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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hardy's view of life - and death

So I guessed wrong and Hardy did not have that one final twist regarding the parentage of Elizabeth - looking back I see that the long-lost sailor Newson confirmed, to Henchard, the story that the original Elizabeth died in infancy and the young woman in this was his (Newson's) daughter by Susan - which leaves open the question: who wrote the confessional letter to Henchard? I'll put it down as an authorial mistake - when Hardy had Henchard declare ex-wife Susan was illiterate, he'd forgotten about the letter she wrote (only other possibility: Henchard was lying about the illiteracy; but Newson doesn't dispute the fact.) In any event, though I just barely thought the novel would have the father and step-daughter united at the end, even a sorrowful reunion as in King Lear, e.g., Hardy is too dark even for Shakespearean tragedy: Henchard makes his way back to Casterbridge for daughter's wedding, shows up unannounced, and she basically tells him to go to hell - in her first true outburst of feeling or even of personality in the entire novel (Mayor of Casterbridge); he leaves in despair and later she, Eliz., feels remorse - much like the scene in which Henchard regrets his remarks to Newson and pursues him, now Eliz. and Farfrae take off across the Wessex moors in search of Henchard - through a serious of ridiculous coincidences - not worth even going into - they find him about 30 minutes after his death. The description of the ride across the moors is one of the strongest passages in the novel - Hardy at his best describing rugged and foreboding countryside - and the final paragraph, in which Elizabeth realizes her life will be one of foreshortened joy and looming sorrow - is in a sense the essence of Hardy's world view, relentlessly dark - characters doomed to tragic endings not because of their hubris or grandiosity but because of their blunders and character flaws and because they live in a fallen world and beneath a capricious, or, worse, an indifferent god.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Did Hardy make a mistake in The Mayor of Casterbridge, or is there one last plot "surprise"?

When I read early on in The Mayor of Casterbridge that the sailor, Newson, who bought Henchard's wife at auction was lost at sea I knew one thing for sure: he'd turn up again. And when he shows up again toward the end of the novel, visiting Casterbridge after a long sojourn abroad, looking for news of his abandoned wife and daughter, and Henchard expresses surprise, all I could think was: Man, have you never read a Victorian novel? So, yes, he turns up again, and through an almost comic series of absurdities tracks down the family he'd abandoned and Henchard, seriously jealous once again about this rival for daughter Elizabeth's affections, tells him that Elizabeth has died and is buried next to her month - Newson takes off without a word. How likely is that? In any event, Henchard, feeling guilty about this lie, follows but just misses Newson who departs on the next coach. So for the next two years (?) or so, Henchard lives in dread of Newson's return - figuring he may eventually learn that Elizabeth is alive and well. When this does finally come to pass, Henchard, terribly guilty, says good-bye to daughter and wanders off, walks several days to scene of the original wife-auction crime, and then takes on manual labor and keeps an ear open for news of doings at Casterbridge. OK, he's about as low as he can get - but as noted in previous posts, not through any tragic failing but through Hardy's believe in the grinding forces of fate and also through his own absolute stupidity, jealousy, insecurity, and duplicity. He's a pathetic figure but not a tragic one. This leaves, for me, with about 20 pp. to go, one last unresolved bit of plot: is Elizabeth in fact really Henchard's daughter? The only "evidence" to the contrary was the letter (not to be opened until her wedding day) that ex-wife Susan left for Henchard. But we learn, rather late in the story, that Susan was functionally illiterate - so she couldn't have written the letter. And who could have, or would have wanted to? I can't quite figure that out - and it may be a slip of Hardy's hand (Homer nods). In any event, I suspect Henchard will be welcomed, in some sorrowful manner (perhaps on his death bed?) back into the reunited family - Elizabeth, married to Farfrae as she should have been in the first place, and Newson her actual father or at least kindly stepfather (despite his abandoning his family for a dozen years for no apparent reason).

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Why The Mayor of Casterbridge fails as a tragic novel

It does strike me that there's nobody really likable in Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge - a few of the characters seem at the start as if they'll be noble and good, thinking mainly for Donald Farfrae here, but he falls so easily for the scheming Lucetta and is so utterly stupid in his inability to see whatever secrets tarnish her "dark past" in Jersey - it's hard to have any positive feelings for him. There's no one who's the equivalent to or even similar to the tragic Hardy heroes/heroines like Tess or like the poor guy whose name I don't remember who goes partially blind and continues working cutting furze or whatever he did in Return of the Native - certainly no Jude. The lead characters, mainly the eponymous mayor (#1), Henchard, are foolish and blustering and we can see their fate from far off and they seem to deserve their fate as well - they're not tragic heroes but they're victims of their own weaknesses, which inevitably undo all of their good fortune. Hardy could have built sympathy for two of the women - Susan Henchard and her daughter Elizabeth (Newson), but he conveniently dispatches Susan to set the plot in motion - she's just a zero on the register - and, though we feel sad for Elizabeth she's such bland and unlikable character with her moral rectitude that we, or at least I, don't feel any deep sorrow or pity for her - even when her stepfather is at his meanest toward her. Hardy has created a reasonably well-designed plot, and there is the great opening scene in which Henchard sells wife and daughter at auction, and some vintage Hardy passages about agricultural life (not pastoral life - this is grimly realistic rather than farm labor as seen from the POV of someone who never did any) - but it's a novel that never fully takes hold because the characters are victims of fate rather than torn between opposing impulses, desires, dreams, or beliefs.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Why The Mayor of Casterbridge is on high-school reading lists - and why it's not a tragedy

As any reader could foretell, Henchard's fortunes continue to decline, as Farfrae's rise - F. marries the now-wealthy woman (Lucetta) to whom H. aspired (once he'd learned she was wealthy of course), H. loses all of his money through poor speculation in grain, though he's very honest and forthright in paying his debts he's now homeless more or less - living in a borrowed room in a laborer's cottage (what this says about the living conditions of all of the laborers is something that Hardy does not examine) and working as a hay-baler for arch-rival Farfrae. Quite incredibly, F knows nothing about Henhard's past history with his wife, Lucetta, and Henchard, now back on the bottle after 21 years' abstention, drops some nasty and painfully obvious hints to F about his past involvement w/ Lucetta - F either is incredibly dumb in the ways of love or intentionally doesn't put the clues together. All told, The Mayor of Casterbridge is not a tragic novel in the way of Tess or Return of the Native, e.g., in that we don't feel sorrow and pity for the protagonists - the two mayors of casterbridge, in fact; rather, it's almost medieval in its conception, as if every is bound to a wheel of fortune and that what rises must inevitably later fall. Oddly, the one potentially tragic figure is Henchard's step-daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, whom Hardy keeps to the sidelines - she doesn't have much to do except lurk on the fringes of the action looking and seeming pitiful - and it doesn't help that she's such a prude and stickler for morality (though Hardy notes that none of us should blame her for that, given the uncertainty of parentage w/ which she grew up - it's no wonder that she would focus, as an adult, on moral strictures and paternal validity). The novel has a strong, driving plot, it's well-paced - probably the easiest of all Hardy novels to read (which is probably why it's on h.s. reading lists - also because there's not the moral uncertainties of, gulp, premarital sex) but it's chilly at heart, without the passion and moral ambiguities of Tess or Return (2 that I've re-read fairly recently): the main characters are not torn between conflicting forces nor are they victims of their own nature but are blunderous and in fact foolish: if they'd only tell the truth to one another their life pathways would be much more clear.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

