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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

Friday, February 28, 2014

Does Denis Johnson do interviews?

I've liked several Denis Johnson books I've read (Tree of Smoke an exception - he works far better in shorter, more condensed forms) and was glad to see new "story" from him in current New Yorker, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, if I can read the awful typography correctly, not a great title in any event - titls are not DJ's strength as a writer. I put story in quotes because this piece, as is so often the case in TNYer, appears to be a selection from a longer work: let's call it a piece of fiction, then, a profile of slice of life of a 60ish ad exec living in San Diego, twice divorced and now on 3rd marriage, returns to NYC to pick up some kind of advertising award, and finds himself much older than other ad execs and bit of an odd man out - in other words, this looks very much like a Don Draper 30 years down the road. The strength of the piece is Johnson's ability to create a vignette: it's a composition of short pieces, each a titled vignette, that when pieced together make, I believe, a full picture of the ad-man - it's a technique we saw in Mr and Mrs Bridge (those short vignettes were enumerated, not titled) - and it makes this piece of fiction a little frustrating because we get these very sharp snapshots but not the full portrait (that's what makes me think these must be part of a longer piece): character retreating to the men's room during the awards ceremony (a scene we've all seen in movies, btw - e.g., the recent ...in a World); a night of heavy drinking that leads to destruction of a valuable piece of art when idiotic owner tosses it drunkenly into the fireplace (reminds me of a scene in The Idiot) - art is a big theme in this piece of fiction, the ad man is something of a connoisseur as I believe Johnson may be. As a side note, Johnson is often characterized as someone who shuns the press and interviews, but that's not entirely the case - it's a defense he may have built over the years, but when he was just starting out I read his 2nd novel, Fiskadoro, and liked it - I was a books editor at the time - and easily call Johnson, who was then living on the Cape and working in his wife's art gallery (a source for this current fiction?) and we spoke for quite a while - and I hope I wasn't the one to turn him off interviews (I doubt it). He's gone on to do a lot of fine writing since that day, so - good for him. No need to do interviews - let the work speak for itself, or more accurately for the author.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

When fact is fiction - The History of the Siege of Lisbon

The proof-reader in Jose Saramago's novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon, having turned in the manuscript w/ a major mistake he willfully entered into the text - essentially violated every creed and purpose of his profession- embarks on a stroll around the city, something he apparently rarely does, and he passes many churches, monuments, neighborhoods, whose names will mean nothing to most American readers, and then at last returns home and realizes that his house straddles the line between what centuries ago had marked the protective wall around Lisbon: that is, he lives at a cross-point, both inside and outside, which is in a sense what a proof-reader is and does, reads a manuscript that's not yet a book, keeps it on the "inside," factual, if in fact it is a historical book, but this proof-reader has straddled or crossed the line by making the historical fictive - which is also what Saramago is doing. The idea of the ruins of walls and churches appearing like a pentimento from beneath the surface of a contemporary city is something that all who have visited Rome or many other European cities will instantly comprehend, but that is remote for most Americans: out past is far more recent, and far more readily obliterated. This novel is about this resurrection of the past - and about the inevitable process of transformation that occurs when the past is re-created in words: to observe is to change.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

One word can change everything: The History of the Siege of Lisbon

So the proof-reader who is "reading" the manuscript called The History of the Siege of Lisbon in Jose Saramago's novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon makes a momentous decision: he changes something in the final text, without any author consult or authority to do so. The book he's editing is about an episode - real, I believe - about 1,000 years ago, crusaders on their way to the Holy Land stop in Lisbon for final provisions, and the local Christian-Portuguese community ask them to stay and fight the Muslim "infidels" and return Lisbon to Christian control - a key historic event, as described in yesterday's post. The proof-reader, Raimundo Silva, inserts the word "not," as in, the Crusaders elected not to stay and fight in Lisbon. Well, that does change history - or at least this historical novel. And what exactly is the point? Not sure, but Saramago is very interested in the boundaries between fact and fiction, the unreliability of narration, and of course in the power of language - and we see in this incident all three: a historic narrative can be erroneous in numerous ways and for numerous causes, a fictional work based on a set of facts can transform the fact into fiction - more cause for uncertainty - and a single word, in this case "not" can subvert reality, as much as any army. In the end, I hope he's not arguing that all things are relative and we cannot know truth - but rather that we cannot know truth easily, that discovery of the truth requires investigation and perspicacity.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

How European is it?: Saramago's The History of the Siege of Lisbon

How European 20th-century novel is it? Most writers embarking on a piece of historical fiction - say, a  novel entitled The History of the Siege of Lisbon, which is about that event when, apparently, Christian forces ousted the Muslims from Lisbon and took control of the city, thereby, one might argue, changing the course of world history? (without this event, no Prince Henry the Navigator, Muslims get a solid foothold in Europe, maybe become the dominant religious bloc on the Iberian peninsula and elsewhere) - would choose a central character from whose point of view to convey the story, someone such as an invading general, or a defending soldier, or a leading politician or cleric, or even a bit player in the event who can give a unique and impartial perspective - but Jose Saramago makes his central character the proof-reader hired to read the final manuscript copy of a novel call The History of the Siege of Lisbon - so you can just imaging the post-modern and Borgesian (I know, he's not European) possibilities. Saramago's main character, Raimundo, goes over the manuscript of this critical event and finds mistakes and solecisms and anachronisms: the use of crescent flag, which had not at that time been adopted by the Muslim nations, for example, or getting lost in a correction about how a certain type of slingshot developed its name. It's a real case of telling a story by indirection, and of having fiction focus so much on its own self and mechanisms that fiction itself begins to seem like fact. I wouldn't have thought this would be a smart way to tell a story, and to be honest this novel hardly moves like the wind, but it comes w/ high praise from b-in-law J, who rarely if ever praises, or even reads, novels, and it's kind of intriguing so far - onl 30+ pages or so - not to mention Saramago's Nobel (a blessing, or a curse?), so I'll see how far he can go with this odd conceit, or maybe how far I can go.

