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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, June 30, 2014

Two things at which Faulkner excels

There's so much in William Faulkner's The Hamlet that I remain surprised that it's not often mentioned among his greatest works - perhaps overshadowed by some of the others because it is a bit sprawling, composed of four sections that stand independently as novellas though each develops the life story of a different member of the Snopes clan as the family gradually becomes ascendant over the Varners in the social hierarchy and commerce of the backwater hamlet Frenchman's Bend. The 3rd section, The Long Summer, as noted yesterday is both a showcase for Faulkner's over-wrought and unique style and a compendium of literary modes: it's a very dark comedy, up to a point, following the mentally disabled Isaac Snopes in his obsession with a cow, then turns even darker, as the men in the town make a sport of watching him have sex with the animal - until one man stands up and puts a stop to it more or less arranges a plan to end the desecration by butchering the animal - and then the story becomes tragic - as Mink Snopes believes he has been hoodwinked in the deal to sell and butcher the cow and ambushes and assassinates one of the village cranks, Houston, and then leads everyone on a wild pursuit until they catch him at last and imprison him in the county jail. Obviously Faulkner is probably the greatest American writer at point-of-view or stream-of-consciousness writing, able to capture the movement of character's mind and this holds true for highly different and divergent characters - a technique he learned from Joyce I would guess but executed w/ his own Southern flamboyance: he shows us how each character's mind works but in language that is distinctly his (Faulkner's) own - they all think differently but sound alike. Another thing at which Faulkner excels is back-story: in each of the narratives in The Hamlet and in many other works as well he is moving forward with a narrative and then stops short and jumps back in time to fill in the history of the character, and often this history is so rich and complex it becomes, or eclipses, the story itself. That's not so much the case in The Hamlet, however, to its strength: F will take a rustic and unsympathetic character like Mink and then, as he's confronting his wife and hitting her across the mouth, jump back in time and tell the story of Mink's childhood and how he met his wife and saved her from a life as a prostitute in a logging camp - and when we return to the present-tense narrative we think of all the characters entirely differently - as is, of course, the case in life: What we think, what we see in people, is dependent on how much we know of their "life story."

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Faulkner's talent pushed to its limit in The Hamlet

Ratliff the traveling sewing-machine salesman emerges as the true moral center of William Faulkner's The Hamlet, as he intervenes in the incredible cow-chase episode in the 3rd part of the novel, The Long Summer. As I figured - see yesterday's post - the scenes that the men gathered on the verands rush over to peer through a fence and observe is of the severely disabled Snopes family member, Isaac, engaged in a sexual act with a cow; the other men just gape, actually, it's a kind of bullying and certainly craven and ghastly behavior, but Ratliff grabs a board and, using a spare piece or brick as a mallet, nails the board in place, blocking the view. Then he engineers some kind of weird settlement of the matter - paying off the farmer who owned the cow (Houston) and the farmer from whom Isaac stole feed for the cow and then, on advice of a highly spurious minister, arranging for a ritual in which they will slaughter the cow and Isaac will eat the flesh and be "cured" of his obsession - a very ghoulish section the novel indeed but not without its dark comedy, as the Snopes cousins have it out as to who's to pay for what percentage of these expenses. This section of the novel perhaps more than no other passage in Faulkner shows the extent of his talent, maybe the limit of his talent, as he expends some of the most glorious, elaborate, complex, and baroque writing - maybe overwrought, almost nearing the self-parody that he would suffer from in his later works - on the most odd and even repulsive material - the poor man with very limited mental capacities, shunned by all people, getting sexual and emotional satisfaction from his relationship with a cow - and the reaction of the community to all this, including arguing about who owes whom what for the feed and silage. That's the Snopes (bourgeois shopkeepers and deal-makers) ascendant, eclipsing the feudal, non-cash-basis hierarchical culture of the Varners and for that matter of the Old South.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Two components of Faulkner's style and sensibility in The Hamlet

In the third section (of 4) in William Faulkner's The Hamlet, the raconteur and gossip traveling sewing-machine salesman Ratliff returns to Frenchman's Bend and the layabouts on the Varner-Snopes store veranda fill him in on the latest news and then they all rush off to see someone "doing it" - Ratliff not sure what they're talking about but they urge him to come see. Then we break to a new section - in which Faulkner revives, in a way, a technique for which he is now best known - from the first section of Sound & Fury, which he narrates not only as stream-of-consciousness but as s-o-c of a boy with pretty severe mental retardation - readers were puzzled and shocked by this in the 1920s and now find it, I'm sure, much less challenging and disorienting. In The Hamlet F tells this next section not thru s-o-c but through very close and intense 3rd-person narration using all of the Faulknerian amplitude of verbiage - but staying extremely close to the POV of the member of the Snopes clan who has retardation. It's still challenging to read this today, but what it appears is happening is the I.Snopes lives in a barn or outbuilding and has developed some kind of love affair with a cow - whom he pursues across several miles of rough terrain when he sees her out lapping from one of the field ponds. We suspect that what the men are rushing off to see is some form of affection - even sexual affection - between I.Snopes and the cow - not sure yet. It's an great tribute to F's style and delicacy and actually sympathies that this section is not grotesque of exploitative in any way - and not told with the bold humor of the similar passages, in part two, when he describes all of the men of the town mesmerized by the sexual beauty and abundance of Eula Varner - whom F also describes as "mammalian" and, I think, as "lactating." The two sections of the novel make for a significant contrast in mode and sensibilities and serve as two poles or counterpoints in helping us gain comprehension of Faulknerian style.

Friday, June 27, 2014

A beautiful story of obsession

For any out there who think Faulkner doesn't have a sense of humor and isn't "funny," suggest you read the 2nd part of The Hamlet, section called Eula, about Eula Varner (later Snopes), daughter of the wealthy but extremely lazy patriarch of Frenchman's Bend. Eula is sexy, beautiful, extremely lazy and languid herself - she goes to school but refuses to walk, so brother Jody takes her on horseback , and back home, twice daily; he has to meet her at a fallen tree so she can step from the log onto the horseback. Her contributions during the school day throughout her childhood and teen years are limited to: I don't know and I haven't got that far yet. Some of F's descriptions of her are laugh-out-loud, especially her riding behind Jody on horseback with what I think F calls "mammalian pulchritude." But this section is more than just a comic turn; it's sorrowful and tragic in many ways as well: the high point being the school teacher, who road horseback 40 miles every day to go to classes at Ole Miss and play "the football" - whose career ambition was "Governor" but who stayed on at the school too long because of his obsession with Eula's beauty; there are many other books and films about teachers obsessed with their students or with one particularly alluring student. This one is among the most sensitive and sorrowful: just compare it with the cruel and insensitive Lolita and you'll see - the schoolteacher working so hard to be a good man and to overcome his yearnings and his fears, the young woman so cool and oblivious. For Faulkner, the writing is pretty efficient - this section contains a lot of narrative in only about 50 pages - but the style is typically abundant and rewards close and careful reading, much like Proust. There was only one point that I had to scrawl in the margin: Huh? In some later (?) works such as Absolum I had to scrawl that almost every other page.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Do you believe in ghost stories?

