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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

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Oblomov

Goncharov's Oblomov the ultimate anti hero. The first 60 pp or so of the novel find him ensconced in his room and declining numerous invitations to go out. He has 2 friends and 2 problems first is that he has to move out of his apt within a few days and tho it's a slovenly place he's clearly not someone who takes easily to change or to work. 2nd prob is the debt he's incurred on the estate he owns - a hired manager runs it can't imagine O doing any such work. One friend tries to persuade him he's being cheated by the manager - of course blame everything on those less powerful. Other friend a nonentity who goes along w every suggestion. We can clearly see the conflict of forces developing: O obsessed w the elements of his own creature comfort and completely oblivious to the well being of those around him including the peasants whose labor he lives off. will he grow and change? Does he represent the new Russia or the rot of the old?

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

An anti-Tostoyan character: Oblamov

Last night started reading Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov, one of the lesser-known classic Russian 19th-century novels; first impression is that it's very much the anti-Dostoyevsky and anti-Tolstoy - I think little in time before them and possibly something against which they reacted? His title character is lazy, passive, and unengaged, spends most of his day lounging about, "earns" his living by running a small estate that no doubt he's inherited, and running it badly, living in genteel squalor (an ample apartment in a large building; three rooms but only one in use; dust covering everything and bits of food and dirty plates lying around, friends who visit are afraid to sit down for fear of ruining their clothes - in other words, like many college dorm rooms or like the first apartments of many guys), running up debts and taxes, and taking out his frustrations on his elderly, hapless servant (D. characters do this as well). Direct contrast to the social and intellectually engaged characters of Tolstoy and to the dramatically oppositional characters of Dostoyevsky. He is not by any means an "underground man" - he's pathetically conventional - nor a disaffected outsider like Raskolnikov or the characters in Devils; he doesn't appear to have a thought in his head except for himself and his comfort. An intriguing start to the novel, at least as the sketch of an affectless protagonist (like a Russian Man Without Qualities) - but will he change, evolve, or face any sort of crisis over the course of the novel? One would think so - I'm only about 30 pp into a 400-page novel; the extent to which he does so will mark its success.

Monday, April 28, 2014

What am I missing in Malamud's short fiction?

After trying unsuccessfully for two days to get engaged w/ much-touted new novel in English about Africa, I regressed and went back to reading Bermard Malamud, if just for an evening - read the first story in his Rembrandt's Hat, called The Silver Crown. OK, maybe I have a blind spot, but some of my most-perspicacious reader-friends hold Malamud up as among the best short-story writers of his generation and I just don't see it. I think he had an excellent talent for creating a certain kind of character - an annoying, obsessed, down-at-the-heels, needy antagonist (set generally against a more conventional, more successful, but somewhat self-effacing and insecure protagonist) - he's in the tradition of Gogol and Kafka (and I guess IB Singer as well) - but I don't see how his work advances theirs: let's take one example, one of his best-known stories, The Jewbird: a bird flies through a window of a NY tenement and takes up residence, and starts talkin, and ID's itself as jewbird - and guess what it enjoys herring etc. - eventually the bird is tossed out and its final squawk is to blame the "ant-semetes" (sic). So Malamud excels at putting a bit of surrealism or symbolism or maybe even allegory in the midst of an ordinary bourgeois household - he's a disrupter and a destroyer. But compare with Kafka or Gogol: can the jewbird compare at all with a boy turning into a cockroach, to a nose jumping off a face and taking on an independent life of its own? His imagination isn't as capacious, and, moreover, he doesn't develop the conjunction of real and surreal into anything deeply disturbing, shocking, or profound. His stories just "happen" - as in The Silver Crown, in which a man worried about his dying father contacts an elderly rabbi who offer to sell a silver crown for about $900 that will supposedly cure the father; the rabbi is a fine character, sketched in expertly with wonderful slovenly - house, clothing, etc. - but beyond that what's the point of the story? We know it's a scam, but that it will alleviate some guilt - buying the fake crown makes him feel better but does nothing for his father. It's a perfectly good story - but not a great story, which would entail some kind of surprise, twist, development, wonder (e.g., Singer's Crown of Feathers, to cite a similar story). There is absolutely nothing wrong with Malamud's short fiction, every story of his I've read is well-crafted and worth reading, but in my view it is nowhere near as rich and beautiful as that of his near contemporaries Updike or Cheever, not as broad in social scope nor as comic as Roth or Bellow. Perhaps it's that he has no single unified sense of place in his short fiction (unlike the others I've mentioned), and no particular defining characteristic of style that helps us see the stories as part of a greater whole, as we do in particular with Updike. Please, fans of Malamud, am I missing something? Is there a story I should read that will stand up as among the giants of the century? Which one?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Looking back on Malamud: Why his reputation lags behind his contemporaries

I'm willing to admit that there's something I don't yet see in Bernard Malamud's stories - I've liked several, particularly Last Mohican, on which I posted recently - but in general have found them to be like second-order Singer or Gogol stories, mixing the sacred and profane but not in ways that really astonish or move me - but at least 3 friends whom I know to be excellent and discriminating readers speak very highly of his stories, so I will definitely read more. That said, my response to a FB post by PT has led to some discussion as to Malamud's place in the literary pantheon. I'm not totally partial to discussions about who's great, who's greater, and so forth, but I think it's fair to say that Malamud, though his reputation may be rising, is not generally considered on the same level of stature as his near contemporaries among Jewish-American writers, Bellow and Roth. Why is that? I'll posit a few reasons: in Malamud's work, for better or worse, there is no single place, location, or setting that he has claimed and defined as his own, like Roth's Newark (Weequaic) or Bellow's Chicago (we could add Cheever's Wapshot and Updike's Brewer to the mix, too). Similarly, Malamud did not create single defining character that would serve as his alter ago across a span of novels, nor a single character who seems to live beyond the page: no Zuckerman, no Portnoy, to Rabbit Angstrom, no Augie March. In fact, he goes out of his way to make his characters into abstracts, into types: throughout The Fixer, he frequently refer to the protagonist as "the fixer"; similarly, in A New Life, the protag is often just "the instructor." I also think the span of his imagination - writing variously about baseball, about a small-town college, about a Tsarist-era Jew, etc. - makes it harder for us to consolidate his work in our reflections and imaginations - each Malamud work stands on its own, you might say, whereas each Roth novel seems to add to our cumulative knowledge of Roth's consciousness, ditto for Updike and Bellow. Malamud is far more overtly philosophical than Roth, Updike, Cheever - but less so than Bellow, to Malamud's disadvantage: Bellow's strong attachment to academic life, which actually did lead to some good fiction (same for Roth, by the way), gives his work a gravitas  (or at least the appearance of gravitas) that has bedazzled critics and prize committees; as Malamud apparently wryly noted in a diary entry: Bellow wins Nobel Prize, Malamud wins $24.45 at poker. I'm not saying here than any of these great writers embarked on careerism or let thoughts of fame guide them in selection and development of material and of their art, but I think looking back we can see how Malamud's uncertainty regarding subject and setting, products of the extreme difficulty of his life that few other writers have face at all let alone so courageously, have made it difficult to judge, much less to enshrine, Malamud's life's work.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

