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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

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The most insipid and despicable characters in any work of fiction

Is there or could there ever be a series of novels with more insipid and despicable characters than Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose series? I wouldn't even bother with these novels, the characters are so unlikable, except that, I have to admit, the writing is extremely sharp and funny - both in the larger scheme of the stories (scenes of humiliation and abnegation such as the French ambassador splashing venison sauce on Princess Margaret's dress and being commanded to get on his knees and clean the spots with his dinner napkin) and, more tellingly, one hilarious turn of phrase after another: I am not a snob - I am friends w/ everyone from her majesty right down to the lowliest baronet (paraphrased). The wit is enough to keep me reading, but really these are just awful people - not a single one of them (possible exception Patrick's friend Johnny?) has contributed anything to the world, has any interest or passion other than his or her own self-interest, are cruel to one another, are completely mean and nasty to anyone they consider to be "below" them, have done nothing to earn or merit their so-called social status. Of course it's a dying class - the amazing thing is that it has endured for so long, with all the fucking simpering Brits who worship royalty and heraldry. One would hope that the series of novels would involve some growth or evolution at least on the part of Patrick, that he would come to see the disaster of his life and of his class - but so far he has not been able to do so, he's every bit as unpleasant as his much-loathed father. As noted previously these books are often compared with Proust, but Proust's narrator has a wide range of interests and ideas and he evolves over the course of the work, gradually coming to understand the horrors of his class and the cruelty of the those who pose as genteel, who think they're better than others by birth and manners. Note that yesterday I said the 3rd vol appears to be set in about 2000, but I should have said 1995 (Patrick is now 30).

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The demise of the British aristocracy in multiple volumes

Started reading volume 3 of Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels, or cycle - Some Hope. Is the title ironic? Is it ironic that a novel about a character who allegedly despises irony is itself ironic? Is it ironic to despise irony? In any event, this 3rd volume takes place 8 years later (25 years after the first), the narrator is now 30 and the time is the year 2000 - unlike the 2nd volume, this one reverts to the style and format of volume one, with a multitude of characters and points of view. The structure is a # of characters en route to a party at the home of Bridget and Sunny; Bridget appeared in volume one as the stoner, pretty young wealthy, spoiled American girlfriend attached to Nicholas (?), one of the debauched British aristocrats with a  series of failed marriages in his wake. Bridget, now married wealthily, is as unpleasant and nasty as any of the characters she held in contempt in volume one - particularly mean to her daughter and to her mother. But she'll get hers - Sunny (it's his birthday party she's throwing, at ridiculous expense) is about to leave her to hook up with a young woman whom he's impregnated (at least she tells him this) because he "needs" to have a male heir. Patrick so far plays a relatively minor role in this volume; he's now recovered, it seems, from his drug addiction, the main theme of volume 2, but he's become if possible even more bitter and cynical. The redeeming characters in this volume are the ones most set-upon: Patrick's friend Jonny whom we see at an NA meeting at least trying to come to terms with his addiction and his cynicism; Bridget's mother, insulted at every turn and shunned by her heartless daughter. St. Aubyn has been rightly praised for depicting the demise of the British upper classes, but is that really such a difficult target to hit? Didn't the demise occur well before the year 2000? Who cares anyway? I hope he will get into more depth of personality. And yet: his writing is every bit as sharp and funny as in the first volume. I wonder if this has been optioned? It could be quite funny on screen, too, and maybe less relentlessly dark.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Many will identify with scenes in this New Yorker story

For the past day I've been trying to memorize his name and I think I have it: Said Sayrafiezadeh - whose story The Last Dinner at Whole Foods (excellent title) graces the current New Yorker. It's a sweet story of a young man caring lovingly for his terminally ill mother, who, by at least his account, is relatively young and quite attractive. The story develops through a couple of scenes, and some bits of memory, as he recalls his childhood and her caring at that time for him - in a world where the father has abandoned the family. The scenes, as I recollect, are the aforementioned dinner, the mother kind of picking at her "broccoli cake," which is something you'd probably find at a Whole Foods buffet; a trip to a 3D movie screening of Life of Pi, the son's visit to a long-term care facility with its weird smells and aura of despair, and a final dinner at a home overheated by a wood stove that he didn't think he could ignite. Many readers of a certain age will identify with these scenes of caring for an ill parent, and the tenderness and affection - and the aura of loneliness, as we know so little about the young man and about any other connections in his life - are quite moving; the story, however, lacks the arc or sense of direction of sense of closure or even of conflicting forces that I look for in short stories - it feels like a glimpse or fragment, but not really like a completed. I think stories need a more clearly defined shape or design in other to stay in our minds - we need something, a handle so to speak, by which to hold them and carry them around in our memory.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Patrick Melrose novels and Holden Caulfield

Remained impressed by but disappointed in volume 2 of The Patrick Melrose Stories (Bad News) - some very funny lines in an acerbic, British manner and some harrowing descriptions or an upper-class junkie slumming to get his next fix - but unlike the first volume there's no background and no psychological depth: Melrose is a horrible, selfish, self-destructive young man and we get it that he became such a person in large part because of the abuse his father subjected him to - but we see nothing of this evolution, or devolution, of his character: what happened in the intervening 12 years between these two volumes? And no matter how awful his father was, what would lead this young man to become equally nasty and irresponsible? St. Aubyn doesn't examine these central issues; the novel, like the first volume, covers a very short span of time - in this case, a weekend or maybe three days - but unlike volume one it's all written in the foreground - there are no back stories and very few shifts from the POV of Melrose. I can't be the first to note this but it seems that Bad News is to a degree the anti-Catcher in the Rye: two novels about a sad, jaded, sensitive, burned-by-fate young man who travels to NYC and tries to come to terms with his life, by pursuing elusive women, checking in with lost friends, hanging out in clubs, encountering prostitutes, spending way too much money - but the mood could hardly be more different, as there is none of the whimsical sentimentality in Bad News, it's a dark voyage with little or nothing in the way of redemption or growth. Millions of readers have identified with Holden Caulfield but few, I hope, have identified or even sympathized with Melrose. The one redemption is that we know there are (at least) 3 subsequent novels, so he manages in some way to move beyond his addictions and to live some sort of life or half-life.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Breaking with Convention: St Aubyn's Bad News

