and not be disgraced? And what's with the title? It's anything but innocent - even if things may have seemed simpler to Wharton back (50 years) in the past - I suppose the title may be ironic, but it doesn't quite capture the mood of the novel for me.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Age of Innocence as a novel in code

So in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence the protagonist, Newland Archer, marries someone that from day one he knows he doesn't love and never will and all the while he yearns to be with his spouse's cousin, but he can't because to do so would be entirely socially unconventional and disruptive, so they carry on a virtually chaste relationship, entirely furtively and by indirection, except for a few liaisons months apart, and Archer thinks no one is aware of this secret passion but he gradually comes to see that not only his relatives but even his spouse know - yet she can't or won't do anything either to free him or to free herself. Sound familiar? This is a 20th-century novel's take on 19th-century forbidden romance that challenges social taboos, and a 21st-century take on 20th-century romance would be Breakback Mountain or any of the many other novels and stories about a secret homosexual romance and its ruinous effects on both partners in a straight, conventional marriage. In a way you could even read the entire Age of Innocence as a coded novel, and imagine Countess Olenska as a Count Olenski and it still makes sense. Still, there are other elements that move this great novel well beyond the scope of a homoerotic parable: there is the whole issue of social caste or class, the way the Mingott family tries to pressure Olenska to go back to her philandering husband because divorce just isn't done among their set, and also perhaps because of their swooning over titles and European psueudo-nobility. Also, the back story of the suave swindler whose bank crashes, taking with it the fortunes of so man prominent New Yorkers, a prescient view of a Bernie Madoff scandal, but in this case among the white-show set (in Wharton's House of Mirth, the swindler was Jewish, as that novel bore a tinge of anti-Semitism, if not Wharton's at the leas the characters' accepted biases and prejudice).

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Archer's dilemma and his false image of himself image of innocence

Book two of Edith Wharton's the age of innocence is, at least at it's opening, very strange and sad. The archers are on their honeymoon several months in Europe and it is increasingly obvious to all - except perhaps May - that the marriage was a mistake. Newland keeps trying to convince himself that he is in love w may but to no avail. He stills sees himself as an aesthete manqué and he sees may as a bland and uninteresting conventional woman which she is but also as a hindrance to his finer sensibilities, which she is not. Archer believes he is in love w her cousin olenska and he is in a way but what he really is in love w is a vision of himself that is either grandiose and delusional or else simply impossible for him to attain - he is far too dependent in the comforts and privileges of his class to throw it over.. We see an example of what happens to those who flout convention - the archeology prof who actually winters in newport and whom everyone in the tiny social set shuns and mocks because of his supposed eccentricity. Archer could never choose that course - but he does betray his wife and goes to see olenska in Boston when he's supposedly on business and they declare love for each other in a great episode during a visit to a seaside town w a crowd of teachers on holiday in the adjacent dining room - one of those stunning yet subtle contrasts that make novels great. It seems to me however that archer has the upper hand - shrewd enough to risk almost nothing in his pursuit oh the forbidden romance while olenska turns her back on a fortune and on any possibility for a socially acceptable marriage. He will live in NYC in comfort and she will be alone.

Zadie smith's current New Yorker story

Writing this post during blizzard recovery not sure when or how I will actually post it. Read Zadie Smith's story in current New Yorker, The embassy of Cambodia, and I think it's the best thing by her I've ever read.. Who wasn't impressed by White Teeth? Evidence of huge talent and original voice if kind of chaotic and overly determined by plot. I thought her novel Thing of beauty or whatever it was called was awful sexist crude and completely ignorant about its american setting. And then I liked recent nyer piece which is part of her current novel NW and now this one seems to be in the same style short takes building a complex narrative by simple mosaic pieces and of the same milieu multicultural suburban London. Cmabodiamis an incredibly moving short piece about an African girl working as a nanny au pair for a se Asian family and she is essentially a captive. Smith beautifully renders her complex and subtle inner life, tells us her life story without being maudlin or tendentious expertly renders her sweet relationship w a young Nigerian man she meets at church -'many beautiful elements in this piece including the mysterious embassy building on the street w it's strange echoes of the exotic and the captive - the game of badminton played just out of sight the rare glimpse of an embassy employee the young people in the courtyard waiting for tourist visas and the elderly man in the rest home surveying the scene and perhaps narrating the story - very fine piece of fiction smith has found a mature and compassionate narrative format and voice.