What's original about Hardy's novels

Not only is the eponymous Mayor of Casterbridge a fool for love but so is his arch-rival, Donald Farfrae, and it's totally odd to watch both of these supposedly mature men and shrewd businessmen fall into the clutches of the devious Lucetta Templeman (?) - when she's so obviously a flirt, a schemer, and a phony. The Mayor, Henchard, at least initially reached out to her to make good and atone for dropping her like a stone when his ex-wife turned up on the scene - but when she rebuffs him, because of her new interest in the younger and, lately, for prosperous Farfrae, he gets competitive and out of joint and pursues her aggressively - it also helps that she's wealthy. Farfrae, meanwhile, who seemed such a level-headed guy up to this point, it now head over heels so to speak, bedazzled be her attention. All of this fuels the rivalry between the two men - so far, Farfrae getting the best of everything, but, in the Hardyesque scheme of things, you have to suspect that he, too, is headed for a fall. Meanshile, the unfortunate Elizabeth, the Mayor's step-daughter, is now more or less just a witness to events: in a just world, she would win, or re-win, F's affections, but Hardy seems at least at this point in the novel to have largely forgotten her. One of the pleasures of this novel is the contrast between the rustic setting and the high-tragic tone of the events. Hardy wrote in a high tragic style that, I think, until his work was never set amongst farmers and grain dealers - Flaubert's great scene at the agricultural fair, for example, is memorably viewed from above, with the lead characters on a different plane. In Hardy, we're right in among the workers at the ground level - the fair, with the dispute about the efficacy of the newly designed seed-spreader, is in a sense symbolic of the whole novel. It's a tragedy about people's lives, people who live on and off the land and whose entire fortune is dependent on the harvest and on the weather - and part of the beauty is the Hardy never condescends, quite the opposite, he actually elevates his characters, the apotheosis of the rustic.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

New talent in current New Yorker - Luke Mogelson

A new (to me) talent in the New Yorker this week, Luke Mogelson, with a story called Peacetime - don't know anything about the author except that the note says he lives in Mexico (the story, however, is set in NYC and he's obviously familiar w/ that literarily rich turf) and that he last wrote for the NYer about Ebola, so he's a double-threat, at least. The story is in the first-person narrated tough-guy genre, reminds me a little of the stories we used to see in the NYer from former pugilist Thom Jones (what's happened to him?), in this case though the narrator, Pappadopoulos (sp?) is a former NYC National Guardsman who's done duty in Iraq (not what he bargained for in signing up) and is now in a state of emotional and financial ruin, living illegally in the Lex Ave barracks and making $ as an EMT - but one with a serious Rx fix and a less-serious but quixotic kleptomania. His rich narrative weaves together several episodes, some quite harrowing such as EMT calls to violent and suicidal people, and others full of suppressed anger, or humor at times - his confrontations with his very difficult commanding officer, a few flashes of recollection of death in Iraq, flames that he snuffs out. Lots of good rich material in this story; like many NYer pieces, it doesn't really quite come to an ending, just stops in place - whether because Peacetime is part of a longer work and is just cut and pasted from that, or whether Mogelson has mastered the story voice but not yet the design of a short story, I can't say, but he's a writer worth reading - I'd read more of his stuff for sure.

Friday, April 24, 2015

What to anticipate in the 2nd half of The Mayor of Casterbridge

I admit that not only was the eponymous Mayor of Casterbridge surprised but I, too, was surprised when he opened the "do not open until Elizabeth's wedding day" letter for his late wife and he learns that Elizabeth is not really his daughter - that the original Eliz. (his daughter) died at 3 months and the 2nd Eliz. was the daughter of the sailor, Newsom, who literally bought the wife at auction in the stunning first scene of the novel. OK, got that? In any event, Mayor Henchard, learning that Eliz is not his daughter, begins treating her in the most nasty manner - and, as she notes, even worse thn mean and hypercritical is when he ignores her altogether. Such a horrible person - and one doomed to a tragic life, we anticipate (although maybe with some redemption at the end, we shall see). In one of those ridiculous coincidences or more accurately forced hands that that are the bane of Victorian fiction, the woman whom Henchard had been courting before his long-lost ex-wife turned up in Casterbridge, Lucette (?), suddenly shows up on the scene and has an elaborate scheme to win Henchard for herself at last. We know she's a schemer because, well, she's French and she spices her language up with a few French bons mots. Her scheme involves hiring Elizabeth to live with her as a companion (she's come into a big inheritance and buys a creepy old but huge house in Casterbridge), thinking that will entice Henchard to visit her - when the opposite is the case. Alors! So as I'm at about the half-way point in this novel, I think what the rest holds in store is the gradual ruination and disintegration of Henchard - the fate one would expect for a narcissist, liar, and drunkard - unless he can be redeemed - by the love of a good woman? filial love? atonement (for a 2nd time) for his sins and misjudgments? Forster had the right advice for people like him: Only connect.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Is the Mayor of Casterbridge a "properly motivated" tragic hero?

Predictably, the plot (Mayor of Casterbridge) thickens: Henchard's daughter, Elizabeth, falls for the Scotsman who's essentially Henchard's business manager (Farfrae), which of course upsets Henchard - as he is jealous about F's popularity in town - and he orders the two to stay apart, which of course is a recipe for disaster as all readers know (so obvious it was even the running joke in the musical The Fantasticks); he essentially fires Farfrae, who sets up a rival business across town and although, at first, he refuses to take clients away from Henchard we see which way the pendulum is swinging - it's only a matter of time before Henchard will be impoverished and F prosperous. Conveniently, Hardy has Hanchard's wife, Susan, take ill and die, clearing away some plot excess baggage - just as Henchard receives a communication from the woman he'd dropped when Susan and daughter showed up on the scene. So he's a character headed toward all sorts of trouble: financial ruin, amorous blackmail at best, a daughter who's been in the dark about her strange family history and true parentage, a rival for the post of Mayor and for the town's business, and then we also remember that he had pledged sobriety for a fixed period (24 years?), a time which is almost up. So, like many great Hardy characters, he's a powerful man brought low, a man of sorrows - though, unlike Job, many are sorrows he's brought upon himself by his own actions. Is he a tragic figure? Hardy could have made him so - particularly if his drunken sale at auction of wife and daughter had proved years later to be his undoing - but it appears that he has fully atoned for that sin, bringing the long-estranged wife and daughter back into his life (though I don't know why he never sees a way to level with the now-mature daughter about her history - it's hardly a shame on her). Rather, though, his suffering is, or will be, because of his blunders and character flaws rather than because of his striving for greatness or over-reaching or excessive pride - the qualities of a classical tragic hero (or as my old prof Lionel Abel used to memorably put it: In order to be a properly motivated tragic hero, you have to have 2 kinds of motivation: a motivation because, and in order to.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Plot flaws and missed opportunities in The Mayor of Casterbridge