In Football Season as a microcosm of Updike's work - and a nod to Dylan

I've been reading a new eccentric-family-on-the-road novel that's received some glowing reviews and blurbs but it's done absolutely nothing for me, so have moved on, as promised, or predicted, in yesterday's post and took a look back at a few Updike stories; almost randomly chose from among some old paperbacks The Music School and read first and last selections therein - the last an odd, for Updike, story called The Hermit, about a young man, the under-achiever in a family of 4 brothers, he becomes a squatter in an abandoned house in some undeveloped woodlands in Eastern Pa. - a good story, but not the best example of Updike's talents, or one might say obsessions. The first story in the collection, In Football Season, is a terrific, very short story and a near-perfect example of how U can just take a moment or memory or scene from his youth and develop it into an "open" story - no real plot line, but just a meditation and a commemoration, much like a poem (or like a passage from Proust, yet more directly emotive). Part of the "joke" of the is that it's not about football at all - Updike recalls walking home from a football game (not necessarily on one particular night but, again, using the Proustian sense of time and a verb tense rare in French and not available in English: In those days we often used to ... ) with some pals, enjoying the night air, the long walk, the distance from the stadium to home (he points out that his school was the first to rent a big stadium in the nearby city, which was a financial success as it drew more football fans - imagine that today); the boys get jaunty and begin singing a familiar song, improvising very slightly racy lyrics: Oh you can't get to heaven ... Notice, then, how these lyrics bring us in touch with the two great Updike obsessions, sex (illicit) and death (looming). Sometimes, the guys would pair off with girls, walk them home, have a furtive kiss in the front porch - all this brought back to U., in mid-adulthood, by the scent of perfume and autumn leaves. After dropping off a girl, he would go to a nearby house where his father, a teacher at the high school, was sitting with two other men sorting the coins and bills collected from the concessions at the game - drinking tall glasses of beer; they offer him ginger ale, and he waits for his father to finish and they drive the 10 miles back to their rural house on the far outskirts (subject of much other U fiction): this brush with adolescent sexuality, and then the contrast with the men sorting money and drinking beer, places the young U. at a crossroads, two worlds that he has glimpses of, tastes of, but has not yet entered - and in a sense may choose between, one or the other, father's path or mother's - all the while knowing that comradeship with the boys, walking home in the dark, singing aloud, is world he will leave - has left, obviously, by the time he writes this story and looks back. His closing paragraph, regretting his lost illusions, is as poignant, maybe more, that Bob Dylan's great lyrics: Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat / I'd give it all gladly, if our lives could be like that. They cannot.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Should I read the Updike bio?

Should I read Begley's Updike biography? I don't think I should, though I imagine at some point it will end up in my hands and a morbid or sordid curiosity will get the better of me - but still, is there any author (pace Proust) who did more to bare his soul - his interior life - as well as the abundant details of his "exterior" life - than Updike? Through so many great stories, reviews, essays, and a series of novels - it's all there. If we read a biography to learn something about the life of the author, what more of interest, other than occasional prurient gossip or name drops, is there to learn about Updike? His childhood in Pennsylvania, early adulthood on the North Shore, wrestling with success and with age - he has written about this, with the thinnest veil of disguise at times, so in effect has written his own biography better than any biographer could - although it's a portrait of Updike like a Picasso is a portrait of a woman descending the stairs - all odd planes and angles, that we piece together, by reading book upon book, each with its own "slant" so to speak. Oddly, his one self-identified memoir, Self-Consciousness, is less revealing that many other books; some of the books are not ostensibly "about" him at all, except in that they are his artistic expressions - but the greatest - the Olinger and Maples stories, the Rabbit novels, the great final stories in My Father's Tears, even the poems in Mid-Point, though few or none are written in first person as narrated by a "John Updike," it's clear that they are his variants on his life. I had the pleasure of meeting him once - we were seated next to each other at a post-reading dinner - and he expressed to me that he preferred reading his poems (which he'd just done) to his fiction, said he "wasn't sure why." I am pretty sure he knew exactly why, but in any case I said something like: that's maybe because stories are something that's within you that you have to get out by expressing through art and once you do so you're done with them, whereas poems are your attempt to seize a passing moment or image or observation and preserve it and hold onto it forever. To which he said: yes, exactly! And I was really proud of that. His art is there for all of us. That's probably what I'll return to, or turn to,  to learn more about Updike.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Posthumous Shirley Jackson story won't enhance her reputation - here's why not

Assuming that the New Yorker got the pick of the litter in selecting a story from Shirley Jackson's unpublished writings, to be collected and published in book form later this year, I'd have to guess that these stories would not have been reputation-makers although they may encourage curious readers to go back and read her better works, such as scary The Haunting of Hill House. The current NYer selection, The Man in the Woods, has a few creepy elements - man walking from some unknown location, seemingly the outer reaches of a city, toward some unknown destination, through a thickly wooded area on a dirt or dusty road, no houses and no signs of habitation, is joined by a black cat - they eventually come upon a stone house just off the road, he knocks on the door, is welcomed inside by a woman oddly dressed, offered a meal, meets the head of the household, Mr. Oakes, his black cat tussles with a cat in residence - OK despite a few creepy touches - the forest growing ever closer to the house, Mr. Oakes's mysterious reference to keeping records and to vanished records, his sharpening of knives, strange cooking rituals - the story itself is not very successful. Why? To put it mildly, this piece is very heavy-handed, with its obvious allegorical elements (life is a journey from unknown to unknown...) and its fairy-tale iconography (the house in the woods ... ) but most of all because she's trying so hard to be creepy and with no particular end in sight. The conclusion of the story adds nothing to what we've already surmised: these people are out to get the narrator, obviously. A truly creepy or scary story does ooze gloom and mystery from every pore; a story like this would be much more powerful if we didn't from the first sentence know that the narrator was wandering in a mysterious land, that the house he enters for shelter isn't a place of doom. Think of Stephen King's most successful works - bringing horror into pretty typical small-city or rural settings that in and of themselves are not frightening, at first. This is a piece in which the author seems to be foundering, trying too hard for effect without any clear goal or purpose or sense of design in mind.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?: A notes on the greatest writer in world history

