Tuesday, June 30, 2015
The fortune - that is, the silver mine in the mountains along the coast of Costaguana (ha!) in Joseph Conrad's Nostromo - was founded on slave labor and the death of hundreds or even thousands of natives. In a weird way this echoes the novel I read recently A High Wind in Jamaica in which the British settlers struggle in poverty after the end of slavery essentially ended the sugar cane - rum industry, the foundation of their wealth. In this Central/South American country, after slavery ended, the mine was left to go back to jungle and the silver was considered inaccessible and not worth the cost in (European) lives. But as the little country shakes of Colonialism and becomes independent and corrupt, one oppressive government after the next thriving on bribes and cronyism - one of the leaders gets the bright idea of "giving" the silver concession to one of the wealthiest European businessmen, Charles Gould (senior), but in receipt of the gift he must pay the government the "estimated" profit from the first 5 years of the mine. This ruins him, of course, but his son takes up the mine and turns it around, quite amazingly - and apparently aided by the mysterious Italian overseer, the eponymous Nostromo. It's a sstory about the waves of colonialism, about the corrupting influence of capitalism, and the corrupting influence of the pursuit of riches at all costs - a precursor, in a way, to the Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which of course is a narrative w/ roots as deep as Chaucer).
Monday, June 29, 2015
Started Conrad's 500-pager Nostromo last night - and unsurprisingly it begins in a typically Conradian lyrical and leisurely manner, as he spends a great deal of time describing for us the remote and nearly inaccessible (by land) harbor on the Latin American country of Costaguana (Costa Rico?), a highly unstable pseudo-republic where the political powers that be are with some regularity overthrown - and in one particular case the deposed president worked his way to safety in the coastal town, Sulaca?, which led to a good deal of rioting and destruction. The plot of the novel centers on the plans to build a railroad connection to advance the prospects of the European-owned Gould silver mine - which seems inevitably a doomed project, given the expense, the engineering difficulties, and the political instability. That's where the eponymous Nostromo comes in - he's an Italian of mysterious background who functions as something like an overseer and chief of staff, making things happen. He seems almost single-handedly to quell the political riots following most recent coup - he's like a sheriff-gunslinger in a typical American western, but he's also what back in grad school we would have called a "mediating figure," one who can relate to all of the varying factions in the diverse community: the local Indians and Spanish-speaking laborers, the Italian business owners, the European bankers and money men, the ship captain (Mitchell), the silver miner and his wife (the Goulds). Oddly, we don't know his real name, yet - Nostromo is a mispronunciation of his true name. Hard not to think of Garcia Marquez when reading Nostromo a century after its publication - the sense of a forlorn town with great but inaccessible resources, the victim of a power play among remote capitalist forces that care little or nothing about the native population.
Sunday, June 28, 2015
Tomaso Landolfi's totally weird and funny story Gogol's Wife seems at first just spoof on literary studies: in this instance, a "scholar" of Russian literature writes this memo or essay to the members of the literary academy - it recalls Kafka's Address to an Academy, in a way, though it's presented as a written report - to explain at last the mystery of Gogol's wife. The narrator seems to have been a biographer or literary executor who spent a great deal of time w/ Gogol and now is revealing the big secret that have puzzled many who had known the man quite well but had never for some reason met his beloved wife. It's because, as the narrator says, Gogol's wife was a balloon. And the story takes it from there - he was "married" to in inflatable doll, whom he truly loved - and whom the narrator describes in great detail (including how Gogol would inflate her thru a pump he inserted into a valve in her anus, and deflate her from a valve at the back of her throat; how he could transform her in various ways to suit his changing tastes as desires, how in the end he tired of her and took his vengeance - I won't go into that but it's pretty funny and grotesque as well.) So what's the point? I have no idea if Gogol's wife was mysterious or even if he had a wife, but one can see why Landolfi picked Gogol as his subject - the author who brought a nose and an overcoat to life in his two most famous stories. So one might imagine that Gogol would be the writer most likely to attach human qualities and his own affections to an inanimate object (altho, in one scene, she does speak, or squeak, some words). But I think there's also a level in which Londolfi is skewering the literary-bio industry: do we need to know anything (everything?) about an author's life to understand and appreciate his or her works? Shouldn't the writing stand on its own, as a work of art? "Knowing" that Gogol was "married" to a balloon does not help us understand the genius who could write The Overcoat - in fact, it may make his achievement all the more mundane. Gogol's Wife, which seems to be an invasion of the author's privacy (and reputation) is in fact I think a plea to leave the author, all authors, alone.
Saturday, June 27, 2015
More than any other American writer other than maybe IB Singer - a writer w whom she shares little else in re subject matter or even style - Louise Erdrich is able to blend realism and fable, myth, or legend into a coherent narrative. Almost no other writers can get away w having something appear as if by magic or enchantment and take over the plot. Erdrich can, and her story The Flower in current New Yorker is a great example. Story set in the 1830a on a trading outpost near a reservation where a abused Native American woman sells her 11-year-old daughter for a pot of whiskey. The center of the story is a young man from the east working at the post who essentially rescues the girl from captivity - eventually leading her to some missionaries who enroll her in and Indian school where it is implied that over time she will lose her cultural heritage - for better or worse. Was she really rescued or just re-imprisoned? The fantastical element involves the severed head of the man at the trading post who abused her and whom they killed to make their escape. In some way that component isn't truly necessary for the story - but this element gives the story it's strange aura and hue helping us understand that there are forces at work beyond the rational and that the eponymous girl (flower) is truly giving up a world and a life in which she was both cruelly abused and in possession of great, mysterious powers. Earlier posts will show my disappointment w erdrich's well received novel the round house but this story - maybe part of a new novel?- shows e at her best and continues to make her case as a future American Nobelist (something else in common w Singer).
