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

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

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Still holding to my theory about the ending of The Woman Upstairs

I'm staying w/ my me theory, advanced in yesterday's post, that the narrator, Nora, in Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, is seriously delusional and her entire relationship with her student Reza and his parents is a product of her fantasy, her needs, her psychosis. As we advance toward the half-way point in this novel, Nora now begins to babysit for the 8-year-old boy - an obvious violation of boundaries if not of ethics - and she does so because, apparently, he begs his mother, he's nervous when she and her husband go out but things would be better if he could be with "Miss E." Of course there's no pay involved - because, as mother Sirena puts it, they're all like family. And Nora just eats this up, she's in ecstasy, so pleased to be beloved by this exotic couple - the man flirting with her, Sirena praising her artwork, and so on. Either the family is exploiting her weakness, which I doubt, or she's a seriously delusional woman. Interestingly, she begins helping Sirena on her art project, a creation of a "wonderland" based on the novel - that's kind of like a fun house, even dangerous. This will possibly lead to an accident of some sort - maybe involving the boy Reza. And it may be that there's no Sirena at all or that she's not an artist - all these concept-art projects are surprisingly similar, so it would make sense that Nora is actually the artist behind each (unless the similarity is the fault of Messud's imagination - she's obviously "behind" all of the characters and their art projects). This novel has a lot working against it - the whining and complaining of the narrator, the lack of significant action, the lack of specificity regarding so many aspects of the narrator's life and world - but I am kind of curious about the outcome, which portends no good.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A guess about the ending of Messud's The Woman Upstairs

I have a thought about Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, and if you haven't read or finished it yet this may be a spoiler - or I may be completely wrong. Wonder why I didn't see this sooner. It's possible that the narrator, Nora, the eponymous woman upstairs, is actually the "madwoman in the attic," that feminine trope, maybe the descendant of Gilman's Yellow Wallpaper protagonist. That is, I've been sensing all through the first third of this novel that there's something incredibly off about her relationship with Reza (her 3rd-grade student) and in particular with his mom - they share an art studio and Nora is attracted to her in ways she can't comprehend or explain - and his dad, who has been coming on heavily to Nora and who shows up unexpectedly in the studio and makes tea and generally behaves inappropriately - far too forward and flirtatious. Nora is attracted to him, too - to the whole family - and is deeply hurt that they don't contact her over xmas vacation (they return to Paris for a visit; this after their son injured in a bullying incident) though they welcome her openly on their return. So: my sense is that either they aren't real at all or, if they are, the entire relationship between Nora and the two parents may be her fantasy or delusion. Do other characters ever see them together (a la Sixth Sense, that great movie)? These characters seem to be filling some kind of psychological void for Nora, and they don't behave in a totally normal way, either - if I'm wrong in my guess, this may be a flaw in the novel or maybe it's a cultural gulf (they are "foreign" academic visitors to Cambridge) that Messud is examining. But I think I'm right - these characters will prove to be illusions, or delusions, and Nora will spin deeper into her troubles - we don't know from what later vantage she is narrating this tale, but it could be from a hospital or perhaps a prison (the story does seem to be moving toward her taking some drastic action re Reza, such as abducting him, presumably for his own well-being). Messud's reference to Chekhov's The Black Monk, about a man suffering from delusions, is another hint; and her obsession with tiny constructions of women imprisoned in room, oppressed and depressed (Dickinson, Woolf) is no doubt another dark foreshadowing.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Waiting to inhale - what's happening to the plot of The Woman Upstairs?

Reading along and waiting for something to happen in Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs. Let's see, she's in her studio at night and the husband of her studio-mate, friend, and mother of student stops by - he's obviously been there before at times when Nora was not around and this disturbs her for some reason - and he kind of flirts with her and she's obviously attracted - she says he's her type - and then she has a sexual dream about him that night. Okay, but will anything develop here? We're 100 pages into this 300-page novel! Meanwhile, a 2nd bullying incident - and Reza, the son of her studio-mate, gets cut by a thrown rock and Nora is stands by them, spends hours at the hospital, etc. She really has a crush on Reza's mother, whether she knows it or not - and she does go to some lengths to include in her back story the tale of her engagement and breakup, which informs us that she's not, at least overtly, gay and that she turned her back on a corporate career to pursue her love for art - even if that didn't work out perfectly and she ends up teaching 3rd grade and doing art projects just for pleasure and expression - and what's wrong with that? Isn't that what millions of people always do and always will do? She may be great teacher but she seems resentful about every aspect of her job - and she's kind of going off the rails here, not mindful at all of the boundaries between work and life - becoming way too close to the mother of a student and in the process losing judgment. Will this have dire consequences? I hope so!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Don't sell Beautiful Ruins short

Perhaps predictably - M predicted it - book group was pretty solid in its disdain for Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins. I think they underestimate the novel, which in my view is atypical of much contemporary literary fiction - packed with incident, humor, and satire - but not overly sentimental or manipulative, full of some plot surprises (pace comments of one group member on this point), and inventive in plot structure - many strands of a story that do connect in odd and surprising, unlike the "linked" stories in such similar works as the better-received Goon Squad - Walter has some fun with the trend in writing programs for "linked" stories, in fact - his aspiring screenwriter, Shane, was in a program and produced a collection called Linked (ha!) which his agent says just doesn't work. Shane: as a collection of stories? Agent: in English. Anyway, most members found the novel too much of a "best seller" without a real message, such as we take away from much serious fiction. I'm not sure I agree w/ that assessment of "serious" fiction, but I would say that, yes, most serious fiction is of simpler design and usually involved the education or transformation of a character, based on a single action - sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, but always unified, as some have noted, often on one of the two major templates: A stranger arrives in town, or someone sets out on a journey. Beautiful Ruins involves many characters and changes over a great deal of time, which I would not think would work so well, but Waters to his credit writes a novel in which many characters change, grow, learn things about themselves - Pasquale in particular, but also Bender, Dee Moray, Claire, Shane - maybe less so Deane, whose world view is as mummified as his skin. Obviously not a novel for everyone, but I think if you can accept that this isn't Thomas Mann or James Joyce or even Lampedusa, you can get a lot of joy and entertainment out of this novel - and it's one of the best portrayals of contemporary Hollywood - surely as good as the far outdated Day of the Locust, and better than say Robert Stone's attempt to convey this world, better than any recent attempt I can remember in fact.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Remembrance of beautiful ruins

