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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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A mystery like no other - The Infatuations

Simply put, Javier Marias's novel The Infatuations is a mystery like none other (there will be spoilers to follow) - in that the first question it raises is: Is this a mystery? Only about half-way through do we get any clear sense that the story is not about the tragedy of a random killing by a madman but a story about a carefully planned murder. Or is it? Unlike most, all, other mysteries, it's not a matter of who dunnit but a matter of was it done at all? As we gradually learn, as the evidence mounts, that Miguel was the victim of a murder plot and not of a random, senseless killing, we then begin to focus on the fate not of the killer but of the young woman, Maria, the narrator, who inadvertently learns of the potential killing. Will she be the next victim? Will one killing, a la Macbeth, lead to a series of killings? The novel is vastly strange in that it's a murder mystery in which we see no action whatsoever and in fact see no official investigation - the police, private detectives, amateur detectives - play no role in this story. The interrogator is the curious Maria, who hears about the murder plot and gradually pieces things together by listening to the long monologues that the killer, or the instigator at least, delivers. Right up to the end, she is in some doubt as to the nature of the conspiracy: the instigator, Javier, tries to persuade her that the victim has asked to be killed so as to avoid suffering through terminal cancer with which, allegedly, had had been diagnosed. The preposterous nature of this claim is so outrageous that we, and Maria, almost believe it - though not quite. What finally makes this such an unusual and compelling novel is the weird conclusion - Maria decides not to tell what she knows, not because she's afraid but because the revelation would do no one any good and would be harmful to the widow, Luisa. It's at the end a victimless crime or more accurately an unknown crime - as Maria and Javier reflect, there are no doubt thousands, millions of crimes not unsolved but unrevealed, all that time. The one fly in the ointment, so to speak, is the poor homeless guy who committed the act. I know there's some reference to his being "better off" in prison or mental hospital than living on the streets - and he did commit a crime - but if Maria shared her knowledge is would certainly be helpful in his defense and in alleviating the sentence. Still, a very strange and provocative novel - not for every reader, because of its talkiness and lack of action - but a rare mystery novel that won't keep you guessing but rather will start you thinking.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Is it a great novel?: The Infatuations

Javier Marias's The Infatuations may be a great book, I'm holding off on making state strong a claim till I finish reading it, but it's certainly an unusual, challenging, and at time frustrating book.I've been thinking while reading it as to how it would translate, if at all, into film. It's amazing how little actually "happens" in this novel (I will be giving away some key plot points here): narrator, Maria, observes a couple in a cafe, after not seeing them for several days, learns that the man (Miguel) had been stabbed to death by a homeless man; Maria befriends the widow and visits her (once), during which time she meets the best friend of the couple (Javier - note the weird similarity of names to the author's name); Javier meets Maria "accidentally" in a museum, and they begin an affair. When a visitor arrives one morning at J's apt., Maria overhears their talk and learns that they had conspired to have Miguel murdered (so that J. could woo and win the widow, Louisa). This was the dramatic high point of the novel: does J. know whether M. overheard this conversation? If so, what will he do? And what should she do? Tell Louisa? The police? There's perhaps a skeleton of a good movie here - but this novel is not about action but rather about talk about action - reflection, rumination, speculation, self-examination. In section I read yesterday, Javier calls Maria to his apt., where she goes reluctantly. He tells her he knows she overheard; she can't deny she knows of the plot. He goes into a long-winded self-defense - it's still not clear what Maria will do, or what she should do. Oddly, she's not especially afraid of Javier, even though she knows he's a killer and would have every reason to kill her before she tells anyone of the murder plot. I have to say I find some of the extended, talky narration quite insightful and compelling, but I'm also getting a little frustrated at how slowly this story moves forward. My final judgment on the novel will depend, I think, on whether Marias can bring plot to a conclusion - or whether he just leaves us hanging, dangling, lost in speculation.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mystery readers won't like it, but it may be a perfect literary work - The Infatuations

I'm glad I've hung on with Javier Marias's novel The Infatuations as, at the half-way point or so, he introduces some major elements to the plot - I will not spoil this for those who have not read this novel - and finally gets things moving. The first hundred pages or so are a little rough - Marias is extremely intelligent and there are many fascinating insights and speculations about the big issues of life, death, love, jealousy - as well as many cogent asides and some fine descriptive passages, everything I look for and enjoy in serious literary fiction - but I was beginning to think the whole novel would be ruminative: what does it mean to lose someone suddenly to a violent death? what guilt to the survivors carry? what do we owe to the memory of the dead? All great topics but they can hold my attention for only so long - but Marias comes through and puts the narrator in moral and ethical jeopardy and honestly it's one of the few novels I've read in recent years that I'm just itching to get back to later to day to find out: what happens next? He still has time and space enough to disappoint me, but I don't think that will happen. His intelligence is really vast and his insights acute: there are, for example, some insightful moments in which the characters analyze a famous passage in Macbeth, and these passages are more provocative than most Shakespeare criticism - and, w/out saying more, the Macbeth element is introduced purposefully as there are analogies between this tragedy and the events of this novel. The Infatuations is probably not for everyone - most readers who like a good, traditional murder mystery will be put off by all the interior monologues and self-analysis - and it's what I would call anti-cinematic (in the way that Proust is as well), a novel that when stripped of voice and tone would leave, I think, far too skeletal and even conventional plot to make a good movie - and in a sense these are the perfect literary works: an imitation of an action, in words, that can be told or conveyed in no other form or format.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A postmodern reading of The Infatuations?

How you feel about Javier Marias's novel The Infatuations will depend on how you feel about movies by Rohmer or Resnais - long, talky, ruminations that go over the same points again and again, examining life deeply but moving forward inch by inch (centimeter by centimeter?) if at all. Marias's premise is exciting right from the start - a man is murdered in cold blood and a young woman who's observed this man every morning - they get breakfast daily in the same coffee shop - begins to wonder about his life and death, becomes acquainted with his widow and hears her long ruminations, meets the couples' best friend and begins a relationship with him, aware all the while that he's really in love w/ the widow (Luisa) and is waiting for her to move out of mourning and accept him - and he and the narrator discuss these relationship, plus the meaning of a sudden and seemingly random violent death, at great length. Their "conversations" read more like essays and discourses - the narrator mostly listens - and there's no doubt Marias is super-intelligent and thoughtful. And yet - I don't like think of myself as a philistine and I certainly can get engaged with novels of ideas and of observations - as readers of this blog will know, Search for Lost Time is one of my favorite works of literature and I'm slowly engaged in my 2nd read-through of the series, to cite just one example - but I'm beginning to think about half-way (150 or so pp.) through The Infatuations that the game may not be worth the candle. Marias puts forth a few tantalizing details and hints - is it possible the that man, Miguel, was not the victim of a random attack by a madman but that someone, perhaps his best friend, has plotted a murder? Is the narrator, Maria, involved in a deeper way that she's let on? And is there a bit of a postmodern sheen to this novel - the narrator's name is very close to the author's surname, obviously, and the best friend/possible plotter is named Javier (though called by his surname usually) - so Marias may be toying with the idea that literary characters are given life, and death, by their creator - just as are we, if you so believe. Not sure how far I'm going with this novel (which is due at BPL tomorrow, unfortunately).

