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

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

Sunday, March 31, 2013

I and I: Narcissicm and the novel, in Italo Svevo

Agreeing with friend WS that Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno does not hold up as well as I'd hoped on re-reading: when I first read it, in youth, circa 1968, in J Hillis Miller's course on the modern novel, it was striking and fresh and original and hilarious, a voice unheard of and worthy, at least in Miller's syllabus, to stand beside Joyce and Conrad and Forster and Woolf. And today? Yes, still hilarious I have to say - many, many passages that I'm marking in the margins with a brief notation - Ha! - including some noted yesterday: last cigarette, the 54-muscle limp, plus numerous odd phrasings and observations by this highly eccentric, egotistic, narcissistic, solipsistic, you name it, eponymous narrator. I hold to the observation in yesterday's post that he's one of the great eccentric voices in modern literature. But the price for that eccentricity is spending 400 pages in his company, not always an easy task. Am now reading the section Wife and Mistress, in which Svevo shows Zeno at his worst: he's just married Augusta and finds to his surprise that he deeply loves her (even though not attracted to her - when asked if his wife is beautiful he replies: That's a matter of taste). But he begins to yearn for something, someone else - a mistress, surprise surprise. A friend takes him to see an impoverished would-be chanteuse who lives with her elderly mother in some rented rooms and makes a pittance by doing embroidery. Zeno realizes she has no talent, but agrees to pay for music lessons, then to pay her some kind of stipend - all in the service of great art, of course. He goes to see her, throws himself on her - and flatters himself into believing that this pitiful thing actually loves him: he cannot or will not see the sexism and the power dynamics and the class dynamics going on her, she's completely dependent on his largesse and willing essentially to prostitute herself to keep his financial support. A complete narcissist, he doesn't see this at all: he's like that professor that the Times wrote about last week who actually believed the model he'd met on line had fallen in love with him. What keeps Zeno, and the novel, from being despicable is his overall awareness that he is a sick man seeking a cure that that he conveys his own situation with both a complete dishonesty - unable to see his exploitation of Carla, for example - and complete honesty, including every detail of all of his humiliations and failures, at the same time and in balance. That tension between confession and repression is truly one of the foundations on which great modern fiction rests.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

True Confessions: One of the great eccentric narrators, Zeno

Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno (1923) is often, rightly, grouped among the great modernist novels of the 20th century. I wouldn't put Zeno on as high a rung as Magic Mountain, Ulysses, or Search of Lost Time/Remembrance - but Svevo's Zeno definitely ranks among the great eccentric, obsessive narrators of all time - right up there with the Underground Man, L'Etranger, Ahab to a degree (though Ahab gradually slips into the distant background of his own tale), and Marcel, maybe. Maybe - because Svevo doesn't have the world view of these other great novelists - his narrator, Zeno, is so eccentric and narcissistic that all he talks about is himself and his own illnesses and peculiarities - these being so odd and bountiful that the novel is quite engaging and often hilarious. As we read a 100-page chapter about how Zeno "chooses" his wife from among 4 sisters (each with a name beginning with A - like a bride from another country, says the Z-led Zeno), a few of his oddities stand out - notably his obsession with cigarettes, and how he continually marks off periods of his life by his "last cigarette," eventually abbreviated as l.c., even having himself locked away in a sanatorium to try to keep away from smoking - unsuccessfully, of course - smoking has something to do with his connection to his father, part of an Oedipal struggle (he began as a child by surreptitiously finishing the cigars his father left smoldering, hm). Also, the moment in a bar when a friend with rheumatism explains that there are 54 leg muscles engaged in the simple act of walking - from then on Zeno, limps!The obvious descendant of Zeno would be the many American novels told to a shrink, most notably Portnoy: the Confessions are ostensibly written as a document to present to an analyst (the echo of Augustine is obvious), much like Portnoy - but this does narrow the scope of The Confessions: they are an attempt to present a view of the world in a thimble, with none of the vast allusions and world of detail of Ulysses, none of the philosophical warfare of Magic Mountain (which Svevo references), and none of the exquisite attention to social conventions and nuances of Lost Time (though Proust may be echoed in the courtship scenes, with narrator the plaything of the 4 girls and a rival suitor - not sure if Svevo would have read Proust though). Svevo apparently befriended Joyce during the Trieste years, which obviously helped him establish a reputation beyond Italy - but his reputation does rest on this one peculiar novel.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Everything you'd want in a novel: Anthills of the Savannah

Strange as this may sound, I actually think Chinua Achebe's 1987 novel, Anthills of the Savannah, would have gotten more attention had it not been for his much-read debut novel Things Fall Apart, which set up a false expectation for the kind of work Achebe would write - steeped in legend and myth and mystery, safely pushed back into the colonial past so that we can all feel a little bit holier and more sanctimonious about the characters and their issue: yes, violence against women in the village society was wrong, yes the Christian missionaries destroyed the old and sound ways of village life, imposing their values and beliefs, etc. But that was all in the past you could say. Anthills was totally in the present - and still feels present-day, as sadly politic in Africa, and the class divisions and relentless poverty,  haven't changed much over the past two decades. Briefly, it's the story of three men who were friends in a British-style boarding school who now have risen to the top in a government in a country obviously modeled on Achebe's Nigeria: one (Sam) is the new leader following a military coup, Chris is his head of the Ministry of Information, and Ikem is the editor of the National Gazette. The novel follows them, at a brisk pace, through a period of social upheaval, as a delegation from the remote and drought-stricken north arrives in the capital to protest lack of aid and the editor, against all advice, meets with them and writes sympathetic editorials. Achebe sketches in each character deftly and efficiently, along with some very strong secondary characters, including notably several very strong women who play a key role. Some terrific scenes: the cocktail party at the house of the hospital inspector known as the Mad Medico, Ikem's speech at the university, Chris in hideout in an overcrowded apartment, the long bus ride to the north with the police possibly in pursuit. Honestly, this novel has everything you'd want in fiction: ideas, conflict, fast-paced plot, access to consciousness of several different characters, for Western readers a view of a different society, lots of hilarious moments including almost innumerable wise and often enigimatic sayings and proverbs, rivaled on this score only by Sancho Panza (e.g., the worm isn't dancing, that's the only way it can walk). Novel builds toward a powerful conclusion, which strikes note of both comedy and tragedy, as so many of the great works of literature do - Shakespeare, to a degree, but also many excellent 20th-century writers who must have influenced Achebe - Greene, Naipaul, and particularly Forster come to mind.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Another Side - of Achebe (Anthills of the Savannah)