Few if any have written more powerfully and convincingly about an addicts need for a nearly insane attempts to get a fix than Edward St Aubyn in his novel Bad News, a hellish journey through some of through a NY night as the protagonist, Patrick Melrose, a wealthy, aimless, dissolute young Englishman pursues various narcotics and spends a lot of cash and endures incredible agonies just for the fix and the rush. All that said, I find the novel - the 2nd in the Patrick Melrose series - a disappointment so far in that the entire psychology and mental scope of Patrick involves his pursuit of a high - or of oblivion, or death perhaps. Compare with the first volume of the series that set up complex relationships and back stories among the set of characters - with the 5-year-old Patrick as the focal point.I was expecting, and am expecting, to see more about the forces that shape his mind and his life - and we see and understand almost none of that here. (He's in NYC to attend to the details following his hated father's sudden death - but other than few vitriolic expressions of his hatred for his father he might as well be anywhere, at any time.) Surprisingly, the standard tropes of British coming-of-age novels are completed elided in this series: we know nothing about Patrick's teenage years (in "public" school, presumably) not about his college years or choice or lack of choice of career - 12 vital years entirely omitted from the scope of the series of novels - not sure why except perhaps it's St Aubyn's attempt to break w/ convention.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Jackson in the Desert

In one of those strange juxtapositions as we follow the course of reading through our lives I put aside St Aubyn's novel of drugs and debauchery, Bad News, to read a recommended recent NYer story, Greg Jackson's Wagner in the Desert, apparently a sneak preview of his forthcoming debut collection (good for the NYer for introducing a new writer) - and found myself in another drug-imbued world of self-indulgence, irresponsibility, and unfulfilled, in fact unexplained, ambition. And yet, despite its unpleasant, nihilistic qualities, the story is very daring, extremely well written, funny at times, and sharply observant - and even laughingly self-critical. Jackson is definitely a writer to pay attention to - in hopes that this state of sorrow does not constitute his entire repertoire. The story is in a sense yet another story of extremely hip and aware rich young people (20s, maybe 30s tops), in this case on the environs of LA, mainly focusing on a weekend retreat four of them - one young couple on a last fling before they try to have children (and in a long-view back reference at the top of the story tells us they do in fact have children), the narrator, and an unattached woman (an executive in training, with a large bag of cosmetics in tow) -- all assume they will become a couple, and the narrator makes that his goal for the weekend, to the extent he can have any goals except for getting high. The story begins with an inventory of pharmaceuticals that I couldn't understand but served its purpose: these people, and this writer, are pros in the field of narcotics, stimulants, hallucinogens, et al. The story could go nowhere, of course - four stoned people climb a mountain and gaze on the Salton Sea - but it's saved by Jackson's acute self-awareness and ability to push the boundaries of fiction to and beyond the point of no return: he refers to his own writing as fictional confession mode, and nothing seems to be out of his range - including a long passage on masturbation fantasies, for example. He has that rare capacity for stepping aside from his own material and reflecting on his writing and on the self about whom he's writing: in one very thoughtful passage, for ex., he reflects on the issue of how and why he can use, and is using, a first-person plural in his narration: what does it mean for a writer to talk about what "we" felt, what "we" did - who are "we," after all? The thin plot line - the other guy in the foursome is in pursuit of a financier named Wagner who might back his preposterous-sounding movie idea - isn't enough to carry the narrative, nor does it have to do so. Jackson's narration is good enough to carry us through this one; what remains in his collection, and in his career, is an open question - but I hope he, and his material, rise from this darkness.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Edward St Aubyn's Heart of Darkenss