Not completely sure why but Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge doesn't seem to have the depth or emotion of his other major works, particularly Tess and Jude (which it's been many years since I've read) - possibly because Mayor seems much more plot-driven. Hardy gets it off to an excellent start with the famous scene in which Henchard gets drunk and sells his wife (and infant daughter) at auction at a county fair. Then we flash forward about 20 years and wife, now widowed, and daughter turn up in Casterbridge, looking for Henchard, who's become the eponymous mayor. Hardy has a lot of plot mechanics to handle, but it seems to me that in his doing so he never (at least in first third of the novel) gives us access to the interior lives of his characters. Best example, when the daughter visits H in his home end tells him his "distant relative" Susan is in town and would like to see him he doesn't have any kind of emotional reaction at all - and when then do meet, in the ruins of a Roman amphitheater near town, they immediately launch into discussion of an elaborate plot by which H will court her as if she's a stranger in town and then they will re-marry, but they won't tell the (20+ year old) daughter the whole sordid tale because what would she think of them! There's just no feeling at all - and in fact it seems that TH misses a # of opportunities to make the plot more challenging and dramatic: there's hints about another woman whom the mayor had been "courting," and no doubt that will develop more as a plot element, but shouldn't the mayor be torn in some way between love and duty? Shouldn't he feel in some way potentially threatened or blackmailed by Susan? Why would his first instinct be to marry her - and not to want to make her go away? Not that I mean to re-write Hardy, but if the first third of this novel is a set-up the second third seems like a set of missed opportunities.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Hardy's narrative style - 3rd person v 1st person narration

The Mayor of Casterbridge was on the AP English reading list when I was a kid - I didn't take AP English (my high school offered no AP courses) but was nerdy enough to read most of the list - and haven't gone back to it since then so I remember nothing about it. Finding Hardy an increasingly appealing novelist - yes, his plots are over the top and rely in that quintessential 19th-century manner on coincidence - but he does know how to set the bone in the throat, and perhaps nowhere better than in Mayor: the book begins with the rather extraordinary scene of a young and threadbare couple, with young child, entering a market town, stopping at the fair for some refreshment, the husband becomes aggressively drunk and takes puts his wife, literally, up for auction - a sailor passing through buys her (and child) for 5 guineas. The husband falls into a drunken, stuporous sleep - wakes up and is mortified, unable to find any sign of his wife, he pledges 24 years of sobriety, and off her goes. Flash forward 20 or so years, wife now widowed, grown child, set off to find long-lost husband (not sure why, actually), learn he now lives in Casterbridge - mother tells daughter nothing about the back story other than that this man, Hencher (?), is a distant relative who might help them out, as they're left in near poverty. Great start to the novel, though Hardy, in his assiduous way, lets the plot play out a little too long: for the next 50 pages or so they gradually learn that the (ex) husband is now the mayor and a prosperous citizen in Casterbridge, they observe as he takes in a young traveling Scotsman to be the business manager of his farm, and the daughter, Elizabeth-Jane (?), is detailed to introduce herself to the mayor.  Hardy is in some ways the opposite of Charlotte Bronte, on whom I recently have been posting: Bronte in Jane Eyre, adopted a first-person narrative voice, which gives us a great deal of the interior life and the voice of Jane - but requires some long awkward passages of exposition as key plot points are "explained" to Jane - also requires us to know no more than Jane, which becomes kind of ridiculous when we're all fully aware that a madwoman is living in the attic, though somehow Jane never picks that up. Hardy uses third-person omniscient, which is great because we can see things from several points of view and from the long vantage of the entire community - but on the other hand this style, too, becomes ridiculous when we are fully aware that the major is the young woman's father and she hasn't a clue - don't you want to just lean into the book at tell her what's what?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Cutting Time: Trimming books from my shelves

My book shelves now look a little thinner, and maybe a little better, as a culled through the collection and discarded many volumes. I guess I'm at a point in my reading life that I just don't need to have around me every book I've ever owned - although there's something still beautiful and irreplaceable about the concept of a personal library: scanning my shelves, even in their diminished state, I see a set of visual icons that mark the whole course of my intellectual life. So what did I cull? First of all, duplicates: there was a time, particularly when I was a young professor, when I'd constantly get mailings from publishers offering desk copies of books I might order for class, so as a result I had many copies of books w/ very similar contents: complete poems of philip sidney from harcourt, houghton mifflin, penguin, etc. Honestly, it made no sense to hang onto these so I kept just one - usually either the most handsome edition of the one I'd actually read and remembered from college or grad school or whenever. Second, bad books by good authors. Even the greatest of writers has a few duds; now, I didn't cull from the collections I've built up of the truly great writers: yes I kept Faulkner's Mosquitoes, yes I kept Updike's S., yes to everything by Roth, Hemingway, Hardy, and so on - but no two a crappy late-career book by a once-great Eastern European intellectucal and no to a much hyped but truly terrible book by an American writer well known for her witty short stories, and so forth. Then, poetry - sort of the opposite of fiction in this regard. Even a pretty good poetry book from 20+ years ago seems to retain interest and value not on its merits alone but on the arc of the writer's career. So, though I may never again read a Merwin book, I held on to what I've got - but sorry to so many other poets who crossed paths with my life (meaning I heard them at a reading and picked up the chapbook on sale) and whom I've never heard of again or have long ago forgotten. And finally, saddest of all, the one-hit-wonders of the books world: particularly from my days as a books editor I had a # of first novels and I hung onto most of them. Many never published again, and most of these I moved along. Sorry, Progress of a Fire and Loving Little Egypt and The Pull of the Earth - books once loved and now lost to time. I hope all of the writers who once had hopes and dreams and whom I have secretly dissed in this process have found happiness and fulfillment in whatever course their lives pursued once having published.