Sent from my iPhone
Sent from my iPhone
Friday, June 26, 2015
Last section of William Goyen's The House of Breath is typical of what's right and wrong w/ this novel: long, detailed, beautiful account of the narrator's recollection of the day, when he was a boy (of age uncertain) on a long walk with an older man (his brother?), Christy, hunting in the woods, during which Christy provides him with some lifelong knowledge and also tells the story of his failed marriage and his recovery of his wife's drowned body (maybe this is the imparted wisdom?) - in short, extraordinarily beautiful writing at times, at other times so over the top as to be laugh-out-loud, and hovering somewhere between mysterious and just plain obscure: at end of novel we still, or I still anyway, don't know who the narrator is. This was a first novel and showed incredible promise, but my suspicion is that Goyen never matured his talent - strangely, he seems to have spent his career working in theater, which seems a mismatch for his talents - today he would surely have landed a good academic post. He reminds me a little of Red Sox pitching this season - so much raw ability at times, but unable to put the ball in the right place, tantalizing and hopeful for a young pitcher, or writer, but what will become of them? what became of him? One would have hoped, reading this debut novel in 1950, that his youthful exuberance would cool down and he would write something equally beautiful but more accessible. This is a novel worth reading, once - unfortunately, to really understand it, if that's even possible, you have to read it twice.
Thursday, June 25, 2015
It's very difficult to discern or figure out exactly who the narrator is in William Goyen's 1950 The House of Breath - at times I have been thinking he's one of the children in the impoverished E. Texas town of Charity, in the Ganchion (?) family - but which child exactly I'm not sure. At other times the narrator seems to be the abstract spirit of the town of Charity, or of the small river that runs through it, once (in narrator's childhood) so pure and undisturbed now polluted by the runoff from the oil fields that have taken over the town and the whole E Texas economy, for better (for some) or worse (for many). And does it matter precisely who's narrating this tale? The key is the repetition of certain themes true in this novel and in so many American sagas: the impoverished rural family with its tortured history of violence and failure, the children yearning - each in his or her own way - for a better life, which in this novel they attain not by education or great skill or drive but simply by leaving town, suitcase in hand, seeking their fortune on the road or in a big city, Dallas or Houston usually. And they all fail miserably - the beautiful "Swimma" (Sue Emma) who goes through a series of bad marriages, gives birth to short-lived, severely deformed children, ages badly; the son (Christy?) humiliated and bullied as an effeminate child, runs off with the circus of all things and on to an unhappy life as a gay adult man, the sickly one who stays home and dies young, the elderly who age and go blind and fall to ruin just like the family house itself (this probably the most Faulknerian touch), and behind this lurks the elusive narrator who believes he has failed at life and yearns for home, which is out of reach and is not the edenic playing fields that he remembers or imagines. This novel is about prodigal sons (and daughters) who return home but not as returning heroes - rather, as ruined travelers looking for comfort and solace and finding that their homeland is has, like them, been ruined by time.
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Against all likelihood, William Goyen's The House of Breath has won me over - as I noted yesterday the novel, from 1950 and obscure even in its time, is stunningly beautiful at moments and way over the top lyrical and opaque at others, strongly influenced by some of the great, Joyce, Faulkner, especially Wolfe, and influential on some of the highly literary stylists of the 1970s such as Hawkes, Gass, maybe their protegees such as Robinson - but by 40 pages in the novel began taking a turn toward the ridiculous, with a section narrated, as far as I could tell, by a river and with moanful laments for lost and misspent youth, replete with weird passages about leaving one's sperm spread across the earth - but I have to say that just as the prose was seeming to careen out of control Goyen gets ahold of his material and settles down to tell us a story - the Faulkner influence taking sway. He's telling the story of a small east Texas town, Charity, the narrator's childhood home that he's long since abandoned for a life of sorrow and loneliness (we know little else about him so far). The narrator - like an omniscient third-person - tells us of Charity today, completely changed by the discovery of East Texas oil, become a dirty and polluted small town, the forest cleared, some of the people, especially the black families, a little better off than the extreme poverty (and racism) of the early 20th century - but not much better. the omniscient, ghostlike narrator looks from afar at the house where he grew up, now in near ruins, and begins to tell us the stories of all those who've left Charity, virtually all the children of his generation, and also of the few elderly people left behind, as much in ruins as the house. These narratives are as rich in detail as the earlier, florid passages but they also have a voice and a story line and they're much easier to follow, and as I read though - I'm about half-way through the 200 pp novel, I'm getting a picture of the town and its devolution. I hope to learn more about the narrator as well, and what has made him a writer, or a failure, or a troubled man - so far he's opaque, just the source of the torrent of words (much like a river, that metaphor for narrative once again - the Joyce influence) that convey this strange tale.
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
In my quest for forgotten novelists - saw recent NYTBR review of a bio of a writer I'd never heard of, William Goyen, and picked up his first novel, The House of Breath, to see what I'd been missing. Novel published in 1950 and then, after 25 years of obscurity, reissued in a special edition by Random House in 1975 to be greeted by: Even more obscurity! Goyen, like the recently departed James Salter (another writer I'll probably look into again) had the misfortune of being cast (type) as a "writer's writer," but I'm not sure that's accurate - he wasn't even a writer's writer, as so few read him. House of Breath, from first 30 pp or so, is quite astonishing as a work of style - a bridge from Thomas Wolfe and perhaps Faulkner to some of the postmodern stylists, most notably the hyper-writer John Hawkes. It's a work of almost pure description: begins w/ a fairly powerful scene of the adult author having a kind of mental breakdown in a public park, perhaps?, as he is overwhelmed by his own sense of failure and then by memories and recollections of his youth - in what appears to be a deep Southern pine-woods landscape - from bio notes it seems to be a Texas boyhood, but you can easily imagine these as recollections of Mississippi or NC - and Goyen goes on for several chapters of extraordinary prose, overheated and superabundant, like Wolfe always and Faulkner sometimes, about the landscape, the waterways, the house of his youth and its decor, to a degree about the large family - although this does not so far appear to be a novel about character or plot; it's a novel of evocation. Also not to be confused with the memiorist-novelists, les enfants de Proust, as this is a flood of memories, most of them sensory, not a recollection of lost time, lost youth. As I persist, if I persist, the value of the novel will have to be not just whether it swept me up but whether there's a point to it all, whether we come to understand why this childhood led to the adult who is suffering and who is overcome by these memories. Hawkes wrote similar fiction 25 years later (another writer's writer, but fortunately for him more of his time and well-embraced by an academic set) but Hawkes's work was far more sensual, or actually sexual - perhaps that's one thing he needed to break out of the writer's writer prison (although it didn't help Salter, either).
