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

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

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Knausgaard's shame and cruelty

Karl Ove Knausgaard boldly looks deeper into his teenage sexual anxieties and shame, in volume 4 of My Struggle, as he looks at his inability to have sexual intercourse - though he's able to attract many women and he engages in lots of sex he never seems to be able to consummate, to his deepening shame and fear; main problem seems to be premature ejaculation, pretty common with teenage boys fro my memory anyway, and the overall awkwardness and ignorance or maybe innocence about sexuality - he seems to have no idea about how the women are feeling as he comes on to them, or no desire to think about his partner's pleasure, in any case - again, probably pretty typical of teenage boys - but not something he can talk about with anyone, so his anxiety builds - and of course his "treatment" for his anxiety and shame is excessive drinking, which obviously only makes matters worse. What we don't know, what he may never know in fact, is what's driving him - what he really seems to want is a healthy, passionate relationship with a girl his age - but he can't seem to do this - in fact, he gets very intimate w/ the younger sister of his brother's fiancee, but just as they're relationship is about to get more serious he cruelly pushes her aside, says it's all over, he wants nothing more to do with her. In some ways, that's the most surprising and puzzling scene in the book. Why would he do that? Is he fearful about his inability so far to have sex? Or is his inability to have sex - as well as his excessive drinking - all about his fear of a close relationship? He wants closeness, but there's a part of his individuality that he can't give up, that he fears closeness to another may smother. Perhaps this is something he saw in his father - the frustrated intellectual, feeling trapped in a tepid marriage and in a career that he believes is beneath his talents - and, like his father, he drinks himself to oblivion. Sadly, as a teenager, he also is beginning to show tendencies toward cruelty and bullying - again, much like his father - the cruel rejection of a lovely young woman noted above, teasing and even kicking a small man that he and his gang encounter in a snack bar (he's made to pay for this - but does not feel any remorse) - in other words, he's headed down a very dark pathway - and we think back to where KOK was at the outset of this volume - 18 years old, beginning what could be a respectable teaching career, but still drinking himself blind - and we wonder how he could grow and mature into the author of these novels. Again, KOK's decision to tell his story in assembled narrative segments rather than in straight sequence proves to be a wise authorial decision.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Rushdie's inventiveness - and not

Salman Rushdie's short fiction - it's not a story, it's obviously the first pages of his new novel - The Dunizyat (sp?), shows his usual exuberance, inventiveness, and luxurious prose - so fresh and breathtaking at one time but now seeming a little tiresome, a young man's game played by an old hand. What he's trying to do I think is tell the life history of his (imagined) family, tracing it back to the 12th century, as this first section describes a family forebear, a failed and frustrated philosopher, who marries a mystical creature who appears to him in woman's form and givens birth to numerous spawn - whether you go for this kind of story or novel depends entirely on how much you can buy into a highly imaginative world view. It's the kind of fiction that works well read aloud - I'm sure Rushdie would play it up and emphasize the humor - and not as well in cold type. A few things of particular interest: all readers will recognize in Rushdie's imagined forefather a version of himself, forced by a despotic and fanatic religious ruler to suppress his work and his thoughts and write in exile or obscurity. I think readers will also see a bit of payback here to Rushdie's several glam wives for whom the relationship did not work as hoped: his image of women as mystical spawning machines and visitors from another layer of reality is troublesome to say the least. Before there are too many paeans to his great originality, some readers will also recognize that the device of a Dunizyat (she is Scheherazad's kid sister, sleeping at the foot of the bed and hearing the 1001 tales) is a direct ripoff from John Barth, who wrote extensively on this theme back in the 70s (in Chimera, I think) - Barth and Rushdie were in the same lit circles, so Barth maybe holds no grudge about this purloined theme, but duly noted that Barth trod the ground first.

Friday, May 29, 2015

I drink therefore I am?: Alcoholislm in Knausgaard's My Struggle

Not to keep coming back to the same theme but the drinking in Karl Ove Knausgaard's volume 4 of My Struggle is really, really troubling - he's 16 years old (for much of this volume, a high-school student; in other parts he's 18 and just starting his first job as a teaching in a remote grammar school) and he drinks himself into oblivion on a regular basis - at his young age and in good health generally he manages to survive these serious drinking bouts, to revive himself and get on w/ his work and his life - but drinking to the blackout state, every weekend is not the recommended path to success for an ambitious, young writer. Fortunately, something in his life changed significantly and he was able not only to write but to write beautiful and original novels that have moved people (including me) from around the world. So what happened? He doesn't really tell us, so far, in volume 4, but he is building a contrast with his father, mean and cruel and dissatsified w/ his life, whom, as we know from volume 1, died almost alone and in extreme squalor. We begin to understand why KOK cried to such excess when preparing his father's funeral in vol. 1 - he could see that his father's path was the one not taken (by him) and was still a dangerous and alluring possibility. In no volume of this novel does he appear to abstain from drinking (or smoking for that matter) and you have to wonder whether to this day he might be living on the brink of addiction. His attitude toward alcoholism in volume 4 is deliberately (I think) cool and vague - he doesn't look back on the excesses of his youth and say, man, I shouldn't have done that or I'm amazed I survived that - but without his belaboring the point we see how close he was a various moments to humiliation, oblivion, even death. He does not need to preach - his facts speak for themselves. I hope that later in this volume or in subsequent he will take on this issue: how and why did he stop, is he still free from his compulsions, what role does alcoholism play in his life and in his fiction? One oddity: he seems never to have been seriously involved in the use of drugs, a bit odd given his association w/ the indie music scene even from his teenage years - most kids like him in the U.S. would, I think, be drawn for more to pot than to beer - but I guess something in his genes, culture, or personal make-up draws him to the obliteration of alcohol rather than to the heightened perception of marijuana. He drinks to dull his senses, to check out - particularly obvious his the scene of his father's re-marriage - harrowing.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The unexamined life: What Karl Ove Knausgaard does not write about