Rebecca Curtis's story in the current New Yorker, The Pink House, seems as if it might be part of a group of stories, Decameron style: six artists, none greatly successful of famous, are at a Mexican estate on a fellowship; they sit around at night telling one another stories - and The Pink House, told by a middle-aged female narrator unnamed I think who rises to the challenge of telling a "true" ghost story, may be just one of a set. Cool idea, but how does it stand up on its own? OK, depending on your tolerance for this type of story. For me, the "ghost" part was kind of over-determined and manipulative; the "real" part had more potential. In brief, story is: woman looks back on her early years as struggling writer in NYC, leaves for a fellowship at Syracuse and rents sight unseen a cheap room in a crappy house in a crappy neighborhood. Becomes a couple with the star writer in the program, even though she's not attracted to him; they stay together for many years as he struggles with his novel and she finds increasing success, largely thanks to his tutelage. She gets a teaching job in Nebraska and he follows her there; their relationship breaks apart and she moves on with her life; later, comes to realize - when she sees that he has married a much-older woman from their neighborhood - that his spirit has been taken over by a ghost that has led him to this Nebraska neighborhood to marry the widow the ghost had left behind. Well, in fiction anything's possible, but Curtis does nothing really to make us believe in this rather incredible chain of events. What she does well, though, is build the character of the struggling young writer, particularly in relation to her parents, who don't understand her at all but are kind enough to help her move to Syracuse - that's by far the best scene in the story and, though it's pretty familiar ground for young writers, has potential for a lot more development I think. From her various actions, tastes, and choices - in particular, her sexual drive toward strong black men - the narrator is obviously trying to move as far from her parents' conservative milieu as she can; that's true of many young people, perhaps artists in particular - and there's a lot of material there that Curtis may work with further.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A clash of two cultures in The Hamlet

The first section, Flem, of William Faulkner's The Hamlet (itself the first novel in a trilogy) chronicles the rise of the Snopes clan and the inevitable displacement of the reigning powers in the village/hamlet of Frenchman's Bend, the Varners. Section, more or less, starts off with some very weird and hilarious horse trading - in which one of the characters ends up paying two or three times for the same horse - it's very hard to follow all the machinations - but the episode involves traveling to a neighboring town to buy a milk separator, using a team of one horse one mule, and various horse trades on the way there and back. Then the novel moves along to the introduction of the main character, Flem Snopes - somehow the Varners hire him as a clerk in the general store which is a big part of their wealth and power, and over time Flem pretty much takes over the store: his arrival highlights a clash of two families, two cultures, and two economic systems. Varner ran the store (as well as other enterprises, such as the local cotton gin) with very little oversight and more or less on a system of trust; he was out of the store most of the day, and customers would just pick up what the wanted and drop the payment into a little rat-trap cage. Flem Snopes changed all that - comes to work wearing a tie, keeps regular hours, trusts nobody, later takes over the cotton gin, moves from the rented farmhouse far out of town into a boarding house in town - it's not long before he's totally eclipsed Varner, loans out money at high rates - and the old men who spend their whole days gathered on the porch gossiping can't figure out how he's become so prosperous. Much of this section is narrated by an itinerant sewing-machine salesman, who's quite the raconteur and character - full of wry wit (returning to town after surgery in Tennessee, someone asks what the doctor removed; answer: My pocketbook.) Many side stories very funny as well, including the two cousins or bothers the Snopes clan brings in to run the blacksmith shop, one a nonstop talker (later gets a job as a school teacher) and the other probably the world's least competent blacksmith - but you know somehow the Snopes clan will make it pay. At the outset, the Varners let the Snopes clan rent some property in hopes of chasing them off before they could reap the harvest - and also to get them off the land before they could continue their patter or serial arson; in exasperation at one point Jody Varner, Flem's counterpart, cries out something like: How much do I have to do to protect one goddamn barn full of hay?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Why The Hamlet is a lesser-known Faulkner novel

It's one of the forgotten William Faulkner novels, never mentioned among the set of his groundbreak, daunting, most famous novels, Sound & Fury, Light in August, Absolum (which I found almost impossible to make sense of when I returned to it a few years back) nor among the lighter and more entertaining such as As I Lay Dying nor, thankfully, almost the almost parodic works of late years or the highly self-conscious novellas such as The Bear - but The Hamlet, which I started re-reading last night, is a central piece in the Y. County puzzle, accounting for the arrival of the Snopes clan in Frenchman's Bend. The Snopeses are in a sense the first breakdown in the social order - the backwoods, conniving, declasse family that arrives, insinuates into the culture, eventually builds to a degree of wealth and power, but not style, through hustle and instinct - in other words, a deep South version of the death of the aristocracy and the rise of the bourgeoisie. First few chapters involve the Snopes clan of six showing up suddenly and cutting a deal to rent a vacant farmhouse from the most powerful family in the town, the Varners, a deal Jody Varner quickly regrets when he learns that Snopes has a history of landlord disputes resolved by barn-burning and quickly leaving town. But Varner comes up with some obscure scheme to get the Snopeses to plan the farm and then scare them off before harvest - then hiring a team of cheap labor to harvest the fields and take all the profits. Obviously, this will backfire - just a question of how. Jody, son of a true patriarch, the one who does all the work to maintain the family holdings and run the family store, will clearly clash with his coeval in the Snopes family, oldest son, Flem. The Hamlet is probably a little lesser known than it should be because there are no obvious stylistic quirks such as the stream of conscioussness, extended first-person narration, or syntactic exuberance of the more famous works; also, it's quite long, so not a good entry point for first-time Faulkner readers, nor for students in a fiction class. It's broken into four sections, though, and it could be that each could stand as a novella, though I've never heard of someone reading one of the sections independently, as people do sometimes read (or are assigned to read) The Bear or, isn't there another one?, The River?