Monday, June 22, 2015
Good book group discussion last night on Ben Lerner's 10:04, a novel that is truly meant for discussion (and for book groups) as there's so much in it, the structure is so elusive, the mode so original, and the style so challenging. I was probably most in the rear guard, noting that although I loved some of the passages in the book and some of the passing observations I ultimately felt it was a very cold book, that I could not or at least did not know the characters, even the narrator, and that the novel was mostly about playing narrative tricks, evincing cleverness of "the author," and that the narrator was somewhat contemptuous of his readers - indicating on the one hand that he is a grand Whitmanesque force and that we are all of one consciousness, even across time and space, but on the other that this novel was a piece of work done because he got a big advance and needed the $ but didn't really care deeply about (I know this is half-true only). On the other extreme, BR absolutely loved 10:04 for its writerly beauty; RR loved it as well, found it virtually unique in style except for a possible comparison with Sebald. I picked up on Sebald as well, one of the great 20th century writers for sure, and note that Lerner pays him tribute even to the point of interpolated illustrations and photos: but think how Sebald would have handled this material differently. Sebald always looks at the present and sees history, usually lost history - no doubt he would have found the house where Whitman lived and note how it's been lost to time and urbanization, he would have stood beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and thought about what factories or shipyards used to be there 200 years ago, and so on. Not that Lerner is wrong to pursue his own course rather than another's, far from it. MK noted how 10:04 is imbued with death - fear of death, and actual death. A very dark novel to be sure - but with a lot of humor and much beauty, a novel not for everyone but a near-unique work of fiction.
Sunday, June 21, 2015
One of the dangers of being able to write really well and to have a mind that sparks lots of little ideas and thought experiments is that it takes even more discipline to use these skills to write a good novel. Ben Lerner has the skills and he's written, in 10:04, what I'd call a pretty good novel but it misses out on something, it's all brain and no heart (and no design or else a design so complex as to be opaque and obscure, at least to me). He spends a good deal of the last third of the novel describing his (I am assuming, for the moment, that Lerner and the narrator and "the author" are all one) fellowship in Marfa, Texas, where he is writing "this" novel - so we see the writer writing about the writer at work - and this includes a visit to the art installation in Marfa and the author's surprising reaction to the sculptures by Donald (?) Judd (they're real, you can easily find images through a search), and then a party among various artists and pretenders at which "the author" is surprisingly one of the oldest in attendance and the only one who kindly helps an intern who has a bad rx reaction. Later, BL describes his on-going relation w/best friend, Alex, and attempt to get her pregnant through artificial insemination, a technique the supplement by having sex - although neither seems to be into it, particularly; then describes his break-up w/ girlfriend because she's uncool w/ the insemination thing - she doesn't seem too broken up by the break-up nor does he. Altogether, I'm reading and wondering why this scene, why this story, why is he including this material in the novel - a novel he has to a degree undermined by explaining repeatedly that it grew out of a New Yorker story (true) following which his agent got him a big advance, so we sense that this isn't a work he's feeling compelled to writing or even interested in writing but that he's taken on as a piece of work, like a magazine assignment, to earn his pay. I know that writer have to earn a living and that many do take on projects w/ some reluctance but with a Beckettian need to press on no matter what - but I wish there were more passion and interest behind this work rather than just a high-order chronicle of a few months in the life of a very gifted 30-something Brooklyn novelist. Haven't quite finished and hoping something will happen in last few pages to tie the strands together to lift plot to a higher level.
Saturday, June 20, 2015
Just to try to give you an idea: Ben Lerner's 10:04 (the title references the moment in time when the clock freezes in Back to the Future, shooting the protagonist into the past) is a novel about the writing of a novel (the one we're reading) generated by a book advance from from a publisher based on the author's (Lerner's) New Yorker story (included in toto in the novel - I blogged on it when it was published in the NYer about 2 years ago) that author intends to use to pay for the process of insemination of his best friend (not girlfriend) who wants to have a baby "by" him. So the novel we are reading, supposedly, is the cause of the generation of a child who will have uncertainty as to the role or even the identity of his/her father. This is the kind of endless looping of this novel and of Lerner's mind and narrative technique: though we are reading fiction, an account of a life, our doing so contributes to the generation of a life - which of course leads him to think about not only what is fiction (the novel we're reading? the story within the novel? is the "whole thing" made up - maybe there is no impregnated friend?) but what is a life, what does it mean to live a life: our lives are made up of memories - our entire life story is like a novel told only to ourselves - but how reliable are these memories, and if not reliable, which they generally are not, what is it that we even know about our lives, or anyone's life. (In my view, it's the mission of the novelist to find out the answer to this - though 10:04 is more questions and "thought experiments" than answers, narrative, character - as BL is well aware - it's still far more provocative than almost anything else you'll read in contemporary fiction.) BL is also fascinated, not to say obsessed, with the nexus of world capitalism - with many references to and meditations on the value of art, the provenance of our food, the labor system that seems to consign Spanish-speaking servants and wait staff to fill the water glasses of the well-to-do in the finest of restaurants. The BL does not build 10:04 into a conventional narrative, he uses the loose yet overlapping form of this novel to embrace a number of mini-narratives: his search for the daughter of a favorite professor, only to learn he has no daughter; a fellow co-op volunteer who tells him of her recent discovery that the supposed father is not her genetic father, leading her to question her lifelong ethnic identity, his father's account of being forced to choose between two simultaneous funeral services and his tearful struggle to get back to DC to attend his own mother's service - these embedded stories seem to have in common a sense of missing out on key elements of one's own family structure, one's autobiography - and to hint at the sub-theme of this novel that our life consists of an endless repetition of the same events, though they are oddly different in each iteration.
