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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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Three unconventional thoughts about Jane Eyre

Some (unconventional?) thoughts about Jane Eyre - first of all, what's with the character Helen Burns, the young woman, highly intelligent, solitary, picked on mercilessly by teachers, suffering from some form of TB apparently and surely soon to die, whom Jane is drawn to and whom she befriends: Jane repeatedly asks how Helen is able to put up with so much abuse and mistreatment, and Helen responds - not sounding like a 14-year-old but never mind - with almost a Christian sermon about turning the other cheek and being better than those who try to harm you, etc. I actually found this quite insufferable. I don't know if Charlotte Bronte is using Helen to express her views - the conventional piety of her era, no doubt - but it all rings phony to me. And - it's not the kind of advice Jane needs to hear: I know this would be entirely another novel, and not within the English tradition of novels that incorporate the outliers into the mainstream of society, but they should be rebelling against their oppressors, rounding p the other girls and maybe some of the sympathetic teachers and pushing for change - that's what would happen in America, or in France (think of the great Zero de Conduit, with the boys on the roof at the end hurling things down on their heads of their tormentors). And, second, what about the few sympathetic teachers? Aren't they, in a way, more to blame than the horrible phonies who run this prison-like school for young women? There's one sympathetic teacher - I can't remember her name - who invites Jane and Helen into her room, nice and toasty, and, unable to get an extra serving of bread to feed them, cuts up a little piece of seedcake that they all share. Are you kidding me? She can't do any better than that - letting these poor girls go on living in misery and thinking she's so kind and thoughtful by sharing a crumb with them? Why doesn't she stand up to power in some way, in any way? (Same with the "freindly" maid in the house of Jane's aunt, where she lives a life of misery and no one speaks up on her behalf - until she speaks for herself.) Finally, what about Jane? She's a totally sympathetic and believable character, but, through all that she suffers under her mean aunt and in the oppressive girls' school, doesn't she see that the servants may have it even worse than she? Does she ever notice that there's a whole "underclass" who have no hopes or prospects whatsoever - girls or young women getting no education, living in near slavery, serving their "betters"? Shouldn't Jane recognize this in some way? For all Jane's forthrightness and spirit, she doesn't seem to have a sense of social class and its inherent oppression and injustice.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Why Jane Eyre is the most popular 19th-century novel

Started (re)reading Jane Eyre last night and immediately realized why it remains perhaps the most popular of all 19th-century novels and among the most popular in all of literary fiction - such an easy yet smart and precise narrative style, Charlotte Bronte immediately establishes the voice of Jane, looking back on her life from sometime far in the future and remember, in the first 5 or so chapters, her very difficult childhood as an orphan raised, at least for a few years, by a horrendous, bullying, self-centered aunt who allows everyone, servants and her children (Jane's cousins) to treat her cruelly - it's not a grotesque cruelty as we'd be likely to find in a 21st-century v. of this story, but just plain meanness, so that Jane feels isolated and hopeless - but she has a wonderful, strong spirit (and we know from the confident adult narrative voice that she's a survivor) that we read with pity but not with terror or fear: this balance makes her among the most likable, and credible, of all narrators. We're in her camp - and who can help but rejoice when ,about to leave her horrible aunt and her household for a school for young women that, in some ways, turns out to be even more oppressive, Jane lights into her aunt for all she's worth: Who has not wanted to tell off a mean teacher or parental figure in words like those? True, JE does not exactly sound like a 10-year-old. And, true, she's surprisingly unsympathetic to the lives of the truly less fortunate around her, the servants for example. But we feel we know her almost immediately and we want to know the course of her fate. Among the oddities of the seeming rather straightforward opening chapters (this is not a gothically complex novel like, say, Wuthering Heights), we wonder: Where are the men? Where are the fathers? We hear almost nothing about JE's father, apparently a clergyman who died of typhus caught while tending to the sick. We hear nothing that I can recall about the uncle in the family that's raising her: this absence of male figures is a strange anomaly in this novel, at least in the first sections - obviously a male figure, Rochester, will become very important to the plot at a later point. But we can infer that Jane enters adulthood w/ little knowledge of male behavior, without any strong male influence from father, uncle, or mentor - and that's a handicap as she works through her life and a need she will want to fulfill. Is it any surprise that, ultimately, reader, she married him?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Dear Sir or Madam - Lydia Davis's letters of complaint

Another group of stories in Lydia Davis's collection Can't and Won't are her letters to various corporations or officials, such as her hysterical letter to a hotel manager, the hotel in this case obviously being the Parker House, in Boston, in which she describes her two-day stay there as being wonderful and the staff as courteous and helpful with the possible exception of the restaurant manager who was perhaps a little cold - and then in the process of explaining this "perhaps" she manages subtly to depict him as an odious, servile, self-important little creep. Her main complaint to the hotel (and the restaurant) concerns the mis-spelling of a menu item, scrod, which the menu spelling "schrod," which leads her into an examination of the word and possible reasons for the mis-spelling (the manager sounded as if he might have had a slight German accent, so perhaps he was familiar w/ the "sch" form?), and then she goes on to discuss other recommendations she present, such as why not add baked beans to the menu (though certainly not as an appetizer!), and why not take a photo for the lobby of the woman who's taken her evening meals there for many years (how man is in dispute), and so on - all of which makes her letter increasingly zany and gives us a sense of Davis's (or the fictional "Davis's") eccentricities and hyper-sensitivity; this Boston weekend seems to have occurred while her brother - her dinner companion 2nd night - was dealing with touchy issues on mother's estate, and that death and loss is the cold zero at the heart of this story, present but unexamined, amid all the trivial suggestions and complaints. Excellent piece. Other similar ones are the long letter to an institution (obviously the Macarthur Foundation, which I think gave her a genius award - the letter reminds me a bit of Kafka's Report to an Academy) in which "Davis" describes how the grant changed her life, or didn't, and also goes into much detail about her dislike of teaching - it's a sad thing because one would expect (the real) Davis to be a trenchant and incisive teacher, but "Davis" obviously loathes the obligation and responsibility: Come to think of it, there's no reason why we should expect writers to be good teachers of writing, as most are introvert, introspective, and sensitive to criticism - the qualities the (often) make for a great writer are not those that translate well necessarily to formal discussion of the craft and nurturing of talent in others. Other complaints: to a candy company re their peppermint candies, to a frozen foods company regarding their unappealing packaging. These letters of complaint could stand alone outside of this collection, a genre unto itself.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

One longer story in Lydia Davis's Can't and Won't

Probably just to show that she can do it, Lydia Davis includes in her collection Can't and Won't a largely conventional personal essay (well, maybe it's fiction? we don't really know and, after all, how sharp is the dividing line?), The Seals, about the death of her older sister, a family gathering for her services, the near-simultaneous death of her father, a lament for the opportunities missed for closer relationship with (considerably) older sister, a lament for passing time, all encapsulated in a train ride - seemingly from NYC or maybe New England through Phila and into the countryside, on a holiday - most likely xmas day - with thoughts and notes on the passing landscape and the evoked memories (very Proustian again - Proust's fascination with train travel is another one of his peculiarities, which I think many of his admirers, myself included, mysteriously share - the fact that train travel is today nearly vestigial just adds to its allure). Ther'es obviously a lot in this story - not sure it's actually among the best in this collection - there's no doubt that the shorter, more enigmatic pieces are what have established Davsis's voice and style - but its inclusion adds depth and some balance to the volume, makes us appreciate even more the concision of some of its companions in this volume, which I will emulate and honor by keeping this post short as well.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A long(ish) and a very short story by Lydia Davis

