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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

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The very odd narrative focus of Patricio Pron's novel

So at the end of section 2 of Patricio Pron's My Fathers' Ghost is Climbing in the Rain we get teh full picture of the story of the man who disappeared from the small town or city -pop about 13k of 16k, sources vary - in northern Argentina, which, roughly, is this: Man who possibly had some degree of mental retardation is schoolmate friend of narrator's father; the man's sister was some time back involved in demonstrations against the tyrannous regime, and she is killed; years later, the man is paid government reparations for this loss, I think it was the equivalent of $56,000? His friends in town - he's somewhat of a loner with a small job and small income as a janitor and handyman at a town athletic or social club - encourage him to buy a house, which he does; then, having $ for the first time in his life, he gets involved with prostitutes and some rough trade in the many brothels in this remote part of the country. One of the women betrays him, tricks him into signed half the deed over to her - then she and some thugs kill the guy and drop him in a well. After a search of 10 days involving much of the local community, they find the body and arrest 4 people on murder charges. Narrator's father meticulously saved many clippings and notes about this event; the father spoke at the funeral and wrote an article himself. At the end of the section, the narrator - and we - understand why the father, dying in a nearby hospital, saved all this material. Not sure exactly, however, why it's all so important to the narrator - something about reading of his father's devotion to or at least interest in his childhood friend helps him feel closer to his father. Yet it is part of the oddity of this novel that the narrator has devoted a hundred pages or so to this sub-story and has invested in literally no description of the father and virtually nothing about the narrator and his relation to or interaction with father or with anyone else in the family - or for that matter, with any person. It is as if the narrator relates best, or only, to documents, records, papers - not to people. Perhaps this is a trait he shares with his father - or else it's part of his characterization as a disturbed person and an unreliable storyteller. But what makes him who he is? If there is some trauma or history of illness, we are not yet aware of it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

A novel in fragments, and an odd title: My Fathers' Ghost [ yes, plural possessive] Is Climbing in the Rain

Made a mistake in reporting title of Patricio Pron's novel that I'm reading: It's actually My Fathers' Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain. Yes, plural possessive; I thought that might have been a publisher's mistake (thought the same about the "missing" enumerated sections in this novel), but, no, the Spanish reads "mes padres." So what to make of this? The odd narrator has multiple fathers, but they share a single ghost, or "spirit" in an alternate translation, The novel continues to be very odd and strangely captivating. Ater narrator visits father in the hospital, he goes back to the family home and rummages among his father's papers, where he finds some newspaper clippings and his father's notations. The clippings and notes concern a man who has gone missing from a small city, El Trebol (?), i.e., The Clover, in the far north of Argentina. The novel then goes into a second section, which focuses largely on documents about this missing man and the search for him: the man seems unremarkable, a pathetic Faulknerian character the narrator calls him, for no clear reason. We don't know why he's disappeared nor why his disappearance is so stirring in this community, as it's not clear at all whether there was any "foul play." Pron has a lot of fun with the newspaper clippings, with their misspellings and clumsy use of police jargon. Not sure at all where this is going - except that the narrator has an odd, perhaps autistic capacity to focus intently on peripheral subjects and to tell surprisingly little about what would normally be the main topic of the novel - the members of the family, the background of the narrator, the father's mortal illness. The use of short sections, many of the documentary (i.e., supposed newspaper clippings of found lists scribbled by the father) is a nod to another great South American novelist, Roberto Bolano; and the shifting focus of the story, from Germany, to Argentina, to a city in the north, to a small town even farther north, somehow reminds of of Pamuk, and the journeys his fiction takes us on to ever-more remote (yet by no means exotic) places, as in Snow. And isn't there an echo as well of the odd loneliness and strange journeys of Murakami's narrators? I can't actually grasp Fathers' Ghost yet, but find it compelling and mysterious, and am hopeful that Pron can build toward something and not let us, or the novel, wander away.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

An unsettled and unsettling novel: My Father's Ghost is Climbing in the Rain

Very interesting and promising beginning to Patricio Pron's novel My Father's Ghost is Climbing in the Rain starting with the title itself, a haunting image and a very unusual phrasing (a sentence, no less) for a title (I am totally sick of jaunty titles such as The XXX Club for XXX and Instructions for XXX for XXX, which have replaced the more sedate cliched title formula of the 2000s such as The XX of XX - and why are all books with the word "Bee" in the title best sellers?). Back to Pron, a young Argentine writer, this being I think his first book to appear in English: opening pages narrated by the most deliberately unreliable narrator ever, as he begins by telling us that he has pretty much completely forgotten an 8-year span of his life, as he's been living in Germany making a tiny living as a freelance writer, and seeing an analyst - he's not sure why he's been seeing him or what meds he's been on - but in any event, he's living on friends' couches and has virtually no sense of who he is - his entire personality obliterated. He does have deeper memories, of childhood, and he suddenly gets called home to Argentina where his father is gravely ill; even at home, his memories are balky - and we learn that his father had some kind of long-standing dementia, as well. We also learn that his parents, both journalists, had some kind of political activist history - and no doubt that will play a role in the story going forward. Pron has a striking and quirky style of writing that for me is very captivating - with a lot of attention to certain odd details and great ellipses, completely overlooking themes that would seem to be essential to the novel: for example, we know (and he knows) almost nothing about his father's illness; he tells us nothing about what led him to live in Germany; he gives no descriptions or accounts of any friends or lovers. But he gives a detailed list of medical terms that he has come to learn thanks to his father's condition (and his condition). He comes up with some strangely beautiful passages, such as - after a doc examines his father, he asks, inappropriately, How is his temperature?, and the doc looks at him, totally puzzled: His temperature's fine, there is nothing wrong with his temperature at all. Just one of many examples of the unsettled nature of this novel. One other that will strike all readers: Pron tells the story in quite short numbered segments (a tactic I often find annoying but that he uses to good effect, in that his narrator is a fractured character); to add to the oddity, the numbers are in sequence with some omissions. I'm sure all readers will double-check when they go from # 2 directly to # 4 - I thought there was a misprint in my edition - but in fact these gaps are another way of Pron's telling us that we don't have the full story, we never can.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why The Nose doesn't measure up to The Overcoat

Well I finished reading Gogo's story "The Nose" and it still eludes me - a barber finds a nose (his customer's!) in a loaf of bread, tosses it in the river; the Russian official wakes up sans nose and spends a day trying to locate it; a policeman shows up at the official's house, nose in hand; the official tries to re-attach the nose, and can't quite manage to get it right; life goes on. It's so weird and will obviously remind many readers of Metamorphosis -  a sudden waking to dramatic and preposterous physical transformation - but aside from the black humor and the pre-Freudian overtones, I don't know what to make of it. Surely none of the characters is portrayed in any depth, and the Russian official doesn't exactly learn from his experience - he is transformed physically, but not in any other way, he doesn't have a moral journey or an insight over the course of the story. I think its real importance is as a trial run for the much finer story The Overcoat, in which the central character, Akaky, is fully drawn and totally sympathetic and pitiable. Both stories use the loss of an object as an "objective correlative" to carry the emotional and perhaps symbolic weight of the story, but only in The Overcoat do we understand the loss of the object. In The Nose, the lose of the appendage is sudden and inexplicable and the character's efforts toward re-attachment are actually kind of gruesome. We should feel bad for him, poor guy - as Gogol notes, the whole story would be quite different had he lost a nose in a duel - but we don't. He's the author's victim, not ours.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Nose knows - a precursor of surrealism and Dada