Been communicating with friend WS (not William Shakespeare) about the aspects of his life that Karl Ove Knausgaard does not write about in My Struggle - and you can imagine that the sum total these unexamined aspects is small indeed, maybe two. WS notes in particular something I'd mentioned briefly in a recent post: he never really explains why his mother never intervened to stop that father's cruelty and (mostly verbal) abuse. In volume 4 KOK as a 16-year-old, shortly after parents' divorce, does discuss the matter with his mother, who claims she just never noticed anything - a likely story. But KOK accepts that, or at least seems to, and tells her it's not her fault, etc. I imagine that he must be holding some kind of rage against his mother deep inside himself, yet, especially at that age, with his parents just divorced and feeling unwanted by his father (and later by paternal grandparents) KOK couldn't even face the idea of accusing his mother and risk losing her love - it's one area he cannot touch, at age 16 and perhaps not even in the present narrative moment (age 40). A second aspect, and really for me the first scene in the entire series so far that rings false, is his failure to have sex with his long-time crush Hanna (?) - he calls her on a whim when he's home alone, mother gone away overnight, she comes over, lets him know she's broken up w/ her boyfriend, pretty much invites herself to stay overnight and to stay in his room - he puts a mattress on the floor - and then she asks him to rub her back - and that's it? Yes, I can believe the facts, I can believe he didn't have sex w/ her, but I can't believe how KOK leaves this moment unexamined: what drives him to this? Fear of sex or of his performance (he's still a virgin); some kind of unwillingness to face the reality of this young woman rather than his mythic idea of her and her beauty?, some lingering guilt or impiety? KOK examines even the minutia of his adolescent life and it's kind of astonishing to me and disappointing that he lets this moment go with only a small scene of regret the next morning, feigning that he didn't understand how she was coming on to him. There, those are my complaints about My Struggle, which remains to me one of the great literary works to date of our young century.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Lonely Teenager: Karl Ove Knausgaard and 16

It's his love for indie music and his ability to write about music through which Karl Ove Knausgaard begins to find his individuality and group identity (the two opposing forces of his "struggle" - being himself yet being one of the crowd) in volume 4 of My Struggle. I was a little surprised when he wrote about his feeling of being alone, of being friendless, a very sorrowful moment in the novel when he believes or feels no one will talk to him on the schoolyard (he's 16) so he pretends to be busy, absorbed in reading - odd because throughout his childhood he's had many friends and even many girlfriends, at least at intervals - he doesn't seem like a loner at all - but then again, all teenagers feel lonely and isolate at times. A strange and sad moment in the book is when a note appears in school from kid who says he's new in school and would like to make friends and anyone who'd like to befriend him please meet him at the flagpole at noon. At noon, there's a crowd at the flagpole - to befriend? to mock and taunt? to observe? - but the anonymous note-writer isn't there. Did he have second thoughts? Was the whole thing a hoax or a joke? KOK of course believes it's aimed at him in some way - maybe all of the kids felt that. He becomes noticed for the first time - or so he feels, we readers wouldn't agree - when the smaller of the two local newspapers takes him on to review indie rock albums - paying him in the form of LPs, which is fine with KOK - it's really quite a coup that he talked his way into this gig, and it's his first chance to experience the life of a writer. His job requires him to get a typewriter; mother suggests he rummage in the family storage room (father has moved out) where dad kept an old typewriter. KOK finds the machine, and also a cache of 20 years worth of porn mags - quite a legacy, and whole new side of the abusive father revealed: what tensions and frustrations and ghosts must that man have lived with? Was KOK the only one abused?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Knausgaard's strugle and the great doo-wop lyrics of "Gloria"

The second section of volume 4 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle begins after he blacks out at a party when he was a young teacher and moves back in time to his early attempts at sexual conquest, days and years filled with frustration, angst, shame, awkwardness, clumsiness, furtiveness, boastfulness, idealization of women, denigration of women, same of self - in other words, a recognizable and typical boyhood - shocking how much I, and I think almost anyone, can identify with an comprehend across cultures, generations, maybe genders. The twin poles of this section are the Danish girl with whom he almost has sex (would have been his first time, at 16) until tricked by his friends who show up unexpectedly just to be mean and funny - a girl he cares little about (probably mutually - she's not interested in a relationship) and his classmate, Hanna (?), whom he idealizes - who doesn't know this kind of relationship, the artistic, sensitive, funny young guy going after a girl who's way far out of his league, and she likes him, maybe is a little attracted, certainly likes the adoration, but it's clear the relationship as far as it goes is one-sided. And I keep thinking of those great doo-wop lyrics (2+ generations before Knausgaard - the one thing I don't "get" throughout this series is his set of musical reference points - they're names to me only, not evocative songs), Gloria, to wit: Gloria, it's not Marie; Gloria, it's not Cherie; it's Gloria - but she's not in love w/ me. Says it all. This section of My Struggle IV gradually evolves to be about KOK's parents, now just divorced as he's 16 and starting to be independent, father in a new relationship and tries awkwardly to be pals w/ KOK but he is still a mean and scary person, maybe worse now as he's becoming seriously addicted to alcohol in a way that the young KOK doesn't quite comprehend. KOK living now with his mother, and has a long talk in which he tells her she's not to blame for the father's abuse, which she claims never to have seen - KOK far too nice and forgiving, but you can see why he is, he's so afraid of losing her love in this time of great instability in his life, home broken up, struggling w/ all the angst of adolescence w/out any stable home or family.

Monday, May 25, 2015

His struggle is ours - Karl Ove Knausgaard

Blackouts - Karl Ove Knauisgaard's youthful behavior in volume 4 of My Struggle, in which we see him, at age 18!, take on his first teaching job - and it's very funny to see him act like a kid, despite these new responsibilities - consigning almost all of his salary toward a new stereo, keeping an eye on the high-school girls (despite obvious complications, he's essentially their age), partying with the guys just like any teenager - though not quite, because it soon becomes obvious that he has a big problem w/ alcohol, as he describes going to a party, there's a high-school girl whom he's interested in, and then - nothing, a blackout, he wakes the next morning, feeling horrible, having no memory of the night before, gets pretty violently ill, begins to recall dancing, kissing, probably acting like an idiot. You have to admire his incredible honesty as a writer - most of us have been there, once anyway, though he doesn't seem to learn from experience, it's a real problem for him and will dog him throughout his life - and we see the influence of alcohol on his family quite starkly in volume 1. KOK uses the blackout for the first break in sequence in this novel, for one of the long side trips his narrative often and artfully embarks upon - as he with extreme candor describes his teenage sexual urges in a way that's funny and painfully recognizable I'm sure to all male readers - the awkwardness of sexual awakening and unwanted arousal, the shame of being, he thinks, the only 18-year-old virgin, the all-consuming desire balanced against angst and shame, what he very aptly describes as the sense that having sex would or could be so simple - in 30 seconds he could have her dress off, he thinks when aroused - and yet, that chasm - sex is so far from his reality, he has no idea how to approach a girl or woman, has no idea about, physically, how to make it work - it's all so complex and fraught and few if any writers have taken on this subject, so universal, so directly. As a writer, he stands now at a great distance from his material, and it's amazing how much he can summon and how or why he's so willing to do so - or perhaps so obsessed w/ doing so, writing for him a kind of compulsion and exorcism, far beyond what most writers experience - but this quality, so rare or at least so rarely linked w/ talent - is what makes his work feel so universal and, to many readers, so personal - his struggle is outs.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard's brilliant decision to write in mosaic format