Starting to re-read Jess Walter's beautiful ruins for tonight's book group and finding it again very funny and imaginative and well paced full of rich characters lively dialogue lots of activity and a surprising depth of feeling. Granted some of Walter's targets are pretty easy ie Hollywood and drunken movie stars but he (I just learned he is a he I thought first reading thru the author was a woman - shows that in some ways and some novels gender doesn't matter at all - do we ever really care about the gender of a film director?) the early scenes about the perfect Hollywood pitch and about a movie called Donner! Are particularly funny. Let me try by memory to recall the plot: American actress in cleopatra dee moray stays at small Italian hotel of Pasquale. Years later p come to la to find her again goes to office of old producer michael Deanne where meets assistant Claire and aspiring writer Shane there to pitch Donner. Shane becomes interpreter. They all join Deanne in tracking down long lost dee who we learn has been amateur acting in us - had an affair w Richard burton on Cleo set and her son now failed singer comedian she is dying of ca. She had also married yah failed america writer who used to stay at Pasquale 's hotel the adequate view hotel hah! He never finished his novel wrote one great chapter about encounter w beautiful girl whom he later tries to fine turns out she is now a prostitute refuses to acknowledge him dee tells him wisely maybe he has only one story to tell. He dies in car crash. Pasquale realizes he has much in common w dee and goes to Florence where his girlfriend lives w their child whom all preten I'd her young sibling Pasquale boldly demands she marry him and family acknowledge truth and accept him which they do. But he always yearns for the love of his life. Part of the beauty of this novel is that the elements all are there for a romantic melodrama but Walter never gives in and the story remains clear and unsentimental.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Novels about artists, composers, writers - any great ones?

I wish I had better "news" to report but I am just not warming up to Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, as I am now 25 percent (as measured by Kindle - thanks, guys) through and so far nothing, nothing, has happened - it is all back story, this rather drab and uninteresting narrator recounting her life up to age 40 in the most generalized and sanitized manner, with a some details about one single incident - a boy in her class (she teaches grade 4) is bullied and she befriends the boy's mother, Reza, and they rent an art studio together and she, the narrator, is starting to have feelings of sexual attraction to Reza, which confuse and disturb her. Wow, a long way to go so far for very little payback. I may be missing something, and on the basis of Messud's solid track record - I loved The Emperor's Children  - I will read further. Her narrator is an aspiring artist, frustrated that she has not been recognized for her talents, though there's no way for us to assess those talents - she describes her current project which is making dollhouse miniature models of the rooms of famous women writers, e.g. Dickinson, Woolf (on eve of her suicide). This "concept" sounds pretty derivative to me, and it's not clear that these dollhouses would be great works of art in any case - but this may be Messud's point, perhaps her narrator is too constricted and inhibited to ever become a great artist. It's hard to write about art in literature (or literature or music, for that matter) - I've tried with no particular success, and few writers are able to bring this off well. I think of the terrible, boring failure of The Children's Book, for example. How many great examples are there of novels about artists/composers/writers? And I'm not counting ones in which the artist/writer is an avatar for the author (e.g., the Zuckerman novels or Portrait) or in which the novel is based on a real artist or author or authors (e.g., the Pat Barker novels or The Master). Top of the list would be Doctor Faustus. Maybe some elements of Search for Lost Time. Others?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Kafka off the shore - Murakami's take on The Metamorphosis

Anyone else suspecting that the New Yorker editors made a bad bet and assumed Hiroki Murakami would win the Nobel and booked a story of his ahead of time - then had to bump it back a week to make room for a re-run of an Alice Munro piece? In any case, the NYer has done as much as any mag in introducing Murakami to American readers, and he's one of the few great international short story writers - I think his stories may be his best work, better than the bloated and meandering novels from his later career. Current NYer story from Murakami - though I'm not sure if it's a selection from a longer piece, its unsettled ending suggests there may be more to come - is called Samsa in Love. Generally, I dislike literature that feasts off other literature - all the stories about Ahab's wife and the father of Little Women etc. - like, make up your own characters, ok? But this story is, at least to a degree, an exception - it's not a plundering of Kafka's Metamorphosis but a complete re-imagining. Murakami had the smart idea that, if a guy could wake up one morning as a cockroach, perhaps the opposite could happen as well - one day, several years down the road, perhaps Gregor Samsa wakes up as a person, and all the weird perceptions that K. described so well as Samsa accustoms to his new state as an insect get reversed: why am I in a room with no furniture, why so hungry - his sense of how vulnerable the human body is when naked, trying to get used his fingers - only 10! - and to learn to walk and to manage steps, his fear of birds. This story starts off great, fascinating, Murakami at his best, strange and creepy but vivid and precise as well. But the story loses its way - as in many great "premise" stories, the writer doesn't quite know how to develop the premise into a plot. Samsa roams around the empty house - where has the family gone? - and a woman shows up to replace some locks. She talks about the troubles in the city - have the Nazi's invaded Prague? We have to assume that's what's happening - and Samsa gets very sexually aroused by her presence, and confused by that. He doesn't understand many of the words she speaks - fuck pray love - and wants to see her again, about which she is ambivalent, and then she leaves. Well, that's not a very satisfying conclusion - it would have been a stronger story had Samsa encountered the family, which Murakami conveniently excises - they are at the heart of the original story and its stunning conclusion with the young sister dancing, maturing. As noted, maybe this is just a section from a longer piece; as a story, it has some great moments but feels like concept or an exercise more than a finished work.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Notes from above ground: Problems in the early pages of The Woman Upstairs

Well I definitely think Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children was one of the best contemporary American novels of the past decade, and like so many others I've been anticipating her next novel but have, based on some tepid reviews, been a little hesitant about taking up The Woman Upstairs but did start it last night - and am finding it, through 40 pages or so, problematic at best. It's in the first person, which, it seems to me, is not the right decision of Messud - it takes away from the elegance of her style and her nuanced observations, locking us into one person's point of view - and in this case a very unpleasant person at that. A first-person narrator, even a devilish one, needs a strong and engaging personality, and this narrator, at least so far, is mainly a kvetch: she's an elementary-school teacher in Cambridge, single, early 40s, kind of limited social life it seems, possibly attracted to women but that's not clear yet, sees her self as an artist or more accurately as an artist manque, and much of her narration keeps coming back to her failure to create a career as an artist, which had been her lifelong dream. OK, thousands, millions probably, wish they could be an artist (or a writer), and as I've noted in other posts there's a huge difference between wanting to be a writer/artist and wanting to draw/to write - if you just want to "be an artist" you most likely have a. the wrong idea of what an artist's life is really like (it's not La Boheme) and b. the wrong drive and desire. Paint, draw, sculpt, write - if you truly are an artist you will do this and not talk about it. Worse, I am truly annoyed at those like this narrator who blame their failure on their gender - as if her work has been ignored because she's a woman, or as if she couldn't find a career because she had to devote time to caring for her mother, etc. Look, it's always difficult - many guys (several I know) would have liked to be artists/writers but in effect have had to work for a living at a salaried job - but still find time to do their creative work if the drive is serious and if the talent is there. Gender obviously can play a role - but it can also be an excuse. Second problem, so far, is that over 40 pp. there's a lot of talk, a lot of back story, but no really engaging plot to this point - a student has been bullied and narrator reaches out to his mom and they begin to form a bond - a long journey so far for very little action - Messud is not one to put a bone in the throat right away. Compare with other elegant first-person novels - perhaps The Secret History? - and see the difference. I do like her title, however - as she wisely notes in an early chapter, the woman upstairs is the counterpart to Dostoyevsky's "underground  man," in her case conventional, visible, but equally in despair. Can she make good use of this over the course of the rest of the novel?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Great portrayals of loathesome characters: Dance to the Music of Time

