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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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Odyssey, Hamlet, and world literature

Following up on yesterday's post, Homer does not begin The Odyssey with the tale of the voyage of Odysseus but rather with the goddess Athena's visit to Ithaca where she inspires O's young (teenage?) son, Telemachus, to embark on a journey of his own to learn whether O is alive or dead. So there are to "odysseys" in The Odyssey, and it starts out with T sailing off to visit some of his father's war buddies to learn what they know, if anything about the fate of his father. Honestly, what a terrific beginning! Everyone knows of O's sufferings but most readers, I think, forget of the suffering of Telemachus - watching the hundreds of suitors for his mother's hand gorge themselves on the food and wine of Ithaca - a humiliating and frightening experience for a young man. Part of the pleasure is spoiled for us as we know, obviously, that O is alive and trying to get back to Ithaca - but imagine reading or hearing this story for the first time: it begins as a story of a young man trying to learn the fate of his long-absent father. This is a great trope for many novels and films and other works of literature; in fact, it anticipates in some ways the struggle of Hamlet - though in this case without the Oedipal overtones - but with many of the same dynamics: the son's hatred of the suitors, the feeling of ineffectiveness, the uncertainty about the father's fate, the need for the son to take action against the powerful. This theme, often overlooked I think, governs much of the action of The Odyssey: it's a saga about journey and return, but also about a young man's maturation, or coming of age if you will - in other words, through both Odysseus and Telemachus, The Odyssey establishes two of the structures or templates that have shaped much of world literature over two millennia.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

So you think you know the Odyssey?

I'm guessing most people who've read or think they've read The Odyssey would tell you it begins with Odysseus setting forth on his eponymous sea voyage but that's not so - the Odyssey begins actually toward the end of the story, in medias res or in the middle of the journey, as the phrase goes: it begins years after the fall of Troy at a time when all of the Grecian heroes have returned home except for Odysseus, who is still lost at sea, rumored to be held captive as a slave, by Calypso; as the story begins the gods are meeting, as they seem wont to do - but this meeting is auspicious because Poseidon is absent - the sea god is the cause of the torment of O., because P is angry at O's blinding of his Cyclopean son - and Athena calls for mercy on O.  - she garbs herself as a young man and descends to earth, to Ithaca, where she appears before O's son Telemachus; the court of O. is filled with suitors for his presumably widowed Penelope, and they're all a bunch of opportunistic boors. As T. laments to Athena, whom he does not recognize as a goddess, they're eating up his inheritance. She tells him to go in search of his father, to make inquiries among the other Greek generals, assuring him his father is still alive - then she ascends and T. understands he's had a visitation. Imagine, now, reading all this and not knowing anything of O's voyage - what an incredibly great narrative, what an amazing way to bring us into the story, how could you not want to read (or listen) further? I'm reading the relatively recent Mitchell translation which seems to have an appropriate balance of the colloquial and the sonorous.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Joseph O'Neill surfaces - glad to see his fiction in current New Yorker

Glad to see short fiction by Joseph O'Neill in current New Yorker - first time they've published him I think - following his breakout Netherland, which is one of the few novels of recent years that I admired for both literary excellence and narrative entertainment - and have wondered if it was a one-off or if it was the start of a great career - and since then a pretty long silence (I did not go back and read his first two books, figuring they would tarnish rather than burnish the image); O'Neill seems one of those European English-educated polymaths, if I remember he is from Ireland, lived in the Netherlands, law school maybe @ Cambridge?, came to the U.S. where he could presumably make a lot of $ in international law, set it aside to pursue writing (wonder if his wife is the bread-earner, as one might think from reading Netherland), lived in the super-hip Chelsea Hotel - all the best writer creds, and with all those reasons to dislike him I still really liked his novel, so there. Bio note in NYer says a new one due this fall; the short piece in the NYer, called Referees, doesn't seem like a story - it ends far too abruptly and inartfully to make me think O'Neill composed it as a separate piece - so I'm guessing it may have been lifted from the forthcoming novel (writers ought to pay the NYer for doing that, rather than the other way around). Expectations for a short story format aside, the piece is really quite terrific; O'Neill very expertly captures the 30-something dude vernacular - showing even further range than he exhibited in Netherland, which was all in Brahmin literary serious tone of a highly literate narrator - as if an Updiken novel were narrated by ... an Updike. This story is simply about a guy he needs to personal references to move into a co-op apartment and, in his attempt over a few days to get them, manages to tell us the sorrowful tale of his life: left NY some years back for Portland, Oregon, now has divorced and returned and his former friends have moved on although he knows many people and even has a reasonably well-paying job he seems to have no family or friends who will put in a word for him - or those who could or might or would have so little obligation to him that they can barely give him the time; at the extremes are a distant cousin who says sure but I'm really busy why don't you write it yourself and I'll sign, and a long-estranged friend who obviously resents how the narrator broke off their friendship many years ago - and narrator too obtuse to recognize that or to desperate to care. The letter this guy sends is quite amusing, in its way (so is the letter from the guy's supervisor at work - who has no clue how damning such a half-hearted reference can be); the artwork illustrating the story is quite imaginative as well - take a look back at it after you finish the story.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Good, bad, and ugly in Prayers for the Stolen

Jennifer Clements's Prayers for the Stolen consists of 3 sections, each an entirely different setting and each a vivid and largely credible view of life in Mexico among a working-class populace terrorized by the drug cartels: the first the small town in the state of Guerrero made up entirely of women (the men gone north, sometimes sending $ back home) and daughters who are passed off as boys to keep them out of the hands of teh drug lords who steal them and force them into slavery or prostitution; 2nd, after the drug lords "disappear" several of the women in the town, the narrator, Ladydi, about 15 years old?, heads off w/ small-time drug dealer to take a job he's found for her as a nanny for two rich kids in Acapulco - this section of the novel set  mostly in the household where, over 7 months, the family never shows up (we learn later that they've been killed - again, part of the drug wars) and Ladydi falls in love with the gardener (only other character is the maid, an older woman) - this section seems to strain credibility - how were they paying the bills, for example - but it's a look at the sick wealth of the other half. Third section, police come to pick up Ladydi on a murder charge - she's implicated in the death of a young girl (a drug lord's daughter), killed by the guy (Mike) who got her the job in Acapulco; now, in final section, Ladydi is in women's prison in Mexico City, and she and various prisoners tell one another their stories - a sorrowful and convincing look at prison life, and solidarity among the inmates. So, there are many powerful moments in this novel and a lot "happens," but as noted in previous post the novel is hurt badly by its lack of plot: yes things happen to Ladydi but she is never in any sense an active protagonist, just the object of the action of others. I have been criticized for this myself, but I think the novel is a serious of incidents without any apparent connection among them, so the effect is one of coolness and disengagement: Ladydi is not a Dickensian character overcoming her sorrowful fate, but a narrative tool: a window that Clements has opened to give us a view of and a scent of life in an ugly time and place. The novel's worth reading for the insight it provides on the victims of drug crimes, sexual abuse, immigration atrocities, but there's a flatness, a lack of affect, to the narration that makes it difficult to engage with the book and its characters on an emotional level.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Another fine Tessa Hadley story in the New Yorker

