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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

Monday, March 31, 2014

Why The Lowland is hardly a Dickensian novel

No doubt the best scenes and moments in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland occur at or near the very end: Gauri  returning, unannounced!, to the home she'd abandoned 40 years ago, and being confronted by her abandoned daughter, Bela - a great moment when Bela says to her: How dare you! At last someone stands up for themselves - everyone in the novel up to this point except for the long-gone Udayan has been essentially a doormat. Another fine moment is the account of Udayan's last days or day: his suffering after the murder of the policeman, his fear, hiding in the lowland marsh until the police find him, his very last moment of consciousness. Also, Gauri's guilt about her participation in the murder of the policeman. That said: these scenes are far, far too late to rescue this tedious and poorly written novel, I'm sorry to say. Though the final scenes have a certain poignancy - Subhash newly married and visiting some ancient field in Ireland, for example, is a fine moment - but what does it really add to this long novel? At the end, sorry for these spoilers, but this is hardly a surprise, Gauri thinks about suicide - during another one of her sudden and unannounced (and actually very selfish - she blows off a speaking engagement to do this) trip to her homeland - but she backs off; Bela, too, backs off from her bitterness and allows her daughter to maintain contact w/ Gauri. In other words, Lahiri avoids any great dramatic scenes right up to the end - the only "drama" is the capture and shooting of Udayan, right near the outset. I wish I did not have to be so negative - I have greatly admired so much of Lahiri's work - but honestly are the raves and the sales for this book based on the quality of this novel or the reputation of the author? I peeked at one review, which I rarely do, and saw the inevitable comparison with Dickens. Why? This is by no means a Dickensian novel except that it's long - and covers a large span of time. But just compare this with, I don't know, David Copperfield: are the characters vivid and sharply drawn? Do we get the sense of the life of a whole culture? Are there dramatic, even melodramatic or operatic moments? Hardly. It's a novel crammed w/ research, the seams all showing, that never rises above a simmer.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A possible reason why Lahiri has written such an flat novel

Inevitably, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland builds slowly toward its conclusion at which the 3 main characters - Subhash, Gauri, and Bela - meet for the first time since Gauri's departure, having lived apart for some 40 years. In the chapters building up to this confrontation we get some important information about Gauri's early married life as we learn that she was an accomplice helping her husband Udayan in his radical-terrorist activities, in fact helping him bring off the assassination of a policeman, which inevitably led to Udayan's arrest and killing. This is a source of the guilt that Gauri has been carrying for her entire life - although nothing can truly explain her misery, her meanness, and her abandonment of husband and daughter - much less why neither she nor daughter, Bela, have made even the slightest attempt at reconciliation. Lahiri chugs along through the chapters of the characters' lives - this book encompasses about 60 years of time in the lives of two characters, so for better or worse Lahiri cannot afford to slow down her pace and develop any scene carefully or lovingly. In fact, as noted in previous posts, she almost intentionally avoids scenes, or so it seems - one chapter I read yesterday is prototypical: There is a potential scene in which Bela comes home from one of her wanderings to find that her father has begun a relationship with a woman who, as it turns out, was one of her high-school teachers; Bela gets truly upset, leaves home for a while, eventually reconciles. But do we see this as a scene, with dialog and description? We do not. Rather, Lahiri narrates the whole episode from a distant standpoint - Bela remember, Bela thought, etc. - all this leading to the feeling that this novel is a vast summary of events but none or at least very few are realized in ways that we expect in naturalist literary fiction. Maybe Lahiri, smart as she is, is playing with us in some grander scheme, intentionally writing a "flat" novel to convey the lack of affect in her characters' lives: chilling how little love is expressed in this family, how easily they accept abandonment, and in Udayan's case how readily he participates in a murder. The only one who feel emotions, it seems at times, are U and S's parents back in Calcutta, who, on the death of their son, spend their lives in mourning and misery, tending the memorial to Udayan in the trash-filled marsh of the title.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The dog barks, the plot moves on - The Lowland