Shakespeare's birthday, we think. What a shame to see Justice Stevens, ret., take the bait and raise the possibility that the plays of Shakespeare were written by some other writer who for whatever reason craved anonymity - the uber Salinger, Pynchon, Ferrante of his (or her?) time. Utterly ridiculous, of course, and what's the reason for? Because for 400+ years now there still are people who believe or want to believe that great art, or great artistic talent, is the province of the ruling class only - there's no other explanation for the mania of assuming that the Earl of Oxford or some other aristo wrote Hamlet and The Tempest. Why would he (or she?) hide his talent - and in fact how could he? The explanation often floated is that it would be unseemly for a duke or earl to be slumming and writing for live theater when he should be directing his talents into more socially acceptable channels - court poetry, for example. Nonsense. Writing these plays was obviously not a sideline - it was complete artistic output of the greatest writer in the history of civilization, without question or dispute. Nobody could do this work on the side or sub rosa, and no one with such talent would want to hide it (nor be able to, most likely). It's true, however, that writing for live theater in 1600 was not a pathway to wealth and fame, most likely. I often compare it with writing for television - a great medium of popular entertainment, but few can name any who write or have written for the medium. In his day, if he wanted primarily to be a famous writer, Sh. would have most likely stayed w/ lyric poetry (and then he would have needed another way to earn his living), just as a writer thinking today about fame (and fortune) would most likely pursue fiction. But it's obvious that, thanks to the advent of great TV series drama there are more opportunities for great writing on TV - and the concomitant fortune and, for very few, fame. TV seems to me like the medium Sh. would practice were he alive today - and he would have invented the genre of the TV series - as the only format capable of holding the output of his capacious imagination. Shakespeare even anticipated cinema and would have embraced the medium for sure - see his prelude to Henry V (I think): Oh, for a muse of fire! Shakespeare's relative obscurity in his own time is further evidence not only of his genius but also of the veracity of his identity - he chose the artistic genre that, in his day, was the most flexible, creative, exciting, popular, and adaptable to his extraordinary (to put it mildly) talent - and he changed theater, literature, culture, and human consciousness forever. William Shakespeare, a commoner, of Stratford-on-Avon. Carriere ouvert aux talents.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A theme running through Malamud's short stories

Last Mohican (great title) is the first story in Bernard Malamud's little-known collection Pictures of Feibelman (sp?), in the Library of America Novels and Stories from the 1960s edition - and one of Malamud's better stories in fact. Reading almost randomly among the stories in this edition, some obvious themes emerge - Judaism, Jewish isolation, Jewish humor, and anti-Semitism top the list of course - but there's also a model or trope that Malamud seems to adopt in nearly every story from this era: the pest, the burr, the hanger-on, the intruder. Last Mohican is a great example: Feibelman arrives in Rome alone and on a tight budget, about to spend a year in Italy working on a book about the artist Giotto - though he's not an academic or a writer, just a man with a dream, a bit nerdy and nebisshy like so many Malamud characters - he's immediately beset upon by a fellow Jew (I recognized you right away as a Jew, he says, which disconcerts F.), a pest and huckster living hand to mouth, who begins to torment F., begging for favors - until eventually F. one day returns to his hotel room and finds that someone has stolen his briefcase along with the mss. of the work he's started (we have no confidence that this work is any good, but F. has devoted his heart to it, poor guy) - this leads F. on a search across Rome to find his nemesis and recover the manuscript. To me, the beauty of this is the fact that his search through Rome puts him for the first time in touch with real Romans and the real life of the city - he wants to be a writer, but he's missing the whole picture by focusing on art history and scholarship, for which he probably has no avocation. The two stories I posted on yesterday - the Jewbird and The German Refugee - also follow the model, with slight variations, of the pesty intruder; so does The Man in the Drawer, which, like Last Mohican, is about a solo traveler, this time to the Soviet Union, who's latched onto by a taxi driver who's an underground writer - he wants the traveler to bring back to the U.S. a sheaf of underground stories and have them published. It appears to be quite a tall order, and to involve some risk, but the visitor - a scholar of a very minor order - refuses, fearing for his own safety - in other words makes a selfish and cowardly moral decision (unlike Yakov in The Fixer) - although the end is a bit ambiguous, and we see, with a glimpse into one of the stories, that the Soviet writer is very good and that publication is his only hope of emerging from life "in the drawer." This type of story, the beset-upon narrator, has a long tradition, possibly originating with Bartleby; Roth, writing just a little earlier than Malamud in this case, has another classic, the story about the Jewish soldiers who take advantage of the reluctant benevolence of the Jewish sergeant - up to a point.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Malamud's stories - Do they live up to their reputation?

Bernard Malamud's story The Jewbird, one of his best-known I think, owes a huge debt to Gogol - if a nose or an overcoat can take on a life of its own and can affect and even ruin the lives of others, why not a bird who flies in through an apartment window, announces himself as a "jewbird," and takes up residence? It's kind of an amusing story but to be honest not anywhere near the level of Gogol or Kafka for that matter - it's like Kafka with a little bit of schtick - a story that I imagine must have been fun and funny to read aloud (the bird asking for some herring, for example), but I don't think it's a masterpiece by any means - in fact, it's a little heavy-handed in its too-obvious analog between the family's expulsion of the bird and the mass expulsion of Jews in Europe - just as "absurd," just as hard to fathom. Another well-known story, The German Refugee is more successful, I think, because it's tone is more suited to the material: a young student narrates, a 20-year-old probably much like Malamud at that age, hired to tutor a German refugee scholar/journalist to prepare him to teach in the fall, in English, as a visiting scholar. Malamud seems very accurate and poignant in his oblique presentation of the suffering of the German - his morbid state as he reflects on his wife left behind in Germany, on their unhappy marriage, on his anti-Semitic in-laws, and most of all on his loss of a native tongue and his fear of inadequacy, failure, and poverty. A very fine portrait of a man, of a type seemingly long gone in the U.S. but no doubt present today many communities of diaspora. Only problem in the story, in my view, is the rather melodramatic conclusion, which I won't give a way, but it seemed to me forced and heavy-handed - this story needed a more hopeful, or at least a more open, denouement.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The battle inside raging - the end of The Fixer

Though the end of Bernard Malamud's The Fixer may seem abrupt withe Yakov on his way his way to his trial escorted by Cossack troops - the procession disrupted by a hurled bomb that kills one of the soldiers but then as it approaches the courthouse Yakov sees some Jews standing and watching in silent solidarity - all you have to do is read Malamud's brief note on the sources for the fixer, which are appended in the library of America edition, to see that in fact the novel ends precisely as and where it should - in the source case the accused is acquitted in trial but Malamud was wise not to make this a courtroom drama all that would be anti climactic and would give us no new info and would make this a novel about a system rather than what it is - a novel about the moral, political, and cultural education of a man , in a sense an Everyman. The fixer Yakov bok learns that neither faith nor philosophy can come to his aid - only good and courageous people, few and far between as they may be. He also learns of the deep hypo racy and even cowardice of those in power esp in an autocracy or monarchy. One of the fine scenes at the conclusion is his imagined dialog w the tsar who claims to be a kind man working for the betterment of the Russian people but Yakov pierces through that mask of falsehood quite easily - recognizing the poverty and racism of the culture and how little the comfortable and powerful are willing to do or to risk to change anything for the better - when they could have done so w a few words and w the slightest bit of empathy or eve n curiosity about the lives of others. It's a very powerful novel harrowing at times and dark right to the end but not w the unremitting gloom of the anti-Stalinist novels now w the dark comedy of Kafka either - it's a novel of education that takes place mostly in one confined location and mostly within the consciousness of its protagonist. There are some powerful dramatic scenes but most of the novel is interior a battle of ideas raging inside one man.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Some new territory for Tom McGuane