Very long plane ride yesterday gave me time to read uninterrupted for far longer than usual and fortunately I had w/ me The Patrick Melrose Novels, by Edward St Aubyn - a Picador collection of the first four volumes: I read all of volume one (Never Mind) and about half of volume 2 (Bad News - each of the 5 volumes has a similar 2-word title; none is memorable, but I admire the consistency). Volume one, Never Mind, is just a knock-out, though certainly not a novel for all tastes: It would be hard to think of a darker of more cynical novel than this one, an absolutely skewering portrait of the totally self-absorbed, narcissistic, malevolent British upper caste circa 1965. This novel or series of novels has often been called Proustian, but that's only because it's  set of novels that seems to capture lost time - I have no idea the extent of their autobiographical veracity but they have the feeling of a novelist telling of his extremely troubled youth and maturation - yet they're not Proustian at all in mood or structure: they're in an omniscient third person, with the POV shifting quite often among the six or so main characters; they have not at all the sense of the elusive nature of time and memory, rather they are like a series of photos of the past with high contrast and sharp edges; and there is none of the feeling of love and nostalgia for family members w/ all their foibles - though Proust at times can epater les aristocrats as well as any writer, St Aubyn gives him a run at that - and then some - without the romantic, nostalgic, aesthetic counter-tones. The most evil character is Patrick Melrose's father, David - a horrible man who has wasted his talents and lives off his (American) wife's $ and is a complete snob about every pointless aspect of upper-crust British life. He is also extremely sharp and dangerously funny: pink his her best color, he notes of his wife, it matches her eyes. St Aubyn is extremely funny as well: the Melrose family thought of using their $ to open a home for alcoholics: And in a sense, he writes, they succeeded. I won't go into details but the father horribly abuses the 5-year-old Patrick, and is completely cool and unconcerned about that - and no one can protect the poor child. Entire novel takes place in one day and involves only 8 characters, much like a classic drama. The 2nd volume, Bad News, begins 17 years later as Patrick receives news of his father's death - and embarks to NYC to deal w/ the details of funeral or cremation (we don't yet know why his father, now divorced, has left Britain). Patrick is now a very serious abuser of drugs and alcohol, and he absolutely despises his father, understandably. Is it any wonder that he carries in his jacket pocket a copy of Heart of Darkness? This volume is quite change in tone from the first, as it's more tightly focused on Patrick's POV and is largely a chronicle of his debauchery, at least through the first half. Still bitterly funny at times and despairing - but the fact that there are (at least) three sequels reassures us that Patrick will pull at least some parts of his life together. Not for all tasts, but quite an accomplishment, so far.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Final story from Hawthorne's Mosses From an Old Manse in the Vintage pb Hawthorne's Short Stories is The Artist of the Beautiful in which H takes a bit of a new direction. This is another one of his stories in the "American vein" - which he helped establish - about loners and outsiders but in this instance it's one of his few about the life and struggles of an artist. He takes on the topic indirectly: his artist is a young man obsessed with capturing the beauty of nature in a minute mechanical device , a toy butterfly in fact. Unlike the various scientists and witches who tamper w nature in other H stories this artist is a sorrowful but deeply sympathetic figure. He cuts himself off from society and more specifically from the woman he loves from afar to pursue his art: he is a failed watchmaker and she marries a brawny and utterly conventional blacksmith. The artist looks from outside at their relationship and knows he could never have such a marriage but he is devoted to his pursuit of the beautiful. Hawthorne has many passages reflecting on the life of the artist: I don't know much about Hawthorne's life but suspect that at least to others he has a life of conventional success but this story may give a window onto the struggles and doubts that plagued him. Other writers in his wake have written on this theme most notably and similarly Thomas Mann in Tonio Kroger.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014


The oddly named story Egotism or The Bosom Serpent show Hawthorne at both his best and worst. It begins as powerfully as any horror story or story of mental derangement : a young artist returns from Florence to his home town (unnamed but presumably in the us) and finds his old friend completely deranged: he believes a snake lives inside him and is devouring him from within. His steady complaint is "it gnaws me!" He has also become a public nuisance confronting others in town and speaking of his possession or obsession - that's the egotism of the title he thinks only of himself - and seeming to discern that other respectable citizens have snakes inside them - a persistent Hawthorne theme the interior guilt of seemingly upright citizens. Hawthorne does a fantastic job describing the man as reptilian: walking sinuously looking slightly greenish even softly hissing as he speaks. Great start - but then lovecraft meets Disney as Hawthorne has no idea what to do or else is afraid to do what the horrible mode of the story demands and he has the man cured when his long neglected wife speaks to him and he thinks of her rather than only of himself. Think of what Poe or Lovecraft would have done w this material: would he have ended in a madhouse? Would he fully transform into a snake? Would he poison others?

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Hawthorne's story Feathertop is another variant on the mad-scientist theme although in this case instead of a scholar of philosophy and medicine in search of the perfect elixer of life (and death) we have an ages, gnarled New England witch who starts off by creating a comically ugly scarecrow but becomes so enamored of her creation that she gives it animated life and send h out into the world. Once Feathertop so named goes into town the story becomes a "moralized" tale: because of his fine clothing all of the villagers mistake him for a continental aristocrat and he nearly wins the heart of a vain and beautiful village girl until his true nature is revealed. He returns to his creator who then opines that there are plenty of people in the world equally specious and vacuous who are mistaken for wise and profound. Ok not a greatly original story and hardly as profound and disturbing as some of Hawthorne's other stories involving sorcery and the dark sciences - in fact this one notable for its benevolent portrayal of a witch - all making it a story perhaps aimed at a younger readership and definitely today a very teachable because moralistic story.

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Monday, July 21, 2014


Hawthorne for all of his strengths was no satirist. He tried his hand at satire w The Celestial Railroad and to today's reader the story seems quaint and aimless. It's his attempt at a mid-19th century update of pilgrim's progress - as the narrator journeys to the celestial city not as a pilgrim on foot but aboard a newly constructed railroad, accompanied by a guide - mr. Smooth it over or something like that, one of the directors of the railroad. The point seems to be that in modern industrial society we are sped along toward our destiny and we don't have the opportunity or inclination to wrestle w our faith and that the forces of charity are crushed by the drive toward capitalist expansion and accumulation of wealth. That said there is nothing particularly stirring or memorable about this heavenward journey and all modern readers will cringe at the concluding lines: i woke and thank god it was all a dream. Even w the hint of irony - it may have been a dream but we recognize it's veracity - it seems an amateurish way to conclude a story - in any century.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014


Rappacinni's Daughter is a companion piece to Hawthorne's story The Birthmark and the two of them mark a new turn in Hawthorne's work: the scientist who over-reaches and believes he can change the course of nature and in particular that he can control the life and destiny of a beautiful you woman. Each story is creepy in its own way but R's Daughter particularly so in that it's about and old and bitter man who isolates his daughter from humanity and makes her a malevolent and pestilential being. When a young man, Giovanni, falls in love w her R brings G too under his control and makes him pestilential as well - believing he is doing a favor to both by isolating them from the world. Especially powerful descriptions of the sweet but rotting odor of the flowers in R's garden and how this malevolent odor infects both young people. The story ends w a turn toward the melodramatic but leaves a powerful impression in any case - is R so different today from supposedly well-meaning parents who isolate their children from their peers thru weird cult behavior or anti-social indulgences and ideologies?