Monday, June 23, 2014

The ludicrous specificity of Garcia Marquez

It's been 671 days, 23 hours and 14 minutes since I last read the works of Gabriel Gracia Marquez, no just kidding, it's been about three years, but G-M would of course mark with his ludicrous specificity that of course makes the work seem more realistic (it must be true if you could measure down to the exact number of days) and more fantastic (only in a surreal world do people recall and recount detail at that level of exactness). Thought I would read a few novellas to recover from a bout of a long unfinished contemporary novel that seemed as if it were written in the 19th century and a short unfinished (meaning, I did not finish reading it) experimental novel from 1857 that seems as if it were written in the 21st century (kinda). Dipped into Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which I actually did read and post on here 3 years ago, just to get a sense of G-M's style and world view once again - it's a miniature 100 Years of Solitude, same intensity of emotion, obsession with honor and vengeance, suavity about power and violence, and mysterious sense of precognition and mysticism: young wealthy man in small South American river city on the morning of the last day of his life; others in the village know he will be killed that day, and he marches blithely toward his death; events follow an all-night, whole-village drunken wedding celebration; when bride returned in shame to her family and brothers learn she was not a virgin, they set out to kill the young wealthy man - as he sets out to greet the bishop who is coming by riverboat to the city. Bishop never gets off the ship, gives his blessings as the ship blows its whistle and continues on upstream - a terrific way to convey the coldness and indifference of the church, of authority, of God - and the insignificance of this village, a dot on the map, which gives all of the action a tremendous sense of isolation and despair: all in the village are on their own, it's a microcosm and field on which forces of life and death will combat.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Is The Confidence-Man worth reading?

To see if there was anything I was missing, I read R.W.B. Lewis's Afterword in my old pb edition of Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man. Lewis taught at Yale in the old gentlemanly days of that regal English Department, and you can see that from his essay - extremely well-crafted and full of fine turns of phrase and rich allusion to figures from literature and mythology, as well as some gentle references to then-contemporary Melville scholarship. He definitely makes that case that there's a design to this novel - not just a series of random encounters between the con man, in various guises, and his dupes but the novel is moving toward to Christian examination of sin v. charity, with the con-man as a Satanic figure, in particular modeled on Milton's Satan. He notes aptly that the novel is difficult to read, but then suggests it's actually easy to re-read, which may be so: once you have the design in mind you're not struggling so hard to figure out who's who, which the con-man and which the rube. That said, to reverse one of my favorite passages in Eliot: we have had the meaning and missed the experience. It's one thing to dissect this novel or any novel and tell us what the author, possibly, meant and what meaning we can derive from the work; it's another to say the novel is worth your time and investment. Despite Lewis's claims for the novel's satiric and ironic (a much over-used critical term form the 1950s and 60s) value, I never found myself amused or surprised, just belabored. It's kind of funny to read his footnote summaries of some of the criticism of the day as well: The C-M is based on Hindu mythology? Really? As noted in previous post, there is reason to read the C-M to get a more complete picture of Melville's world view and personal struggles and disappointments, just as we read the darker works of Twain (noted yesterday, and Lewis picks this up, too) to understand his mind - but neither The Mysterious Stranger nor The Confidence-Man would have endured on its own had it not superceeded a literary masterpiece. In other words, it's a book for grad students and scholars, but unlikely to appeal to most other readers.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The meaning and the value of The Confidence-Man

There's a significant passage about half-way through Herman Melville's (last) novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (to give it its full title, correctly punctuated (btw can anyone explain why the title of his greatest novel is Moby-Dick but throughout the novel there is no hyphen?) in which Melville anticipates the likely criticism of the weirdly shapeshifting title character: he notes that writers are considered realistic if their characters are consistent and writers are considered flawed or fantastical if their characters change radically but, he argues, in life people are not consistent and do change radically and therefore a novel with consistent characters is not true to life. Well, perhaps: people don't change radically as much as one might say people grow, evolve, learn, suffer, transform - but we're not caterpillars that suddenly emerge as butterflies. The naturalistic or realistic novelist helps us see and understand and feel the evolution of great characters. There's nothing intrinsically wrong w/ Melville's approach to character but it's a bit self-ingenuous of him to call his characters - or anything else about TCM - realistic - they are not. The book is a comic, fantastical tale, almost like a Biblical narration, examining deception, conceit, and human frailty: the eponymous (you knew I'd use that word) C-M represents in some manner all of the temptation we feel and experience on our course - like a river voyage - through life; his genius, such as it is, lies in his ability to use the particular weakness (vanity, greed, etc.) of the characters he confronts to gain their "confidence" and to undo them (generally, by bilking them of $). These scenes are not realistic nor obviously meant to be: e.g., a miser completely seduced by the C-M in about ten minutes and turning over hundreds of dollars to buy shares in a stock, with no receipts etc. - but on the other hand, how different is this from the stock schemes, bank fraud, and securities scams of our era - though those are played out by much more slick characters? The book is a parable, still relevant - though I'm not sure how informative, as the targets are pretty obvious and easy. It's a very difficult book to read and I'm finding it at this point not all that engaging; to be honest, the only reason we read it I think is because of Melville's great works that surround it; it's so odd and mysterious that we think that it may hold a key to understanding M's way of thinking, which makes this dense and encoded work a natural for grad students - but not all that entertaining for the average, even the avid, reader today.

Friday, June 20, 2014

One of the best stories in the New Yorker in a long time

Maile Meloy's story in current New Yorker, Madame Lazarus, is one of the best stories I've seen in the magazine for many years. Perhaps I'm a sucker for a dog story - who isn't? - especially one about a little, demanding, loyal, peppy terrier-like puppy who in late life goes deaf and near-blind - sound familiar? - but story did more for me than bring back memories of Scruffy: it's a great story about love and loss and loneliness and aging. In short - and it is quite short - it's about an elderly man (retired banker) with a much younger male partner, who's obviously drifting away from the relationship; they get a little dog and the older man becomes primary caregiver for the dog. As the dog ages, goes through near-death experience, hence the title, then has to be "put down" by the vet, we see in a sorrowful but not maudlin way how the elderly man is increasingly alone: this woven neatly with a back story about his first gay love affair, with a young tubercular man, during WWII (story set in Paris) who dies, bleeding, in the family apartment, causing great shame to all - incident neatly covered up by a family friend - the man later marries a woman from a "good family" knowing the marriage is and will be a sham. Late in life he's on good if slightly chilly terms with ex-wife, not so good terms with sons who've moved far away. After dog's death, only person he can turn to is long-time Indonesian housekeeper; he pleads with her, somewhat pathetically, don't ever leave me. This story seemed to me very natural and true and evocative, told a lot elegantly in a very short space, touches on very deep, even tragic themes, without ever becoming maudlin or mawkish.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Still trying to figure out what's going on in The Confidence Man