(And btw I brought the books to Cellar Stories, in Providence, so if you want to buy the Complete Poems of Sidney ... ) 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The end of the American myth of self-reliance - Sherwood Anderson's stories

No doubt that Sherwood Anderson's stories, which from the outset painted a dark portrait of the insular lives in a small midwestern town - and the yearning, often stifled, to escape the confines of small-town life - a surprising even shocking view that ran counter to the American myth of self-reliance and community resilience, became even darker late in his writing career. His final collection was A Death in the Snow, and I read the title story yesterday - an account of the horrifying death of a woman who lived with an abusive husband and his ally, their 20-something son, in poverty and near starvation in a small house at the edge of town. Nobody helped her, nobody cared for her, nobody even really noticed her - the town turned away from her, out of indifference and, to a degree, out of fear of her husband and his violent rages. We get a detailed narration of her last day alive - struggling into town to trade some eggs for a few provisions, and her struggle to get back home in the snow, sitting to rest, freezing to death, her sack of groceries devoured by a pack of dogs (including her own dogs) - and that's the conclusion of the story, that her life was about feeding animals, and men - with not the slightest bit of love or caring in return - but the deeper meaning is the shattering of the myth of the small town as a place, unlike the "big city," where people cared for one another and where the poor were nurtured by neighbors, by church, etc - that is, in the days before social services and "big government" - so we can see how the poor and abused were truly served in the age of self-reliance. Anderson, in his shrewd narration of the story, acknowledges that it contains details that nobody save the dead woman could possibly know - and he also notes that there are people like this woman in every small town. Also read, at suggestion of old friend and editor of Library of America edition, C. Baxter, one of the uncollected stories in the edition: The Corn Planting - quite a powerful story and in a way the opposite of Death in the Snow, this one about an elderly and self-reliant couple, also on the outskirts of town, whose son, to whom they are devoted, dies in a car accident in Chicago - and the narrator and a friend, the h.s. principal, are delegated to bring this tragic news to the parents. Their silent resilience is a strong a sad testament - and Anderson's unusual narrative decision to tell the story w/out actually showing the most powerful scene makes the story all the more haunting and mysterious. I can see why it remained unpublished or at least uncollected for so long - it's a sad and unconventional story, and, like other Anderson stories (e.g., The Man Who Became a Woman), probably somewhat ahead of its time in narrative technique and point of view.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ann Beattie's narrative style and deceptive authenticity

Good to see a short story, Major Maybe, by Ann Beattie in current New Yorker, been a long time since the last one I think - and I keep as one of my favorite story collections her New Yorker Stories. This story is a reminiscence - unusual for Beattie who has, or so it seems, written primarily about life in the present, in fact she's been one of the great bringers of news as to how we live now. Perhaps as we edge into our (late) 60s reminiscence is in fact how we live in the present? This story captures a moment as the narrator looks back to her youth in the 80s (or 70s?) in NYC, Chelsea, before gentrification, living with an aspiring actor, a guy, but living just as roomies, he seemingly homosexual (though we learn later that he was a bisexual who later married w/ limited success). She focuses on one day in which a neighbor dog frightened a mentally ill woman who frequented their block, sending the woman careening into the path of oncoming traffic. Disturbed by witnessing this, narrator and roommate drink, go for long walk, return home, have sex for first (and presumably only) time w/ each other. She looks back on this as a distant memory, possibly a moment of life choice, she tries to picture the apartment - in fact looks up online images of the apt now for rent as an airbnb, notices the changes, how the apt is dressed up for sale, through staging and photo fakery, and including bursts of flowers, unlike the single flower that then she could barely afford to purchase, and she remembers the dust and pollen that littered the carpet or floor beneath the small vase - a quite beautiful and haunting moment of memory. The story feels autobiographical, but most readers will note that the biographical details and timing don't match Beattie's life - so we see exactly what she does so well in her stories, creates a character who speaks to us in first person w/ a voice of deceptive authenticity; her first-person narrators are so winning and plain-spoken that it's hard not to think of them as authorial, when in fact they - like the staged apartment for rent - are an artistic illusion.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A story that was (too) far ahead of its time: Anderon's The Man Who Became a Woman

Sherwood Anderson's The Man Who Became a Woman is a story so odd and so far ahead of its time you have to wonder whether any of the readers in the 1930s really got it. He gave them, and us, plenty of warning, w/ his Lawrentian and provocative title, but still - the story begins like many SA stories with a naive, unliterary, mid-America narrator struggle to put his thoughts and memories into prose - and in this case he comments on his own difficulties: he's trying to tell a story that he's held in private for many years and thinks that maybe doing so will help him - the story is like a confession in church or, more accurately, like a therapy session. But it comes at us unawares - we think we're in the typical Anderson world, dour portraits of small-town Midwesterners yearning for broader horizons but never quite getting there, and also picks up on a very familiar SA milieu of the small town horse-racing circuit. The narrator tells how he loved working at the track as a "swipe," or groom; his best friend was a black man also a swipe - but he feels he can't be especially close to the black workers as they had their own style and kept largely to themselves and were of course (he doesn't mention this explicitly) excluded from many of the places that the white workers frequented. He goes on to describe how he yearned for a woman but he was too shy to approach any woman so spends much of his time alone. One night, when all the others left the track to go into town to various bars and whorehouses, to put it bluntly, he stays back, for a while - he'd promised to keep an eye on things - but then goes into a bar and gets pretty drunk. Drunk at the bar, looks at his image in a mirror and is startled to see himself as a girl. Goes home in the rain, strips off wet clothes, gets into a horse blanket in a hay loft and tries to sleep, but is wakened by two black swipes returning who see him and seem to think he's a woman and try to attack or rape him - he runs away naked. It's never completely clear whether they actually do attack him; the next morning, he wakens naked and humiliated and leaves the track. So many sexual elements here it's almost impossible to analyze - but it's pretty clear that he's very disturbed about his sexual orientation, that he has strong homosexual yearnings that he's repressed - and still does repress (he talks very dismissively, as he's recalling this story about his youth, about his wife and his marriage), no doubt very drawn to the men, particularly the black men, and to the physicality of his work. The description of rubbing down the horse after the race must be one of the most homoerotic (the horse is a "he") passages in early 20th-century literature, I think. So in a way it's not that he "became" a woman but that he realized for a moment the complex dimensions of his sexual drive - but then, like the entire world of his time, repressed and dismissed those feelings and pursued a conventional, if love-starved, life - but always bearing the burden of that moment of truth - that epiphany, if you will. Anderson (a close friend of Faulkner's in their youth, I just learned) once again steps up as an insightful, progressive, and unconventional writer, overshadowed by his more finely polished and ambitious contemporaries - too bad he's read so little today.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Two Faulkner stories and a common thread: Rose for Emily and Dry September