Jhumpa Lahiri nears the finish line of her novel The Lowland and takes off on a sprint through the years of the lives of her characters. Was anyone surprised to see that Gauri took off on her family while Subhash and daughter Bela were visiting his parents in Calcutta - they return home and find the grade grown up to shoulder height (unlikely), the house abandoned, and a note in Bengali to Subhash saying she took off for a teaching job in California. If I was surprised at anything it's the unlikelihood of the next 20 years - a span of time that Lahiri dispatches w/ in about 30 pages - Subhash remaining near-celibate, a eunuch-like long-suffering character, in my opinion; daughter Bela after a childhood depression which had some narrative potential but Lahiri just blows through it, becomes an environmental radical nomad, living on subsistence organic farming and more or less out of touch w/ father and completely out of touch with mother Gauri. As to Gauri, she has a successful academic career in California, has a brief Lesbian fling with a grad student advisee, and goes on w/ her life - troubled occasionally by guilt about her actions but not enough to make any attempt to reconcile or even to learn about the fate of her daughter. I found this whole section very sorrowful - three troubled lives - but I keep feeling through this novel that it's like a grand plot summary, event after event but hardly a single scene or action or moment of reflection. As noted in previous posts, there is no effort whatsoever to "show" rather than "tell" - it's a completely "told" novel - it's like an outline for a much longer novel that will never and probably could never be written. Lahiri's abundant imagination has run far ahead of her talent here - she would have been so much better off developing some of these elements as stories or as a shorter and more deeply felt and poignantly rendered novel - no one is more capable of that that she is. Toward the end, Subhash encounters by chance his old grad-school roommate and they rekindle their friendship over the next two years (in this novel that's about 2 paragraphs) and then the friend dies unexpectedly. Again, there's potential here - but it would mean so much more if Lahiri had made their friendship in graduate school more meaningful  and significant, or if they had stayed in touch throughout the course of the novel, but, no, it's just one more event that clicks off as the plot chugs relentlessly along toward its conclusion.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A violation of the first principle of fiction writing - Show don't tell - in The Lowland

The next section of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland involves a return to Calcutta and to Subhash's family - we see his mother, now quite a bit older, tending the memorial marker of her murdered son, Udayan, which sits at the edge of the lowland swamp, trashed every day with debris and other detritus. She is now widowed, and much of this section involves her recollection of the last years of her husband's life, as he gradually retreated from life in his own form of mourning for Udayan. She also feels regret for her estrangement from her surviving child, Subhash; she had told him and Gauri, now his wife, that they should never return to their homeland, and now she regrets this estrangement - she has never met her granddaughter, Bela. This whole  section is told by an omniscient narrator - a very long section telling us what the mother is thinking, without really much action at all in any way, which makes me wonder why Lahiri has strayed so far from the basic principle of all fiction writing: show don't tell. She rectifies this problem to a degree as the section moves along and Subhash and daughter, Bela, now about 12 years old?, not clear, make their first return journey to Calcutta. At least more happens in this section - as Subhash mourns his father's death, as he and Bela take several excursions into the city, as she begins to understand more about her family background. The two great unspokens in this section are: where is Gauri? and : when  will Bela learn that Subhash is her uncle and not her father? Subhash's mother at various times either intentionally or inadvertently is about to tell Bela the truth, but this  fact hovers just a little beyond the perimeter. As to Gauri, I for one was surprised to learn that she is still married to Subhash, now pursuing a doctoral degree, and I wonder why neither of them  has been substantially changed by their many years in the U.S. One should leave the other, for sure. This the section of the novel, though nicely narrated, would be stronger by far if it were giving us information we didn't have: we are not really learning much new here, just waiting for ticking bomb to go off, for Bela to learn the truth about her family, and to see what the consequences might be for  her and Subhash.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Is Lahiri's The Lowland a modern Doll's House?