Volume 4 of Karl Ove Knausgard's My Struggle (unnamed - unlike first three volumes, at least in the Bartlett English tr.) focuses on or at least begins w/ his arrival at his first teaching job - he's 18, just graduated from h.s. (gymnas, in the translation from the Norwegian) and arriving in a very small and remote town on the northern coast of Norway for a year's assignment teaching in the public school, which runs through grade 9. He has no experience, no preparation or training - surprisingly, Norway at that time (late 80s?) was so desperate for teachers in the north that they took kids right out of high school as well as providing huge tax incentives for experienced teachers such as KOK's father (we should try this in the U.S.). Here we see the advantage, once again, of KOK's decision to present his struggle in mosaic form, rather than slogging through the events of his life straight chronological sequence. Our knowledge about him as he arrives at this assignment is enriched by all that we know about his "struggle" - with his father, for his identity as a writer, his sexual identity, his own fatherhood, his sometimes joyous sometimes troubled childhood. As he's arriving for this assignment - his first true independence (though it does appear that the gymnas experience in Norway is much like college for students in the US), he goes through a list of the books that meant the most to him at that time - almost all of them completely obscure to US readers, but the two all will recognize are On the Road and Catcher - which as he notes show what he identified with in literature, a young man struggling for independence, standing up (he believes) against the straights and the phonies, hoping someday to express his thoughts through art - a romantic vision, to alluring to so many young men (and women, in a somewhat different formulation). Of course what takes this to a higher level is that we know this was not a passing fancy of youth for KOK but has guided the whole course of his life. His struggle has been to be both accepted - not a weirdo or isolate, but loved and befriended - while also being different, unique, an artist. He makes it clear at the outset that he had no desire to teach or be a teacher - he is taking this job to find time to write and to get together some money - he wants to travel through Europe, doing odd jobs, writing, and returning eventually with a completed novel. There are so many young people who dream of "being a writer" - as does KOK - but being a writer is completely different from "writing" - not too many dream of that. What separates him, of course, is that he does write - even on his first day in his new town, on the eve of his teaching, he works on a short story (which we have read, in a mature form, as part of volume 3!). It does also strike me that he's far too young, immature, and volatile to be a teacher, and very likely to get in trouble with the community through his drinking and perhaps through inappropriate relationships with students. Not entirely his fault - the fault of the system, I think.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Sounds of Silence: Heinrich Boll's story

Heinrich Boll's short story Murke's Collected Silences is a terrific post-war story by a German writer - he later won the Nobel Prize in literature; not sure if I've ever read any of his novels, think I started one once? - who takes on the postwr themes in subtle and imaginative ways. The story creeps up on you - beginning w/ a description of Murke, a 20-something man with a good job with a what appears to be the state-operated radio station. He arrives every day at work and intentionally takes the elevator the top floor then down to his 2nd-floor office - because the ride at its apex terrorizes him - whether this is a fear he is trying to overcome or whether he enjoys the fear or thinks he deserves the punishment is not clear - perhaps all 3 are true. His assignment entails working with a famous and somewhat fatuous German intellectual who has just recorded two lectures on art, but he has had a change of view and wants to go back and excise each references to "God" and replace it w/ something like "the supreme being whom we all revere." It's a tedious and difficult assignment - recording voice-overs, literally splicing these into the segmented tape (this was the age of actual tape recordings, nothing digital). Murke also, as we learn, has begun recording silences - actually bringing speakers into the studio and recording while they are silent - and saving these little stretches of blank record, in a box for safekeeping. We can see what Boll is getting at: the rewriting of the past by German intellectuals, and the insertion of silence into past "versions" of history - and the guilty and confusion of the new generation, complicit in this act of obliteration. A mysterious and powerful story, probably not read very often today.

Friday, May 22, 2015

A super-cool post--post-modern story in the New Yorker - but about what?

Am I missing something? Darthe Nors sotry The Freezer Chest, in current New Yorker, what's going on here? It seems to me some time ago she had a similarly inscrutable story in the NYer, maybe not, but this one seems to be all allusion and suggestion with not much at its cold heart - maybe that's the point, a super-cool post-postmodern story that's too edgy for plot, character, or setting? In short, Young woman reflects back on h.s. years, embarking on a class trip to England (she's Danish), crossing the sea to Harwich, a fellow student on the boat - 25-year-old returning to h.s., apparently not as unusual in Denmark as it would be here - has insulted her bluntly in the past, so she's edgy around him. He's rude to her again, and she bets him a pizza that she can rank higher in school that he on graduation. Months later, yes, she does, but refuses to collect on her bet. His meanness to her on the boat is telling her he used to be a great guitarist but injured his hand when a freezer chest slammed shut. When she offers sympathy he says he was making it all up, making her feel foolish. There are some weird and totally unexplainable references to incest - a topic of interest to the narrator's best friend, Henrietta. We don't know what to make of this - nor of the English teacher chaperone who says he can't believe how young the narrator is. Of her trip to England itself, she sums it up in a sentence: There's nothing to say about it. Is this an author shrugging her shoulders at the reader, or what? Nothing to say about that. Sorry.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Not quite hooked yet: The Fishermen

Just a few more notes on Chigozie Obioma's The Fishermen - and, yes, it becomes pretty clear we're reading some kind of modern-day Biblical tale, as we soon learn that the oldest brother, Ike, punished by the absent father, is becoming the "bad" son - and that there will be rivalry between the good-son narrator, Ben, and the oldest brother (or maybe some other lines of demarcation among the 4 older bros.). I like that the novel continues to feel like a true narrative and how Obioma conveys the sense and spirit of growing up in an aspiring family amid the great poverty of a small Nigerian city in the 90s - the novel feels autobiographical, as most first novels do, but that may be illusory - perhaps there was no "bad" brother in O's family, but he makes the story line credible. In part he does so by also keeping the story line somewhat tepid. Ike is a a bad brother - but his misbehavior and alienation is anything but extreme - in fact not much more that typical alienated teenage angst with a little bit of juvenile pranks thrown in - stealing a rooster from a neighbor who has ratted him out and beheading it (the rooster, not the neighbor), burning a calendar that the family treasured because it had a photo of the brothers w/ a political leader, stalking out of the house w/out permission (he's 15), stuff like that. Would it be a stronger and more engaging novel if the stakes were higher - if he'd stabbed a neighbor rather than a rooster, burned down a shop or a church rather than an out-of-date wall calendar? Yes, I think it would - but then perhaps I'd believe less in the character. Obioma works methodically, building his plot, but he's in danger of dangling readers too long and losing them to more visceral and exciting past-times, like TV, like the Red Sox. Or maybe not.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