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Saturday, July 19, 2014


Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown is surely one of his masterpieces perfectly balancing allegory with mystery, religious didacticism w psychological angst. Ygb of the title 30 years old and three months married leaves his wife the aptly named Faith to go off on some kind of overnight mission. It is never stated precisely why he's leaving or even why he tells her he's leaving. These are colonial times in Salem and any night journey thru the woods is drought w danger as Hawthorne makes clear - there is a foreboding that brown may never see his wife again. In the woods he meets a satanic figure - again it's mysterious whether this was the intended assignation or the interruption of a mission. In either case the devil tempts brown - but is a very strange and threatening way showing brown that many prominent people in Salem have secretly come over to the dark side. Eventually in the heart of the forest brown comes upon a cabalist satanic ceremony that includes the minister and final even his wife. Is it a delusion or has he seen something really at the heart of Puritan society and culture? He finally seems to "wake" and to return to his village but forever changed - he no longer loves his wife and he has lost his "faith" - Hawthorne brings us at end of story right to his graveside. Strange and alien as this story seems and seemed even in Hawthorne's day - the colonial village - it also taps into universal emotions and fears - the dark journey thru the night the testing of values the dark knowledge the uncovering of hypocrisy the loss of balance and direction. Has anyone ever filmed this story or adapted it to a modern setting? It seems to be a trope for many contemporary films about dream journeys and passage thru darkness and return home forever changed.

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Friday, July 18, 2014


In his second story collection, mosses from an old manse, Hawthorne obviously becomes a little more ambitious w longer and more thoughtful stories that are not as tendentious nor as folkloric. Many of the early stories live or die based on our tolerance as readers for stories and legends about ghosts and hauntings. The stories from Mosses also include elements of the mysterious and supernatural but they are less like old legends recounted long afterwards but instead are contemporary stories of the weird and macabre - again we can trace the passage from Hawthorne to Poe to lovecraft to king: The Birthmark, first of the Mosses stories in the vintage Hawthorne's short stories, is about a brilliant scientist who becomes obsessed about a birthmark on his wife's cheek - the only thing that mars her perfect beauty he believes - and concocts a series of potions to eradicate it. He succeeds and in doing so kills his wife. The moral so to speak is that there nature does not tolerate perfection our world is made up of perfections in every aspect of life and only the afterlife or spiritual world can accommodate perfection. The deeper meaning of the story however is Hawthorne's uncanny perceptions about an obsessed man who ruins all he touches including his earthly happiness. Story unfortunately also exposes Hawthorne's weakness at dialogue as the characters consistently address each other as high minded character from a play - tho he was writing only 20 years or so before Flaubert he seems a hundred years removed from naturalism.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014


The last story from Twice-told tales in the vintage pb Hawthorne's Short Stories, endicott and the Red Cross , is a bookend to the first story in the collection - a scene or moment in colonial pre-revolutionary history captures as if in a documentary video - in this case the first stirring of revolutionary fervor in the mid 17th century. Endicott is assembling a colonial militia under the British flag - the Red Cross of the title - for military exercises when he receives a message from roger Williams that the king of England will begin cracking down on colonial dissidents and will impose the Church of England on the colonies. Endicott then addresses the troops in a fiery rant stirring them to uprising against British rule - he slashes the cross out of his own banner. So this is the first moment in a sense of American resistance - raised in the cause of religious freedom. What makes the story excellent however is not this central scene but the material that h sketches in around the edges - the people watching the militia one person in the stocks others with brands and deformities imposed because they opposed the Puritan doctrine even a woman wearing a large scarlet letter A on her dress - a foretelling. Also words of warning about religious intolerance for our ri hero Williams and some native Americans observing the whole scene silently. The ideals of our nation were never so pure and universal but were born out of self-interest and even out of hatred and intolerance - freedom for me, not for thee, freedom to practice my religion. Hawthorn gets all this by understatement and innuendo - and there's a message in there for those today who appropriate the revolutionary ideals and symbols for their own forms of hatred and intolerance.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Peter goldthwaite's treasure is another one of Hawthorne's stories in twice-told tales about a village eccentric in this case the eponymous Peter who has been a completely unfortunate businessman always dreaming of making a sudden fortune thru his outlandish speculations - Mexican real estate, provincial currency eg - and ending up in dire poverty his only possession his fairly large house. His former biz partner wants to buy the house but p refuses to sell because he has the curious idea that his ancestor of same name and misfortune had hidden a great treasure somewhere in the house. He proceeds over the course of a year to demolish the house as he lives in it - with the help of his ever-faithful and sensible housekeeper who uses the boards from the building for heat. In the end the house has literally consumed itself as h notes - and then the former biz partner comes along and against expectations makes a more than fair offer for the property and takes peter and housekeeper under his protection. So H is a bit of a sentimentalist here. We realize that peter's treasure is not material but personal. H is also a bit sentimental nostalgic or naive or all of above about capitalism and social responsibility - how should we look at this? Capitalists will take care of the needy? We'd all b fine if we just let the forces of the free market have their way? We should leave "charity" to individuals rather than to government? Capitalism today is more rapacious faceless and abstract - a corporation - can you say Bain? - would no doubt snatch up peter's property in foreclosure and put in condos.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014