Herman Melville's The Confidence Man continues to trouble and disturb, which is of course his intent - as, 50+ pages in, the con-man scheme takes a bit of a twist; Melville reels off two chapters (most of the chapters are short, just an encounter between two or three characters aboard the steamship) in which the confidence man - now described generally as a man dressed in gray (I think he uses the British spelling though) - we never really do have a clear image of what he looks like as his guise changes and that is part of the point - meets with two "good" characters on board and in both cases wheedles out of them a large donation to his supposed charity for Seminole women and orphans. So what is Melville's ever-darker point? Benevolence and charity are often misguided, there's evil everywhere, the world is a great con game? Somehow I think he's not that monolithically cynical, that there's an element of the story that suggest benevolence is misguided when toward abstractions - a donation to a charity for a cause far and remote - and the truly good person rises to the defense of fellow man or woman; in other words, a good man does not allow a disabled beggar to be humiliated while assuaging his soul by writing a check. Perhaps. Who knows? TCM remains extremely complex and elusive and I'm not sure if I've figured out anything about it beyond the banal up to this point.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

One of the weirdest novels ever written

Herman Melville's The Confidence Man continues as one of the weirdest and most challenging novels ever written, and it's hard to imagine how it was received in the 1850s when first published. Reading farther in last night, some general themes become clear: the eponymous Confidence Man appears in many guises, but what he has consistently is an insinuous nature, forcing himself into confrontations with other travellers on the Mississppi river steam (the Fidele). In each case he puts the fellow passenger off guard, then brings conversation around to an issue of trust or "charity," generally talking about the lack of charity and of human feelings of empathy, then "conning" the mark out of some money. In 3 chapters read last night he, first, comes upon a stranger and convinces him somehow that they knew each other from way back and, though the stranger has no recollection at all, he persuades the man that he must have had an episode of amnesia. In another, he comes across a young man reading Latin history (Tacitus) and argues that such reading is depressing and morally dangerous. Third scene, even more strange and complicated, he vouches for the black man who had appeared earlier in the novel, but here the CM appears to be in two guises: one who doubts the veracity of the black man (claims he is a white man pretending to be a beggar) and another defending the black man (who has supposedly left the ship by this point) and in the process conning some passengers fora  donation to an obviously bogus charity, the Seminole Widow and Orphan Fund. The novel is so obviously full of darkness and bitterness - much more than Twain at his most cynical - and no doubt in part Melville's reaction to his many misfortunes and loss of fame and readership as his work became increasingly odd, unconventional, distinct or even unique, ahead of its time, and, at least in one instance, brilliant.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The 19th-century novel that was the farthest ahead of its time

Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, which I hadn't read in more than 30 years I think, still, from initial chapters, seems like a novel far ahead of its time, totally breaking the 19th-century expectations for narrative, naturalism, and social realism. Melville's earlier novels, though perhaps somewhat exaggerated and romantic, were in the vein of realism and adventure, and the earliest would today probably have been packaged as memoir. Moby-Dick seems for a while to be realistic as well, and it has many trappings and accoutrements that make it seem not just realistic but a work of scholarship - the chapter on knots, for example - techniques that Melville pioneered or even invented and that have influenced many writers since then: think how Sebald uses interspersed photos to make his fantastic novels such as Austerlitz seem as if they must be real and accurate, documentary. But of course Moby-Dick is full of elements that are far from realistic: the entire team of secret oarsman kept below-deck throughout most of the voyage, for example: not possible except on symbolic level. Melville pushed the boundaries of realism much farther, however, in The Confidence Man, and in doing so managed to turn away the few readers who stayed with him through M-D: they had no idea what he was up to, and even today, after more than 150 years of experimental and postmodern fiction of every sort, fiction filled with freaks and grotesques, with spirits and dybbuks (from Bulgokov to Singer to Gorky - to cite a few disparate examples), it's still hard to make sense of TCM. Like all of Melville's novels, it's set aboard a ship - in this case a Mississippi steam, the Fidele, which we soon realize is not meant to be taken literally as a steamer - it's in some sense the ship of humanity, carrying aboard it all sorts of people, every race, creed, nationality, and disposition. M focuses the first few chapters on some very odd and disturbing characters, notably a man who is deaf and mute and looks like a weary and impoverished traveler and walks around on the deck with a slateboard on which he writes various epigrams about "charity" - and it abused and attacked by fellow passengers. Then we meet a black man who is severed deformed, sits on the deck almost like a dog, with bent legs, and begs for pennies (he catches pitched pennies in his mouth) and speaks in a highly exaggerated black Southern dialect - and another passenger, a man with a wooden leg - accuses him of being a fraud, not really disabled (maybe not even black?). There is a bit of a hint that these characters may all be different versions, or visions, of the eponymous Confidence Man, but that's not yet developed. If the Fidele is Melville's vision of our world, it's a very cruel world, full of distrust and mockery and chicanery.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Book group thoughts, and mine, on Silence Once Begun

Predictably I was on the extreme in book group last night for discussion of Jesse Ball's Silence Once Begun. I confess to being the most conservative reader in the group and expect stories not necessarily to be conventional and realistic - I am a huge fan of many writers who do not fit that description at all such as Sebald, Murakami, Kafka, Proust, Coover, the list could go on - but I do expect the author to fulfill his or her "contract" with the reader: one would feel cheated and betrayed if you got to the end of, say, a Dickens novel and the author said: I'm not going to tell you what happens to these characters, or if a supernatural being stepped into the plot and resolved the conflicts. I felt betrayed by Ball's novel in that it purports to be an "investigation" of an actual event but the facts of the novel are so preposterous that nobody could believe them for a second. I imagined myself as Ball's agent or editor, and would give him two pieces of advice: first, you've got to resolve the issue of the disappearance into silence of the narrator's wife - at the least bring the narrator together with her for a confrontation or conversation or at the very least show what his investigation into silence teaches him about the estrangement of his wife; 2nd, you've got to give us some access to the consciousness of Oda. It's fine that the novel is built upon supposed records or recordings of interviews with Oda, during which he says nothing, but you can't leave him as entirely opaque - maybe have a section that's his secret journal or something. But who am I to judge? Others felt otherwise: BR in particular loved the mysterious tone and the idiosyncratic design of the novel; JRi was captivated by the narrative although, like me, was totally put off by the twist at the end; LR posited that Oda may have had some guilt or trauma in his youth that led him to accept guilt for the crime that he didn't commit; OK, maybe, but then show us that in some manner. Overall, I felt that we spent a lot of time filling in the blank spaces in the novel - giving the narrative more attention than the author did, in some ways. RR is the most generous reader in the group and worked hard to elucidate what may have been Ball's narrative intentions. I don't think an author has to spell everything out and sometimes opacity can create its own mood - think of how Kafka alludes to guilt and shame without specifying a cause or an action, and how that imbues his work with mystery. Here, it all felt to me second-hand and derivative. But I was pretty much alone - others were more curious, or forgiving.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A great novel, for the right reader - The Luminaries