Sent from my iPad

Friday, February 8, 2013

Archer's dilemma - in The Age of Innocence

Great dramatic, perhaps melodramatic, end to book 1 (half-way point) in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence: an example, maybe a unique incident, of a romantic-cliffhanger: Archer heads off suddenly and surprisingly with no notice at work (my he has a tolerant boss - as Wharton makes clear, these white-shoe attorneys did not work very hard in those days, same impression I had from visiting Naumkeag in the Berkshires, where some well-bred NY lawyer would take his 3 month summer vacation every year, imagine that today!) for St. Augustine to visit his fiancee, May Welland, and to ask her to shorten their engagement. We know - even if he doesn't - that his doing so is not about his love for May but about his love for Countess Elena; he wants to remove himself from temptation. May, ever conventional (and perhaps prudish) declines; Archer, back in NYC, continues to visit the Countess and gets ever more deeply into a fix - finally declaring his love for her and, moments later it seems, receiving a telegram from May that her parents have agreed and they can marry within a few weeks. Now Archer is really screwed - he either breaks off the engage or engages in a falsehood and deception over the course of his life. He should break it off - but is he strong enough to do that, or is he, despite his wish to see himself as an artistic soul, real just a boring, privileged conventional guy, well suited to the insipid May Welland? Or, a third possibility - does Elena become less desirable once she's available to him? He seems to me like the kind of guy who is always after the impossible, or the forbidden fruit. The campaign is what interests him, not the conquest so to speak. Book 2 I think jumps forward quite a bit in time - maybe in space as well - as we see how Archer's dilemma sorts itself out - or how he sorts it out, if he's strong enough to take an action whatsoever.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

What Wharton could have learned from James

Great as Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence is, and rich though her writing may be with trenchant observations and winsome turns of a phrase - I'm assiduously marking up my ibook edition with yellow "notes" - there are a few things that Wharton could have learned from her great friend Henry James (previous post suggested a few things James could have learned from Wharton): although I cannot foretell the entire course of the novel from the start, the set-up is much more schematic and in some ways predictable that you'd find in any James novel: Archer is torn between two women, his fiancee the conventional and rather boring May Welland and her cousin, the Countess Olenska, iconoclastic and independent and "experienced." You tell me: which way's he gonna go? It's pretty obvious - we just don't know what the cost will be. James, for all his maddening circumlocutions, is more subtle in building the structure of his novels and more nuanced and surprising - and sometimes exasperating - in the delineation of character and relationships. I remember my final post on Portrait was title: How could you! I don't think I ever feel that about the decisions that Wharton characters make (Fromm may be an exception there). Probably no author writes better than Wharton about furnishings and decor and what they say about the personality, let alone the status, of her characters - but she gives away too much with her obsession with decor (a great personal interest of hers, obviously, as all visitors to The Mount know) - the furnishings "type" the character. James, again, is more subtle and nuanced; when he describes a character in a setting - the room with the balcony or the well-furnished urban palace in Ambassadors, as two examples - he manages to evoke a whole mood and feeling, whereas Wharton's rooms or environments seem at times like a catalogue of objects. Finally, James's great theme was the American abroad, which leads (at his best) to a real collision of forces and cultures; even though James is far more limited and narrow in social class than almost any other great writers, Wharton at times feels a little constricted - her social world, at least in Innocence, is so narrow. In one odd sequence, Archer walks from his office near Washington Square up to maybe 30th Street and he sees a # of people going in and out of buildings and seems to know them all - as if NYC ca 1870 was a tiny village, which it clearly was not - except in a literary imagination. She's a little blind to the vastness of the social world of New York.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What James could have learned from Wharton