One long, one (very) short - two stories in Lydia Davis's Can't and Won't - the long(ish) story being The Cows. Cows are truly the forgotten species - nobody has a cow for a pet, nobody finds them cute or especially beautiful, they're just like living machines that produce milk or, if they're less fortunate, beef. But Davis devotes about 8 pages - maybe the longest story in the collection - to a series of cow observations, seemingly made for the most part from her window, an assemblage of what look to be diary or journal entries over the course of a year. At first, the cows are just objects - she comments on their inky color, the bending of their feet as the move - they're like elements in an abstract painting, a Rothko, even. Some of the observations, as with so much in Davis's work, are slyly provocative: The cows are always standing still, but when I turn away for a minute and then look again, they're in a different place. By the end of the story, she has ventured outside, even lets the cows "nuzzle," and two calfs are born (the third cow cannot calf and gets sent off somewhere. How does she know this? there are no other human beings in this story - so within the terms of the fiction this extraneous knowledge is mysterious, divine). By the end, the cows are part of the cycle of nature - giving birth, moving on - what started as an abstract story - at first it reminded me of Stevens's 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird - is actually a story about the pattern and rhythms of rural life, as perceived from both outside (she's a writer, not a farmer, probably a city girl) and inside (she knows the land and its people) simultaneously. And the very short: Her Geography, it's called, and goes something like this: She knew she was in Chicago, but she didn't realize she was in Illinois. This a Proustian kind of observation, the obsessive, perhaps autistic focus on place names and the mood and conditions that names themselves impose on a scene, on a moment, and fascination with boundaries and borders - I suspect Davis shares this trait, as do I and perhaps many writers: a highlight for me of a visit to DC was coming across the marker denoting the northernmost point of the Capital diamond. If you can understand that, you know what I mean and you know what Davis is getting at in this story; if not, it's not for you.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Que'es que c'est fiction?: The short stories of Lydia Davis

Read a little further in Lydia Davis's fascinating "story" collection Can't and Won't. Just think about this one, which unfortunately I am going to paraphrase but will get it close: "Beneath all this dirt, the floor is actually quite clean." Again, this is an "apercu" and not a story as we traditionally think of short fiction - or is it? You can see here why Davis reminds me of Wittgenstein, as this little piece is also a {philosophical investigation," and reminds me as well of one of my influences, the comedian Stephen Wright (who inspired me to take it on stage; in fact I have a one-liner similar to Davis's, though I do not claim it as one of my short stories: What do you do if you spill soap?). But why is this piece not "just a joke"? It has broader dimensions and scope than a mere joke or quip or witticism: It forces is to think of the material world and its juxtapositions in a new way (what does it mean to be "clean"?), it is an essay in physics, and it's also a moral essay: can one have a "clean" soul within a mind of sin? Or is claiming inner cleanliness a dodge, a way to avoid the consequences of one's evil "exterior" nature: I may seem like a tyrant, a predator, an exploiter of men, a sly fox - but inside I'm really a good guy. Sure. I also want to note a little further on the translations from Flaubert that Davis runs through these stories: they're actually more than just translations, they are actually re-thinking Flaubert, as they seem to be fragments that Davis has lifted from F's journals or letters - pieces that he, in his day, would never have thought of as stories or even as separate and distinct pieces, but Davis, who is pushing us to see short fiction in a new way, has "found" these stories w/in Flaubert's work - just as many of these stories are found in flashes of conversation overheard, a sign spotted in passing, a note jotted while on the phone (one of her best, note while talking on phone with mother - which ends in her making a group of nonsense anagrams of the word "cotton").

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Unique fiction: The qualities of Lydia Davis's short stories

I've read about her, I've read her translations ( think her translation of Swann's Way is extraordinary and her notes on translation are works of art in themselves), but had never read Lydia Davis's short stories, which are at the heart of the matter, in fact had kind of put off doing so for fear I would find them very self-aware and off-putting, but last night started her recent collection Can't and Won't and am very impressed. I think the best way to come at these is to loosen yourself of all expectations. They may be labeled "short stories," but that's for lack of a better term, at least in English. Each one is a little puzzle, an odd perception, a worrying of a set of facts, an encounter, a realization. The best word, probably, is the French, apercus - that's really what they are, moments of perception. Calling them short stories makes us focus on what they are not and what they have not: no plot, no arc (usually), no characters to speak of other than LD herself, the witty soul at the heart of these. They come off like a novelist's or philosopher's notebook entries: reminds me at times of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, broken down into minute grains. What are they?: some are actually translations of similar pieces by Flaubert, and it's no knock to say these are some of the best pieces (F's observations watching a widow in mourning at the graveside, his conversation w/ his cook who did not know that the French monarchy had been overthrown 5 years previous, leading F to note that he used to think he was smarter than she but now realizes he's a complete imbecile), others are drams as captured it would seem in a bedside notebook (these are the weaker pieces, who cares about someone else's dreams), some are more developed, not quite stories but more like a take on a situation, edging perhaps closer to a New Yorker shouts and murmurs, but  little too bristly and literary for that: a great piece about a "sign" she could wear warning others on a train not to sit near her, a little puzzle about a friend also named Davis and an awkward situation involving the rightful owner of a rug (hard to explain - which they all are, in a sense), some haiku-like moments, a funny short piece about nagging mother who at last appreciates sister when sister has audience w/ Queen of England (can this be true? - LD makes it seem as if these are personal essays, but perhaps they're more fictive that she lets on), a long, for her, piece about two difficult servants in a European (?) sublet. Read in sequence, in a long sitting, these don't in any way cohere into anything like a set of "linked stories" but they do provide us w/ access to the quirky, clever mind of LD - in a way, she opens herself up as much in these short pieces as any novelist, or memoirist.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Several themes in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber is a relatively late Ernest Hemingway short story - meaning written and published in the 30s and not the 20s - his tremendously influential torrent of short stories all came forth within roughly a decade, with just a few to follow late in life, and those I think pretty much commercial efforts - and though clearly one of his best stories it's not typical of his work: whereas the earlier stories tended to highly compressed and focused on a single moment, not a narrative arc but a narrative jolt, Short Happy is far more conventional, and quite long for EH as well. FM and his wife are on a hunting safari; the only other speaking character is their hunter guide, a white hunter Robert Wilson (possibly a S. African?). EH of course knows how to put the "bone in the throat" so the story begins rather than builds toward a moment of crisis: Fm is returning from a lion hunt and the African servants and gun bearers celebrate his killing of his first lion but we learn immediately that it's a sham and that FM is mortified that he showed himself to be a coward during the hunt; he knocked the lion down with a gut shot and then panicked when Wilson and the servants led him toward the lion for the kill. He's humiliated, especially in front of his cold and cynical wife. Making matters worse, she sneaks off into Wilson's cot in the middle of the night, leading to one of the most tense breakfasts in literary history the next day. They go off to shoot buffalo (this is an African species with big bull-like horns, pretty dangerous apparently), and FM shoots well and becomes "happy" - an suddenly brave; in the final moments, as he takes aim at a charging buffalo, his wife, watching from their car (they shouldn't be chasing buffalo using a car) takes a shot - whether to protect him or not is left open - and shoots him dead. In the "short happy" of the title, short modifies happy - only a short part of his life was happy, that is. Aside from terrific writing about big-game hunting, Hemingway at his best as a craftsman here, no matter what your thoughts are about hunting you do understand it from the hunter's (and the prey's) POV  after reading this, it's also obviously a story about sexual rivalry - the male pecking order is much like the law of the jungle, is the obvious message - but also about colonialism and racism: the black servants and gun bearers are treated horribly (whipped for screwing up orders, and they'd rather be whipped than lose a day's pay), about exploitation of the land and the fauna - it's impossible not to read this without some sympathy for the animals and contempt for the trophy hunting and blood lust of the hunters - an early "environmental" story, whether Hemingway wanted it to be so or not.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Observations on some Ernest Hemingway short stories