Tom McGuane's story Hubcaps in the current New Yorker seems a bit of a departure for him - as he's been writing most recently, it seems, about men in the "new West," people mostly in Montana enjoying, if that's the right word, the new prosperity, brought about by money from LA spread about for vacation homes and spare ranches; his characters are realtors, professional, the midly affluent and slightly estranged. But this story is set in what appears to be Michigan, perhaps near Detroit, and set in what appears to be the late 1040s or early 1950s - though his reference to Maury Wills seems to throw the time scheme way off and may be an author's blunder. It's something like a boyhood-memory story, but it's not told by a man looking back but told as if we were in 1940, when kids played sandlot baseball and stole auto hubcaps. There are some great moments in this story or short fiction or whatever it's meant to be, mostly regarding the suffering of the young protagonist in the shadow of his parents' alcoholism: a sold middle-class suburban professional family in which both parents drink heavily and get by. The protag finds refuge through neighborhood baseball and friendship with a neighborhood kid who has both physical and mental disabilities - in those days obviously people were much less sensitive and informed, and there's a lot of bullying, which leads to some sorrow. The most harrowing scene, no doubt, is when protag is playing ball and his father comes by and decides the game needs and umpire, but all the kids are aware that the dad is in the tank and gradually desert the field and the game. Another powerful moment, when protag comes home to find fire trucks outside the house and mother shooing away neighbors, saying it was just a grease fire, etc. - but oddly everyone seeming to understand that there's much more going on in that household than they can discern. My only complaint about this otherwise fine story is that it's not really a story at all, just a passage; I'm not necessarily a stickler for stories coming to a definitive conclusion, and admire many of the "open" stories that define much of 20th-century fiction from Joyce onward, but this story doesn't come to any conclusion whatsoever, just stops; the best open stories leave us with a little more, with an image or an insight that may raise issues and feelings rather than resolve them. This story ends abruptly, so maybe it isn't a story after all?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Some glimpses of Malamud's world view in The Fixer

At moment of greatest despair in Bernard Malumud's The Fixer, there is maybe, just maybe, a slight glimmer of hope for the unjustly imprisoned Yakov. He's considering varying forms of suicide as he sees no hope whatsoever for a trial let alone an aquittal, when a few things happen: he gets a long letter from the mother of the boy he's accused of killing; he wonders if the letter is a put-up on the part of the prosecutor, trying to get him to confess, but he's smart enough to "deconstruct" the letter and notice that she says several times that people have been saying nasty things about her: Do some people actually realize she may not be on the square and that a man is unjustly held in prison? Then, he gets a copy of the indictment - which he notes accurately does not accuse him a ritual killing for religious purposes, a small victory there - but what's the larger meaning? Then, his ex-father-in-law Shmuel visits - having bribed a guard - it's the first Yakov knows of anyone in his family or among friends aware of his fate; the engage in a long discussion about God: Y understandably has completely turned away from a god who has abandoned him; S urges faith. Finally, his ex-wife, Raisl, turns up at the prison - so the doors to the outside world are letting in a bit of light - however her entire message is to encourage him to confess, which as Y knows will no doubt not free him, despite whatever anyone has promised, and will also unleash a storm of anti-Semitism - he won't do it. He's a great moral character in this regard - but what will become of him? At times he seems (ironically?) Christ-like; at other times he is just pitiful. If he is saved, the method of his salvation will say a lot about Malamud's world view: will he be saved by concerted action among his people, his family, the forces of justice, what? Or will her perish, one of many religious martyrs of the horrible century?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Religious themes in The Fixer

Yakov Bok, the eponymous fixer in Bernard Malamud's The Fixer, is a non-practicing Jew who's discovered the works of Spinoza - works that posit, as I understand it from Malamud's summaries in this novel, a god who is pure idea and not an active force in the universe - which seems just a step away from agnosticism or atheism. Like many Jews, Yakov finds that how he defines himself is immaterial in a world that is hostile to Jews and to Judaism - he's imprisoned on a fake charge of the ritual killing of a Russian boy, and the world at large defines him as a Jew, whatever his own thoughts and beliefs. This of course, as Malamud knew, is the theme of much Holocaust literature and memoirs. Nearing the end of this harrowing novel about Yakov's imprisonment, torment, and punishment, religious faith begins to play an explicit role in the novel. Yakov receives a copy of the New Testament; starved for any reading material, he devours the Gospels and memorizes long passages, which he recites - bringing some balm to his soul and actually bonding him a little bit to his captors. But he's left with the puzzle: if you are Christian, how can you torment an innocent man? A priest comes to visit him, but will not champion his cause. Eventually, Y gives up the New Testament. a guard throws him a soiled and torn copy of the Old Testament, which he begins to read and to memorize - but what help does the fierce OT God bring? Much talk of the suffering and punishment those who turn from God will feel - but that is of no consolation to the dying Yakov. Not sure how Malamud will work out these strands - is this an anti-religious book, or does it demonstrate the woes of those who turn from God, whichever "god" that may be? No doubt it's a historical and political novel as well; one great scene is Yakov's temporary release to go under guard to the prosecuting attorney - his elation at seeing the outside world, the fear in his heart when he's recognized on the trolley (other Jewish passengers silently disembark - more symbolism?); the prosecutor says he'll let Y off easy if he confesses that he acted on instructions from Jewish leaders. He's both moral enough and smart enough not to take this deal - knowing that they will never keep their promise to let him off and that it would foment massive anti-Semitism and riots (he doesn't articulate this thought, but it's obvious to us). All to prop up the dying regime of the Tsar (Nicholas II): enough to make anyone a Red, or at  least a White, Russian.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Comparing The Fixer with Darkness at Noon - and with 12 Years a Slave

Barnard Malamud's excellent and harrowing novel The Fixer recalls both a book and a movie - in an odd way it makes me think of Darkness at Noon, another saga of a man unjustly imprisoned and struggling through the hardships of prison life, heading toward inevitable doom. That was set in Stalinist Soviet Union and the theme was more of political oppression, whereas The Fixer, thought written a decade or so after Darkness, is set earlier - in late Czarist Russia, and the theme isn't politics directly but anti-Semitism and racial hatred (tied in with survivalist politics, of course). Also reminds me, sorrowfully, of the great recent movie 12 Years a Slave - the parallels very striking: a man sets out from his small town to the big city (in 12 Years it's for only what he thinks will be short visit, in The Fixer it's to start a new life), and is unjustly detained - in 12 Years sold into slavery, in The Fixer imprisoned on a trumped-up charge of ritualistically murdering a child. Both works focus on the vast cultural injustice and on the suffering of the protagonist. I don't know how The Fixer will end, nor how closely based on an individual case, as 12 Years is, but I find the novel so incredibly sad and frightening - maybe made even more so by the somewhat jaunty and comic first chapters as Yakov sets off for Kiev with his broken-down horse. His callous treatment of the horse is of course a foreshadowing of what will happen to him in the hands of justice; his crossing the river by ferry at night, into Kiev, is a deeply symbolic passage - into death and darkness. I think Yakov Bok's imprisonment is much worse than that in Darkness or even 12 Years, in that it involves near-complete isolation from any human contact. There are some astonishing scenes during his imprisonment, aside from the precise descriptions of the miserable and frightening prison conditions: the betrayal by a fellow-inmate who offers to help (this scene is so much like 12 Years that I wonder if Malamud had read the source material), the horrible discovery (I won't spoil it) Yakov makes when the guard "mistakenly" leaves his cell door ajar, his trek to the prison doctor, crawling on hands and knees because of his infected feet, which inevitably evokes thoughts of Jesus bearing the cross to Golgotha. All told, an incredibly powerful novel so far - a great advance for Malamud after the amusing, sometimes brilliant, but largely conventional A New Life - both in the Library of America Novels and Stories from the 1960s.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The moral center of Malamud's The Fixer