Two of William Faulkner's stories - A Rose for Emily and Dry September - make an informative pairing - stories superficially so different yet both so obviously Faulknerian and with a theme in common. It seems clear that on the few occasions that F specifically set out to write a short story - there was a huge and lucrative market for short fiction back in the 1930s - as opposed to breaking a piece out of a novel to publish as a short story - he simplified and honed his style as much as he was capable of doing - he's never exactly Hemingway, but in these two fairly typical pieces the language is less florid and baroque than in most of the great F novels (and longer, later stories such as The Bear). But we still recognize the common landscape in both: small Southern heat-soaked city in which everyone knows not only everyone else's business but everyone else's complete complete family history. F wrote Rose with the narrative voice that I will call: first-person communal. It's a use of "we" that isn't a clearly defined small group, nor is it the royal we - but it's the voice of all in the community speaking as one - a fairly rare narrative strategy, but one I know J Eugenides used in The Virgin Suicides, to good effect, and old friend Jean McGarry used well in her early stories in Airs of Providence: the community speaking as one. In Rose everyone wonders about the fate of this reclusive woman in the shabby mansion who had not been seen in public for many years, the public finally admitted to her house to tend to her body when she dies, at which time "we" make a startling discovery (and, no, she's not a tranny, as she might have been in a narrative today). Dry is a much more dramatic and harrowing story, about a black man accused of raping a white woman (same Southern city of Jefferson time roughly in 1920), and the racist thugs who hunt him down and kill him, with the acquiescence of just about everyone except for one brave man, a barber - it's about the horrors of racism, of group insanity, and pressure to conform to the horrid norms of the time and place - the same hysteria that would later produce Nazism and the Killing Fields and many other atrocities big and small. The narrative is very fast-paced and dialog driven, at least for Faulkner. And it's worth noting that these two very different stories share a thread of a common theme: the repressed sexuality of an older, lonesome woman and who the town - the white men in the town, primarily - judge these women, with such contempt, condescension, and false pity. Each of these is really a story about a woman - but as seen and told very much from the outside, from distant observation and rumor - there is nothing at all intimate about either narrative.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

William Faulkner

William Faulkner has such a completely different narrative style from Sherwood Anderson about whom I posted yesterday that it's hard to comprehend that they were two contemporaneous American writers - but of course their styles reflect their different regions and in fact have come to define the voice we associate w these two regions - the flat and colloquial and understated Midwest v the florid and baroque and labyrinthine south the one built on naive hope and aspiration and the other smothered by history and ancestry. Faulkner's story barn burning makes a good contrast (like many of his stories this may later have been absorbed into a novel - f definitely more comfortable in the long form and in fact all of his works constitute one enormous novel as w Balzac) - in this case an extremely close 3rd person we see the entire story of the suicidally angry and vindictive snopes who murderously picks fights with neighbors from the pov of the young snopes boy sartorial who Rebels against his father and tries to warn about father's intent to burn a barn. Of course the entire narration of the story is about as far in language and sensibility from the sarty snopes as literarily possible - Anderson writes the way his characters would if they could whereas Faulkner writes the way his characters would if they were Faulkner. Which they are not. It's also obvious that f's works build upon and depend upon one another and that part of our understanding and appreciation of barn burning depends on everything alas we know about the snopes clan esp from the hamlet.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Sherwood Anderson

Last year read Sherwood anderson's winesberg ohio in library of america edition (Charles Baxter Ed,) and have picked it up again to read additional stories on Charles may recommendation. Again struck by his easy and accessible tone and in particular by his credible use of first person narration. Of course many of the greatest 19th c American works used first person narration esp by working class rural or outsider characters notably huck Finn and Ishmael but can anyone actually believe that these characters were able to tell their stories w such literary expertise? No nor are we meant to. But in the early 20th c writers like Anderson and also ring Lardner used first person w verisimilitude - a new a "modern" style whose descendants include Holden caulfield et al. Anderson's race track stories seem quite genuine but also sadly today they will make any reader extremely uncomfortable w their casual racism - no doubt accurately depicted butt hard not to react against. One of the best later (1930s) Anderson stories is the egg - a sadly humorous account of a dour man (a's father?) failing at chicken farming and inexplicably trying his hand at being an innkeeper of sorts. Story ends w sorrowful lament about the never ending cycle of chicken-egg that is another anti-epiphany - the darkness of the world revealed. What is it about chicken farming and American humor (aside from assoc of chicken farming w the Depression) - s j Perlman also wrote about the tribulations and loss of faith that chicken farming entails.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Did Babel read Hemingway?

Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories, which I tried to read a few years back and couldn't really make sense of, now make more sense to me as I've read some more of his work plus some materials about Babel (esp the Trilling afterword in the Penguin Collected Stories) - and was particularly impressed w/ the two quite short stories that I read last night, Crossing into Poland (as it's sometimes called; in this edition it was the name of a river I've never heard of) and My First Goose. The Crossing story is a very short piece about Babel with the troops crossing a very powerful river - terrific paragraph describes it; other writers would take pages - the horses up to their shoulders in the water, one toppling into the rushing current, the soldier riding the horse screaming curses - and into a small village - where the soldiers must get "billeted" (made illegal in the U.S. for good reason). Babel goes to the house of three Jews - interestingly, he does not acknowledge his own Jewishness here, as the whole struggle of these stories is his attempt to fit in and be accepted by the tough, course soldiers. While the woman of the house gets things ready for him in this filthy place - excrement on the floor, as he notes - one old Jew sleeps curled up in the corner. At the end, she pulls the blanket from him, we see that he has been killed - in the room, in front of his family. What terror and what trauma, and all told so starkly and without emotion. It's hard to believe Babel had not, somehow, read In Our Time: the very short stories like flashes, illuminating a moment of war, and of course the dead man with his neck slit - much like the "sleeping" Indian in Indian Camp. My First Goose is a almost a companion piece - another story in which Babel gets billeted, but in this case it's a group of Cossack soldiers, tough guys, who threaten him and treat him like dirt - the commanding officer made some ominous remarks as to whether Babel could "fit in," with his glasses, etc. - in other words, as a Jew. Babel, frustrated and belittled, turns on someone weaker and crushes the neck of a goose - then demands that the woman who owns the house cook the goose for him. It appears that she never does, but his cruel action wins over the tough Cossacks who offer him some food and, more important, fellowship. It's a hazing story, as (I think) Trilling noted - and the title is significant as well - calling it his "first goose" tells us that others followed, by which I think he means other acts of ritual cruelty to prove his worth and manhood.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Epiphany and its opposite in two Isaac Babel stories

Two of Isaac Babel's "autobiographical" stories make a good pair; they seem to refelect each other, in a sense. Di Grasso is an account of his time in Odessa at a teenager working as a theater "tout," that is, he worked with a local thug selling scalped tickets to the local theater/opera house at whatever prie the market would bear. At one point, the theater had a few chintzy flops and the touts just about went broke. Then a new troup - Di Grasso et al. - of Sicilian actors came to town; at first unpromising - the gang leader amusingly says something like: Boys, this is not merchandise. (Sounding like my grandfather, not like a thug.) But the Sicilians killed and prices went up. At end of story, young Babel looks on his town and sees the beauty for the first time - as with many great early 20th-century stories this one ends in the flood of emotions that accompany an epiphany. Guy de Maupassant is a stronger and more complex story: now Babel is in his 20s, in St. Pete  (I think, maybe it's still Odessa) and living as a bohemian, devoted to art, picking up odd jobs editing and reviewing here and there, in great poverty. He's offered a job as a clerk in a factory and turns it down, heroically. Eventually a wealthy family - Jews converted to Xtianity, the father making money selling supplies to the army, so you can imagine the corruption - hires him - the sexy and kind of dopey wife is crazy about the works of GDM and wants Babel's help translating. He takes her version home and sees that it is flat and horrible and uninspired; he rewrites, and she is completely taken w him. They continue to meet - they work on one story about a carriage driver who tries to have an affair with his wealthy employer. One night, Babel and the sexy woman have a lot to drink while working and Babel comes on to her - she teases hm, he moves toward her, then clumsily knocks down a shelf of books - a very Woody Allen-like moment. He heads home, drunk and exhilarated. Later begins reading a bio of GDM and learns the de Maupassant had a miserable life, tried suicide several times, went insane and behaved like an animal (and worse) and died institutionalized at 42. So - this is like an anti-epiphany, a moment of horror and disillusion rather than inspiration and exultation: Babel has these romantic notions of the artist's life, and his patron holds her favorite writer on a pedestal and flirts and dreams and imagines a life like the lives and loves he depicts so beautifully - but Babel at the end sees the suffering and torment in the life of the writer and the vast divide between life and works.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Anti-Smitism: Babel wrote about it; why did the other great Russian writers ignore it?