Coming back to Ernest Hemingway short stories after many years and, yes, they are still as astonishing, fresh, and disturbing as I remembered - more so, actually. When I first read In Our
Time so many years ago I don't think I could have had any appreciation of their originality and their precision - they seemed to me then beautiful accounts of various moments in time, but I could not possibly have understood the significance of these stories, their place in literary history, their place in history, or their inter-relations. Each time I've come back to them I see more and am more amazed as EH's craft and courage. Just a few notes to give a sense of what I see in them now. The 1920s stories, many collected in In Our Time, touch on a wide range of themes of course: World War I, boyhood in upper Michigan peninsula (the Nick Adams stories), returning from war, life in Europe - Spain in particular - after the way, men alone, men and women, the outdoors, race, bullfighting, drinking - all of the Hemingway themes, obviously, but in extremely concentrated form. Looking briefly at two superficially very different stories: first, Big Two-Hearted River, one of the longest of EH's stories (in two parts) though shorter than the typical F. Scott Fitzgerald stories (writers were paid well then, and probably by the word). River is a Nick Adams story; on the surface, he gets off a train at a remote station, hikes for much of the day, makes camp, in a typical EH passage "It was a good camp," which says it all, spends a day trout fishing, that's it. Easy to look at this and think it's just the best field-and-stream essay ever written, but why is it a great story?: it's also in a sense a life journey (at mid-point in my life's journey ... as Inferno begins) - he gets off the train at a mall town that's been destroyed sometime in the past by fire, Biblical ruin, echo of war?, which maybe Nick has seen and left behind? - it seems he may be one of the returning soldiers but we don't know. We remember Nick from one of the early stories - Indian Camp - learning from his father, and here we see him entirely independent, making camp in the days before high-tech popup tents, using a hatchet to carve tentpoles etc. He's completely alone - many EH stories are dependent on great dialogue but this has none at all - as he walks follows the course of the river - downstream it would seem though this is not obvious. After fishing he looks further downstream and sees a swampy area with low overhang - he won't enter the swamp. There is good fishing where he has camped - and there's a sense of darkness in life a head, of holding onto a moment of solitude and sunlight, hoping it can endure which it cannot. Two-hearted? - river has beauty and ugliness, gives life, and takes it away - the man is an intruder and predator, but also part of the natural world himself. Enough for now. But a quick thought on the completely different Hills Like White Elephants. What does the title mean? The story - man and woman wait for train in rural Spain, heading for Madrid where she may undergo an unspoken medical procedure (abortion?), drinking heavily, she tries to charm him with her observation that the hills look like white elephants. He doesn't react much, which disappoints her; does anyone notice that this is not the kind of observation EH would ever make? that he virtually never uses simile, and rarely metaphor? In her observation, in the very title of the story, we see the mismatch between the man and the woman - completely different ways of perceiving the world and of using language.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

You've read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books - but what about his stories?

Of course F. Scott Fitzgerald primarily known and read today for his novels, essentially for two novels, but his contributions as a short-story writer shouldn't be overlooked - from the Cowley intro to the old Scribners edition of his selected stories I was reminded that in the 1920s selling stories was a way that writer's made their  living - his earnings from stories in most years far surpassed his earnings from novels and, though FSF was one of the first writers to try to make a living in Hollywood, the days of studio options on successful novels had not yet arrived. Read 3 FSF stories yesterday, based on recommendations from Charles May's list - and realize for first time how much he expended on the stories early in his career (for reason cited above no doubt). Some writers, can't remember who, Robert Penn Warren maybe?, cautioned young writers against devoting too much time to short stories, as they may burn up all their ideas therein. That wasn't the case with FSF, and in fact - another thing I learned from Cowley's intro - several of these were early workings of his novels. Winter Dreams hits all of the important FSF notes: a relatively poor boy from remote Midwestern town works as a caddy at the posh country club where wealthy families from the nearby city (Detroit) play and he falls in love at first sight with a beautiful young girl (Judy Jones); rather than take orders from her and her mother, he quits the job (a theme Updike picked up years later in A&P, with variants). Over course of his life he has painful on-again, off-again relationship with her - she's an incredible beauty and an impossible flirt; yearning for some stability, he engages to a "nice" girl, but there's no passion there - he tosses over the engagement for a final fling with Judy, which of course doesn't work out. Moves to NYC, very successful, years later hears from a client about Judy, and how her looks and personality have faded w/ loveless marriage - and he realizes all she has cost him and all he has lost (an echo of Sentimental Education?). Not surprised at all to read in Cowley's intro that this was essentially a first draft of Gatsby. Another story was at first intended as a prelude to Gatsby: the haunting Absolution, in which a young boy in remote town is bullied by father into going to confession, and the priest, nearly insane, talks incomprehensibly about the beauty in the world outside the window "glimmering." Boy is  totally befuddled but senses that, yes, there is a world beyond the window. This was written as a prelude to Gatsby (which FSF wisely decided not to include in the novel - leaving Gatsby's early years more mysterious and hidden). Also read The Rich Boy, which, a title will tell you, is yet another FSF account of a guy in a wealthy family who is unable to find happiness in love (or friendship) - this one of his first accounts, however, of a life ruined by alcoholic dissipation, of a seemingly successful whose life is a self-inflicted misery, and whose youthful attractiveness is going to seed. Somewhat like Winter Dreams, story ends with his encounter w/ love of his youth, now married and suburban and a little dull and far beyond his power.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A satire that has lost its edge: A Diamond as Big as the Ritz

F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story A Diamond as Big as the Ritz is a totally weird piece of writing, an early story in FSF's career that would give you no idea as to where he was heading as a writer - it's almost impossible to see Gatsby emerging from this odd tale. The one glimpse of FSF's future and talent: the protagonist, John, leaves his small midwestern town to attend an extremely expensive and exclusive school in the east, and though he's a big deal in his home town (named Hades, FSF's dig at St Paul I guess?) he's hardly a big deal in his boarding school. I have limited patience for the rich guy feeling like an outsider, but it's a driving force in much of FSF's fiction. In any event, the story starts off as a realistic tale - John befriends the wealthiest kid in the school, Percy, who invites him to spend the summer with his family in the West (Montana). From the moment of arrival at the nearest train depot, the story veers off in a fantastic direction: Percy lives in the most elaborate and ridiculous splendor in an estate so isolated that it appears on no maps and his family pays no taxes. The source of the great wealth is the enormous diamond beneath the mountain on which the estate stands - Percy's grandfather was a prospector who struck it rich. Geology aside, it's a kind of ridiculous premise, and the story veers off toward the bizarre as, among other things, we learn that the estate is managed by a team of "negroes" who are actually slaves - for some reason they are so cut off that they have been led to believe that the South won the civil war. We also learn that the estate is a prison of captivity - anyone who ventures on the land will be imprisoned and eventually executed - as Percy's family needs to keep the living conditions and source of wealth a secret. Bad news for John, but he manages to engineer a welltimed escape, just as the estate is nearly demolished by an air attack. He takes off w/ Percy's two sisters, one of whom (Kismine) he falls in love with - she's beautiful, but a complete idiot. Like many FSF characters, unfortunately, she's entirely unlikable (as is everyone in this story other than the hapless slaves): FSF treats her w/ some mockery, as when her reaction to the aerial attack on the slave quarters is that some people have no respect for private property. So what does this story "signify," if anything? That wealth is gotten and protected by nefarious means, that the Washington family that owns the diamond is no different from the Carnegies of the day or the Gateses of ours? No doubt it was then (1922) an age of great selfishness and greed - as ours is today as well. But the story goes so far off the deep end - it reminded me a bit of the first part of Dracula, a captive amid great and mysterious wealth - that whatever pointed satire FSF may have intended loses its edge.