Finally, I have to say that Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries is a great novel - for the right reader. I am not that reader, so I won't be finishing this long book, but it does have many strengths. For someone who's read every 19th-century English-language novel and still hungers for more - here you go. As noted in several previous posts, it's a re-creation of the Victorian style, a tribute to the era, a piece of contemporary historical fiction, and a parody - all at once. I am truly impressed by her capacity to introduce a character with a lot of depth - characters, in other words, and not just characteristics - as is the case in most contemporary fiction. Also truly impressed at her capacity to create establish a scene and create a community, in this case a New Zealand gold-rush town - the palpable sense of the rain, of the dangerous coast, the isolation, the machismo, the desperate urge for quick wealth, the latent racial prejudices and anxieties - all there. For me, however, 250 or so pages in, we just keep meandering around the elements of the extremely, almost comically, complex plot that Catton sets forth - a mysterious death of a hermit who inexplicably left behind a treasure in gold, the disappearance of one of the wealthiest prospectors in the area, the discovery of the town "whore" nearly dead from an opium OD and w/ gold sewn into the corset she's wearing, and many, many other rivulets of plot - so complex that I can barely follow it and don't especially care. That's the case in many mystery novels as well but most of the successful ones are carried by a strong protagonist (Marlowe, Holmes, et al) - in The Luminaries there are many secondary characters but no central character to guide us through this maze of a plot It's almost as if every chapter introduces a new character. So I'm moving on but not without a little bit of regret and noting that some will find a great deal more in this book - if they're willing to devote the time and attention it takes to meet Catton on her own terms. There are other highly demanding books that I've found worth the effort - Search for Lost Time, Ulysses - and other about which I've said, yes, this is a probably a great book but I can't go there (Gravity's Rainbow, e.g.). The Luminaries falls somewhat short of great - but it's just asking a little more of me than I can give.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

I don't want to add to the sorrow and misery in this world

A reader of this blog commented on a recent post and I responded but want to elaborate a little bit here. I get no pleasure out of writing negative riffs on what I'm reading, though all writers have to concede that it's easier to write a take-down review than it is to write a rave, not sure why that is except in a sense a great book or story is its own entity and therefore hard to convey in words other than its own whereas a weak book or story is inevitably derivative and therefore easier to fault it in comparison w/ other achievements. Every book or story I read I hope to enjoy, but I'm very often disappointed, sometimes right off and sometimes after considerable investment in the work. My goal in these posts is certainly not to add to the already abundant store of sorrow and misery in this world, and I know how hard it is for authors to confront a negative or a vitriolic review of their work. I've experienced that, and I have thought that, should I ever publish again, I will not read reviews - kind of a shame as some of them can teach us and improve our work. I would rather write no take-downs at all - but on the other hand the purpose of this blog, read by so few, is to keep for myself and my friends a record of my daily thoughts about what I'm reading, so I try to be honest within the bounds of civility. I realize that a novel is a life's worth of investment and to knock down the accomplishment in one paragraph or post is mean and absurd - yet on the other hand, novels once published are out there for public discourse and potential readers have some right to fair warning. Finally, very often the fault in contemporary fiction gone bad is not solely that of the author. Many novels I've come across are bad but "fixable" - if only an agent or an editor had stepped up and been willing to work with the author to make his or her work better before publication. The days of Maxwell Perkins, however, are long gone - now it's take it or leave it, and a bit of a mystery why some are taken, others not.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Having fun with the conventions of the 19th-century novel: The Luminaries

Back to sort of weirdly enjoying Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries - mostly for her extreme intelligence as a writers. She is so thoughtful and attentive as she sketches in and develops a portrait of a new character - I was just introduced to the Jewish newspaper owner in the tiny NZ 19th-century gold rush town, and so imaginative as she creates a new scene - visiting a remote town halfway between the coastal "city" and the fields where the diggers pan for gold - in other words the writing is so strong, and so evocative of the 19th century, and she's so cleverly witty as she distances herself every so slightly from the material - remarking well into the 350 page account supposedly told in one evening as the newcomer to the town learns of the mysterious double murder that the men telling the tale had suddenly become a bit restless - reminding us of the narrative frame - she's obviously having a lot of fun playing with the 19th-century conventions of narrative, gently mocking while paying tribute to the long narratives of the Conrad novellas and others - and my only wish is that the plot itself were not so comically inscrutable. I am sure now that the density of the plot is part of the fun she's having with her readers - we can't really be expected to follow this, can we? - but I'd feel a little more assured and a little more likely to make it to page 830 if I cared about the characters and if I understood the mystery taking place in this small city; I don't understand it at all, don't want to make the intellectual investment of trying to keep each character and plot strand clear in my mind, nor do I particularly care about the characters (nor am I meant to), as she introduces them serially rather than cumulatively.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Yeah, right: my reaction to the plot of Silence Once Begun

I hate to rag on a book but, damn, Jesse Ball's Silence Once Begun has the most ridiculous plot I've ever come across in a novel - I was exasperated to the point where the only thing I could "write" (electronically) in the margin was, "yeah, right." I will give away the ending here, so ease up if you're still reading the book and would like to be "surprised" - but, the catch is, that the "disappearances" of the 11 people for the small Japanese city was not a mass murder but was part of a plot to expose the unfairness of the court system. To review: young man loses a bet and as a consequence signs a confession admitting that he is responsible for the "disappearances." In prison, he refuses to talk, he endures a trial, is hanged. We later learn - and by the way there is no logical reason why the author/narrator has to delay this information till the end of the novel, just part of his manipulative narrative strategy - that the guy who got him to sign the confession had engineered a scheme to reveal the injustice of the system: he found an old misanthrope living out in the country who was willing to put a bunch of old folks up in secret on his farm for, oh, a couple of years; then he recruits 11 elderly people living in the city who will simply "disappear" and resettle on the farm for a year or two while the rest of the world assumes they're dead (yeah, right, that's easy to do!), then finds someone willing to sign this fake confession and die for it - and after the execution he marches into town with along with the 11 who had "disappeared." Is there any single part of this that you can believe? All along, I thought that we were dealing with some very disturbed people who maybe out of some obsession or self-abnegation would confess to a murder they didn't commit, etc. - but this ending? We're not dealing w/ people at all - we're dealing with authorial constructs. BTW, there was a movie, also not very good but slightly more credible - The Life of David Gale - on a similar theme: man fakes his own complicity in a murder, leaves behind exonerating evidence after his execution, in order to show the world the injustice of the death penalty - at least in that case it was one person and his bizarre obsession. If there were ancillary benefits in this novel, such as a sharp and mysterious style - he so clearly emulates Sebald and Murakami, his heart and ambitions are in the right place for sure - but I'm sorry to say the writing never rises close to that level, and I'll just leave it at that, except to note that I was a nay-sayer on Dragon Tattoo and that's gone on to earn about a billion dollars so who's to say?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