Friday, December 27, 2013

A strong start - but where is it headed? - Javier Marias's The Infatuations

Been meaning to read Javier Marias for some time and yesterday started reading his most recent novel, The Infatuations, and am impressed through first 100 pages or so and wondering how - and if - this novel will take shape and develop. Marias gets you engaged right from the first sentence, as his first-person narrator, a low-ranking books editor whose career involves dealing with cantankerous and narcissistic authors, notes that the last time she saw Miguel was when he left the cafe - he was murdered minutes later. The entire novel, to this point, has involved her recounting how she used to watch a man named Miguel and his wife, Luisa, at this cafe every morning - she dubbed them "the perfect couple" - but never spoke to them or knew anything about their lives - then learned from news accounts that he had been stabbed to death by a deranged, homeless man. Later, when she sees Luisa in the cafe, she introduces herself; L. invites her to her apartment for conversation, and, in most European fashion (Marias is a Spanish novelist, this one set in Madrid) they discuss matters of life and death and recovery. The novel moves along very easily, and we, like the narrator, are certainly curious about this couple. At the 100-page point, however, the quality of this novel will depend on whether Marias will deepen the mystery, gradually reveal new information that will make us see the couple - and our world - in a new light. Was it really just a random crime, for example, or was there some motive that we will later learn? Is the narrator as reliable as she seems, or is she holding something back from us? Will her involvement with Luisa somehow change the nature of the "facts" of the novel, in the way in which human interference is inevitable in any scientific experiment or observation?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

An unexcpected Hollywood ending to The Beauty of Humanity Movement

There are two - conflicting? - aspects to Camilla Gibb's novel The Beauty of Humanity Movement. In one sense, this is a very dark, embittered, almost cynical novel - virulently opposed to all three regimes or forms of government under which the people of (north) Vietnam lived, and in Gibb's account suffered. Life was horrible under French colonial rule, equally awful under the communist government of Ho Chi Minh, and no better under the democratic capitalism. All the promises to provide land and resources to the rural peasants and the urban poor are hollow; the government, particularly the communist government, is as autocratic and repressive as the Soviet state or Mao's China at their worst - in fact, even worse, because there is so little reason for this oppression. The novel focuses on the attempts to wipe out a fringe literary-political movement, the eponymous Beauty of Humanity (apparently based loosely on a real group) - and on the cost not only to the members of the group but to those loosely associated with it, notably the central character, a pho-chef, Hung. In the other sense, this is a sentimental and romantic book. The long-suffering urban poor such as Hung are noble and self-sacrificing and modest, they look out for one another in their shantytown, they save and struggle and get by through ingenuity. Perhaps all this is true, but it feels a little cliched and even two-dimensional - the characters are not rounded, but they are types, representing various social forces. Kind of reminds of the sentimentality of, say, Pearl Buck or maybe Steinbeck, though not as fully developed. More so, Gibb builds toward a grant romantic finale - Hung gets the pho restaurant he's always dreamed of, Maggie learns about her father and recovers some of his long-thought-lost art works and even gets a Vietnamese boyfriend (shoehorned very late into the plot), and so forth. In other words, a Hollywood ending, that doesn't quite sit well on the foundation of darkness that Gibb has put together.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Communism and materialism - in The Beauty of Humanity Movement

Just taking a few moments here to backtrack over the plot of Camilla Gibb's The Beauty of Humanity Movement: central character is the pho chef, Hung, who is born 9th child in rural poverty sent off to city, Hanoi, to make some kind of life and learns from a master how to prepare the basic Vietnamese dish pho; lives in great poverty in a shanty hand built by a stagnant pond, subsists during hard times on noodle he makes from pond weeds, has a fatherly relation to beautiful teenage granddaughter of woman in shanty next to his, he reads her poetry aloud, eventually proposes to her, sort of, but the marriage never happens; we learn later in novel that she still lives next door to him and they have not spoken in 40 years - not clear yet what happened but suspect she betrayed him to authorities, who raided his shanty and destroyed many artworks, magazines, and mss from the eponymous radical group whom Hung had gotten to know because they came to his shop for breakfast; members of the group focus on two in particular, Dao, the leader and a writer - the grandfather figure to Hung - who was taken away during first years of Vietnamese independence to one of Ho's re-education camps. Dao's son, Bienh, and grandson, Tu, now treat Hung as their ancestor as well, in gratitude for his support of Dao - they spend a lot of time helping him, etc. Plot itself begins when Vietnamese-American woman, museum and art curator, Maggie, arrives seeking out Hung for info about her father, Ly?, who was an artist and a member of this radical group, who'd been taken away for re-education and had his hands broken so he could no longer paint; apparently he never left Vietnam - she left w/ her mother for Minneapolis. Now she's very Americanized, and is in Hanoi to buy artworks for major collectors. She hires Tu (and his friend, Biennpho?) as her guide and driver, but Tu resigns, angry about the type of art he's forced to see and about the incredible prices collectors pay for the art while he and others live in poverty. Tu, however, at a coffee shop, finds some artworks by Ly and tries to get Maggie there to buy them and to learn more about her father - but the shop owner mysterious spirits the artworks away, claims to have sold them to a dealer. That's about where I am, 2/3rd+ through with the novel. It's not especially plot-driven and the characters are types rather than people - yet there is something sadly compelling about this novel, about the suffering and poverty so many seem to endure, even in this supposedly egalitarian state; about the betrayal of revolutionary values in Vietnam - so sadly typical of many Asian regimes, obviously reminds us of the Cultural Revolution and the Killing Fields; and finally the sadness and inequities of the tremendous influx of western money and values that changes the cities but doesn't do much to lift the standard of living of most Vietnamese, just makes the inequalities more evident - as in Russia, for ex. Not sure how accurate all this is as history, and I suspect quite a bit of anti-Communist bias, but a vivd portrait of a society in flux.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A totally unconventional Xmas miracle in current New Yorker - Rebecca Curtis's story

A totally surprising and nonconventional story with the completely misleading title The Christmas Miracle, by Rebecca Curtis, an author new to me and worth watching. This could more accurately be called the dysfunctional Christmas miracle - Curtis's story, narrated by a seriously disturbed 30-something in the form of a letter or address to her, I think, boyfriend, K, tells of her family gathering seemingly somewhere in the (Canadian?) Rockies and the odd behavior of many family members, most notably the writer (D, I think is how she ID's herself) - to give you just a slight idea the beloved uncle retired asset-manager is a known pedophile who's constantly trying to peek at or touch the young nieces, the mother - narrator's sister - is trying to be sensitive to everyone's feelings, including the pedo-uncle; the narrator takes control of this and tries to teach her nieces to say stuff like "I don't feel kissy right now." This sounds, I know, like a dark sort of problem or issue story, but it's all seen through the very distorted lens of this odd narrator who claims to be suffering from various food intolerances plus Lyme disease - so who knows how much of what she tells us is accurate? (As she notes in an aside to K, she realizes she probably shouldn't include pedophilia in this narrative, as readers will think that's what the whole story's about - which it isn't.) At times narrator sees the many assembled guests as various wild animals; at other times she gives herself two lines of dialogue, one from the "nice" or sane "me" and the other from some of the chemicals in her brain - and it's never entirely clear which line was actually spoken - at least until a very bizarre predinner gathering at which she says some really horrendous things to an in-law who's hoping to get pregnant - and the narrator wants to help through various dietary supplements (even though her degree is from the Internet, as she confesses). The story is as offbeat and odd as some of George Saunders's work, though much more female-centric - the two of them make a good pair, however - and are strongly in the outside oddball tradition of American short fiction.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A very dark view of Vietnam - The Beauty of Humanity Movement