Friday, March 20, 2015

A template for Katherine Mansfield stories - Miss Brill

Miss Brill is by no means one of Katherine Mansfield's best stories but it is a template for her short fiction - so much of which involves a woman who is very happy with her life almost manic or ecstatic in her joy whose life is upended or placed in shadow by an observation or by a remark often overheard that is full of malice and cruelty. In this story the eponymous brill is visiting a park in Paris - apparently her Sunday routine - dressed as she sees it w great elegance in this case wearing a rather frightening and no doubt long out of fashion. She observes others in the park and imagines herself to be part of the "scene" but we see that she is lonely and perceived if at all as an eccentric -'almost a bag lady. At end a young couple sits near her and speaks about her to each other w mockery and condescension. Miss b hears all and swallows her tears very sad she was harming no one and the world is cruel. I think the couple was speaking in English and did not expect that she could understand tho this is not mad about plain. Some irony here in that the couple thought of her as French so in fact she didm"fit in" more than she'd thought

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Katherine Mansfield as a precursor to Alice Munro?

Marriage a la Mode is another one of Katherine Mansfield's largely forgotten but stunning stories; if many of her stories seem to be about young, socially adept, attractive women who experience a sudden and painful shock as they confront, for only a moment, the darkness of life - and then seem to shrug it off as if their lives can go on oblivious, which they cannot, this one is about a deeply troubled marriage. The man is a kind of dull and ordinary London businessman and the woman, his wife, has artistic pretensions - she assembles around her a coterie of aesthetes - phonies, all of them, obviously - who carouse and who sponge. She has moved out to a remote suburb; her husband comes "home" only on weekends, tries to bring candies or presents home for "the kiddies" who, as in so much British fiction, are largely ignored by everyone (except the hapless dad). We follow him on one weekend home as he's made to feel increasingly lumpish and unwanted by his wife and the spongers. On the way back to the city after the weekend, he writes her a plaintive letter, saying in simple language how much he loves her and does not want to be a burden to her happiness. When she gets the letter, she reads it aloud mockingly to her friends - a horrible woman! - and the feels a bit of remorse - why did she do that? She means to apologize, to kick these louts out of her house, but then - they call to her from the garden, and she goes out to join them. The incredibly sadness of this story is actually heightened by Mansfield's surprising narrative architecture (she is a Munro precursor in many ways), as we begin the story with the man and end it w/ the woman - it's even more painful to know that he is unaware and may never be aware of his wife's callous and cruel behavior. She's very comfortable to live off of him, but she's an ingrate - but the story ends w/ him beyond the frame.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A crime that Katherine Mansfield is forgotten

It's a crime that Katherine Mansfield is so forgotten today - I realize that her output was small (she died young) and apparently uneven, tat she wrote only stories so never had the breakout book, but her best stories rival those of anyone from her era and maybe beyond - I have to imagine she would have been as great as Alice Munro, or greater, based on the best of her work: Is there any writer not jealous of someone who could write The Garden Party? - a perfect expose of class structure in England, a terrific portrait of youth in crisis and a moment of realization, of coming of age: very briefly, a wealthy and socially comfortable family planning a garden party, sparing no expense on flowers, the people officiously but with a certain English charm giving orders to the staff about the labeling the sandwiches, all the little details, and the young and artistic daughter is asked to help - she tries to give some orders to the workmen installing the "marquee" - they obviously know much more about it than she does, which she realizes; she kind of dreamily wishes she could befriend these men. Then some news arrives - a working man who lives in the nearby village was killed in an accident, leaving behind wife and five children. Sensitive daughter wants to stop the party - she imagines how the widow will feel hearing the joyous music - but everyone tells her they have nothing to be concerned about. At end of party, family condescendingly decides to send the family a basket of leftovers - sensitive daughter takes them down to the village, an incredibly powerful and revelatory scene: recalls Lawrence's story about the miner killed in the accident and his body brought home to be prepared for burial, but in this case seen from view of the wealthy young woman in stepping into a world seemingly foreign though actually right in her shadow - these are the people on whom she and her family are so dependent - and KM fully captures her discomfort and shame - and then she starts to walk home and meets her brother, says everything's OK - but we know she will never forget this moment. Mansfield's stories are built on such moments and such insights - the horrible speech of the fat man at "her first ball," and we know, though she goes on dancing, that the young woman will be shaken for life but what he'd said to her. Without being polemical or didactic, these are great exposes of social class - better in their way and more incisive than the sentimentality of, say, Dickens, or the earnestness of, say, Zola.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A mostly forgotten writer who died too young

Just a few words about Katherine Mansfield, a rarely read author today, one about whom I know very little, but did blog a few months back on her excellent story Her First Ball that I came across in anthology I've been reading from time to time and now she appears with multiple selections on Charles May's list of great 20th-century short stories. Last night read her story Bliss - can see some similarities w Her First Ball - maybe mostly similarities of class and milieu, well to do young women in early 20th-c London, self-confident and socially attractive, who embark on a social occasion that ends for them in a startling and disturbing revelation of confrontation (as I remember, in HFB a rather unpleasant dance partner blurts out to her a vision of what he sees as the predictable predetermined course of her life which will leave her as one of the elderly ladies watching the ball - this one outburst ruining not just her evening and anticipations but perhaps the course of her very being). In Bliss. we see a young wife shopping and preparing for an evening's entertainment, everything, she thinks, is so perfect in her life - her husband, her infant daughter, they hae enough money, good and interesting friends from an artistic circle - and she wants everything to be just perfect for the entertainment - arranging pyramids of fruit just so, etc. - the one dark note is that the nanny seems to dominate the infant child and won't let the mother get close to her, the mother is disturbed by this but afraid to challenge the nanny's authority - so all is not bliss - and then, at end of evening, she sees her husband in a passionate embrace with one of the guests (whom she had "recruited" to the circle and thought her husband barely knew and didn't really like - a facade, obviously). The world of this story touches on the world of Va. Woolf, hard not to think of Mrs. Dalloway preparing for her entertainment, but the style is more conventional and the scope seems pretty narrow - but the shocking bitter elements that she draws into these stories makes them powerful and memorable. Evidently, Mansfield died young - a tragedy for literature because one would think she would have continue to develop her talent and maybe expand her scope as a novelist or write some really devastating stories. Unfortunately for her memory and for us she didn't strike a sufficiently distinct mark - no landmark books or stunning collection like Dubliners - so readership has largely passed her by.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Man Booker judges were on the money: Narrow Road to the Deep North

Pretty solid consensus last night as the 7 members present of book group largely agreed on that Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North was an excellent contemporary novel; overall, strong admiration for the quality of the prose, the range and scope of information and relationships in the book, the artful almost architectural construction of the plot, the vast amount of historical information that Flanagan dramatized without for a moment getting bogged down in research and pedantry (I don't think I've ever read a historical novel that wore its research so lightly - it seemed as if RF lived through the POW experience in WWII; in fact, one member noted, it was apparently his father who lived at least through the war if not the death march). I for one was particularly moved almost to tears by the postwar gathering of the Tasmanian POWs. We recognized that this copious though never tedious novel contained some materials that seemed extraneous: could certainly ditch the fire-rescue scene in Tasmania; JoRi felt she could have done w/out the entire Amy love story, but I disagree there and think that romantic yearnings and frustrations were a vital part of Dorrigo's personality and personal struggle - though a certainly felt manipulated by Flanagan, who withheld key narrative information to build dramatic effect, and I also felt the heavy authorial hand in this part of the plot: surely Dorrigo and Amy would have made some efforts to determine the exact fate of the other, and in particular Amy would have been aware that D. was alive, right? We agreed universally, though, that the postwar Japan scenes, though potentially peripheral, were important to the theme of the novel, presenting in their way a range of case studies in how men can become violent and sadistic in time of war an of the stories we tell to ourselves, the stories we (or some) create about our own lives, in order to make peace with the worst angels of our nature. I noted that the first chapters were very difficult and disorienting, as we had little idea which characters were significant, which not, and what the connections were among the various characters and the scenes from Dorrigo's early and late life - this novel is almost circular, like the "death poem" contained within one of the chapters, and it merits going back and re-reading the first five chapters, which make a lot of sense once you see the entire scope of the book. For once, the Man Booker judges were on the money.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Man and a Woman: Comparing two famous D.H. Lawrence stories