Isaac Babel is not the easiest or smoothest or most polished of writers - have just been looking into his collected stories once again and, reading, The Story of My Dovecot (one of the so-called autobiographical pieces - he even uses his own surname - wondering how or even whether this piece differs from what today we would call a memoir-essay?) and found the prose very choppy and the structure of the story rough and uneven (maybe some of this is the translation?) - and yet - what a powerful and affecting story, a piece that takes on the scourge of anti-Semitism - something that the other great Russian writers either ignore altogether or blithely accept as the norm. The beauty of this piece, its subtlety, is the way in which Babel takes on these theme surreptitiously - all as seen through the eyes of a young boy (him) in elementary school, only vaguely understanding the social movement, the hatred, and the violence that was erupting all around him - now from some distant point he's looking back, so he understands that this was a powerful episode in his young life, but the narrator doesn't analyze or pontificate, just presents the events and conditions of the story: Young Babel pushed by father to earn highest marks in school to gain entry into a prestigious high school, one of the 2 seats reserved for Jews; boy does perform well but seat is taken up by a wealthy Jewish family that pays a bribe; he's championed nevertheless by a sympathetic teacher - but when brought before a higher educational authority to demonstrate his knowledge, he chokes up, and we get a clear sense that they look on him as a freak of nature - how amusing that a Jew performs so well in school, etc. Father agrees to provide Isaac w/ a small dovecot (how sweet that owning one and a flock of pigeons was his ambition - and maybe symbolic as well?), and I., against parental orders, sneaks out to go to a fairground to buy the doves. While at the fairground rumors start going around about some sort of violence - we pick up only from subtle hints that these are riots against the Jews (a mere foretaste of the Nazi pogroms years down the road); Isaac makes his way home, is attacked by a man and woman who beat him with one of his purchased pigeons, a v powerful scene (the woman talks about destroying all their "seed" and we know now whom she's talking about, not the pigeons), and I gets home to find his great uncle dead and a servant gently tending to the body. This is the dark and unspoken side of the great Soviet revolution; hard not to think of Babel disappeared and dead somewhere in the Gulag as we read this and other stories. He saw it coming, no doubt.

Friday, April 10, 2015

An act of betrayal and its consequences in current New Yorker story

Story by Chimamunda (?) Ngozi Adichie in current New Yorker, Apollo, set in Nigeria, has a few intriguing twists and has the virtue - rare these days - of truly being a short story, a literary work in prose that captures a single event, has consistency of voice and tone, and follows a narrative arc. n short: the story begins with the narrator, a single man of middle age, visiting his aging (80s or so) parents in their central Nigerian village - he visits every two weeks - and he remarks on the surprising changes in their personalities and appearance - how they have come over the years to resemble each other and how they have become much more spiritual and superstitious in late life - in fact, when younger, they were both academics and quite educated and prosperous by Nigerian standards of the day. They mention to him that a young man had been caught and almost executed on the spot for some petty thievery, and then they note that the young man many years ago was their "houseboy" for a period of time - and they doubt he will remember the houseboy - but of course he does and then the story jumps back to the past and tells a story of the bonding between the teenager and the 20ish houseboy, though both so different in prospects, and ultimately an act of betrayal in which the young narrator unjustly accuses the houseboy of pushing him down - and the peremptory parents fire the houseboy immediately, end of story. So we see how the two followed different courses, different fates - but that both were, in some way, wounded by that duplicity. The narrator never says so explicitly but there's the suggestion that he may be homosexual, and his bonding w/ the houseboy seemed at least on his part somewhat homoerotic (he nurses the houseboy through an eye disease, called Apollo, and through that physical contact contracted the disease himself - which subtly hints of STDs - and the houseboy's coldness toward him after the illness suggests a sexual rebuff) and we suspect his loneliness in later life was colored or foretold in some way by this shameful incident. The casual lie and its long-term consequences seems a familiar theme but oddly I can think of only one example - Atonement - similar in that it's a class conflict that not a "master"-servant conflict. I wondered whether the first section - the narrator visiting his parents - was actually necessary for the story and decided it was not essential but added a significant richness to the story by giving a sharper idea of the lives into which these characters would grow and by establishing the Nigerian setting and that this is not a story about race conflict but about class conflict among black Nigerians.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The final paragraphs of Jane Eyre and what they signify

It had been a long time since I'd read Jane Eyre and I have to say I'd completely forgotten that by the time Jane reunites with Rochester he is blind, somewhat crippled, and living as a recluse - he's in the depths of despair and she brings him back to life, in a sense. Of course it's a preposterous, contrived, over-the-top ending but that's also what makes this novel, for all its faults, a pretty great read. The main characters suffer - and they learn through their sufferings. Jane learns that she needn't always be a self-effacing prig, that she can stand up for herself and recognize her heart's desire, and her sexual desires. Rochester learns that he can't order everyone around, tease, command, and mock - he at the end is contrite and humble, and also heroic: he was blinded and injured rescuing his household from the fire that destroyed Thornhill. Like most great works of literature, there are parts of JE that are strange and incongruous - and I think tops on the list is the character of St. John (Rivers?), Jane's cousin, who goes off to India as a missionary and wanted Jane to marry him - even though it was clear he didn't love her or desire her in the least. Oddly, St. John gets the last paragraph(s) of the novel, as if what we're really waiting to learn is not Jane's fate or R's or their child's but his - and we learn that he did go to India, he did maintain communication w/ Jane, and he died in his service as a missionary. Why does Charlotte Bronte end the novel on that odd note? Perhaps she recognizes, on some level, that Jane chose a more settled, comfortable, conventional life - but that St. John, for all of his faults, is the more heroic character. His is the path not taken, in a way, and this novel - which like most British novels of its time is about the outsider's gaining acceptance into British culture and society - also recognizes the other mode, what I call the more American ideals for a literary hero: escape, solitude, death.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