For those who may think of Chinua Achebe as a one-book wonder, I recommend taking a look at his novel Anthills of the Savvvanah, published in about 1988 after a long gap in his writing. Everyone knows Achebe for Things Fall Apart, which made his name and his fortune; I had a lot of issues with that book, discussed elsewhere on this blog, notably the incredible violence and sexism that somehow we are expected to accept because it was part of "the culture" - behavior and attitudes we would despise or condemn in an American or European novel, I'm sure - so Things was the beneficiary of a cross-cultural condescension. Yet: the novel did have some powerful insights into African rural life at a time of great change, the breaking apart of colonialism, the arrival of Christian missionaries. The book was imbued as well with folktales and myths and dream visions - in other words, a lot in the book and many issues raised, making it a natural for book groups and college classes. In some ways, though, I'm finding Anthills a better book and more accessible: it's much more in a contemporary style (though there are, at about the half-way point, some passages on gods and myths, which to me are breaking the mood) and about contemporary life and politics in post-colonial Africa; the novel centers on three men, friends since grade school, educated in the British-colonial tradition, who each play a key role in the new government of an African nation modeled on Nigeria: one is the military leader who has taken over the country in a coup (His Excellency), one is the head of the ministry of information, the third is the editor of the major newspaper, very much censored by and controlled by the other two. The story moves about quite a bit in style and voice and narrative center, including several chapters from the point of view of the info minister's (Chris) girlfriend, BB - who is one of the strongest female characters I know of in African literature, smart and independent and upright. The dialogue throughout, shifting often from traditional English to a street patois, is often hilarious, the first chapter, a very tense cabinet meeting, is great - could actually be a play, I think. Overall, at least through the first half of the book, this novel gives as a strong a sense of a Third World country under the rule of a dictator as any I've read - better, I think, than the Latin American writers who often take on this theme (for more focused and readable than the Feast of the Goat, that I started recently). Anthills shows Achebe's sense of humor and of self-deprecation and his astuteness, which may surprise readers who think of him as the mythmaker of village life.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tale wagging the dog: Dickens and historical fiction

At least Dickens didn't name Sydney Carton something like James Carton (initials JC), but other than that his allegorical symbolism couldn't be more heavy-handed, as Carton, atoning for the sins of mankind, substitutes himself for the unjustly imprisoned Darnay, his lookalike, and takes the Guillotine (while consoling a young girl condemned to death) as Darnay escapes with his family back to England. Hey, we like Dickens because of this: he's way over the top, a completely uninhibited writer, unafraid of overstatement, undaunted by shmaltz. I agree with friend AF who encouraged me to re-read A Tale of Two Cities that it's the ultimate best-seller, full of sturm and drang, of Dickensian sentiment in which the bad guys (as long as they're English) turn out to be good at heart, tremendous scenes of rioting in the streets, weirdly evocative depictions of life in Paris during the Reign of Terror, with crowds silently watching dozens carted along the street toward their death. There's no doubt that Tale is a great reading experience - though hardly a great novel. For all its entertainment value and its preying on our emotions and stirring our sentiments, it's also a simplistic and bombastic piece of writing. Though Dickens can go so far as to depict the French nobility as despicable and hopelessly cruel, he has absolutely no sense of why the citizens of France would rise up against this tyranny and oppression, no sense of the great forces and movements of history. Every one of the "citizens" he portrays as cold and heartless and relentlessly bloodthirsty and evil (though perhaps Defarge wavers a bit at the end). True, in the last chapter - the one imbued with overt and covert Christian allegorical symbolism, Dickens does throw a bone across the channel - noting that the Reign of Terror ended and that maybe it was necessary to make France a somewhat civilized country after all - but the overall tone of the book seems to be: If you're an Englishman (or woman), don't go there. It's not that Dickens couldn't write well about the issues of his day - debtors' prison, child labor, education, for example - but he thought primarily in terms of individuals, not of movements and grand forces of history - and his sense of the individual is what makes him a great exemplar of the 19th-century novel. Historical fiction was not his forte; his greatest works are chronicles of the world he lived in and knew, and no other writer has had a more profound effect than Dickens on what we think of when we think of London in the Victorian age. Few writers of any century can write well about movements and individuals: Tolstoy is one, perhaps there are others. Dickens stepped off base in Tale of Two Cities, so to speak, and the novel is for today's reader viscerally exhilarating but morally disconcerting.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

They'd probably put my head in a guillotine: Tale ofTwo Cities

On the plus side, Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities continues to be solidly entertaining in its potboiler manner right up toward the end, as the now-elderly banker Lorry and his troupe - the reformed bad-buy Carton, the evil and mean Cruncher who is now becoming a sentimental and loyal vassal - strive to free the noble (in both senses) Darney from imprisonment. It's had to keep the strands of the plot clear in mind, at least for me, but that's not really necessary, as this novel rolls on towards its conclusion, like a snowball tumbling down a hill. Also, some very find passages in the later chapters - Paris at night during the Revolution, and the fear of walking the streets, the fear of chance encounters; Lorry reflecting back on his solitary life and wondering if he has made a difference to anyone. All that said, the incredible jingoism of Tale is even more appalling by the end than early on - as all of the English characters, one after another, turn out to be good guys, atoning for their faults, working together to free Darney (and to protect the assets of the bank, Tellson's, I guess) and the French are universally horrid - the nobility, the people, the judges, the juries, the spies, the people on the street, everyone. Where is this coming from? Dickens may be stirring up some patriotic sentiment in a crass bid for readership and reader sympathy. This xenophobia may also be deeply embedded in Dickens's character: his deep-seated fear of social upheaval, his sense or his fear - typical, perhaps, of the self-made man, who clawed his way out of poverty - that all he has won and earned could be pulled away from him suddenly and unjustly. He must have felt that, as a writer and celebrity, he was always on trial and was, figuratively if not literally, a step away from the guillotine. It's perhaps surprising that his vitriol is especially fierce against working classes and the oppressed - whereas in most of his fiction he treats the working classes with a lot of sympathy and tends to satirize or criticize the touts, the strivers, and the phonies (Dorritt, Great X, Hard Times, Copperfield, Twist - to cite major examples) and the bureaucrats (Bleak). But something about the violence of the French Revolution touch Dickens deeply and steered his fiction onto a different course - one that he did not pursue in further works, fortunately.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Quiet lives of desperation - in Alice Munro's stories

Pretty much universal plaudits from all last night for Alice Munro's Dear Life, even if grudgingly from those (BR) who don't particularly like short stories - surprising how many don't, who find them unsatisfactory, without the complex emotional engagement of the novel, and literally "over too soon." But in our discussion we did touch on the novelistic qualities of Munro's stores - more so in some of her previous collections, I would argue - and talked about her unusual narrative flow and how her stories tend to "pivot" (RR's term) on a single moment: actually most short stories by all authors tend to concentrate on a single action or image, but the pivoting feels unusual in Munro because her stories have the narrative scope of much longer feature while maintain the compression of mood and incidence of the story form: for example Amundsen in which a life story hinges on or pivots about a single moment of decision by Dr. Fox, when he decides to back out of the marriage. Lots of events leading up to this and following from it - as in a novel - but it's the single event that defines this as a unified piece of literature. Lots of talk also about the horrible men in her stories, and about the social climbers, mostly men - but also AM's mother, as she describes in the 4 semi-autobiographical pieces at the end. Also issues of the many Protestant sects in these communities and how they determine a social hierarchy of a sort, and also discussion about childless couples  - and about the one story that doesn't fit the mold, the wife-runaway story To Reach Japan that opens the collection and portrays the husband as basically OK though dull and the wife as reckless and callous. She suffers no consequences, at least not within the confines of the story - but in Gravel we see how the one moment of indecision - the very young girl failing to rouse her mother to maybe save drowning sister - permeated her entire adult life. Can she ever forgive herself? In the last sentence of the book, Munro suggests, states, that yes, we do it all the time - but I'm not sure her stories actually prove that point. Munro finds absolution perhaps in her writing - she talks about how as a child she became known in the family for her funny accounts of things happening at school - but others may not have that outlet - and we sense that many people in her stories, in these remote and cold Canadian towns (none take place, in this collection, in Vancouver or Toronto, the two poles of many of he stories and of her life), are leading the quiet lives of desperation.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Re-reading Alice Munro