The evidence mounts against Yakov Bok, the fixer (a better term might be the handy-man or the repair man) in Bernard Malamud's The Fixer - as the eponymous fixer stands accused of a killing a Russian boy to drain his blood for Jewish ritual use. The ferociously anti-Semitic investigators take as evidence reports that some kids saw a jar of blood in Yakov's apartment (he'd bought a jar of strawberry jam), that he had been trying to bake matzoh (he bought a pound of flour and baked some bread that didn't rise), that he'd threatened the life of some kids who'd trespassed on the property he was guarding (he chased them off for throwing rocks) - but none of these explanations matter - he knows nobody's interested in listening to him, they just want to foment anti-Semitism and hatred (to distract Russians from the misery of their lives. But there's one potentially sympathetic character, one of the investigators, Bibikov, who seems at times to realize the absurdity of the charges and who actually pokes around trying to get at the truth: they bring Yakov to the home of the murdered boy's mother to look for evidence, and it's obvious to everyone that she's totally racist and unstable - her son was missing for 6 days before she reported it - and that there were many possible antagonists in her life and in her neighborhood who may well have murdered the boy. The only question is, does Bibikov have the courage and the moral tenacity to speak up for Yakov when and if he can prove Yakov's innocence? He is playing it close to the vest - hasn't really said a kind word to Yakov - and he tends to diappear from the scene before the daily investigations are completed: his behavior will, no doubt, become the moral center of the novel, the tragedy almost seems to center on him, more than on Yakov.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The literary antecedents of Malamud's The Fixer

Bernard Malamud's The Fixer, which I'm reading in the Library of America Novels and Stories from the 1960s edition, owes obvious literary debts: to Dostoyevsky, and to Kafka. It's shaping up as a story of a Jewish man, the fixer of the title, a stranger in town (Kiev), who's unjustly accused of killing a Russian boy - part of the terrible anti-Semitic hate stories of Jews killing Gentiles to drain their blood for use in making matzohs. Sounds so grotesque and horrific, but these horrible stories have circulated throughout Europe for a thousand years or more and thousands of Jews have been accused and killed as a result. This story is an early 20th-century take on the theme, which, as Malamud notes in his epigraph, has been treated before in literature, though generally without skepticism or irony - see Chaucer's Prioress's Tale, for one. The Fixer treats the theme from the point of view largely of the accused, and draws on the style of popular legal thrillers - we see the evidence mount against Yakov and watch his defenses and his personality crumble, even though we know of course he's innocent and that he doesn't have a chance in the face of the Russian courts and the vitriolic hatred of Jews fomented by those in power - keep the people hating some alien group and they'll forget about the misery of their own lives and who's responsible for that. The slow and subtle and disarming interrogation in the prison of course calls to mind Crime and Punishment - with major difference that here the interrogation is serving to obscure the truth, whereas in C&P the interrogation gradually elucidates the truth, difference between a guilty protagonist and an innocent. Also calls to mind The Trial, in that the interrogation and imprisonment and the Byzantine Russian justice system seems as hopeless and surreal as the court system that Kafka imagined - Yakov is much like Kafka's protagonist (was it K?), hopelessly enmeshed and unsure exactly what he's charged with doing, or why - although the facts of the case and the shreds of evidence that point toward his guilt slowly become apparent to Yakov, and he realizes - as in a nightmare - that he has nowhere to turn, no one to speak for him.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A great opening sequence in Malamud's The Fixer

The Fixer represented yet another new direction for Bernard Malamud, and more power to him - though I'm not generally a fan of "historical fiction," which I suppose is where you'd classify The Fixer, as it takes place in the early 20th century (in Ukraine, interestingly enough - so much in the headlines today and a scene of incredible anti-Semitic riots and pogroms for centuries, a place my grandfather left in the late 19th century), but I admire writers who stretch their talent and take on new challenges. Malamud definitely did that - having finished A New Life, a fairly conventional novel of academic politics and domestic distress - he embarked on a new (for him) path, with great success - The Fixer is widely considered as his best novel. And yet: there are obvious Malamudisms throughout, at least the first section - hilarious dialogue about the profound and the mundane, a frustrated, feckless protagonist who sets off to find his fortune or at the least to avoid his fate, a world of Judaism within a much wider cultural context that portends danger. Most of all, the terrific opening sequence in which the protagonist, Yakov, heads from his shtetl toward Kiev, carried on a broken down wagon by a broken down old horse, is very much reminiscent of the great section in A New Life when the protagonist, Levin, drives his newly purchased used car to the Pacific Coast: fraught with peril and breakdowns, punctuated by strange encounters, a journey that seems impossible, like one of those anxiety dreams of obstacles that keep us from a goal, and then, miraculously, arrival. In The Fixer, Yakov awakens from a sleep or reverie and suddenly Kiev looms before him - his "new life," but from what we've seen of Yakov to date, we know his life will be full of frustration and disappointment - humor, too, we hope. On the margin of his life: his wife, Raisle, who has abandoned him and run off with another man; his father-in-law, whom he's quarreled with and left behind in the shtetl, the anti-Semitic forces who are apparently investigating the stabbing death of a young man and of course blaming the Jews, and maybe even old nag, which may turn out to be his Rocinante.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

From schlemiel to schmuck - Levin's evolution in Malamud's A New Life

At the end of Bernard Malamud's A New Life (spoilers here - thought I'm guessing if you're reading this you've already read the novel?) the protagonist, who has evolved from a hapless fledgling academic into a self-confident man of the (small) world, gets the girl - Sy Levin and Pauline head off for Nevada where she will get her divorce and they will live ... ever after. Though perhaps not happily - the final very odd chapter is mostly made up of a long diatribe in which Pauline's husband and Sy's colleague, Gerald Gilley, tells him everything that's wrong about Pauline and everything that can go wrong once they're married. Obviously he has his own motives - sorrow at her loss, humiliation and jealousy regarding Levin - but it's also clear that he's not making this up out of thin air, so to speak. Pauline may turn out to be no prize - she and Levin attracted to each other in part because of their social and temperamental differences, also because of the thrill of breaking the rules, of the illicit affair. How long will that last? Gerald is right - not long, most likely. So it's a novel with a "happy" ending that feels also like a beginning - of a completely different sort of novel. There's no telling how much of Malamud's personal experience went into this novel - obviously, the protagonist hues closely to many elements of Malamud's personal life story. But the willful break-up of a marriage is not pleasant, collegial, even moral behavior - and I don't sense that Malamud is completely in line with what Levin has done to his colleague, a foolish and narrow-minded man but also a man who meant to do no harm. Levin starts as a shlemiel and ends up, despite his romantic triumph, as something of a schmuck. This feels in a way like a novel that Malamud had to write - to get this era of his existence, his sojourn in the remote Northwest, out of his soul and into his art; as noted in previous posts, this novel has some wonderful moments, particularly some of the comic elements more toward the first half of the novel; as the tone becomes more serious and stakes higher, the novel feels less assured and less original - another suburban drama of domestic turmoil and marital woe. The academic politics scenes are excellent, however, and as true today as in 1960, from all that I know and have learned.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Where A New Life stands among Malamud's works