Monday, February 24, 2014

A historical novel that rises above the genre: The Good Lord Bird

Rare near unanimity from Book Group last night (LR the lone-wolf exception) on the high quality of James McBride's novel The Good Lord Bird, with particular praise coming for his use of the comic American vernacular, his seemingly accurate evocation of an iconic but, weird, episode in American history, and his imaginative examination of boundaries and differences - racial, economic, cultural, regional. As noted in earlier post, I think his interest in these boundaries and ambiguities - the liberating army that John Brown led was not exactly a band of idealists and intellectuals, Brown himself flawed and delusional, and on the other hand the black population holding a range of views toward one another and toward white America - arises from his own lifetime questioning of his own place and stance in American culture as a mixed-race child and writer. Have to put in a word here for McBride's excellence handling of the final sequences of the novel; though I agree with dissenter LR to some extent, in the novel seemed meandering and  plotless for quite a ways, I did come to accept that the Brown insurrection itself was meandering and plotless, and that McBride used the design of the novel to convey the essence of insurrection - its darkness, uncertainty, and confusions. But then he brings it all together quite effectively and dramatically in the siege at Harper's Ferry. And how can you not like a novel with so many fantastic turns of phrase: he drove that carriage like a gnat flying up a horse's ass. His face was wrinkled as a mop. To give just a few among many examples. Not usually drawn to historical fiction, but this one rises above the usual conventions and limitations of the genre and brings a forgotten moment in history alive - and provokes a lot of thought as well as to who was right, who was wrong. Much discussion about John Brown's strategy: did he really want the white people to know that they were converging on Harper's Ferry, in order to stir up the black masses even more dramatically? My view: absolutely not, he was not intentionally leading his people into slaughter, he just was delusional about the strength of his band and about the willingness of the blacks to rise up, and a terrible strategist when it came to detail. Not all agreed w/ this interpretation -- RR arguing that Brown purposely let the word of the insurrection get out into the community.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Color of Water and The Good Lord Bird

What's really striking about James McBride's The Good Lord Bird is his refusal to see things, for lack of a better analogy, in black and white. This is a novel about the life and death of John Brown, inspired, brave, committed abolitionist who died for the cause and gained little or nothing except his martyrdom. But McBride does not make Brown heroic; we see him as stubborn, foolish, delusional, in some cases exploitative and self-centered - leaving his family of 22(!) behind, forcing some of his sons to fight his battles, liberating those who would prefer to be left alone. Similarly, there are cameos by other great black leaders, notably Frederick Douglass, who comes across as a narcissistic ass. (Harriet Tubman comes off better.) The northern abolitionists have their hearts in the right place but are seen, at least by Brown, as cowardly and uncommitted. Blacks, too: though some are brave and idealistic, many are unwilling to join the fight - not because they're cowardly but because the stakes are so high - even those who don't rise up in rebellion will be punished, slaughtered in the inevitable backlash. He does a great job showing the whole range of social pressures and views, in making all the combatants not exactly complex and full characters - but they're not saints, either. I suspect he built this novel by following pretty closely the records of Brown's marauding army and, as a result, characters get established and then wander off from the plot, never to be seen again - because that's how life was, how life is - life is not a Dickens novel in which all the strands tied together at the end. So rather than make his novel fictive or heroic, he leaves it open and ambiguous, much like life. In fact, perhaps, much like his life: McBride's first highly successful book was his memoir of growing up bi-racial, The Color of Water; it's a study of boundaries and perceptions. I think that's a theme throughout Good Lord Bird as well, that it's difficult, maybe impossible, to identify and categorize characters by race: what looks from a distance like a conflict between blacks and whites, with a group of valiant white abolitionists aligning with blacks to help their cause, is from the inside, from within the narrative voice, a much more complex racial melange - the narrator is black but living in both genders, many characters are of mixed race, a topic of much discussion - and it's mixed not only in race but in attitude toward race - the many blacks who align with their white masters or who resent the abolitionists for stirring things up and making life dangerous, and other blacks and white bravely take up the fight.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Quixotic novel: The Good Lord Bird

The "adventures" continue in James McBride's The Good Lord Bird, and I put adventures in quotes because these are a series of dramatic happenings - the John Brown contingent comes upon a gunfight between slavers and Indians and leaps into the fray; Brown's sweet but unintelligent son, Fred, gets shot to death by a gang; the narrator, Onion - a young boy, liberated slave, dressed as a young girl - nearly gets captured but is rescued - yes, these are adventurous moments but there does seem to be something awry here: the narrative doesn't cohere into a whole. McBride has taken on a real challenge, in that the John Brown he has created, and very likely the John Brown of history, is/was a bit deranged, perhaps delusional, certainly obsessed, and therefore unable to focus on a clear goal and objective, so that makes the novel itself a meandering stream rather than a straight road. That can be OK in some hands - as mentioned in yesterday's post, Don Quixote may be the best example of a novel that has no clear course but is brought together by strong central characters and a wealth of dramatic and entertaining incidents (Moby-Dick may be another example); in this case, though, the incidents are not definitive and memorable in and of themselves, at least so far. What saves the novel, however, is the strong narrative voice of Onion - showing well McBride's skills with comic vernacular.

Friday, February 21, 2014

His faith goes marching on? The Good Lord Bird

James McBride's novel The Good Lord Bird is in that tradition of an historical narrative told by an obscure spectator, a witness to events who had little, or perhaps little-known, effect on those events - Confederate Widow, Nat Turner, would be two other examples - and if I remember correctly, wasn't Nat Turner also about John Brown's futile insurrection? In any event, that's what McBride's narrative is about - the story being told by a an old man dictating his memoirs to a fellow congregant (the manuscript found 150 years later under floorboards in the church): the narrator looks back to the time he was quite young, a hermaphroditic black boy who dresses like a girl, is kept in slavery in a Kansas town, and gets liberated by one of John Brown's band and spirited off to be with the marauders as the wander through rural Kansas trying to free slaves and terrorize the slave-holding populace. Who isn't curious about John Brown and his gang - one of the strangest stories in American history, a guy so weirdly committed to an obviously just cause and so radical as to be completely ineffective. I have no idea how much research McBride did or how accurate, in outline or detail (narrator aside), the narrative might be. My first impressions, however, are that McBride has the comic vernacular down as well as any writer I can think of this side of Twain; if I had a copy in hand I'd quote a few salient lines, but there are many great turns of phrase - angry five minutes after breakfast is one that sticks - and it's the voice, or the voices, that propel the narrative further. Brown, in his telling, is much like Don Quixote, devoted to a noble cause but deranged and delusional - praying for hours on end, a tyrant to has five fighting sons. Not sure if that portrayal is accurate, quite possibly it is, but it does seem a diminution of a very brave and idealistic man. That said, though Brown seems Quixotic, the narrative does not, in first 100 pages or so, have the vitality of DQ - we don't really sense the danger that the characters may be in, and, in part because Brown is so unstable the narrative doesn't have a clear drive - they're not driven by a sense of mission, as are the obsessed characters in say Cormac McCarthy. McBride's strength isn't sense of place but voice, and that may be enough.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The rise and fall of Mavis Gallant