Friday, June 19, 2015
There's no question that Ben Lerner is a really smart guy - the American counterpart to the British precocious polymaths I posted about the other day - the American genius writer is not the world-wanderer but the urbanite, usually New York, usually Ivy-educated often Brown for some reason, often but not always Jewish, and as a writer flashy and bit of a showoff - you just know he (usually a he) was always praised unduly by parents for every clever utterance. Lerner's that guy - and more power to him - there are so many great passages in his current novel, 10:04, including verbal wit, sly literary references, imaginative narrative structure (stories within stories, a narrator telling of the story he is thinking of narrating, dizzying really), cultural critique (the passages on the moral self-righteousness of those who are members of his Brooklyn food co-op are particularly arresting and on point), odd cultural recollections (extensive discussion of the Challenger disaster and how that led to his becoming a writer), even some stunningly beautiful passages of scenic description - notably the beautiful section on his walk through Brooklyn and his view of Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge Park (replete w/ obligatory Whitman references). Great novel to read on ipad because there were many words I wanted to look up and a few references to literary figures I wanted to check for veracity (surprised that the poet Bronk was real - who knew? - and can tell you that Bernard and Natalie are not real but anyone familiar with Providence writers will know exactly who they are in "real life"). No, the question is: Is this a good novel? And I just don't know. I'm reading through it with some pleasure and occasional puzzlement (some sentences I just plain can't understand - but same would be true when reading Ulysses). There may be a structure to his story, but there is certainly no arc - and I'm not sure if the structure makes any sense either - nor is it meant to. These are I think a series of apercus, scenes, memories, and speculations - many of them about the nature of experience, the difference between art and "reality," the question of what constitutes art in the first place (v forgery, fakery), the nature of memory, the nature of self (one long interesting section tells of of a woman - actually she tells her story - who in her 20s learns that her father was not her actual birth father, and therefore she is not, as she'd always thought, of Lebanese descent, so it's as if she's lived a though a life but has not lived a life - and Lerner compares this in odd ways with the experience of medical procedures under amnesia rx) - so much in this novel I literally can't yet get my mind around it, and at times I think it's brilliant and at other times like a high-end vamping, just figuring it out as he rolls along. Two notes: The Creeley pastiche, a fake letter from the poet, does not sound in the least like Creeley, I can assure you. And I for one did actually watch the Challenger live, or moments later, as I was having lunch w/, as Lerner would say, a very well-known author, in a restaurant w/ TV on and we saw the immediate aftermath live, to our shock. (CVA would confirm this I'm sure.)
Thursday, June 18, 2015
All told, I think Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica is an excellent novel; it's too bad it's so forgotten today - or known if at all by the 1965 movie, which I've never seen but from the publicity shots you can find on imdb and elsewhere looks super-cheesey - probably went for all the drama and romance and adventure-story stuff and passed over the darker and weirder parts of the novel. I think it's a forgotten work in part because Hughes didn't create a corpus of similar (even if inferior) novels: there are famous one-off novelists, such as Ralph Ellison or JK Toole for ex.,but there's no doubt a writer's reputation is advanced by writing several novels, especially if we can find a unifying theme or style across the body of work. Hughes was evidently one of those precocious British polymaths, and over the course of a long time he wrote a few other pieces but we don't think of his "work." He also did other things - college professor, inveterate traveler (like many other British polymaths, from DHL to Chatwin). Interestingly, High Wind feels less distant and quaint than many other books of its era (the 1930s) because it was a historical piece in its time: set some 60 years back circa 1870 - so when we read it today, it feels to us, I imagine, similar to the way it felt to its original readers. It's also just a hell of a good story with some great plot twists toward the end - as the children turn up safely in England, are taken in by their parents (it takes quite a while before the "doting" mother asks: Where's John?; it takes not too long before they're shipped off to boarding school), and become the object of a great deal of fascination and speculation. (spoilers) Their captors are brought to England for trial and in a true perversion of justice the adults coax the children witnesses to testify according to script, in other words to lie. The trial hinges on the dead captain of one of the captive ships - and we know who killed him, but nobody else does - and when the witness breaks down in hysteria the adults completely misunderstand why she's crying - which leads to the unjust execution of 3 (mostly) innocent men. This trial has notes of irony - but I think the meaning is far more profound than simple irony, it's an uncovering of the corruption of the judicial system and the English system of caste and class, no less rigid and predetermined than the Hindi.
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica is perhaps the strangest blend of literary qualities I've ever encountered in a novel, including some absolutely stunningly beautiful descriptions - the ruins of the old sugar mills in Jamaica described in the first chapter, some beautiful passages about life aboard a sailing ship cutting through the dark water on a quiet starry night, many others - a really good adventure story - children held captive by Caribbean pirates! - and an odd psychological examination of the behavior of children. Although, as I've previously posted, it's almost unfathomable how little the children seem to care about or think about their parents, the home they've left behind, their fate, or even their oldest sibling who has just disappeared from their lives, Hughes does get at the odd way in which they bond with their captors and the consequences of this identification. The book reaches its crisis point when Emily stabs a man to death (and her older [?] sister gets the blame and gets tossed overboard, although by good fortune recovered and brought back on deck). After this event, the children seem to go literally insane, confused and misbehaving in very odd ways - the whole equilibrium destroyed. The captain figures out a plan to waylay a passing steamer, tell them that they'd rescued the children, and ask them to bring the children to safe harbor - the children pledge to never tell the truth. There are a couple of problems here: Emily will never forget that she killed a man, this will haunt her forever. And it will be hard to explain the death of the oldest child, John. We learn that, sure enough, E breaks the promise and rats out the pirates - and she was the one who bonded most closely to them, emulating their behavior and flirting disconcertingly with the captain. It does make me wonder why the pirates took the children in the first place - perhaps they'd planned to sell them into slavery (it didn't work) but was that worth the risk?