As I near the end of Bernard Malamud's A New Life, in the Library of America edition Novels and Stories of the 1960s, I can see why it's not a reputation-maker - it's a book that's kind of small and conventional in scope; it shows at the outset some of Malamud's great sense of comedy, creating a character who's the prototypical Jewish schlemiel, a type that Roth and later Woody Allen would develop to perfection, but the novel overall doesn't quite reach to the level of its own ambitions: It's strong as a comic send-up, the stranger comes to town, the Jewish intellectual totally at sea in his new environment, a laid-back Western college for budding scientists and engineers, lots of comic possibilities there, could even be the pilot for a series (at least on some obscure cable network) - but over its course the novel shifts from the comic ground on which Malamud is at home to a romantic-melodramatic ground - the protagonist Sy Levin morphs from schlemiel into Lothario, and here the plot shakens. Not only is it kind of hard to see this guy whom we met when he taught his first seminar with his fly opened as a lady-killer, but of course that could be just part of the romance - he's different, and therefore appealing to those who see him as an exotic. But the long passages in the last chapters, as Levin wrestles with his love for the wife of a colleague - they split, but she throws herself back in his arms, they embrace, begin to plan a life together post-divorce - it all feels a little forced and over the top - the charm of the initial chapters isn't gone but it's attenuated. I'll see soon how the novel turns out - romantic-comic, tragic, or ironic? - but it seems that as Malamud pushed his talent into new areas he lost a bit of his bearings. I admire a writer who tries pushes the edges of his talent, and Malamud clearly went on to write many more fine pieces of fiction. A New Life was his attempt to stake out new ground, as the title suggests - it's not just about the character Levin but about Malamud himself - but he gets ambushed on the way. It's a peculiar and atypical landmark along the path of his career. It stands up well to time - perhaps because academics never change, his portrait of college life could almost be contemporary - and the central character is quite memorable, but the novel loses its way - and I think those (few?) who read Malamud today find it hard to place this work among his top achievements.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A good story by Roddy Doyle in the New Yorker - but I propose a better title

Roddy Doyle may not be particularly well known in the U.S. but he probably ought to be and could be with more pieces like the one on the current New Yorker, a short story (yes, it appears to be a story and not an excerpt from a novel about to be published), Box Sets, written in stark, plain language, with simple and credible dialog, about a maybe 30ish man who's in a really bad time in his life - recently laid off from a decent job and very few prospects - and though his wife or possibly it's his long-term girlfriend tries to be thoughtful and consoling, it's obvious that everything she says to boost him up just makes him feel worse and more of a hopeless failure; he takes out his feelings, his rage, in variously destructive and pointless ways, yet has enough kindness and self-awareness to realize he's wrong and to apologize. Story begins with his complaining to his wife about her friends - he points out that they're hers and not his - after an evening engaged in discussion about which TV series is the greatest - a conversation so many of us have had, who hasn't?, but that just makes him feel more alienated - perhaps he's a bit older than her friends? In later discussion he hurls a coffee mug for no reason other than the urge to destroy - after wife has kindly poured him a cup. But then he apologizes, and later cleans. Heart of the story involves his walk with dog when he's hit by bicycle and seriously injured - though he grits it out, comes whom. wife nurses him a bit, but indicates she's leaving, she's had it. She's very well portrayed in just a few strokes and seems like a nice and kind person who does not need the mistreatment - but there's a little edge and ambiguity, too: perhaps she shouldn't leave him, at his weakest and most vulnerable. Perhaps she doesn't - ending not totally clear. I would have only one suggestion for Roddy if for some crazy reason he ever reads this: I think a much better title for the story, and on the same theme, would be "The Golden Age." Agreed?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

How the protagonist changes over the course of Malamud's A New Life

Without our even realizing it, the very nature of the protagonist (Sy Levin) and of the novel itself (A New Life) changes, evolves, over the course of the book - whether that was by design on the part of author Bernard Malamud or if it's the process of an author discovering certain truths about his own material while in the process of creation - I can't say. But think how Levin begins as a comic character, a schlemiel, a Woody Allen-precursor: in the first scene when he arrives at the college town and Pauline Gilley spills a tuna casserole on him and he has to wear Gerald Gilley's pants, too large for his frail frame (this takes on symbolic meaning later, as he engages in his affair with Pauline), or his first class, which he teaches with his fly unzipped. But gradually he becomes kind of a hot item on campus, culminating (I think) in the affair with Pauline and his deep feelings of guilt about deceiving his colleague Gerald. But the mid-point of the book he's no longer comic - though not exactly tragic, either - but more like a suffering sensitive soul, a Young Werther, a romantic hero. He's obviously very attractive to Pauline, and a more than competent sexual partner and lover - but, to Malamud's credit, he doesn't make Levin a Lothario, either - he's fragile and mortal and highly emotional. He thinks about how he can remove Pauline from her marriage, and he suffers from her absence, and then - at the point I've just reached - he learns he wasn't the first of her faculty affairs. How that changes his attitude toward her, we'll see in the next chapters I guess - but he seems both disgusted and in some ways humiliated - there was nothing, perhaps, so special about him after all - Pauline may just be a sexual adventurer, playing with fire.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Malamud's life and his fiction - in A New Life

Well we do get a little bit of back story a little more than half-way through Bernard Malamud's A New Life, as the protagonist, Sy Levin, tells faculty wife Pauline about his childhood in NYC, with echoes of Malamud's own horrendous childhood (mother's insanity and suicide) - interesting and sad how Malamud pushes this material aside and into the background, too painful even for an artist to deal with directly, as the back story is not very convincingly rendered - his poverty, suffering, alcoholism, all seem as if they would not have formed the character of this timid academic - but then again, Levin becomes less timid as he becomes accustomed to the ways of his new life in the Northwest. Malamud can't write enough about the astonishing landscape and climate, and these passages, many of which begin the (long) chapters, are very well written and effective; but, fortunately, he doesn't dwell on the scenery too long. In the pivotal chapter, Levin, overcome by the beauty of the day, goes for a long walk in the forest, with binocs and bird guide (and umbrella!) in hand - and he literally crosses paths with Pauline, the wife of his colleague (and, as he surmises, his enemy). They fall into one another's arms, and thus begins a tempestuous and highly secret  affair of some months. Of course secrets are impossible in this small academic community, and the continue to take greater risks as time moves along. They declare their love for one another - but what will become of this? Nothing good for Levin, we suspect. His arch-rival, Gerald (?), is a very sinuous guy and capable of anything. Along the way, I wonder why Malamud makes so little of the Semitic aspects of his story: clearly, Levin is the only Jew or one of the only Jews in this outpost, he's an exotic (even being from New York makes him an exotic - not even clear how many realize that he's Jewish), and the two women he's had affairs with are each versions of the idealized "shiksa" - this is a theme Roth will later develop to great comic and psychological effect, but for Malamud it's a background issue at best - Levin never has, or never expresses, any thoughts about forbidden fruit, moving outside the tribe, and so forth, which will drive much of Roth's fiction (and which, curiously, must also have been a part of the torment of Malamud's life, as discussed briefly in the chronology in the Library of America edition, Novels and Stories of the 1960s).