No there there? Silence Once Begun

Two-thirds of the way through Jesse Ball's novel Silence Once Begun, let's try to make some sense out of it, if sense can be made: Narrator (Jesse Ball, so shall we just call him the author?)'s wife suddenly and inexplicably lapses into silence; to help deal with? heal from? this matter, Ball begins to investigate a case of a man who opted for silence, in Japan, in I think1977. Most of the novel consists of his investigative records: transcripts of his own interviews with the man's (Oda's) family and other transcripts of police interrogations. I wrote about what Oda's story in yesterday's post but suffice to say that he signed a confession to a crime he did not commit, for which he eventually is tried and executed. Why he signed this confession (and in doing so apparently lets a mass murderer escape the charge) and why he never speaks up in his defense is the mystery of the book - still unresolved - but why this case helps Ball figure out the mystery of his wife's self-imposed silence is a deeper mystery, as she appears to have nothing whatsoever in common with Oda and his story, other than the sudden refusal to speak. (BTW - the final volume of Parade's End involves a self-imposed silence, as does the end of Othello - not sure if Ball is aware of these precedents in literature). 2nd part (last third) of the novel involves Ball's meeting with the Japanese woman who coerced Oda to sign the confession; Ball's meeting her some 20 or 30 years later in Japan and her willingness to discuss this with him for his project strains credulity, but I'll accept it, at least for the moment. This novel certainly seems highly literary: enigmatic (cf Murakami), mixed media (cf Sebald, Pron), allusive - but it is not grounded in realism (Murakami) and lacks the sense of geography, history, and psychological depth (Sebald) - I'm worried, as I near the end, that it has all the literary trappings but that there's no there there.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Hello, Darkness: Jesse Ball's Silence Once Begun

Jesse Ball's novel Silence Once Begun seems to be playing on the border of fiction and creative nonfiction, for lack of a better term - his author's note at the outset says that the events in this novel are partially true. He structures the novel, at least the first part, as an investigation - reminds me of some Latin American fiction I've read, particularly novel by Patricio Pron; in this case, the narrator, named Jesse Ball, begins by stating that his wife at one point in their marriage suddenly stopped speaking for no apparent reason, which lead him to investigate another case of willed silence, which occurred in 1977 in Japan (not sure how much of this if any is true): the case he investigates involves a young man, Oda Satsuko (?), who for some completely inexplicable reason gets involved w/ some rough characters, loses a bet, and the consequence is he agrees to sign a confession - confessing to be a mass murderer wanted for death of 11 elderly people in his small city; why anyone would make such a bet (never stated why or what would happen if he won the bet) or why he would sign such a document under any circumstances or why a confession w/ no corroborating evidence at all would lead to imprisonment or what connection the guy who made the bet w/ him may have had with the murders - these are left completely unexamined, so the novel is kind of eccentric and uneven, to put it mildly. The investigation chapters are transcripts of prison interview that Ball has obtained, transcripts of his own interviews w/ various members of Oda's family, and news reports on his trial. The main point of the interviews is that Oda refused - other than a few words to one of his siblings protesting his innocence - to speak at all during any of the interviews or interrogations, he just let the case move forward. The mystery is: why? Some form of trauma or underlying mental illness? But wouldn't the authorities have had some interest in getting to the truth of the matter rather than prosecuting someone so obviously disturbed - again, w/ no corroborating evidence? I'm about a third of the way through this short novel; what will determine whether it's a really good novel is what connections Ball is able to make between the Oda case and the sorrow of his own, or the narrator's own if you prefer, life.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Excellent Murakami story in current New Yorker

Hiruki Murakami's story in current New Yorker, Yesterday, is a return from the brink for him - it's far less fantastical or magical than some of his most recent short fiction - really on the surface at least just a straightforward recollection by the narrator of a friendship of his youth: narrator is a university student, later to become a writer, apparently much like Murakami himself, who befriends an intelligent but eccentric co-worker who is unable to pass his entrance exams to the university (cannot focus on his work) and has many odd, anti-social habits, most notably that he prefers to speak in a rough dialect, something he acquired like learning a foreign language (there's no obvious English counterpart but perhaps it would be like a Manhattanite affecting a harsh Brooklyn accent?) and he likes to engage the narrator in long conversations while he's soaking in a bathtub. Despite his oddities, he has a very beautiful and intelligent and lively girlfriend, but their relationship is on hold while she's in college; he decides, however, it would be good if she would date the narrator and sets up a meeting, which leads to some heartfelt discussions - in particular, her recounting of a dream in which the moon is made of ice, the most Murakimi-like moment in the story. Then story jumps forward many years to chance encounter of narrator and the girl, who fills him in on the peripatetic life of his old friend: all three of them have moved off in separate ways. This story very beautifully captures that feeling most adults have of these chance-encounter friendships of our youth that maybe should have become friendships, or loves, for life but that for inexplicable reasons broke apart. (Many get reconnected, at least superficially, thru social media.) The title on the surface refers to the friend's propensity to write absurd lyrics to popular songs such as this one; on a deeper level, it nicely captures the reflective mood of the story, not in search of lost time but recognizing that it's almost random why some elements of our past are lost and others grow to become central to our adult lives - yet all play a role, all of these encounters help define who we are and what we have become.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Coming around to liking The Luminaries

I have to say that Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries is growing on me - it's 800+ pages and that's a long commitment and not sure I'll make it, but the novel, despite its extreme weirdness and eccentricity, has many strengths. You certainly know from the first sentence that Catton is an extremely intelligent writer; what she's done is to write a piece of historical fiction not as if from the present but as if written and published as a contemporary novel in 1867 - and yet, not quite - it feels like a Victorian (sometimes an Edwardian) novel, in its length, wide range of characters, melodramatic elements, and most of all with its omniscient narrative style that gives us a lot of character analysis - for a lot of characters. Also, the language is antique - "he strode into the room ... " - and even the publishing convention, most notably her quaint demurral at the word "damn" and its variants, always published as "d---n." Yet in other ways the 21st century creeps in: the very frank discussions of sexuality and drug abuse (opiates), rare or nonexistent in 19th-century fiction; the continued crude references to "whores" and "the whore" - I don't think you'd ever see that in 19th-c fiction. Well, it is contemporary fiction after all - and as noted in previous posts it's a bit of a pastiche-parody: not only of the plot complexity and coincidences in Dickens et al but also I've come to see of the narrative conventions of later writers such as Conrad: the first 350 page section of the novel is supposedly built around a group of men explain to a new arrival in town (Moody) the story of a suspicious double-murder: this takes to the ridiculous extreme the conventions of Heart of Darkness, Youth, et al, in which a narrator unfurls an entire novella over the course of an evening on the deck or at the club. M concern with the novel is the absurdity of the murder story that drives the plot - to the extent I can ignore that, think of it just as a Hitchcokian "maguffan" that sets all in motion - the better I like this novel, but if I try to figure out all the conflicts and elements among the many characters dead and alive I just get lost - which may after all be her point. There's some great writing and high intelligence here, but at times I fear it's like a beautiful building with nothing inside.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Ramona, Come Closer