In prep for book group meeting tonight right here re-read two of the Alice Munro stories in Dear Life, and of course each time I read or re-read one of hers I see more elements and patterns and ideas (and sometimes flaws) - as Charles May, excellent blogger on the short story, will note - he always reads them several times before posting whereas I tend to jump right into the pool preserving my first, sometimes ill-formed, reactions (this blog is a record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading - not a work of scholarship or criticism). Read Amundsen (title refers to the remote Ontario town that is the setting for most of the story - Munro's only weakness as a writer, in my opinion, is her utter lack of sense for effective titles) and Haven (title refers to the quaint and oppressive idea that a man's home is his haven - and a wife's duty is to make it so). In both stories a woman recalls an experience with a cultured, intelligent, professional man who is absolutely hideous, even monstrous - at least to those who know him best (to outsiders, he's almost a hero). Both men are doctors. But the narrators are different (though as is typical of Munro they are looking back from a long vantage on an episode of their youth): one is a virginal, somewhat sheltered teacher working in a remote TB sanitarium during WWII; the nurse begins a relationship with her boss, the chief physician, who lords it over her, is strict and mean, pretty much declares that they will get married, then weirdly dumps her just before they are to go into the town offices to sign the marriage papers. Horrible man - and the clear but unspoken sense is that he has sexual issues: his bossiness and assertiveness about the relationship suggest it's a compensation; perhaps he goes on in life to discover his homosexuality, but Munro doesn't enlighten us on this point. In Haven, the narrator recalls being a teenager left in care of her childless aunt and uncle as her parents go off to Ghana on a Christian mission; on this reading, the religious themes struck me much more, though I'm not sure of the import: Munro puts forth various doctrines - the narrator's parents are Unitarian liberals, her older brothers joke about being atheist of Muslim, her uncle was raised Anglican but is now in the more post United church (he's a climber for sure), her aunt - whom the uncle despises - stayed Anglican, and the story concludes with her funeral service in a seldom-used Anglican church, a family servant is in a "weird" sect that distributes pamphlets around town - perhaps JW?, but not defined. The uncle, with his post religions, behaves with unfathomable cruelty to his totally dominated wife - he's mean, insulting, full of himself, but everyone in town loves him as a great and selfless doctor. Not sure what to make of the service at the end, that he tries to control - as he controls so much else - but seems to run amok.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

You want a revolution?: Tale of Two Cities

Who would have wanted to live during the French Revolution? Must have been a horrible and frightening time of complete social upheaval, which Dickens conveys very well in A Tale of Two Cities. But who would have wanted to live in France before the Revolution? Only the nobility, the landed gentry, and the royalty, I would think. Revolution doesn't justify homicide and terror - and some of our contemporary post-revolutionary societies, e.g., South Africa, show that a complete transition of power can proceed successfully. But the homicidal mania of the French Revolution is at least comprehensible if not excusable. If Dickens were less of a jingoist he would have gone to greater length to explore the characters and the motives and even the internal conflicts of the French citizens - but that's not his goal, he's writing a potboiler serialized best seller for the English-speaking readership and the French be damned. So we get to the trial, at last, and 20 people unceremoniously condemned to death but amazingly Darney speaks out when he's at the bar and has some very sympathetic witnesses and the people, those sheep and cows, completely reverse form and cheer him and he's set free. A crowd escorts him back to his temporary home where he's reunited with family - and they talk about leaving Paris as soon as possible, though Darney has unfinished business - an then, the evil Daforge, who actually had saved the good Doctor Mannette at the outset of the novel, is there to arrest Darney once again and haul him right back to prison. This novel is like a horror story or nightmare, and rather than carp about its one-sidedness or its distortions of history (I think) and psychology, as I have been doing, it's probably best just to give in and ride along with Dickens for the journey - presumably, back to England and the best of times.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Who's sari?: Jahbvala story in New Yorker

Ruth Prawer Jahbvala has had a great literary career, published many fine novels and stories and is best known no doubt for her many classy adaptations of literary novels for high-quality films - and her story in current New yorker, The Judge's Will, is a good example of her work at least as I know it from limited samples: classic and traditional,, a story shaped around a family of three and one outsider, focused on a single event and a limited span of time, full of Chekhovian sorrow and irony, high-minded, yet in the end a little bit too conventional and even dull. Oh well - let's look at the strengths: it's a story of a late-middle-age judge in Delhi, a somber and sober guy, who in wake of 2nd heart attack confesses to somewhat younger and much less somber wife that he's had a mistress for many years and is remembering her in his will; wife surprisingly accommodating and unsurprised - and we see that the wife is much more emotionally involved with their 20-something son than with the emotionally distant husband. Over time, wife begins paying visits to the mistress, a working-class woman, uneducated, a seeming mismatch, and gradually builds a protective fondness for her supposed rival. Story ends on that odd and slightly ambiguous note. You can see that it would make a good movie of a certain type: indie and understated - but it's not written like a draft for a screenplay, there is too little overt action and more introspection (and back story) than in a typical screenplay. Story doesn't break much literary ground, but it's good once in a while to see a classic example of the form stop by in the New Yorker, like a visitor from the distant past.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

What the Dickens?: Great novel, if you can get beyond the class biases and the jingoism

Darney traveling to Paris in 1790 is immediately spotted as an aristocrat and first made to hire two escorts and an extortionist price and then, when they get him to the gates of Paris, he's grabbed by some of the "citizens" and escorted to one of the prisons where he's confined to small cell with no space, no writing paper, and no hope. Will it surprise you that all the citizens are cold-blooded and bitter, that the only one who seems to have a bit of an individual life and personality is the revolutionary leader Defarge, he of the fake wine-shop, of the wife who knits while heads get chopped off, and who actually sheltered the original prisoner, Mannette, whom we met in the first chapter of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. And will it surprise you that the prisoners that Darney meets briefly as he's being escorted to his lonely cell are kind and thoughtful and interested in his story - because, hey, they're aristocrats so even if they're French they can't be all bad. Dickens is just relentless in his class biases and, to a lesser extent, in his jingoism. If you can get beyond that, however, and just accept the novel for what it is, it's pretty entertaining and well written - whether accurate or not, Dickens's depiction of a society in the midst of complete social upheaval is pretty chilling and makes you understand how dangerous it is for an outsider to pass through a country in revolution. Today, we have eyes and ears and witnesses everywhere, but still reporters and others venturing into the civil wars in Africa or Eastern Europe are brave souls whose experiences - total uncertainty about whom to trust and about everyone's motives and connections - must be a modern-day echo of Darney's experience of Paris during the French Revolution.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The asexuality of London in Tale of Two Cities

Yes of course Dickens is an English novelist but let's get real - compare the French scenes with the English scenes and you'll see that A Tale of Two Cities is truly about the best of time and the worst of times, and the worst are in France and the best in London - as we read the harrowing scene of the revolution in suburban Paris, Saint Antoine, and Dickens aptly describes the nobility and their lackeys who literally made the people eat grass (let the east les herbes), but when the people rise up against this oppression, to Dickens they seem like horrible and frightful thugs. Is he against the French people? No, not as long as the move to London, because there, in the next chapter, we see the British bank or counting house, Tellsons, where the money of the French nobility is safely stashed away, and the Frenchman in exile, Darney, is as kind a noble a person as can be and he decides to help his friend, the banker Lorry, in a secret and dangerous mission back to Paris to secure the bank's funds still in France. Again and again, the British are at worst eccentric (except for the London crowds, which can be crude and dangerous, or the working poor, like Cruncher, who are pretty brutal) and French, even when in a noble cause, are frightful and odd, withe pseudonyms (they're all called "Jacques"). The British are also strangely asexual and desexual - the only one in London who seems to have a sexual relation with a spouse or anybody else is the French exile Darney.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What the Dickens: Was Dickens a reactionary?