Monday, April 7, 2014

At last the book group completely agrees about a book. (The Lowland). Any guess what we thought?

In 25+ years of book group we have never been so unanimous in our judgment of a book, with the possible exception of The Bridges of Madison County, but we knew that was kind of a joke, as we were last night when we discussed Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland. You might think I'm going to say we all loved it? Well if you've read my posts you certainly know that I did not love it - I thought it was terribly written, dull and schematic, unfocused and unrewarding, and most of all an enormous disappointment from a writer so many of us, me included have admired, especially for her short fiction (Interpreter of Maladies, Unaccustomed Earth), one of the few literary writers to have found, and earned, serious popular support. So I went into group think I'd be in the distinct minority, worried about defending my position without seeming cranky or ill-natured, in fact worrying that maybe I'd missed something altogether. But then, one after another, the 8 of us weighed in: universal disappointment and disdain: loathing for the main characters, Subhash the doormat and Gauri the bitch; despair at the flat descriptions, the lack of emotional engagement, the plot just grinding along, inclusion of extraneous detail failure to develop any scene or any crisis point (we generally did like the early scene of trespassing on the golf course, and I thought the Bela - Gauri confrontation was pretty good); I in particular pointed out her obsession with sentences fragments and how that damages and actually cheapens a narrative - an example of mailing it in. I suggested that this was her attempt to write about her parents' generation - maybe even about a family she knows or knew - and it was a failure (Bela is more typical of other Lahiri characters, American born or raised of Indian descent and struggling between family expectations and her own yearnings - but so undeveloped - as JR noted, there's an episode of her w/ a therapist, and then, bim bam, in a few page, cured, and we move relentlessly on. JR also particularly bristled at Gauri's skipping out on a conference speaking engagement w/out so much as a call or note, and I agree - total narcissist bitch (and it would have been so easy to continue on w/ her journey after the conference instead of instead of). So the tepidly negative reviews I read after finishing the novel were, I think, holding back. Did anyone serious like this book? JR said it came out of the pressure to produce book after book, but I'm not so sure of that - I think it came out of the fame-blinded judgment of many editors and agents, out of the greed of a publishing house that couldn't say no, out of a writer who is in danger of losing her way if she thinks that this was good writing - does it have anything to do w/ her estrangement from the U.S.? Exile sure didn't hurt Joyce. I don't know - hope she writes some more great stories, though, and regains her bearings.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The strengths and shortcomings of Malamud's A New Life

Still enjoying Bernard Malamud's A New Life, about half-way through, in the Library of America Novels and Stories from the 1960s edition - it's by no means a great novel, but it's very good, great in places, and surprisingly un-dated (things don't change all that much in academics, even after 50 years); we follow the main character, Sy Levin, through his first year teaching English (composition, actually) in a small NW college. Variously, the plot has him as a pawn between two faculty members competing for the soon to be vacant chairmanship, involved, unsurprisingly, with an adoring but most likely unstable student, and entangled in a conflict regarding apparently plagiarized compositions. Only gradually does he realize how dangerous some of the so-called colleagues can be, as they put the squeeze on him, and how stupid he was to get involved with a student and then refuse to give her a break on her grades when she comes to him tearfully in his office. A great highlight in the novel is the section on Levin's acquiring an old car, his attempts to learn to drive (a life-long New Yorker, he had never driven before), and his excursion out to the coast for his rendez-vous with the student: Levin is a Woody Allen-type protagonist, a hapless intellectual totally lost in nature, among mechanical objects, among the goyim. The drive out to the coast is hilariously comic - the overheated engine, stuck in the mud and pulled out by a farmer who then asks Levin to use a pliers and pull a rotten tooth!, terrified of logging trucks, driving way too slow, lost in the fog - and some passages of great natural beauty, as well. What keeps the novel from being great, and why it's probably one of Malamud's lesser-known works, is that there is no back story whatsoever - Levin has come West in search of "a new life," but we know nothing about the life he has left behind or about what exactly prompted his exile; compare this with Roth's When She Was Good, a similar novel from the late '60s, about 8 years later I think, and we can see the richness and complexity of the protagonist's life - his complex relationship with his father and family - even as we see him struggle to make a "new life" on a Midwest campus.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Academic novels and the stanger comes to the (university) town - Bernard Malamud's A New Life

The academic novel can be a pretty tiresome genre - there are far too many, because so many writers in the modern era have found their sustenance and patronage within the walls of academe, so, sadly, that's what they know and what they write and for whom they write - yet there are some good ones, and right now I'm enjoying Bernard Malamud's A New Life, the first entry in the Library of America edition of Malamud Novels and Stories from the 1960s. It's certainly a lesser-known of his works, and not a reputation-establishing work, either, but it was a bit of a stretch for him - his most notable writing is very NYC/East Coast based (perhaps The Natural is an exception, too?) and very Semitic. He's certainly close kin to Roth and Bellow, if never quite rising to their stature. But A New Life is just what its title promises: a young Jewish intellectual would-be scholar and teacher who heads off to take his sole job offer, at a pittance of salary, in a West Coast science-oriented college (obviously based on Oregon State, where Malamud taught for many years before he earned his props as a writer) - it's very much a story of culture clash, of fish out of water - and the alienation the main character, Sy Levin, feels helps propel the narration - we share his surprise at everything he sees, from the mountainous landscape, the sycamore leaves coating the ground like drop-cloths after a rainstorm, the (superficial?) friendliness, the lack of intellectual pretension, the outdoorsy orientation, and, unspoken, the completely "goyish" culture, in which he's so alien a presence that perhaps nobody even recognizes he's Jewish - just that he's a bearded New Yorker (live a visitor from Mars). There's a great deal of humor, as Levin tries to befriend various faculty members and as others corner him to line him up on their side in various internecine battles - not everything's as friendly as it seems on the surface - the politics are brutal and even corrupt - but the overall tone is never dark and cynical - Levin is a very sweet failure who may yet succeed (as Malamud did), and the other characters, he never holds himself above or apart from the other characters - he's open and engaging. It's so touching to watch him shyly ask a fellow faculty member if he'd like to catch a movie and a cup of coffee, or to see him good-naturedly accept an invitation to go fishing for chinook. I suspect nothing good will come of his adventures into the out of doors, and we can see some of the cold-heartedness behind those who approach him with invitations to "stop by any time" even if he can't see it right away. The novel is not strongly plot-driven, but it's very engaging and has a few hilarious moments, especially some of the dialog, which I may try to quote in a future post. Also worth noting that A New Life makes a neat comparison on many points with Roth's easterner-in-midwest-college ealry novel, When She Was Good (which was much darker and broader in scope, but also had the alien-visitor in academe qualities).

Friday, April 4, 2014

A new vista for Jonatham Lethem?