News from Nigeria: New writer Chigozie Obioma

Started reading Chigozie Obioma's The Fishermen - he's a late 20s writer, first novel, born in Nigeria, now lives in U.S. and writes in English, clearly off to a great start on a literary career - only a few chapters in so far too early to really assess this novel though first impressions are the Obioma has a clear style with a fine literary flourishes, he writes in the realistic tradition and has a good sense of character, setting the situation up quickly and efficiently: narrator is a 20-something man, Ben, looking back on his childhood in Nigeria, in a small city or town, the 4th child in a family of 6, with three older bros., story begins as the father is transferred in his banking job a remote northern city - family unwilling or unable to move (city he's going to is full of ethnic violence and may not be safe) so he goes north alone, returning for weekend visits every 2 weeks or so. This leaves the 4 boys somewhat at loose ends - father is very strict and drives home importance of education, discipline, honesty. The boys disobey family rules and fish at a dangerous river spot; father punishes (whips) them on one of his returns, and urges them to become "fishers of men" - esp the oldest of the brothers, Ike. OK, if you didn't get the religio-allegorical overtones from the title you should have them by now: the father a "disappearing" Old Testament god, the boys various the disciples, Joseph and his brothers, or (as a jacket blurb, which I usually try never to read says), Cain & Abel. We'll see how well Obioma can work this theme. Obviously, one of the reasons American readers may be drawn to this novel is that it brings news from afar - about daily life in near-contemporary Africa. Reading novels like this I often ask myself: how would it stand up if these boys were living in, say, rural Iowa rather than small-city Nigeria? Writers who can draw from their unusual life experiences may be at advantage - at least initially - but they have a high barrier to overcome as well - introducing us to the unfamiliar, without overwhelming us and putting readers off with extensive exoticism and obscurity.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Why the reverence for Henry Green?

I don't really get why John Updike and so many others worshiped at the altar of Henry Green - yes, his 1941 novel Loving, some consider it his best, is funny at times, spare, clean at least sentence by sentence if almost perversely opaque when it comes to trying to figure out the characters, and at the end there just isn't much to it: the chief butler and the sexy maid get together, he seems to be in really ill health, they decide to leave the servitude at the Castle altogether, forsaking a month's wages by not giving notice, and heading for England where they expect to find plenty of work, and even though we expect something dire may happen - between his ill health and the looming world war - Green blandly asserts that they got married and lived happily ever after. Good for them, but it's a triumph not exactly earned by the events of the novel. I give Green a lot of credit on two counts, however: he's one of the few novelists of his time who worked full-time running or working in some sort of business and wrote in his own time to save his soul - I know how hard that is to do, and I tip my imaginary hat. Second, he's one of the few to actually get down pretty accurately, I think, the language and manners of the working class - in this novel, specifically, the servant-class (though he wrote about the working class in Living, which I haven't read) - and without condescension or undue comparisons w/ their "masters" - the masters are peripheral figures, as are the children - and this novel examines the workings of the servants who actually run the household and who of course have a whole complex set of social interactions completely unnoticed, generally, by their employers. I think that's the best we could hope for among British writers of his time, 100 percent of whom, I'm pretty sure, were public school Oxbridgians. It took another generation, at least, before the working classes could speak for themselves in British fiction (Dickens aside). I think the reverence for Green speaks in part to the attenuated state of British fiction circa 1940 - as far as I can see a really paltry selection of British writers then - before the emergence of so many women writers and the arrival of great writers such as Naipual and Rushdie from the "colonies."

Monday, May 18, 2015

The servants in Loving: A glorified form or slavery?

Nearing the end of Loving, by Henry Green, which isn't that long but somehow feels long because of the intense effort required to keep the characters and events straight and even to figure out, scene by scene, who's talking and to whom. In section I read yesterday the "ladies" of the Castle, Mrs. Tennant and her daughter, Mrs. Jack, return - somewhat to the surprise of the servants who have stayed on and tried to run things, and there's more of a ruckus about the disappearance and recovery of Mrs. T's valuable ring. The head butler, Raunce or Charley or Arthur, depending on who's talking about him!, puts it out that the insurance adjuster who came to investigate the claim of a lost ring was actually with the IRA (this talking place in Ireland during WWII, English inhabitants of the catle being very suspect at best). ON the "loving" side of the plot, Raunce and his 20-year- junior, the maidservant Edith, are now engaged - which puts the other maidservant into a bit of a tailspin - there were hints earlier on of some lesbian foreplay between the two of them - but then she (Kate?) says she's engaged to one of the few Irishmen working on the estate - his name is Paddy or at least that's what everyone calls him, and Green has a funny convention that Paddy when addressed never replies but Kate (?) "translates" what he says - the Irish are that removed from, or scorned by, the British. Overall, I think  Green's sympathies are with the servants, thank God, and we see in these late scenes the limited scope of their lives: they pretty much have to fall in love w/ another one of the servants in their same household, as they're unlikely to have much contact with anyone, especially of their class, outside of the manor - all told a very sorrowful life, something their "masters" might think of as quite natural and as their due, but that we can and should see as a glorified and somewhat sanctified form of slavery.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Why British novelists are unable to portray children

Henry Green's Loving late in the day veers toward the conventional British country estate novel as the plot begins to revolve around the missing ring - it's not a mystery to us as we have benefit of the omniscient narrative point of view but we can see the complexities and potential crises develop: one of the ladies of the Castle, Mrs. Tennant, now taken flight to England, apparently lost her valuable sapphire ring; the maideservant Edith has found the ring and wants to get credit for her discovery, but of course is concerned that if it's discovered in her possession she'll be accused of stealing it - so she hides it - though not very effectively - because young and ill-mannered boy whom the family has taken in for shelter (this is during the war years) - it's very unclear to me who his parents might be but there's a sense that he's not of the ruling class - has found the ring, and hidden it and has sworn the two young girls, Mrs. Tennants grand-daughters, to secrecy. Suddenly, an insurance adjuster shows up trying to get the facts behind the disappeance of the ring (this seems a little odd to me - that Mrs. Tennant would put in a claim so quickly, and that it would merit the visit of aduster - it's not exactly the crown jewels) So Edith's position is now especially precarious - as the tyke, whose name - this is utterly ridiculous of Green BTW, is the same (Albert) as one of the servants. Green, like many British novelists, has absolutely no sense of how to portray children - the 3 kids are very marginal, never come to life, never are distinct from one another, and never sound in the least like children - compare to the children in, say, Faulkner, whose novels are equally if not more complex and demanding, with shifting points of view and much stream-of-consciousness, but the children always seem real an distinct. Perhaps it's because the English of that class and time hardly noticed their children - or is this circular reasoning, is it the absence of children in the novels that makes us think the disregard of adults is so?