You have to figure that Hawthorne was living largely or entirely from earnings from his stories in the 1830s (possible to do in those days) so he developed a formula that worked and kept to it. What are some of the elements?: and old woman obsessed or mad wandering thru the town and tolerated by the townsfolk; and old and abandoned house that mysteriously comes alive when the spirits of long-ago inhabitants manifest themselves; a kindly if somewhat feckless village minister; a pledge or a vow; a legend being retold or recollected (hence title of his first collection , twice-told tales); contempt toward the British and patriotic fervor for the revolutionary heroes and ideals; skepticism about religious fervor or intolerance on any form; acceptance of mystery and spiritualism if not complete credence; to name a few. Many of these elements in the story The White Old Maid - along with a well-constructed narrative (line from first par reappears surprisingly in last) and a haunting ambiguity as story is seen from pov of outsiders and not from the central characters so we are not sure precisely what occurred between the two "maids."

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Monday, July 14, 2014


In his story The Ambitious Guest Hawthorne again establishes a very powerful mood and sense of place by writing about a time and place that was both familiar to him as a landscape but removed from him in time and sensibility: in this case a small family house in the gap or notch beside mount washington and in what appears to be the late 1700s or about 50 years before Hawthorne's time. He describes a small and comfortable family setting almost a parody of the "happy" family and of American virtues - self reliant resilient open hearted. The family keeps a kind of informal in taking in the occasional traveler passing thru the notch and bringing the traveler right up to the family hearth. The essence of the story is that this household is a small place of comfort and protection against the treacherous conditions outside and on the mount is crest. The traveler of the title is a young man they take in who says he is driven to become famous even posthumously tho he concedes he has accomplished nothing yet and doesn't even say what he is pursuing. This conversation leads others in the fam to speak of their secret goals and ambitions. Then - devastation: a rockslide and they rush out of the house to shelter as house is spared and they all vanish bodies never recovered. So there is on one hand the tendentious moral element: be thankful for what you have and don't be seduced by pride and ambition. The Spiritual or religious element we all on this earth will vanish without a trace. The ironic - the traveler is famous in a way tho still unknown and unnamed. And the narrative or legendary element: the strangeness of the encounter. The hints of sexual yearlings unfulfilled (the daughter esp), the the contrast between grandmother thinking of death and the children wanting to go on an outing during the storm and finally the passing stage coach that they let dont take in - distant singing and carousing voices during the night.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014


Hawthorn e's story Old Esther Dudley is another look back at colonial times and the first years of American independence and at first we may be astonished at Hawthorne's vitriol toward the British but then we realize that the American revolution was relatively recent history just 50 years back - like the 60s to us - and Hawthorne would have known many who lived through those years. It's also so refreshing to read a serious writer of the time who is so angered by the privileges of rank and birth - an American virtue that is sadly faded. Dudley of the title is the last and most staunch royalist and refuses to leave the province house where she has lived almost for free for many years. She persist on thru the revolution telling children takes of the grand events that used to take place there, bringing ghostly visions of the past alive. Story compare well w the gray champion in that in this story the first gov of mass John Hancock treats Dudley tenderly and honor her resolve w out bitterness tho she remains angry and even delusional. Reading these Hawthorne stories kindles faith in the founding principles and ideals of the USA and makes me sad to think how these have been appropriated by reactionary groups such as t part Cato heritage Koch bros and on and on - As if they actually believe in liberty and justice.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014


Hawthone's story lady eleanore's mantle is another one of his stories that touches on the weird and the macabre and also on instances of moral and social injustice but unfortunately is also too melodramatic and schematic to be a great story. In brief story involves a haughty and beautiful young English woman who come to Massachusetts in colonial times and is scornful of the colonists. She also brings w her the contagion of smallpox that devastated the colony esp the upper classes and makes her into a legendary object of contempt. H 's politics here are admirable if simplistic. Could have been a stronger story had he made lady e's affliction w her own disease more of a surprise but we can c it coming for a mile. Still for those ready to write off Hawthorne this is another example of his furious commitment to freedom equality and American values - unlike so many writers of his day and ours who worship all things aristocratic and British.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

New Yorker short story

Pretty impressive story in current New Yorker from Allegra goodman, apple cake, about a 70ish woman dying and mourned w much sturm und drang by her tow older sisters and by many children nephews in laws et al. The strength of the story is how quite subtly goodman uses the death of the youngest sister to tell the story of the conflicts and antagonisms between the two elder sibs. In other words the death is just the cat's paw that opens the way to a story about other issues and other people. That said goodman also does a great job giving us access to the thoughts and feelings of the dying woman - beset upon by so many visitors each trying to help and to mourn but fee or none making her feel any better. We don't learn apt about her life but her death handled swiftly and gracefully. On the Dow side however goodman almost perversely fills this story w a nearly tolstoyan number of characters barely distinguishable at times - perhaps to intentionally comic effect but also somewhat bewildering.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tawdry ending spoils potentially excellent Hawthorne story