Now about halfway through Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland and have not entirely changed my opinion butam beingwon over to a degree. I find the style very flat and enengaging, esp for a writer whohas built her reputation -- well deserved -- on her beautifuly crafted prose. Thisnovel feels like it's a long story that has been passed down to her -- whether it's from herown family or from other Indian immigrant families is immaterial -- and she has to just get it all down. The story covers a large swath of timea lifetime in fact and Lahiri rarely pauses to develop a moment a scene or an episode. Thenarrative feels very removed and external. That said I do find myself strangely engaged in the very sad lives of the two main characters -Subhash the hapless older brother who always tried to do the right thing and pays the price and his wife, Gauri (notice how her name contains the initials of the university setting) who marries Subhash knowing she can never love him and in fact never tries. In some ways this is a novel about a young woman wife mother discovering herself in the early days of feminism in the US, breaking from her culture, her marriage, her child, and going off - a modern Doll's House (perhaps not a tragedy, though - we'll see) but to Lahiri's credit she does not lionize Gauri -- we see her as deeply flawed and selfish -- as well as oppressed and humiliated -- and we feel sorrow and sympathy from the near-abandoned (and maybe soon to be abandoned?) Subhash. I only wish that Lahiri could have tightened this novel - perhaps as a first-person narration looking back? Or told it as a novella? I still think her work is at its best in the tighter and more demanding format of the short story.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Elliot's Reading Top 100 Books - with authors' names included!

Here is the Elliot's Reading Top 100 Books, with authors' names included. Thanks for your suggestions for filling the "100th" spot - which opened up after alert reader TG noticed that On the Road appeared twice. I mentioned some of the suggestions in previous posts; others that came in asked about Doris Lessing - I really liked her earlier, African-set novels and of course read The Golden Notebook, but don't think I want to re-read it - seems like it was best read and appreciated in its time. MMcV suggested Balzac; for me, his work is all of a piece and no single novel, at least that I've read, stands out as a worthy selection in and of itself - maybe my shortcoming - fans will remember that Bob Dylan, who I believe is the world's greatest living artist, had words of praise for "Mr. B" in his memoir (also praise for Chekhov's stories). I considered two books that I really liked many years back: Look Homeward, Angel - which in high school was my favorite novel "of all time" - makes me afraid to re-read it - and Cosmicomics - again, I don't know how well it might stand up. My selection for the 100th spot: Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter - which may lead you to read her novellas and A Member of the Wedding as well. If I could get some do-overs, I can see a few that I might trim in favor of Doctor Zhivago or Robinson Crusoe. But let's leave the list as it stands:


1.     Don Quixote. Miguel de Cervantes
2.     War and Peace. Leo Tolstoy
3.     Crime and Punishment. Fyodor Dostoyevsky
4.     Swann’s Way. Marcel Proust
5.     A Sentimental Education. Gustav Flaubert
6.     The Red and the Black. Stendahl
7.     The Magic Mountain. Thomas Mann
8.     Ulysses. James Joyce
9.     Light in August. William Faulkner
10.  A Farewell to Arms. Ernest Hemingway
11.  Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia Woolf
12.  Emma. Jane Austen
13.  Bleak House. Charles Dickens
14.  The Lady with the Little Dog and other stories. Anton Chekhov
15.  A Passage to India. E.M. Forster
16.  The Color Purple. Alice Walker
17.  Death Comes for the Archbishop. Willa Cather
18.  Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison
19.  The God of Small Things. Arundhati Roy
20.  The Leopard. Giusseppe di Lampedusa
21.  Confessions of Zeno. Italo Svevo
22.  Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. Alice Munro
23.  The Hill Bachelors. William Trevor
24.  Cathedral. Raymond Carver
25.  The Age of Innocence. Edith Wharton
26.  Things Fall Apart. Chinua Achebe
27.  Tom Jones. Henry Fielding
28.  Museums and Women . John Updike
29.  American Pastoral. Philip Roth
30.  Fathers and Sons. Ivan Turgenev
31.  The Elephant Vanishes. Haruki Murakami
32.  The Crying of Lot 49. Thomas Pynchon
33.  Middlemarch. George Eliot
34.  A Turn of the Screw and other stories. Henry James
35.  A Month in the Country. J.L. Carr
36.  The Light in the Piazza. Elizabeth Spencer
37.  The Good Soldier. Ford Maddox Ford
38.  100 Years of Solitude. Gabriel Garcia Marquez
39.  The Bell Jar. Sylvia Plath
40.  Mr. Mani. A.B. Yehoshua
41.  Snow. Orhan Pamuk
42.  Snow Falling on Cedars. David Guterson
43.  To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee
44.  Nine Stories. J.D. Salinger
45.  Lord Jim. Joseph Conrad
46.  Moby-Dick. Herman Melville
47.  The Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorne
48.  Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte
49.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain
50.  A Separate Peace. John Knowles
51.  Lord of the Flies. William Golding
52.  Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte
53.  The Tin Drum. Gunter Grass
54.  Crossing to Safety. Wallace Stegner
55.  Mrs. Bridge. Evan S. Connell
56.  Metamorphosis and other stories. Franz Kafka
57.  The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Milan Kundera
58.  The Known World. Edward Jones
59.  Germinal. Emile Zola
60.  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Alexander Solzhenitsyn
61.  The Adventures of Augie March. Saul Bellow
62.  The Origin of the Brunists. Robert Coover
63.  Pale Fire. Vladimir Nabokov
64.  A House for Mr. Biswas. V.S. Naipaul
65.  The Power and the Glory. Graham Greene
66.  Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry
67.  The Golden Gate. Vikram Seth
68.  A Fine Balance. Rohinton Mistry
69.  The Great Gatsby. F.Scott Fitzgerald
70.  On the Road. Jack Kerouac
71.  Jude the Obscure. Thomas Hardy
72.  Beloved. Toni Morrison
73.  A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Flannery O’Connor
74.  A Worn Path. Eudora Welty
75.  A Crown of Feathers and other stories. Isaac Bashevis Singer
76.  Their Eyes Were Watching God. Zora Neale Hurston
77.  A Confederacy of Dunces. John Kennedy Toole
78.  So Long, See You Tomorrow. William Maxwell
79.  The Housebreaker of Shady Hill. John Cheever
80.  The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Alan Sillitoe
81.  Suite Francaise. Irene Nemerovsky
82.  The Heart Is a Lonely Hunger. Carson McCullers
83.  Bonfire of the Vanities. Tom Wolfe
84.  All the King’s Men. Robert Penn Warren
85.  The Executioner’s Song. Norman Mailer.
86.  The Haunting of Hill House. Shirley Jackson
87.  Go Tell It on the Mountain. James Baldwin
88.  The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck
89.  The Sheltering Sky. Paul Bowles
90.  Gulliver’s Travels. Jonathan Swift
91.  1984. George Orwell
92.  Brave New World. Aldous Huxley
93.  Austerlitz. W.G. Sebald
94.  Frankenstein. Mary Shelley
95.  Ficciones. Jorge Luis Borges
96.  Atonement. Ian MacEwan
97.  11 Kinds of Loneliness. Richard Yates
98.  The Secret History. Donna Tartt
99.  Blood Meridian. Cormac McCarthy
100.                 Catch-22. Joseph Heller

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What has happened to Jhumpa Lahiri's style?