As I've noted in previous post, I'm getting to appreciate Tessa Hadley, the New Yorker's current English short story go-to girl, a lot more w/ each story of hers I read; some of the first that I came across seemed unduly fussy and almost, if this makes any sense, too self-consciously British, as if every chance she could she used a purely English locution (council houses, in hospital, firsts in maths, and so on). Whether I'm more tolerant of those locutions now or she does so less or I was wrong in my judgment, I'm not sure - but her recent stories have been very strong by any measure. The one in last week's New Yorker, One Saturday Morning, is one of the many great stories in the wake of James Joyce that have a true narrative arc but are left open and evocative at the conclusion - a form that was once startling and now is a standard model for much short fiction. Hadley writes often and well about young people - in this case a girl of I think about 10, set in the 1960s - so it would seem that the story is in part autobiographical, at least in mood - whether the facts of the story ever happened to Hadley or in fact to anyone is immaterial. Simply, the story is of a young girl left at home on a Sat. morning while parents out shopping for a dinner party - parents are somewhat bohemian intellectual and house is much like that of any young professor of the era - an older house in an  unfashionable (and now highly fashionable) neighborhood done up creatively, in this case by the mother; while she's alone (brother outside playing cricket) an old family friend shows up at the door; she invites him in and as he waits for her parents to return she has some kind of longing to impress him - perhaps a sexual stirring. When parents return, she eavesdrops and learns his wife has died; he returns for the evening party and she witnesses from the shadows his bumbling attempt to caress her mother and the mother's rebuff. So, in a sense, nothing happens: we had expected the visitor might abuse her, or something dramatic another writer might employ. Hadley is much more subtle, and w/out really describing the feelings directly we understand that the young girl is getting her first sensation of the stirrings of adult life: death, infidelity, flirtation, competition. There are other side elements in the story - her brother's athleticism, father playing ping pong aggressively, a jokey letter of sexual innuendo that the girl exchanges with a friend and that she fears the piano teacher may have read, and it all builds to a mood of mystery and longing. Interestingly, Hadley writes about children but not at all like a child - her writing is highly formal, literate, full of complex and surprising word choices - remind of Updike at times - not at all the way a child would phrase or think - but she also avoids any direct hint that the narrator is the child as adult looking back - all of which gives the story a strange sense of isolation in time and space. Who's telling the story, and how does she have such deep and direct knowledge of the young girl's consciousness?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Plot v incident: Do novels need to have a plot?

Jennifer Clements's Prayers for the Stolen continues with its nearly surreal, horrific accounts of the miserable fate of the young women in rural Mexico prey to the drug lords - the narrator, Ladydi (family nickname?) tells of the arrival of men in SUVs, her mother telling her to run for shelter in one of the holes she's dug in the ground, narrator huddled underground among spiders and scorpions while the men frighten her mother who insists there's no daughter on the premises, the men later go to the house of friend Paula, known as a real beauty, kill all the guard dogs, abduct her; some months later Paula returns, traumatized and barely coherent, sitting on the ground, covered with black ants, she tells Ladydi about her captors, she's marked her body with cigarette burn, allegedly to show anyone who finds her corpse that she's an abductee - but also, we sense, out of shame and despair - and on it goes, an incredibly sorrowful novel that, sadly, has the ring of truth about it. The only thing missing, I'm afraid, is any sense of plot: Clement gives us a series of sketches and loosely linked events in the small town in state of Geurrero (?) - arrival and departure of the school teacher, closing of the one beauty salon when the owner, Rosie, disappears and of course the last thing you'd do is tell the police, breakup of Ladydi's parents when mother surmises father is having an affair w/ co-worker at Acapulco hotel poolside bar, etc. - but at least to this point, about half-way through, there is no arc to the story and no particular character development. Perhaps novels don't need to have a plot, but, as a friend succinctly put it in a writers' group, readers like plot - and compilation of incidents, no matter how powerful and evocative, does not provide the same sense of movement, growth, conclusion that we anticipate in a novel.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Real or surreal?: Prayers for the Stolen

I remember a grad-school friend remarking that she used to think Dali was a great surrealist until she went to Spain and figured out that - he was a realist! I wonder if the same holds true for Mexican novelist Jennifer Clement, author of Prayers for the Stolen - on one level her novel, at least from first 50 pp. of so - seems like a surreal portrayal of a community: an isolated Mexican state about an hours drive from Acapulco but a world a part, extreme poverty, land filled with scorpions and snakes, inhabited entirely by women - the man all having fled north to Alaska or Florida and only rarely sending back $, and in which all of the daughters have to be identified as boys for fear that Mexican drug gangs will steal them and sell them into captivity; when the girls hit puberty and their gender cannot be concealed the mothers make them look ugly - blackening their teeth, scuffing up their complexion, for example; there's one girl in the village who's safe from the gangs because she was born w/ a harelip (which she goes to a clinic to have removed - we can only guess the tragic outcome there). Does it sound like a plausible environment or like something out of a Poe, Kafka, or Borges story? But then we think about the Mexican drug lords, about the extreme poverty of rural Mexico, about the brutal life of immigrants in the U.S. and we think yes, she's just telling it like it is - writing about a community and way of life seldom seen by English-language readers. Story is narrated by a preteen or early teen girl in this community who in a cool, deliberate, dispassionate manner tells of horrors of her family life: learning of the infidelities of her father, watching her mother sink further into alcoholism (the backyard is a mountain of empty cans and bottles), fearful as her small clique of girls matures and becomes ever-more vulnerable, troubled and puzzled by a world in which to be desirable is to be endangered.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Alice James's posthumous recognition

Very interesting at the end of Jean Stouse's bio Alice James to read excerpts from and read about AJ's diary, written in the last decade or so of her life, as she was a near-complete invalid and constant patient, in London - and kept secret from pretty much everyone but her partner, Katharine Loring - even devoted bro Henry, or maybe especially Henry, was not aware - KL had diary published privately some years after AJ's death, just 4 copies, one to each surviving bro.; HJ in particular highly distressed about some of the acerbic comments about many living people - and also highly impressed w/ the quality of the diary; he was AJ's greatest fan, and only he I think understood the acuity of her insights and intellect. Oldest brother William had no capacity to praise any of his siblings, including HJ, whose work he often snidely dismissed or disparaged. JH had a very insightful comment about this diary, noting that as it revealed the depth of AJ's illness it also elevated her stature - the diary form was perfect for her as an invalid, allowing her to stand at one remove from the society around her, a disinterested observer. A novelist does that as well, but takes the further step of transforming material through imagination and creation; the diarist is more focused inward, and records as she sees and feels. AJ's diary also seems to be in part a memoir, as she tries to recollect some events and moments from earlier in her life - but the real power is the sharp wit and the self-deprecatory tone. Throughout this bio I was thinking about Emily Dickinson and was not surprised to see that others had as well; it's tempting to see AJ as similar to ED in that both published little or nothing during their lifetime and have gone through a resurrect and posthumous apotheosis, ED in particular. Actually, they are quite different: ED more truly the outsider artist, living a solitary and sheltered life and writing poems that broke new ground stylistically and were far ahead of their time (she reminds me more directly of the photog Vivian Meyer, working in obscurity, trying shyly and awkwardly to publish or exhibit, discovered posthumously); AJ, in contrast, is the consummate insider artist - I have to suspect that part of the interest in her diary comes from, first of all, he connection to famous writers (esp Henry) and second from her access to the goings-on of literary and intellectual salons. I think that, had a working-class woman kept a similar diary in the 19th century it would hardly be studied and analyzed, at least as a literary work), let alone published or even preserved. Not to say that she craved fame in the way her older bros did - she, too, could state w/ ED "I'm nobody" - but her work is best understood within the family context; how well would it stand in isolation? I almost think from the excerpts in this bio, that her best work was in her letters; sad that Aunt Katherine destroyed so many. Wonder why.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Alice doesn't live here: Alice James and literary talent