Camilla Gibb is definitely no fan of the North Vietnamese communist government, nor of Ho Chi Minh, to judge from the first hal for so of her novel The Beauty of Humanity Movement, which is largely about the suffering of artists, rural peasants, and the impoverished urban class, first under colonial rule but then, perhaps even more bitterly and tragically, under independance. I'm not sure how much of this novel is "true" and even if it is based on historical evidence how much is accurate - but she certainly makes the Communist regime out to be as brutal and oppressive as the horrible government in Cambodia post war and Burma/Maynmar then and today. Was there nothing about the government that elevated the status and improved the lives of the Vietnamese peasants? This novel depict the regime as ruthless - sending artists and intellectuals to "re-education camps," breaking apart villages, blindly killing anyone who seemed in the remotest way like a landowner, getting friend and neighbor to turn against one another - and all the time the life of the impoverished got just worse, more desperate - as we see from the central character, Hung, who basically lives in shack (and pays protection $ for the privilege of doing so) and subsists on cooked pond leaves. The novel moves about from Colonial to war-era to modern times - and in the contemporary setting we see the great prosperity arriving - new hotels, Western visitors and tourists, and in particular a flourishing art market - but we also see that this prosperity barely touches most of the Vietnamese people - very dark view and a very dark novel.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Culture for sale - Exploitative forces at work in The Beauty of Humanity Movement

Gears are shifting a little bit in Camilla Gibb's The Beauty of Humanity Movement, as the story now centering a little more on the Hanoi tour guide, Tu (?), whom the Vietnamese-American visitor has hired as her driver to help her track down info about the Vietnamese artwork she is collecting and cataloging. What we start to see in this part of the novel, by looking over Tu's shoulder so to speak, is the incredible hot market for these artworks - collectors and auction houses paying thousands of dollars for pieces that would sell in Vietnam, if at all, for a few bucks. Of course the auction houses will mark these things up even more. Tu is astonished at these prices, and he cannot comprehend how a piece of art in Vietnam could possibly sell for $10,000 - maybe a hundred times his yearly wages. So, OK, we're seeing the postwar cultural exploitation as East meets the ravenous West, and we're seeing the gross inequities within the ostensibly egalitarian, Communist country, and we're seeing the noble suffering of those living in poverty, notably the elderly Pho chef Hung, who lives in a shack by a stagnant pond an keeps one step ahead of the police in his mobile kitchen, and we see a bit of life in contemporary Vietnam - Tu and his friend Binh getting high like any pair of Western doping buddies, Binh hiring a prostitute for Tu's birthday - and whether this novel succeeds at all will depend on Gibb's ability to bring these forces into collision in a way that will change the characters and affect their lives. Tu already is obviously very attracted to the Vietnamese-American art collector, but she seems miles beyond him in sophistication and worldliness, so it's hard to see where this relationship will go if anywhere (reminds me oddly of the the crush the Italian hotelier had on the American movie star in Beautiful Ruins). I do want more out of this novel than just the uncovering of the life story of the persecuted artist (the collector's father) - which seems to be what drew her back to Vietnam and what led her to seek out her father's old crony Hung. I wonder what kind of research, or experience, lay behind this piece? We've had a number of post-Vietnam War novels about the war and about Vietnamese-Americans - not much that I'm aware of about life in Vietnam, certainly not by Anglo writers.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The 5 most disappointing novels I read in 2013

As I've noted before, no amateur reader in his or her right mind could possibly give you a list of the worst books of the year; there are obviously many dreadful books published, but why would you read them or start reading them? Unless you're a pro critic paid to read and comment on a wide range of material, the books you read would or should always be books you fully expect to enjoy - based on word from friends, reviews, previous enjoyment of the author's works, or maybe a gut feeling based on topic, blurbs, jacket copy, book publisher, cover image. So I can't tell you the worst books of the year, but any reader can tell you about the most disappointing books of the year - ones started with high hopes and expectations that soon, or maybe not so so, are dashed. Each of these books had some qualities that drew me to them, drew me in, and kept me in, for at least a while, but in the end these are the 5 most disappointing novels I read (at least in part) in 2013, alphabetical by author.

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. Really sorry to have to place this one here, as I've been a champion of Erdrich since her first fiction back in the '80s and and have even said she's a potential candidate as the next U.S. Nobelist, but The Round House is a mixed bag at best. Her heart's in the right place and she takes on an important issue of tribal justice and abuse of women, but after a few good opening scenes the book goes off in all different directions, including a very ham-handed and improbable denouement.

Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante. Ferrante is a pseudonymous author who has never publicly revealed her (or maybe even his) identity - and gets a lot of publicity by shunning the same - enough anyway to draw me to read her novel. As above, despite a few powerful scenes, at some point I came to see that this short novel was going nowhere - just a continuous rant against the bastard of a husband who abandoned narrator and kids. Maybe there was something I missed, but I abandoned this novel half-way.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. This was the "other" Iraq war novel of the year but not nearly as good as The Yellow Birds. In fact, it's a novel about soldiers (at home on leave attending a Dallas football game as honored guests of the club), but, despite this premise, for me the novel just went on an on with one scene after another of drinking and hi-jinx. Fountain may have something to say, but he took too long to get there and I walked off the field.

Someone, by Alice McDermott. Another author who's been a favorite since her first book in the mid-80s, the great chronicler of Irish-American families in the NYC suburbs, but this novel jumps around all over the place and never finds a focus - in fact leaves some of the key scenes undeveloped. It seems that she wrote this novel over a long period of time perhaps in fits and starts.

The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud. Another one by a writer whom I’ve really admired (The Emporer’s Children), but this novel is dominated by the voice of a highly unlikable narrator and misses many opportunities to turn her tortured plaint into a dramatic narrative.

In short, I would read works by each of these writers again, and I hope that these works are merely mis-steps in otherwise stellar careers.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Characters versus types - in The Beauty of Humanity Movement

Would I feel differently about Camilla Gibbs's The Beauty of Humanity Movement if she had an Asian name? I can't say for sure - but I do recall the account of a novel (I think) about a Chicano guy in California that got strong reviews and then it came out that the author was not Chicano but just chose a Spanish-variant pen-name - and that changed everyone's perception of the book. Well, the book should stand or fall on its own, right? But it's hard or even impossible to separate these strands. I can't help but feel - some 70 pages in Beauty - that Gibb sees the characters from the outside, not from the inside, that she is presenting them not as individuals but as types, as representatives of the vast forces that changed, destroyed, shaped life in Vietnam across the past century. Story is about a very poor chef who runs a fly-by-night mobile Pho stand, rumored to be the best in Hanoi, and his reflections on his life; he encounters a very westernized and beautiful Vietnamese woman who comes to him seeking info about her late father, a dissident artist - the chef (Hu?) was on the fringe of the artists' movement, but escaped roundup and re-education because he was a near-illiterate peasant. Much of the story so far also includes his relationship with a mother and young daughter or granddaughter living in squalor near him - he falls in love with the much-younger daughter who seems to be in love with him in return - but the relationship to me feels kind of creepy and I'm not sure how Gibb will develop this. M., who recommended I read this novel, compares it w/ the great A Fine Balance, by Rohintyn Mistry, and there are similarities - particularly in the description of lives in makeshift huts in a squatter's field and the bitterness and competitiveness of life among street vendors and entertainers (his novel set in India), but Mistry's story is epic and full of characters who develop within the time of the novel - whereas Beauty seems to be mostly a story about what happened sometime in the past - a reflective novel rather than an active novel - and perhaps that's the reason that the characters seem to me a product of research rather than of experience. Nothing wrong with that per se - think about War and Peace, for example - but the characters have to come alive as individuals, not just as representatives of social forces, however profound. We'll see how it unfolds and develops, however.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Blogging is not writing, and the post that launched a thousand term papers: elliotsreading turns 4