(Re)reading after many years Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, and as is so often the case for me I know I've read the novel but don't remember a thing about it (what does that say?), yet it is lodged somewhere in my imaginative experience and has in some ways shaped how I read, what I think about what I read, and what I think about our world - and in the act of re-reading these pieces and elements emerge, like the bygone image of a photograph coming into being on a film washed in developer. Suddenly I start to remember Princess Olenska and Archer Newland and the Mingotts and the Waymarshes, if I have those names right event, probably I don't - and the opening scene at the opera and the Mingott house way up in the wilderness of what Wharton amusingly calls "the Central Park" - and reading cut off last night as Archer visits Olenska - a very daring thing for a single, engaged man to be doing - in her place in the lane filled with goats and sheep and "writers and journalists" in the declasse west 20s. New York was different - and of course Wharton herself, in 1920, was writing about a New York long gone, 1870. Wharton's great friend Henry James could have learned a few things from her: though they right about a similar caste of characters, wealthy Americans with European pretension and an idiotic reverence for titles and nobility and suckers for an English accent, contemptuous of anyone who has to earn a living by "trade," Wharton is far more subtle and caustic, keeping a greater personal distance from her characters (which may be why, or may be because, she sets her noel 50 years in the past). She's also for more shrewd and incisive on the issues of love, engagement, and marriage: for James, marriage is a contractual agreement, like the Treaty of Versailles I guess, whereas for Wharton it's a complex and usually a terrible relationship - both writing from their experience, but James feels bloodless. Wharton also knew how to use dialogue move a story forward, whereas James, especially in his late works, uses dialogue to explore the most subtle nuances of thought - and loses us in the process. Over all, James is the greater writer - based on the scope of his work and the incredible number of magnificent novels and, for me, above all on his novellas and stories; Wharton wrote a lot of novels, but probably "only" 4 great ones (1 is plenty - but this just by point of comparison), but I think at her best she's every bit as great a writer as James, funnier and more accessible, too. When I was in college she was nowhere to be found on the reading lists: women novelists in the canon back then were Austen, Woolf, perhaps Eliot, and that was it. Terrible.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Strengths and weaknesses of Erdrich's The Round House

So let's take a moment to assess Louise Erdrich's The Round House, NBA (not basketball) winner and latest novel in her fabulous career; I've noted in previous posts that I think Erdrich will be the next American author to win a Nobel Prize, and I'm sticking with that - even though I found TRH ultimately disappointing, despite its strengths. Beginning with the positives: Erdrich takes an a serious and little-discussed theme, abuse of Indian women and the peculiarities of law that allow a non-Indian to walk off free after assaulting an Indian woman on Indian land. Erdrich also continues her many years of creating funny, quirky, and recognizably human (and humane) characters living within the single small community of a North Dakota reservation: she has put this piece of land on the world literary map in the same way that Faulkner put Yoknapatowpha County there. The book has some very boisterous scenes that are funny, some vividly rendered scenes such as the powwow episode; typical of Erdrich, she also works in some elements of Indian lore, religion, and legend, all with a light touch and an easy writing style that makes the book very pleasant to read. However: what starts off as a tense and taut and promising novel about centered on a powerful event - a woman is sexually assaulted, and her son and her husband, each in their own ways, set out to find the assailant and bring him to justice - falls apart, at least at the level of narrative, by the middle of the book. The crime is "solved" through an unlikely chain of coincidence, mysticism, and good fortune. Moreover, the circumstances of the crime are both over-the-top melodramatic and not well explored in the novel itself - we barely no or understand the assailant and his motives, and ultimately he's just a crazy guy. Wouldn't it have been a stronger novel if she'd written about a more typical on-reservation assault, a drunken bar scene gone bad of something, and not mixed it in with the governor of S.Dakota trying to adopt an Indian child and other murders and vengeance and mishigosh, to use a non-Indian term? The novel starts to come together in the final third as the young narrator takes it upon himself to exact justice and take down the man who raped his mother. Erdrich does draw us into these scenes, but I'm afraid she has by this point in the novel lost touch with her narrator: he does not think, behave, or suffer the way a 13-year-old boy would upon planning to kill someone and then in fact shooting him to death. A whole novel could begin, not end, there! Many strengths in this novel but in this case Erdrich's capacious imagination and creativity has gotten the best of her and the story wanders all over the place, in search of a home - as if it were created in fits and starts over a long period of time.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Round House meanders but then comes back into focus in the last chapters