Alice James moves to England for the last years of her life (she's only about 40) and two weird things happen: she gets much, much more ill with whatever her mysterious almost paralytic malady may be - some form of severe depression it seems, based on what info we can gleam from her own accounts and sometimes Henry's - but she also notes that she feels much more at home and comfortable in England - as if in America everyone expects you, or her, to be hale and hearty and ambitious. In England, she's among the droll, the ill, the sedentary, and is not seen as so exceptional or burdensome, or at least that's how she feels. She does impose quite a burden on her caretaker/companions, Henry J and her best friend, possible sometime lover, Katharine Loring; part of this section of Strouse's bio of AJ concerns the various quackeries summoned to treat AJ - and Strouse notes a pattern - she is at first in thrall to the doctors but eventually turns bitterly against them as they fail to help her. Strouse as is her wont puts a pop-psychology spin on this: she falls in love with the doctor, a strong man and the only man to touch her body in adult life, but that begins to rage against them, as part of her rage against man the oppressor; she ties this into feminist and suffragist movements and policies of the day, and certainly AJ was aware of these movements and even participated to the degree she was able. Why wouldn't she think of men as the oppressors? They were! But to ascribe her illness to a psycho-political cause seems to me to be a stretch - she was really sick with something, no question. The highlight of this section is that we again see how sharp and funny she was as an observer and commentator; her acidic descriptions of friends and acquaintances are terrific and cruel - and makes us think that she definitely had a great talent that was dormant and un-nurtured. I don't quite accept that this was so because she was the only daughter in the family; I think it's more straightforward - she just didn't have the mental or physical strength to make something of her talent - as is true of many people in all times and classes, especially I would say the working classes, where the demands of life make it pretty hard to roam around among European salons and making mental notes - just as in sports, in literature there's a lot more involved than just talent, and each of us knows I'm sure some fine writers who let their talent lie for whatever reason as well as some incredibly mediocre talents that become ensconced for one reason or another.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Go ask Alice - why a bio of Alice James?

As we get further along in jean strouse's bio Alice James we see two things - how truly sick AJ was and just possibly what a potential talent she had. Strouse's works pretty hard to build a case that Alice's several breakdowns were her attempt to draw attention to herself in this highly literary and competitive family , that her illnesses were to a degree manipulative and all in her head. I'm not convinced. Even today just 35 years after strouse's wrote we have much more knowledge about (tho not a cure for) depression and it's obvious today that it's not something you fake or bring on for ulterior motives - there's a strong physiological and even chemical component but to suggest she played out or up her depression is like saying she pretended to have cancer. The continuing question in this book is why is a bio of AJ needed at all? Perhaps a James family bio but why one of her, who left no lasting literary legacy? Strouse's does show by the materials from AJ that we do have that she was quite the wit as a letter writer and quit perceptive as a diarist. Perhaps the best passage in the whole book is her hilarious account a trip to the Adirondacks w Katharine loring - her could friend and as seems obvious to a contemp reader her partner or lover. That said it also seems that the art of witty letter-writing was widespread in her class and I would think on the basis of her surviving letters alone there would be no bio. So the bio is like a test case - why did the careers of two neurotic brothers flourish but not the career of neurotic sister? In part sexism yes but there are other factors too - keep ind mind that she's not the only failure among the Jameses - the 2 younger bros fared far worse than Alice perhaps Bcz for a woman it was ok to remain in the shelter of the family but they had to go off into the world where the suffered and caused pain.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Alice James's illness

Jean Strouse embarks on the difficult task of explaining Alice James's nervous condition or breakdown - difficult because there's so little documentation and she must infer from comments made about Alice in letters from other family members and from AJ's diary from later years - but it seems that she had some kind of serious form of depression. Strouse writes that mental illness was in the mid-19th century was of 2 general types, neurasthenia (nervous condition) or hysteria (worse, and primarily suffered by women). There was no great treatment for either. Neurasthenia was actually vaguely fashionable, at least among women of the leisured class - made them (seem) more intelligent, sensitive, and alluring (as did consumption, in a way). It would seem that whatever AJ endured was worse than the fashionable high-strung case of nerves, as it struck her very young - 16 or so? - and really seemed to incapacitate her. Treatment then was bizarre to say the least; she went w/ her aunt to live with her treating physician in NYC who basically tried to alleviate symptoms thru orthopedic devices - one can only imagine. However - AJ does seem to recover and goes w/ Henry and Aunt Kate to Europe for her first visit since she was about 12 - and the tour of England and Paris seems very successful - she responds strongly to the works of art, and seems generally healthy - tho she is watched attentively and nervously by all, like a tender plant. (The James brothers each has his own version of or bout with nerves and depression, btw - a very odd and demanding family.) Strouse speculates that AJ's case was in part her attempt to flee the competition with her brothers for greatness and with her mother and aunt for domestic control, for which she was clearly not well suited. Strouse seems to imply that she may have had talent to match the older brothers but didn't have the capacity to develop her talent, in part because of low expectations, or none, for women - though I suspect had she been serious about and capable of great writing her family would have supported that strongly - they were a highly cultivated and literary set and knew or came to know many great female writers. That said, it's also very odd how often Strouse has to note dolefully that none of AJ's letters from various stages of her life - e.g., the European tour -- survive, whereas we have troves of letters from William, Henry Sr., and Henry Jr. - someone somehow thought their letters were worth preserving, but not Alices's.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What Alice James needed was a friend

Reading more about the sad life of Alice James - what chance did she have, really? We see her as the youngest of five and the only girl - and very often teased by her parents' literary friends and by older bros., esp. William - and a lot of young girls could stand up to that and even give it back, or else is a sense relish the role of the only little girl in the clan - but evidently not AJ. What she really needed was an ally - it seems that everyone else in the James family was paired off: William and Henry, Wilkie and Rob, mom and dad - leaving Alice the loner. This was particularly troublesome bcz of Henry Sr.'s weird propensity for travel: he was always trying to expand the horizons and experiences of his children, and the older ones, at least the 2 older boys, seemed to thrive on that regimen but less so the middle brothers (haven't gotten to this part of the narrative in Strouse's bio of AJ but if memory serves both of the middle brothers had severe alcohol problems) and not at all for Alice. What she really seemed to need was a friend, a companion, or several, of her own age - but the family was constantly moving and when they did settle in it seems their social life orbited around the father and his literary-philosophical set. After they leave Newport in the 1860s - depressed by the hollowness of the society life (although the older boys like the out of doors on Aquidneck Island) and moved to Cambridge, where they finally settled for life, Alice at last seemed to have a few friends - but by that time the damage had been done: she is showing the first signs of the mysterious nervous disorder that troubled her for the rest of her life (interesting parallel to Henry's mysterious wound or injury - probably to his groin or his balls, it seems, though Edel weirdly protests that he hurt his back - so why the mystery and secrecy then? huh?) as she realizes she will have to temper down her feelings and live quietly in the background. Family is now overly protective and solicitous and Alice becomes like a hothouse flower, very delicate and endangered. Still see no particular evidence of her writing genius, although Stouse's occasional quotations from her diary or letters show that she was sharp-witted and could turn a phrase - a long way from writing a novel or even a story, however.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Is Alice James an outsider artist?