Following on yesterday's post, a pretty good example of the Dickens dichotomy appears in the next few chapters of A Tale of Two Cities, when he describes the storming of the Bastille - and has there ever been account of this event that is less sympathetic to the revolutionaries? They are an violent mass with no clearly defined or stated goal or objective, they just seem to be rioting and attacking for no reason at all, and there is no sense of victory or liberation as the enter the prison, no sense of excitement when the prisoners are liberated after years of captivity, no sense of the historical significance of this moment - the whole episode seems designed to get to the room in the North Tower once occupied by the long-released Doctor Mannette. I'm not saying necessarily that Dickens was a reactionary or a Royalist, though maybe he was, but from a literary standpoint it's obvious that he is averse to mass movements and to social uprisings and to "crowds." Then, in subsequent chapters, we see Dickens the individualist: his basic optimism about individuals, especially of the rising business class in London, leads him to make the best of even seemingly unworthy characters - with individuals, he's drawn toward a positive magnetic pole (though of course there are incontrovertible villains, too). What we see here is the conversion of Carton, who in earlier chapters was a nasty drunk who expressed his jealousy (sexual, social) of the dashing Darney; now, Darney returns from his month-long honeymoon with new bride Lucie Mannette, and Carton has a very touching heart-to-heart with Darney, asking him to forgive past ill behavior. Darney, an open and generous soul, does so gladly and welcomes Carton, now a reformed drinker, as a friend of the family. All very nice, if improbable, but showing the other side of the Dickens dichotomy. Now, it's possible that Carton is a complete sneak and will use his friendship to advantage - but I doubt that. Any reader of D. will know or at least suspect that Carton and Darney will turn out to be cousins - they look alike, and there was a hint that there's a lost branch to Darney's father's (the Marquis's) family. Tale wouldn't be Dickensian if there were some such "surprise" plot twist.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Whom does Dickens like?

At first look, I thought I could generalize and say that Dickens doesn't like people in groups or classes but he does (sometimes) like individuals. That is, his sympathetic characters (and his villains) are almost unique and apart from their class. But when he confronts or conveys people in groups, especially in crowds, or when he paints with a broader brush - groups of people at a meeting or a party or a streetcorner or an office - he's uneasy and satirical. We see almost a classic example of this in Great Expectations when Pip's office mate brings Pip home and Pip, seeing him outside of the public sphere, sees an entirely different and much more sympathetic character. But all that is simplistic: of course individuals are more vivid in fiction, for better or worse, than figures in a crowd or in a class. Which led me to think about: Whom does Dickens like? In A Tale of Two Cities I'm beginning to get a sense of whom he doesn't like: worst of all is the French nobility (the Marquis) whom he despises and depicts as despicable; but he's not that much more sympathetic to the French revolutionaries. Yes, taking on the nobility is a just social cause, but Dickens stops just short of portraying the crowd around Defarge's (?) wine shop as cold-blooded thugs - notably, his wife, coolly knitting shrouds and waiting for heads to tumble. Though D is slightly sympathetic to crowds in Paris, he's much less so to crowds in London - where we see a throng overtake a funeral procession, for example. Crowds are dangerous and unruly. He doesn't like lawyers, and he doesn't seem to like the rough working-class families, at least as portrayed in Tale by Cruncher (maybe too much of a generalization). Whom does he like: first, the rising business and merchant class of London - e.g., the kindly Doctor Manette (and his daughter) and the self-effacing banker Lorry. Second: what about the British nobility? How and why do they get off so easy? Is the King of England that much better than the King and Queen of France? (Americans wouldn't have thought so ca 1780.) Dickens's vitriol and satire has free reign in Tale, and few are left unscathed. Those who try to change the world are treated not much better than the exploiters and the crooks.  It's a misanthropic novel.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Quel dommage: Class struggle v jingoism in Tale of Two Cities

So...I'm not crazy. After struggling to remember the plot elements and characters in the first two sections of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities and writing them down as best as I could in yesterday's post, even though some of the elements did not seem to tie together and made very little sense to me - I did read a plot synopsis, two actually, and found that my recollections were accurate. Which leads me to conclude that Dickens constructed his plots in very odd ways, which he pushed to the extreme in Tale (and maybe also in his last novel, Our Mutual Friend). No doubt because his style was based on serial publication and depending on grabbing and holding interest immediately and on cliffhanger endings, he not only could not indulge in slow, gradual accrual of character traits and plot details, he had to eschew plot logic at times and build suspense and ambiguity: so in the first section of the book we have a man freed from prison after 18 years (we don't know why), another man on trial for spying against England (we don't know who he is), a lawyer and his sidekick who got the spy acquitted but perhaps through chicanery (we don't know how exactly), and the nasty sidekick bears an uncanny resemblance to the accused (we don't know what that signifies). But we put a lot of faith in Dickens as a great storyteller and plot architect and move along - knowing of course that everything will tie together, even if that entails unlikely coincidences and melodramatic confrontations. And some of this begins to unfold in the third section, where attention shifts back to France and we see the accused and acquitted spy in confrontation with his father?, uncle, a member of the French nobility - renouncing his heritage and denouncing the uncle's entire way of life. Dickens is at his most vitriolic in his portrait of the French nobility - a scene in which the count's carriage strikes and kills a child, to which the count is colossally indifferent and contemptuous, is among the most vivid in the novel - an admirable class sensibility on Dickens's part, but too bad he lets the English nobility off the hook: what could be a novel of class struggle (a la Zola, e.g.) veers toward jingoism. Quel dommage.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Wandering Mind: Why I'm not following Tale of Two Cities