Thanks to Charles May for usual smart postings, this time on the death, at 91, of Mavis Gallant. She's a writer whose fame has kind of diminished over the years - she's often compared w/ her Canadian near-contemporary Alice Munro, so it's particularly striking to see Alice the Great winning a much-deserved Nobel Prize this year and Gallant passing with only a little bit of attention. If you transport yourself back to the 1980s or 90s, you'll see these two side by side as two of the darlings of The New Yorker - in fact, Gallant maybe more so than the rising star of Munro. It was a time when the short story was for a brief shining moment the pre-eminent literary form - everyone was living under the vast shadow of Raymond Carver, and it seemed every new young writer, women in particular, debuted with a story collection: Minot, Phillips, Mason - there was a sense that the novel was too long a form that readers wanted their fiction in more a more immediate form, like standup comedy compared with a comic drama, say. Gallant seemed very much a voice in this era - writing generally about expatriates settled in Europe, usually Paris - and it's odd but I can barely remember any one single story of hers with great clarity (although I do recall the famous opening scene of a woman throwing wedding invitations off the bridge and into the Seine). Why is that? Munro's stories stay in the mind more because they are jazzier, more form-breaking, more vast in scope - Gallant's were tight and well-crafted and thoughtful, but a little distant and dry. Her reputation, I think, has also been hurt by her long silence - I don't think she's written or published much over the past 20 years - and though older novels can remain in circulation to a degree yesterday's short-story collection is almost always remaindered. She probably needed one single great story or collection to mark her place, a guiding star that could lead readers to her constellation, but she doesn't have that - "just" a lifetime collection of really fine fiction that was published, in its day, by the preeminent magazine in the world. The New Yorker made her an international figure, and now, perhaps, she's being rediscovered by some as I understand the NYRB house is reissuing some of her works in their fine and daring paperback series. Salut!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Heading out for the territories: The end of Spring Torrents

So Ivan Turgenev's novella Spring Torrents really takes a big turn toward the end and makes us rethink our perceptions throughout the whole work - quite an authorial trick, and a good one. For 100 pages or so we'd been with this young Russian traveler, Sanin, as the meets the beautiful working class Italian girl, Gemma, while traveling through Frankfort and falls madly in love with her, defends her honor when she's insulted, which leads her to drop her insufferable fiance and become engaged to Sanin. He seems a total good guy, a little bit lonely, a little sad - and this seems to be a story of virtue rewarded: he recognizes what a wonderful person Gamma is, and is willing to sacrifice some of his wealth and social status to marry her and join her loving but near-destitute family. To do so, he has to sell his estate back in Russia, which leads him to a school acquaintance - hardly a friend, in fact another insufferable character, Polozov - who says his wealthy wife may want to buy the estate. And that's when everything changes: Sanin goes to see Madame P., is amazed by her beauty and her strength of character, and she seduces him - leading him to break off relation with the good and virginal Gamma and follow Mme P. to Paris. Though Turgenev tells us little about the aftermath, we does tells us it was disastrous and that Sanin regretted this mistake for the rest of his life. So there must be other stories and novels - though I can't think of any offhand - about the beautiful seductress triumphing over the innocent and virginal - and doing so just to flaunt her power, just because she can, just to be mean. Usually, though, in such stories, the guy is shown as weak-willed, a dupe, or not so innocent himself - but Turgenev goes to great length build our sympathy for Sanin, to show him to be of strong character. So what happened? Had we misread his character? Yes, I think so - for as we look back, we wonder: did we miss some clues? What kind of guy drifts into a new city and falls in love instantly and becomes engaged within a few days? He may not be weak willed but he's impetuous, and perhaps his love for Gemma was not so profound as he had thought. He's perhaps an innocent, too. The novella ends with his making contact with Gemma (today, FB would do the trick in a few minutes) - who had settled happily into a married life in NYC - and planning to sell his possessions (the estate again?) and move to America: head out for the territories - perhaps to try to ruin someone else's life. He lives a dream, not a reality.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Love sick - it appears things wil not work out well in Spring Torrents

So you just know things will not work out for Sanin, the young Russian traveler who falls instantly and madly in love with the Italian beauty, Gemma, while passing through Frankfort. They're both in rapture, but reality intervenes and Sanin realizes he needs to get some money together in order to marry Gemma (a baker's daughter) and support her - so he seizes on the idea of selling his estate back in Russia. By chance - or so it seems - he runs into an old school acquaintance who's passing through Frankfort, and the acquaintance notes that his wealthy and beautiful wife may wish to buy the estate. Sanin and the friend - another truly obsequious and narcissitic character, Turgenev is really good at sketching this, in particular because he does not overdo it - head off to see the wife - and you this will clearly not work out at all. She's a very strange person, doting over her husband in a weird sexual way - she asks him to comb her hair - and he's such a dolt, you have to wonder, as everyone does, why this wealthy beauty would marry him. I'm just at a point where she begins negotiating price with Sanin, and she takes umbrage at the idea that she may try to get a bargain price. She also makes clear that she's a peasant by birth, and she asks many pointed questions about Sanin's fiancee. So what's her game? Is she flirting with Sanin in some way? If so, why? Out of pure evil? Is she trying to rip him off in some way? That's not obvious - but what is obvious is that Sanin is making decisions way too haphazardly, he's a fool in love, and that there's something fishy about his so-called friend just finding him by chance. Of course we know that Sanin does not lead a happy life because of Turgenev's introductory chapter, in which a much older Sanin ponders is depressed and mournful - and then discovers a garnet cross, which sends him mind back to his courtship of Gemma. We don't know, yet, the significance of the cross - I'd thought all along that Gemma had given it to him but maybe not, maybe it's the faux peasant seductress, and maybe it ruins the pending happy marriage.