Really not sure today what to say about Nicolai Gogol's story "The Nose" as - about half-way through this fairly long story - it is funny and surreal and doesn't yet make a lot of sense. Perhaps as with other oddities, you just have to go along for the ride and see where Gogol takes you. First part of the story, a barbar gets up one morning, hungry for a loaf of onion bread (not his typical breakfast) and in midst of loaf as he's slicing (you get the Freudian stuff - though this predated Freud by about 70 years) he finds a nose - the nose of one of his clients. He tries, with much frustration, to get rid of the nose, which he finally tosses into the river; meanwhile, the customer, a minor Russian official, wakes up that morning without his nose, and goes off in pursuit of it - to the police, then to a newspaper office where he places a lost/found ad. That's as far as I've gotten (read story some years ago and don't remember the outcome) - so it's peculiar and kind of funny. In its surrealism and its psychological symbolism - knives, razors, missing body parts, hmm? - the story is a foreshadowing of obviously Kafka, maybe Singer, and certainly other fantasists, surrrealists, and Dadaists, such as Borges - in other words way ahead of its time. If you could scrub out the chronological details - the horse-drawn carriages, the many references to official rank - the story could just as easily be set in 1920 as 1840. Shostokovich based an opera on The Nose - wonder what he saw that was operatic about this material. Will have a better sense, I hope, when I finish the story.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Old Testament, New Testament, and Gogol's Overcoat

I'm sure others have remarked on this, but let me point out that in Nicolai Gogol's story "The Overcoat" there's a very strange turn of events toward the end: the civil servant-clerk Akaky, having given all of his life's savings to purchase the new tailor-made overcoat that he desperately needs, goes out to a party that some of his office mates have set up to celebrate the new overcoat - of course, they are rather cruelly mocking him, this poor guy who gets so little pleasure out of life, who suffers their scorn - and on the way home two thugs rob him and, oddly, take the coat (they don't even seem to ask him for money). He spends the next few days going to the police and eventually to some high-ranking government official in the vain hope of starting a police investigation to retrieve his coat. Nobody notices his plight, nobody cares, and the official berates him so fiercely that he literally becomes ill, and, in a few days, dies. It takes his office a few more days to realize this, but they quickly replace him. Gogol has a very beautiful passage toward the end, in which he notes that Akaky had a sad and struggling life but had one moment of golden joy when he possessed, for a few days, this beautiful coat - which was taken from him. How odd - the coat itself is a Christ symbol, and the story, up to this point, something like a New Testament parable (or allegory): the coat is like the savior who enlightens the dark world for a very short span and then is ripped from us and ascends, leaving the world changed and open to grace. Even the nasty high-ranking official tries wanly to make amends when he learns of Akaky's death. And then - Gogol (and I know nothing about his politico-religious views) is too shrewd to leave this as a Xtian parable, for in the very last part of the story there are appearances of a ghost throughout St. Petersburg who steals people's overcoats - and at last we see the ghost, the returned vision of Akaky come from the dead, to peel the coat of the would-be repentant official. Now we're back in the Old Testament - and the God is a jealous God, seeking vengeance rather than peace and salvation. It's a funny, as in odd, story - seeming for most of the way very much like a precursor to Dostoyevsky, realistic and sordid and dramatic - but in the last few pages becomes a fantasy, a ghost story - and a precursor to, whom? - probably Bulgakov a century later and maybe to IB Singer and the great Yiddish writers in exile. We believe in the ghost of Akaky primarily because the story up to that point was so realistic, credible, and narrated as if by a living witness.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Gogol

About half-way thru gogol's famous novella The Overcoat - what a very sad story that is. It's part of a genre that I guess is still w us ( maybe more on movies these days eg Office space?) of the misfit at work. The classic example is bartleby and second perhaps notes from underground but the overcoat is the saddest of all and most touching. Gogol slyly begins by saying he won't give any particulars and then goes on to a precise and exact description of the sad yet sweet Akaky - pockmarked balding the butt of jokes and teasing an all he wants to do is keep on as an excellent copy clerk. One day his boss asks him to do some minor changes in a doc and he becomes extremely agitated. But he loves his simple work and has no other passion in life. When the guys tease or jostle him trying to rouse ire or make him mess up he says something like why do you do this to me? This raises in at least one coworker great pity he understands a to be saying aren't we all brothers? (Melville picks up this theme too tho B very different personality from a) story of course centers on a's need for a new coat and the sacrifice he must make to pay for it and his great pride in his new possession and we absolutely know something will go terribly wrong for this sad man but we don't know what. Our hearts ache for him - and we also feel or should feel outrage at a system that would keep workers in such poverty that their entire life is spent struggling for subsistence. The very idea of an overcoat as an object of desire - something he needs and can barely afford and must obsess over - something today maybe like the need for a car beyond one's means? - is both darkly comic and appalling.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Yu hua

Story by Yu Hua in current New Yorker - victory - ok but pretty conventional and unexceptional except that it's set in china. Honestly would this story be in the New Yorker if it were set in Boston?: woman (ling) straightening up while husband away on biz finds a key tries various locks then goes to husband's office and opens his desk where she finds love notes and a photo (and #). Goes home calls various husband's friends who don't tell her Nything then calls old friend she had not seen for some time (her married life focuses on husband she is estranged from former friends) friend tells her to banish husband from bed and table. He comes home sort of confesses - to a crush that never les to sex - and she gives him cold and silent treatment hoping to bring sorrow and repentance instead after abt a month husband asks for divorce. On verge of divorce they kiss and make up. I guess part of the beauty of the story is its universality ie it occurs in china but could have been any couple anywhere - which may seem to contradict my feeling that story is published Bcz it is Chinese. - yet I think that's the Edith's point - feelings are the same the world over. I would say tho that when I read a story form another world and language culture I want to learn something about that culture. This story is scrubbed of particularities - the characters like integers even down to Theo nearly identical names. I know I've complained abt the many New yorker stories that do not seem to conclude and at least this one, Victory, draws action to a conclusion but it seems to be a summary of a life and not a life.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

This guy won a Nobel?