Ramona Asubel's story in current New Yorker summer-reading issue, You Can Find Love Here, is nicely written but ultimately very slight - seems more in the vein of a Shouts and Murmurs entry than a fiction entry but so be it: she posits a dating website with prompt questions to help you fill out your profile - probably pretty close to the prompts that the various sites use, I'm guessing - and the person entering the profile info is the Cyclops of Homeric fame. OK it's a bit of a stunt and part of the long-standing tradition of the sensitive and sexy monster seeking human love - think of Rachel Ingalls's novel or more recently the thousands of vampire and zombie entries. At times it's pretty funny - he mentions that he teachers world literature, everything except the Odyssey, ha! - but all in all what's the point? One could try this for any # of literary or historical or mythical figures, I guess: What would Raskolnikov's profile look like? Hamlet's? Achilles'? But given the premier real estate - only 4 stories in this double issue of fiction - I would expect something with either more gravitas or with more LOL humor. Just saying.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Puzzled by Brief Encounter-like story in current New Yorker

Story - or is it a an excerpt? - in New Yorker summer reading issue (cute cover, Love Stories) by David Gilbert, Here's the Story, is intriguing but finally not a very satisfying read - I'll explain, but will discuss ending of story this is a spoiler alert (assuming most who will come across this post have read story already anyway): Essentially this is a Brief Encounter story, set not in 1940s England but in 1967 LA: man and woman, each unsuitably matched although nothing particularly wrong or mean about their spouses, but they each feel misunderstood, each maybe wants to get out of the marriage but hasn't even begun to think about how to do so - story begins w/ the two of them together on a plane and can you guess where the story's heading? We flash back to a few months back, and alternate see-saw like between the two characters on a single day at which they meet by chance (they are passing acquaintances, children in the same school) in a park: he has walked out of a Dodgers game, she's with youngest daughter at a 60s love-in type festival (I'm guessing all the topical and time references have been dutifully researched). Anyway, they meet, they each go home, they think about each other, by chance they board the same TWA flight and - surprise! - flight goes down on approach to Cincinnati. I don't know if that was an actual plane crash or what in particular interests Gilbert about these two characters: we can see that it's an anti-Brief Encounter, in some way, as they are heading toward an affair when their world explodes. Maybe it's a moralistic tale - the smiting of those with adulterous thoughts. Maybe Gilbert will pick up the story through their children - he must have a reason for setting this in 1967, so maybe he develops these families further - although that would be more interesting if the two had truly had an affair and the survivors learn of this through hints and bits of evidence over many years? There's got to be some significance as well to the Dodgers game and love-in: walking out of a conventional American setting and through a Looking Glass into a different social world? No doubt about it that Gilbert writes well and sketches these two characters in every efficiently - but I'm left at the end with no feeling about them at all: they're established, and then blotted out. Stories should have a narrative arc, as I've noted in many previous posts, but this story is a flat line that ends in an exclamation point. To what end?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The unberable weight of a cumbersome plot: will it crush The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries is, or appears to be at 100 + pp in and 700 + to go if I do go, not a Victorian novel but a pseudo-Victorian novel, perhaps a parody of the Victorian novel. It's got the trappings: it's long, a large cast of characters, a wide range (or at least a range) of social classes, an omniscient narrator - but what it doesn't have I think is a commitment to realistic portrayal of the social, psychological, and political dynamics of a set of characters - a family (Great Ex.), community (Middlemarch), a society (Vanity Fair), to cite some landmark examples. The plot is so cumbersome and elaborate, involving murders, purloined wealth, false identities, disappearing siblings, a hermit and a prostitute and a tattooed Maori, false shipments of gold sewn into the linings of women's clothing - and I could go on - but honestly who can follow this, and who is meant to? Increasingly, I feel we're just meant to laugh at these plot mechanics - narrated so tediously and clumsily in the early pages, before we know or care about any of the characters - and move on and pick of the atmosphere of this remote NZ gold rush town, Hokitiki (I think). Establishing atmosphere is Catton's strength - the rain-soaked and muddy streets, life on the docks, the down-at-the-heels men's club - and she's also good at sketching in characters quickly: the Irish Methodist priest living in a tent because no housing's available, the proud and highly intelligent and underestimated Maori - but what will she do with these skills? Can the novel maintain a pace or will it collapse under the unbearable weight of its cumbersome plot?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Difficult beginning to The Luminaries - but the jury's still out

I'm sure people have strongly held opinions about Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries and I'm sure I will, too, as usual, but I'm not sure what they are or will be because honestly after one night's reading, about 60 pages, which gets us through no more than 1.5 chapters, I'm completely puzzled by this tome. First of all, it comes with solid creds, notably a 2013 Booker Man. Second, it's long and it's ambitious - weighing in at 800+ pp., a true literary heavyweight, ouch, maybe I'll have to opt for the ibook version eventually - my wrists may not hold (it) up. And it sounds like a truly cool novel - in some ways a historical piece, in this case about the 1860s New Zealand gold rush, a story about a time and culture most of us know little about - always good to read about new cultures and experiences - and reminiscent of great period westerns like Lonesome Dove - but with a solid mystery mixed in and some mysticism - in fact the first info you'll encounter in the book is Catton's musings about zodiacal signs. In other words, it's a contemporary rarity - a gargantuan novel that holds nothing back that's abundant, and not wallowing in self-observation and trivia. Also, it feels very much, at least at first, like the Victorian novel of its setting - recalling maybe Possession, or from another era John Barth's 18th-century pastiche, the Sot Weed Factor. The language itself - word choice, cadence, attention to topical as well as interior detail, feels more 19th century than 21st. And yet - it is a contemporary novel - and begins with the familiar "stranger comes to town" motif, as Moody arrives in a gold rush town and wanders into a men's club, typical of its day in England but far more rustic, and is met with suspicion, even hostility. Catton really takes her time w/ this first scene, examining Moody's personality and giving plenty of description of the setting and the other characters - I admire her pacing, another rarity in contemporary fiction - and yet, I was wondering if the story is going to slowly - an 800 pager that could have been managed in 300. Then, oddly, one of the characters starts pumping Moody for info; Moody repeatedly declines to speak of his past but then - improbably, an authorial trick - gives in; the men come to accept him, as he tells of his difficult passage with a captain who, as it happens, they're all investigating. Then we launch into the 2nd chapter in which we are so overwhelmed with absurd plot detail that, a, I cannot comprehend a single bit of the story and, b, I think may be intended as a parody of the Victorian novel - maybe I'm not supposed to understand any of this stuff about dead half-brothers and estranged fathers and drunken harlots found by the roadside and so forth. If it's meant to be a comedy, it better be truly funny and had better make the payoff for my slogging thru chapter 2 worth my while as a reader. The verdict? Jury's out.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Thoughts an I B Singer's career