In a rare detour from my reading of literary fiction, we're reading Jean Strouse's Alice James biography for book group - impressive piece of scholarship, but pretty dense material so far. First couple of chapters very carefully place AJ w/in her family context; the James family is familiar ground to me - having read some HJames bios (not Edel). The driving question behind Strouse's bio is: Is Alice James a great (or even good) writer overlooked in her own time? And a secondary question: If so, why? It seems she was unpublished in her lifetime and, if she is to be considered a writer, it's not on the basis of any work crafted for publication but on her "letters," that is, her diary and communications. What Strouse quotes in the early chapters is pretty impressive, but to me there's a huge distinction between a few sharp passages of observation and a sustained literary work. But let's assume she has stature on her own, and not solely because of her family association: what then? Why is she in the shadows of her famous bros.? Strouse quotes the famous Virginia Woolf passage from A Room of One's Own pondering: What if Shakespeare had a sister? And VW imagines S's sister as writing in secret, burning her manuscripts, running away to London, attaching herself to a theater ... it's all quite plausible, actually. There were virtually no opportunities for women writers in the 1600s. But it's a bit different in the mid-1800s obviously. There are two poles in opposition throughout the early chapters of this bio: on the one hand, it's absolutely clear that the paterfamilias, Henry James Sr., had much lower expectations for women (i.e., his only daughter) than for men (4 sons), so Alice clearly lived in a household that did not expect her to make a career as a writer. On the other hand ... as a child of the James household, which was completely devoted to literature, ideas, reading, travel, improving the mind and spirit, where the drop-in guests were folks like Emerson - she had an upbringing far, far more nurturing of any spirit or talent within her than almost any other background. One has to think that if she had the talent and drive and capacity to write she would have done so, and would have been encouraged to do so - and that if her work were of any great interest she'd be widely read today, perhaps as an "outsider artist." Also, that her failure to do so did not lower her in her parents' eyes: two of the brothers, after all, had no literary or philosophical bent. And her father was an earnest writer but dense and dull writer himself; the funniest line in the book so far is someone's [William Dean Howells's] succinct critique of Henry Sr's book The Secret of Swedenborg, to wit: "He kept it."

Monday, August 18, 2014

Issues left open at the end of Volume 1 of Knausgaard's My Struggle

A few open issues at the conclusion of volume 1, A Death in the Family, of Karl Ove Knausgaard's 6-volume My Struggle: So why did KOK cry so profusely as he's preparing for his father's funeral and cleaning that house that his father befouled and nearly destroyed in his last years of alcoholic stupor? I can make a few guesses, most likely his sorrow for the relationship that was never there rather than for the loss of a relationship that was meaningful, but would expect narrator KOK to have his own analysis and insight. How significant is the late-discovered alcoholism of his grandmother? I picked up on the dangerous attraction, far beyond the norm, that alcohol holds for the young KOK, and he may gradually come realize that he is bound by a genetic curse that he will have to consciously and deliberately confront it he's to become a great writer (which I think he has done). Why is his father's corpse so bloody? Did grandma withhold some key facts about the father's death - perhaps in a brawl or accident? And what about the relationships with women? Most of volume one concerns relationships with father and brother and high-school pals. We know very little about his relationship with his mother or with his two wives. These will obviously be topics for further exploration in later volumes. So many great things in volume one, though, and so much promise. I feel a little disappointment at its rather abrupt conclusion, with KOK's realization that a corpse is just another object in the world, no different from a brick or an ashtray, which frees him of fears of being haunted by his father's ghost (btw, what's with all the sleepwalking in the family, which KOK describes as just a normal eccentricity but seems to me far more significant and indicative of a great deal of stress and trauma?) are groundless, enabling him to move on toward the funeral service - which we don't get to see, at least not right away.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Karl Ove Knausgaard's thoughts on literature and writing

Karl Ove Knausgaard says some provocative things when he pauses, in volume 1 of My Struggle (p. 176 in the vintage pb, I think) to discuss the nature of and qualities of great literature. First, he talks about his initial attempts to write the story of his father's life, which, I think, he says he initially conceived of as a piece set in the 1800s. He says the project failed because he chose the wrong "form" and then goes on to say that above all else great literature requires the correct form: a novel can have great style, plots, character, etc. but without the right form the work will fail. This statement strikes most of us as odd: form follows function, right, doesn't precede it? And he's clearly not speaking in the most specific and obvious sense: form as in literary mode (fiction, drama, poem, etc.) or form as choice of genre (historical, mystery, first-person, etc.). I think he means "form" in more of as a choice of overall structure and point of view: in his case, the proper "form" to tell the story of his father's life was to do so through the form of an extended personal memoir rich in detail but proceeding not chronologically but in overlaid patches of time and place. Each novel, that is, has a form or structure, even if an open structure and a convention-bound genre, but the "form" of the novel has to do w/ how the novelist adopts that structure to his or her material and point of view and in that process creates a unique form. OKO notes, further, that a novelist does not create a form, does not create a literary work, but that the act of writing is an act rather of destruction. Here, what I think he means, is that as we transform thoughts, memories, feelings, learnings, experiences into a literature, or more specifically into words, we actually destroy: writing captures the experience, but the words once written are much less than the experience, they are a reduction and a diminution, at least to the writer. Most writers understand this very well: we may draw on memory to create a work of fiction but our experience, or mine at least, is that having done so the experience is diminished or even lost to us: I have the work I've created, on paper let's say, but I can no longer remember the experience so precisely. It's lost to me, destroyed. Further, OKO states that the only writer to truly comprehend this was Rimbaud. Yes, I agree exactly: a writer such as Rimbaud transforms his experience into a literary form and, when finished, has nothing left and abandons writing: his success as a writer has also destroyed him as a writer. Other writers may approach that ideal, but Rimbaud did so in the purist manner, and at a very young age as well, but all writers understand this: as writers transform experience into language, they relinquish part of their consciousness, memories, and soul.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The structure of My Struggle begins to emerge