There must be something wrong with me or else I'm very distracted; Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities is supposed to be pretty easy reading, right? High-school kids have read it since 1849 or so. But for some reason I'm having a lot of trouble holding the plot elements and the characters in my mind. I know that the opening is meant to be mysterious, as Dickens introduces a number of characters and intentionally doesn't tell us much or anything about who they are or what their background or connection is or for that matter why we start on the night coach to Dover, presumably en route to Paris. We are to piece these things together and make the connections as the plot coheres in subsequent chapters - but I'm still confused (had the same problem a few years ago when I tried to read Our Mutual Friend, though that novel was far more dense - Tale at least is easy to read chapter by chapter, with a lot of excellent dialogue and the characters sketched in broad strokes). I'm going to have to look at a plot synopsis sometime later, but here's what I recall, and don't: Lorry, a banker in a private firm (Tellson's?) is en route to Paris via Dover when a messenger overtakes his coach and gives him the message: Returned from the Dead. Shortly, Lorry arrives in Paris where he finds man in an old apartment in a state of post-traumatic shock; he's been freed from prison after 18 (?) years, and forgets who he is and thinks he's a cobbler; the man in Mannette, and his daughter, Lucie, takes charge of him: presumably he's the one back from the dad, but I don't know what the message was about, what he had done to be imprisoned, any connection between Lorry and the Mannettes. Next stop: 5 years later (1780); a man Darney (?) is on trial as a French spy - Lorry is in the gallery, the old Doctor Mannette, still tended by daughter, is a key witness, Darney is acquitted (still don't see all the connections). Lorry afterwards visits the Mannettes; he's obviously in love with Lucie, but he's very formal and shy. We also follow the lawyer who won the case, who's a sleazy and aggressive character (Stryver) and his sidekick, a mean alcoholic (Carton) who played some role, not sure what, in the trial. Secondarily, we have met a guy who's a messenger for Lorry's firm who was called to the trial to give Lorry a message; not sure why - can't remember his name but it's something like Cruncher. How do all these strands tie together? I have no idea at this point. I'll keep going - out of faith in Dickens and out of shame at my own wondering attention.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Pity the Poor Immigrant: Adoiche story in New Yorker

You could teach a whole course - a series of courses - on English and American fiction about the immigrant experience: in America, much of it in the 20th century about Jewish and Italian immigrants, and now in the 21st we're seeing more fiction about Asian, Eastern European and Russian (i.e., former Soviet states), and to a lesser extent African immigration stories; from England, in the 20th century the many stories from the British West Indies, most notably Naipaul, and from India and Pakistan - and now in the 21st we're seeing I think for the first time British fiction about an immigrant wave from Africa. Current New Yorker story by C.N. Adiche is a good example and a good story, Checking Out - of course it has many of the familiar tropes, the young man living on the edges of London society, struggling to get a job, living on false papers, taken advantage of by other more settled men from his homeland - it recalls so many similar stories, Levy, Hrabal, Adams - but Adiche does provide a few original touches - the young man is quite well educated and a son of a university professor back in his native Nigeria - and in a pretty tight space she makes the main character very full and gives the secondary characters just the right touch of specificity so that they're neither cliched types nor indistinguishable blurs. Essence of the story is that the young, Okinze (?), is living on expired papers and, in order to stay in the country legally, he conspires to marry someone with proper residency permit; he pays some fellow Nigerians to arrange the deal, but the kicker is that he and the fake bride sort of fall for each other - making the approach to their wedding day emotionally complex. Some very nice descriptions of O's work in a warehouse, his tentative and worried friendships with fellow workers, most of them English, and most of all the feeling of loneliness and despair that haunts the story and is a common ground for almost over story of immigration, or at least of the young man as solitary immigrant, isolated by language, color, or culture from the prosperous but inhospitable society all around him and just out of reach.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Is it more than a potboiler?: Tale of Two Cities

On recommendation of friend and pro poet AF and remembering comments from the online conversation WS started on the quality of Dickens, I started A Tale of Two Cities last night, a novel I hadn't read since college or maybe high school. AF had described it to me recently as a classic best-seller, which is just what I wanted - I think. For years, Tale has been largely dismissed, even by those who don't dismiss Dickens, as a plain old potboiler - paling beside the monumental Bleak House and Little Dorritt, the near-perfect Great Expectations, the very accessible Hard Times, the personal testimonial of Copperfield, the popularized Oliver Twist, and even the impenetrable (the only on on this list I couldn't finish) Our Mutual Friend. But take Tale for what it is: if not a potboiler, certainly a pot-stirrer, and perhaps his only work not set in England? Of course it's way over the top - not just the famous opening passages but even the first chapter, pushed onto the stage by the near-hysterical writing (unlike say Great which is pushed on stage by an incredibly powerful, active opening scene). But as the novel settles down, we have some truly memorable Dickensian scenes: the night coach struggling to climb Dover hill and overtaken by a messenger, and the fear everyone has of highwaymen and brigands; locating M. Mannette, surfaced in a small lodging in Paris, obviously traumatized by his 18 years in prison, hovering over a workbench and imagining he's a shoemaker. We don't know yet how these scenes will come together, and it almost feels like Dickens isn't sure yet himself - I can't figure out why the dramatic overtaking of the night coach was even necessary, but let's leave logic aside - but his job was to get readers to buy the next issue of the magazine, and no one was better at that.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Material World - v. Ideal World - in Gargantua & Pantagruel

After all the violence and tumult, the end of Book 1 of Francois Rabelais's Gargantua & Pantagruel is very sweet and thoughtful and in fact would make good required reading for many political hawks and myopic military leaders - as Gargantua's father and Gargantua both discuss and reflect on why it's better to sue for peace, even if you're the more powerful nation or army, why the world is most prosperous and healthy if nation's live within their borders and maintain friendly relations with their neighboring states - excellent, humane advice much needed today, maybe more so than back in teh 16th century. At the end of the book we do see clearly the conflict of world views that I've referenced in a few other posts: after many scenes of carnage and bestiality, horribly gruesome battle scenes, perhaps meant to be comic and certainly meant to be over the top (as are other scenes of ingestion and defecation), we get this philosophizing about international relationships and peace among nations: in a way, that's the medieval view v. the modern world view, but it's also the body v the mind, person as animal v person as reasoning being, the physical v the ideal, and a world in which relations are built on strength, power, and authority v a world in which relations are built on assessment of mutual interest. Yes, there's a lot in this book, and at times it's very entertaining as well, but to our modern tastes - or mine - in which we expect character and plot in a work of this length (700 pp. or so), G&P is more of an artifact of its era: invaluable for understanding its time and place, a forebear of other great European novels (DQ, Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones) about the birth and life of out-sized characters (also Gulliver's Travels, about proportion and perspective as fictive device) - but it also shows its age - so I won't be going farther than Book 1 at this point, anyway - and I realize I'm quitting before Pantagruel even enters the scene. Few will finish reading this novel today, I think, but it's worth dipping into even randomly to find a few hilarious passages.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Blood and guts: From Rabelais to James Bond


Why so much violence in Rabelais's Gargantua & Pantagruel? I mean it's among the bloodiest books I've ever read - so much slashing and stomping and beheading and slicing open of guts and carcasses - I know medieval warfare was a nasty business, but this is so extreme - and of course that's the point, that's almost the very essence of the adjective Rabelaisian, everything taken to the extreme: It's a novel about a giant (two, actually) with giant appetites and gigantic gestures, so when Gargantua is called into battle to save his father’s kingdom he doesn’t just defeat the evading army but eviscerates them one at a time. OK, I guess violence was pretty hilarious to medieval readers – in the same way that today we still talk about “cartoon” violence, generally not confined to cartoons but the lifeblood of action movies, such as the Batman or the Bond series, and plenty of films with Schwartznegger or by Tarantino – each a stylized violence but in comically exaggerated forms. So there is a line connecting Rabelais to Ian Fleming – and yet – it’s ultimately not so funny in Rabelais, it’s just gruesome. The closest near-contemporary comparison I can think of is Cervantes = I remember being somewhat put off by all the violence and cruelty (some of it not physical cruelty) in Don Quixote (my mother had the same thoughts when she returned to DQ after many years and found it disappointing); I greatly enjoyed re-reading DQ and came to tolerate the violence because it was in service of plot and character; we suffered along with DQ and Sancho Panza, and his sufferings helped us love and understand him – they fueled the sentiment of the modern stage adaptation. Can you imagine, though, a stage adaptation of Gargantua? Maybe there is one – but it seems to me more suited to a great anime cartoon. The violence is superfluous and out of all proportion, however, and may have given 16th-century readers a frisson – as did every mention of sex and defecation, no doubt – but it makes this novel feel quant and distant today.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reasons to read Rabelais (other than the chapter on defecation?))