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Prophetic Pictures could have been a great story had H. not backed off in the end and opted for a cheap, melodramatic conclusion: the story (I'm reading his short stories in an old Vintage pb, Hawthorne's Short Stories, Arvin ed.) is about a young couple about to be married who go to a highly talented artist to paint their portraits; H describes the artist as almost godlike - with a vast amount of knowledge of art, nature, philosophy, language - and very peculiarly devoted to his work: he will only paint portraits of those in whom he sees a certain inner light, and will turn down expensive commissions if uninterested but will also paint portraits of children or others who cannot pay. He is immediately struck by the couple who come to see him and agrees to paint their portraits; when he finishes, they both look at the picture and are astonished to see that they each have a strange look. The wife, Elinor, is particularly disturbed; the artist says he could revise the portrait but she says to let it be - he also shows her a sketch he did of the two of them together, which astonishes her in some way. The couple hang the portraits in their new house, but eventually - they are so disturbing - they cover the portraits with drapery, allegedly to protect against light and dust. The artist goes off and spends some years in the "wilderness," painting nature scenes and portraits of Native Americans - at last he returns, goes to their house, and asks to see the portraits. They agree, pull back the drapery - and at this point it's obvious that the wife is depressed and the husband obsessed or mad in some way - and Hawthorne should have left it at that! The story would have at that point been weird and provocative: did the artist see something in their souls? Or did the portraits themselves change the lives of the subjects, in the way that sometimes "predictions" from seers can influence rather than foresee behavior? Instead, he has the man pull out a knife and try to stab his wife - and then he shows the sketch he'd made which "predicted" this murder. This tawdry ending pushes the story over the top; so much wish I could re-write it for him!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The line from Hawthorne to Lovecraft - and why one of Hawthorne's famous stories is one of his weakest

The Great Carbuncle is one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's better-known stories - also one of his weaker stories - and these two facts may be related. I think it's pretty well known because it's eminently "teachable," an analogy or parable like many "tales," such as Chaucer's, for example, that is seemingly deep and mysterious but actually pretty self-evident and didactic. In this case, a group of 7 men and one woman are in pursuit of the eponymous carbuncle, a rare gem that gives off an tremendous, alluring glow. Camping out during a storm that interrupts their search, each explains why he or she is seeking this gem: one to add to the honors and treasure of his aristocratic family, one to worship it through poetry, another to break it apart and study it scientifically, and so forth. So each is pursuing his or her fortune or fate, each in a different way. They depart the next morning in search of the gem, we go w/ the man and woman, a young and modest married couple. After a climb up the heights of the White Mountains, they come upon the carbuncle - and the dead body of one of the treasure-hunters. The woman says they should return to the valley and pursue their just-beginning married life. They of course are the only ones to truly "find" the gem - all others die in the pursuit. So those who turn away from vanity, self-absorption, narcissism, obsession, and grandiosity are the ones who have truly found the "gem" of life. You can see why English teachers in middle schools and high schools like, or used to like anyway, this story- easy to build discussion, to unravel, to "discover" the gem of the story. But for Hawthorne this is pretty weak brew - he's a much better writer when less schematic and more mysterious. One strength of the story, though, is the climb up the heights to reach the gem - through a storm, then above the clouds on a desolate landscape above the tree line - all White Mountain hikers will recognize this - and then discovery of a lake and a waterfall, and the dead body - this kind of writing clearly inspired another New England writer, Lovecraft, in some of his creepiest scenes - only Lovecraft could make Vermont a creepy state - and again I'm surprised and impressed to see what a strong influence Hawthorne had on horror fiction and the macabre in the 20th and 21st centuries. Easy to underestimate Hawthorne as a quaint New England version of Washington Irving - there's much more to him, though.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Wakefield mystery: Some thoughts on the meaning of Hawthorne's famous story

Easy to underestimate Nathaniel Hawthorne because the sometimes quaint, sometimes overly folksy style - he was I think self-consciously antique even in his day, both in his style and often in his subject matter - but his best stories completely stand up to the test of time - maybe their antique nature has insulated them from time a little bit; they are of no particular age - and they have about them a weirdness and creepiness that opened the doorway to Poe, Lovecraft, King et al. Take Wakefield, one of his justly most famous stories; I hadn't read it for many years and was surprised, coming back to it (I've been reading an old Vintage pb Nathaniel Hawthorne Selected Stories) that he tells the whole plot in the first paragraph - a man walks out of his married life, moves into an apartment on the next street (in London), observes his house and wife daily , and then walks in the front door again 20 years later and resumes his married life. Hawthorne sets up this frame - a true story, he alleges - and then fills in the "blanks," imagining Wakefield's thoughts, actions, and behavior over this 20-year span. It's extremely weird to think of Wakefield's behavior in literal terms: the complete social perversity of abandoning a family, allowing oneself to literally be declared dead and mourned, to silently observe the life and the suffering of another. Hawthorne of course uses this trope as a venue for remaking on the indifference of modern urban society - how easy it is to blend in and be unnoticed and forgotten. He also recognizes the mania within Wakefield, but cannot exactly explain it nor does he try to; he does imagine that the decision to abandon his home and his life is in a sense a decision he makes every day - he didn't set out to be apart for 20 years. He finally calls Wakefield the Outcast of Society, but is that true? Society did not cast him out; he's a self-exile. Obviously Melville's Bartleby is an echo of Wakefield - both stories about a loner, an outsider, fixated and obsessed - and both are vivid and early examples of the essential American short story, which tends to focus on loners and outsiders, separating from society rather than joining society. Could there be a Wakefield today, or even then? Would be much more difficult than Hawthorne's account allows, esp today, to exist without leaving an electronic footprint. Even then: Where did his funds come from? And could he really live a block away without ever being recognized? Well, it's not meant to be an entirely realistic story; in some way, it's a story about the art of fiction: Isn't Wakefield, the silent observer, much like the writer, like Hawthorne himself - unseen, and watching others?