No one can write as devastating portrait of a loathesome character with such a deft hand and with such efficiency as Anthony Powell - this most notable in his narrator's many, many encounters with the obsequious Widmerpool, and the topper is Widmerpool's meddlesome and narcissistic mother: the descriptions in The Kindly Ones of W's mother advancing with her big mouth locked in a rictus grin showing her big teeth is a classic - as is the scene in which Jenkins (narrator) visits W. in his cramped and stuffy office, seeking to be advanced on the list of call-ups for active duty (eve of WWII), and W. is so self-important about his position, when it's obvious he's just a flunky, so concerned about revealing state secrets to J., such as the fact, horrors!, that he's going off on maneuvers soon - and then the walk over to Lady Molly's house (she's the aunt of Jenkins's rarely seen wife, Isobel) they pass a soapbox orator ranting against the state and - of course as we know by now from Powell's design - the orator will be someone we know - a young leftist woman who'd had some kind of relationship, no doubt unconsummated, with W. and gotten him to pay for her "operation" - of course he's horrified to be anywhere near this woman, ostensibly because he thinks he could lose his job if seen among enemies of the state - extremely unlikely, he's not that important - but more likely out of some kind of guilt (toward her) and shame (in front of Jenkins). At Lady Molly's - an eccentric who harbors stray cats and dogs and people - we're told she met someone at the vet's who was temporarily homeless so she just had to take him in - and we know it's got to be another friend of J's in this world made up of 20 people - and it's Moreland, his musician/composer friend, now abandoned by his actress wife, Matilda, who's gone back to the wealthy industrialist and war profiteer, Donners - host of the 7 deadly sins dinner party earlier in the book. That relation won't last, obviously - he's too louche and she's just cruel. M. and J. go off to dinner and commiserate - and of course run into more old acquaintances, even in an out-of-the-way restaurant that's better than would be expected. This volume ends with Jenkins finally catching a break - meeting Lady Molly's brother-in-law, who can pull the strings to get him called up from the reserves - and on to volume 7, which I've already read so will skip over when I pick up this series again.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Visions of Jean Dupart - Jenkins's gradual disillusion

First a bit of a surprise to me - I knew some of what I was reading in Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time seemed out of sequence, and as I looked at some plot summaries of the 12 volumes I realized that I had skipped volume six, The Kindly Ones, which I'm now reading, and read the subsequent volume - well, it shows how this work is kind of a pastiche and you can jump around in it maybe not in random order but at least without strict adherence to publication chronology. Anyway, part 3 of The Kindly Ones ends with the bringing together in Albert's seaside b&b a # of the characters that had appeared in different parts of this narrative - notably Dr. Trelawney, and an old and attenuated man, his current partner Mrs. Eldridge, who had previously spent time with the late Uncle Giles, and of course Peter Dupart (?) former husband of the narrator's lifelong crush, Jean Dupart. This section doesn't move the story along very significantly, but it's a chance for Jenkins, the narrator, to get some very unsettling information about Jean, including her involvement with a # of sordid and unattractive men - J. started off by stiffly disliking Dupart, perhaps in part out of sexual jealousy - how could she ever have married him? - but ends up bonding with him to a degree over many drinks and accepting the info he provides as truthful - maybe it is, we don't know at this point - about Jean, seriously discoloring his memory of her, his longing for her - maybe a good thing, too, as he is now married to Isobel - who I think is expecting a child, if I remember? Everything that happens in this volume is colored as well by the gradual approach of war and the general fear of Hitler, or air attacks, and great puzzlement in England as to whether England should aggressively resist Nazi power - and of course the war profiteers, Donner and Widmerpool, move forward in their slimy way.

Monday, October 21, 2013

England populated by about 30 people, each with weird names

Hilarious - reading Anthony Powell's volume 6 of Dance to the Music of Time, The Kindly Ones, and you know this will happen if you've read enough Powell: narrator Jenkins is at a remote seaside B&B run by the now old Arthur who was the family cook back when he was a child at Stonehurst - because as it happens that's where his scheming and philandering Uncle Giles used to stay when he was trying to avoid London and its consequences - and Giles, a major character in the first 5 volumes, dies there suddenly and J. goes to handle the effects (except for some left at his club in London). He's in the hotel dining room and at the table next to him someone has stepped away for a minute and left a half-empty bottle. Now, it's Powell, so we know: the person who comes to the table will turn out to be one of J's old friends! Of course - in this instance, it's Duport (?), who was involved in the eventful car accident back in the school days - they hadn't seen each other for 20 years and at first J. pretends ignorance but D. recognizes him first, and soon they're reminiscing - especially interest bcz D., a serious drunk (witness the half-empty bottle, at breakfast) had been married to Jean, the narrator's first huge crush (we already know from what Templer told J. that they are long divorced and Jean is on a 2nd marriage somewhere in Latin America). Oh, these strange and funny strands that tie the characters together - and the weird sense that this whole country is populated by about 30 people, each with weird names, and maybe to some social classes it does seem that way, or did - London much more cosmopolitan now, and maybe the last volumes of the series will get hold of that, too.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