In the third part of Imre Kertesz's short novel Liquidation we change narrative voices once again; it takes a few pages to figure it out but at this point the narrator is the late author B's ex-wife, Judit, who is speaking to her current husband, telling him about the beginning of her relationship with B. (it's very confusing because we don't know for a while if she's talking about that relationship or her affair with the book editor, Kingbitter, seeking the lost B manuscript - or in fact if the narrator is the other book editor who'd been having an affair with B - and does it really matter? isn't this - the obscurity and indifference to distinctions among characters and voices - part of Kertesz's nihilistic stance?). What we learn - surprise surprise - is that yes in fact B. did leave behind a novel manuscript (exactly how Kingbitter knows this is never explained) and he also left Judit instructions to destroy it, which she did. Her husband, jealous about her still-strong feelings for B. and somewhat betrayed in that she'd still been seeing B., though apparently not having an affair, also feels mildly angry that she would destroy a work of art. And that's pretty much it. So what is the point? Why did B. want her to destroy it and why is Kertesz writing a novel about a novel that no one will ever read? As Judit "explains" it, the B wanted the novel destroyed because no novel can convey the horror of Aushwitz (where he was born - though it's not clear that he was writing about Auschwitz), that the true expression of these horrors is in life, not in art. That to me is a total absurdity - and we all know that Adorno remarked that after Auschwitz, the idea of writing a poem is obscene. That's one of the provocative statements not meant literally: it will never be obscene to write a poem, as poetry, fiction, art help us understand consciousness, behavior, feelings, beliefs, perceptions, they help us see and comprehend the world from the point of view of others, they deepen our understanding of ourselves, I could go on - but, yes, a poem will neither abate nor prevent a horror or tragedy, personal or global. What we have in Liquidation is one of those European mind-games, a novel "about" the Holocaust (or about a Holocaust survivor) that espouses the idea that art about the Holocaust is impossible; the novel therefore has a built-in defense against its own deficiency - Kertesz's failure to create distinct characters, his indifference to developing a plot with any but the most listless action, his banal philosophy. This guy won a Nobel? Not on the basis of this novel.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The unbearable darkness of being Eastern European: Kertesz

I'll admit that Imre Kertesz's novel (novella?) Liquidation gets a little better in the middle third, as he more or less focuses on telling his story and not on creating lots of little postmodern games and whimsies such as an interpolated play that's about the characters who are reading the play, and so forth. Now if he could only stop randomly switching from 1st person to 3rd person narration, which he does for no apparent reason and to no obvious positive effect, he might truly be onto something. The novel as it takes shape is essentially about an editorial underling, a reader for a publisher, Kingbitter (if I remember correctly), whose best friend, B. or Bee, commits suicide. Kingbitter takes on the task of assembling B's writings an d bringing them to the publishing house - he says that B is the only true literary figure whom he knows. He presents the writings (which include the self-referential play noted above, plus a story collection and a collection of essays and aphorisms) to a three-member publications committee - only to learn that the publishing house is going under and not taking on anything new. Two of the members are a married couple, and we learn that the woman had been having an affair for a long time with B. No matter - Kingbitter had been having a long affair with B's wife (estranged at time of death). The wife, Judit, a dr., had essentially provided the morphine that B. used to kill himself. The essence of the plot is that B.'s literary remains seem to be incomplete, and K. believes that B. must have left behind a great novel manuscript, or typescript (an editorial worker, he's particular about these distinction) - he asks Judit and others but all deny that the ms. exists. I'm not sure what his evidence is based on - but the pursuit of a a lost masterpiece is a fine literary trope - done very well in The Aspern Papers (less so in Possession) - and I must admit I've tried my hand at this topic myself. So that's the essence of the story, but that doesn't convey the mood, which is strictly dark Eastern European pessimism, even nihilsm - the post-traumatic endurance of the Holocaust (B a Jew born in Auschwitz) and then the Soviet era - and this novel, set in I think the 1990s?, seems dark and hopeless, larded with Beckettian philosophical drivel aout the meaninglessness of life. I've been thinking about the differences between Kertesz and Kundera - both writing about similar situations, intellectuals and artists cut off from creativity and communication, people getting by in dire poverty stripped of their professions - but Kundera full of humor and a spirit of life and Kertsz just shrouded in gloom. It's a short novel and we'll soon see how it ends - not well, I suspect.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

I can't go on: Vast generalizations about European fiction

First rule: Beware of short European novels w/ epigraphs from Beckett (not Josh), particularly from Beckett's fiction. I'm reading a short Hungarian novel by a "Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature" - a blessing or a curse? has any Nobelist ever written a great book after winning the prize? - but for some reason the Nobelistas chose Imre Kertesz over such less lights as, oh, John Updike, Philip Roth, even Bob Dylan. So, Liquidation, by Kertesz, is all that's right and all that's wrong with European fiction. They all kind of blend together for me, but I've read or at least started so many novels like this that repeatedly pose the question: what is real and what is imitation? what is fact and what is fiction? when is the narrator reliable and when not? Negation, for example, is about a character with an arbitrary name that may or may not really be his name, and the essence of the plot, as I see it so far, is that this character is a reader at a publishing house who has brought to 3 of his colleagues there a manuscript for consideration and the manuscript is about the four of them debating whether to publish this manuscript, and on it goes. Along the way we get many observations on the order of the the only true meaning of life is suicide. I can't go on I must go on. However: behind all this claptrap is a potentially good story: the life of a writer, born in Auschwitz, living through the Soviet domination of Hungary, imprisoned for his writing, at last completes a manuscript and then dies, perhaps suicide, leaving the ms. to his best friend to shepherd into publication and the friend learns the manuscript is about him. This could be appealing and mysterious - if he would just tell the story! Why can't he? It's as if the entire generation of European novelists are trauma survivors, outliving Nazism and Communism (the novel is set during a time when Hungary is still impoverished - not over-run by American students on break or Brits on gap year). I feel for them, they have endured much more than I have, than we (white) Americans have - but as a reader I feel - let in some fresh air. Tell the story in a straightforward manner, chronicle your experience, record it for ever - don't hide and disguise and feint behind pseudo-philosophy and postmodern gewgaws.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Salinger story that's about one single word

J.D. Salinger's Down at the Dinghy, 5th entry in his collection Nine Stories, is a sly little piece - I almost said slight little piece - more accessible, traditional in form, and tendentious than his other pieces in the collection (wondering if it was his earliest written?). Only four characters, and in the great short story tradition it contains only one action and one location and a very short time span, maybe 20 minutes. An interesting narrative invention, though, is the way he shifts the focus, or perhaps focuses in, over the course of the story: it starts with two middle-aged women, servants - maid and cook or maid and housekeeper of some sort? - talking over the table about their employers and about other matters - they're in some kind of lakeside summer home, and one (the maid?) is heading back to the city (NYC), and the other is a local. Their conversation touches on the peculiarity and difficulty of the four-year-old boy of the household. Then the mom enters the kitchen, smoking - 25, with the outrageous name of Boo Boo; they talk about the boy and his propensity to run away from home - improbably, even in Manhattan, where "the whole police force" was out looking for him once and found him at night in Central Park. So this is a troubled, yet precocious and independent-minded kid - in other words, a Salinger character. Mom goes out to the dock where she locates child in the dinghy, and tries to coax him back to the house - he had promised to stop running away, etc. She engages in some play talk, pretending to be an admiral, and at last the kid tells why he ran away: because one of the women called his father a "kike." Boo Boo keeps her cool, especially when she realizes child thinks a kike is something you fly in the sky on a string. OK, so what's happening here: we are with a family that seems to be the stereotypical WASP-patrician class, right down to the preppy nickname, and we learn at the very end that they are Jewish - and that they stir up hatred and animosity and obviously anti-Semitism. We also learn that Boo Boo is "nee Glass," that is, part of the family that dominates almost all of Salinger's fiction throughout his brief writing career - Jewish by blood, but "passing." (Her married name is Tannenbaum - which I think may have inspired that insufferable movie about a Glass-like family, The Royal Tannenbaums?) There is a sense that the boy - whom we barely see and don't "meet" till the last pages of the story, is the main character of the story - he has discerned something about himself and his family that his parents have not, or have pushed aside. Though he doesn't know the meaning of the term, he senses the vitriol and the ostracism, and knows that in the maid's bitterness and anger there as a statement about class - and perhaps about the very way the Tannenbaums treat their "help" - we have no idea what provoked the comment. Malicious though it may be, is there some basis for her bitterness? It's an odd story that hinges on one single word.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Some thoughts on the ending of Madame Bovary