Read just a few more Isaac Bashevis Singer stories in the Library of America edition of his early stories - the rest I have in other single-volume collections - and also finished reading the excellent biographical notes at the end of the edition and was struck by a few elements in his life: I'm still astonished at his incredible output, not only of stories and novels but many reviews and essays, collaboration with other artists on plays and films, translations, and numerous volumes of children's books, including what's translated as The Fools of Chelm (not sure if he created this village or if it was legendary - I seem to remember an older book called The Wise Men of Chelm). He also was associated with a number of American universities in his later years, but not clear how much teaching he actually did - often the famous writers were just names on the masthead, so to speak. Learned that he broke the "translation" barrier at The New Yorker, in I think 1967 - the first work they published in translation - obviously a major step for the magazine as it became attuned to world literature and not just American writing - and has evolved into a force that brings numerous world writers to the notice of a vast American readership. I was surprised at how many adaptations there have been of Singer stories, including plays (Gimpel), opera (The Mirror - seemingly a two-person one act opera?), even ballet, hard as that is to imagine. The ghostly and spiritualistic elements that drive almost every one of Singer's early stories are obviously well suited, maybe even better suited, to stage and screen, where spirits and ghosts are familiar presences. The most famous story adaptation is of course Yentl (from Yentl the Yeshiva Boy), and was interested to see that Singer hated the movie and wrote a piece about that. What did he expect when he sold the rights to Streisand? He should have expected only one thing - that he would make a lot of $, which he did. If he wanted an art film he should have sold it to Woody Allen or to Scorcese ("You talkin' to me, God?"). IBS obviously had a life of great struggle - moving to America at age 31, death of revered older brother, writing from the margins in a nearly extinct language, estranged relationship with son and with others in his family - and from all that a tremendously rich literary output and deserved international renown.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Another look at spirituality in the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer

Let's think about the spiritual elements in Isaac Bashevis Singer's short stories in a different way: perhaps they are not meant to be like magic realism (something out of the realm of the ordinary or probable but presented in such as way as to be matter of fact and accepted within its context, thereby not contradicting realism but expanding its parameters) and not like primitivism (an element of a native culture, in this case the Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe, that the author obviously does not find credible or purposeful but that he presents as an endemic element to the life of the culture he's portraying) but rather a code or a series of signs: the people in the shtetls experience the same vagaries and infidelities and cruelties and sentimentality in their circumscribed life - a set-apart village with only a 100 or so families, largely cut off from the rest of the world - as we do today in urban, interconnected life but they don't have a vocabulary in which to explain these shifts in emotion or behavior; they don't have the Freudian terminology, for example, that we use to explain or explain away much antisocial behavior, nor do they have a medical or sociological terminology - the code they use to examine and explain their lives is the code of mysticism. For example, in the story about the young scholar (Zeidlus the Pope - had to pause to look it up but I was right) who converts to Christianity because he has visions of the grandeur that would ensue if he were to rise to the position of pope: there could be lots of reasons for this strange and deluded behavior, narcissism, borderline personality, delusions, self-loathing, anti-Semitism, lack of sexual gratification, hatred of parents for making him a scholar (think how Kafka would have presented this story), desire to escape the tiny community, and so forth. But Singer portrays it as a possession: a spirit tries to capture his soul by leading him to temptation and seduces him through his one personality flaw, vanity. Though spiritualism in part functions as a convenient plot generator for Singer, it's also no doubt an accurate portrayal of how his characters think of their world: why would a young Jewish scholar convert to Christianity? His soul must be possessed by a devilish spirit, there's no other explanation. Or, more precisely, there is no code, no set of signs or symbols, by which they can explain the aberrations in their world

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Why so many of I. B. Singer's stories seem the same

Reading through (with many skips) the Library of America first volume of the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer it's truly astonishing how often he goes to the well for stories about possession, spirits, dybbuks, and demons of all sorts; as noted in yesterday's post, many (but not all) of these stories portray women in a frightful manner - many of Singer's female characters are exceptionally powerful, but their power comes from dark forces and they often use the power in destructive ways. Reading through some of the stories collected in his 3rd volume of English translations, Short Friday, from the mid 1960s, two further things strike me: it's amazing how little of his material up to this point in his career comes from his years in the States, 25 years or so at that point in his life. Though I haven't read each of the translated stories up to that point, it seems that only one out of the 40 or so takes place entirely in the U.S. and one other concludes in the U.S. Also striking is how few of his stories are naturalistic, that is, include no elements of spiritualism, magic, possession, or surrealism - and yet, these are perhaps his best-known and best stories: Gimpel the Fool for one, also The Little Shoemakers (maybe not among his best known and maybe it's my own biases and preferences that rank it among his best), and Yentl the Yeshiva Girl (didn't re-read it, but I think it has no supernatural elements - and certainly his most profitable story). Why didn't his style mature or evolve over these years (it did later, to a degree)? I'd say in part because he was a working writer or a sort that no longer exists - publishing his stories in the daily Yiddish press, publishing the translations in the many magazines that existed then than made a market for fiction: Commentary, Saturday Evening Post, later The New Yorker, all but the latter gone or no longer in the market. But Singer was providing product for a market that paid very well - he had to meet his quota to pay his bills. The great thing about the system of those days is that a talented writer could make a living as a "man of letters," but the sad thing is that it discouraged innovation, risk-taking, and growth - encouraged repetition of successful and profitable formulaic writing, even if of a high order. Today, an I B Singer would hold a chair in a university and could publish whatever the hell he'd like, or not at all - and in some ways that's bad too: an over-emphasis on the obscure and unconventional, an inner focus on the world of academe and of ideas, a lack of exposure to the varieties of life - all of these forces have stunted or derailed many talents.