OK I know that satires of Disneyland/world and of Sea World et al. are going after some low-hanging fruit, but Jonathan Lethem does a pretty good job plucking that fruit so to speak in his story Penging Vegan in current New Yorker - about a guy, named Espeth, a curious evocation of the name of the detective in Lethem's most famous work, Motherless Brooklyn?, who is coming off of some serious antidepressants without much guidance from his curiously inept therapist, and who visits Sea World with wife and twin daughters. Coming off the meds, everything looks pretty awful to him - and as we know from the recent documentary Black Fish, which the narrator name checks (actually I don't think he names it, though) the place is or an be pretty awful. So the day at Sea World is like a tour through Dante's hell. It reminded me a bit of one of D.F. Wallace's essays, about a visit to the Illinois State Fair - all pretty ghastly, and the main character or narrator being the malcontent, the one guy who seems to be utterly not enjoying himself. The story is, as expected, kind of a downer - but a few things save it from its negative, actually kind of snobbish tendencies: it's interesting to see Lethem write from TC Boyle country, a southern California sun-drenched landscaped - when he's to date seemed to be the ultimate Brooklyn writer dude. But here he bring some of his dark Brooklyn melancholia to the Golden State, and the clash is pretty good. I also give him credit for writing one of the rare stories with an actual ending - a twist that's perhaps slightly ambiguous - he has a realization that may be just from his meds withdrawal or may be a true insight, I won't give it away - and also perhaps slightly forced, but still the story actually does seem to conclude at the right spot - rare for a New Yorker story, anyway.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The saddest and most moving section in the Library of America Bernard Malamud '60s edition

No doubt the saddest and most moving section of the Library of America Bernard Malamud collection of stories and novels from the 1960s is the excellent, detailed chronology of Malamud's life at the end of the volume - the economic struggles of his father, a Jewish-Ukrainian immigrant running a little store in Brooklyn, his mother's mental illness, disappearance, suicide, the lifelong battle his brother also fought against mental illness, his estrangement from his father after he married outside the faith (they eventually reconciled), and the many rejections and failures he endured as he worked to establish himself as a writer - teaching evening classes, writing by day, publishing in tiny outlets if at all. When he finally won a teaching job it was at Oregon State, then a sort of tech school far, far off the academic and literary mainstream - it's amazing that his talent did not get buried there, but he persevered and succeeded against every imaginable odds. Reading the chronology, you can't help but note, however, how different the literary and academic world was back then, for better or worse: today, there are far fewer outlets for publication, particularly paid publication - fewer magazines, fewer publishers, fierce competition for agents (Malamud had one from the outset, unlikely today), fewer literary editors; in the academic world, the job he landed on Oregon State, considered almost an exile at the time, would be highly coveted today - an student with a master's degree and no publications to speak of would not be a serious candidate. But then, it was the best he could do. Unmentioned in the chronology - the more prestigious East Coast jobs almost never went to Jewish candidates - so many talented Jewish academics had to begin their careers in the far west or the Midwest; that situation - the Jewish academe in exile - is the subject of the first work in the collection, A New Life, a very funny if sorrowful novel about a Malamud stand - Sy Levin, beginning a teaching job a a college in the state of "Cascadia." (Unlike M., his prototype is a single man, fleeing something - we're not yet told what - back home in NYC.) For anyone who's read this novel and thinks the portrait of the pompous, bloviating, and idiotic department chair - so proud of the 13th edition of his student-hated Elements of Grammar, which he requires all students in the entire college to purchase - is over the top, I can assure you that it is not at all over the top; it's high comic but, sadly, realistic - I personally had a job interview with someone at a Mass business college who coujld have been this guy to a T.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A new direction for Louise Erdrich?

I don't know if it's the first time but certainly one of the few times that Louise Erdrich has written a story that's not centered on Native Americans, nor the tribal lands she has so powerfully created and depicted in the Northern Plains - always good to see a talented and mature writer stretch and grow and take risks. I liked her story The Big Cat in last week's New Yorker very much - this story focused on a divorced (and reuniting) couple in the professional and arts communities of Minneapolis, where I think Erdrich has lived for some years now. The story has her characteristic humor - running motif is how all the women in the family snore, which has led to various marital problems - the guy in the story describes their snoring as if each of the sisters is some kind of industrial machine - his wife is the "polisher" - also a great comical description of the poorly built house in which the snoring sisters were raised and in which they convene at insomniac holidays. The husband has made do in various accommodations, such as mattress shoved into closet, to escape the noise and get a good night's sleep, but we sense that this guy is just totally exhausted. The best part of the story, for me, was one long paragraph in which Erdrich describes the video tribute the wife has made of the clips from her husband's acting career - all walk-on parts or very minor parts or commercial gigs - which in a weird way takes us on the entire course of his life - from a man in a crowd, to a hero, to a suffering and wounded victim, to the end. This is better than the 7 ages of man speech in AYLI! Story itself pretty simple - couple divorce, he remarries, he and ex continue to meet amicably to deal with daughter issues, then less amicably, then tearfully reunite for year-long affair, then, when caught in the act by daughter, decide to remarry, as he leaves a very wealthy wife behind (and after some tribulation, decides to take a settlement, leaving him comfortable enough to build a sleeping room). But now that he sleeps, he has nightmares, one including the eponymous cat. Wonder if this story is a one-off or if it marks a new direction for Erdrich's writing.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A writer largely overlooked: Elizabeth Spencer

Based on strong NYTBR review and on expectations from The Light in the Piazza, started Elizabeth Spencer's recent story collection, Starting Over, which will probably be her last (I think she's in her 90s now!) - not exactly clear when she wrote these stories but a few surface details from the first three would suggest they are from the past 15 years or so (reference to cell phones, CD players), although they  feel very old-fashioned - real throwbacks. Each of the first three is about a single moment of crisis in a family relationship; narration very traditional, cast of characters very small, and, as in the classic short story, centered on a single action: long-lost cousin arrives for surprise visit at same time as son home from college, bringing up memories of the family crisis that ensued when husband suspected wife of a drunken fling with the cousin - which may have led to her pregnancy (that is, the son may be the cousin's son) - very subtle clues make us think that this is the case, that the wife has been dissembling. The second story - The Boy in the Tree - a man trying to tend to his mother in her old age and near senility, despite a life of tension between his wife and mother - the big dramatic scene was a kitchen accident which led wife to cry out something like "what the fuck" - leading the mother to call her coarse and common - relationship never healed after that. Son is having strange hallucinations and dreams about people from his past; he mother reports seeing a "boy in a tree," which son believes is sign of her approaching senility - turns out there was a boy climbing a tree in her yard, so son has to wonder, which of them - he or his mother - is the troubled one. Third story, girl leaves her mom to go live with estranged father - whom, we learn, she nearly blinded in a careless accident - and mother and her fiance, a fairly loathesome guy, turn up to reclaim her. Each of these three stories could be a one-act play I think. They're fine as stories, too, although they also feel a little thin, fragile - this may be because of the difficulty locating them in time. The attitudes are very old-fashioned, for example, son coming home to discuss with father his plan to change his college major - do students even "major" any  more, much less discuss this with their parents? Or, girl running off to live with her father - plays pretty loose with contemporary laws about school enrollment and attendance, for example. Still these are powerful stories from a writer who, except for the one terrific novella that has earned a new life through Broadway adaptation, is largely overlooked.