A few things surprised me as I finished reading Flaubert's Madame Bovary, mostly because, thought I've read the novel a few times over the course of my life, I have completely forgotten the last chapter except for the last line, which is something like: He has recently been awarded the medal of the Legion of Honor. Stupid me - in my memory I thought Charles Bovary was awarded the medal, some kind of triumph over his life of fecklessness and adversity. But now I know that it's the obsequious Homais, the pharmacist so content with his own small-town well-being, so self-important with the stupid little articles he submits to the local newspaper, who's elected to the Legion - the crowning achievement of his life no doubt. Bovary, sadly, dies broken-hearted just before the very end of the novel - which essentially answers another question. I'd wondered, in an earlier post, just exactly how much Bovary knew about the misbehavior and estrangement of his wife; I speculated - and I'm not entirely giving up on this - that he must have known what was going on, Emma's subterfuges were far to clumsy, even reckless - as if she wanted to get caught (which would have maybe ended the marriage and set her free?). But it seems, at least, from the last chapter that he completely believe in Emma's fidelity - until by chance he discovers a cache of letters from Rodolphe. And then he falls apart - but not before meeting Rodolph for perhaps the world's most awkward dinner, at the end of which Bovary obliquely say she blames Rodolphe for nothing. He (Bovary) is a completely defeated man - he realizes his life has been a lie, his wife has been a liar, and he's a big-L loser, not changed much from the awkward misfit boy we meet in the first chapter. He can do nothing to help his daughter, Berthe, who will languish in poverty and servitude, apparently - the one constant in his life was his love for Emma, and now he knows that her love for him was an act, hollow. How sad, how pathetic. I posted recently about the "irony" in Madame Bovary, and, as I've learned from Lydia Davis's fine intro that I'm still reading, Flaubert himself talked about the ironic ending of the novel - but he also said that he wanted his readers both to laugh and cry. This is a little bit of what I was trying to get at in my fashion - the novel feigns irony, but in fact Flaubert has a much deeper, more profound understanding of human nature: irony sets us apart from the characters and lets us laugh at them, whereas truly great naturalism allows us to see their foibles and peculiarities (ironic, perhaps) but also allows us to feel sorrow and pity - not setting us apart from the characters in an ironic manner but joining us with them and even identifying with them - the novel reflects reality, and we are part of that image.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Nine Stories - and the themes of Salinger's fiction

Took along J.D. Salinger's influential and modestly titled Nine Stories to the beach yesterday and read the first four - isn't it funny that his collection title is so self-effacing and almost each of the stories as an extremely quirky title that gives little or even mis- information about the story itself? - this obliquity was something that Salinger pioneered and is now the norm in much fiction and certainly in all rock and hip-hop music. The stories stand up well even today, but I would say they're mostly significant for the light they cast forward on Salinger's brief and strange career. A Perfect Day for Bannafish, the first in the collection, is in fact the seminal story for just about the entire corpus of Salinger's work: first, the story is about the suicide, almost inexplicable, and extremely cruel - in hotel room right next to his sleeping wife he blows his brains out - of Seymour Glass; the rest of S's fiction tries to explain how and why this happened and to analyze the long shadow the suicide had on the Glass family. What we know about Seymour: intelligent in a showy and eccentric way (gives wife a volume of poems in German, Rilke probably, and tells her to learn German to read them), artistic (plays the piano in the hotel public space, for fun or to express or to show off who knows?), just finished with war service that maybe was traumatic but this is not explained, and - most important, the 2nd aspect that foretells much of S's fiction, he has a thing for little girls. Is this a repressed sexual desire whose force torments him and leads him to death? His behavior with the young girl on the beach, teasing her and even lightly touching her, would be appalling by today's standards but seems not to have drawn a lot of attention in the Salinger/Glass world - which we also see in this story, lots of drinking, long meandering conversations between parents and children. Second story in the collection, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, more about about very heavy drinking and elliptical conversation between two rich and spoiled 20ish women - the child gets largely ignored, until the mom finds a few moments to look at her in bed and thinks "poor Uncle Wiggily" - sorrow and pity for the child whom she cannot help or reach or perhaps even tolerate. On the one hand, in Salinger's fiction children are innocent and the objects of desire; on the other hand, children are nonentities unless he can portray them as miniature adults, precocious and kind of bratty (we see this in the 3rd story, Just Before the War Against the Eskimos). The 4th story, the first in the first person, is about a young man's first observations - watching his camp counselor, essentially - of love and heartbreak. Story will remind many readers of Roth's great, apparently final novel, Nemesis, about a leader of young boys struggling with his relationship with a beautiful young woman and with his obligations to the boys under his charge.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Madame Bovary's funeral

Slowly approaching the end of Flaubert's Madame Bovary - how unconventional, that she dies some 30 pages before the conclusion - and we see that the novel actually begins and ends with Charles Bovary. The novel is about her, obviously, but also about her effect on others, and in some ways, though he is in the dark throughout the entire course of his marriage, Charles Bovary just as important to the novel as she is. Flaubert treats her death lavishly, with exquisite attention to detail - from the moment she ingests the arsenic, through the horror of her symptoms and death throes, and the various forms of mourning, from Charles's sobbing to Roualt's near-hysteria to the placid indifference of Homais and the priest - and then there's the funeral procession, an obvious bookend to the marriage procession near the outset of the book. The most striking thing about the somber funeral, to me, is that great phrase: the clods of earth smacking against the coffin with that clanging sound that reminds all of us of eternity. Yes, definitely - and the phrase all the more striking because it is one of the very few in this novel when Flaubert steps out of the narration and offers to us a general comment or observation (one other would be his phrase about speech being like banging on a metal pot for bears to dance to). The funeral scene chapter has a very beautiful conclusion, in which the pharmacist's helper, the much put upon Justine, who is only a very minor character in the novel, is found sobbing at her grave site - and we suddenly see a whole other pathway for the novel - the many young men, like Leon earlier, who had an unrequited crush on Emma, the many whom her beauty may have tormented, and maybe Justine would have become one of her lovers as well - his tears sharpened by his own guilt in providing her access to the poison - and then one of the vergers in the church sees him there, sees him fleeing (out of shame or embarrassment, most likely) and suspects him, stupidly, of stealing apples (a tiny reference forward to the conclusion of Sentimental Education?). I think Flaubert might have effectively ended Madame Bovary right there - but one chapter remains.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Irony v naturalism in Madame Bovary