It's at times very funny and generally easy to read, there are some really odd scenes and chapters that are no doubt unique in world literature (a four-page list of card games, virtually all of them apocryphal I think, and entire chapter devoted to discussions of various ways to wipe your ass); it has given us two adjectives, Rabelaisian and Gargantuan - and for all that what is Rabelais's Gargantua & Pantagruel really about? At the top level, it's a grand tall tale, a comically exaggerated account of a the birth and life of the giant Gargantua, which gives Rabelais the opportunity to exaggerate everything: Rabelais is never satisfied with one adjective, oath, or image but he piles them on in superabundance. It's also the most "earthy" book of its time and of any time, full of descriptions of farting and shitting and numerous other bodily functions. (Not surprising to learn that Rabelais was a doctor - the book is full of medical arcana as well.) But is there a reason to read this long novel other than as an entertainment? - yes, I think so: I do agree with the notation on the Penguin edition I'm reading that this is a cultural monument as well. Gargantua heads off to Paris with his tutors to undergo a liberal education - one of the first literary examples of humanism - but while he's study music and literature and mathematics and languages etc. he gets summoned by his father, a king or prince of sort, to fight in battle against some invading forces - one of those completely meaningless medieval skirmishes that is all about turf and territory. Father tries to negotiate a peace, unsuccessfully, and the giant Gargantua called in like a Scud missile - so what we are beginning to see unfold is the conflict between a world focused on the individual and on learning and accomplishment and a world built on hierarchy, strife, and control of territory.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

An ode to drunkenness: Rabelais

Any reader can see why Rabelais got in trouble for writing Gargantua and Pantagruel - he'd probably get in trouble today let alone in the 1500s. This novel, if that's what to call it, is as ribald and raunchy and ill-behaved as anything by the Beats or Henry Miller or for that matter Lawrence or Joyce or any of the writers who've faced censorship in the past 100 years (political censorship aside - I'm taking about censorship by the moralists). Everyone knows that Chaucer was incredibly crude and raunchy in many of his "tales," but Chaucer was careful to keep his more outrageous pieces within a context: they're narrated by crude or "low" characters, and they're within a framework of an essentially very conservative and some would say even devout narrative structure. Also, Chaucer was a powerful guy within the highest circle of the government in his era - so first of all he knew exactly how far he could go and second he was a bit protected from censure by virtue of his status. Rabelais was a living target; I see in a note in the old Penguin edition I've reading that he was a trained physician, and that makes a lot of sense, as the book is full of arcana about anatomical functions and body parts - and it's also full of celebrations of drinking and drunkenness, or sex, lots of descriptions of farting and shitting and puking, and for all that it's pretty funny, in its way-over-the-top manner: Gargantua born as a giant, through a reverse process he rises from the womb and comes to life through his mother's ear (!), much description of the process of clothing and housing the baby giant - and all to what end? I'm not sure what Rabelais's purpose is in writing this book - I'm sure it didn't earn him any money - but as the Penguin edition notes it gives us a glimpse of two societies in conflict - the religious order of the Middle Ages in conflict with the humanism of the renaissance. Maybe, though I think that's much more true of Chaucer (and maybe Spenser); I don't see any evidence of the church and class structure of the Middle Ages, at least in first 50 pages or so, unless it's present by its very absence, in this book that sticks a thumb in the eye of all social conventions.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Sealed and delivered: Great story in current New Yorker by Will Mackin

Great short story in the current New Yorker, Kattekoppen, by Will Mackin - he's a writer I've never heard of and it's possible this is his first nationally published story; bio note confirms what we may have surmised from the story, that he's a veteran who's done several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan - not all great war writers actually served (Crane, O'Nan I think) but most have - and if this story is evidence Mackin could be the O'Brien of the Afghan 21st-century wars. The story is sharp and surprising, a truly authentic and distinct voice, and a particular rarity in that Mackin's narration combines literary and cultural values and referrents without being pretentious or incongruous - or at least the incongruities are surprising and striking. Story is about a platoon of SEALS in Logar (?) Afghanistan, in need of a guy to aim their howitzer guns; the narrator and another seal recruit a few different guys from a lesser-ranked unit to do the job - which seems kind of boring and routine until two soldiers make a wrong turn and get captured by local Afghans and the Seals go on a mission to find the soldiers or their bodies. Examples of Mackin's smart style: one of the howitzer gunners recruited is oddly a Dutch guy who gets shipments of candy from his mother, one type he leaves because he doesn't like them is the eponymous Dutch licorice, which means catheads I think - these oddlooking candies play a surprising role in the mission to recover the abducted soldiers. Dutch guy, Levi, when asked how his visit home on leave went, says :Goot (Mackin's sharp ear for oddities there). Mackin brings us right into this encampment, he doesn't explain things but gives us just enough info to start figuring out the rules of this alien world with pink-looking snow, light from the moon like an X-ray, the slimey feel of corpse and the stink as it's bagged, the new recruit who passes time playing online mah-jongg (eventually they call him MJ, which we catch on to after a moment). Mackin seems like a super tough-guy - the Seals are the alpha dogs for sure - and he's a tough guy narrator, too, explaining little, treating us as if we're recruits who'd better catch on - and then startling us with an insight: the stamps from Holland that have images from Breugal paintings - including the Death of Icarus, and Mackin notes that the image does not include the people who aren't watching the fall - a little wink from Mackin to show us he's an educated guy, not (or not just?) a killing machine. If he can sustain this kind of writing - whether over the course of a novel or of many stories - he'll e a major voice. This is just the kind of story I hope to find in the New Yorker - news from our world, real, topical, thoughtful, a fresh voice that's neither self-consciously literary nor a poseur.