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The incredible British disregard for children: Loving

The ladies of the Castle, Mrs. Tennant (?) and her daughter, Mrs. Jack, leave the Irish castle and head for England ostensibly to greet Mrs. Jack's husband home on leave (setting is WWII), altho she'd just been caught back at home naked in bed w/ another man - so who knows what kid of trouble they're headed for - but we don't follow them. This novel, Henry Green's Loving, is firmly set in the Irish castle, so after the leave the story becomes entirely the story of the servants - who now realize that the ladies will never come back and they're left on their own. Mostly, they're afraid, especially the cook and maids, as they imagine that the German armies might occupy Ireland to get a footing for an invasion of Britain, and that the Irish, who hate the British, especially those living in castles, and they anticipate being pillaged "or worse." Of course from our vantage we know that didn't happen. Amazingly, though the ladies have disembarked for England, they have left two daughters plus on young boy whom they'd taken in, behind and in the care of servants and nannies, with that incredible and unremarked-upon upper-class British disregard for children. The novel becomes (somewhat) easier to follow by this point - more than half-way through - as we begin to get a sense of who the characters are, but I really don't yet see what makes this such a great novel, such a personal favorite of one of my literary heroes, Updike: Updike, too, wrote about domestic infidelities and about the roiling sexual tensions beneath the placid suburban surfaces, but Updike's writing is so much more clear and his plots so much more driven by action rather than by insinuation and innuendo.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Writers channeling the voices of teenagers

New Yorker story by Justin Taylor - don't know anything about his work but apparently he's onto his 2nd story collection - falls into the "genre" of writers channeling the voice and sensibility of teenagers, particularly teenagers who are not apt to write stories of their own: maybe Holden Caulfield being the foundational voice (though I guess he could have "grown up" to write stories of his  own, albeit bad ones). I actually have no way of judging the authenticity of this genre, as I know from my reaction to - and my kids' reaction to (when they were teenagers anyway) certain "adolescent" movies like Elephant, which I thought was an authentic view of high-school life and of which they were entirely dismissive. Or think of Juno - a voice that I found to be a screenwriter's words usurping the sensibilities of a child, a voice completely inauthentic. Anyway, where does Taylor stand? What he's written feels and sounds authentic to me, but who am I to know? Authentic or not, I found part of his story, aside from the fey title, So what am I just, gone?, funny, even laugh-out-loud at moments, and compelling - except, as with so damn many stories today, there is absolutely no conclusion, very frustrating because Taylor, more than most writers, does a good job setting a plot in motion: teenage girl meets 30-something man on plane, he starts coming on to her, later after flight sending her suggestive messages, and she sneaks off to meet him - but then - doesn't, and nothing happens. Why would he build toward an important scene and then pull away from it? Or if he must, why wouldn't he offer us something else: girl (Charity) telling all to her mother? calling the police on the guy? Something! I know the feeling: setting a plot in motion and letting it get away from you - but a story doesn't end when the writer runs out of ideas or options, at least it shouldn't. So all told I'm seeing here a write with acuity and deft narrative skills, but not at least in this story a sense of form or of obligation to his readers. I would read more of him, though.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What did Updike learn from Henry Green?

Staying w/ Henry Green's Loving at least for a while but man he sure doesn't make it easy for you, for all reasons noted in yesterday's post, and in particular by his perverse need to refer to characters by many different names, for ex. the head butler Raunce is sometimes the butler, or Raunce, or Charley, or Arthur - and I may be missing some - and the same holds true for all of the characters - plus he gives little or no guidance or warning as he shifts about about different sets of characters within his (unmarked) chapters. OK, so at bottom it's an upstairs-downstairs novel, with strong emphasis on downstairs, much like about a thousand other British works, and in particular like a few great movies - this form seems particularly well suited for film - not only British but also French (Rules of the Game), Swedish (Smiles of a Summer Night), even American, kinda, that Altman film on a British estate whose title eludes me right now. We see the butler scheming to rake some money off the accounts and pursuing one of the maids - but the most dramatic scene in the section I read last night: one of the maids enters the bedroom of the daughter-in-law (I think, it's all maddeningly unclear) of the head of the "castle" - Mrs. Jack - whose husband is fighting in Europe - and finds her naked in bed with a man (she's off to see her husband, home on leave in London, in a day). So this leads to an incredible amount of gossip, giggling, and speculation among the staff - and what's the point? The usual I guess: corruption and hypocrisy of the nobility, sexual and power tensions among the servants, general indifference to the children. There are some beautiful passages but it's not a writerly novel in the manner of Flaubert or Proust, rarely if ever does Green draw attention to his style or include a showpiece. I'm still a little puzzled as to why Updike says Green taught him how to write, to the extent that anyone can do so - I don't see obvious lessons learned there unless it's the omnipresence of sexuality and the extreme economy of narrative devices - and have to say that if Updike learned from Green it appears that U outdid his mentor. Will keep looking for further signs of the anxiety of influence.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Trying to like Loving (by Henry Green)

Henry Green, another writer whose name always comes up and is much praised by Updike, who in fact wrote the intro to the edition I'm reading, is a puzzle to me on first glance so I'll withhold judgement until at least one more day of reading but I'm finding his short novel Loving (I think all of his novels have single-word, gerund titles - very cool, in my opinion) to be difficult to grasp. Partly, that's Green's intent and his style: he's obviously much influenced by Va Woolf and probably FM Ford, at least re Parade's End, just putting us in the scene as a silent and unseen observer and letting the events, such as they are, unfold without guidance, perspective, or narrative intrusion: there are so far as I can remember in the first 50 or so pp no descriptions of character or setting and no back story save for what characters reveal in their dialogue. We are in the "downstairs" at an Irish estate during WW II, which hovers over this novel (and millions of others) as an international trauma - in Ireland, just barely felt, except for some shortages, but at least one of the characters has a son serving and another writes to his mother in England concerned about the bombs. The story such as it is, so far, is: an elderly servant, the head of the male servants, dies and an underling moves up and is trying to figure out how his predecessor skimmed profits and kept the books, he's also carrying on with one of the female servants, although she engages in some fairly tame sexual foreplay with another maid. The head of the household is taking in a refugee child from England. Kind of hard to follow the strands and to figure out who's who - especially in that Green falls prey to that peculiar British tendency to refer to characters almost randomly by many different names - surname, patronym, nickname, even misnomer (the ruling family has the annoying and condescending habit of referring to all head butlers as Arthur, the name of their first butler) - why? just to make it even harder for us? I'm trying to like this book! Lend me a hand, will ya?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Unity of time, place, and action: in Alberto Moravia's Bitter Honeymoon