Reading the intro to a collection of D.H. Lawrence stories I was struck by the reference to Kate Millett's criticique from the 1970s in which she called The Woman Who Road Away a male-fantasy pornographic-bondage story - and I agree with that. We can't take DHL to task for being a victim of the gender prejudices and biases of his day, although we need not hold him up, either, as a prophet, sage, and visionary regarding the liberation of women. To understand, let's look for a moment at two his famous late stories, similarly titled and in some ways similarly themed: The Woman Who Road Away (Woman) and The Man Who Loved Islands (Man). In both stories, the protagonist leaves known civilization behind, sets off alone on some kind of mission or journey, rejects all social relations, in fact turns away from marriage and abandons children, and ultimately dies in the quest. Clearly, this is an over-arching Lawrentian theme, as he was contemptuous of much social interaction, particularly in Western cultures, believed in the cult of a powerful individual leader (hate to think of some of the later consequences of that belief), fearless independence, and nearly obsessive travel. But the differences: Woman leaves husband, children, failing silver mine, heads off to find the remote Indian tribes of NW Mexico, and is captured, held in bondage, and sacrificed in a bizarre ritual killing. She continues to think that she is "dead already," and from moment of her arrival in Indian village puts herself at their mercy, without fear, protest, regret, or resistance. Man, however, sets up a little feudal state with him firmly ensconced as "master"; when he begins to run out of money, scales down and moves to a smaller island, with a very few servants, one of whom he begins an affair w/, though he laments that it's all about "will" and not passion or desire; abandons her and child and moves to solitary island where he slowly, by any objective account, goes insane (he's driven mad by the bleating of sheep, and finally starts destroying all evidence of written language), and dies during the cold winter (a really powerful and well-written scene, btw). So Man takes action, makes himself master of his realm, dies in heroic confrontation w/ the elements. By my view, they are both clearly disturbed, selfish, narcissistic, and irresponsible, and, particularly in Man's case, unaware of their privileged place in society and on the planet. But clearly DHL has what today we can see as a gender-biased view of heroism and independence.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

A nasty little story by D.H. Lawrence: Two Blue Birds

Notice that several of D.H. Lawrence's stories begin with a variant on this phrase: There was a man/woman who ... This little mantra is his own "once upon a time," and sometimes when he doesn't use this formula to begin a story he uses it as the title (The Woman Who Rode Away, e.g.). Last night read Two Blue Birds, which begins with, I think, There was a woman who loved her husband ... She does, but she doesn't - she can't live w/ him, he can't live w/ her, so they go their separate ways - the anathema, for DHL, of the complete romantic and sexual devotion, almost worship, that he holds as the ideal in relationships, married or not: this woman heads off to somewhere in the Southern hemisphere (I think) and has a flirtatious though she claims not adulterous relationship with an admirer, maybe several, this all well tolerated by husband, who stays in England and works hard at his business, doted on by a pretty, adoring secretary (these were days of dictation and transcription). Woman returns "home" for a spell - by this point the man has also brought in his secretary's mother and sister to a run a super-efficient household w/ him ensconced at the pinnacle. The wife realizes she obviously does not fit in. At one point she sneaks up on husband and secretary in the garden, he's dictating to her some sort of essay on the art of the novel (our first inkling that he's a writer and intellectual, not a businessman) - he's obviously a popular but insipid writer, the Rod McKuen of his era, perhaps, and exactly the sort DHL would despise; woman sees two blue birds fighting it out for territory on the ground at their feet (they are titmice, or two little tits, as DHL calls them, with his absolutely tin ear for colloquialisms, though this story shows at least a flash of humor - when the woman wishes there weren't so many names for flowers, she would call them things like that blue blob, that yellow smudge - something else DHL with his passion for botanic accuracy would despise). The woman then engages in a nasty little conversation w/ the secretary, during which she insults the secretary and belittles her husband - she'd always imagined that the secretary does all his actual writing for him, or so she says (obviously, she didn't imagine this - it's just a put-down of both). Secretary walks off tearfully angry, and husband and wife face off, with some sort of Britishism like "quite." (Note the obvious symbolism: wife and secretary both dressed in blue silk.) This is a nasty little story, and, for DHL, quite compact, really building just around the final scene and confrontation; it's one of his few looks, I think, at what marriage and relationships should never be - this woman is in a sense Lady Chatterly before she started hanging out in the woods.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A deceptively simple story: Pirandello's War

Luigi Pirandello is mostly known to American's as the author six characters were in search of but apparently he wrote quite a # of stories and novels, and one story that I have in an at-hand anthology and that Charles May listed in his great stories of the 20th century is the very short piece called simply War: set in Italy during the first World War, story is in the great tradition of railway-carriage fiction. A couple boards the train in the middle of the night and begins to engage in conversation with others in their compartment. They are off to Rome to say good-bye to their son who is heading toward the front. After some perfunctory talk about the sorrows and dangers of war, one man in the compartment goes into a long monologue, revealing that his son died in the war and he's so proud of his son's service to king and country that he never even mourned. After he's done, the woman who boarded in the night says something like: Do you mean to say your son is really dead?, at which point the man bursts into hysterical sobbing. It seems to be the first time he actually recognizes that his son has died. A very simple story, in some ways, but very evocative and mysterious in others - it's as if it takes a human encounter to break through all the rhetoric and polemics about love of king and country, showing us how the myths and "received ideas" that comprise out world view can be pierced and destroyed: It's a romantic idea that it's good to die for one's country, but int he reality of human relationships, family relationships, death is never a good idea or ideal. We also have to wonder: what is this train exactly, is it just a midnight train to Rome, as Pirandello posits, or is it some sort of allegorical device, the journey of one's life - can't we think of Dante, interrupted in the middle of life's journey? - bearing people toward an unbearable confrontation: what is it like to say good-bye to your son when it may be the last time you will see him alive? Are the people on the train actually among the living, or is it a funeral train, bearing them, too, toward their fate? The simple title tells it all, really - during time of war, all human values and concepts are jeopardized, and the simplest journey becomes an allegorical voyage of the dead. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

One of D.H. Lawrence's most bizarre stories (and there are many)