Four years ago today I began this blog, elliotsreading, (I was reading War and Peace at the time) and I believe I've managed to enter a post every day over that span - though there may have been a day or two during which the actual posting was delayed because of travel and Internet access. My goal was, and is, to keep a daily record of what I'm reading and what I'm thinking about what I'm reading. My hope was, and is, that this blog would make me a better and more attentive reader - so much of what we, or at any rate I, read slips through the mind like sand through a sifter. By writing about my reading every day, I make myself think more sharply, critically, and analytically - and it has improved my attention and retention, though I'm still amazed, looking back over past entries, at how much I've lost to time. The blog is also, however, a record that I can consult, which helps me recall what I've read and thought- though I rarely look back. I also hope that this blog helps other readers select their reading and reflect on what they've read - and perhaps challenge me about what I've read, though I'm disappointed that there are so few comments and so few followers. Oh, well. It's for myself and my friends that my stories are sung. Finally, the blog is a sort of experiment; I'm not sure how many others, if any, are keeping a daily record of their reading - but doing so pushes me to a new form of communication. Blogging is not writing - unlike writing, in blogging I just push forward and rarely make corrections or emendations, though I do occasionally look up a name or title and I will correct an obvious mistake (of fact, not of judgment and impression) when I re-read occasionally. The blog is not literary criticism or a series of reviews - too many spoilers - but a live record of my evolving thoughts and reactions as I go through the books and stories - almost exclusively fiction - that I'm reading. You're reading with me, so to speak, over my shoulder. For those curious about the most visited blog posts over the past four years, here they are, in order:

Eurora Welty's story, A Memory. Thanks to link. I'm afraid my analysis of this very short story has been the post that launched a thousand term papers.

What is the name of Sancho Panza's donkey? Many want to find the answer to this puzzling question, it seems.

A rapidly rising post: George Saunders's story The Semplica Girls. Not sure why so many are reading, and maybe writing, about this story. My google rank is very high on this, though.

The Art of Fielding. I was one of the few nay-sayers, and have drawn some flak. (Added 12/20/13: Maybe they think I'm posting about Joseph Andrews?)

The end of Portrait of a Lady: How could you? Many have been curious about my outrage at James's conclusion to this really long novel.

If you want to e-mail me, faithful reader, try me at

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The best volume so far in A Dance to the Music of Time

Was any reader anywhere at any time surprised by the "surprise" meeting at the end of volume 9 of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time? By this point we certainly know the pattern, even of erstwhile narrator Nick Jenkins doesn't or thinks we don't: every chance encounter involving Nick will link him to one of the 20 or so characters that make up the network of his socially circumscribed upper-class 20th-century English life. So when, escorting a group of allied leaders to a victory mass celebration in St. Paul's on conclusion of WWII, Nick finds a seat for a Latin American officer - how can we not recall that his first beloved, Jean Duport, on last report had broken off marriage and subsequent affair and remarried a Latin American military man? Of course we know that when this guy offers Nick a ride home, the beautiful woman waiting in the car will turn out to be Jean - whom Nick has not seen for 20 or so years. So the tight web of this series of novels tightens by another notch. Volume 9, The Military Philosophers, despite the foolish title, is the strongest in the series so far I think - a terrific portrayal of what London must have been like during the many years of aerial attacks and then, in peacetime, battered and in rubble - the people very proud but - a feeling much like after a nightmare, or after a flood or tornado, surveying the omnipresent damages and wondering how to pick up and where to begin. This volume, like others in the series, ends rather abruptly without any clear conclusion or completion of a narrative arc. But we do see, or suspect, that Jenkins is not through with Jean Duport, that he will see more of her in volume 10, now that she and wealthy playboy husband are settled in postwar London; and we also get the still-surprising news that the loathsome Widmerpool has married the sexpot Pamela Flitton - so it will be interesting to see what horrors that relationship leads to and to try to figure out what exactly Flitton expects to wrest from Widmerpool - she can't possibly have fallen in love w/ him, who could?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Postwar destruction, and an homage to the master - in A Dance to the Music of Time

By the end of volume 9, The Military Philosophers, of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, we see the devastating effect of WWII on life in England, in this case through the deaths of so many people in the life of the narrator, Nick Jenkins - even more startling because there are so few people in his life, at least as recollected in this series of volumes - part of the joke is the way in which the same characters keep coming up again and again, Jenkins stumbling on them in the oddest places and the most unexpected circumstances (an old schoolboy friend turns out to be the waiter in his army mess hall, for example). Over the course of the war, many die or are presumed dead Stringham , Molly Jeavens, Farebrother? - I can't even count them or remember their names. It's part of the oddity of this novel, for better or worse, is that the characters are rarely distinctive personalities, even the narrator, with the single exception of the loathsome Widmerpool, who by the end of volume 9 seems to be engaged to the sexually voracious and destructive beauty Pamela Flitton (?) - a relationship probably doomed from the start but so strange and unlikely - the uptight, even prudish W. with the cruel seductress - that it may well work out well in the end. One of the highlights of this volume is a visit to the continent, as Jenkins helps escort a group of the leaders of various allied forces who'd been sheltered in London - it's a terrific account of the ruination of Normandy at the end of the war - boarded up farmhouses, hotels converted into military barracks piles of ammunition lining the roadways - and includes a meeting with a very gruff Rommel (he's not named, but I'm assuming that's the Field Marshall) as well as a night billeted in a seaside town that Jenkins realizes is Proust's "Balbec" - and he tries to picture the scenes from volume two of Search for Lost Time taking place in this wartime setting. A great superimposition of these two multi-volume novels - though Powell's can't really measure up to Proust, he is very aware of his debt to the master - Jenkins himself reads a bit of Proust and at one point cites and includes an entire passage from Germantes Way. It's amusing, and a bit sad, to see how well read and cultured the British officers were at the time: one's reading Browning (actually not an officer in that case), another reading Adam Bede, etc. - and today I wonder if any soldier has a book at all among the things he or she carries.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Rare consensus on book group on the issues and problems in The Woman Upstairs