Monday, February 17, 2014

A minor classic: Spring Torrents

I was remembering or trying to remember reading Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (sometimes, Fathers and Children) years ago, for book group I think, and M and L asked what it was about. Uh, it's Russian, so: steppes,wolves, snow, droshkies, peasants, people with long names ... in other words, I couldn't remember a thing (keep that in mind those of you who think you have a lousy memory for books - many other readers do as well). I forgot one essential Russian novel convention, however: duels! Which I was reminded of in reading Turgenev's novella "Spring Torrents" (sometimes The Torrents of Spring), in the Everyman edition, First Love and other stories (only 2 others, as it happens). And actually, Turgenev is not the typical Russian novelist, certainly not in this novella. I read in the introductory chronology that Everyman editions so helpfully provide and T. spent a lot of time in France, corresponded with Flaubert, even wrote in French - and he does seem more European and less Slavic that his great Russian contemporaries. This novel, for example, is set in Frankfort, as the main character, a young Russian gentleman who's inherited some money which he's spending on a tour of Europe before returning and starting government service - is on his way home when fate brings him together with a family of Italian emigres in Frankfort. He - Sanin - falls in love with the beautiful daughter, who's engaged to a German shopkeeper. In the central scene the shopkeeper takes the Italian family and Sanin on a country excursion; a group of soldiers insults the beautiful daughter; the fiance in a huff leaves the restaurant w/out tipping - leaving it to Sanin to speak to the soldier - ultimately to a duel - and the upshot is that the beautiful daughter wants out of the engagement - she seems to be in love with Sanin, but breaking an engagement and marrying someone she's just met, a Russian no less, will ruin the reputation of her family. Turgenev is great at sketching in a character w/ just a few strokes - the insufferably correct and narcissistic fiance is a great example - and he has a sense, rare in Russian writers, of the nuances of status among the working classes: he understands the precarious social position of this emigre Italian family, and he's sympathetic to their plight rather than contemptuous. The story moves along rapidly and is really easy to follow and to comprehend - doesn't have the great drama of Dostoyevsky or the grand scope of Tolstoy but is a minor classic and a bridge between the dark and brooding Russian novels and the more open European style of the French naturalists, with a bit of a foretaste of the innocents abroad themes of Henry James and of the old man's retrospective on lost youth of Joseph Conrad.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The first First Love story

Always in search of a great novella, that most rare of literary species, I turned yesterday to Ivan Turgenev's First Love, which clocks in at about 70 pp in the Everyman edition (and old translation by Isaiah Berlin - isn't there a Pevear-Volkansky version available, and part of a 3-story collection) - a 19th-century masterpiece that feels a little musty today but still a powerful examination of the awakening of emotions and desires in a young man (16 years old - if written today, the main character, Vladimir, would have to be about 12 or 13 for this to make any sense - in fact, the story has been written "today" - or at least many times since 1850 - most recently perhaps by Karl Ove Knausgaard, see story in current New Yorker and recent post): Turgenev begins with a 10th-century type "frame" - see Conrad, Wells, et al. - in which some men chatting after dinner agree to each tell this story of his "first love" - the one we are reading is Vladimir's now an old bachelor, which gives special poignancy to this story. He recalls being 16, living in the family country house (basically, a Moscow suburb), his mother distant and self-centered, his father imperious, in his specific word, and Vladimir and only child, supposedly studying for university entrance but basically doing nothing. The tenant next door is a Princess who's lost all her money and is living in near poverty (which among the aristocracy means only a few threadbare servants); Vladimir catches a glimpse of the beautiful daughter, Zinaida, and falls in love - but she has a ring of suitors who hover around her, a poet, a doctor, and so on - they gather every night and flirt and play games - the young V. is welcomed in with some resistance, and treated like her "page" (she's 21). He spends the summer dreaming of her, she flirts with him - with everyone - but withholds her passion. The climax of the story will not surprise any contemporary reader: she gives herself only to V's father. When V. discovers this he is shaken of course; the mother heads back to their city house when she learns, and V. is caught in swirling emotions, love for his father, confusion about his own inadequacy - it's an Oedipal story in a way, but his real desire is, it seems, not for the princess but for his father's love and admiration. In a great concluding scene, much later, V and father go for a horseback ride - father leads them to apartment in city where Z is staying, has V wait outside holding the reins. Father does not reappear, V goes to look for him - arrives in time to see father slash Z's forearm with a riding whip. This further confuses him - this link between love and violence, his father's sadism and cruelty. Is it any wonder, then, that he ends up an old "bachelor," just like the foolish men who flirt with the young princess all summer, to no avail?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The unrelaible narrator - in At Night We Walk in Circles

Spoilers, re the last section of Daniel Alarcon's At Night We Walk in Circles, which, as expected, brings us at last to Collectors prison, where the narrator and the now-incarcerated main character, Nelson, meet at last - this the most extensively first-person narrative section of the novel, as the narrator describes his life on entry into the capital city, he beginning work as a magazine journalist, his interest in the case of a young man charged with murder in a love-triangle crime of passion, and realizing that this young man, Nelson, is the actor he'd met briefly on a visit to his home town (and who'd entrusted him, oddly, with several diary notebooks). The narrator pursues the story, interviews friends and family (his work constitutes the entire body of this novel), and finally visits N. in prison: this is a great concluding scene, the scary walk through the hallways, lined with drug addicts, the "homeless" in prison, so overcrowded that the lowest-ranking sleep outdoors or in hallways; two tough guys follow them, Nelson says: they're here to protect you. The journalist-narrator begins to ask questions, and Nelson puts up a front, suggests that maybe he in fact did kill his rival, Mindo (couldn't remember his name in yesterday's post) - but can this be true? Maybe he's just saying it to protect the thug Jaime in case he tried to exact revenge inside the prison? In any case, Nelson warns the narrator against "stealing" his life, that is, writing his story, and the narrator leaves - of course he does write the story, that is, this novel, but what has he done or changed to protect Nelson, to make him look more innocent? This question gets at the heart of the issue of unreliable narration - not just in fiction, but also in daily life. How much of what we see and what we tell is colored or distorted by our needs, desires, fears? I don't want to push this argument all the way and suggest that all narration is unreliable, that there are no truths or true accounts, but it does make us think about everyone's having an "agenda," conscious or unconscious, personal or political, and to understand what anyone's telling us you have to search "not for the meaning but for the use" - the heart of the mystery of language.