The (near) conclusion of Flaubert's Madame Bovary is I'm sure often discussed as an example of irony: a few instances thereof: beautiful and sensuous woman dies as her body essentially disintegrates around her because of ingestion of arsenic; husband whom she never really loved dissolves in tears at her deathbed and thereafter, completely unaware, or so it seems, of her many betrayals; the two men who sit in watch over her dead body - Homais, the pharmacist, and the local priest - are the two who most conspicuously either ignored her need for help (Homais) or literally turned his back on her (priest) - and they talk through the night, arguing religion versus humanism, and finally agree that despite their differences they can be friends. In each of these instances, and there are others, there is a sense of irony - we know more about the situation than any of the characters do; we, in our olympian judgment, can note how "ironic" it is that those who loved her least pretend to miss her most, or those who were most betrayed show the only true emotion, etc. But I would say irony is a very petty way to look at the conclusion of this novel - it's not about our being elevated above the character, nor is it about our discovery of these unusual juxtapositions and conjunctions, so easy to spot and enumerate. The conclusion, with its conflicting emotions, is the essence of Flaubert's naturalism; he gives us the sense of the world as a reflection in a mirror - his famous phrase - so that the vision of characters and emotions is copious but unmediated. He doesn't "tell" us anything about the characters, but we learn about them through the details that he presents - in other words, we are not given access to their consciousness any more than we are given access to consciousness of those whom we live among. We simply see, observe, hear them - and from the physical images and behaviors that Flaubert conveys we piece together a picture of the world. Irony requires a narrative separation - we are sitting apart from the characters and judging them - whereas naturalism puts us, in a sense, among them, as a silent observer, but not a prophet or a seer. Irony can be a cheap trick; naturalism is much more difficult for the author, and presents I think a dynamic view of character and setting - irony freezes the opposites in place and stops us cold, whereas naturalism keeps the emotions alive and we feel that the life of the characters and of their world will go on beyond the boundaries of the novel, forever changing. Irony is the end of the story, but naturalism the beginning only.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

What Emma Bovary has in common with Al Capone

There must be a grad student who's done a dissertation dissecting and explaining the financial dealings of Lheureux in Flaubert's Madame Bovary - god help him or her. Because I think the many notes that he provides to Emma and then rolls over and sells to others, his attachments and claims, all that, I think is meant to be tragi-comical - we're not supposed to understand it or "follow the money" - if there's a trail at all, it's completely, intentionally obscured; in certain sections of the novel, as described in yesterday's post for example, we are "outside" of the characters, we observe, but there are things we can never know about them. In this section of the novel, Emma's financial catastrophe, we are "inside," that is, we understand Lheureux just as she does, which is to say not at all. I call this section tragicomical because, first, Emma, with her aspirations to be a great romantic figure, to risk all for her ideal of high romance, is brought down not by love and passion but by the grubbiness of her desire of acquisition - of crap - drapes and pieces of furniture and mid-range jewelry - and by the financial machinations of a petit-bourgeoise small town grifter. Second, compare this with other tragedies - we're not watching a tragic fall caused by hubris, by over-reaching, by the lust for power or prestige - but by the insinuations of small notes of debt, of the seizure of furniture. Flaubert, as earlier noted, lives and writes at a turning point in society and in the novel - the rise of the professional class and the demise of the feudal class structure and sense of "order." Madame Bovary shows a tragedy that's not about class or rank or status, there's not a tragic hero or a protagonist with a tragic flaw - we see the undoing of a grand, passionate, cruel character whose great undoing is that she ... spent to much money! She lived "beyond her means" - that is, she lived as if she were in another age, or in another novel, and the money is what undoes her - not her affairs, her cruelty to her husband, her indifference to her child, her flouting of social convention. It's like Al Capone getting nabbed on tax evasion. It's like the first great capitalist tragedy.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bovary the victim - Charles, that is: What is he thinking?

Have posted in past days about some of Flaubert's silences in Madame Bovary - in particular the famous carriage ride through Rouen in which we are among the populace of the city, puzzled by this carriage riding back and forth across the city, as Leon at last seduced Emma, a seduction scene we witness by indirection only, and the scene behind the window during which Roualt convinces his daughter, Emma, to marry Charles - we see this again from the outside, this time from Charles's POV, and we will never know exactly what kind of discussion, argument, or persuasion took place during those 20 minutes. Another example of Flaubert's silences - maybe eve more significant - is What was Charles thinking? Although Emma is the title character, let's not forget that the novel begins (and ends) with Charles, and that we get a fairly broad span of his life before Flaubert introduces her. But of course she eclipses him, and the story becomes her romance and her tragedy. He gets pushed to the side - an obstacle, a hindrance, a dead weight holding down her lofty desires. But what is he thinking throughout this? Surely in the small town they live in everyone would have noticed her constantly sneaking off to meet Rodolphe; surely Charles would have suspected something - with her constant visits to the back gate of the garden, her expenditures - and wouldn't she literally have reeked of sex and passion? And then - when she begins her affair with Leon - doesn't he suspect her of lying to him, when, just as one example, he meets her supposed piano teacher and she's never heard of Emma? Of course he must suspect, but why does he put up with her behavior? Is he so in love with her, or is he one of the biggest wimps and victims in all of literature? From his first appearance, we see him as a clumsy nebish and a bit of an outcast; in marrying Emma, he clearly is punching above his weight, and he will do anything to hold on to her - he's that much in love with her, or else, he has that low a self-image that he will let her walk all over him, and out on him. Of course he is as much a prisoner of his time, class, and gender as she is - bound by convention to stay with her, bound by his faith to stay married to her. He's the one, though, who should break free; today, he would be in counseling - then, his only possible course was to stick it out and hope to win her love back, or else bask in glory and in her memory once she's gone.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Flaubert's naturalism - what we see and what we can't.

I remember the famous carriage ride through Rouen scene from the first time I read Flaubert's Madame Bovary ( I think it had just come out on pb!) - I remember once being asked why I like the novel, I think I'd boldly said it was my favorite, and all I could come up w/ to explain why was to describe the carriage scene. I was a pretty young and naive reader then, there was so much I didn't - and still don't! - understand about the art of the novel, but I did sense the magnificence and the daring of Flaubert, to take the great seduction scene of the novel (the 2nd seduction - the first he described far more directly, the ravishing by Rodolphe after they gallop through meadows on horseback - a typically Flaubertian cinematic scene) - this one the seduction by Leon, who has come back from Paris, obvious no longer virginal and naive, in fact he thinks he's a big shot in the small city of Rouen, it's not clear whether he'd more or less gotten over his crush on Emma and then it's revived when he sees her at the opera (another romantic tragedy, btw), or whether he cynically pretends to never have forgotten her in order to effect his conquest. In any case, he agrees to meet her in a church - where the annoying verger tried to give them a guided tour of the relics - the symbolism a little heavy-handed here, the church beckoning them and they rush off to their sinful tryst - in any case, when they bolt from the church, then enter a "carriage" and from that point we see their romance from the outside - like the people in Rouen we see the carriage coursing up and down the streets, all day, the poor horse totally exhausted (not that Emma or Leon care about anyone else, even a poor beast of burden), and toward the end of the day we see a shredded paper tossed from the window of the carriage ($50 fine?), the letter Emma had meant to give to Leon telling him to leave her alone, it's over. This is the second important scene that Flaubert plays out behind closed doors, or windows - the first being Emma's father Rouault persuading her to marry Bovary - and it's a signature part of Flaubert's naturalism: we know and understand character primarily through observation of detail and of action; he generally tries to avoid the "he thought/she thought" authorial access to consciousness, but rather lets us know by what we see - and sometimes lets us know by what we can't see: information conveyed by "assays of bias." Our view of the characters is "natural," in that is not an author's view but the viewpoint of the characters' contemporaries: mirror held up alongside the highway. We, in a sense, are characters in the novel.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Emma Bovary, the first modern tragic hero (or victim)