Friday, March 8, 2013

A difference between fiction and nonfiction and why Feast of the Goat fails

In a pattern that's become all to familiar, and frustrating, for me, I'm abandoning Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat about halfway through - there's nothing actually wrong with the book and I started it with great hope as I found the first chapters a very promising start, several key characters introduced, the dictator Trujillo, people in his entourage plotting against him, and woman returning to the Dominican Republic after many years to learn the truth about her father and his service to the tyrant. But honestly V-L establishes these themes and characters and then in my view does not develop much of anything; we can easily see the architecture of his plot, and we know the key events pretty soon - Trujillo will be assassinated by a gang of 7 men whom he has alienated by his tyranny - and it seems to me that V-L just hits the same notes repeatedly. I'm not curious about what's going to happen next and I don't know much more by chapter 16 than I did at chapter 3 - there's just a long concatenation of incidents and details. A great novel, or any novel, needs and architecture and a design - which is not the same thing as a scheme (alternating pov by chapter among three strands of plot, for example, as V-L does here). I remember being similarly frustrated by his long novel The War at the End of the World, and maybe it's me - but it comes down to an essential difference between fiction and nonfiction, between acts of the imagination and pursuit of facts, between art and skill or craft: even the greatest nonfiction (take the LBJ bios by Caro) must hew to the facts of the case before it - whereas fiction, in pursuit of different (maybe higher) truth is free to soar. It's as if in this novel V-L is totally earthbound, plodding onward with his theme, dutifully, step by step, and despite its various strengths, which I have noted in previous posts, a few powerful chapters in isolation and some intriguing allegorical hints (the dictator like a jealous God - what I had picked up as a subtlety in the chapter in which Trujillo turns against the Egghead becomes explicit in the next chapter when Trujillo meets with his acolyte, the puppet president), the novel has a lot of detail but doesn't move anywhere, doesn't hold us, or didn't hold me, in suspense and wonder.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Thou shalt have no other Gods before me: allegory and Feast of the Goat

It may be that there is an allegorical level to Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat, which, at least initially (or superficially) seems like a realistic examination of the personality of a dictator (Trujillo) and of his cronies and lap dogs, and in fact it may be very closely based on historical fact and characters, and despite the occasional narrative flourishes (chapters that move seamlessly and almost unnoticed from description of events of the past to events of the present) - just finished reading a long chapter in which Urania's father, a disgraced senator and servile supporter of Trujillo, first learns that he's a suspect and on the outs: he's suddenly being followed by secret police (in VW Beetles, an interesting touch) and he can't get in to see Trujillo, he's persona non grata, and most tellingly he has no idea what he's done to put himself out of favor. On one level, this seems to be a Kafkaesque narrative, in which the protagonist is accused or on trial for an unknown crime, act, or vice - but I began to see it in another way: Isn't this disgraced senator (I wish I could remember his name, the names of the secondary characters are exasperatingly elusive in this novel, for some reason) a Job-like figure - made to suffer endless torment and to lose his status, wealth, and power, for no apparent reason. Seeing him as Job-like obviously makes Trujillo the dictator into a vengeful Old Testament God - and I think that makes sense: the Benefactor, as he likes to call himself, bestows his wealth and grace on those below him, but all according to his own whims and needs, and in return he demands absolute fealty and adoration, just like Yahweh. One side plot of the novel is Trujillo's virulent anger against the priests who do not support him - again, a God-like attitude, but an Old Testament God in particular: I am a jealous God, thou shalt have no other gods before me, etc. I have to pause and think about a Latin American novel whose central figure is an Old Testament God, however: it's a highly Catholic culture, and wouldn't a truly great, tragic figure be a New Testament God, a Christ? Vargas Llosa's depiction of the tyrant as a "jealous" God is both an indictment of the despotism in many Latin countries and an indictment of a faith that would worship a God so vengeful and temperamental.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What's Vargas Llosa really writing about in Feast of the Goat?

Note that the 3 strands of Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat, which I commented on yesterday are all "internal" strands - that is - each - the return of the estranged daughter, the disillusioned Trujillo aide, and Trujillo himself - all present us with a view of Trujillo's distatorship from the inside. This strategy is both crafty and disingenuous. Where it works best is through Vargas Llosa's making us as readers feel, if only for a few moments, as if this brutal tyranny is normal, healthy, jocular, hilarious - such as the long chapter I read last night about the celebratory dinner Trujillo holds for the U.S. Marine who trained him in his youth - the dinner full of quips (We are very generous in the DR, especially with bullets) and with offhand remarks about how Trujillo solved the Haitian problem by cutting thousands dead with machetes. We have to pause for a moment and regain our moral compass and think about this from the Haitian point of view - as a massacre and a genocide, as Danticat and perhaps others have written. This moral uneasiness helps us see how people can be terrified and brutalized into believing that the Trujillo dictatorship was to the benefit of the people of the DR. And that's the other side: the perspective of this long book is narrow; we don't see or feel or understand ordinary people in the country, whether terrified or disillusioned or duped into believing in the General, the Benefactor, as he calls himself. Perhaps that's also a wise narrative strategy, or perhaps it's a mark of Vargas Llosa's limitation - too much inside, too much at the heart or seat of power. All told, I also wonder about his decision to focus on Trujillo and the DR for his portrait of a tyrant: I wonder if readers more knowledgeable about V-L than I have sensed that he was using the DR as a screen and was actually writing, for those who could open this possible roman a clef, about a dictatorship much closer to his native Peru, something he could not have safely (or comfortably) written about openly?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Three strands of plot in The Feast of the Goat

Mario Vargas Llosa'a The Feast of the Goat comprises three narrative strands: General Trujillo in the last days of his dictatorship, scenes of him bossing and humiliating those in his power - this part most likely based on history but you could substitute the name of almost any dictator and the story would be the same; a young soldier in Trujillo's band joins several others in a plot to assassinate Trujillo - and these two strands of plot converging on a single moment, which I guess will be the assassination circa 1960 - based on history? I'm not sure - wish I knew more about the "facts" of the case, though, as all good fiction does, Vargas Llosa gives me the facts in a different way - deeper and more intensely personal and quirky than any historical account confined to verifiable external truths - fiction is more true than nonfiction, in other words - I do, however, wish the characters in this plot strand were more vivid - I can't even recall the main characters' name, for example - this strand, for Latin Americans, may be as imbued with history and memory as, say, Libra or The Executioner's Song were for American readers. Third strand and to me the most intriguing is the story of Urania, character Vargas Llosa introduces in the first scene, returning to Santo Domingo after decades of absence to visit or actually confront her dying father, complicit in Trujillo's reign of terror; as noted in yesterday's post, the big "reveal" about Urania is certainly going to be obvious to most readers - when she learns that she is actually Trujillo's illegit daughter - but what is holding my interest is how Vargas Llosa unfolds this and how the vist to her homeland affects and molds the character of Urania - she came with hatred and bitterness, but perhaps her views are being changed as she confronts people for her past, sees how ruined and ineffectual those she once feared (her father, the regime) have become, and sees the prosperity (and the inequities) all around her. At mid-novel, Vargas Llosa also begins to let us in her Urania's back story, her success in North America at the expense, it would seem, of her personality and her very identity. She has become a "gringo," but she is cut off from the love of others, from family, from any possibility of a family of her own.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The so-called secret at the heart of The Feast of the Goat

For all the strengths of Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat and there are many - his uncanny sense of how a dictator manipulates and humiliates others to retain his power, the sense of how the dictator, Trujillo in this case but you could substitute any of many, Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Kim Jong-il (?), deludes himself into thinking that he has brought great prosperity to his land and that he is beloved by his people for bringing them freedom, the smart use of multiple time frames, the excellent building of narrative tension as we watch the plot against Trujillo slowly materialize, the subtle mixture of fictional and historical elements, the vantage of the present - woman's visit to her homeland circa 2000 after many years away, to cite just a few of its strengths - one thing does bother me, and that's how can a narrative work when we're smarter than the characters, and I'm not talking about the omniscient narrative point of view but the plot element in which I keep thinking that Vargas Llosa intends to surprise us but then I think, no, he's too smart for that, he knows we've figured out the "secret" long before the main character has, but why? The secret I'm talking about? - it's obvious to any observant reader - most readers of Vargas Llosa are observant, I would say - that Urania, the first character introduced, must be an illegitimate daughter of Trujillo, as all the elements fit - the disappearance of her mother, Trunillo's interest in her when she was a child, and most of all her father's horror when he'd learned that Trujillo's son was making a play for her. The real mystery is why she, a highly intelligent and accomplished woman, never figured this out. We'll see what use Vargas Llosa makes of this plot element.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Comparing Vargas Llosa with Garcia Marquez and others