Friday, February 14, 2014

And, in the end - the complex plot of At Night We Walk in Circles comes together

There will be serious spoilers here, so if you're thinking of reading Daniel Alarcon's At Night We walk in Circles but haven't yet I'd say just go do that rather than read this post. So - at the end of section 4 and very close to the end of the novel we at last learn what happened to Nelson, why and how he's disappeared - and I admit I was surprised, but it all makes sense and brings this well-designed and moving novel to a near-conclusion. As we learn, Nelson comes back to the capital city, tries to woo his lost love Ixta, she rejects him to her great sorrow, her current boyfriend - though it's a going-nowhere relationship - and father of the child she's bearing, learns that Nelson has seen her and wanders the city trying to track Nelson down; we also see that N. is very depressed and has not contacted his mother, with whom he's close, and gives weird answers to questions, etc. The boyfriend at last tracks Nelson down at the old theater where he's been staying w/ the 2 others in the theater troupe; he threatens to kill N., but N., bravely, opens the door to him and they walk off together discussing their love and their enmity. The boyfriend is very drunk. After a scuffle in a bar-restaurant, they go out into a pretty bad neighborhood, where they're followed - and then attacked by two assassins sent by Jaime - who's been furious at N. for leaving his mother back in T -- (not sure that I completely believe Jaime would pursue his anger to that extent, but we know he;s a hothead and a thug, and life is cheap in this country, it seems) - they end up killing the boyfriend, as N escapes - but he is later caught and charged with murder and ends up in the prison, Collectors (great name!), which has been the driving force behind this novel, even to the point of the title: everything happened because of Henry's imprisonment, release, desire to take his radical play out to the provinces, to visit the hometown of his cellmate and prison boyfriend - so it completely makes sense that N. will end up there, among the disappeared, and the narrator is apparently trying to tell the story of justice derailed. I suspect part 5, which I'll read tonight, takes place in the prison - or maybe after the imprisonment?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Boy meets Girl: Karl Ove Knausgard's story in the New Yorker

The New Yorker this week brings us a piece by Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, Come Together (nice reference the Beatles song and the bumbling attempts at passion and seduction by the main character), I assume this is not a story, though it actually does have a story-like arc to it, but an excerpt from Knausgaard's six-volume, audaciously titled novel, My Struggle - which is appearing only gradually in English and has gotten good notices. This piece, too, makes me want to read the novel, or at least some of it - six volumes might be too much self-scrutiny, even for fans of Proust. In this piece, the narrator, now an adult, recalls his first forays into sex, his first "girlfriend" - and K. very effectively captures so much of the awkwardness of the age of puberty. The character, also named Karl Ove - yes, this is another first-person novel that pushes the boundaries of memoir - recalls the first yearnings, then seeing a girl from another town and feeling a shock of attraction, then getting word that she's interested in him - and then - what to do about it? He's shy about asking her out, and what does "going out" mean anyway? He picks up on how weird boys of that age felt about having their parents hear them on the phone with a a girl (this must be different today thanks to cell phones), the social pressures, not being sure how to approach - should he hold her hand? how can he begin that? - wondering what she wants and doesn't want, most of all trying to figure out what to say to each other, how to fill the time when they're together (they seem to have little in common, both are very shy) - they essentially bike around their small town, which actually sounds kind of sweet, and then engage in a very long and pointless kiss - and then, as these things happen, she suddenly doesn't want to see him anymore (perhaps freaked out by his ardent kiss, or more likely just a changeable kid - Karl Ove wasn't, on closer inspection, what she'd anticipated from a distance) and he's heart-broken, and will get over it of course. The story is somewhat binocular: on the one hand it feels very exotic, full of Norwegian words and cultural references, and on the other it's universal - could take place in any culture - which is part of the beauty of literature, it's why we read. I'm a little puzzled - and the novel will work this out I'm sure - as to the Karl Ove's character: at times he seems like a social misfit, one of the unpopular kids, but then again this lovely girl picks him out among all the guys, so perhaps there's a disjunction between his self-image and the image he projects. Music seems to be a big part of his identity, and his taste runs to British punk, whereas most of his contemporaries are very conventional - this will isolate him somewhat but will no doubt build his personality as well.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Identity theft: Theater and other forms of acting in At Night We Walk in Circles

In Daniel Alarcon's At Night We Walk in Circles, the main character, Nelson, stays on in the Andean village of T--- staying with the family of the late Rogelio and pretending, to the elderly mother who showing signs of serious senility that he is her son Rogelio come back for a visit from the U.S. - as noted yesterday, the family, including drug-dealing thug brother, Jaime, is trying to protect mother from the truth, that Rogelio died in a prison riot (and perhaps from the bitter fact the R. went to prison because he was caught on a drug run for J.). In short, Nelson is playing a role - and expects to get paid for his work and time by J. What happens: J. "borrows" nelson's ID card and heads off to his village to do some business; time passes, and Nelson realizes he will never see J again, never collect his money, but he's stuck without his idea - he would be arrested at any police checkpoint. He also learns that J. may have been busted himself, or at least gone on the run for protection. I have to nod here and recall that this situation is almost exactly like the premise of a novel dear to me, if to no one else, although in the novel, yes, Exiles, the main character is also playing a "role" but he does so with high political intentions and he's able to because of his uncanny physical resemblance to the guy who disappears. Anyway, I tip my hat to Alarcon, who handles this kind of identity-shifting complexity far better than I - we follow Nelson through a difficult three weeks till at last he shakes himself free and heads back to the capital city, taking his chances. At the end of this section (3) of the novel, we finally meet the narrator - who turns out to be a 20-something visitor in a house nearby where Nelson was staying in T-- who evidently became curious about Nelson's story and began the interviews and investigations that this novel constitutes. Obviously, something further happens to Nelson - death or disappearance - that spurs the narrator's influence and that brings all elements of this complex and abundant plot together.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Troupers - Very impressed with At Night We Walk in Circles

Really impressed by everything about Daniel Alarcon's At Night We walk in Circles, from the very vivid descriptions, the beautiful but not self-conscious writing, the intriguing plot, the many powerful scenes, and the sharply drawn characters. At this point in the novel, about half-way through, the acting troupe The Deciemberists (sp?) have done their final performance of the weird three-man play The Idiot President, in the small town of T-- where prison cellmate and lover of the head of the troupe, Henry, had been raised. As noted yesterday, Henry stumbles into a serious problem when he brings news of Rogelio's death to his elderly mother - the mother thinks he's alive in the U.S. (and I wondered if that were possible), but we soon learn that the family had been hiding the death from her for many years. When the drug-dealer thug brother learns that Henry had almost upset this whole scheme, he turns up at the performance and, afterwards, beats the crap out of Henry. Henry is frightened of course, but also remorseful - he by no means meant to upset the family. He agrees to go to the mother and apologize; in one of the many surprising scenes, the mother things the young member of the troupe, the main character, Nelson, is her son, and Nelson agrees to stay there for a week or so and "play" that "role" - as the other two troupers board an old bus and head back to the capital. This may seem like an ambling, meandering plot - as you might also think from the title - but it's actually quite tightly drawn and intense - helped by the narrative structure, in which the seldom-appearing first-person narrator is investigating something about the troupe and these events - presumably, the ultimate fate of Nelson, his death or maybe his disappearance. Some of the scenes in the small Andean villages are almost hypnotic, and the contrast with some of the other more crowded and anxious scenes - Henry's account of his life in prison, Nelson's recollection of the death of his father - makes the relief between the plot elements even sharper, more finely contrasted.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Three strands in At Night We Walk in Circles