Karl Ove Knausgaard and his older brother, Yngve, embark on an incredible cleaning frenzy after the discover the horrendous condition in which their father had left the house upon his death - and living amid this squalor is the grandmother, in early or maybe late stages of dementia. The act of cleaning the house obviously has some symbolic or psychological value for KOK and Y, as they are in a sense cleaning their troubled relationship w/ their father and, in another sense, scouring his presence out of the world. Working alongside his brother in this enterprise, KOK begins to reflect on his life-long relationship w/ Yngve, as we fill in yet another "gap" in the story of KOK's "struggle" - he tells of his idolizing the older brother, who was able to escape the worst of the household oppression and move off to college in Bergen, leaving KOK the younger son home to catch the father's unpredictable wrath. When KOK left high school, we now learn, he lived for a year trying to write on a remote island then won a fellowship to a writer's academy in Bergen, where Y was living, and spent a year or two in that endeavor - very unusual for someone to do so before entering college, then/there or now/here - and he felt out, latched onto Y for all of his social life and felt like a fifth wheel. He enters college - we learn v. little about those years - and eventually he and Y set up an arts magazine, and KOK interviews several well known (to Norwegians) Norwegian writers - these are apparently real writers, and KOK even quotes the work of one at length, attributed in the credits. Now nearing the end of this first volume of My Struggle, the shape or pattern or structure emerges: loose and diffuse when seen from close up but forming a well-crafted design when seen from farther back - and perhaps not fully understood until the 6th volume? (very different from Proust in this regard, in that Search for Lost Time adheres to strict chronology); so, through volume 1, we learn in the first half about KOK's adolescence from about ages 8 to 16, then about his life in Stockholm embarking on his 2nd nove, roughly age 30, then about his father's demise, then about his adherence to brother Yngve, particularly in years just after college - the 9 years that he tells us that he lived in Bergen - and still many gaps to fill: his college years, his two marriages, his first publication, relationship with mother. Still astonishing the degree of detail that he can summon, and the depth to which he can plumb in examining his emotions and feelings and terrors - and the amount of drama KOK can create without actually any highly dramatic let alone melodramatic scenes. If one of the great pleasures of fiction is to give us the access to the consciousness of another, has anyone in recent years done so more powerfully that Knausgaard?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Alcohol and death in Knausgaard's My Struggle

Part two of Karl Ove Knausgaard's A Death in the Family (volume one of My Stuggle) jumps from where we left the narrative - KOK at about 16 and welcomes as a fellow-reveler by his dad and dad's girlfriend, Unni, in a house party shortly after the divorce, his feeling of estangement from his difficult father, puzzlement at his suddenly solicitous attitude, and discomfort at finding these adults gather socially at his generally lonely and isolated house. He'd matured - but into what? In part 2 we see him - as we did for a few passages in part one - as a contemporary, a novelist hard at work on his second novel, in Stockholm with 2nd wife, awaiting birth of their first child, full of anxiety and self-doubt, which leads to much highly intelligent commentary on the nature of art and writing: we don't write to create, he opines, we write to destroy. Yes that is true!: to bring back memories and to break them apart into nothing but language and thereby to free ourselves, if only momentarily. He hasn't yet quite found his vocation - the six-volume My Struggle is years in his future - and interestingly he suggests that he has no memories of his childhood and school days. We know this isn't true, having read the exquisitely detailed part 1 - and he begins to reflect back on the death of his father, which happened some 10 years previously I think?, and how this moved him to tears that surprised him, given his rage against his father. He describes the death, how he and his brother, Yngve, dealt with the funeral arrangements (an interesting comparison possibility here w/ volume 2 of the Patrick Melrose cycle?) - the most shocking part being the discovery of the conditions in which his father died: a house left entirely in ruins and shambles, filled with empty cans and liquor bottle, rotting and feces-stained clothing, the stench of urine everywhere - and their grandmother, in a stage of dementia, sitting in the midst of this, smoking. We see again the weight that alcohol carries in these novels: KOK seems perhaps to have moved beyond his dangerous propensity for binge drinking of his teens, but the alcohol has entirely destroyed his father - and we suspect that this may have been going on long before KOK became aware, drinking may have had something to do with his father's moodiness and the breakup of the marriage. Death in the novel: in his guiding light, Proust, the death of characters, notably the beloved grandmother, is sorrowful and deeply mourned, here it's bitter and agonizing and steeped in squalor.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What makes Knausgaard's narrative so powerful?

The first (of two?) parts of the first (of six) volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle (A Death in the Family) ends with the self-named narrator learning that his parents are separating - in fact, divorced already - not a total shock to readers of course or even to KOK, as he'd seen increasing evidence of their living apart and one odd scene of his father in tears (and unaware he's being observed) - and in the last section KOK joins a party his father is hosting for his "colleagues" - fellow school teachers one would assume, his new girlfriend, and some cousins who had been long estranged from the family. In this scene, for the first time, KOK's father treats him kindly (is he just posturing for his friends, or is this a real transformation?) and like a mature adult (he's 16), offering him beer and not objecting when he smokes a cigarette. So we look back for a moment at where we've come: this half of the novel spans roughly 8 years of KOK's life, and we see him grow from a tearful and sensitive child into a pretty independent teen with friends and even a girlfriend, in other words, time moves on. There is one constant throughout this process of maturation: alcohol, specifically beer - KOK describes the incredible rush he felt on first getting drunk and from that time forward much of his time and effort is devoted to acquiring beer, for various parties in particular. His "maturation" involves his evolution from asking an older guy to buy for him to being able to buy on his own because he now looks old enough. What we also see is the dangerous onset of serious alcoholism: drinking himself to oblivion frequently. Alcohol becomes his social equalizer: he's blind drunk when he begins his relationship with his sober and straight girlfriend, Hanne - he has no recollection of their night together (chaste, but loving). In the last scene, he recalls getting drunk at a soccer camp in Denmark and dropping a lighted cigarette through someone's mail slot and into the foyer - and he's in agony wondering why he did this and if the house caught fire. Part of Knausgaard's genius is that he writes consistently with understatement: so many of these episodes and moments could be developed into big plot points - what if the house did burn down? what if KOK caused an accident or death through his drinking? what is the "death" in the family that looms over this volume? - but he keeps these elements in check; it's the very ordinary and familiar quality to KOK's life that makes this narrative so powerful: we don't feel as if we're reading fiction, as if this is a made-up life, but as if we are getting access directly to experience through a writer with an astonishing memory and a subtle yet detailed sense of time and place. Even the descriptions of some of the locales or homes - put forward with minimal but expertly chosen detail, simple language, unadorned, beautiful.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Possibly one of the great books of our time?