The Woman Who Rode Away is definitely one of D.H. Lawrence's most bizarre stories (and there are many), this one from his American phase - DHL was the most peripatetic writer of his time, not just traveling but relocating time and again, to many continents, in a time far before there were global communications of any sort - this story set in the sparsely populated Chihuahua state of NW Mexico. The eponymous woman is in her early 30s and married to a guy 20 years her senior - she's American (Berkeley), he's I think from the Netherlands, a silver miner and independent sort. They have two young children. She feels lonely and isolated on their tract in Mexico and listens to the tales that the occasional (male) visitors share with her husband - and she gets it into her head that she'd like to learn more about the mysterious native Indian tribes that live up in the mountains and have virtually no contact with other civilizations. So she sets off alone, while husband away on business, telling a fake tale about going off to visit her daughter who's in a convent school. Let's just think for a second about the cruelty, not to say insanity, of this decision: she abandons, home, husband, and even her two children with no explanation and in fact never has a single thought or moment of regret or sorrow about this decision. She laments at various times that she was "already dead," whatever that's supposed to mean - but if it's a loveless and lonely marriage, whose fault is that? Her husband is never mean or cruel toward her, so far as we know. So he's expected to return, find her missing, no doubt spend days or weeks of untold agony searching for her or more likely for her remains? In any case, she heads off toward the mountains (on horseback), does meet three of the native Indians (one of whom surprisingly speaks Spanish - it's never clear what these three were doing roaming about far from their settlement - who lead her on a very difficult passage to their village (abandoning the horse, by the way - another bit of unexamined cruelty). They hold her captive for what seems to be several months, but she never expresses fear, longing, or sorrow - rather, she imagines that she is being incorporated into nature (again, thinking she is "already dead) and having visions, "as if she were on drugs" DHL notes (as if?!). Long and short, she becomes a victim of a human sacrifice - in an entirely weird phallic ceremony (she's pierced by a falling icicle!). So is this in any way, shape, or form a feminist story? I doubt it. She's not a feminist, not liberated, nor even a victim of male oppression. At best, she's a victim of delusions. And the native Indians? - they're not so great either. They, too, are cruel, and not so noble - as far as we can see the men do nothing but sing and chant and the women seem to raise the children in dwellings apart from the men. It's another one of these DHL homo-erotic cultures - men and women apart like sun and moon, according to the myth that the Spanish-speaking native spills to the woman who rode - a tale so heavy-handed and overburdened that, with any other writer, you'd think he was having us on. But no DHL is deadly serious about this story, as he is about everything. Must we take it seriously, though?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Only Connect - and D. H. Lawrence (yes, I know Forster said it)

E.M. Forster said "only connect," but D.H. Lawrence may as well have said it, too - or perhaps "only touch," as physical contact seems to be the key point in many of his stories and novels - often sexual contact, his descriptions of which were pretty advanced and honest or the early 20th century, but not always sexual contact: thinking about a few of his stories that I've been reading. As noted in yesterday's post on Odour of Chrysanthemums the story culminates when the women (wife, mother) touch the dead body of the miner, and his widow understands all she has lost in life, missed in life, and the travail that lies before her. Two very different stories - not in the small and desolate mining villages of the midlands that we so associate with DHL's major early works, involve human contact in different ways: Tickets, Please is set during the 1st World War in rural England and is about a group that runs the local "tram" - I guess it's something like a small train with just a few cars? Or maybe a bus? -shuttles among the villages. Most of the employees (ticket-takers) are young women, while the those of higher rank, the inspectors, are men - one of whom is a notorious Don Juan who courts the women then drops them cold. The women lure him into a little shed where they warm up and unwind after work and essentially gang up on him and beat the crap out of him - a violent, brutal contact that un-mans him, so to speak: he is weakened, defeated, and humiliated, and we begin to think: why is he able to serve as a tram inspector? Why isn't he fighting in the way? He's a "cock of the walk" in this world deserted by most men, among women needy for any male attention - the violent female contact shows him to be an attenuated weakling, a shameful and narcissistic person (he asking the women to serve him tea and toast is truly insipid - I'd like to join in the slugfest after that). The Blind Man is set just after the war, as a man, blinded and scarred in battle, makes a life with his young (pregnant) wife on the family farm; they seem to have plenty of money, as they are well supported by a legion of servants who keep the farm running - but he tries to keep busy with tasks and to accommodate to the narrow scope of his life (and of his marriage). An old friend of his wife's comes to visit, and there's a powerful undercurrent of jealousy and distrust - until the two men meet in the dairy barn (in the dark, I think), and the blind man asks the other guy to touch his eyes and his face. The man does so, feeling queasy and uncomfortable. After this touching, the blind man reports to his wife that they've cleared the air between them and become "friends." It's hard not to see the homo-erotic undercurrents here (reminds me of the nude wrestling match in Women in Love) - but DHL doesn't bring out this element explicitly - what he seems to be getting at is that human touch is a sacred, holy, and mysterious life phenomenon that can have different effects - bonding, destroying, disturbing.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

D.H. Lawrence could be remembered for this story alone

D.H. Lawrence's short story Odour of Chrysanthemums (whew, spelled it right first try) is in a sense an encapsulation of the great themes of his writing. I can't say that had he written only this he'd still be remembered, but it makes a perfect introduction to his major (early) works - maybe even better than his more famous novels, which can become insufferable with their earnest tone and lack of wit. This story is of life and death in a small midlands mining town  - we see at the outset, in a long paragraph rich with detail and topical language, the British countryside scarred and ruined by industrialization, and, in a cinematic manner, the frame narrows and we focus on a young mother in the mining town (we later learn that she's pregnant), calling for her son, Jonathan, who appears from among a scrubby row of bushes - she'd been concerned that he was playing near the creek (fouled with coal spillings), introducing the main theme of the story, the proximity of death. After a brief encounter w/ her father at a railroad siding - we learn, almost incidentally, that he is recently widowed and now has a new girlfriend or wife, to daughter's annoyance, woman goes into the small house and begins preparing dinner and the story now settles into its simple narrative line: she's waiting for husband to come home from the mines and fully expects he will stop first at a pub and most likely come home or be carried home dead drunk. As the night goes on, she walks through the village in search of him or of info about him - ashamed to go asking in the pubs - and, at long last, he is brought home, not drunk but dead from a mining accident. Some of the men lay him out on the floor of her "parlor," and her mother-in-law comes over to help prepare the body for the funeral. Mother-in-law is tearful, but the wife is cold and stoic; they strip the body and bathe it - and she realizes how she never knew him, how their lives were entirely separate. This scene is a stark presentation of the issues DHL grappled with: sexuality, alienation between men and women who don't or cannot connect sexually, the brutal physical presence of men and the beauty of the male body. And of course in a parallel theme this is a great feminist story - what chance does the woman have of a decent and fulfilling life? And how can she manage to survive as a widow with 3 children? And it's also a great documentary account of life in the mining village - so essential to English prosperity in the 19th and 20th centuries, but rarely if ever, until DHL, subject of serious examination in fiction: no other short story that I know of gives as precise and harrowing account of the daily life of the family of a miner, the quashed hopes and ambitions, the brutal conditions, the limited scope, the narrow prospects - but also the tightness of the village and the sense in the mining community of watching out for one another, at least to a degree (will people really be there for in days and weeks to come? or is she truly on her own?).

Monday, March 9, 2015

Two versions of the portrait of the artist: Willa Cather's stories

Yesterday read two Willa Cather stories from the early 20th century, two I'd never read before - in fact, I don't think many people read her stories at all: Paul's Case and The Sculptor's Funeral. I don't think it's just me, but these stories seem to pick up on the very same themes that Thomas Mann, whom I'd been reading earlier in the weekend, examined in his early stories, particularly the great Tonio Kroger: the artist as the outsider in society, the misfit, the one living on the margins and observing, always scorned by the popular - but (in some cases, in Kroger's for example) destined to triumph through devotion to art and also to look back with scorn and a smug satisfaction on the dull and conventional lives of those who had rejected the artist in his or her youth. It's obvious why this is a recurrent theme - stories are written by artists (often young artists, near the start of their career) most of whom have shared some version of this experience - but it seems to me that this theme of the outsider artist rising through art above the dross of his society - ran a course from the Romantic poets (and German novelists) for a century, culminating probably with the Joyce-Proust-Mann triad. The convention was turned on its head after that, thanks in large part to Hemingway. In any event, Cather's vision is far darker than Mann's: in Paul's Case the young protagonist growing up in working-class Pittsburgh but dreaming of a life of wit, charm, and luxury - which he's learned of through theater folks (big mistake - that's not the route to luxury) turns out to be a narcissistic little prick who steals thousands of dollars from his employer and heads off to NYC where he blows it all on an expensive hotel suite and then, caught, hurls himself in front of a train. He's not an artist at all but a snob and a fake - despite his desires and pretensions. The Sculptor is truly a fine artist who managed to escape from his small prairie town (as did Cather); the story is about the townsfolk who gather at his funeral and builds toward an oration from the alcoholic town lawyer, who has a way with words, and tells off all of the townsfolk for trying to bring the late sculptor down to their level: the lawyer, too, had tried to escape but returned to the town to earn his living through duplicity. Again, this story turns the convention not on its head but inside out: it's a portrait of the artist as a dead man, as seen from those who knew him in youth and never took measure of his potential greatness.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Outsider art: Three Thomas Mann stories