Daniel Alarcon's At Night We Walk in Circles - the title, as we learn about half-way in, is the playwright Henry's account of his time, about a half-year, in a high-security prison, known as the Collectors, where he was brought after his bogus arrest as a terrorist, based on his provocative play with the great title The Idiot President (great title!) - the inmates would walk in circles and tell one another stories and figure things out (actually, hard to believe they would be allowed that much freedom). This fine novel has two maybe three parallel strands: one follows a young actor, Nelson, who seems to be the lead character, living in this unnamed South American capital, possibly Lima, Peru?, or maybe Santiago - joins the theater troupe, heads off for a lengthy tour of the provinces with this radical play, some 15 years after Henry's imprisonment, during which the country has changed, the autocratic dictatorship toppled - it's his first time out of the capital and he's amazed by everything, the village life, the dangerous roads, the amazing locales where they perform - an open field under stars, the floor of a slaughterhouse. (The audience interacts in strange ways - some have never seen live theater - shouting out questions - which in one performance led Henry, playing ththe President, to hold an impromptu news conference.) During this tour of the provinces, N. calls home only once, Henry had ordered the troupe (just 3 of them) not to do so, to keep the focus on the play and the environment - and during this call he learns his girlfriend is pregnant by another guy. 2nd major plot strand is Henry, who reflects on his imprisonment, how it terrified and changed him, most markedly by his prison homosexual romance with another inmate, Rogerio - who later died in a prison riot and fire. Part of the purpose of the tour for Henry is to go to R's village - which they do at last, and he meets R's mother and others who knew R- and they believe R is living safely in the U.S. This is very mysterious - are they just innocent, or unwilling to face the fact of R's death? Or is Henry misinformed or delusional in some way? The 3rd strand, not too developed over first half of novel, is the narrator who is telling this story as a record of his investigation - he has interviewed all of the principals, except Nelson, to build this report - which raises a question about Nelson, who appears to not have survived this tour (we don't know why yet) and about the narrator - who is he/she and why the interest in these events? This narration as investigation is another way in which Alarcon's novel is much like contemporary Latin American fiction (though Alarcon is an American writer working in English) - Bolano did these investigations famously in many of his works; another novel I read recently, The Sound of Things Falling, was also an investigation, or a sort - exploring the border between fiction and journalism.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Looks like a Latin American novel - but it isn't - At Night We Walk in Circles

Daniel Alarcon's At Night We Walk in Circles sure feels like a Latin American novel, so it's sort of fun and amusing to keep reminding myself that, no, it's a U.S. novel written in English - by a guy of, I'm guessing, Latin American descent and with a lot of info about the LA culture and very steeped in Latin American literary tradition and style - not the magic realism of Garcia Marques and Cortezar and, to a degree, Borges, from the 60s but the more political and engaged Latin American literature of the past 15 years - Bolano of course, but also contemporary writers - some of whom I've posted on recent, Pron, for one example: novels about the political upheavals and how they broke apart families and ruined lives, and how the countries are coming back together now in an age of prosperity, and so many young people are oblivious of the past while others are wandering, astray, like survivors in rafts bobbing on a sea. In this very good novel a young man, Nelson, studying to become an actor, is fascinated by the radical theater that went on in his unnamed (possibly Peru) country during the right-wing oppressive dictatorship; one of the radical playwrights who'd been imprisoned for his work is now making a minor comeback and leading a touring troupe into the Andean villages, and Nelson gets cast in the three-person play (The Idiot President) and goes off with the troupe - his first time ever outside of the capital city. We also learn of his difficult relationship w/ actress girlfriend, tense relationship w/ older brother who'd moved off to the U.S. w/ promise, never fulfilled, of bringing Nelson along; the troubles of his recently widowed mother - Nelson feels he cannot leave her alone, and is tormented by his decision to go off w/ the theater troupe. The playwright is also a key element in the story - recollecting his horrible years in prison, haunted by these memories and by guilt over getting out before hundreds died in a prison riot and fire. Lots of promise and lots of material in the first 100 pages of so of this novel.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Minority report: last words on The Goldfinch

OK I'm moving on, giving up on Donna Tartt's gargantuan The Goldfinch as it's been a true disappointment and has done nothing to move me, inspire me, or in fact hold my interest. I took a look yesterday at a few reviews (I rarely read them, other than cursorily, before reading a novel) and was surprised at Michiko Kakutani's rave - I usually agree with her and I know she's never swayed by publicity or hype or anticipation - so maybe there's something I've missed entirely. MK rightly notes that the eponymous goldfinch is no more than a McGuffin - for those who don't know, that's a term Hitchcock devised for a plot element, often a physical object like a suitcase, that sets the story in motion but is in and of itself not terribly important. That may be true, but for me it's not enough in that I had no interest in the meandering and to my mind poorly narrated account of this 13-year-olds life following the terrorist bombing that he survived but that killed his mother. I do wonder if the novel would have been stronger had Tartt not included the goldfinch painting at all - and also wonder whether she shoe-horned it into her story at a later stage. Probably would have been no better for me, and the goldfinch has proven to be a shrewd, iconic marketing device, so my thought is kind of absurd, but perhaps I felt too distracted by wondering about the painting he keeps schlepping around and not focused enough on what the story's really about - the "education" of a young man. As noted in my first post, many have and will compare this novel with Dickens, as especially when the narrator meets the young girl Pippa the echoes of Great Expectation are pretty loud - but again I think Tartt's style is not at all Dickensian - the characters feel flat and undistinguished, the narration is driven (slowly) by long expositions, and the status and social details are oddly generic. Enough already - I am in a small minority here and I hope many other readers will enjoy reading this novel and that Tartt will writer others.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Zadie Smith's New Yorker Story - a missed opportunity