Discussions about the title aside, can't we agree that Karl Ove Knausgaard's six-volume My Struggle is a pretty great book? At least based on the first 150 pages or so - it may be one of the great books and definitely a unique novel, sui generis, of our time. The section I'm reading now is about a 100-page account of a New Year's gathering or series of gatherings, ushering in 1985, in a small, orderly Norwegian town on a fjord and backing against the endless forests. Perhaps you have to have spent some time in Scandinavia to understand the kind of town KOK grew up in - although her conveys the town with vivid detail: we get a sense of a place that's pretty remote from the mainstream of cultural and corporate life, but not backward or remote in any way: it's not like the many accounts of growing up on the American prairie and yearning for the big city, the big university; there's a sense of completeness in these small Scandinavian towns: it's safe to walk anywhere, people are well educated and worldly, everything works: KOK and his other 16-year-old friends can get around across pretty great distances by public buses, which all run right on schedule; imagine that in the U.S. I think it's not a stretch to suggest that the long New Year's party section is a homage to and perhaps even a parody of some of the many extremely long dinner-party scenes in Proust, KOK's obvious and declared literary inspiration. In this case, however, we're not among artists and writers and the French aristocracy but among a bunch of Norwegian teens - sometimes with their parents or other relatives - and yet the sense of caste, or cliques, of painful and subtle insults, of gradations of stature, of blurting out exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, the shame, the petty cruelty, the sense of looking back on these cruelties from a much later perspective in search of absolution or understanding - all very Proustian, but played in a different key so to speak: KOK's blurting out to a girl to whom he gives a New Year's kiss "you're very beautiful" is something, one of the millions of things, he recalls in painful detail and memorializes in this novel. His memory (understood that it's embellished by imagination, as this is a novel and not a memoir) is astounding, and of course many of his memories are of the sort others would repress - or at least not confess. But KOK is driven by his honesty and by his desire to write a great book - he touches on memories, themes, instances that seem painfully familiar to many readers - to me, at least - but that we would never be able to or wish to unearth, reveal.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why did he call it My Struggle (Min Kamp)?

Commenter raises a question about Karl Ove Knausgaard's six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle, suggesting that the title was not meant to be sensational and provocative because it's Min Kamp in the original Norwegian and doesn't obviously translate into Mein Kampf. Really? KOK is highly intelligent, steeped in literature and languages, and there's no doubt that for whatever reason he meant his title to evoke Hitler's Mein Kampf - he had to be aware that it would do so. Why he would want to do so is another matter but I think he means for there to be a sort of playful, daring hubris in the title - perhaps to emphasize that, in his view, our greatest struggles are not global and geopolitical but personal and psychological. It's also an in-you-face statement, like so much else in this series; I'm reading the first volume, A Death in the Family, and like all readers I think have been struck by the extraordinary detail and the painful honesty. I've read no other book that so directly and accurately gets at the angst and shame of the most awkward moments of adolescence - first sexual encounters, awakening of sex drive, the extreme awkwardness of asking first girl for a "date," first drinking, the loneliness of being the new kid in school - coupled with painful honesty and directness about his contemporary life, his anger at his children, his selfishness about career v family, he echoing and repeating the mistakes of his own father - and all this with a tenderness and sense of humor, such as the LOL section on his talentless guitar playing and his first rock band and their abortive debut performance at a shopping mall. It's a book that breaks many conventions of the novel (we would read it differently if it were presented as a memoir), including very personal statements about the author's life while in the process of writing, as well as conventions of decorum, including the use of a title that, while accurately fitting the tone of the novel, is sure to offend many readers or potential readers.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A brtually, cruellly honest novel: My Struggle

Karl Ove Knausgaard's series of novels, My Struggle, appears, from the first section of the first volume, A Death in the Family (not to be confused w/ James Agee's novel of same name) to be yet another male author Proust homage - in fact Knausgaard notes in one of the early passages that he has been not just reading Proust but completely absorbed in Proust: a man looks back on his life and tries to "recapture" his life in exquisite detail but not just as an act of recollection and memory but of bringing new life to the past by analysis, reflection, and transformation into present language. That said, the work is far darker in mood and more directly personal than Proust's, strongly influenced by the modern confessional mode and the memoir - in this case, almost painfully, obsessively honest. The novel begins darkly enough - this writer's Norwegian and, if the novel is to be trusted as factual to a degree, living in self-imposed exile in southern Sweden, so there's no doubt a trace of Bergman's dark spirit here and the pervasive Scandinavian angst - with a meditation on death: Knausgaard's thinking is odd and provocative, for example, he ponders why the dead are kept as close to the ground as possible (we cannot even imagine a funeral parlor at the top floor of a building) and why we conceal dead bodies from view, why we attend to them immediately - he imagines it might be fine to leave the body of a child struck by a bus by the side of the road, let the parents see the child as she looked at death. This is truly an astonishing statement and gives a window into the disturbances of his mind and to his unconventional style. As he goes to the past, he remembers one particular day when he told his father about something he'd seen on TV, and uses this is a vehicle to describe the tyrannical harshness of his schoolteacher father and the general absence of his mother. Then we jump to the present where he describes his family life - 2nd marriage, 3 young children - and again quite astonishingly describes off-handedly the horrible tantrums his children throw and the brutal and cruel behavior this provokes in him; he says he loves his children but loves his work more - his one goal in life is to write something great (he may have done so), yet he laments how writing has removed him from ordinary life: an anguish he shares w/ many great (and possibly not so great) artists, but expressed here more directly and unashamedly than I've ever seen - I can only imagine the horror his children will face on reading these words someday. But he doesn't (seem to) care. He is an amazingl daring writer - who else would even think of calling his work My Struggle (tr. Mein Kampf)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Abrupt conclusion to volume 4 of the Patrick Melrose cycle

The 4th volume of Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose cycle, Mother's Milk, ends with a whimper - as the last 40 pages or so concern Patrick's efforts to fulfill his mother's final wishes and help her kill herself as she lies nearly immobile and incoherent in a nursing facility; he's of course deeply ambivalent about doing so, concerned about the legal issues and about the obvious dichotomy between filial loyalty and matricide - moreover we know she's been a horrible mother to him and has also essentially disinherited him and part of him would really like to kill her, just as he wished his (even more) evil father dead and gone long before. Honestly, however, this is one of the weaker sections of the series as it all plays out within Patrick's mind - it's a narrative element that would be stronger and more touching in another context, say, someone faced w/ decision of helping the suicide of someone whom they truly love. Finally (spoiler here, if you care), his mother, Eleanor, gives them the message: do nothing, bringing this volume to an abrupt and unsatisfactory conclusion. So he doesn't carry it out after all; why exactly she changed her mind, other than perhaps to continue this drama into the 5th and final volume?, is completely unclear and unexamined, like so much else in this series - such as, how or why did Patrick and Mary ever meet and get married anyway? It feels in these pages as if St. Aubyn is just working through the plot - without the sharp wit and keen observations of earlier passages: even when I hated the characters at the most, which was often, I have found myself underlining passages and making check marks in the margins (no I'm not reading this on my iPad). Having come this far, I will read At Last later (it's not part of the edition that I have just finished), but it's a dark journey that has halted abruptly and I hope the final volume brings this cycle to a true, earned conclusion or closure: I know St. Aubyn, like most writers, emulates Proust and he can arrive at the level of grandeur and pathos that Proust "captured" in Time Regained.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

St. Aubyn, Shut up about the U.S.