England on the eve of war - once again - Dance to the Music of Time

So let me try to piece together where we are right now in Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time volume 6, The Kindly Ones, end of part 2, as it is taking me a while to reacquaint myself with the many characters and their complicated inter-relationships: we are now in the early days of WWII in London; narrator, Nick Jenkins, is married to Isobel - we know very little about her (and v. little about his family and his personal life except thru his observations of others); I think he is in some kind of public-relations or publishing business, but not sure - his work life not much discussed. He and his friend, the sullen and eccentric composer, Moreland, and Moreland's new wife, Matilda, are invited to a party chez Sir Magnus Donner, a snobbish aristocrat with no taste who lives in a ghastly and gloomy fake castle with a dungeon - J. had visited before, and was struck by Donner's sadistic comments about keeping naughty women in the dungeon - Donner has had a series of marriages and relationships, including one with Matilda, making this visit rather fraught. D sends a driver to bring them there - turns out to be - in a twist so typical of this series - J's old schoolmate Peter Templar, a wealthy ladies man - whom he hadn't seen in many years. Templar is related in a way I can't recollect to J's old crush, Ann, and gives J the update on Ann - now remarried to a Latin American officer. At the party, Templar's wife, very shy and mentally fragile, has a kind of breakdown - which reminds J of the servant Billson's breakdown that he recollected in the first part of the novel. Also at the party, the odd duck and totally obsequious character, also going back to school days, Kenneth Widmerpool, shows up - he's clearly involved in some nasty war profiteering deals with Sir Magnus; he's also in uniform - a reminder of the war that is brewing on the continent. (I thought that the previous volume already had J. and W. serving during war time but I may be wrong on that.) This all sounds pretty complicated, but it's not that hard to follow; Powell is a very good narrator and guide, and he's great on creating or re-creating these social scenes - dinner parties, dates and clubs, etc. - in which there are huge clashes of personality and ideology that serve as a microcosm of the social upheavals and fractures taking place in England during this time - a great novel of society, as told through the lives of a small set of characters, much like Parade's End but more accessible (and longer).

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Powell a precursor of Alice Munro?

Part 2 of Anthony Powell's The Kindly Ones, volume 6 ofhis series Dance to the Music of Time, gets back to the whacky, gossipy style of the first 5 volumes - moving away from Jenkins's recollections of his pre-WWI childhood in the remote countryside, and now we get the cavalcade of names and their complex relationships, who married whom and why and for how long - it's kind of a primer to remind us (me) of the characters we'd gotten to know in the earlier volumes. I'm still at sea - and no doubt meant to be; part of the fun of this series is the complex web of relationships that all touch on issues of class, sex, war, politics, and art to varying degrees - and the funny thing is that, no matter how many relationships and inter-relations Powell develops, the whole novel, all of England!, seems to consist of about 20 people who just keep running into one another. As with the other novels in the series, it takes some time for the theme or the plot to come into focus for the reader - in this way, Powell is an unacknowledged precursor of Alice Munro. Gradually, though, it's becoming apparent that a key player in this volume will be crackpot religious fanatic and cult leader Trelawney - suddenly everyone, including the rather staid and socially upper crust retired general - seems to know this guy and actually to have followed his cult with some interest. Hm. The other theme emerging is the marriage of J's friend to a young woman who it seems may have been a prostitute and surely was involved with a high-standing person in their set - and how his marriage takes him out of the London scene, away from the art scene, and into some kind of isolation. It's taking a lot to get my mind around all these characters, and Powell blithely ignores one of the fundamental rules of fiction: telling rather than showing - there is so much to tell before he sets his story in motion - but his smart yet easy style carries the story along and holds my interest, at least for now. Unlike Ford Madox Ford, with whom he makes an interesting comparison, Powell works in short segments, and in more or less straight chronology, so his novels, while equally complex and allusive and rich in the politics and events of the day, are not nearly so daunting for the (American, contemporary) reader.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Eve of Destruction - Powell's The Kindly Ones and the outbreak of war

I'm afraid I was a little unfair to Anthony Powell in yesterday's post, comparing him unfavorably to Proust. There are great similarities between Proust's Search and Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, in regard to structure, focus, use of first-person narrative - but also tremendous differences. Nobody works language and describes not only a scene but the ineffable moments of time and sensation and memory and desire as Proust does. Powell actually doesn't try to do that - his style is much more efficient, clear, and to the point - although he very often turns a fine phrase, often to comic effect (often at the end of a paragraph). The time frame of his work is vast, as in Proust, but he is more directly focused on social events and upheaval - the volume I'm reading now, The Kindly Ones, is set on the eve of WWI and he does a fine job of showing life in a remote and down-at-the-heels estate just before the war, and then explodes the entire narrative with a flash-forward to all the casualties of war that will effect or eradicate so many of the characters in part one of this volume. Most of all, he is swift and sure at creating a dramatic, and a comic, scene - the images are indelible in our minds - even if not as deep and mysterious as Proust - they are quite well delineated: the young narrator's visit with the servant to a military encampment and his observation of a prisoner who'd lopped off a finger to avoid service, the many discussions about the new "motor cars" and their difficulty and unreliability, most of all the strange breakdown of one of the servants who suddenly appears in the dining hall start naked - the world is going crazy, coming apart at the seams, so to speak, and the very young Jenkins - now a mature narrator looking back on his life - is trying to make sense of what's going on around him, even though much is senseless and transient. (Also as a note - his parents and in particular his uncle are playing a larger role in this volume than I'd initially thought, from the first 30 pp. that concentrated on the servants.) A more interesting comparison might be with F.M. Ford and Parade's End, which I'll think about in a future post.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Powell is to Proust like English cooking is to French cuisine

"Resumed" reading Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, that is, picked up where I'd left of a number of years ago with volume 6 (of 12), The Kindly Ones. I really ought to read a summary of what preceded, for to me it's just a general recollection of a young man in boarding school who meets a very unnerving and odd character, Winderspoon or some such name?, who plagues him by turning up at various unexpected moments in life, always successful and landing on his feet but extremely unctious and overbearing. The narrator, who has almost no personality whatsoever, is our "window" onto many scenes and phases of English life, as we follow him through the volumes to settling in London, school reunions, the arts and antiques scene, social climbing, politics, pacifism, the world on the edge of war (of course - this is British fiction!). Part of the humor and the fun is how the same characters keep entwining and running into one another - most 12 volume series would have many, many characters, but this one has maybe a dozen - which is entirely possible in England, that sceptered isle with its rigidly defined class structure. Anyway, volume 6 is the first to step out of sequence and go back to the narrator's childhood during or just before WWI in a remote spot in the English countryside. As with about a million other English novels, he has almost no relationship w/ his parents - his father is in the Army, and it's not at all clear what he does except be an officer, the rights of class - and the novel, at least at the outset, is entirely about the narrator's relationship with a number of the servants on the estate, in particular a military guy, Bracey, with serious depression. Powell is often compared with Proust, which is like comparing English cooking w/ French cuisine. Powell is OK - but not in any way the stylist, and his character relations are sketches rather than intricately and lovingly developed. For example, the narrator has as said above almost no relationship with parents - compare with Proust's narrators complex and heartfelt relationship with his parents and grandmother. Still, Proust is an awfully high bar, however, and Powell's novels are a document of an entire generation, as seen from the point of view of one man, one clas.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Roth's most intricately plotted novel

Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer is a very short novel but in my opinion perhaps Roth's most intricately plotted novel - though it has all of the Roth shtick that we so much enjoy in his fiction - who could forget the awkward Nathan Zuckerman as he first meets his literary idol, E.I. Lonoff, and he can't think of anything to tell him but his experiences selling magazines door to door, and L's detailed questioning about magazine sales, as if that's the most important thing for them to talk about! What most will remember about the novel is that it centers on Lonoff's acolyte, an a young and idolizing woman who's working on collecting his official papers - and whom Z. determines must actually be Anne Frank, Holocaust survivor and now living under a new identity, Amy Bellette, in the U.S. A careful reading of TGW, however, shows that this idea is as preposterous as it sounds; Z. has no evidence on which to base this idea - it's just a fantasy he concocts. Why? First, because he's extremely jealous that Amy is engaged in an affair with Lonoff - in a grossly comic scene Z stands on a dictionary on top of L's writing desk to eavesdrop on the two of them in the bedroom above where Z has been placed - and he wants not only A to himself but also L. - his lascivious and somewhat grotesque relations with Amy are like a hammer blow to the Lonoff idol. Second, and more important, Z. wants a reconciliation with his own family and community - he spends a good deal of time recounting his father's bitter reaction to a story he'd written about a family squabble, and his father's decision to send the story to a leader of the Newark Jewish community, a guy who's totally full of himself, and who writes Z. a condescending letter: Is this good for the Jews? etc. Roth - and L. - both know that writers almost always break with their family and community - there are many references to Joyce and to Stephen Dedalus - and Z. - as well as Roth - will pay that price (though Roth has made it clear in interviews that his family always supported his writing, even if the larger Jewish community did not always do so) - but what Z. really wants is a father: Lonoff is one attempt at finding a literary father; the blowhard Abrvanel was a father who rejected him; but what could bring him back more fully into the Jewish community than a relationship with the heroine Anne Frank? Z's creation of the Anne Frank survival story is a desperate and radical fable - much like the fables that L. writes, in fact. By the end, Z. realizes that there are no answers in life for a writer: Amy leaves to pursue her own interests; Lonoff obviously has a tempestuous and troubled relation with his WASP Yankee wife of 35 years - moving off to the country to write undisturbed is just a pastoral myth. The problems - of love, of art, of family, of community - will remain: you can't run away and become a ghost.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Daddy's (not) Home - Story Katania in current New Yorker

Lara Vapnyer's story Katania in the current New Yorker flirts with autobiography - it's a story that, at least till the closing sequence, seems to be a essayistic memoir, a mature woman recollecting a difficult childhood friendship, and in this case I think the story gets most of its stature from the sense that V. is actually telling a truth rather than a fiction, or at the very least using fiction to get as close as she can get to the truth (I have worked a bit in this mode myself - have written a very few first-person fictional narratives with the intention of making the reader think they are "true" and in fact they are mostly true but the fictional frame gives me, and every author, greater license to select, invent, and arrange - fiction gets at a higher truth); the main reason we're interested in V.'s story is that it give uus "news" of what it was like for a young girl to grow up in Soviet Russia - she very precisely captures the deprivations and the misery, all the more sorrowful in that there was no reason for such abject poverty and blankness, just the stupidity of Soviet social engineers. She memorably describes her apartment complex as like a skyscraper set on its side, and we get the whole picture. She befriends a rather spoiled and petulant schoolmate who's in even more dire poverty - nobody has fathers around and the heart of the story centers on the desire for a "daddy" doll as part of the doll family set - a real scarcity, like a Dodger's baseball card for guys I guess - because her father defected - leaving her mother to lose her job and you can just imagine, a crappy one-room apartment, the child lets herself in with a key each day after school and heats up some watery soup. Anyway, the story is excellent as long as the young kids and their difficult friendship are in the forefront, but then V. takes a big leap in time, the two girls are now adult women living in the U.S., V. successful in her career (presumably we're close to autobio again) though not in her family life, and her friend now very wealthy and still superficial and narcissistic; V. visits her at her home in the Berkshires and - giving the ending away here - the kicker is that the friend's husband has a limp, exactly like the daddy doll they'd fought over as kids. Actually, I don't believe it for a second - this has the clumsy hand of authorial manipulation, and does disservice to the rest of the story, which is strong entirely because it's so credible and authentic.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The writer's life - and the writing life - Roth's dichotomy

In The Ghost Writer, part 1, Philip Roth is having a little fun in creating his avatar, Nathan Zuckerman, and in letting Z experience, or actually look back upon his experience, of being an ambitious and aspiring writer seeking endorsement and, in a sense, paternalism, from his literary forebears. Most of the first section involves Z's visit to the reclusive great writer who most influenced him (and to a degree Roth), E.I. Lanoff, closely based it seems in I.B. Singer. But toward the end of part 1 a second eminence appears, the slick and successful and lascivious writer Abravanel (?) - w/ Z. remembers A's visit to his college campus, during which he led a seminar that discussed Z's latest story, and Z's wish, hope for a blessing from this visiting god - most specifically, in the form of an introductory letter or note to a NY editor (Shawn, presumably?) - a blessing that was not forthcoming (Z. notes that Thomas Mann himself bestowed a similar blessing on Abravanel early in A's career - so it's clear that Z. is playing for very high stakes and at a very young age wants to establish himself as among the next generation of great Modern writers - which of course Roth has done and is). Part of the fun here is Z's naive transparency - he's much like Roth, and much like the young Roth, we would imagine - but his it not Roth exactly. I've often made the distinction between two statements: I want to be a writer. v. I want to write. The former sentence is much more suspect. Someone who says "I want to be a writer" often has no knowledge of what it is to actually writer - they just want the accolades, the recognition, the $, the women (or men), and the sense of accomplishment - they imagine the writer's life as something pure and holy. I don't think Roth ever felt this - or not for long; Zuckerman, however, is a bit of a romantic and wants to "be a writer" - and his visit to Lonoff is for him perhaps the experience that changed him to wanting "to write" - the writer's life, lonely and difficult, enslaved to the Olivetti, squabbling with the ever-neglected wife - is no paradise. It's in many ways a burden, even a sentence (interment, that is), a curse. Mann wrote about this, btw, in the great Tonio Kroger. While Z. pulls away in horror from Lonoff's life, he also sees Abravanel's as an alternative - the beautiful young acolyte by his side, the travel, the romance, the beauty and serenity of California. (BTW is Abravonel based on an real writer or writers? Did I detect a slight dig at Norman Mailer, esp post The Deer Park?) He will be town between these ideals, until he finds  writer's life, and a form of suffering, of his own - as Roth will anatomize in at least 3 more novels in this series.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Birth of Nathan Zuckerman - The Ghost Writer