Zadie Smith story (I think) in current New Yorker, called Moonlit Landscape with Bridge (had to look that up) is good but could be better, which I'll explain. Story is very simple straightforward and full of good but not cumbersome or overwhelming or showy detail - as is pretty typical of Z Smith's writing: a Minister of the Interior in an unnamed Third World country (possibly African?) is preparing to feel the country - his wife and children are already safely ensconced in Paris. There's been some kind of huge natural catastrophe, a storm that has plunged the nation into chaos. So leaving is really a betrayal, and of course a class issue. He says grabs a business suit - worried about the possessions he's leaving behind, which will be stolen or ransacked - and says good-bye to a maid, handing her a lot of money - we learn that they'd had an affair, if you can call such a one-sided power relationship such, while his wife was pregnant. Most of the story is his drive to the airport, through teeming, hostile crowds. They stop twice - first time he gets his suit ruined and loses a shoe; 2nd stop, a thug forces his way into the car - and that's the heart of the story: thug is subtly threatening, and, like the cabinet minister, we're never sure what he'll do. Problem is, he does pretty much nothing. Finally, they let him off, the minister is hustled through the airport, and boards a plane (the thug is outside the fence and shouts "Bon voyage.") Well if this is a piece of a longer work, a novel, as it well might be, I suppose it stands on its own OK and that the thug will play a role later on perhaps. But as a story, it seems that Smith could have and should have done more with this encounter - thug kills driver and works his way onto the plane? Trades clothes with the minister and passes as him? Makes some weird threat or reveals something important? Lots of things I can think of to re-write her "story" for her - sorry, bad habit. But still, it's a fine setting and an interesting enough character, if perhaps familiar (can't help think about Anthills of the Savannah here), but seems like a missed opportunity, too.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

What's wrong with The Goldfinch?

Let's look a little more closely as some of the problems that beset Donna Tartt's puzzling novel The Goldfinch. I went back and re-read the crucial (seemingly) section in which narrator Theo wakes up after the terrorist bombing in the Met museum and has a long colloquy with the elderly gentleman whom he'd been watching - actually, watching the attractive young woman with him - as they'd walked through the galleries. Looking back on this section, the old man goes on for literally pages of babble - some of which we learn much later refers to various people in his life - the key point though is that, first, he tells Theo to take the eponymous Goldfinch painting and, second, he hands him a ring and tells him to bring it to Hobart and (something?). Looking back on this scene from about 250 pages farther along, it's pretty clear that most of it is pure drivel - it doesn't matter a bit for the plot, and it adds nothing, no insight, no color, no mood, nothing - just words. Worse: Theo leaves the building, goes home - and then we follow him as he narrates months of his life, his sadness at school, his tenuous relationship with the wealthy family that has taken him in - and then, boom, all of a sudden, he looks up Hobart & something in the phone book -white pages no less! do they still exist? - and goes to return the ring. Is there any way that this is likely or credible? A more efficient writer would have the old man say : here, take the painting, and bring it to Hobart ... and that would be Theo's mission once he was safe. Now look readers of this blog know that I am not a philistine, I don't think everything has to be about plot, and in fact I don't even read or enjoy mystery novels. I asked for volume 3 of Search for Lost Time for xmas for god's sake. But this novel is just slowly grinding away, without moving the plot forward in any engaging manner - and without the compensating virtue of a rich, atmospheric setting, style, insights, or observations - just very generic depictions of a a certain NY social set. And when Theo meets the furniture-restorer, Hobart - H. tells his life story in pages and pages of so-called dialogue. Writing 101: show don't tell. Not here, though. So what's happened to Tartt? She can be so damn good, and some sentences still show that - though they don't at all sound like a 13-year-old boy nor like a 27-year-old man recollecting his boyhood. She's so out of touch - to give just one example - the family Theo's staying with doesn't want him to be bombarded with news about the bombing, so they keep the NY Times away from him. Are you kidding? That's where a 13-year-old will get the news? I could go on - and I will go on reading this book because somehow I do have faith that Tartt can do better and that she will pull this off, but I'm on shaky ground here.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A firecracker or a dud?: The Goldfinch

The plot is ticking along ever so slowly in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch as we spend another 25 to 50 pages or so settling narrator Decker into his new living arrangement - the 13-year-old has no close relatives, now that mom is dead in terrorist attack, and the only people he can think of who might take him in is the very wealthy family of his one-time best friend -0 they're not really close any more - so that's where he goes and feels like a fifth wheel. Meanwhile, investigators come to his school to speak w. him about the terrorist attack - clearly, they just want to get info from him to help them reconstruct the crime scene, but he fears - quite rightly, this part does make sense - that they are probing him about the theft of one of the paintings, the eponymous goldfinch that he snatched from the museum wall. Of course we realize that he should just give it back - he will not be prosecuted or anything - but a 13-year-old with no adult supervision will not figure that out necessarily. This tension is the heart of the novel - but, unfortunately, Tartt just keeps meandering around, developing scenes at needlessly great length. She seems to have lost her capacity to create vivid characters - I so clearly remember the students and their odious classics teacher from her first novel, The Secret History - but I see none of that here: the schoolboys just seem generic; the adults, caricatures. Why is this? Tartt's sympathy is always with the kids, but TSH must have been closely based on her own experiences, her own friends from college, her own observations. She's now moved on another 20 years in life and doesn't seem as in touch with what kids look, think, act, believe - she's at one or even two removes from the characters she's trying to portray. I know this seems very harsh, and I wish I could like this novel more, and several readers have told me it grows on them and gets better, deeper, and I'm interested in how Tartt ties the two strands - the catastrophic event that sets the plot in motion and the man-on-the-run theme introduced in the first pages as a teaser - so I'll definitely keep going but, let's be honest, let's look beyond the hype and expectations, and figure out if this firecracker's a dud.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Goldfinch: Second thoughts

OK 100 or so pages into Donna Tartt's 700+ blockbuster The Goldfinch leads to a few more observations some critics and reviewers have called Tartt "Dickensian" which, from what I've read so far, is ridiculous - they must think a Dickensian novel is a "long" novel - no, Dickensian means full of life and characters and quirky character details and sometimes sentimental and aligned with the sympathies of the outcast and impoverished and dependent too much at times on odd coincidence, which strangely serves to make the world seem very vast and very compact at the same time, much like London then and now. Tartt has I would say none of those qualities. But she is what I would call a maximalist - she loves to create a scene and then milk it for every detail, as we see from the 50 page account of the explosion at the Met museum in the first chapters of The Goldfinch - could this scene be told in 5 pages? Sure. Would even a lovingly careful and atmospheric writer - an Updike, say - want to do so in 20 pages. Yes. But Tartt won't go anything short of 50 - which could be OK of the wheels of the story were still turning, which they are not. The problem with this very weird scene is not that it doesn't contain rich detail but that the richness of the detail detracts from the design of the novel. What did Strunk say?: a sentence should have no unnecessary words, just as a machine has no unnecessary parts. So we go for page after page of the narrator  - reflecting back to a time when he was about 14, lives through a terrorist bombing, makes his way home, waits for his mother to return - and at last some sort of social services arrives at the door. But we knew this all along! We knew his mother died in the bombing, so why drag this out interminably? Damn, if ever a book needed a bold editor - but Tartt is a dramatic and persuasive writer, and it's hard if not impossible to mandate cuts to a writer of her earned stature - so sink or swim, and the Goldfinch is foundering here. I would also say that the narrator's behavior-reaction to the bombing seriously strains credulity unless we posit he's in serious post-traumatic shock. (Wouldn't any teenage boy get some help right away? Could the call-in # for people seeking news about missing persons possibly be so blunt and crude? Isn't there someone he could call for help - his mom has a very active work life and he has I would think friends and teachers at school - just to raise a few obvious questions.) Finally, the time scheme seems really odd, though maybe T will straighten it out - but obviously the Met bombing takes place in the near future - so the opening scene, with the narrator on the run in Amsterdam, must take place in about 2030?