Monday, July 7, 2014

From Hawthorne to J.D. Salinger: The May Pole of Merry Mount

Nathaniel Hawthorne's story The May Pole of Merry Mount is stranger and darker than it first appears - in fact, that's true of much of Hawthorne's short fiction; at first it seems like he's writing a quaint and sentimental account of the festive celebrations in colonial Massachusetts: a fairly extensive and detailed account of how the village decorated its May pole, keeps the festivities going each season, but esp. in spring, crowning a kind and queen of the May, the village priest calls on everyone to dance and celebrate - this is the kind of world that CL Barber wrote about in Shakespeare's Festive Comedies, one of the most famous analyses of the comedies and one that I essentially skewered when I wrote on this same topic as his view was completely one-sided and oblivious about social class. Hawthorne has the same wider vision: he introduces a dark note in the story and the king and queen of May look at each other and briefly realize they will not hold their "crowns" forever, there's a shadow of death that passes over them. And then Hawthorne flips the story around: the Puritans arrive, led by their hateful and narrow-minded governor (?) Endicott - they knock down the May pole, threaten all with whipping and imprisonment, arrest the priest, finally confront the king and queen of May and realize that they at least have a chance for redemption bring them into the Puritan society - dark, mirthless, insular, racist, and xenophobic. This story is in its way a model for every counter-culture story for generations that follow: Isn't Catcher in the Rye its descendant? One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? On the Road? A million others? It could have been the anthem for the '60s anti-war movement and cultural revolution - in particular, when the Puritans insist that they trim the flowing locks of the May king. It's also the antecedent to the many accounts of religious oppression that we see today: the Taliban, the fanatics of ISIS, the Boko whatever in Nigeria - all should read this story (ha!). Yes, it's kind of naive in its romantic vision of the festive celebrations but it's one of the starkest literary depictions of a clash of cultures and world view. Which side are you on?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The influence of The Minister's Black Veil

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil is definitely one of the creepiest stories in Amerian literature and justly famous as a classic of 19th-century fiction - archaic, as much of Hawthorne is, even in his day, and another piece of evidence of his fascination, fixation, and to a degree romanticization of the Puritans of the colonial era. Story is quite simple in outline: in the Puritan village of Milford one day without warning or explanation the minister, Mr. Hooper, appears in church wearing a black veil that conceals his face down to his lips. He delivers his sermon - his sermons known for their general placidity - and greets people outside the church and on the street, but says nothing about his startling new appearance. Over time, everyone in the village is talking about his strange behavior, wondering whether he's doing penance for some grievous sin; children begin to fear him, others to mock him. The elders of the church back off and don't even ask him why he's wearing the veil; it even takes his wife some time to do so - about half-way through the story he speaks for the first time, tells her he will wear the veil for the rest of his life, until death when each of us sheds our mortal "veil" - for her, that's too much and she abandons their marriage (though, as we learn at the end of the story, she remains faithful to their vows and becomes a nurse - whether just for him or for others is unclear). He wears the veil until his death, becoming famous and mysterious because of this, and on his deathbed, as they try to remove the veil, he sits up and protests and says that everyone who has been cruel to others, who has committed sinful acts that they think others can't or shouldn't see (though God can), wears a veil like his. And then he dies. The whole idea of a man passing his entire life wearing such a mask - and to do so suddenly and without any warning or explanation - is very disturbing - and a percursor to various tales, songs, legends in popular culture: King's The Man in the Black Coat, Dylan's song of similar title, e.g. It's difficult to fathom precise meaning from the story, but it's effect is disturbing and disconcerting - perhaps made even more by Hawthorne's own note that minister in Maine did wear a veil or mask throughout his life after he'd killed a friend by accident. People passing among us who look "different" and concealed frighten us, like ghosts, specters, or visions from a dream.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Two versions of oppression: Hawthorne's stories

Because we might be going to Salem today in anticipation picked up old collection of very old Hawthorne stories - who reads these today except students? and me? - and read first in the collection, a patriotic rouser called The Grey Champion - obviously meant to be a stump speech or sermon type of story, a story to stir a crowd, maybe on a patriotic occasion - so appropriate that I read it on the 4th - and it's also very quaint to read it today, especially w/, as bro-in-law J was reminding me, our more complex understanding of the politics of the colonial era. This story recalls the rebellions of 1689 in the Mass Bay Colony when the people - although let's remember not the native people but the Puritan settlers - stood up against the British forces of Governor/General Andros and his lackeys. It's hysterical to read Hawthorne's characterizations of the British tyrants and their puppet government - and also very frightening, over-written as it may be - as there are similar oppressive governments (though they are less often colonial governments, that era seems largely completed on this planet) that hold people in terror and oppression. As the Puritans stand up to Andros, one brave, elderly, solitary figure - the eponymous champion - stands before the advancing redcoats and by his very presence halts the army - and who today could read this and not think of Tian-an-min Square, and who cannot think of the many truth-to-power revolutions of the past 20 years and of the oppressive governments yet to fall? The deeper "layer" that we bring to the story today, of course, is our understanding that the Puritans - which H. also shared, obviously, as anyone who's read the Scarlet Letter, that is, everyone, knows - weren't so morally or politically pure themselves: the freedom that they wanted was to a great to degree freedom to oppress or exclude others: the native Americans of course but also any community w/ differing religious beliefs; J points out that the British were bringing the various Mass colonies together into the present-day Commonwealth to dilute the Puritan power, as oppressive as the British monarchy against which Hawthorne fulminates.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The rise of the Snopes clan the descent of others