Louise Erdrich's The Round House got off to a great start and then meandered in the middle chapters but is coming into focus again in the last section. What happened? Well, Erdrich set up a very intriguing plot with the narrator, a teenage boy, describing an assault against his mom leaving her severely beaten and traumatized - and the narrator (Joe) and his dad, a judge, set about in their different ways in tracking down the assailant. The middle section of the book is kind of a mess, though, as, among other things, Joe comes across too many clues too easily, ultimately he learns about the assailant not through his assiduous sleuthing but when his mother, emerging from her trauma, pretty much tells everything - a very weak narrative device, and third Erdrich gets distracted, or at least I did, by a number of side plots, some very funny (the old Indians talking about their sex lives, e.g.) but other elements either confusing (the governor's plan to adopt an Indian baby?) or highly tangential (a few Indian legends worked in - although these are fun to read, even if they don't contribute to the forward movement of the story). In the final chapters of the book, though, Joe, angered that the assailant has essentially been let go without punishment (You, who philosophize disgrace ... ), decides to take vengeance into his own hands and prepares to ambush and shoot the guy who attacked his mother. It doesn't seem like this is something that can come off - the plan relies on a lot of shaky elements, like stealing a gun and hoping to get the timing just right to ambush the guy, Linden Lark, on a golf course, but we're now quite riveted to the plot and eager to see not how Joe will do it but how he will be saved from his worst instincts.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A super Bowl nod to football novels

Taking a moment on Super Bowl Sunday to honor all the great American novels written about that great American sport, football. What? There aren't any? You have to be kidding. I'm not counting the nonfiction books about football, of which there are plenty, or the great TV series derived from one of those books, Friday Night Lights, which I would recommend to anyone, whether you know or care about football in the least - it's about families and teenagers and schools and race and class in America, with football as only the vehicle. But football novels - only two come to (my) mind. First, a childhood book - today would be called a YA novel (not a YA Tittle) - that I loved in about 4th grade was called Touchdown Twins. I've never seen it mentioned or referenced in the many years since, but I remember being so moved by it that I thought it would be a terrific movie and actually, nerd that I was (am), began typing the whole thing out as a "screenplay" (I wouldn't have known the word or concept), which is to say, just taking all the dialogue. I think I quit at about page 6 - my first Hollywood failure. The only other great football novel I can think of is Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes - and though it's now considered a classic, I wonder how well it would stand up to re-reading today (and I don't plan to find out): this novel was as close to memoir as it could get, and by pushing that boundary was very advanced and unusual for the 1960s; it's also kind of an anti-football novel, as the hero, Frederick Exley, is most known as a failed football player, not living up to his father's high expectations, and worshiping from afar NFL heroes, notably Frank Gifford. Exley, like self-named character, was an alcoholic writer and a tragic genius and wrote little else. Don't know what else is out there - but it may not be the fault of football. Though the old adage goes that the smaller the ball, the better the writing, there are very few great novels about baseball (beyond The Natural and the Universal Baseball Association, plus Bang the Drum Slowly I guess though I haven't read it) and certainly very few about golf (golf is a motif in the later Rabbit novels, but they're not about golf; one obscure example of a fine golf novel is Sea View, by Toby Olson). And what's smaller than a golf ball? Ping-pong? Marbles? Ball bearings in roller skates?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A writer and her ideas - Nicole Krauss story in New Yorker