Monday, February 3, 2014

First impressions of The Goldfinch

Just a very few pages into Donna Tartt's new and very long novel, The Goldfinch, but a few first impressions: comparing this with her first novel, a great novel I thought, The Secret History, I'm struck by her ability to get "the bone in the throat" right away: that one began as a confessional, with words something like "this is the only story I will ever tell." This one begins with a 27-year-old man on the run, hiding in Amsterdam, looking for reference to his "crime" in the newspapers (which he can't really read) - we have no idea who he is or what he's done, but who wouldn't want to read further? Also noting that once again (I did not read her second and largely unsuccessful novel) she is writing through a male narrator - that may not be unique, but it's pretty unusual, especially for a contemporary writer. Third, the narrator "flashes back" to a pivotal event in his life, the day his mother died - for which he bears some guilt, we're not yet sure why, but we know that she took off from work that day to accompany him, then 14 years old, to his NYC prep school from which he's just been suspended - again, we don't know exactly why, nor, yet, how his mother died and what the connection is, if any, to the crime for which he's on the run. The relationship to the mother - just the two of them, no other sibs, father out of the picture - with her oft-described beauty and independence - reminds me of Tobias Wolff and also of Richard Ford, at least in his Montana novel Wildfire (I think that was its title). Not all have weighed in favorably on The Goldfinch, but I would say that, at the least, it starts very well - smart, thoughtful, well-paced

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The moral limitations of Parade's End

The final chapter in Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End brings us a surprisingly "happy" ending - after this sometimes very grim and cynical novel - well, a happy ending for some at least: In the final scene, Mark Tietjens, who had been silent and immobile for years in protest of the British failure to pursue the Germans at the end of the World War (I) - speaks to his brother's wife-to-be, Valentine - remembers a song lyric from his childhood - what he's really trying to say to her is that he accepts her into his narrow world, into his family, despite her lack of "noble" blood and her living out of wedlock w/ brother, Christopher. Valentine herself had been pleasantly surprised earlier in the day, in the chapter, when Christopher Tietjens's nasty estranged wife shows up and, out of character or at least unexpectedly, defends Valentine against an onslaught of visitors - there had been sense that even the presence of the ex could harm Valentine's pregnancy. Ok, they all accept her, well and good - but what are they protecting her from, exactly? Mostly, those pernicious Americans (and Jews) who are buying up all the old British furniture, renting the estate (Groby), have no sense of history or decorum, cut down the 300-year old giant cedar (and in the process damage the estate mansion), and so on - so to me what FMF may wish to seem like a rallying of the British in support of old values of land, status, culture, is also a very narrow-minded and xenophobic attack and anything and anyone different - the idea that Americans (and Jews - FMF makes quite a point of this) could acquire wealth and stature through their own accomplishments seems abhorrent, world-shaking to them. This is a theme that Henry James had developed and examined in many novels - in James, the general thought being that Americans could accumulate great wealthy but still felt innocuous in the face of European royalty, no matter how debased - the American search for legitimacy through alliance with European (not always English) nobility, at great cost. Parade's End is a fantastic, detailed, unusual examination of an entire culture through a tumultuous and critical period in British history - yet it also is full of class prejudice, racial prejudice, ethnic prejudice - all of which I'd like to believe is there only because FMF is accurately conveying the sensibilities and biases of his characters, but I'm not completely convinced of that, I worry that some of these prejudicial opinions may be his own - or he may not have even realized the moral limitations of his consciousness.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

WhyTietjens wants war - Parade's End

So what does it mean that Mark Tietjens, in Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End (volume 4, Last Post), vows to remain mute and immobile for the rest of his life in protest over the sudden and to him surprising decision that the British and allies will not pursue German troops across France and rout them in their "homeland"? T had been involved in transport - he never was in the service - and was preparing to transport British troops to the continent to continue the warfare, but learned on Armistice Day that it was all over. I posted yesterday on part of the significance - Armistice Day as the turning point in his life and in the life of the main figure of the series, his brother, Christopher - Mark's sense or belief that class structure in England, and therefore all values he holds dear, has disintegrated as a result of the shared combat of the war. But why would he want to continue the war? (The title of this volume, Last Post, is a reference to the bugle call that we call Taps - and T cannot bear to hear it played outside his windows on Armistice Day - he wants the bloody war to continue.) Is he bloodthirsty, vengeful, or realistic? Of course he never fought, so in this narcissistic way he cannot imagine the feelings of soldiers who welcome the peace. He's a direct contrast also to his brother's pacifist "mistress," Valentine. But then there's the possibility that: maybe he was right. Pursuing the German troops would have more serious damaged and subjugated the country and maybe would have prevented the rise of Hitler and a second world war (which of course was still in the future when FMF was writing). Maybe the allies made a terrible blunder in allowing the safe retreat of the Germans. I would, however, have expected that most of the British landed gentry and nobility would have favored ending the war as soon as possible - for the most part they would have no great stakes in European politics and in fact, like T., would have had alliances with many of the "upper classes" in other European countries - more in common with a German count than with an English gardener, for example. But Tietjens's urge for vengeance seems to be a cynical self-validation - he's like a guy playing video game, tough guy wanting to wipe out everything and everyone at no risk to his own safety or comfort. His desire for vengeance is not I think a matter of his patriotism or his analysis of global politics but rises from the same self-centered and bigoted world view that enables him to dismiss others who are not in his social class, to live off his inherited land, and to believe that this is the way the world should be - so his withdrawal from the world that does not meet his needs (I'm gonna take my ball and go home!), his narrowing of interest to center on nothing but horse races, is representative of the diminution of his class, his type.