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Richard Hughes includes a passage in A High Wind in Jamaica in which he notes that it's impossible to understand the mind of a baby and nearly impossible to understand the mind of a child. Yes, true, at least for him - as the children in High Wind, the six Bas-Thornton children shipped off by their parents unescorted from Jamaica to London, sometime in the late 19th century. Their ship was taken by pirates and, despite reports that the pirates murdered the children, we learn quickly that they're doing just fine (although the oldest dies in an accident ashore). As noted in previous posts, their behavior is very peculiar, even by English standards: they folic in the rigging, play house and other games of the imagination, spend a lot of time befriending the animals about the ship (a pig, who's being fattened for the kill). There's not a word about longing for home, fear about their fate, fear and sorrow about the death of the oldest brother. Maybe this is typical behavior of the insouciant English youth of the class and era (as noted in yesterday's post), but I doubt that. Maybe they're suffering from Stockholm syndrome, helplessly identifying with their captors - but I would think they wouldn't do so from day one, and that there would be lots of conflict, disagreement, fear, and despair - but they seem to be enjoying the cruise. Some very strange things begin to happen along the way: oldest daughter begins to awaken sexually, the crew gets the Captain drunk and he comes on to her, and she bites his thumb. Both feel peculiar shame and remorse and act like teenage lovers who've had a spat. Super odd. Same daughter (Elizabeth?) gets wound by a falling spike (dropped by younger sister - also odd); captain lovingly dresses her wound. While she's recovering, the pirates take another ship (this one carrying only circus animals - the pirates arrange a spectacle - lion v tiger - for the enjoyment of kids and crew. Extremely odd.) Spoiler here: While this is going on they imprison the captain of the captive ship in the room with Elizabeth; he tries to escape, and she stabs him to death. (The blame is later put on a younger sister, as they believe Elizabeth is too injured to have killed the man.) This is a great dramatic scene - but they only way to accept it is to imagine and believe that Elizabeth by this point in the journey is literally insane. No child would stab a bound man to death because he's trying to escape his captors - one would think she would try to get him to communicate with the outside world, to get word to their parents, and to authorities. I can understand her identifying with her captors, but not to her complete acquiescence in their imprisonment.
Monday, June 15, 2015
I previously posted on the incredible indifference the English "upper class" show toward their children as depicted in British fiction, sometimes by the absence of children in the accounts s=of supposedly family lives and some by the astonishing ways in which children are just plain disposable, as in Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica - with the colonial parents in Jamaica just putting their 6 (!) kids aboard a ship bound for London and waving good-bye. The counterpart to this indifference on the part of parents is the equally incredible insouciance of the English children. In High Wind, a perfect example, instead of mourning home and missing parents and yearning for some stability, the children enjoy playing on the rigging and in general just seem to recognize that they are movable pieces on a board game that they don't really understand. As noted, the ship they're on is overtaken by Caribbean pirates who steal all the cargo on the ship, including, fittingly, the children. Their parents receive a report on this from the idiotic captain who tells them the pirates captured and killed their children. What on earth is his problem? In any event, we follow the children in captivity. Are they scared, homesick? Not int he least. They land ashore with the pirates and help them auction off the stolen property, and just seem overall as cool and indifferent to their danger as their parents were to them. In chapter 4, the oldest child dies in a fall out of 40-foot high window - and the children just kind of write him off, they don't even wonder what happened to him (they don't see the accident and are never told about it). So how to explain their insouciance?: It's a natural defense against parental uninterest? Or: It's a quality that English children have from the onset that helps them get through their difficult lives and eventually turns them into indifferent adults (in other words, a question of which came first: insouciant children or indifferent adults). Or: Children are not and never were this way at all but it's just a convention of a certain type of fiction, a way in which an author who himself may be entirely indifferent to children thinks that children could or ought to behave? In other words, the cool-ness of English children may be a result of the lack of interest and observation on the part of English writers (male writers?).
Sunday, June 14, 2015
Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica (ca 1930) is more direct than any other novel I've read about the peculiar almost obscene indifference that English characters of the "upper" classes felt toward their children (a matter usually not even acknowledged by authors of that class and era, who just simply write the children out of their books - e.g., FM Ford, Anthony Powell): Hughes, however, actually examines this issue, the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bas-Thornton, believe that they are central to the lives of their children and the children, as Hughes shows us, are generally indifferent to the parents. This is a switch; how can this be? We see how in chapter 2: Chapter 1 ends with a hurricane sweeping the island and the family taking shelter in a basement; on emerging, they see the island and all that they own pretty much completely smashed. After a period of adventure living in the one standing stone building, the parents decide the kids - 5 of them I think - need to be sent back to England for a proper education. So here you go: drop them off on a sailing ship (the time of this novel is never quite clear to me but must be the late 19th century?) with I think one "servant" to look after them, a few words to the captain, and off they go. Then, in a rather startling development, the parents receive a letter from the seemingly benevolent captain who, after spending about two pages describing the weather and the shoals on the voyage out, drops the bomb that the ship was taken captive, robbed, and all the children were killed. He does note that their deaths were quick, so there's no need to fret about that. Who on earth could write such a letter and in such a manner? In the 3rd chapter we learn that the captain's account was not entirely accurate - the children may have survived, we don't know yet, though I'm guessing that yes, they do. But the casual indifference of the parents - at least up to the point of receiving the news - is what continues to astonish me. Who can put five young children on a boat and just wave good-bye - and expect everything to be OK? I don't necessarily mean to put all of this on the English, but it seems to me that the long tradition of governesses, private tutors, boarding school, primogeniture did horrible things to English families and to British culture.
Saturday, June 13, 2015
One of those apparently great books that most have heard of but few (these days) have read - Richard Hughes's A Fair Wind in Jamaica, from about 1930 - I know almost nothing of Hughes and believe he write few if any other novels, which partially accounts for the obscurity of his one potentially great book. Anyway, read the first chapter last night (book is about 200 pages with 9 or 10 chapters), and can see immediately that it's not the kind of novel written or published at least any longer: very little actually happens in the first chapter, but he creates a scene and setting with what I can only call poetic details. Obviously this takes place in Jamaica early in the 20th century; the characters are British expats, some families newly arrived, others there for a few generations; Hughes begins by describing the ruined sugar mills, rum distilleries, and estates completely neglected, overgrown with vines, one estate in particular taken over by a few of the liberated slaves (slavery ended in about 1860, spelling the end of the sugar industry that was entirely dependent on slave labor). Gradually, we focus on one family, the Bas-Thorntons (oh those British names) and their children, raised almost as wild children, spending their days playing outdoors, swimming, often nude. The young girl in the family - 10 years old - goes wandering off following a stream for about 3 miles (!) and she comes upon a deeply impoverished village inhabited by a few descendents of freed slaves - they see her as an odd curiosity, some of the children had never seen a white person. Some of the descriptive passages are striking and original; Hughes creates a Southern Gothic mood that makes Faulkner's South seem like Puritan New England by comparison. No idea where he'll go with this set-up, but worth following that stream at least for a while.