Started Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat (2000) yesterday and am finding it a great relief after my aborted slog through The Sleepwalkers - V-L's novel is one among many overtly politico-historical novels, in this case taking on the issue of the tyranny in The Dominican Republic under dictator Trujillo. I wish I knew more about the historical facts behind this novel, but am accepting that the historical architecture is largely or even entirely true. Feast of the Goat has several converging narrative lines: a Dominican woman whose father was a Trujillo henchman returns to the DR after many years to visit her now-invalid, elderly father - this section is a way in which VL brings the novel into present history, as the woman, Urania, is amazed by the growth and development in her native land; also, Trujillo and his entourage are major characters, in sections set in about 1960 as Trujillo worries about plots against him and about potential invasions from Cuba or the U.S. (and of course the U.S. Marines did invade at some point - not sure exactly how or if that will tie into the events of this novel); and the third strand is a member Trujillo's elite who is apparently forced to break off an engagement and kill his would-have-been brother-in-law as part of his initiation into the inner circle - an act that so disturbs him that he joins a plot against Trujillo's life. V-L is often compared with Gabriel Gracia Marquez, and with good reason as they are, along with Fuentes, the titans of late-20th-century Latin American literature. Vargas Llosa differs from G-M, however, in that he has not interest in magic realism, much less the experiments in form, that characters so much of the great Latin American works, from Borges through Cortazar to GM to Bolano - a great tradition, from which Vargas Llosa steps aside, perhaps with a little bit of scorn. Both he and Garcia Marques take on overtly political themes - and what Latin American writer would not be drawn to the theme of dictatorships and abuse of power? But where G-M has been particularly interested in examining the inner life of a tyrant (Chronicle of a Death Foretold, e.g.), V L is interested in actions and their effects - oddly, he's more the journalist than G M, who was in fact a journalist at the start of his career. Obviously, V L is the more politically conservative - though staunchly opposed to the oligarchy of Trujillo, in this novel, where he never shuns from depicting the most horrific abuse of power (oddly foretelling the horrors of Sadam Hussein in the next century), he does not seem particularly interested in the lives of the working class or the rural peasants and Indians, as is G M. Here, V L is more like Fuentes - diplomatic, austere, a world-class intellectual rather than a street poet or a brawler. And of course, as Fuentes was a diplomat, Vargas Llosa entered political life for a time - running a conservative, and therefore doomed, campaign for the presidency of Peru, if I remember correctly.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Why I'm giving up on The Sleepwalkers

Sorry but I'll be saying good-bye soon to Hermann Bloch's The Sleepwalkers (19380, and readers of these posts will see an all-too-familiar arc, as I started this book with great enthusiasm - it had all the qualities I usually like from the superficial (an handsome vintage international edition) to the name-checks (comparisons with Mann, Musil, and Joyce, recommended by astute fellow blogger Ted Gioia), to the essential (literary fiction, suitably obscure, suitably antique - thought it would be a real discovery) and in fact the book started off uite well, with a lot of promise, some really good passages, quirky characters, odd observations and actions, homages to literary forebears, with added advantage that this is an artifact from a vital and terrifying period of world history - prewar Germany - but honest 250 pages into this dense book the many strands are not really pulling together nor in fact are they spreading out - in other words, a vast book like this can either be a unified vision with many facets (e.g., Ulysses) or a vast canvas on which an entire society is portrayed (Canterbury Tales, Underworld, Gravity's Rainbow) - but what I'm getting here is one plot element after another, many of them reasonably intriguing enough but it's a long way to go with no sense of an ending - I'm now at a point where, at last, the protagonist of part 2, Esch, is developing an animosity toward the owner of the company he just quit, whom we know to be one of the characters in book one - but there is no conflict between these two characters, in fact we haven't even seen them face to face and we haven't seen the factory owner since part 1 - in other words, the plot here is a rambling affair with many digressions. That would be OK if there were other qualities to compensate - and there may be, for some readers - Bloch gives us some of his unique observations of society along the way - for example, the discussion of the importance to society and commerce of the split panties in the women's wrestling match - the bare flesh they show for a moment is the source of the impresario's fortune; he also has some memorably weird and disquieting descriptions of sex - in fact, the section I've just finished, when Esch travels with an older woman to visit a wine auction and the end up as lovers is a great example, a sexual encounter that is so devoid of feeling and beauty: Bloch was ahead of his time in his openness about sexuality - something we don't seen in his contemporary modernists Mann, Proust, et al. - but his sex scenes in Sleepwalkers are nonsensual: the odd description of a woman's face as a landscape, in part 1, for example. There's material in this long book for a great novel, but I don't think this is one and I don't the gains are worth the pains of the journey.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Why a back story is not enough

No doubt Colm Toibin(sorry I can't do the accents) is one of our finest writers, completely able to create an evocative scene in and to creat rich and complex characters with thoughts and feelings, characters who grow across the scope of a work as they interact with one another, learn from and change one another. He also has the alertness and sense of place and detail that make for terrific historical fiction - truly establishing the look, sense, and mood of the recent and more distant past: his novel The Master a great example, and Brookln, though I wasn't a huge fan, did capture the sense of America a century ago. Current story in the New Yorker, set in 1938 in Spain of all places, shows that Toibin is using his well-honed skills to take on a new challenge, in this case historical fiction set largely during the Spanish Revolution - an area you'd think had been written of to death back in its day, but apparently we're not done with it, and Toibin brings a fresh insight: story involves an elderly woman, widowed and alone (daughters relatively nearby) in a small Spanish city; one of her daughters puts her in touch with a guy in town who's writing about the history of the village, especially its time during the Revolution, and he has met a former Franco general who will come back to the village to speak with him for his book - and the General would like to have lunch with the elderly woman. Then, we go into the back story, as we learn that she had a romance with this general, then an ordinary Franco (Loyalist?) soldier back in their youth, which led to a pregnancy; she later married a guy from the village whom she, at first, didn't love to cover up the source of the pregnancy - she came to love her husband over time, and now he's gone. She declines to see the General; end of story. Well, this back story is very well written and has a lot of potential - we've seen other fiction about French women who consorted with German occupiers, but I hadn't seen anything about Spanish women who cozied up to the fascists - I was intrigued. But unfortunately this story stops dead in its tracks: what's interesting or potentially so is not the back story but how the story can be brought to the foreground. Was the woman ashamed her whole life, or scorned in any way, or did the village not know of her affair (unlikely) or were they all in some way complicit and silent about that? The potentially great scene would be her confrontation with this man - and her taking stock of the course of her life, and that never happens. A back story is just that - in this case, it's just a premise for a story  - and I think Toibin owes us more or missed a chance for developing a great narrative. And maybe he does do that - maybe this is a piece of a longer work in progress.