Read some of the Thomas Mann stories Charles May suggests in his list of great 20th-century stories (just read the ones that I hadn't read before, most of which are in the Vintage Death in Venice edition), the 3 being: Railway Incident, Gladius Dei, and Little Herr Friedmann - the last in the sequence (though the earliest of the stories) being the most significant. Amazingly, TM wrote this story in his early 20s, amazing because it seems like such an autumnal piece: the eponymous Herr Friedman was, so family legend goes, injured in infancy by an alcoholic, neglectful nurse (that account is doubtful; it appears that he has some form of severe scoliosis, and that the family legend blames the nurse rather than the Friedmann family for his disability). HF has always feels like an outsider - has some friends in school but can never participate in sports and suspects there's some pity and condescension in their friendship. He falls in love from a distance at about age 16, then one day spies his beloved in the embrace of a fellow-schoolboy, and from that point on vows to live without love, to make the most of his life and live with his disability. He has a modestly successful business career, and lives out his life with his unmarried older sisters in the family home, and all goes quietly OK until a stranger comes to town, a beautiful married countess - he's entirely smitten, awkwardly presents himself to her, she talks kindly to him, invites him and his sisters to a soiree at her estate where she singles him out, leads him on, until he grasps her hand and falls to her feet, head in her lap, sobbing, confesses his loneliness [ spoilers to come ] and then she cruelly pushes him aside, laughs derisively, and returns to her other guests. Amazingly cruel person. He crawls to the edge of a stream and drowns himself. OK, this story is incredibly sad, written with such insight and delicacy, a true portrait of the life of an outsider. But of course the ending is melodramatic and unsatisfactory - the author pushing his very realistic story toward a conclusion. This story makes a great comparison with the more mature Tonio Kroger - taking them together, you can see how TM identifies with the outsider who can never be part of the joys and celebrations that others experience, but in TK he makes the outsider not a many w/ a physical disability but an artist - and he's not "pushed away" by a sadistic harpy but he sees others enjoying life and one another - I think it ends with him watching old school-day classmates dancing at a beer fest or some social gathering? - and he knows his life has taken a different, and perhaps more difficult course - a far more complex story on a similar theme. Herr Friedmann, though TM may not have known it at the time, is also a story about an outsider artist (and we also have to wonder, looking back from beyond Death in Venice, whether all three stories are also about the struggles and shame of a closeted homosexual).

Saturday, March 7, 2015

King of the hill: The surprising range of Stephen King

Easy to under-estimate, even to pigeonhole, Stephen King; not only is he a phenomenally successful writer, he's also a very good writer - the people can't be wrong all of the time. I don't think he ever would make a claim to writing great literature, and he's not ever going to be ranked with Proust or Mann, let alone Roth or Updike, but his writing is always on point, clear, entertaining, and often surprising. His story in current New Yorker, A Death, shows his skill and his range (and also, some of his flaws). He's not just a horror writer (film I saw last night, by complete coincidence, included a court sequence in which the prosecutor brought in as evidence against a kid up on a murder charge that he'd been reading Stephen King!) - and this story shows he has the ability to write a pretty good, period-piece western - you could think you were reading, Larry McMurtry, or maybe Annie Proulx in her Wyoming phase. The story, set in the Dakotas in the 19th century, involves the arrest of an isolate loner on the charge of raping and killing a 10-year-old and stealing the silver dollar she was carrying. King does a terrific job establishing the time, place, and characters with swift economy - the "buckboard" wagon taking the accused, Trudale (?), into town for his arrest, the town lockup, the courtroom, with the a dandy brought in from out of town to serve as both prosecutor and judge (thrift, thrift, Horatio). What's wrong with the story then? I won't give it away but there's a twist at the end that just doesn't feel justified by the structure of the story; King is smart and experienced enough to know that this type of story needs a definite ending and not an open, ambiguous conclusion - but the ending he provides feels imposed upon the story rather than a likely and surprising outcome. Although I must admit he had me - and the sheriff - fooled.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Passage to E.M. Forster: 3 short stories and what they signify

Following some tips from the list of great short stories fellow blogger Charles May, who blogs exclusively on short stories (check it out), I read some E.M. Forster stories last night - if I'd read them before, it was many years ago, and like most readers I think of Forster as a novelist and a shrewd commentator on the art of the novel. These stories didn't change my view, but they're worth reading once anyway. The 3 I read - The Road from Colonus, The Celestial Omnibus, and The Other Side of the Hedge -- are from the first decade of the 20th century and feel much more like 19th-century stories than like modern ones: far, far away from Joyce and others who were already beginning to open up the form of the short story and to change the way all of us think about literature, about perception, and about the organization of ideas and images. Each of these three stories is about a man (or boy) who suddenly and unexpectedly has a glimpse, vision, or foreknowledge about another way of life, another world that had previously been beyond his grasp. Each is in some manner allegorical, and each tells a variant on the same story: There is a world of beauty that most people, in their petty and competitive race through life, fail to appreciate or even acknowledge. In Hedge, a man who is "running" (or walking) the course of his life for some reason crawls through the thick hedge that borders the race course and finds himself in a world of peace and beauty - he tries to get back to his "race" but is waylaid at several points and eventually learns that his brother, whom he though he had left behind, has also joined him on this side of the hedge. Omnibus - which looks back I think to a Hawthorne story? - is about a boy who sees signs about this bus that will take him on a mysterious journey; adults don't believe him, but he persuades one man to join him on the bus - and the man dies of fear on seeing the celestial vision. The boy returns to reality (is this also an antecedent to The Polar Express - the idea of a child journey that adults cannot recognize?). Road is about an older man traveling with family in Greece; they come to a small village where the man has a vision of beauty and he wants to stay in this spot, but other hurry him off - we'll miss the boat, you won't get your mail, etc. The story then jumps forward - back to home in London - where the man learns that inn in the village was destroyed the very night they would have stayed there (wrecked by the falling tree that was the center of his vision of beauty). Of the three, this is by far the most heavy-handed - though also the only one that, at least superficially, is realistic, devoid of the fantastic. I can see why these 3 were often anthologized - each is very "teachable" - but I think they also show that Forster worked best on a broader canvas.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The type whom Hitler would recruit: Franz Biberkopf in Alexanderplatz - Berlin