Friday, June 12, 2015
Akhil Sharma's generally excellent novel, Family Life, unfortunately hurtles to a conclusion - almost as if Sharma had a deadline imposed by an editor or agent that he was rushing to meet or that he'd missed, or else that, Tristram Shandy-like, he realized that if he proceeded at the slow and meticulous pace he'd established he would never complete the arc of his story or, most likely, he had a great set-up but, like far too many novelists, didn't quite know how to bring his narrative to denouement and conclusion. Most of the book is terrific - he describes in exquisitely painful detail how the accident that left his older brother near comatose destroyed not only his brother's promising life but his father's - driven ever deeper into alcoholism - and drew away all the attention and devotion that his mother had to offer - leaving the young narrator, Ajay - if many hints in the novel are accurate, apparently this is a partially autobiographical story, more than most novels, isolated and insecure - a condition made even more acute by his being in a clannish minority group - Indian immigrants - and unable to make many friends in school. At some point near the end the narrative began to feel rather static - Sharma must have felt the same - and he rushes it forward, in short order bring Ajay to his first high-school girlfriend, to acceptance at Princeton, to his success in banking, to an abrupt and quite opaque conclusion. All that said, there are few novels like this one - a painful, unflinching examination of the effect of a tragic accident on others - I can compare it to a degree with The Dive From Clausen's Pier (what happened to the author of that? some writers, it seems, may have just one book in them - and that's maybe enough) - though that was less about immediate family and more about a circle of friends - and without the poignancy of the tragedy striking a family struggling to make it in a new culture.
Thursday, June 11, 2015
What makes Akhil Sharma's Family Life so sorrowful and so strange is the seemingly disparate ways in which a tragic accident - older son essentially brain dead and blind as a result of a swimming-pool accident - can both save and destroy a family. As narrated by the now adult younger (10 to 12 years old) brother, we see the parents and the younger brother devote their entire lives (and savings) to the round-the-clock care of the older brother. W/ the insurance settlement they buy a modest NJ house and move the brother from a drab nursing home into a room of his own - fittingly the converted living room of the house - and it seems that the caretaking is an all-consuming obligation. In some ways, it brings the family together - some very sweet scenes as the younger brother gently teases older brother, calling him Fatso and Smelly and kidding that he must be getting up at night and raiding the refrig. The older brother cannot react in any way - but they're desperately trying to include him. Mother and son play a round of cards, dealing the older brother "in" and playfully cheating, stealing his cards, acting as if he's participating - as if he even knows what's happening. But this is by no means a sweet family story. As all this goes on, the younger brother hears the parents arguing about money - which is running out - and the father driven further into alcoholism - and the mother inviting various religious crackpots over to try their miracle cures (none seem to charge anything - they're all part of the culture of Indian immigrants in the NYC area - it's both comforting and smothering how the Indian community tries to help out this beleaguered family). All this Sharma tells in his crisp and shrewd narrative style, getting a surprising amount of humor out of the situation. Not sure if this novel will "go" anywhere, as the plot almost by definition is quite static - but it's an excellent portrait of a family in distress, at the mercy of fortune and fate.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Akhil Sharma's Family Life, a very short but powerful novel, continues to impress me (about half-way through), in particular for the sharply observant writing and for the ability to tell a story that's potentially maudlin and melodramatic with a clear, sharp tone that keeps the novel free from sentimentality and self-pity. The story is about a struggling family of immigrants from India who put all of their hope and faith in the older son - encouraging him to study to be admitted to Bronx Science, w/ dreams of his becoming a surgeon - who are completely derailed when son is brain-damaged in a swimming-pool accident. The narrator is the younger brother, looking back on his childhood, and recounting in painful detail the demise of his family - with a chilling and credible honesty: his guilt at resentment over the attention his brother received, his struggle to make friends in school as the family keeps moving and devoting all of its time and resources to care for the immobilized and barely conscious brother. The family becomes the center of attention for the Indian diaspora community in North Jersey, but of course what the younger brother/narrator, Ajay, wants is not attention but normalcy. Through his precise but coolly distant narration we see the family demise: his father starts drinking, very unusual apparently in Hindi culture (a powerful scene when father takes son into a roadside bar), mother obviously paying no attention to father (or younger son) as all her energy consumed by care for the injured son, family finances mismanaged - including an insurance settlement that doesn't appear to be nearly enough to meet the needs of the brother, Ajay mostly friendless in school and trying to win friends by lying about his brother's prowess does not help - they're a family of outsiders, objects of curiosity and of reluctant pity, but finally alone in their suffering.
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
I'd noted last year, when I read the New Yorker excerpt from Akhil Sharma's novel, Family Life, that -- though I was disappointed to see the NYer once again run a novel excerpt almost like an unpaid ad for the forthcoming novel - I could tell it would be a really good novel, and from first few chapters of the (short) work I'm not disppointed at all. Sharma is an incredibly skillful and observant narrator - keeps the story moving along very well over a fairly long period of time and across two cultures (family emigrates to the U.S. from India in search of better life) and just as older son fulfills their ambitions (admitted to Bronx Science) he is severely injured in a pool accident. The central figure in the story is the seemingly autobiographic narrator, who's about 8 at the start and a bewildered young teen unpinned by his brother's accident. Sharma has both the acute observations of a young boy - story told very closely from his point of view - giving us a child's perspective on the U.S. as seen from an immigrant - the wonder at hot water streaming from a faucet, the surprise that TV stations have different #s in different cities - touching scenes in India (the boy giving his toys away to children in line to buy milk from a dairy vendor, the way in which the family is marked once their tickets to the US. are hand-delivered midst much celebration and interest) but also some smart observations from his 30+ adult perspective. Wish I could quote from memory but one smart comment describes the father in India concerned that the buildings don't recognize him as he passes by and he thinks in America he would be recognized - rather than thinking that he was the kind of man who expects buildings to recognize him. As I'd noted in my post last year, these characters are the anti-Lahiri immigrants - they are strivers, willing to give up their modest professions and work menial jobs, below their "stations," to advance their children and therefore investing far too much capital (emotional) in their children's success - rather than the Cambridge intellectuals who come ot the US on fellowships or to work in top jobs. Only thing dull about the novel is its title.