Part of the fun reading Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer some 30+ years after its publication is to see how the novel was in some ways predictive of Roth's career as a writer. Also, part of the fun is figuring out on whom he based the main characters. The novel, published in I think 1979 when Roth had achieved both fame and notoriety (two words far too often mistaken for synonyms) with Portnoy's Complaint and several satiric follow-ups, is written as a writer of Roth's age looking back some 20 years to his apprenticeship. This novel introduced - I think - Nathan Zuckerman, who was to become Roth's literary alter ego in a number of novels to follow throughout Roth's long career; here, Zuckerman reflects on a time in about 1960 when he'd published a few stories, was at a writer's colony (Yadoo, seemingly), paid of visit of homage to an older writer who is one of his literary lions. The older writer is a largely unknown Jewish-Yiddish fabulist who's gotten some recognition late in life and lives in a small house in the country with his old-line Yankee wife, completely in isolation from literary scene that he eschews. The young Z. says: I would like to live that life. And we have to smile, knowing that Roth felt the same, and did the same, but always kept a shrewd eye on the publications and a hand in the battle. But the isolated life is the ideal image for every young writer I think - sitting in a small home, typing away every day, no distractions, no pressures. Ha! The writer Z. visits is E.I. (?) Lonoff - most closely modeled, obviously, on I.B. Singer, but Singer never married a shiksa and retired to the Berkshires - so there are elements as well of two other contemporary Jewish-American writers, Salinger and Bellow, the latter certainly one of Roth's heroes. In the first 40 pages or so, the young Z. sees some powerful tension between Yonoff and spouse, realizing the pastoral future he'd envisioned for himself is far from paradisal. He also is fascinated with a young scholar who is on hand to study some of Yanoff's manuscripts - and his drive for her will be the engine that drives the plot of this novel. Roth builds some great scenes, terrific dialogue of course, and some powerful and revealing contrasts between what Z. tells Y. about his life and his work and what he reveals, as the narrator, about his actual life in NYC, his frustrations and infidelities. These were not - till Roth made them so much later - suitable material for a fabulist such as Yonoff to hear, or so Z. thinks at the time.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A good decision for Strout perhaps but not a great novel

Sorry, losing interest in Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys - I can see where it's heading, have seen this for a long time, and don't feel engaged enough with any of the characters to care too deeply about the denouement. A shame, because at times Strout can write really well, but it seems to me that in this novel she's giving up her territory in order to get out of the box of "regional" writer - well, Alice Munro is a "regional" writer, and now her region is the whole world - and to write an issues story and a page-turner, and though I concede this may be a good decision for Strout personally (i.e., commercially), as we all gaze enviously at Jodi Picault's sales, I think this novel does not show her work at its best. Just me, maybe, and Burgess Boys might ultimately make a good movie or TV mini, but I'm finding it kind of like a train rolling forward, incident by incident, character by character, without sufficient depth, atmosphere, or nuance. I'd like to stop at a station and gaze out the window for a while.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Can there be any doubt where this novel is heading?

Back to Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys, which is moving forward in its desultory way - jumping about from one character to the other - from successful older brother, Jim (I called him Tom in previous post, in noting the rather nondescript names), to idealistic but socially inadept younger brother, Bob, to social outcast sister, Susan - with side journeys to the various spouses (Helen) and exes as well as to members of the Somali community in the Maine coastal town and the police chief and of course Susan's son, Zach, whose act of racial hatred - tossing a pig's head into the mosque, ignited the plot. Well, I think this novel could benefit from more focus and more careful development of character and setting, but that said it does an energy about it that keeps me reading - even though it's not hard to see how Strout will weave the plot strands together: can there be any doubt that the local lawyer, Charlie someone, whom Jim hires to defend his nephew, will be a failure and that one or both of the brothers, both lawyers, will have to return to Maine to take up the cause? Can there be any doubt that Bob will wind up with the Unitarian minister and, for the first time in his life, will best his successful older brother in some manner? The Burgess Boys is not as atmospheric or mysterious as Strout's earlier work, but rather it has the elements of a potboiler, and I can imagine it might make a pretty good movie

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Congratulations to Alice the Great (Munro)

What great news this morning to come in from my workout at hear that Alice "the Great" Munro is the Nobel Prize winner for literature. None could be more deserving of this honor. Amazing how her career began so slowly and quietly - interesting story in the NYT today highlighted the tepid nature of the early NYT reviews of her first books - and that it took quite a while for readers to realize that she had completely redesigned the short story - from the "open" form that Joyce established as the norm for the 20th century to a flowing form that moves back and forth seamlessly in time and that radically changes focus at various points in the story - working much like a camera panning a crowd and then zooming in - characters who seemed central become peripheral and key elements emerge from the margins and from the blur. Over time, she earned the praise she deserves and has been recognized not only for her radical and exemplary style but also for her strong sense of character - particularly women in distress, or on the verge of great change - and setting, the small Ontario towns of her youth and literarily vibrant but somewhat provincial and self-conscious cities of Toronto and Vancouver. Not sure if she's the first Canadian winner of the Nobel, unless you count Bellow, but she definitely is a national icon, much like their famous Group of 7 artists. Now that the Nobel committee has done right by Munro - what about other neglected English-language writers? It would have been great for her to share the prize this year with her contemporary and only equal, William Trevor. Or to share with the other grand writer who this year announced his retirement, Philip Roth. (Trevor may be slowing down, too.) That's all to the good, as I don't think a single Nobelist ever has published a great work after winning the prize (maybe Mann is an exception?). The oddsmakers in London, the only place where people might bet on such things, put the money on Murakami, whom I really admire, too - but I think he's got a few more great books in him before the mantle of the Nobel falls on his shoulders and dampens the flame. And then of course I think it would be really cool if they award the Nobel some year to the greatest living artist in any medium, Bob Dylan - though I'm not sure if his lyrics stand up so well as "literature" if you don't know the songs and his performance. Still, lyrics are an under-appreciated form of literature, and his lyrics are truly inseparable from his music - and deeply moving and evocative and provocative, like all great literature.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Maine lines - Strout's novel