Broad generalization but fiction before the mid-19th century either focused on one social class only, e.g., the fairly tight and insular fiction of Austen, Fielding, Richardson, for British examples, or had characters who would cross class boundaries by marriage (e.g., Bronte) or by fortunate discovery of mystery of birth (back to Fielding) or characters who escaped their class by running away (Twain - tho he's already late 19th); this whole structure or "paradigm" shifted as social class mobility became possible through talent or accumulation of capital, and then we see the fiction of, for example, Balzac, across a great and broad social spectrum, and Dickens. But Flaubert, in Madame Bovary, is the first, I think, to write a novel of aspiration and class mobility focused on a character and not on the vast diorama of society; or, put in another way, Madame Bovary is one of the first novels that is actually about money; the idea of Charles's being ruined by his indulgence of Emma and running up of debt it a theme almost impossible to imagine in any fiction before Flaubert - the nobility never thought about money, and the working classes never had enough beyond what they needed for sustenance, if that. But with the rise of a professional class, e.g., Charles Bovary, the health official, it's now possible for the first time to accumulate wealth and to emulate the nobility - purchasing the right clothes, the right decor, attending the right performances, traveling in style - even if beyond your means - Emma, in that sense, is the first modern tragic hero, or victim - in an earlier time, her aspirations would have been more clearly circumscribed - or, if not, her only route to achievement would have been to "marry up" - something her father doesn't really consider, in giving her away (and in convincing her to marry Charles?) - he sees marriage to a professional as the best bargain he can strike. He sees Emma, rightly, as modern - she sees herself, wrongly, as classic.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Looving and despising Emma Bovary

As I noted in an earlier post, Madame Bovary reaches a turning point or "pivot" with the botched operation on Hippolyte, the young stable boy with a club foot. Emma begins to feel some guilt and remorse about her mistreatment of Charles and makes a weak attempt to care for him and salvage their marriage. She, along with the obsequious and meddlesome pharmacist, Homais, encourage him to try an experimental surgery to correct the club foot - with dreams that this will establish his reputation as a doctor. Of course Bovary botches the operation and nearly kills the patient; eventually, they call in an expert who amputates the whole leg - in one of Flubert's great imaginative flourishes, Emma sits home listening to the howling of Hipployte suffering through the surgery. Hippolyte ever after limps through the village, and Charles, hearing the wooden leg clomp on the street, turns corners to avoid him. Emma, in her manner, returns to Rodolphe with even greater passion and persuades him, or thinks she does, to run away with her to a new life - but he keeps delaying. Meanwhile, swayed by the merchant Lheureux, among other things a nasty little anti-Semite (he lets her buy on credit - "After all, we're not Jews," he says) and she runs up a huge debt buying ridiculous things, including a riding crop for Rodolphe, which he doesn't need obviously - and in fact stealing Charles's receipts to pay for this crap. In other words, no matter how appealing, even seductive, Flaubert makes her, no matter how sympathetic we may be to her plight, frustrations, ill luck - she is at bottom a nasty creature, devoid of empathy, narcissistic and selfish, destructive. Friend WS mentioned yesterday, citing Leavis, that part of the greatness of Madame Bovary is Flaubert's own uncertainty about his attitude toward his own character - loving her, hating her, lavishing his most beautiful writing on her. That same uncertainty, of course, is ours, as I have noted in this and previous posts - a deeply unsettling novel. Also note that among the many extraordinary passages in Madame Bovary, this one among the best, paraphrasing, on the inability to express deepest feelings - human speech is a cracked kettle on which we beat a rhythm for bears to dance to when what we wanted to do was move the stars (to pity). Who hasn't felt that?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Emma Bovary, a literary character in the wrong novel

So at last Emma Bovary has a lover, as she "gives" herself to that slime Rodolphe (couldn't remember his name when writing yesterday's post) - he leads her along and tells her how much he loves her and thinks nothing of breaking up a marriage and a home - and we see, over the course of one chapter, how he seduces her, another one of Flaubert's great cinematic scenes, their horseback excursion away from the village and into the country, and then she goes home and her mind and heart are full of thoughts of Rodolphe, doesn't have the slightest qualms about betraying her husband, who throughout has been nothing but kind and generous to her, let alone a thought about her child. Then she begins visiting Rodolphe at all hours, recklessly - everyone in the village except Charles, and maybe even the poor, pathetic Charles, must be aware of her betrayal - until at last Rodolphe tells her to back off; he's had his conquest and he's getting tired of her. Once again, Emma is used, objectified. One of the many great accomplishments of Flaubert's writing is how we develop such sympathy Emma despite her mean and selfish behavior throughout - and this sympathy is not for her as a victim of her time or of her gender, though those issues are always present, but as a truly tragic victim - she has deep passions and desires that she cannot fulfill in any form - it's almost as if, to put it in postmodern terms, she is a character in the wrong novel - in other words, she sees herself as a great romantic heroine, but in fact she is a provincial housewife. Put another way, she is a bit Quixotic, imagining her world to be that of a great romance - later in the novel, she will push Charles far beyond his capacities in a crazy attempt to make him a great medical practitioner - when in fact her life is plain and simple and domestic; she'd like to ride off into the sunset on horseback, and yet she continues to find herself holding a basin while her husband lets blood from the forearm of some stable-boy. Emma Bovary is a literary character who is trying to escape from her own plot. (Ironically, Woody Allen wrote a hysterical story about a guy named Kugelmass who falls in love with Emma and finds himself suddenly become a character within Madame Bovary, the "the Kugelmass episode.")

Friday, August 9, 2013

No Direction Home: Emma Bovary the outsider

The famous "agricultural fair" chapter in Flaubert's Madame Bovary anticipated cinema by about 50 years - it's probably the most example, and maybe the first example, of literary montage - as Flaubert, hilariously, cross cuts between Emma and her new paramour, as they sit by a window in the town hall overlooking the agricultural fair, flirting with each other, coming on to each other, and essentially hiding out, and scenes of the fair, the dull political speeches and the awarding of prizes for the finest steer and pig. I suppose you could read this chapter as Flaubert's foray into irony - the high romance and lofty diction of courtship (and betrayal) set against the crude simplicities of political discourse and the coarse, earthy language of farmers and agricultural workers - yes, but irony does not get at the essence of the scene: it's not that the scene is funny or pathetic, but that we see Emma as one who rejects the world around her, who sees herself, in fact makes herself, an outsider, one who is literally as well as figuratively "above" the others in her society - or at least so she thinks, but like everyone else in her tiny village she is completely dependent on these farmers and laborers for her very existence, for her sustenance. With all her pretensions and with all her desires, she is not really so different from anyone else - the world she is in is not bifurcated, it is not "ironic" - i.e., two disjunctive elements sharing the same time and space - no, it is unified world in which the work of farmers, of villagers, of the shopkeepers, and even of the professional class like her husband all contribute to the well-being of the society. Emma's outsider status is hers by choice - but she's not as outside as she would like to believe. She would not be able to survive if she left her marriage for one of her suitors - the feckless Leon or her new guy who just wants her as a plaything - and of course that is her tragedy: she hates her life but has nowhere to go, no way out - no direction home, in other words.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