Nicole Krauss's Zusya on the Roof in the current New Yorker isn't exactly a story, more of a character study or profile of a personality - not anything really happens in this short piece of fiction, on the level of plot, but to give her her due Krauss covers the whole scope of the protagonist's complex life in a few pages. And the protagonist is not named Zusya. Brief synopsis: Broadman is standing on the roof of a building holding a baby, his grandson. Scary. Good beginning that can and does keep us reading. We learn that Broadman has come back from the dead, and after a flash of thinking this is an IB Singer supernatural story, Krauss let's us know she's speaking figuratively - he had been in some kind of induced coma for two weeks. During that time, he had a series of dreams about Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, Old Testament commandments - Krauss gets to show off her knowledge of this arcana here. What Brodman learns from his ordeal is a simple message that one may not become a great prophet, thinker, leader - but each of us should (must?) fulfill the destiny that is ours, however modest (this comes from a fable about a man named Zusya) - then we learn of the disappointments in B's life - his mediocre scholarship, testy relation with his wife, estrangement from his daughters, lack of respect from his students, all very sad - but the one bright spot is the birth of grandson, born during his recovery - and he imagines that his recovery and his coma have a direct spiritual connection to the grandson. At end of this material, all internal and not dramatized, Brodman goes to his grandson's briss and absconds with the baby, bringing him up to the roof. Well, there's the action of the story and it's too bad Krauss couldn't do more with that - although maybe she will, maybe this is an opening piece of a longer work. As seen from her novels, Krauss is a really good writer brimming with thoughts and ideas, but sometimes she gets ahead of her skis, so to speak, and can't pull the ideas together - her writing can be a little formless and meandering, which for some readers may be her strength.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Magic v magic realism in The Round House and eleswhere

Does magic have any place in a crime novel? I don't think so, which in a way means that if there's magic in the web of it, it's not a crime novel. I've been dancing around the parameters of genre definition with Louise Erdrich's The Round House and, as noted in earlier post, have come to accept that it's a novel about a crime but not a crime novel; if I had any doubt, I'm pushed to certainty by the narrrator, Joe's, discovery in the lakebed of a submerged plastic doll; he hauls it up and it's filled with about $40,000 in hundreds. He and an older woman, married to his uncle (?), whom he's got a huge boyish crush on, deposit the $ in various bank accounts and then bury the checkbooks - his stash for college. Very noble, but is this plausible? I can't accept that he would find the money in such an improbable manner, and that this money will be a significant clue in determining who assaulted his mother. It's a novelist's convenience, not a narrative likelihood - and yet - Erdrich tills the ground for this unlikely discovery by having Joe suspect that his magical totem led him to the doll. So what's really happening is we're verging on magic realism, a very worthy genre - but let's not lose site of the "realism" component. Magic realism at its best works when a novel is so profoundly credible that we almost unknowingly accept certain magical or supernatural elements: it's important that these are elements and not drivers of the plot; e.g., within the carefully delineated world of 100 Years of Solitude, in which the narrator tells is all events of the town over a century in near-obsessive detail, we can accept for ex. that one character is always bedecked with clouds of butterflies. We can accept a single instance of death by spontaneous combustion in Dickens. But in a more loosely narrated - first-person narrated - story like The Round House, an authorial resort to magic to move the plot in the direction she wants just brings me up short. I feel differently about the ghost that appears earlier in the novel; that seems to be a tribute to the thoughts and legends of the Dakota Indians - it's an image, a mystery  - but the events of the novel do not (at least yet) hinge on what the ghost does or says or doesn't say. Magic in a novel can be an opt-out; magic realism can be a way to enhance the reality of the novelist's vision.