Stepping back in to Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys, which I'd put aside for two weeks of travel - finding the novel easy to pick up again, as she has a very straightfoward and fluid style - but as one might expect I have to keep reminding myself about the relationships among the characters, all of whom bear maddeningly simple names - Tom, Bob, Helen, Sue, et al. At times it feels as if Strout is churning through the plot - she has many elements, settings, and relationships to develop in a fiarly complex story line that is seeming to center on a young man who committed an act of racial hatred against the Somali-Muslim community burgeoning in his small Maine town and the efforts of his two uncles, both New York lawyers, to defend him or secure him a good defense. This conflict will obviously pit the Burgess bros against one another, as Bob is clearly developing a sympathy for the Somali community and Tom, the more successful older brother, is just a plain aggressive win-at-all-costs attorney - or so it seems. I wish Strout would ease up on the plot and just develop her scenes a little more lovingly - I don't have in my mind a very clear picture of the Maine village (or of the Brooklyn neighborhood where the brothers live) other than what I brought to the novel. My memory of reading previous Strout novels tells me she can be quite good at delineating scenes, with her particular interest in the non-tourist side of coastal Maine, but in this novel she's rushing headlong into the story and her descriptions are pretty much pro forma, devoid of striking detail.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

An anti-autobiographical story by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux's story in the current New Yorker called I think I'm the Meat, You're the Knife seems to be an autobiographical pieces, based on the pieces of information that Theroux's readers know about his life - Medford upbringing, years working and traveling in Africa - but the story folds in upon itself and defies us to treat it as an autobiographical piece as it's very subject, it's first-person narrator, is a guy who has learned how to survive trauma by telling stories and inventing stories. In short, the narrator superficially seems to be much like Theroux, an 60ish man visiting family in Medford, Mass., who learns from a chance encounter with a schoolmate he has not seen in many years that their old English teacher is in hospice and dying; this bit of info releases a series of emotions in the narrator, and we pretty quickly understand that he had been abused, sexually probably, by this teacher. He goes to visit the man in the hospice and proceeds to tell him rather cruel and violent stories, tormenting the dying man and gaining a modicum of revenge. Teachers are hugely influential on children - every one of us remembers our teachers, good and bad, for life, and I know I have had some wonderful teachers - which is partly why I to this day work in the education field - and one or two absolutely awful teachers, on one of whom I would have exacted any sort of cruel revenge if I could have done so. The "irony" of the story is that the narrator is a professional writer her learned to invent in order to survive his trauma - so the cruelty and abuse steered him toward a vocation. He has another dimension as well, as we see him fabricate for his mother and sister and series of elaborate tales about the high-school acquaintance he's encountered - he obviously is a compulsive inventor - getting through life by making things up - again, as a strategy for trauma survival but also as a literary gift, even compulsion. I can't and won't speculate on how much of this story may be real - the boundaries of the story show me that "real" doesn't matter in this case - so rather than look at this as a way to understand the prolific and talented (and witty and cordial, too - I interviewed him once) Theroux, I see it as a story about where fiction comes from, the sad and troubling link that all of us who write do feel between beauty and pain, between creation and despair.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Eli on the verge of a nervous breakdown - Roth's early stories

Philip Roth's Eli, the Fanatic, the last story in his debut collection, Goodbye, Columbus, is a really good story on a # of levels - the subtle way in which he conveys the gradual breakdown of Eli's mind (at the end, he's basically in a straight-jacket, but we're so engaged with his personality and his dilemma that, despite the complete oddity of his behavior, dressing up as a Hasidic Jew and roaming the neighborhood, as his wife is in labor with their first child, that we almost don't see his craziness - we wonder why the neighbors are staring), and the Conrad-like "Secret Sharer" elements, as Eli trades clothing with the old Hasid and they in a sense become each other's double. There's also a strong social critique in the story, the assimilated Jews of this prosperous suburb ashamed by the presence of old-world Jews and Yeshiva boys in their community - why can't they dress like us? - and so they rally around the cause of removing the Yeshiva from their midst - a clear and disturbing echo of the Holocaust. Like other stories on Goodbye, Columbus, this one has a finely wrought ending - Eli, dressed as a Hasid, making a scene in the hospital, getting a sedative needle pushed into a vein - and it's another one of Roth's early pieces that seem cinematic - which strikes me as odd in that many of the great novels from much later in Roth's career are not especially strong on plot - some, such as American Pastoral, end abruptly with, deliberately I believe, no clear sense of an ending. Roth continued to push at the edges of convention throughout all of his writing - though he began as a very conventional writer but with a literary milieu - the Jews of Newark (or of any mid-sized Eastern city for that matter) all to himself.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Rhode Island Fiction

Read an interview in the Journal this a.m. in which Jhumpa Lahiri promotes her new novel - and the interviewer, himself a former R.I.er, focuses on the Rhode Island setting. Lahiri notes that she's more or less avoided specifying a Rhode Island setting in her fiction, even though some of her stories are clearly set in Rhode Island (where she was raised, went to h.s., etc.), as attentive R.I. readers will note. The interviewer thanks her for her portrayal of the state - I can't wait to read it, myself - yet notes, incorrectly, that there haven't been too many novels set in Rhode Island. Allow me to correct the record on that point - we've had a # of novels set in Rhode Island, including many recent ones - though unfortunately novels set outside of the NYC (or sometimes LA) mainstream don't always get the attention they deserve. Here are a few R.I.-set novels and story collections:

H.P. Lovecraft stories, to start with the most famous of Rhode Island writers
Providence, by Geoffrey Wolff - captures the essence of the city
Spartina, by John Casey - R.I. coastal life
Much of Ann Hood's fiction, starting with Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine
The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides - wish I'd liked it more, but it does depict Brown in the 1980s
Outside Providence, by Peter Farrelly - yes, the director of Dumb and Dumber
Airs of Providence, a great story collection by Jean McGarry
A few from my colleagues in the former Providence Areas Writers (PAWS), including:
The Tell, by Hester Kaplan
Keeper & Kid, by Ed Hardy
The Year She Disappeared, by Ann Harleman
Flipping for It, by Daniel Asa Rose

I'm sure I'll think of more - and will add to the list in a future post if so. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Women in Roth's fiction