And another thing: I get that Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels are his evisceration of the fading British aristocracy with their hideous snobbery, elitism, sense of privilege, contempt for all others, and delusions of grandeur. But what's with the critique of America and Americans (aside from the title-hunting wealthy idiots who marry into the British upper classes in their Jamesian way, definitely deserving of contempt)? Second volume aside, which takes place for the most part in NYC as Patrick scours city streets to feed his addiction, the novels are set in England and British"occupied" France (a French resort where the Melrose clan owns property), but in the 4th volume, Mother's Milk, as the Melroses have been locked out of the family vacation estate they decide fro some reason to act on the child's suggestion and vacation in the America. Good idea - but what a nasty view of America St. Aubyn, via Melrose, provides: starting with the plane ride when he mocks an American family whom he considers soft and overweight. Is this uniquely American? Is it any reason to hold them to the same standard of contempt that you hold for your pederast father? Year heartless mother? Then in the States were subjected to a litany of petty complaints: the hotel is too drab and crass. OK, you chose to stay at a goddamn place called The Churchill; did you ever think it might be emulating the dull and dark London hotels? Then they go out for dinner in a restaurant that they all seem to dislike - they even dislike the friendly American service. The bratty kid Robert complains that the pizza isn't as good as what they used to get in France. My heart bleeds! This has to be the first time in my life that I've heard of a Brit complaining about anyone else's food. That aside, are you aware that there are about a million good restaurant in NYC - so don't just step into the one closest to your hotel and expect a Michelin star; do a little research and find a place to your liking. Patric/Edward - go after the British twits for all its worth, that's a subject you know and feel deeply about, a target for whom your contempt is justified - but shut up about the U.S. about which you seem to know nothing.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Patrick Melrose: Get a life!

At last near the end of Edward St. Aubyn's Mother's Milk, the 4th volume in the Patrick Melrose cycle, we get to know a little bit about Mary, Patrick's wife, who had hardly any characteristics or background story whatsoever up to this point. What we learn: she's yet another offspring of distant and difficult parents, suffered through childhood, extremely shy, not clear at all how she got together w/ Patrick but it is clear that he's a disappointment to her class-conscious, money-obsessed family - her only role in life, they would think, is to race to social status and wealth of her family. What's with these people? I used to jokingly opine that the English adore their dogs and ignore their kids - and these novels would confirm that statement, at least among the "uppers" (there are no significant characters in these novels other than the wealthy and the aristocrats). But this generation is breaking the mold, it seems: Mary is a very devoted mother, esp to younger son, Thomas, yet her devotion to Thomas has driven Patrick away, as they live together but have no intimate or even friendly relationship. How different is this from the family life that Patrick has spent his whole life trying not to replicate? In one of the final sections of the novel, Patrick again obsesses about his mother's giving away of the family house in France, and bickering bitterly and aggressively with Seamus, the faker to whom she's given her property. It would all be more poignant, I guess, if we sympathized in the least with Patrick's despair - but why should we? He's a nasty guy, and still extremely comfortable by most standards, and though his personality was formed by his diabolical father it's hard not to think that he's getting what he deserved. Final passage I read last night has him visiting mother in nursing home and she asks him to kill her. Quite coldly he says he'd like to but it's against the law. Ok, he is pretty funny. But please - grow up and, as we Americans say, "get a life."

Thursday, August 7, 2014

To be and to have: a story about language, and art (Picasso, by Cesar Aira)

Cesar Aira, potential friend to all crossword-puzzle composers, has a fine story in the current New Yorker: Picasso. It's the only story I know that's about a verb, or maybe it's about a noun. A man visiting the Picasso Museum stops for a refreshment and is greeted by a genie who emerges from a milk bottle and offers him a choice: Would you rather have a Picasso? Or be a Picasso? That leads to speculation on the difference between "to have" and "to be" - and also on the difference between the two meanings of "a Picasso" - an artist? or a painting? The narrator ponders these differences, eventually determining that "to be a Picasso" would mean obliterating his self, in that one cannot "be" two people at teh same time, so even though, as he notes, a Picasso can create limitless Picassos, and therefore to be a Picasso would also enable him to have a Picasso, he decides that what he would like is a comfortable and pleasant life and to have a Picasso, which he could sell for millions, would enable him to do so -then, bang, right in front of him, he has a Picasso - a very beautiful, cubist 1930s painting (is it based on an actual work?) which he describes in enthralling detail, as he explains that the painting involves a queen who is lame, leading to his recollecting a pun in Spanish that may have inspired this painting. Finally, done with his reverie, he realizes the folly of his choice; as with all "genie" stories, there's always a trick. I won't spoil it - but can you figure out why he can't have his Picasso after all?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

St. Aubyn and Proust

Edward St. Aubyn's novel Mother's Milk, among its many verbally striking and inventive and sometimes hilarious passages, includes the best one-paragraph evocation I've ever seen that captures the essence of Proustian narrative; I'd quote from the book if I had it near me, but essentially it occurs when Patrick Melrose thinks about his past (a past romantic fling I think) and realizes he's not experiencing Time Regained, and then he describes the Proustian qualities he's not achieving - the cobblestones of silver bell that becomes a bridge connecting time past not with time present but with a heightened version of the present, a new sense of time entirely. Obviously Proust is the aspirational model for St. Aubyn, a multi-volume series of novels in which a male protagonist examines the stages of his life, with an odd and uneven selection of events, determined emotionally and not by the conventions or even demands of narrative: Patrick's marriage, for example, is not explained at all. It's no knock on St. Aubyn to say he falls short of the mark - everyone does - but I think he has a tendency to push the humor into satire or even cynicism, which is not where Proust goes at all w/ his material. There's a long sequence in this volume in which Patrick and his best friend, Johnny, now a psychiatrist of all things, discuss Patrick's malaise - a scene that feels very scripted and not an organic, likely conversation between two adult men. Part of this volume, in which Patrick dreams ofhis potential sexual conquests (while ignoring wife and children) reminds me of the famous headline in the Onion: "Source: Barrista is not flirting with you." Despite Patrick's heightened opinion of himself, the women he lusts after are not reciprocating, and he ought to give up on his narcissistic fantasy life and take hold of the life around him, the life slipping through his fingers.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

When St. Aubyn is at his best

We begin to see the deep fissures in the personality of Patrick Melrose in volume 4 of the cycle, Mother's Milk: while at first he seemed to have turned his life around and become a successful attorney and a good father and husband, as we move into his point of view we see, first, that he's still addicted to drugs, no longer illegal narcotics and opiates but now legit prescription rx to help him sleep and wake; we also see that he's perfectly willing to have an affair of convenience, essentially right under the nose of his wife and kids (5-year-old Robert almost catches him in the act), only because he's "lonely" and feels his wife has abandoned him and given all her attention to their newborn, Thomas. Poor Patrick - first guy in history to have a mid-life crisis I guess. Two things remain completely unexplained: who is his wife, the nondescript Mary, and how did they manage to get together and what is she like, what is she about? And, who's this Julia, former girlfriend of Patrick's now apparently living with them for no clear reason - she's dynamite waiting to explode the world around her. I guess we have to accept that Patrick is a lawyer, perhaps even a criminal defense lawyer, although he in no way seems to have a legal mind of much of occupation for that matter - perhaps that's the British indifferent attitude toward careerism, esp among the upper crust. What we do see is that Patrick on the one hand is contemptuous of his older relatives for bemoaning the loss of the family fortune while he himself obsesses about the loss of his much smaller fortune, as embodied in his mother's house and grounds that she's planning to give to a swindler of a charity. Well, I can't blame him for being troubled by the loss of his inheritance, but on the other hand you have to wonder: what has he done in his life to deserve the riches that have come his way and that he has squandered? What has he done in life in any way to make the world a better place for anyone? St. Aubyn is using Patrick as a lance with which to skewer his class, quite effectively, but this series as at its best when St. Aubyn gives us a double-vision: loathing Patrick, yet laughing at his witticisms, joining him in his contempt for his targets, and sympathizing with him for his great suffering. That doesn't happen all the time, but when it does these novels are powerful.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Is Patrick Melrose a good father?