Another writer I've heard of for many years but have never read, so far as I know, Alberto Moravia, and if his story in a European Stories collection I've been returning to from time to time, Bitter Honeymoon, is a fair sample of his work I will read more of him - an excellent story of the sort we rarely see today, in that observes the classic unities of time, place, and action (one day in the life of a couple, on their honeymoon, obviously, on what I think is the Amalfi Coast) - the story involves only three characters, the couple and a friend of the wife's whom they run across - and yet it involves a world of thought and feeling, and examines two of the great themes of literature (and life for that matter), sex and politics: they couple is hiking to a remote lighthouse, the man has been to the site recently and found it very beautiful but now it's in the dry season and the opening description makes it sound very foreboding and unpleasant, and the wife shares these thoughts: so we see the tension and separation between the two, and also the man's failure to get his new wife to share in his past experiences: we see him immediately as more worldly and experienced, but possibly misjudging  - and himself, and this plays out further as we learn that they did not have sex on the wedding night, that she is a virgin and afraid of sex, and he begins to wonder if the marriage was a mistake, if they really do love one another - somehow the subject of politics comes up and we learn that she is a committed communist and he is indifferent - so we see again a chasm between them; the situation builds to the 2nd night of the honeymoon, when he tries very awkwardly to have sex with her and then does something quite odd and violent - I won't spoil it for you - and at last they unite - but as with all great stories, at least since Joyce, the ending remains somewhat open and if not ambiguous at least unresolved: the tensions in their relationship are real, it seems unlikely that the marriage will be a happy one, and we also wonder about the political overtones: not that the two are "symbolic" of great political movements but there is a way in which their relationship plays out the dynamics or social and political tension in time of unrest.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Drowning in Trollope

You really need the patience of a saint so to speak or a lot of time on your hands to get into reading Trollope. Sorry, not me. Taking on the Pallisser series looked to be much more than I'd bargained for - even the first volume, Can You Forgive Her?, would be about all I'd be reading for the next month of so. Life is short, time is finite, Trollope is long. Any reader of this blog knows that I'm eager to take on some pretty massive reading excursions, but with Trollope I just found that the story was a series of incidents, without obvious conflict or complexity - Alice rejects the worthy suitor and is destined it would seem to get back together with the "wild" cousin and caught up in his political ambitions - but it's taken about 250 pages for anything much to happen. The style is easy, free, colloquial, but ultimately pretty dull. I know Dickens is very low-brow and melodramatic and full of caricature but he's also full of wit, surprise, and daily life. Comparing Trollope to some of the great multi-volume authors - even fellow English authors - FM Ford, Powell, St. Aubyn, to name three very distinct 20th-century practitioners - he comes up short. One can't help or at least I couldn't help he was spinning his wheels, paid by the page or by the word, and unwilling therefore to move things along. Yet at the same time we don't enjoy the advantages of leisurely and introspective development of incident - Proust being the highest standard here, or among contemporaries how about Knausgaard? - in that Trollope is rarely introspective or analytic. Scene by scene, sure, some excellent moments - the fox hunt scene that I read yesterday was very strong, if that's of any interest to you - but 250 pages in (with about 1000 to go - in volume 1!) I'm at sea and swimming toward the shore.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Profiles in Discourage: British electoral politics in Trollope

I've had a no doubt benighted understanding of British electoral politics - imagining that campaigns for office (Parliament, anyway) were far less corrupt and far more free from naked ambition - as well as far less representative - than Congressional elections in the U.S.: My sense had been and still to a degree is that that parties select a slate of candidates assigning them almost randomly to the various districts, the candidates often knowing and caring nothing about the district they will represent, often not even living there, and the voters selecting candidates entirely on the basis of party and not on who the candidates are themselves - barely even knowing of caring about that - and that party-favored candidates get the chance to run for "safe seats" based on the demos and voting history of the district. Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?, which now about a quarter of the way in begins to touch on the theme of Parliamentary elections, which if my memory serves will be a dominant theme through the six-volume series, confirms some of this: George Vavasor is running for election from Chelsea, and at least he lives there (for the moment) but he doesn't seem to know anything about the people he will represent - actually, better to say about the people who will or could elect him, as he will not be there to represent their particular interests. So he has to hook up with the political pros to win the election - and he holds a morning meeting with a well-connected publican and a politically astute lawyer, and much of their conversation, quite bluntly, concerns spreading funds around to the right people. This at least feels very true - and would be right at home in an American novel (or election) today: the gruff types pushing around the clueless candidate, his barely veiled contempt for the sleazy side of politics, his aloof attempt to keep from getting his hands dirty, leaving that to others less squeamish. So far, we know nothing about what Vavasor stands for or hopes to achieve - except that he's in the Radical party, so good for him. The novel, in any event, has steered onto a new course with this chapter and we have to wonder what effect Vavaror's relationship with his cousin Alice, who hopes to use politics to do some good in the world, will have on his campaign - and what effect his campaign will have on their tempestuous relationship.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

First glimpse of the political life - and the first "Dear John" letter - in Can You Forgive Her?

Alice Vavasor writes to her finace, John Grey, what may be the original source of the term a "Dear John" letter - she won't go so far as to tell him she's breaking off their ridiculous engagement but she says I won't marry you this year, maybe next year. And John, sedentary and dull in his Cambridgeshire home, where he expects Alice to settle down with hm for an extraordinarily boring life, writes that he'll come right away to London to discuss this with her. Can't he see? Can't he read? She's not that into him! Trollope is to put in mildly not the most introspective of novelists, but we are getting to see a bit more what makes Alice tick, as she indicates she wants more out of life than Cambridgeshire (Trollope can be quite funny at times - and his account of C-shire as the most boring of all English scenery is a good example). Amusingly, she notes that god forfend she's not thinking about becoming a doctor or a lawyer - Trollope is forward thinking but his characters don't push boundaries in that way - but she would like a life that makes a difference, and she thinks a little about her cousin George's campaign for Parliament (as a Radical - we don't know exactly what that means in the 1860s, but hats off to Trollope!), the first glimpse of what this novel, Can You Forgive Her?, as the first in the Palliser series may become - not the conventional English novel of love lost and regained, but an account of power politics at work in the Victorian era. George is so obviously the right partner for Alice, but he's also so obviously a difficult and independent man, not the easiest catch and not the easiest life partner.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Would Trollope have been a screenwriter?

Question in current New Yorker story (My Life Is a Joke): Is this making any sense? A: No. So ...