Roth's women is a subject for much discussion and debate, and it pains me to say that, great as his fiction is in many, many ways, one of the weaknesses throughout his is treatment of women, who, with very few exceptions I think, play subordinate roles in his stories and novels and, even more troubling, are often objects of scorn and ridicule (to be fair, many male characters are are well) and are often seen as hindrances or burdens that prevent men from fully expressing their talents or from fully enjoying life. You can certainly see this issue early in his career, in his debut collection, Goodbye, Columbus, which I am just finishing. Some of the stories (Defender of the Faith, You Can't Tell a Man by the Song he Sings) are entirely male - one set in the Army, another in what appears to be an all-boys high school (maybe it's not, but that's telling in itself). The title story is perhaps the kindest to its women characters, at least to the lead character, Brenda, who, though a prototypical Jewish-American princess who can't stand up to her parents, in the end, is at least a smart and talented young woman. Most of the other women are either over-protective or meddlesome, especially in the weaker and less well-known stories later in the book (this may by why they're less well known) - one of which involves an elderly Jewish businessman who embarks on an affair with a loose-living neighbor and pays a price (with his shrewish wife, we're almost sympathetic about his dalliance). The last story in the collection, Eli, the Fanatic, involves a wife who repeatedly tries to help her husband in variance kind and thoughtful ways and is repeatedly rebuffed and ridiculed. Maybe she could be a sympathetic character, but it seems that Roth's interest in her is only as a comic foil - his real interest is in the men and their world (in this case, a legal skirmish about an unlicensed Yeshiva school in a leafy suburb - it's "bad for the Jews"). There are a few exceptions in later Roth works, but not many, not enough. Sympathetic women characters remain a blind spot in Roth's vision, copious as it is, have probably hurt his chances for a Nobel, which I still think he deserves.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Roth at Rest - before he wrote novels

Defender of the Faith, the 3rd story in Philip Roth's debut collection, Goodbye, Columbus, ends with the narrator, Sgt. Nathan Marx, making a fateful decision - about someone else's fate. Over the course of the story, the 3 Jewish privates under his command continue to push him for special favors, and Marx gives way. He's a smart guy, so it's hard to believe he would fall for their bullshit and provide all 3 with a weekend pass to attend a seder - a month after passover no less - and even forge his commanding officer's signature to provide them with the pass. It's no surprise to us - and shouldn't be to Marx, either (if he's really a Columbia grad bound for law school) - that they scamming him, an heading off for who knows what. Stupidly, they bring him back an egg roll, just to rub it in his face that there never was to be a month-late seder. Marx retaliates by pulling some weight to get one of the guys reassigned from stateside to the Pacific. The war was just about over at that point, so this isn't necessarily a death sentence - but Roth is clearly making a parallel between Marx's action and the Holocaust. We don't know what becomes of the soldier sent to the Pacific, but one way or another Marx will b wracked with guilt for life: either he sent a young soldier - a conniving liar, but still a soldier - to his death, or, if they guy's alive, he's made an enemy for life. Like other stories in the collection, this one seems to call out for a sequel: do these guys ever meet again? Does Marx try to track down his victim? To my knowledge, Roth never followed up on this or on any of the stories in this collection - but we can see the range of his imagination - each of this stories has hints of becoming so much broader and grander - and it's obvious that at this time Roth was moving toward writing on a bigger "canvas." What he needed in order to do so was a more dynamic narrator - which he found, first in Letting Go and then of course in the Zuckerman and Portnoy novels, which fall in the great tradition of grand American schematic fiction, as in Updike and Faulkner - a series of novels that explore and develop a single setting, a single consciousness, or both.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The death of a family - Bad Dreams in recent New Yorker

As noted in some previous posts, I've been slow to come around to Tessa Hadley, who is now obviously the New Yorker's go-to girl for English fiction, and they seem to be ready to anoint her as the next Alice Munro, but whereas I felt that some of her earlier stories were very well written but finally nothing special other than that they were set in England, often among the working classes, a few recent stories have been stronger and the one in a recent New Yorker that I just read, Bad Dreams, truly blew me away - a beautiful and frightening story about tensions in a young marriage, a struggling couple in maybe the 1950s in England, the dad working hard teaching school in the day and pursuing an advanced degree in English in the evenings (and playing horn in a band on the side) - while the mom has given up her dream of an art career - she was farm more conventional than the mostly male avant-garde art students in her classes - and is now the typical grad-student-housewife, raising the kids and earning a little money taking in sewing projects. The story, in short - though this give short shrift to Hadley's excellent pacing and observations - involves the 9-year-old daughter waking from a nightmare and going into the small living room and impishly tipping over all the furniture. The wife wakes to find the room in disarray; after initial terror, she figures that there had been no intruder or thief and she suspects her husband did this in anger at her cleanliness, or at something else in their marriage. She straightens up and pledges - how English! - never to speak of this with him; when he wakes, he seems oblivious - because his is oblivious - but she takes his silence as a real rift within their marriage. The daughter, presumably, will never tell what she did in the night - but every day that goes by will pollute the marriage, and the family, further with drops of poison. If you can accept that the mother and daughter will both keep silent, it's a great story about the beginning of the dissolution of a family - a tragedy, actually, in that the actions of the story don't reveal something to the characters but actually mislead them into fatal error.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Philip Roth

A few words on another classic Roth story in Goodbye, Columbus - Defender of the Faith - apparently Roth's first try at a first-person narrator. Sgt Nathan Marx at first blush seems to be someone like Roth - same cohort educated Jewish - but of course he's not a Roth avatar in the way that Zuckerman or Portnoy become later on Roth's career - he's far more staid and upright and even uptight - a WWII combat vet ( actually making him about a decade older than Roth and not of his cohort come to think of it) and Ivy League and thinking about law school. He may be what Roth would have become has he been born a half-gen earlier. In this story - whose title of course can be read 2 ways - Marx is approached by a pushy Jewish private on the base who plays on their shared faith to seek out favors under the guise of seeking fair treatment. Marx is torn - he dislikes the pvt and does not want to be linked to him in any way much less to seem like he's favoring this guy and two other Jewish soldiers - yet he has to take their concerns - unable to attend Friday services not served kosher food seriously. He should probably refer all this to the Chaplain but he foolishly takes on the cause - alienating himself from his own co and just pushing these guys to ask for more and more - a set-up for a tragedy or at least for a farce.

Sent from my iPhone

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Philip Roth

The 2nd story in Philip Roth's 1959 debut collection, Goodbye, Columbus, is the classic The conversion of the Jews ( title an homage to Marvell and much easier to parse than the title if the collection) about a kid in Hebrew school, Itzie (Isaac) who figures that if god could create the universe in six days he could also arrange a virgin birth - rabbi horrified by this insolence has Itzie think about the error of his ways but Itzie memorably tells his friend : I've thought about it for an hour and I think he could do it! That had me laughing out loud. Rabbi strike at I and accidentally bloodied his nose leading Itzie to run up to the temple roof. A crowd gathers and I says he'll come down if the rabbi and all will kneel as in xtian prayer and admit it could happen. I kind of wish Roth had left it there but he has Itzie mouth some platitudes about you should never hit someone Bcz of a religious dispute - which makes the ending a little too tendentious. I think we need to know a little more about the rabbi too - and wish Roth has written a story about him. At end of story Itzie jumps from the roof into a net firefighters are holding - a really scary image - but we have to assume he lives - but why does he do this? Prob to show his complete faith in god - in any just god Jewish or xtian - as the protector of the innocent.

Sent from my iPhone