What Jane Eyre learns by the end of the novel

After some ridiculous gothic plot mechanics of the sort that often derail even the best 19th-century novels - Jane discovers that the family that took her in when she was wondering penniless and starving across the moors - turns out to be - ta dah! - her first cousins and her only living relatives! - Jane Eyre gets down to some serious business: Jane's new-found cousin St. John, a dour priss who's intent on going as a missionary to India, asks her to accompany him on this mission - and she's willing, as she has few other alternatives, but she totally stops short when he asks her to come as his wife. It's obvious not only that she's not into him - but equally that he's not into her. He just wants a "helpmeet" - and fortunately Jane by this point in the novel, or in her life if you prefer, has matured enough to know that she must refuse this proposal: she would be signing on to a life of loveless misery and, for better or worse, she now knows what it is to be in love and she even, forfend!, makes some references to sexuality: her mind might be OK with becoming St. John's wife, but her body would suffer. That's about as close to discussion of female libido as a novelist in 1848 could get, I suppose. In any event, as noted in previous posts, I don't think Rochester is such as catch either - with his controlling and condescending attitude toward women in general and Jane in particular - but at least at this point Jane has learned what she wants and what she needs. Also, she now has inherited a sizable stake of money so, if (when) she does get back together with Rochester she can do so not out of desperation: she may still be in a far lower "class" than he, but she at least could walk away and live well on her own, not, as when she left him after the canceled wedding, wandering the moors half-starved.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Author, Don't Marry Him: How would an American author have written Jane Eyre?

A weird anti-pastoral interlude as we near the end of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre - after Jane leaves Rochester and Thornhill behind and heads off to the countryside with literally no money and no connections, she is taken if by a family - two girls and their dour brother - - a family very much like the Brontes, we have to imagine - who live on the moors, and Jane is struck by the beauty of the moors and their desolation - which both consoles her and serves as a "romantic fallacy," as if nature itself expresses the feelings of loneliness she has within her. The brother, St. John, who's a local and rather puritanical minister with dreams of life as a missionary, sets her up as the teacher in a one-room school for village girls: at first Jane is contemptuous of their lack of learning and manners, but over the course of a few weeks comes to like the girls, at least some of them, and also strangely enough Jane plays matchmaker, letting St. John know that the village beauty is interested in him: there go the plans to carry the word of God into China or wherever. So what does all this say about Jane Eyre - is she in some ways better off living independently rather than depending on Rochester and his whims? She's still in love with him, it seems, but any reader, I would think, should be warning her: Author, don't marry him. She's a stronger person and a stronger character when on her own - not as his little pet, his little puppet, his little lost lamb, as he so "endearingly" calls her. But of course we know that's not where this novel is heading. Jane Eyre is the patron saint of many feminists and other women readers, as she's a model of intelligence, integrity, and independence - and as her narrative stands as one of the first great works of British literature by a woman - but is Jane really a role model anyone should follow? Should she really give up so much for to experience the apotheosis and be lifted into a "higher" social class? As noted many times during these posts, I have to wonder how differently an American author would treat these materials: in Wharton's hands, Jane would be a tragic figure. In Cather's, perhaps a heroic figure - setting off to the city to make her way and find her fortune.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Why Jane Eyre should never have married Rochester

Rochester's such a catch? Let's think about this: first he completely snubs Jane Eyre when he's with his wealthy friends, insists that she join them in the room but won't even look at her, but when he gets her off to the sidelines he's incredibly suggestive and flirtatious; then, he disguises himself as a fortune teller and asks Jane all sorts of potentially embarrassing questions about people she may be in love with (fortunately, she can see through his mask). When he's ready finally to tell her that he loves her he torments her first with a long song-and-dance about how he's getting married soon and she will have to go off and find another job. OK, she's crazy about him - and has few other options, anyway - so she acquiesces, and then he's about as bossy as a spouse could possibly be, ordering what she should wear, what she should own, etc. She puts up w/ all this crap - and then the wedding day, when Jane learns, on the altar no less, that Roch is already married. What did he think? That she'd never learn? That all would be OK because his wife is the crazy person living in the attic? That Jane is so kind and sweet that she'll be happy to live with him as if she were his wife - never mind how these complications could affect any chance of her inheritance, or of the lineage of the family should they have children. No telling how far he'd have pushed that had not his brother-in-law learned of the impending marriage (lots of coincidences throughout, in typical 19th-century Gothic fashion, but let's just say you need to suspend a lot of disbelief in order to accept the plot machinations of JE). So naturally Jane leaves him - and we get some of the most harrowing scenes in the book as she wanders the moors and the countryside in near starvation, until someone finally takes her in and may help her find some kind of work. We see through this not only Jane's strength but how utterly dependent she's become on Rochester's support: doe she learn about the suffering of others? Not really. She learns how important it is to marry the right guy, even if he's mercurial and duplicitous. It's impossible, btw, to read this far into JE and wonder about the subtle, or not so subtle, racism at the heart of the novel: why did Bronte have to make the crazy woman a half-Creole? There really seems to be a sense that race is at the heart of the insanity - that no good English wife would ever behave that way (or be treated that way - imprisoned in an attic). Is Brone suggesting that: If only Rochester had married one of "his kind" the tragedy would never have ensued - and marrying the pure-white Jane Eyre is his path toward salvation.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The curelty of Rochester and what it signifies - in Jane Eyre

So how can we possibly make sense, much less excuse, Rochester's behavior toward Jane Eyre during their so-called courtship, as he repeatedly teases and taunts her, letting her know he's getting married within a month or so, letting her believe that he's going to marry the beautiful opportunist, Ms. Ingram, without ever quite saying so, hurtfully just leaving open for Jane the possibility that maybe he's interested in her, bringing it right down to the wire, telling Jane she'll have to leave Thornhill and he will recommend a placement for her taking care of five (!) children somewhere in Northern Ireland, all the while she steadfastly says she'll do as he wishes, fighting back tears - until at last he asks her to marry him, actually, he doesn't a quite ask but more or less says it as a fait accompli. I half-wish she could tell him to go to hell - just as I wish Jane could have told Mrs. Reed, the aunt who was so horrible to her throughout her childhood, to die and go to hell. It's not just that Jane is a good person and a good Christian - she's a damn doormat. It's one thing to turn the other cheek and it's another to let others do with her what they will - again, it's the class or caste system of English society (and to a degree the sexism as well, at least in relation to Rochester if not to Mrs. Reed) that keeps Jane "in her place": her worship of and obeisance toward Rochester is partly from her sense that they are of a different class, and partly a wish that he will "elevate" Jane by marrying her. Though she is in my view in every way more intelligent, worthy, and kind than Rochester, she does not enter this relationship as one among equals - she is his complete dependent, or so it would seem. We're still very early in the book for the romantic conclusion, so we are of course waiting to learn about the woman in the attic - the one great hindrance remaining as an obstacle on the path toward their wedded bliss.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