The opening section of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland is shocking - I'm pinching myself and asking can this possibly be a Lahiri novel? Or is there some imposter author using her name? What happened to the famous lapidary Lahiri style, the beautiful sentences, the perfectly balanced and timed paragraphs, the rich insights into character and conditions? The first 40 pages or so, which take place in the 1950s and 60s in Calcutta and focus on two brothers - let me for the moment just call them by their initials, S and U, as I don't recall the spelling of their names - growing up roughly middle class but curious about and envious of the lives of the privileged (they trespass on the gated country club grounds and are caught and beaten) yet aware of the dire poverty of the refugees from Pakistan living in slum conditions - they both go to college, U, the more adventuresome brother, becomes a radical and activist, while the more timid and convention S heads to the U.S. (their initials, BTW) , to Rhode Island (where Lahiri was raised) in fact, to study oceanography. OK, that's a quick summary - but the whole section reads like a plot summary! - just a series of facts and details unloaded, not even narrated in complete sentences. Just fragments. Like this. It feels like a sketch for a story, or for a screenplay. I will say that the style deepens when the narrative follows S to Rhode Island - whether because this is more familiar ground for Lahiri or because that's where the story begins to settle into place, I don't know. I wonder if she could have ditched the first 40 pages - the novel might still work. I'm withholding judgment overall until I read much further - her accomplishments as a writer have earned that much attention - but I have felt from her first books that her greatest strengths are in the short form, which requires more of a concentration and focus - and that her long fiction - i.e., The Namesake - is a little more meandering and imprecise.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The cruelty of the Guermantes and the purpose of In Search of Lost Time

Obviously, no, Proust's The Guermantes Way, volume 3 of In Search of Lost Time is not a book for all tastes but there's no doubt that for many (of us) it ranks among the greatest works of literature - it demands a close and careful reading, and rewards those who meet it on those terms. On the surface, it's about a young man enamored of an older woman, pursues her inhopes of being invited to her "salon," and on at last gaining access is disappointed and disillusioned - not much plot, in other words, probably about 80 percent of the 600-page work devoted to two "salon" scenes. But I found myself marking literally hundreds of passages as great examples of wit, insight, perception, or curious phrasing and style. Some are even read-aloud funny (as proven when I read them aloud). The wit is Proust's - not the characters'. The famous "wit of the Guermantes," which Proust alludes to many times, is really more of a biting sarcasm, quips at the expense of others. I suppose if Mme de Guermantes were a real person who truly spoke in her extended passages we'd find her witty, the "life of the party," - but I think part of Proust's point is that hers is a contextual wit. Removed from the salon, from her salon, it's mostly cutting and nasty. Lest there be any doubt, by the end of the long novel, I think Proust might have called it the "cruelty of the Guermantes" - the last scene is the one in which M. and Mme G are completely oblivious of their "good friend," Swann, who tells the that he is a dying man - they don't listen to him at all, push him away, tell him they're in a huge rush and can't speak to him, until M. realizes Mme has put on the wrong shoes and sends a servant off to get "the red shoes of the Duchess" - suddenly, for this trivia, they have plenty of time. These are horrible, nasty people - and there would be no point in reading about them except that Proust uses them to come to terms with not only his society - easy enough to skewer - but with his life. We understand, gradually, that the purpose of this novel is to remove himself from society in order to re-create and re-examine his entire life through words, through art - a massive project, but not different in kind from what each of us does every day: reliving, retelling evens in words, re-fashioning our lives into stories, anecdotes, tiny little narratives - it's how we know the world. Think of any day in your past life, think of anyone you know, even intimately, and I am sure that your "memory" of these people or events will occur to you as a series of images, which, if you recall them, you will shape into a little story. This in essence is what Proust is getting at - the very nature of consciousness.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Nominations open: Need one more title for the Elliot's Reading Top 100 Books list

Thanks all for the many responses to yesterday's post, the Elliot's Reading Top 100 Books. I added a note to yesterday's post regarding the selections: fried Ted G. noted that On the Road appears twice! My bad. But that opens a spot on the list for one more book, and nominations are open (I have one in mind but could be swayed if I've missed something). Among suggestions that have come in so far: something by Ida Fink. I don't know; I've never read her work - and maybe I will. But the list comprises only books I've read (so that I can score "100"). A.A. Milne? Maybe, though children's books opens up a whole different realm. Slaughterhouse Five? Vonnegut has never been a personal fave - may be my own short-coming. Same for DeLillo, though I've enjoyed a # of his books. Most likely nomination to date: Tristram Shandy. I did very much enjoy reading this novel a long time ago, and it was certainly ahead of its time and a forerunner of postmodernism, but my memory of the novel is so vague except for the extended gag about his race against time (and the included blank pages) that I'm a little reluctant to put it forward as my recommendation. (Although others on the list are from the distant past of my reading as well, hm.) Why no Shakespeare?, someone asked. And why not the Bible? This is a list of literary fiction only - no drama, poems, or "great books." Feel free to offer more suggestions by leaving a comment or on my Facebook page. Will update later in the week, and will also add the names of the authors, once everyone's had a chance to try identify all 100 (or 99, as the case may be). And, no, it's not Cathedral, by David Macaulay, much as I love his work, too.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Elliot's Reading Top 100 Books