Though a low-attendance book-group meeting last night we achieved a rare consensus, with all concurring that the narrator of Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs was an extremely annoying and unsympathetic personality that made it very hard to be interested in or to care for the novel itself. We went over a # of the observations I'd made in my posts on this novel - why it is that Nora wrote this narrative (for revenge, as noted in last pages of the book), the clash between an unsophisticated and needy middle-aged aspiring artist and a pair of slick Europeans already well tapped into the vein of fame and acclaim). We raised two or three main questions in the discussion. BR raised the interesting possibility that Sirena included the videos of Nora in her exhibition as a revenge against Nora for having an affair w/ her husband - which, like Nora's masturbation sequence, would have been caught on surveillance video. We pretty much decided that was unlikely, as, whatever may or may not have been going on with Nora and S's husband Sirena was certainly complicit - tolerating two hour walks home, etc. It's as if she pushed her husband on Nora - to further entrap Nora? Because that's the way it's done in her free-thinking set? Not made clear why. We discussed quite a bit why Sirena and husband (Skander?) essentially ignored Nora when they left Cambridge. I think it was a matter of out-of-sight, out-of-mind - they'd used her like a piece of tissue and now tossed her aside. She was not of their set or status. Also possible, however, that Sirena felt guilt about using the video in her exhibition. We agreed that her doing so was an incredibly brazen act; it's almost unimaginable that one would capture video of even a casual friend or acquaintance and use it in the exhibition without telling them, let alone asking. We also thought that many opportunities to make the plot better were squandered: I noted my original theory that Sirena and Skander were entirely of Nora's imagination; also we discussed why Messud didn't make more of the 3rd-graders' visit to the studio - all of us thought his was heading for something more dramatic, such as a parent complaint about exposing children to pornography, or injury from one of the "shards." But not much happened. Finally, was Sirena really such a great artist, or just a blowhard? Her work certainly doesn't sound so amazing, but let's give Messud a Mulligan on that, as it's very hard to describe artwork in a novel - she says it's well received, so let's accept that: but I think part of Messud's message is that the fame machine, both in art and academics, is a lot about politics and connections - everything Sirena does is considered great because of the gallery who represents her, etc., just as Skander (if that's his name) is considered a fount of wisdom on the Middle East while he seems to us like a blowhard. That may be the true point of this novel.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Best (classic) books I read in 2013

Continuing my list of the 10 Best Books I Read in 2013 - yesterday's post was the 5 best books I read this year by living authors and today, the 5 best classic books I read in 2013. A note, first, on "classics": I read somewhere that a well-known thinker was asked how many novels he'd read and he replied something like: All 20. That struck me as true - I am sure I could spend the rest of my lifetime reading and re-reading the 20 or so acknowledged great works and would continue to learn and appreciate with every re-reading - and I wouldn't miss all that much, either. Few contemporary works stand up to those that have withstood the "test of time," and that's as it should be - there are only a few great novels published every century, certainly not 10 or so a year. We are much more tolerant about re-seeing movies, re-watching plays and operas we have seen before, and re-reading poems (for those who read poems) than we are about re-reading novels. Something about the heft of them may inhibit re-reading - and readers often say, yes, read that one, and check it off some imaginary list. I am amazed, however, how fresh the classics seem when I come back to them - I've changed, I've forgotten, or perhaps the world in which we re-read them has changed. Here are 5 great ones that I read or re-read in 2013, alphabetical by author:

Anthills of the Savannah, by Chinua Achebe. This is one classic or near-classic that I read for the first time this year; Achebe is mostly known for Things Fall Apart, but Anthills is perhaps a better novel - a terrific account of an African political coup - feels frighteningly contemporary.

Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Friend WS has strongly encouraged me to come back to this one, and I was totally engrossed by the intelligent story and by Eliot's increbible insights and asides.

Madame Bovary, by Gustav Flaubert. Have read this novel four or five times, this time in the Lydia Davis translation, which seemed to me excellent. Probably the greatest complete portrayal of a character in world literature, and the work that completely established the tone of naturalism in fiction that is still our guidepost. 

Confessions of Zeno, by Italo Svevo. Came back to this one that I hadn't read in 40 years of so, spurred by curiosity about novels about psychoanalysis. I found it every bit as funny as I remembered, and I'd forgotten how troubling a portrait this novel is of a family web breaking apart at the seams - very dark, very sad.

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton. I came on this one pretty late in my life, and have read it now two or three times (our list of great works, when I was in college and in grad school, included very few women writers, very few American writers, and, for that matter, very few 20th-century novels). AofI is a great story and perfectly captures its time and place - nearby, but so long ago.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Best Books I read in 2013: Top 5 books by living writers

Once again it's very hard for an amateur reader such as me to name the top 10 books of the year, as I've read such a narrow selection, especially of books published in 2013 - and have plenty more on my list of books I'd like to get to. But people always ask: What are you reading? What did you like? What would you recommend? It amazes me how books that I'm so engaged in while reading sometimes slip through my mind - I'll either forget that I re-read them within the past year, or sometimes forget entirely that I've read them, or at least started to do so. I'm definitely a reader willing to put down a book at almost any point if it's not moving me or informing me or entertaining me in some way. Later, I will post on some of the books I "put down," that is, the most disappointing books, for me, in 2013 (I always start a book hoping to love it - why else, outside of a class assignment, would anyone start reading a novel or collection of stories), so when I don't finish I'm a bit saddened, and sometimes annoyed at my own bad judgment or at the publicity machine that led me down a forsaken path. But on the brighter side, I read many great books over the past year. Last year's list was almost entirely made up of classics, but for 2013 there was some fine new fiction - as well as not so new fiction by living writers. So there are, in alphabetical order, my top 5 books from 2013 by the living. Tomorrow, my top five books by the late:

Best books I read in 2013 - Living Authors

Selected Stories, by Alice Munro. A year in which Alice the Great wins her much-deserved Nobel is a great year for literature. This collection from 1996 gives us a good look at her first stories, and reading through it you can see her style develop and mature over time. We need a new Selected, or a Complete, set of stories from AM.

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. We're starting to see the first wave of fiction about the Iraq and Afghan wars, and Powers, in this debut novel, has written one of the best novels of the year.

Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth. Roth's first published book, a collection of stories from 1960, still holds up really well. The title story is of course a classic, but there are other gems in this group as well, such as Conversion of the Jews and Eli, the Fanatic. When will he follow AM and earn the Nobel he deserves?

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. Another excellent novel published in 2013 (or late 2012?), with a lively plot, many twists and turns, lots of characters including some cameos, lots of dead-on satire about Hollywood, not ordinarily the kind of book I'd go for but I was completely won over the Walter's fine storytelling.

Tenth of December, by George Saunders.  Another great work of fiction from 2013, Saunders is our most imaginative, funny, and disturbing short story writer, and this collection measures up to his best work.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Powell as a source for Pynchon?

Anthony powell's volume 9'The Military Philosophers contains some of the best writing I've ever come across describing London during the war blitz. He captures not just the British insouciance, which others have done, but the constant fear that over times withers to indifference and uninterest - during air raids sleepers simply turn so their back is to the window protection from flying glass. We see the houses with facades standing and the ghostly interiors we walls blown away. Most powerful are the scenes of air wardens at work -!others have written of this notably Eliot but none so well - in a particularly great scene his narrator nick is assigned to watch the roofnofnhisnbuilding and given a garden hoe to break up flaming debris. The nature of the raids changed toward the end w v1 missiles no longer fleets of planes . These missiles can come at all hours so the warnings scream through the night. Nick has an awesome descriptions of three missiles slowly approaching stuttering exploding and landing out of sight. Nick and another warden coolly try to determine which neighborhood while admiring the beauty of the Thames.  It's impossible not to think of Pynchon and wonder if this novel was a source and influence - including the parallel story of the beautiful young woman having affairs w many of the officers - - as if her sexual energy is a life force and death force drawing the missiles to their targets - as in gravity's rainbow.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Nonsense of an ending - ways to rewrite one short story