Back to Trollope, where the next few chapters of Can You Forgive Her? take us for a picnic on the beach, replete with some boat rides and some mackerel fishing - but the real action of the story is the rivalry between two gentlemen, Mr. Cheeseacre (?) and Capt. Bellweather (? - I'll check the names on next reading) for the affections of Mrs. Greeenlaw (?), the wealthy widowed aunt of Kate and George Vavaser whom we'd met in the earlier chapters. Kate spending part of the summer season w/ wealthy aunt in Yarmouth. Nobody particularly seems to like or respect the Mrs. G, but she has lots of money so nobody wants to disrespect her, either - and you don't get the impression that either Cheese or Bell care about her in any romantic way but they are rivals for her fortune. Cheese seems like the far more upstanding character, and he has some money himself and picks up most of the expenses for the elaborate picnic. Bell has no money, or at least doesn't spend any - a true sponger - and one would guess he's the more likely to wind up w/ Mrs. G. Once again, I'm struck by the ease and simplicity of Trollope's style, maybe to a fault: the novel reads at times almost like a screenplay, just the dialogue, quick character sketches, and on with the action - which is mostly British drawing-room style, so it's not truly like a contemporary screenplay - but you can certainly see why the BBC gobbled up this and its associated novels for the series The Pallisers - it's as if Trollope just laid it out for them, like a banquet table or, in fact, a picnic on the beach. Trollope was in it for the money, obviously, and had no pretensions to be seeking a place in literary history or even contemporary fame - which makes me think that he would in fact be writing for a popular medium - TV or film -- if he'd lived in this century. Whether or not he would have been a good screenwriter - that's another question. (Not unless he picked up the pace and wrote to a max of 120 pp.)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Tollope's fiction, where minimalism meets maximalism

No Trollope is no great stylist, he's just telling a good story in as straightforward a manner as he can - and it's easy to get carried along with his narrative. It's odd - in that he's a writer for those who want pared-down fiction - little to no description, few "interior" thoughts, a generally unobtrusive omniscient narrator - but he's anything but a minimalist as his novels are quite lengthy and, as with the one I'm reading now, Can You Forgive Her?, are often part of a (six-part) series. So far, in Can You, the three young people - Alice and her cousins, Kate and George - have traveled to Switzerland - Trollope quite pointedly states he's not going to bother describing their trip in detail as it's pretty much like any other journey - but Kate's "mission" has failed: she's trying to get Alice and George (back) together, as they are a former couple and Alice is now engaged to a drip and Kate is sure the marriage will be a disaster for both. Doesn't work - Alice remains stubbornly true to her fiance - even though she's very squirrely about when they'll get married - and George says, unconvincingly, that he's not interested in Alice in the least. Back to England - and Kate settling in for "the season" in Yarmouth with her wealthy but quite dull aunt. Lurking behind these narratives - the romantic, the need a young and impoverished women to play up to wealthy relatives (earlier versions of a persistent theme in Wharton - though with her American twist the wealthy are usually nouveau) - is the political strand: George was an unsuccessful candidate for Parliament, lost a lot of money in that quest, and there's a sense that he's not done with electoral politics and that political forces will drive this novel forward.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Can You Forgive Trollope?

Last night started Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?, which might better be called Can You Finish It?, not that the novel is bad or daunting - to that in a moment - but that it's a two-volume heavyweight that I'm reading on my iPad, which calculates the pages as 2400+ ! - admittedly each page on the pad is small and navigable. Believe it or not I've never read a word of Trollope, to the best of my knowledge and memory, nor did I watch a moment of The Pallissers (Can You is the first of 6 volumes of Pallisser) - but have wanted to do so, partly bcz Trollope looms as a literary gap, partly because of my late-life interest in multi-volume series (Proust, Knausgaard, FM Ford, et al. - plus numerous TV series of high literary value in their own right, the medium Shakespeare would no doubt be inhabiting today). As to Can You, it's hard to judge based on 5 percent of the novel but it seems at first very straightforward - a young woman with a small amount of money living in London late 19th century deciding between two suitors, the Worthy Man and the Wild Man, as AT calls them: Worthy, her actual fiance though they have not "set a date" (he wants to, she demurs) is tall handsome smart Mr. Bland (his name aptly is Mr. Grey) and dull in his dependability and servility; Mr. Wild (Vavaser) is actually her cousin (mores on that score were different then) and a former fling, flamboyant, irresponsible, charming - woman and her cousin/his sister (Kate) are going to Switzerland on vacation and ask Vavaser to escort them (respectable women do not travel unescorted) - so you can see the plot developing. Vavaser had also been a radical candidate, unsuccessful, for Parliament - an opening clue, as the Pallissers is a series about political life (not much evident in first 150 pp.). First impression is that Trollope's style is anything but daunting. Clearly, he was paid by the word and is in no rush to move the plot along nor does he dwell on style, metaphor, or nuance - he's like a genial old windbag telling you a good family yarn - so you can pretty much read him at any pace, and if you nod off for a moment while your eyes skim the page you probably haven't missed anything and you can just pick up where you woke. He's not as vivid and funny as Dickens, as sharp as Eliot, as descriptive and melodramatic as Hardy - to name a few contemporaries - but more than any of them he presents a window onto the life of his time, at least the life of a select set and class.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Navel gazing: Kundera's latest NYer story

Seriously does anyone think that Milan Kundera's story The Apologizer would appear in print anywhere, let alone the current New Yorker, if it were not for the stature of the author? No doubt Kundera has written some great books, but, sadly, I think he has never written well about his life in France - it's sad and maybe sophomoric to say this but some writers need to be writers in opposition: Kundera wrote brilliantly and memorably about life in Eastern Europe under Soviet domination, his novels were full of struggle, irony, satire, wit, and sexuality - but once the wall fell, once he became a world-famous novel living first in exile and then in freedom - it's as if he had nothing to struggle against and therefore nothing left to say. (There may be exceptions, and I have by no means read extensively in his recent work.) But it's like: Othello's occupation's gone. Current NYer story case in point: a young man of indeterminate age speculates about the exposed flesh of various women passing him by on a Paris (?) street; his noticing a navel reminds him of the last time his mother saw him, when he was 10, emerging from a swimming pool, and she stared at this navel; this leads him to reflect on his mother's life - the most engaging section of the story in fact - as he recounts her suicide leap into a river, a man swimming out to rescue him, she struggles against him and drowns him, and then emerges from the river alive. This is a great premise! But what does Kundera do with this: he lets on that there's no factual basis, that the young man is just making up a narrative (much like a writer - we are caught in a postmodern hall of mirrors. Then he engages in a totally sophomoric conversation with a friend as to who to should apologize when two people bump into each other on the sidewalk. Is there some metaphor here, something about international diplomacy? Who knows. What we end up with is a story by a narrator who doesn't really want to tell a story, a story that has little hints of significance but just fizzles away to nothing in the end. OK - as w/ so many NYer fiction pieces, maybe this is not a story and maybe it's part of a longer piece that maybe develops into a lifelong search for the mother who'd abandoned the family many years ago - but if so why not just tell it instead of larding this piece with chilly pseudo-philosophy.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Useless and pointless knowledge?: All you'll ever need to know about hawks