A great idea for a story - and for a novel - Daoud's Musa in current New Yorker

A really interesting story in current New Yorker, Musa, by Kamel Daoud, an Algerian writers (writing in French), soon to have his first novel published - and clearly this story is an excerpt, most likely the first chapter, of his novel; if you read the authors' bio notes at the front of the issue before reading the articles in the NYer, you will not be surprised at all by the story - if not, it may take you a while to get it - so - spoiler alerts for some - this is a very cool idea for a story or novel, and I know there have been similar "takes" on major literary works, some more successful than others, some just living like a parasite off the qualities of their source - novels supposedly by Ahab's wife, by Rochester's wife (Wide Sargasso Sea?), and so forth - this one is particularly unusual in that it purports to be not by but about a literary character, and not a character with, to my memory, even a speaking role: it's about the unnamed Algerian native whom the French colonist Mersault shoots to death for no reason (cela m'est egal, as he repeatedly says) in L'Etranger (usually, The Stranger, though I think The Outside better captures the meaning). If you didn't get it the first time, go back and you'll see a # of references, even the use of the word "stranger" and a reference to the Myth of Sisyphus. Of course Daoud writes in French, so there has to be a postmodern element to this story, and there is: it's not exactly as if Daoud is imagining a different vector for Camus' tale, but rather he imagines what it would be like if your brother were killed not in life but in fiction: the narrator at several points references the fact that his brother's death occurs in a famous book: whereas The Stranger was not written as if it were an objective account of a killing but rather as a completely interior story. If a Mersault had actually killed an Algerian, there would most likely be no book. Daoud - a writer whom, if he becomes more famous, will be a blessing bestowed on crossword composers (like the Latin American writer Aira) - tells the story of the Algerian's death as felt and perceived by the family he left behind; the Algerian is the Musa of the title, and we experience the narrative from the POV of his much younger brother, who lives with his mother's obsession and increasing embitterment - eventually leaving Algiers for a remote rural setting, to get away from her memories. Daoud shows us a whole other side of the French-Algerian world, and conflict - a side of Algiers that some may recognize from Battle of Algiers, from a somewhat later era. Oddly, Camus, too, tried to capture the back streets and alleys of Algiers (in his posthumous notebooks), and Camus, though a colonist, clearly did not grow up in pampered wealth, but Daoud really gets at the impoverished, sometimes dangerous urban life of the colonized - we can see from this excerpt how the Battle of Algiers emerged and why it was necessary.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Reader, she marries him: Jane Eyre and social class

Rochester brings a whole crew of his wealthy, "upper class" friends to visit him at Thornfield, where they eat and play games (charades!) and pretty much drive the huge staff crazy - and Jane Eyre is an intermediate figure: she's a servant (the hired nanny for his "ward," Adele), but she's clearly more educated and sophisticated than those with whom she works - but she feels like an outsider among the aristocrats, which she is: she joins them at night only because Rochester literally orders her to do so; none take the slightest notice of her, as she sits to the side by herself, quiet and observant. And when Rochester addresses her (and admires her) it's in a sidebar - not among his wealthy and somewhat glamorous friends. So how do we place this?: Jane's desire is not to disrupt the social order, not to raise all of the servants to a level of respect and equality. The English social class conventions are far too entrenched for her to take on - and so are the conventions of the English novel, in fact. Her desire is to join - and perhaps make them slightly better and more cognizant - but the whole novel is driving toward her incorporation in a "higher" social caste: reader, she marries him. Think how differently American novels treat this theme. But as noted in earlier posts, I think there's another dimension, too - a feminist dimension, obviously, but also a literary dimension: her position as observer, unknown and unnamed, not recognized for her talents and abilities, is much like the position of the female novelist in her era: she's unrecognized as a character, just as the Brontes (et al.) are unrecognized, hidden, and disguised within the literary world: the woman novelist must pretend to be what she isn't, and must sit demurely aside while the great male writers of the era - Dickens, Thackeray, maybe Hardy? - strut about in the limelight. Reader, this will change.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The first great feminist scene in British literature?: in Jane Eyre

So at last Rochester calls Jane Eyre into his library or dining room to engage in some after-dinner conversation - he gives a little present to daughter Adele, who is fascinated with the little toy and prattles on in French, background noise to R and JE's conversation. Rochester gets it off to a great start by asking Jane is she finds him to be "handsome," and she quite forthrightly answers: No. That leads on to a conversation about beauty, morals, ethics, faith - and Jane shows herself to be every bit his match, and beyond - her comments are sharper than his, funny, thoughtful, wise, and pointed. What does this tell us? First of all, the dialogue is almost Shakespearean - can't help thinking of JE as a 19th-century novel v. of Beatrice - even if Rochester is a sour-puss who feels sorry for himself and is no match of wits for her, he's no Benedick. Of course the wit is not really "Jane's" but Charlotte Bronte's - and in part what I think she's doing is showing us her hand, showing us her own intelligence. She, through Jane, is like the voice of all of the female narrators and authors who have been silenced by "manners" or convention. In a sense, she - i.e., CB, is not really engaged in conversation w/ Rochester but with the literary world - she is showing that women (authors) have a rightful place, and that their role is or should be to speak out and speak up (lean in, we would say today). Think of CB, and of her sister, and later of G Eliot, adopting these absurd male personnae, and for what reason? CB was unable to shed her personna at this time - not if she wanted to publish, anyway - but she uses the occasion to make the case for women writers. Wyf of Bath, Much Ado, and Emma aside, this may be first great feminist scene in British literature.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Did Charlotte Bronte change her mind while writing Jane Eyre?

One would have to surmise that Charlotte Bronte got tired of the novel she was writing (Jane Eyre) and decided to "switch gears" a few chapters in; there's no doubt that she could have begun the novel with JE's arrival at Rochester's estate (Thornhill?), and that would in fact have been a fairly opening for a genre novel of its day or, for that matter, ours: a stranger arrives in town. In this case, an impoverished, solitary governess about to meet her new, her first, charge - a beginning somewhat like Turn of the Screw, or in a different way like Dracula - but there's also no doubt that the novel is much, much better because CB set us up in the first 80 pages or so with the story of JE's childhood as a abused, mistreated orphan. But clearly she, CB that is, reached a point where she knew she'd made her point: she jumps forward by 8 years in a paragraph, completely eliding the years of JE's maturation into young womanhood (CB must have had fears that she was heading down the Tristram Shandy road and if she were to apply the same level of detail to all the years of Jane's life the novel would take longer than the life to complete), and she also kind of miraculously and off-handedly says that the horrible school for girls was reformed and became a much more nurturing and supportive place for Jane and the other consignees: My guess is the CB just didn't have it in her to write another hundred pp of wicked abuse, so the mean school manager is put in his place, Jane reunites with the one somewhat kind maid from her aunt's house, and JE heads off into a new world. For the vast # of readers who already know the story of JE either because we're re-readers or from one of the adaptations, the trickery will begin to seem a little heavy-handed (Jane keeps hearing noises and seeing servants walking around on the darkened third floor), but CB does a really great job establishing the milieu of Rochester's mansion - the book, accessible and engaging though the first chapters are, really comes into its own as the plot gears engage on Rochester's arrival: all before is prologue.