I've admired a lot of Stephen Millhauser's stories over the years esp w recent encouragement from friend WS finding them almost always mysterious and peculiar and therefor provocative and story in current New Yorker, Coming Soon, meets these criteria up to a point. Story is about a 42 year dol man named simply Levinson - like many Jewish male protagonists he goes by surname only - why is that? I very done this in my own writing - who has relocated from NYC to a small upstate community seemingly much like Saratoga springs where sm works. He notices to his surprise that the community is thriving and very pleasant and even edgy much like Brooklyn but without the crowds cost and pretension. He also notes that the city is growing all the time - a sign Of its prosperity - new houses remodeling new ethnic restaurants boutiques and so forth. L drives around noticing and admiring these changes , which SM lovingly conveys in detail.  But then - all goes to sleep or suffers a gap in time (echo of another upstate sleeper?) and wakes to find he's lost he doesn't recognize his own street. And then he drives away. This then is a perfect ex of a story w a wonderful premise and setup but w no ultimate point. sM doesn't seem to know what to do w this material. What would he advise one of his students? Perhaps work it further - make L an present day rip vw when he wakes? Or build this into some kind of metaphor for life's journey toward death? Or have L learn and grow thru the course of the story perhaps at outset he could be contemptuous or condescending toward those who resist change and at the end that's him or make the city grow into something horrid? Many possibilities - but I found the end just left me disappointed and flat.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Yet one more view of wartime London

The 2nd part of Anthony Powell's The Military Philosophers vol 9 of A Dance to the Music of Time reverts to the incredibly complex machinations of the military bureaucracy in London/Whitehall during World War II, as narrator Nick, now promoted to the liaison for the Belgian and Czech forces, deals various requests and demands. Nobody can really follow all the sinuous paths of this novel, on first reading anyway, and nobody's really meant to - that's the point. What Powell is really doing is presenting a view of wartime London as seen and known exclusively by a very narrow social set - the well-educated, public school young men who have by dint of class have become minor officers, removed from combat and advancing the war effort from home hq. In this section, Nick describes his living quarters during the war - an apartment in Chelsea (his nearly fogotten wife, Isobel, is off somewhere safe from the air raids with their child - amazing how little Nick thinks about her); there's a sense that everyone still living in London is either forlorn and stuck there or in a strange emotional and psychological limbo - women perhaps finding a new independence and strength that eluded them before wartime; the men putting on a brave front of sanguinity - when behind everyone is the constant fear of air attack. Powell's description of life in some of the half-bombed buildings, of the old clubs turned into military offices with the fan lights blacked out, is very vivid and convincing - I've read many other accounts of wartime London, most recently perhaps Atonement, but this one seems to me the most credible - totally absent of the heroics.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A really great section in the war sequence in A Dance to the Music of Time

The first part of book 9, The Military Philosophers, in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time may be the best single section of this very long series, so far - in this section Powell, or Nick Jenkins, his narrator, takes us through pretty much one day at a military office in London during World War II - Jenkins is assigned to a division that works with the allies, he in particular working with Polish soldiers who've escaped their occupied country and settled in London. Exactly what he is doing is irrelevant - he uses this as an occasion to give a vivid, smart, and hilarious description of the complex military bureaucracy, all of the mind games and manipulations among the various officers, jostling for rank and privilege, and just trying to get their work done. Setting has not been tremendously important in most of the sections of this series - it's been mostly about character - but in this section Powell does all he can to describe the crowded, poorly furnished offices in wartime - we sense the deprivation (no coal to heat the building) and the bristly personalities. Particularly geat moments are the description of J's boss, Colonel Finn, and the visit to the civilian bureaucrat hidden away in the upper story, in a small office under the eaves - who seems to have the authority to approve or delay or deny all purchases. Powell has a lot of fun w/ literary and cultural allusions in this section - comparing the workers in the basement with the Niebelungs (sp?) and dthe whole gothic enterprise to a Kafkaesque nightmare. Not much actually happens to move plot along in this section, though Jenkins, in one of the many oddities in this thinly populated universe, comes across a very attractive 20ish woman, a driver assigned to his division, who is the niece of Stringham (apparently sent off w/ the mobile laundry to Shanghai, and vanished) - and it's obvious she will play a role in his life (which his wife and child never seem to do - they're just pushed off to the margins of this story).

Monday, December 9, 2013

Where has the war gone? - in Dance to the Music of Time

Let's go - volume 9 - The Military Philosophers (!) - of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, and now we're well into WWII and the fighting - at least elsewhere - is pretty serious, but our narrator Nick Jenkins has himself safely ensconced in war headquarters in London - along with just about everyone he's known since boarding school, or at least over the first 8 volumes - Widmerpool, of course, as through the entire two previous volumes he's plotted to rise up to the level of Cabinet adviser, and here his is, as officious and loathsome as ever, maybe more so - the surprise is that Jenkins rises to the same heights, without really trying to do so - he was in vol 8 recommended for a job in the London offices but rejected because his French was so poor - but there's something about that English charm and good breeding - he's picked out as a favorite of the generals and finds himself an adviser to the eccentric Finn - a guy who gave up a military career to enter the business of cosmetics - as much an oxymoron as military philosophers. This volume opens with a conclave of top brass and their representatives meeting in emergency session about some obscure issue of Polish troops' crossing through Russian space - the issue itself doesn't matter, just the jabbing and feinting in the discussions, w/ Widmerpool particularly adept (and loathesome), at the end essentially chasing Nick out of the conference room, mostly to show his own superiority and his (self)importance - he's a balloon waiting to be burst, I think. Nick then goes of with old friend (of course) Peter Templar, who surprisingly turned up at the meeting, and is not particularly interested in talking to Nick - we now remember him as a brutish, wealthy guy whose wife was on teh verge of a nervous breakdown during a country weekend. Nick inquires, and learns that his wife is now seriously mentally ill and hospitalized. So the point of all this - the war goes on, off in the distance, on the margins, while these characters play out their own domestic, political, class battles far from the front - either their oblivious as a form of self-protection and inoculation, or they really are idiots, self-absorbed and petty - which I don't think is the case.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The strange view of war in Anthony Powell's The Soldier's Art

Finished volume 8 of Anthony Powell's 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time, this volume called The Soldier's Art (amazed that I could not remember volume title throughout reading it - title are not Powell's forte - and the edition I'm reading, Univ. of Chicago, does not even have the volume titles on the cover or the page headings); in any case, this volume continues the odd focus of the previous "war novels" in this series - the war hardly seems to be going on, except for occasional air raids, often single war planes, and bulletins from afar, and a few moments in which the narrator looks back on these events from a longer perspective - rather, these are all about the politics and maneuvers involving rank and status among the officers. Unsurprisingly, the loathed Widmerpool is the expert at these maneuvers, as he wangles himself into position for being assigned to the Cabinet Offices, and you can almost hear him drool as he anticipates consulting w/ the prime minister - but of course by the end of the volume he gets his come-uppance as an equally competitive officer puts him in a bad light; as the narrator, Nick, notes - extremely manipulative people like W. sometimes fail because they cannot imagine that others are manipulating as well. By the end of the volume, the story focuses on W's disappointments and the shipping out of Stringham, Nick's old school "chum" who's now a reformed alcoholic w a very low self image, along with the "mobile laundry" unit to some location in the Far East - N. keeps trying to help Stringham get out of this dreadful reassignment, even move him up out of the laundry, but S. continues to think this is the best for him and would rather be just kicked about by fate. He reads a lot of Browning, even reads some aloud to Nick - inlcuding a passage that gives this volume its title, the soldier's art being think first then act (that sounds incorrect to me); can you imagine Browning among the "things they carried" in Tim O'Brien, for ex.? No - this is a completely different view of war; one of the officers commits suicide at the end of this volume, and that event barely registers w/ Nick and others - showing again the very strange focus of the time - all these men, the officers anyway, still thinking about class, status, rank, and not thinking at all, perhaps for their own survival and sanity, about the dangers of combat or about the world coming to pieces all around them.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Writers writing about writing conferences?