Monday, June 8, 2015
Very long fiction selection from Jonathan Franzen in the current New Yorker, called The Republic of Bad Taste, and it's evidently a chapter, maybe the 1st?, from Franzen's forthcoming novel. If it's representative of the rest of the novel - and I've no doubt that it is, remembering the excellent long excerpt the NYer ran pre-pub from Freedom - then he's got me hooked. The selection in current NYer is set in East Germany in the early 80s, before the fall of the Wall anyway, and cenrtral character is a 20-something dissident who counsels troubled youth and lives sheltered from the Stasi and other authorities in a church basement. The minister calls on him to counsel a 15-year-old girl who's a striking beauty - and of course he falls for her, knowing the relationship can go nowhere. She tells him her troubled story, abuse by a stepfather, and together they plot to kill the abuser - which (spoiler ... ) they manage to accomplish. He expects them both to be arrested but nobody ever comes for him, leading him to think of many possible explanations, none good. The world is spinning around him and as the Eastern bloc countries are about to fall he joins a rally where he sees the young woman, much changed. She says they can't see each other again, without much explanation - but we know that this is only the beginning. Franzen as usual is excellent at plotting, at development of complex and surprising characters, and at evocation of mood and place. I have to say I started reading this w/ much skepticism - what the hell does he know about life in E Germany? - but he won me over and I found the whole piece quite credible and engaging. As I've posted recently, it's interesting and maybe a little depressing how several East bloc writers who were so astonishingly good when they wrote surreptitiously and at great risk about the horror and oppression of living in a Soviet state have become far less interesting writing in freedom - sometimes in their home country (thinking of Konrad), sometimes in the decadent West (thinking of Kundera). Are there great writers today telling about life in the former Soviet states? Or reflecting on life under East block domination? Maybe they've left that to filmmakers (thinking of the great The Lives of Others) - or to writers from the West (thinking of Arthur Phillips - and now of Franzen).
Sunday, June 7, 2015
Jonathan Safran Foer's very short story on the marriage of Adam and Eve isnot so much a piece of short fiction - I don't really know even how to assess it as such - but a cri de couer. JSF's view of marriage as dpeicted in this short piece is about as dark as you can get - A&E are in love w/ one another because he's blind and thinks she's beautiful and she's deaf and thinks he's, I don't know, funny, articulate, kind? Gradually over the course of the marriage they come to their sense, so to speak, and begin to despise each other. Ultimately, all A wants is peace but he cannot get this - God and angels look on from above and, as I recall, God essentially shrugs his shoulders and says that the way it is. I can't imagine anyone take solace or even a bit of joy from this story, and hope that it's just a JSF toss-off and not, as I have to suspect, a cry of despair from within his own (prominent NY literary) marriage. Also in current NYer double issue is a piece from Primo Levi about the hstory of centaurs - fine if you like that sort of thing. My guess is PL didn't like it much which is why this piece, presumably, has never been published or at least never translated - and will be included in a multi-volume set of the compete Levi now int he works. He seems to be emulating Borges, Calvino, maybe Landolfi and striving for the fantastic - though w/out their wit and imaginative reach. His greatest works are realistic testimonies to the suffering of his life, fiction and nonfiction (memoir), and this story shows he tried his hand at other forms but will not advance his posthumous reputation.
Saturday, June 6, 2015
Yikes couldn't the eminent New Yorker have done better than to procure Zadie Smith's weak story Escape from New York to lead off its summer reading double issue? Come on - we read about a celebrity (Michael) freaked out after an attack on New York, calls his two closest friends, all of 3 of them visiting NY, not clear why, and they agree they have to get out of the city because it's under attack - OK, so we understand that this is 9/11 though I doubt most people had the instinct to move especially not these three, whom we learn are celebrities and all-powerful and have little idea how to take any action on their own behalf - Michael has heard of some places where you can rent a car, something called Hertz, ha ha - anyway Michael picks up the other 2, Marlon and Elizabeth and they head off toward Bethlehem - a town in Pennsylvania, he assures them. Does not take us long to figure out that this is Michael Jackson; as to his friends, are they Brando and Taylor? Were they even alive in 2001? Is there any basis in fact for this story? Not that there has to be - but it would be maybe a little bit interesting if these three had talked about anything in their lives or anything that was happening that day, if they had made even the most casual of observations about the lives led by others (as in say Sullivan's Travels?), in fact had they said or did anything interesting at all in this story other than rent a car (something called a Camry, Michael notes) and get out of town. Stories often begin with a journey, but they journey has to take us somewhere.
Friday, June 5, 2015
Volume 4 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle ends not with a whimper but a bang - yes, he does at last have successful sexual intercourse and loses his virginity - and i doins so gains in self-confidence, self-esteem, lack of shame. I mean it's hardly a meaningful or lasting relationship - he has sex with a woman he meets at a rock festival - but she's a few years older than he and she seems to be gentle and to offer him guidance and everything works. And he spends the weekend engaging with her multiple times - and it all feels in some ways like a crude and unsatisfactory ending to this section of his life story - they as expected drink an incredible amount of red win, and his final sexual act with her, literally as she's puking outside one of the flaps of the tent, is quite crude - and yet - is the ending really about this crudity and his first successful sex? I think the key point at the end of this volume is not this fling but the young woman he'd met through a cousin at a bar or club, whose boyfriend fell asleep at the table, and to whom KOK was immediately and powerfully attracted, with whom he engaged in some witty (kinda) banter about driving too fast, with whom he carried on a brief correspondence once he went back to his teaching job in the far north - it seems that this woman has the potential to be his first true love relation and one suspects she will appear in volume 5 and will be his first wife - at least I think that. It's surprising that, after he leaves his teaching job, he doesn't immediately try to look up this young woman w/ whom he's so taken. Her absence in his life at that point is a key element in the narrative, but there's a hint of the idea that he had to get the virginity monkey off his back to free himself to pursue a serious love relationship, which is really what he wants - not more of these drunken, near-blackout, hook-ups.