No doubt that Emma Bovary is about the most sensuous character in literature - Flaubert, renowned for his ability to capture a scene, is no slouch either when it comes to depicting a character. Lesser writers, in describing a character for the first time focus on features, mostly facial features, and if they're of little imagination they'll endow the characters with distinguishing marks - e.g., he had a drooping white mustache ... - but Flaubert, of a much higher order, does give us some general terms of description of Emma - we all know that she had big eyes, very dark, almost black, but deep blue in certain light, for example - but mostly describes her (and others) by action and incident. When she fist begins to come on to Charles she is doing some needlework, and Flaubert notes how she continues to prick her finger with the needle and lick off the blood. What a detail! It's sexual and suggestive, and also shows that she can act domestic but that she's not really good at it - shes not going to sit around doing housework for sure. So, yes, she's tremendously attractive - but there are aspects to Emma Bovary that are not attractive at all. Putting aside feminist readings, which do make sense as one way to look at her - she's an item of chattel that is bartered away, sold to the highest (male) bidder - but she as a character has little sympathy with other women and absolutely no sympathy with other social classes. We clearly see that she is enraptured with the aristocracy - the ball and party she and Charles attend, the beginning of her estrangement from him - but she sees a "higher" class as something she simply deserves. She has no comprehension of her exploitation of others - she is generally cruel and unthinking regarding her servants, firing a long-time servant on the spot for some petty infraction. If in some ways she is the embodiment of the provincial bourgoisie, she is also enamored of a class structure that is for the first time threatened - her only problem isn't social class, it's what she considers her consignment to a class that is beneath her. She is very scornful of Charles - when it's obvious he is a doting husband who could have been a very fine mate, for someone else; part of her disappointment in him is sexual (her sullenness after the wedding), but part is also her sense that he is beneath the class to which she aspires - it's not that she mind

What if Madame Bovary had lived 50 years later?

So as I noted in yesterday's post there are some very unappealing aspects to Emma Bovary's personality, no matter how sympathetic we are to her as an oppressed woman with little opportunity to pursue her dreams or employ her talents - she's nasty to servants, cruel to her husband, and even abusive to her infant daughter, pushing her aside so hard that the child cut her cheek on a piece of furniture. Yet just as Flaubert is losing us, losing our sympathies, he widens the story out quite a bit with a terrific chapter in which Emma goes to the local priest, hoping not so much for a formal confession as for a sympathetic ear and for advice - today, she would go into counseling - and he rebuffs her, he barely even understands her or or her - or if he does understand he gives her the message that he does not want to get involved in a marital mess. She goes home in even greater despair (that's when she pushes Berthe aside so violently), and then she learns she is losing Leon, the law student who is totally smitten with her and who reads her romantic verses and so on - he's heading off to Paris to begin his life as a student in the capital - so much opportunity is available for him, and she's stuck here in this dull marriage, in this provincial rut. How can we help but feel pity for her, and forgive her her trespasses? Flaubert famously said "Madame Bovary, c'est moi" - and I'm not sure that's true, but it's obvious that he loved his creation, that he lavished all his care and attention on her, everything to make us love her, too, and in a complex way. We certainly know from the very outset that she is a tragic figure - none of the other loves that she pursues would work out for her - in fact, it's their very impossibility that makes these relationships, these men, so alluring. Had she been able to ditch Charles and marry Leon or anyone else - in other words, had she been "born" 50 years later, had she been the heroine of The Custom of the Country, for example, her marriages would have been miserable and bitter affairs, entered into out of spite and self-interest. Perhaps she is better off mired in "provincial life." She's one of the loneliest characters in literature, but part of the loneliness is of her own doing: nothing, nobody in her world is good enough for her, or so she thinks.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Behind the shutters: What we don't see in Madame Bovary

Flaubert's Madame Bovary is justly honored for the detailed descriptions and the precise evocations of moments and events, but let's also recognize Flaubert for those moments of elision in the novel that make the narrative especially vivid, mysterious, and provocative. The most famous is the long scene in which the carriage travels through the streets of Rouen, everyone sees it passing again and again, and we are left to imagine the sex and the passion taking place inside. Flaubert is similarly discrete regarding the Bovary wedding night - we see Emma as a passionate sexpot and Charles as timid and kind of foolish during the wedding ceremony and celebration and during all the scenes preceding for that matter - but then when we see them after the ceremony, Emma is sullen and brooding and on edge and Charles is simpering and doting and possessive. We have to imagine the evolution of their feelings during their first sexual encounter - Charles awakened to a world of sensuality he had never known (certainly not in his first marriage), Emma disappointed - life, and her husband in particular, cannot match the rich and deep romance she has read of and imagined. From there, they are on a tragic course. It's easy to understand how the conventions of the time would have kept Flaubert the narrator outside of the bedroom (or carriage) door during the sex scenes; a more interesting and provocative elision is the scene in which Emma accepts Charles's proposal. Charles asks her father, the doting and seemingly wealthy country farmer, for her hand; dad says he will discuss with Emma and, if she says yes, he will open the shutter. Charles watches, impatient and in despair, for at least 20 minutes, he's about to leave - and the shutter opens. Great! But what did they discuss for 20 minutes? Did he have to persuade Emma? Did he order her to marry Charles? Or was it a simple, rational discussion - weighing the advantages and disadvantages, like buying a horse of a couple of acres? It's clear that part of the tragedy, of the novel and of the era, was the subjugation of women and the treatment of women as property. But that doesn't quite answer what was said or what happened inside the shuttered room. We never really know - but we are left wondering throughout, why did he pick Charles? Was he just eager to get rid of his daughter at any price? Or did he, incompetent farm manager that he was, just make another bad deal? And most important of all: What did Emma say?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Falubert's use of cinematic detail

Before Flaubert no author was as attentive to the details of time and place - every reader sees right away how it is essential to Flaubert's style and purpose to depict a scene with a super-abundance of detailed observations. Today, we would call his style cinematic - but of course he anticipated cinema by at leas 50 years. the famous scenes in the first section of Madame Bovary include the dress ball that Emma and Charles attend, the wedding banquet, the arrival at Charles's house in the village of Toste, Emma's days in the convent (one of the few flashbacks or back story passages in the entire novel - everything else taking place in the immediate present), the first depiction of the country farm when Emma is living with her father. Flaubert's capacity for description is remarkable and incomparable to any author other than Proust not only for his copious detail - piling on facts and names, in contemporary fiction, is a tic and an annoyance; viz. The Children's Book for just one example of accumulated detail to no effect - because he does not simply add name upon name and fact upon fact, but each detail (or almost each, out of the thousands) is telling and meaningful. Think of Emma entering the ballroom - the detailed descriptions of what everyone's wearing, the way the women are doing their hair, the type of jewelry, and so on - all is important because we are in Emma's mind (without Flaubert's saying so) and everything she sees opens a world to her that she believes she deserves and that she know she never will have. So Flaubert is not just providing a wealth of information just so that we will "be there" or so that we will know what life was like in provincial France, thought those are ancillary benefits, but so as to build our understanding of Emma's character and of her (eventual) interaction with Charles and his mother and with the other men whom she will meet over the course of her troubled life. Similarly with the convent scene - it helps us understand Emma, her initial passion for the church, but not for the teachings or of the asceticism, but for the almost sensuous nature of prayer - the leafs of the prayerbook lifting slightly in the breeze, for example - so that her eventual straying from the church and disappointing those who expected her to enter the novitiate (if that's the right term?) feel obvious and inevitable. She has no vocation other than her own sensibilities.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Flaubert's use of past tense