Writers writing about writers attending writing conferences? Hm, you're gonna have to do a lot to win me over if that's what you're offering, and Rivka Galchen's story in current NYer does not exactly win me over though it does showcase some of her strengths, starting w/ a title that will definitely grab attention: The Late Novels of Gene Hackman. (There are none, apparently.) This kind of off-beat sensibility marks her style, and she has a good vehicle to convey the style here with a 30something writer (of sci-fi or fantasy, it seems) attending a key west conference and bringing her step-mother (more like her birth mother in that step mom raised her) as her plus-one. Characters identified only by initials - M, Q, J, et al. - for no particular reason that I can see other than to lend story a gloss of gossipy mystery as if these may be real people, like the various Count X's that turn up in Russian fiction. Step mom Q gets the best lines, as she blithely mixes with the writers and turns out to be quite a character; narrator, J, just observes wryly. In fact, wry is the mood of the day here - which is OK and can be funny and edgy but unfortunately, as far as I can see, story does not build to anything or conclude anything; this kind of story moves up to the next level if the character grow, change, or at least reveal something to one another - in this case perhaps something that mom and daughter could not discuss at home or face-to-face but that emerges when they speak to each other obliquely, through other writers. Galchen does not cash in on opportunities to satirize writers - we see little or nothing of the actual conference - and is not particularly interested in depicting the KW setting, which I think would offer lots of opportunities as well. Her writing is about voice and tone - and that's her great strength; perhaps other stories in the forthcoming collection will use that strength to more potent or poignant effect.

Friday, December 6, 2013

England under attack - in Dance to the Music of Time

The weirdness of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time volume 8 continues - as narrator Nick, his best friend Moreland, Moreland's current squeeze, another soldier (Odo Stevens?), and his date formerly Moreland's beloved - don't worry, nobody can keep these relationships straight and it really doesn't matter, the message is that they're all entwined, as the English upper class circa 1940 is made up of about 20 people all of whom went to the same school, go to the same clubs, marry and divorce one another, and so on - as these five gather over drinks and gossip about ridiculous stuff, culminating in Stephens's reading a poem he wrote about the custom of toasting the King when guests visit the officers' mess: It's actually a pretty good poem, and I think the idea is it's supposed to show the frivolity of this class, or perhaps the insouciance, compared with the great British war poets of the First World War - these soldiers are all so removed from any combat, at least at this point - but it's hovering on their horizon. Powell makes the war even more spooky and scary by keeping it at bay - one of the characters hears a possible air-raid siren during their dinner, but the conversation just moves on - at last Stevens has to catch a train that will take him back to his unit, and he departs with a fellow officer - it seems more like they're heading off to summer camp - and it's not as if they're unaware of the dangers of combat, it's just that they have to keep super-cool, distracted. When Jenkins leaves the restaurant w/Moreland and stops in at M's flat, he learns that there has in fact been another bombing and M's tenant, a nightclub performer who revives old cabaret tunes, gives an eyewitness description - they bombed his club mid-performance - turns out (unsurprisingly) that Jenkins knew the people killed by the bomb - Jenkins heads off to tell their family members and finds that their house, too, has been bombed, killing Lady Molly, an amusing character we've come to know from previous volumes. So this section of this novel ends darkly, ominously - England under attack, and not doing very much about it.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The extremely unusual pleasures of reading Dance to the Music of Time

Reading the 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell, is like no other reading experience - if I were to outline the plot for you, which I am completely unable to do, it would sound as if this novel or series of short novels, is impossible to read and comprehend - so many complex relationships among the characters, ever changing from volume to volume, that there is no way I can keep all the characters straight in my mind, much less recall who's married to who's sister and who may have run off with some ne'er to well count or jazz singer, and so forth. Can't even keep them straight from volume to volume. And it's not as if there are all that many characters - part of the fun and the humor is you know that characters from past volumes will continue to pop up in the oddest places - creating the illusion that London society through the early and mid 20th century was made up of about 30 people - in volume 8, which I'm just reading, the narrator, Nick, is having dinner in one of the mess halls on his military base when he notices a waiter - and of course we know the waiter will turn out to be one of his friends from boarding school (Stingham, I think his name is) recalled from the first volume; they meet later on the base and Stringham declines to have dinner with Nick - the difference in their ranks is too great - and recalls his gradual recovery from alcoholism and his assertion that his only goal in life, or in the service, is to be a waiter - and they rather sadly part ways. Later in the volume, a whole bunch of people from Stringer's life converge as a posh London restaurant, and there are varying degrees of discomfort as they become dimly aware of the cross-threads that connect their lives - everyone's dated, lived with, or been married to the relative of at least one of the other characters around the table, or so it seems. But as you read, the point is not to try to keep all these nuances clear or straight - it's, rather, to allow the characters to flow past you, as you dimly recall their histories and to a degree piece together the elements of this complex social web - it's life a river of life flowing past, or, to use the metaphor Powell adopted, like a dance going on around you, the reader, a stasis point in the midst of the movement. There really are only 3 main characters - the insufferable Widmerpool, the sorrowful and unlucky composer and musician Moreland (narrator's best friend), and narrator Nick Jenkins who is extremely opaque - and it's amazing how little we know about key people in his life, notably wife and child. No, it's like no other novel - not even Search for Lost Time, with which it is often compared - and the pleasures of reading it are unusual, maybe unique.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Masters of War

Only the English - write war novels that show literally not a single scene of war - no guns, no fights, no battles, no death - at least that's the take so far on Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time - now reading volume 8; read volume 7 some years ago, which was about the first conscription into WWII and now volume 8 follows, as we are with Nick, the opaque narrator, as he's in some kind of training camp in England, serving under the officious, oleaginous, and sycophantic Widmerpool, who has dogged him through the previous 7 volumes, since their days together at boarding school. The first quarter of the novel involves many fights - but all among the various generals, colonels, and other officers jousting for positions of authority in this division. Widmerpool obviously is the ultimate survivor, and as far as Powell's novel goes, he's also the life of the party - we keep rooting against him, keep knocking him down, and he keeps popping up and enduring - Nick reminds us of the episode in an early volume when a woman dumped a bowl of sugar on W.'s head, and he just went on casually, to mortified to do anything about this humiliation, knowing somehow he would triumph in the end. In this volume, he has all the memorable lines, so far - noting that so and so is one of only two people qualified to run the division. And who's the other? "Modesty prevents me from answering." A perfectly smarmy and self-contradictory statement - simply saying so is the precise opposite of modesty. W. has also learned - when a superior officer wrings him out for screwing up some of the planning maneuvers - that the perfect answer is: I don't know, but I will find out. Only in this case he overwhelms his superiors with details about all of his planning, and how nothing that went wrong was his fault, all unavoidable or someone else's screw-up - perfect Widmerpooleese. Everyone hates him, but they tolerate him because he gets things done, in his fashion. I said there is no fighting, but Powell is shrewed enough to mention the bombings of London (which have destroyed some murals that we'd come to know in an earlier volume) and the occasional raids that pass over the encampment - so war is literally on the horizon, and perhaps more frightening because of this - fear of invasion worse than dread of attack. And you wonder - why are these people so foolish, so petty, when the fate of their country is on the line? This section of the series reminds me of vol 2 of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End - another British novel, this one about the first World War, in which the battles are elsewhere and the fighting is petty and political. (This may change in vol 3 of Parade's End, and also in future volumes of Dance to the Music of Time.)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Writing other people's novels - hate to do it, but