Here's the list, the Elliot's Reading Top 100 Books. This list comprises literary fiction (novels, novellas, and short-story collections) only - no nonfiction, memoir, or poetry; no genre fiction (mystery, scifi, fantasy). They're all books that I've read, though some I've read only once or quite a while ago. The list is arranged, essentially, in the order that the books occurred to me - my own Search for Lost Time - with a few amendments after I hit #100. I avoided omnibus editions (e.g., story collections), though many of the short-story writers on the list have editions of collected or selected stories that are well worth reading. Nearly every writer represented has other books worth reading of course - so this list can be a map for further exploration, I hope. 

You'll note that no writer is represented by more than one book on the list, which of course leads to many choices and decisions. Can you identify all the authors? Within the next week, I'll re-post, adding the authors' names.

You'll see that the list skews toward Anglo-American-European-white-male authors - a fault of mine, perhaps, and of our world of publishing? The list also, obviously, represents my own personal taste and reading history. The selections lean heavily toward the great European naturalist tradition; had I composed a similar list 25 years ago, I would have included a lot more experimental and postmodern fiction - and to explain my shift in taste over time might be the subject of a future blog post or posts. 

How many of the 100 have you read? If you've read more than 70, we share similar interests. If you've read more than 80, we share similar taste. If you've read more than 90, we share similar experiences. If you've read all 100 - then you are me!

1.     Don Quixote
2.     War and Peace
3.     Crime and Punishment
4.     Swann’s Way
5.     A Sentimental Education
6.     The Red and the Black
7.     The Magic Mountain
8.     Ulysses
9.     Light in August
10.  A Farewell to Arms
11.  Mrs. Dalloway
12.  Emma
13.  Bleak House
14.  The Lady with the Little Dog and other stories
15.  A Passage to India
16.  The Color Purple
17.  Death Comes for the Archbishop
18.  Invisible Man
19.  The God of Small Things
20.  The Leopard
21.  Confessions of Zeno
22.  Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
23.  The Hill Bachelors
24.  Cathedral
25.  The Age of Innocence
26.  Things Fall Apart
27.  Tom Jones
28.  Museums and Women
29.  American Pastoral
30.  Fathers and Sons
31.  The Elephant Vanishes
32.  The Crying of Lot 49
33.  Middlemarch
34.  A Turn of the Screw and other stories
35.  A Month in the Country
36.  The Light in the Piazza
37.  The Good Soldier
38.  100 Years of Solitude
39.  The Bell Jar
40.  Mr. Mani
41.  Snow
42.  Snow Falling on Cedars
43.  To Kill a Mockingbird
44.  Nine Stories
45.  Lord Jim
46.  Moby-Dick
47.  The Scarlet Letter
48.  Wuthering Heights
49.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
50.  A Separate Peace
51.  Lord of the Flies
52.  Jane Eyre
53.  The Tin Drum
54.  Crossing to Safety
55.  Mrs. Bridge
56.  Metamorphosis and other stories
57.  The Unbearable Lightness of Being
58.  The Known World
59.  Germinal
60.  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
61.  The Adventures of Augie March
62.  The Origin of the Brunists
63.  Pale Fire
64.  A House for Mr. Biswas
65.  The Power and the Glory
66.  Lonesome Dove
67.  The Golden Gate
68.  A Fine Balance
69.  The Great Gatsby
70.  On the Road
71.  Jude the Obscure
72.  Beloved
73.  A Good Man Is Hard to Find
74.  A Worn Path
75.  A Crown of Feathers and other stories
76.  Their Eyes Were Watching God
77.  A Confederacy of Dunces
78.  So Long, See You Tomorrow
79.  The Housebreaker of Shady Hill
80.  The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner
81.  Suite Francaise
82.  On the Road
83.  Bonfire of the Vanities
84.  All the King’s Men
85.  The Executioner’s Song
86.  The Haunting of Hill House
87.  Go Tell It on the Mountain
88.  The Grapes of Wrath
89.  The Sheltering Sky
90.  Gulliver’s Travels
91.  1984
92.  Brave New World
93.  Austerlitz
94.  Frankenstein
95.  Ficciones
96.  Atonement
97.  11 Kinds of Loneliness
98.  The Secret History
99.  Blood Meridian
100.                 Catch-22