Pretty near unanimity at book group last night, in that we all found Helen MacDonald's H Is for Hawk a pretty good read, very intelligent, and the last word on falconry and hawks - a book I for one never would have picked up on my own and didn't think I'd like but was held by her strong writing and by the thirst for "useless and pointless knowledge" about arcana. Didn't love the book but admired its spirit - and I for one thought the story did have an "arc," as HM over the course of time grew from a social isolate and eccentric to one who was more connected with family, friends, and other people. In particular, I was delighted by the way in which her visit to America opened her up - showed her a kind of freedom that she'd never experienced in class-bound, private-property, no-poaching England; also I liked that she toward the end began to recognize the fascistic aspects of falconry and its association even with Nazism - and that strange encounter with the anti-immigrant seemingly lovely elderly couple - HM is much more mature and complete by the end of her story. Nice to see in acknowledgment that she does have many friends. Some quibbles raised: JoRo noted how falconry is a blood sport - and all agreed it was very gruesome and not something we would engage in or condone - we all were disturbed by her need, the need of the entire sport, to control and dominate a beautiful wild creature; BR felt book was over-written with far too many similes, and we all agreed her prose was over the top at times and that the shifts among the various time segments were sometimes disorienting - but I think all but BR commended HM for some excellent descriptive passages and for making us understand not only the art of falconry but how far gone she was at her lowest when she was trying to see things as a hawk does - when what she really needed to do was see things as a woman does. We generally thought, to paraphrase HS Truman, that if you want an animal that's a friend, get a dog - the hawk remains wild and, despite its training, completely indifferent to human presence, no matter what she may think. We also felt she was a little disingenuous, or perhaps manipulative, in not coming clean early on about her rather extensive experience with hawks and falcons. JoRi surprisingly thought the title was ridiculous, but I strongly disagree there - it's catchy, and it worked. A book worth reading, at least as a curiosity, but I'm glad we're moving back to fiction next month.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Falconry and fascism: Is there a connection?

Yes I get it that hawks are wild creatures and that they'd be hunting live prey whether in the wild or in captivity but what I don't get is how someone could derive pleasure from going out hunting w/ a hawk, flushing "game" from the field, letting the hawk "free" to attack and kill, and pulling the bird or rabbit apart and feeding parts of it to the hawk - even eating some of the prey? - no, this does not seem like fun to me - although obviously it is to Helen MacDonald, as sh describes in such detail in H Is for Hawk, including her beginning to think and perceive like a hawk. I don't quite get, or believe, that her interest in taming a goshawk is a direct result of her mourning her father, given that it had been a lifelong interest and she'd hunted w/ many falcons and hawks, but I do get that falconry for her is a way to be both the center of attention and quite unapproachable - so to the extent that she is withdrawing from society while mourning her father, yes, I do get that. I'm also interested in her comments on fellow hawk-trainer T H White, and her notes on the connections between falconry and fascism, in particular Nazism, noting the fascination falconry had for the Nazi leadership - the whole idea of the nobility of the hunter and the command and control, the loosing of the bird and the order to or instinct to kill. She does note that White "didn't like Hitler." Oh, that's good to know! But is there a connection between his politics and his avocation? That doesn't hold true for MacDonald, thank goodness - though we know almost nothing about her political beliefs (or intellectual and academic career), nothing in this book suggests anything odd or untoward about her politics - she is very different from White, too, in that his interest in the birds had something to do with his horrible upbringing and sense of alienation - which does not appear to be the case with MacDonald. But toward the end of the book she's opened up this channel - falconry and fascism - and I wonder if she will explore it further or shut it down.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

What does the hawk think?

Helen MacDonald moves into the next phase, in H Is for Hawk, that being training her goshawk to fly across a distance (still on leash or creance) and land on her gloved wrist. It's a totally exasperating process full of frustration - and for counterpoint she recounts TH White's experience training his hawk and using all the wrong methods confusing frightening and even maybe hurting his poor bird. As HM notes White was a sadist and tho he did not take this out on his students thank god he may have enjoyed abusing the poor bird. But what about MacDonald herself nips she's pure? She spends a good deal of time talking about how her falconry has something to do w mourning her father but I'm not convinced. Gradually she let's on that Mabel is not the first hawk she's worked with - so father's death is not sole motive - she seems to get some great pleasure being the eccentric (even by British standards!) who is also unapproachable. But what would draw someone to this arcane hobby? In her case it does not appear to be class aspiration - falconry is no longer the purview of the elite - but former it's not the control so much as the dominance - when Mabel doesn't come to her she obsesses about her failure as a person instead of realizing: this is a goddamn hawk a wild creature and you're turning it or her if you prefer into something she's not meant to be. Why would you do this? If you want an animal to love you and depend on you get a dog. She likes to think of a bonding between her and the hawk but what does the hawk think?

Friday, May 1, 2015

There'll always be an England: H Is for Hawk

Rare excursion for a few days into nonfiction as I take of Helen MacDonald's He Is for Hawk, book club selection for this month. Do I have any interest in falconry? - not really, but find many aspects of this account fascinating: who knew that falconry was displaced as an effective way of hunting once we came up with more accurate and reliable firearms, and then it became exclusively as sport of the idle rich. Who knew there was such a distinction between hawks and falcons, the latter relatively easy to tame and train - the former, not. This account is HM's telling of her training a young hawk, Mabel - and of the traumas in her life that led her to take on this challenge, interlaced with her readings of TH White's book on his own hawk-training in the 1930s. I come away with: It's incredibly difficult to train a hawk, and something I never in a million years would want to do. Should we even do so? I know HM gets pleasure out of training a hawk - but shouldn't they best be left alone, and wild? The thrill of taming a wild animal and having it at your command, even at a great distance, must be a narcotic for some people - and HM speculates at some length about what draws her (and TH White) to falconry - in his case a feeling of being an outsider, as a homosexual, and a latent sadism as well; in hers, mourning for her suddenly dead, loving father - again, a need for control of something that is always on the verge of flying away, and of wildness. I'm not entirely convinced that this explains her interest esp in that she'd been interesting in falcons and hawks since childhood. What she doesn't examine is how falconry fits in with the whole schema of eccentric Englishmen and women - with their love of obscurities and arcana. No hobby like this would or could be kept alive and even remotely fashionable in the U.S. And most of all, though she doesn't acknowledge this, falconry is a way to both make yourself the center of attention and keep people away from you, avoid intimacy, at the same time: she walks down the streets of Cambridge (Engl.) with a hawk on her shoulder and believes, incredibly, that people don't notice and that the only ones who approach her are foreign students. People do notice, but in that weird British way they want to accept it as just another eccentricity or curiosity - so they don't approach her and talk - which, I think, is exactly the state she wants to achieve: center of attention, but alone.