As I figured it might, the second section of Edward St. Aubyn's Mother's Milk shifts the focus or POV away from Patrick Melrose's 5-year-old son, Robert, and now, a year later (2001) Patrick is the central figure - and we see that his maturation into a good husband and dad is built on a foundation of sand: he's a successful lawyer (and Oxford grad), and a father of 2 boys, but he's a wreck - up most of the night and hooked on a # of prescription drugs to help him sleep, relax, and then be alert - a very bad omen considering his history of serious drug abuse. Perhaps worse, he's thinking about his "mid-life crisis" and is on the verge of trying to start an affair with a beautiful young woman and ex-girlfriend apparently, Julia, who seems to be staying w/ him and his almost unknown (to us) wife. In fact, the section ends with his standing outside her doorway thinking about going into her bedroom in the early-morning hours until caught in the near-act by son Robert, the highly precocious and perceptive young child. There's still so much in this volume that's murky, unclear, for example who exactly is Patrick's wife, how did they meet, how did his somehow enter in a short span into matrimony and parenthood? And who is this Julia, where did she come from, and why on earth is she living w/ them? The crisis or conflict of the novel is Patrick's mother's senility and her decision to turn over her fairly large estate to the shyster fake who's running her so-called charity organization; Patrick is of course furious about this decision, but finds it very difficult to articulate his anger toward his mother, for fear of seeming mercenary. She was a terrible and non-protective mother to him and he owes her nothing, really, except his life and his gene pool. Despite his anti-social behavior in some ways he's still a conventional, uptight Brit - how did he ever manage to get into Oxford and into the legal profession, given his long profligacy and self-abuse? Is it another British, class thing? - people of his birth and stature get a free pass right into adulthood? We have to suspect that he's not a very good lawyer - and despite his ability to seem so, that he's not a very good husband or father, either.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Another twist in the Patrick Melrose cycle

The Patrick Melrose cycle goes off on yet another new direction in volume 4, Mother's Milk, which is centered not on Patrick but on his son, Robert: this time we get a five-year gap, we're now in the year 2000, last we saw Patrick it was at the tail end of a mean-spirited and spiteful over-the-top birthday party when for some reason he decides to try to give up his hatred and bitterness toward his parents - and 5 years later lo and behold he seems to have done so. He's now married and a father; every moment of perception of him, however, is from the POV of the insanely precocious child; the story begins in fact with Robert's account, Shandy-like, of his own birth. I have to say St. Aubyn has an astonishing capacity to see things from the smart child's point of view - unmatched, actually, in my reading experience. This novel moves forward through about 5 years to birth of 2nd son, Thomas, and much of it involves Robert's attempts to see things as Thomas does: for the first time, with no context for anything. This attempt is almost a philosophical exercise - really stretches our idea of what consciousness and perception are or may be to different people. Yet this wouldn't be a St. Aubyn novel if it didn't include despicable people, and much of the first part of this volume involves a visit to the family of one of Robert's schoolmates (Robert actually like the kid), a bunch of spoiled and vapid nouveaux riches, for whom Patrick expresses appropriate contempt. It's Patrick who's evolved, as I'd hoped he might, though his evolution feels imposed from without (by the author) rather than developed or explained: he's much wiser and more sympathetic now, not drawn to the trappings of wealth and status and not just bitterly cynical from the outside but trying, it seems to raise his boys and be a good husband. We know so little about him, however - we don't even know whom he's married or how that came about. Maybe some of the background will emerge in the later sections of this volume.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

A story in The New Yorker that reminds me of Dubliners

Very short and intriguing story this week in the New Yorker: Paul Theroux's "Action" - like much of his recent fiction that I've seen, it feels vaguely autobiographical although that may be an illusion - isn't all fiction autobiographical to some extent, in that ever story is part of the autobiography of the author, even if drawn only from imagination and research - if it's even possible to draw "only" from imagination and research ... In any event, the story is a man's reflection on an episode from his youth: a somewhat isolated and protected child, mother died when he was ten, widowed father watches over him (too) closely, father is taciturn and distant emotionally, child works in father's shoe store, a declining business, keeps him removed from friends and sports, takes a trip into Boston to pick up a package, which leads him to explore the darker areas of the city, pays a visit to an older (20 something) woman whom an older friend had introduced him to, she's obviously a prostitute tho he's not aware of this, he sits in her apt drinking lemonade, an older man - a john? pimp? boyfriend? - comes in and punches the kid in the mouth (while he's drinking), limps home to dad w/out the package, dad intuits everything. The story reminds me of some of the great stories in Dubliners - even though Theroux is looking back from a much longer vantage point - beautifully crafted and paced, an ending that seems both conclusively revelatory but also open-ended and suggestive, the struggle against and love for the distant and disappointing father, the tentative push for independence and sexual awakening, the look back at childhood for a single and transformative moment. Theroux has been a very productive and varied writer, which in a way hasn't helped him - he's hard to place - is he a travel writer? a writer of serious nonfiction? of literary fiction? - but this and other recent stories I've seen of his suggest he's really finding a late-career voice in the short story form and we ought to pay his writing a new attention.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A sentimental ending to a super-dark novel

For what it's worth at this point, two of the main characters, Patrick and Bridget, take a turn toward the better at the end of volume 3 of the Patrick Melrose novels (intriguingly titled Some Hope). The questions are: Is this enough to redeem them? Enough to lift the series out of its darkness? A credible change? or an author's imposition on his material? Patrick in particular who has made his hatred of his father, quite justified of course, the central element in his life, for some reason toward the end of this society party full of gossip and bitterness and callow behavior, decides maybe he should let it go and feel some "mercy" (a key term in this volume - inspired by a performance Patrick had seen of Measure for Measure) toward his late father and even try to reconcile with his feckless mother. These are fine sentiments I'm sure but they come out of nowhere and do not feel earned, achieved, or sustainable. One would think such realizations would have to come from years of analysis, not from a few moments of sober reflection. Similarly, Bridget, society woman and materialist, learns that her husband is leaving her for a model who (he think) is pregnant with his child (son), snatches up her daughter and returns with her "mum" to her childhood home for some refuge: this, after she had been about as cruel and mean-spirited toward her mother as you can imagine. Now, she's all apologetic. Again, it's hard to believe her sentiments are sincere or that they will be lasting - born out of a crisis and out of a convenience (her mother is a largely unwelcome guest at the glamorous birthday bash). All will depend I guess on how St. Aubyn picks up these themes in volume 4: reconciliation, or reversion to type.