I'm sure others have written about this matter, but one way to understand how Flaubert created such a vivid sense of reality - not realism but naturalism - Madame Bovary is through what I'll call his gradations of narrative style. He very often uses a verb structure - not sure what to call it either in English or French, though I think it's more rarely used in English - of a repeated, habitual, or continuous past tense - marked most frequently by the verb-frame "would." In other words, in describing a scene, Flaubert often does simply say this happened, that happened - he got up early, he set off at a gallop, he arrived, dismounted, etc. – but he writes it like this (taken at a random page opening, p. 15 in Davis translation): “On these days he would rise early, set off at a gallop, urge on his animal; then he would dismount to wipe his feet on the grass, and put on his black gloves before going in.” The effect is that we sense that often, or even always, took this action – that what he did was not a unique occurrence but part of his life, and of the life of the time. Flaubert uses this motif with particularly sharp effect in the long account of the Bovary wedding – the procession to church in particular, with the violin player leading the way, tattered ribbons blowing from his instrument – one of my favorite scenes in the novel. What makes this habitual past tense even more powerful is that Flaubert can abruptly shift from habitual past to simple past – which makes the simple past event striking and original: we see it as a unique and stunning moment, set against the past events that happened habitually – like a figure sharply drawn in a landscape. Here a random example from among many, p 16-17: “she would always see him out as far as the foot of the front steps. When his horse had not yet been brought around they would stay there. They had not said good-bye, the did not go on talking; the fresh air surrounded her, lifting in disarray the stray wisps of hair on the nape of her neck or tossing her apron strings so that they snaked like banners about her hips.” So we have the many visits to the farm with the awkward farewells between the shy Charles and the sexy and forthright Emma – and then the striking particulars of one visit, in which Emma is particularly alluring. Note that Flaubert does not narrate this moment through Charles – Flaubert does not tell us what Charles thought, not does he need to; the narration remains outside of the characters – that odd “we” introduced in the first chapter – and we see things not from their perspective but, to use his most famous metaphor, as from a mirror set beside a highway. Thus, Emma is more beautiful and alluring than if he had told us how Charles saw her – we see her for ourselves. More on this in a future post.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Flaubert's narration of "gradual focus" - and hats off to Lydia Davis's edition

Before even beginning to comment on Flaubert's Madame Bovary a few words to commend translator Lydia Davis for the excellent edition - not only is her translation superb (as I also came to realize in reading he v. of Swann's Way some years ago), but she has created a perfect edition of this great novel - she's smart enough to begin the intro by noting that readers not familiar with the plot should read the intro last - completely agree! it's what I do all the time even if I am familiar w/ - a terrific chronology, and really smart end notes: chronology complete but not as bulky as those found in Everyman or Library of America editions, notes much more helpful and germane that those from the great Russian translations of Pevear-Volokhonsky. All that said, such a pleasure to move into this world, this novel again - even slowly; read just first chapter last night and realized once again what a surprise Falubert's narration is, with what I might call its gradual focus - the story coming into clarity like a lens adjusting on a movie camera or a set of binoculars - a narrative technique now much more familiar to readers, done esp. well by Alice Munro in her short stories. Note how in Bovary we start off not with the eponymous Madame but with her (eventual) husband, Charles - and we see him first as a school boy, entering a classroom, awkward, gangly, maybe a little too old for this particular class, oddly dressed - and this scene is narrated by a mysterious "we" - we first knew/met/saw Bovary when ... - this first-person plural narrator plays little or no role through the rest of the novel, but it establishes a familiar and comfortable voice - we all knew this guy from way back, so I'm perfectly within bounds telling you the story of his life - except eventually it won't be about his life, although he is the survivor of the tale. What seems at first as if it will be a novel about schoolboys - the arrival of the new kid, his hazing, his eventual assimilation or ostracism - moves along v. quickly and by the end of the first chapter Bovary is beyond school and being linked up with his first wife, wealthy and harsh. We begin to see his ambition and his aspirations, all of which will be important as the novel moves along, but we don't have yet even a clue as to where the novel is going - in fact, first readers may suspect that Madame Bovary will be the first wife of Charles, whom we meet in this chapter. Hardly. Flaubert uses the gradual focus not so much to sharpen his view of the character but to draw us into a setting, which still seems real and live 150 years later.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Shirley Jackson - Paranoia

Shirley Jackson posthumously discovered story Paranoia in current New Yorker is a great example of her strengths and weaknesses as a writer. As noted in my earlier posts about her collected stories she is great at establishing fascinating premises but rarely knows how to shape and in particular how to conclude her materials. In this story much like a twilight zone episode ordinary somewhat diffident business man on his way home w candy for his wife - her b day - is waylaid by a guy who seems to be following him. Several menacing encounters w this "tough customer" on way home and the guy seems to have gotten random bus driver and shop owner to join in the hunt. There is no apparent motive tho and worse no reason to go to police as he has not been harmed or threatened. At last gets home and it turns out his wife has either orchestrated or participated. Ok I was really tense and engaged as he desperately tried to get home but in the end what sense does it make how could wife have arranged this and why would she? It's a long journey for minimal payoff. And this is typical of so much of her work. She could have been a great part of a screenwriting team but needed someone w better sense of the arc of a story to complete her work. N the less her reputation is solid and secure based on 2 great works - hill house and the lottery. 2 is enough!

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Thursday, August 1, 2013

50 books for 50 states, continued

Hey, I lost a follower. That's worse than being "unfriended." Where did he/she go?

Further thoughts following up on yesterday's post about 50 books for 50 states:

Making a last-minute substitution here, don't know how I could have overlooked Mark Twain, but, sorry Franzen, though you've written very beautifully about that seldom-enshrined 27th city of St. Louis, I'm going to drop you from the list and bestow the Missouri honor on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

It also occurs to me that the best New Mexico book by far, passe Tony Hillerman, is Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, one of the truly great works of American literature, so let's make her the only one on the list to encompass two states.

And how could I have overlooked Louise Erdrich as the one for North Dakota? The only question would be which of her books - they are so much of a piece, much like Faulkner's work - so let's go with her first, even though I think it's a story collection (linked stories, anyway), Love Medicine.

I did not want to make Lake Wobegon Days the book of Minnesota, and wish I could honor Bob Dylan as part of the list (Chronicles does touch on his boyhood, but only for a small section of the book), but how about Sinclair Lewis, and Babbitt - much as Minnesotans will cringe at identifying their state w/ that novel.

And what's the deal with Ohio? Why doesn't anything come to mind there? I think Beloved may be set at least in part in Southern Ohio - not positive though. And isn't one of her earlier works - The Bluest Eye, maybe - in Cleveland? So far, though, Ohio is a vacant spot on the map.

And let's add Snow Falling on Cedars as the book for Washington.

Something tells me I'm leaving out some major authors from South Carolina and Georgia (Color Purple? The Known World?)

And finally, this little mind exercise shows how amazingly the American literary landscape - following the publishing landscape - skews to New York, NYC in particular - we could do a history of NYC through novels (I'm sure it's been done) - I selected Gatsby as the representative, but from different eras why not: Bartleby, Washington Square, Catcher in the Rye, Bonfire of the Vanities, Let the Great World Spin, Netherworld - and many others. To be continued in another post.