Thursday, June 4, 2015
A short but touching scene toward the end of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle volume 4 as the father of one of KOK's students pays a visit - the student is Jo, a small and somewhat annoying kid who's picked on (not quite bullied) by his classmates and pretty much cut out of their games and their socializing, who clings to KOK - KOK doesn't like the kid much and feels a little guilt about that - not all that much older than his students, he's drawn to the popular ones, particularly the pretty girls. The father notes that his son is sad at home and doesn't enjoy school - as he used to - and he hopes KOK can help. KOK tries to reassure the dad - the kids are all right, they don't really dislike Jo, it's something that will pass - but of course he realizes it won't pass, that life will be hard for this little boy, especially in this extremely small town that offers no other options for the kids - and he feels empathy for the dad, who has to live with the sorrow and ostracism of his child. Whose heart wouldn't break about this? KOK has a few suggestions, says he and one of the other teachers will work out a plan to include Jo - he really tries - further evidence to me that he could have made a very good teacher. But he's drawn to another career, writing, and the teaching does not seduce him away from that (as we imagine it must have done for his father). In one of those intriguing time shifts, KOK jumps ahead 11 years for a few pages, tells of a time when, now 29, and married, he has published a novel about his year of teaching in the far north and he's giving a reading near the village where he taught - and his prettiest ex-student, Andrea, whom he frequently thinks about in My Struggle and whom he apparently described quite accurately in the novel in question - and another friend ask if they can get together while he's in town. They do, and we know that their lives are a million miles (or kilometers) from his - but he still thinks of her wistfully and regrets not making a play for her (their age gap is very appropriate now), even though he's married - which does not bode well for that relationship, as we know from previous volumes.
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Only connect - that's another element at the heart of so many stories, novels, and lives - and definitely at the heart of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, particularly volume 4, which, more than any of the preceding volumes, is about his attempts to connect with women. In the crudest sense, he wants to hook up, and much of the angst in this volume is about his need to lose his virginity, which means overcoming his sexual fumblings and ineptitude and shame (he is persistently a victim of premature ejaculation, and is completely unable, or so it seems, to talk w/ any of the women with whom he tries to have sex about how they could help him w/ his problem or in fact what he can do to bring them sexual pleasure). As a result of his failings and his shame (he always hides from the women the fact that he has come - which leads them to think that he's not sexual, not drawn to them, or not their type - he takes the worst possible course, which is excessive drinking to blot out his shame and poor self-image -- which only makes his sexual incompetence worse, it would seem. But at a deeper level, only connect means finding a woman whom he can love - when he does so that will no doubt solve his problems of performance - but he is so set on his need for sexual conquest that, one time after another, he loses a chance at a meaningful and potential lasting relationship - most notably with the sister of his brother's fiancee. Throughout volume 4 he is drawn to the most unsuitable women - even to some of his very young students - women with whom no relationship could be possible, good, or legal - so in other words he has yet to be able to see women as potential romantic partners - possibly a result of the very cold and ultimately hostile relationship between his parents. A third level of only connect for KOK is connecting to the world (and to his inner self) through his art - and here we see at last some evidence of maturity and ambition: he takes his writing very seriously, sacrifices other aspects of his life in order to have time to write (few his age are willing or able to do that). Two odd things about his writing: the scene in which his brother, Yngve, says he can't imagine anyone would publish these stories, and his submission of the stories for an anthology - and he gets them back with a note that the publisher is abandoning the project because he received no worthwhile submissions (and KOK, consoling himself, or deluding himself, thinks that at least he wasn't rejected). There must be some sweet revenge that he feels in telling of these early dismissals.
Tuesday, June 2, 2015
Two nice things about Karl Ove Knausgaard late now in volume 4 of My Struggle: first, though we know he did not choose this course in life it seems as if he could have been a very good teacher - by his accounts of his first months in the job in the small school in northern Norway, he seems to be very good with the kids, imaginative in his teaching techniques, supportive of the small and young, and able to think quickly and handle difficult discipline situations. Yes, he over-reacts in sending a misbehaving child home (something that would not happen in the U.S.), but when his supervisor has him call the mother to explain he does so very well. He's so young to take on this job, but I think he could have matured into the work, had he wanted to. Second, it's great to see that even from such an early age - 18 and just out of high school - he's extremely serious about his writing: despite all the drinking, the sex (most of it fumbled and frustrating, welcome to the teenage years), the partying, he seems always to set aside time for writing, which he takes very seriously - working on his style by emulating his literary heroes, revising, getting rid of weak material, seeking comment - all necessary for maturation as a writer. (He doesn't seem able to get good commentary, however - that will come later when he makes more literary contacts in larger communities, I think.) Though at times KOK is an unlikable narrator in his teenage years - who isn't really? The great thing about this six-volume series is that we see him confront his demons and we follow the life course of a suffering, sometimes weak, sometimes cruel young man who grows in spirit and stature to the point where he's a fine writer composing the very words we are reading. Art catches up to life.
Monday, June 1, 2015
Some readers may think that Karl Ove Knausgaard is just "spilling" as he writes My Struggle, just putting down memories as they come to him and pour out of him and into print but as I'm nearing the final sections of volume 4 I'm struck by the artfulness of his design and conception in this volume in particular but in the series as a whole (to date). In this volume the story begins as he's 18 and beginning his first job - teaching elementary-middle school - just out of high school (gymnas) - rather amazing by U.S. standards, and we quickly see that intelligent as he may be he's too immature for this work - in fact the sequence begins with some reasonably effective classroom management and then he goes to his first party - and wakes up in the morning violently ill from drink with the events of the night before a complete black-out - then we jump back to KOK @ 16, in gymnas/high school, and getting more and more into drinking and eventually some pretty intense drug use as well - more or less kicked out of the house by his mother, cold-shouldered by his father, sunned even by his grandparents, which only pushes him to drink even more - and as we follow him on this downward spiral he suddenly says - two weeks later - and he's describing another party and we realize, wait, we've now caught up to the beginning of the novel and we see precisely how ill prepared and unsuitable KOK is for his teaching gig - his blackout was not a one-time phenomenon but the culmination, or, what's the opposite of that?, a diminutization of his addictions - he's in real trouble - and yet, unlike about a million other guys who dream of becoming a writer, he's actually despite all his drinking and his sexual anxieties, he spends a lot of time writing, working very hard on his first stories, and we know, reading these fabulous volumes, that his writing will become his identity - and his salvation. (Sorry for long sentence!)