I believe there's potentially a good novel lurking within Norman Rush's Subtle Bodies but whether that novel emerges or not in the last 100 pages I'll never know. To get a little didactic here, in a novel - something has to happen that either changes the characters in some fundamental way, challenges them, surprises them (and us), there has to be a problem to solve, a crisis to resolve - something, and not just a premise. Sometimes a movie can work reasonably well that's just about a gathering of old friends or a family gathering for a wedding or funeral - but even then there has to be some tension, something to resolve, some transformation. That's what's missing in SB - the characters - four old college friends from the late 70s - gather some 30 years later for the funeral of Douglas, their acknowledged group leader. As noted in yesterday's post, some things seem really off about this gathering - for one thing, Douglas is very wealthy and one of the characters is pretty much assigned full time to manage media expected for the funeral service - but these four are pretty much the only people to come to his Catskills estate to mourn him, so what's going on here? Only very famous people have a crowd of media at their memorial service - and everything in this novel seems to suggest that Douglas was a sophomoric isolate, not a great leader. Second, the friends act more like guys on a road trip than like mature adults reflecting on their lives - none (including the wife of the main character, Nina - and I literally felt nauseated reading Nina's phone conversations with her astrologer mother) speak in any way like normal human beings, rather - like a very smart and well educated writer forcing his gags and japes and cultural references into the mouths and minds of his characters - none sounds real but all sound like a writer hard at work. What could go right with this novel? Well, Rush builds quite a bit of suspicion from the early pages, mainly centered on the death of Douglas. His falling of the edge of a cliff in a lawnmower accident sounds highly dubious - so did someone off him? His extremely troubled son, Hume (gulp, named after the philosopher)? His widow the sultry and mysterious Iva? The hyperactive college friend Elliot who's trying to control the entire funeral process and keeping Iva to himself? I hate playing busybody and writing other people's novels, but Rush does not build on these hints. I'm not saying this should be an Agatha Christie summer-house mystery, but why include these elements unless you use them to advantage? For those charmed by the characters and their witticisms, this book will work - it's short, easy to read, focused on one place over a short span of time, keeping to the classical unities. For others, not so much.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Four roommates and a funeral

Norman Rush's novel Subtle Bodies got a lot of pre-pub chatter, in part because he spends a very long time on each of his books, has published only four (he's now about 80 by my figuring) and started late and most important each of his books has been excellent and somewhat monumental - long and complex takes on American expats in Africa, at least in his two previous novels, to be best of my memory - it's been a while. The new book is hadrly monumental - which is fine by me - I'm always looking for great short fiction and novellas in particular, as I think these work very well for discussion in book group. I'm withholding judgment on Subtle Bodies for the moment, but compared with Rush's other works and with the pre-pub buzz it does feel not just small but slight: story is about a group of five college buddies (NYU class of 78) who come together - four of them, anyway - upon a sudden apparently accidental death of their alpha leader. Old friends gathering for funeral is a familiar trope in movies and books, and it's all what the author does with the material. First 60 pages or so of Subtle Bodies set up a few intriguing premises - but I'm not sure if they will flare, ignite, or fizzle. Was the death an accident (riding mower tipping over the edge of a ravine)? What weird role does Elliot (ha!) play in this novel - the friend who's remained closest to the leader of the group and now seems to be controlling everything about the funeral ceremonies? The central character is a West Coast progressive, Ned, who apparently had not seen the dead friend from 20 years or so - this may be because he had lived for some time w/ friend's ex, though it's not clear why that should need to cause a rift. A few of the notes in this novel, so far, seem wrong to me: were these 5 guys really a revered group back in the day, or is their socio-intellectual status all in their mind(s)? Seems to me that 5 guys at NYU who read a lot of books and go to foreign movies and have a general contempt for bourgeois culture would hardly be exceptional. Also, it seems very odd to me that this well-known and very wealthy man dies and the only people who show up at his Catskills estate are the 4 roommates, whom he has barely seen for many years. An undeveloped plot element so far concerns Ned's wife, miffed that he left for the funeral with barely a word (she's angry because it was the time when they were supposed to have sex, as part of their regimen for getting pregnant), who has hopped on a plane to follow him to the scene. Potential for lots of things to go very wrong, and for a mystery to develop - and we'll see. Rush writes a really clean and muscular prose, and I hope he can bring this novel together as it moves along.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reading this book made me want to put it down - and cook!

I can't honestly say that, despite repeated assertions, Luke Barr makes the case that the gathering of several food writers in Provence in 1970 marked the turning point, much less caused the transformation, of American cooking from a Franco-centric to a more American, multicultural, casual form of cooking. He does definitely make the case that the summer gathering marked the end of Julia Child's partnership with Simone Beck, which in turn freed her from Beck's obsession with authenticity and with all things French; he also makes the case that that summer marked the end of his great aunt's (MFK Fisher's) romance with France, which she'd come to see was steeped in nostalgia and was a romance with a form of cooking that by then barely existed and was in any case doomed. No - this premise gives him the occasion to write and to market a very readable book, but he definitely overstates it. I mean - to cite a few examples - James Beard had been writing extensively about American cooking, Craig Claiborne - barely mentioned in this book because he was at work in nyc - had written a lot amount American food, esp. Southern food, we were seeing new books coming forth about Mexican food and "whole foods" (Barr does mention these - but they didn't come about because of the disillusionment w/ French food), Calvin Trillin was writing about regional food in the NYer (albeit, maybe a little later), the first Szechuan restaurants and sushi restaurants were opening all over the place, youth traveling in Europe, which was so cheap then, came back really interested in Indian food (inspired by the Beatles et al.), and so on. Thesis aside, Barr does a terrific job conveying life among the food writers in France - the incredible meals and discussions, the general convivial lifestyle of shared cooking, mutual respect, a little competition, and a lot of serious work fueled by serious drinking. He's blessed by having very rich archives of letters and diaries to work from - but turning these into effective narratives, pulling together the many narrative voices, is no easy task, and Barr does it beautifully. Perhaps the highest praise is that reading this book made me want to put it down - and go into the kitchen and cook (which in fact I did - red lentil soup [home-made but reheated, admittedly], pasta with lemon sauce, green salad, chilled white graves estate bottled - nice!). Barr's last chapter, in which he and family and friends along w/ 90-year-old grandmother return to Provence to visit the old haunts, is especially beautiful - anyone who's ever returned to childhood scenes will appreciate with the way in which some iconic details - in this case, the black-outlined shapes of each kitchen utensil on the pegboard in the Child's kitchen - remain a ghostly presence and other major elements - the entire house where some of the gatherings took place, are completely vanished.