(Friend TG has noted that On the Road appears twice - my bad! - but that opens up a spot. Accepting nominations. I will update the list within a week or so.) 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Teaser Augustus: Deconstructing the "wit of the Guermantes"

Help me out if I'm wrong here but isn't part of the point of what Proust calls "the wit of the Guermantes" that they (in particular, Mme, or the Duchesse de, Guermantes are not especially witty at all? It may be that in their aristocratic, secular, insular, Parisian fashion the quips and bon mots of the Duchesse are so subtle to elude those reading Proust - maybe, but I doubt it. I think what Proust is doing is giveing us an example of social pressures, of the "emperor has no clothes" phenomenon - it's not that she's such a wit as that everyone feels or believes that have to accept her as a wit or else they will look stupid and boorish. If they don't "get it,"they'll laugh, anyway: No soap, radio. It's Proust's further skewering of the class and set that he, for some time, was completely taken with and taken by. To give an example: Proust spends many pages recounting one of her famous quips (in the weird fashion they have worked out, her husband begs her to tell her joke, she won't, he begins, she steps in and finishes - a well-timed act, like circus seals). In this case, someone had said that her uncle Palamede de Charlus - a curmugeon and completely wierd and self-centered man - is a "teaser" to which the Duchesse added: Yes, Teaser Augustus. Ha ha! Laughing out loud, right? I mean, obviously Proust knows this is not especially funny - just a simple, pointless pun. Yet he tells us that people talk about this quip for days. Proust himself writes many hilarious lines - I mark them throughout The Guermantes Way, and though I rarely laugh out loud while reading some of these make me come close to doing so. What's the difference between a stupid pun and a truly witticism? I'll make one up to give you an example: It would have been truly wit had people been discussing Charlus, and had someone said he's a very gruff man (true) and another said, no, I find him quite mild. And then if the Duchesse said: Yes, Oscar Mild. That's witty - because it would be subtly a dig and a revelation about Charlus: we know (and will know much more later) that he's a homosexual and a sadist - so an "Oscar Mild" quip would be a big wink to those "in the know" and would be a phrase much repeated. Proust obviously knows how to write witty dialog (not that The Guermantes Way is anything like Modern Family, say), but with the wit of Guremantes he chose, I believe, deliberately not to do so in order to make a bigger point about this culture.

Coming in tomorrow's post: the Elliot's Reading Top 100 Books

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The daughters of the Angry Young Men: Tessa Hadley's fiction