Final scenes of Alfred Doblin's Alexanderplatz - Berlin find the murderous Reinhold in prison - but how he got there is kind of unusual: he knows they're looking for him as the one who killed the young prostitute, Mieze, so he takes a fake identity as a Polish petty thief and gets caught, convicted, imprisoned for a few years - but he's safe from the murder charge. But of course he's betrayed - as the young man w/ whom he begins a homosexual prison relationship gets sprung and blabs and someone, knowing there's a reward for info leading to Reinhard, rats him out - so he's convicted on murder charge. Meanwhile, the main character, Franz, is unjustly imprisoned for the murder and goes catatonic; he's moved to a mental hospital where it appears that he eventually dies - in fact, Doblin says so, but then Doblin "resurrects" his main character; Franz rises from the seemingly dead, they realize he's innocent (of the murder charge at least) and let him go, a free man. But what exactly does freedom mean for Franz? He has no goals, no family, no hope, and it seems obvious that he will be drawn back into a life of crime and violence. But Doblin gives a hint at the end of the novel that perhaps Franz's destiny is military service (even though he has lost his right arm?) - and I think Doblin is almost prophetically looking at the direction in which German culture was heading in teh late 1920s, toward a military dictatorship, and of course toward Nazism and fascism. Franz was just the kind of ignorant, prejudiced, self-proclaimed victims whom Hitler et al depended on and courted in their rise to power. Blame the Jews, the gyspies, the non-Aryans, anyone but yourself for the miseries of your life and your times.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The making of a Nazi?: Doblin's Alexanderplatz - Berlin

Back just about to where we started as we enter book 9, the last section of Alfred Doblin's Alexanderplatz - Berlin, w/ the protagonist and anti-hero (truly the appropriate place for this much overused term), Franz Biberkopf, now charged with murdering his girlfriend, the runaway teenage prostitute who, to put it bluntly, turns tricks for him - this time, Franz is innocent, but the police, having discovered her body in a shallow grave in the woods outside Berlin, immediately suspect Franz - who's stupidly disappeared from the scene, and who has already done prison time (4 years!) for the murder of a girlfriend. Franz is so stupid that eventually he turns up at a restaurant or nightclub that the police had raided, sits in the club after the raid as people are starting to trickle back in, and takes a couple of shots at one of the police officers standing guard (I think - it's a little hard to follow this section, as Doblin is ever-experimental with his narrative technique and he moves in and out of Franz's perception), and now Franz is headed back to prison - but not, by any stretch, a wiser man. He's as stupid and petty at the end as he was at the outset, maybe more so, in that he's failed to learn anything for his experiences, except perhaps to develop a false sense of injustice. Yes, it's true, he is innocent of the murder charge, and in those days of very shoddy forensics he would have no hope of a solid legal defense. But this novel is not a plea for the reform of the criminal-justice system. As noted in yesterday's post, I think what Doblin is getting at is: what social forces combined to create the reactionary, fascist movement in Germany? If prison made Bigger into a radical and made Mersault into an existentialist, I think it's likely to make Biberkopf, a stupid thug with no sense of loyalty or responsibility, into a Nazi.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Who Are These People?: The proto-fascist characters in Alexanderplatz - Berlin

So who are these people, the low-lifes in 1928 Berlin whom I've been reading about over the past week (Alfred Doblin's Alexanderplatz - Berlin)? I've noted that the hapless yet truly hateful protagonist, Franz Bioberkopf, is in some ways a precursor to the alienated postwar European heroes such as Mersault or even to the hero of "protest" novels (I think I mentioned Native Son, without even realizing this is some sort of anniversary - 75th? - of Wright's novel) - but he's without the intelligence and analytic skills of an existential hero and without the justification of an oppressed Southern black man: he's just a nasty, criminal mind and too weak to make anything out of his life or to do anything productive - and this is true of most or perhaps all of the characters in this novel, even the women, who are victimized for sure but not exactly sympathetic, as they sell their bodies, are loose with their affections, and devote themselves to men who are horrible to them (and to others): there's really no good explanation for their behavior, they're not addicts, for example - it's just accepted that there are - or were, in this culture - plenty of people with no eduction, family, or hope, who lived on the margins of society and wasted their lives (and ruined the lives of others in the process). I am by no means expert on German culture during this era, but it occurs to me that these people, the men in particular, were the seed from which Nazism sprouted; politics plays a background role in this novel, though there are a few scenes of political rallies and of barroom confrontations between left and right. These character, Franz in particular, hold no strong views on anything - but I think that, as completely alienated and asocial characters, they were (are) exactly the type that could be easily recruited to rally around a "strong" leader who promises to purge the society of anti-German elements - promising much, putting the blame on others, turning the brutality and stupidity of these people into a pillar of support for a dictatorship and a murderous oppression.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Powerful ending to section 7 of Alexanderplatz - Berlin: lest we forget, these are bad guys

It's easy to forget, as you're reading Alfed Doblin's Alexanderplatz - Berlin, that the seemingly hapless and feckless low-life  protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, is actually a very mean and dangerous man. We meet him when he is released from prison after serving time (4 years!) for killing his girlfriend, Ida. Over the course of the next several hundred pages he seems so set upon and luckless that we forget the sins of his past and see him as a guy with no family, no friends, no education, no chance - he struggles to make an honest living, gets drawn into a couple of petty criminal enterprises that end up costing him his right arm, gets involved with a series of short-term relationships - for some reason women seem really attracted to him - and we begin to think, yes, he's part of the exploited underclass. In previous posts I've compared him to heroes from Camus and Steinbeck. But let's not get carried away: He's a bad guy, and we see more of this in "book" 7 as he gets jealous of his girlfriend - a prostitute who turns over to him all her earnings, as he does nothing to earn even a dishonest living - and beats the hell out of her. And then they reconcile and embrace. Tough guy. The last section of this "book" is extremely powerful, the best and so far the most painful part of the novel, as the girlfriend, Mietze (aka Sonia) goes off with one of Franz's buddies, Reinhold, who tries to have sex with her (she's been pretty loose w/ a lot of guys and he and Franz have a history of passing "janes" on to one another); she resists and he brutally kills her, then buries her in a wooded area and takes off (sounds like The Serial?). Doblin does a great job with the fast pace of narration of this section, moving fluidly from the voices/dialogue of the two character, the interior thoughts of Mietze (the closest he comes to Joycean narrative), and a strange, omniscient observer who repeats, among other things a haunting rhyme, There is a mower, death yclpete.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Mersault's ancestors: The alienated characters in Alexanderplatz - Berlin

In the 6th "book" of Alfred Doblin's Alexanderplatz - Berlin, the protagonist and anti-hero, Franz Biberkopf, now unable to partake in petty theft and burglary and unwilling to go back to selling semi-pornographic newspapers, finds another way to make a living as he takes in a teenage runaway whom at first he thinks just needs shelter and affection but soon realizes she needs a roof over her head so she can sell herself out as a prostitute, so he becomes a pimp, her pimp - almost unwittingly (he's very thick). It's not especially clear what role he plays other than living off her wages of sin, so to speak. In fact, one of the puzzling things about this novel is what all these women see in Biberkopf, an ex-con of no particular wit or charm who's barely able to make any sort of living, has no family or friends, and in the 2nd half of the book is severely disabled by loss of his right arm. On that front, one of the more powerful scenes in this section is Biberkopf's tense visit to Reinhold, the guy who got him involved in the botched burglary and actually pushed him out of the getaway car, leaving him in the street to get run over and nearly killed. Reinhold thinks B. is out to kill him, and pulls a gun on B., but B., in his usual passive manner, just wants to talk. R. give him some bizarre fashion advice about pinning his loose right sleeve and encourages him to get a prosthesis. There's a lot of talk about politics as well in this section of he novel, as B. hooks up w/ a guy who brings him to various leftist and communist meetings and rallies, where he taunts the speakers and engages others in debate - claims to hate politics, to be apolitical. We can certainly see in the discontented, alienated outsiders, Biberkopf and others, the ancestors of the post-war existential heroes (e.g., Mersault) and the beginnings of the right-wing, fascist movements soon to sweep through Germany, Italy, and elsewhere. Not sure where any of this is heading, but nowhere good, obviously.