And so at last, of course, the Snopes clan triumphs in William Faulkner's The Hamlet - as the last section, The Peasants, in which the trio of Ratliff - the seemingly smartest and wittiest character in the novel - along with the completely hapless and obsessed Armstid and a 3rd character, Bookwright? - think they're duping Flem Snopes into selling them the old Varner property because they know that there's buried "treasure" that is old coins and silver that the original patriarch had buried for protection during the Civil War. Ratliff is really smart - in that he's the first to realize that Snopes has fooled them: setting it up so that they would believe there was buried loot, apparently hiring someone else to dig at night and draw the attention of the 3 guys, probably bribing the douser who leads them to a few buried coins - all to exact a far-too-high price for the property, in which the old mansion sits in ruins. At the end of the novel we see Flem Snopes packing his family belongings and heading to the county seat, Jefferson -he's on to bigger things than Frenchman's Bend can offer - and the 3 guys and others staying behind - final image is of the now completely deranged Armstid digging feverishly and needlessly on the worthless property he now owns. In some way, Faulkner shows that at the least this society of the new South is open to those with talent and drive - it's not controlled by those who inherited wealth but by those who seize wealth - but he also shows the cruelty and barbarity of modern capitalism: the rise of the Snopes clan and of Flem in particular takes place at the expense of or almost literally on the backs of others: people like Armstid are crushed, and nobody cares. Blacks in the new South play almost no role in this novel - atypical for Faulkner - as they play an ambiguous role in the society: obviously the blacks of the South are far better off in the 20th century than in the 19th but their so-called freedom has not brought them any access to wealth, power, or prestige - all of the social and economic machinations that Faulkner chronicles in The Hamlet take place within the white community of Frenchman's Bend - the blacks are marginalized, and perhaps in this case, a novel of cruelty and deceit,  better off so.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Significance of ending of The Hamlet

Final segment of Faulkner's The Hamlet involve three guys - Ratliff the central narrative figure, Henry (the guy who bought the horse and broke his leg - and his wife tried unsuccessfully to get the $ back from Flem Snopes) and a 3rd character on whom I never got a reading, Bookright - Henry became aware the Snopes was spending his nights diging holes on the grounds of the old Varner estate, formerly the mansion owned by the patriarch of Frenchman's Bend in the antebellum era - in other words the now near ruined house has passed from feudal colonial to old south to new south - the 3 men spy on Snopes at night and realize he's digging for treasure hidden against marauding bands during the Civil War. They come back later at night with an old douser who uses a split peach-tree branch to find where the treasure is buried and the 3 spend the rest of the night unearthing bags of silver coins - but of course they're already fighting w/ one another about dividing the wealth. This echoes back to many literary antecedents - as far back at least as Chaucer - I think it was the Pardoner's Tale? - which led to the simplistic moral conclusion that $ is the root of all evil. Faulkner's vision is a little darker and more comprehensive: he's showing I think the gradual degradation of not only money, commerce, wealth but of the social values that hold a community together or split it apart over many generations - not that he's romanticizing the past a la Margaret Mitchell but that he sees an inevitable baseness and cruelty as the society becomes more fluid and more competitive and even, to a very small degree, more open.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Capitalism in Faulkner and today

Could there be any greater short vignette about the evils of cold-hearted capitalism than the "trial" scene in Faulkner's The Hamlet, when the woman stands before the county judge and pleads for the return of the $5 her husband paid for a wild horse - as she notes plaintively, the auctioneer gave the $5 back to his boss, the evil Flem Snopes, and when she went to Snopes to claim the money he said he didn't have it, the Texan took it with him; then Snopes, sitting on the verandah of his store, surrounded by a bunch of village louts, whittling, asks her to wait a minute - goes into the store - and comes out w/ a small bag of candy that he "gives" her - and then ostentatiously pays the clerk, his employee, a nickle. Horrible. In the trial, the woman does not recount this but merely pleads for the money in her meek way - she says if she'd know the money if it were returned to her because she earned it over time from her knitting and saved it for shoes for "the chaps" - she has that weak an understanding of the fungibility of cash. The judge can't find for her, though, as it's not clear to the law who owns the (escaped) horse. So she walks away from the courtroom - she tried, pathetically. This section of the novel is called The Peasants (I think all or part of this section may also sometimes appear as a novella under the title Spotted Horses?) and you can see that she - and others - really are peasants who had a bit of a place, albeit at the bottom, in the feudal structure of the Old South where at least to a degree the community cared for their interests, but in the New South, with its cash economy and legal contracts, the peasants are lost and without recourse: they are the detritus that capitalism would throw aside, as would many people, many political movements, perhaps even one national political party, would do today.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Possible meaning of The Peasants section of The Hamlet

The last section of Faulkner's The Hamlet - The Peasants - begins in high-comic fashion as "a stranger comes to town" - in this case a Texan named Buck, brought in by the conniving Flem Snopes along with a herd of wild Texas ponies that he plans to put up for auction. Of course you can see that nobody in their right mind would buy any one of these untamed horses - but the genius of the story, or perhaps of Buck, is that he does manage to sell them all - starts by giving one away ends up selling the lot to the townsfolk - which suggests their complete gullibility - and includes one strand of pathos, as an obviously impoverished man comes up and insists on bidding on one of the horses, as his wife protests, begs Buck to not sell him a horse, they have no money to feed the "chaps" back home. The scene eventually becomes wild as the men at the end of the days, remorseful as if at the conclusion of a drunken debauch, try to grab the horses each has bought - the herd breaks loose, creates havoc in the town, seriously injuring at least one man - the guy who shouldn't have bid at all. So this part of the novel - the most straightforward of all in its narration and the plainest in style - is some kind of allegory or analogue - people falling prey to false prophets and victims of their own greed - it's like the banking crisis of the 21st century played out in miniature (interestingly, the young boy who witnesses the whole debacle and comes out miraculously unscathed is named Wallstreet Panic).