Over time, I've developed more of an appreciation for Tessa Hadley's stories, which now seem to appear quite regularly in The New Yorker. Some first they published struck me as pretty flat and bland - portraits in time of middle-aged women in middle-class England, and I felt the same stories translated into American characters and settings would not have drawn any attention. Just as Americans assume anyone with a British accent is intelligent, American readers (sometimes) any story that references council houses, "in hospital," or "reading history" in "university" for a "first" is classy. Oh, well - over time, either I've changed or Hadley has but to me her stories are now much more engaging and well crafted (they were always well written). Current New Yorker story, Under the Sign of the Moon, is about a fairly typical Hadley protagonist, a 60-year-old London of no particular great distinction or achievement, struggling with health issues and adult-daughter issues, riding train to Liverpool to visit her daughter, is "chatted up" by a man who's just a little too friendly - or too lonely. Is the guy a creep, or just a needy, nerdish oddball? Hadley keeps us thinking and guessing right up to the last line - very artfully done. Hadley is now unofficially the New Yorker go-to writer for news of contemporary Britain. That means, I guess, that William Trevor has more or less retired from writing? It's been a long time since we've seen any of his work in the New Yorker, and his last story there was very strained. He'll never be replaced - he is clearly one of the great writers of our time - but Hadley is bringing a perspective on British life that we haven't seen much of before - the lives of the daughters (and granddaughters) of the Angry Young Men of the '50s.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Coming Saturday: The Elliotsreading Top 100 Books

Have you checked out the BBC list of The Top 100 Books to Read, or whatever they call it - books that they expect everyone should read (and the believe the average person has read only 6) - I think the list is a few years old but it's recently surfaced on Facebook and many people are chiming in w/ how many they've read. I read 66 (wish I'd read the whole Bible!), or, math whiz that I am, about 2/3rds. I've seen a few people hit the 70s - and a lot of complaints and laments about the oddity of the list - the many pop culture, self-help, or otherwise ephemeral books side by side with true classics, the odd mix of genres, the weird lapses on taste - many inexplicable inclusions and inexcusable exclusions. So what's the answer? And how do you possible "score" 100 without devoting the next few years to reading books you've perhaps quite rightly ignored over the past 50 years? You make up a list of your own! Therefore, on Saturday, I will post the Elliotsreading Top 100 Books. Aside from excellence, interest, influence, and originality, there are several criteria: First, they will be books I have read so that I can score 100. Sorry. Second, all literary fiction - no nonfiction, memoir, or genre (children's, scifi, mystery, fantasy, horror). Third, only one book per author; almost every author represented, however, will have written other books worth your attention, so the list will be kind of a chart that can maybe guide you to other literary pleasures and discoveries. Stay tuned till Saturday.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A crucial passage in In Search of Lost Time

A central and crucial  passage in Proust's In Search of Lost Time comes in the middle of part 2 of The Guremantes Way when in fact Marcel, observes that recollections and memories are attached to specific sensory feelings about certain places and moments and that therefore our consciousness of time is not fluid and sequential but rather built upon certain exceptional if sometimes inexplicable moment - he calls this "the theme of this book." But what strikes me most is the scene he recounts next, which proceeds much like a dream sequence (though it is not): How are we to interpret this? Marcel's friend Saint-Loup makes a sudden and unexpected appearance, has just returned to Paris (his relation with Rachel is over) and wants to take Marcel out to dinner; they take a cab through nearly impenetrable fog, during which Saint-Loup off-handedly says he's told Marcel's other best friend, Bloch, that Marcel has no use for him - infuriating Marcel. They arrive at the restaurant and Marcel is treated rudely; realizes there are two rooms, each with a different clientele: one houses posh aristocratic young men whom Marcel realizes are closet homosexuals; the other - leftist Jews (Dreyfusards). The host won't let Marcel sit among the aristos and stashes him into the room with the Jews - leading to some really nasty observations from Marcel (from Proust?). Not hard to interpret this, is it? Marcel taken away by his friend - about whom there has been a lot of homoerotic imagery - who has taken steps to make Marcel all his own - but M. cannot face - as a person, a character, or a writer - his own homosexuality - it's all like a thick fog to him - but for others it's more clear and evident - just as he can discern that the womanizing of the aristocrats is a front, a shield. But he cannot join them. But that leaves him to face another part of who he really is - a Jew (or in Proust's case a halfie - not even touched on in this novel): consigned to dine in the "ghetto" and filled with vile observations, which are really observations about himself, his repression. For a character (or novelist) who's probed every facet of human consciousness, there's also a tremendous lack of self-knowledge, an emptiness, at the heart.