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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

Monday, August 31, 2015

The most boring novel I've ever read (or started)?

I have to say that Naguib Mahfouz's Palace Walk, which I'm abandoning after 100+ (dense) pages (out of 500, and this is the first volume of a trilogy) is among the most boring novels I've ever encountered. Why is that? Compare this epic with some of the other great  novels about patriarchs - The Leopard and 100 Years of Solitude come to mind - and you can see that Mahfouz flouts the first dictum of fiction writing: Show, don't tell. These hundred pages were a series of about 15 relatively short chapters about the various members of the family, sketching in the back story and the personality "type" of the five siblings, the oppressed wife, the domineering and unfaithful husband, et al. I can't exactly say they're stereotypes, but it feels to me like none comes to life, that each is an authorial idea rather than a rounded personality: the beautiful but aloof sister, the less attractive and therefore jealous other sister, the youngest son who's a rebel just like dad, the oldest son obsessed with women just like his dad, and so forth. But nothing happens! Their characters should be revealed by what they do, not by what the narrator says about them. We are just maybe building toward the first conflict these 100 pp in, as the father, Ahmad, pursues a renowned wedding singer, Zanayba (I probably have these spellings wrong, the proper names are a challenge for American readers), while unbeknownst his oldest son is dreaming about Z's young assistant. (I would admit that the dialog between Ahmad and Zanayba, in which the flirt by taunting each other, was a highlight - reminiscent of Beatrice and Benedick.) So Mahfouz won a Nobel prize, largely on the strength of his Cairo trilogy from what I recall, and I know his winning made him a target in Egypt. Truly, I have to wonder why. If this novel is meant to be an expose of the hypocrisy and chauvinism of Egyptian life - the father is a tyrant at home and a gallant wit when he's out every single night drinking with his buddies; the characters mouth Muslim piety but they sin without any compunction - Mahfouz did shrewdly set the novel during World War I (it was published in 1956), so there's always the sense that he's not writing about contemporary Egyptian life - so it's safe for everyone to read and say, yes, this is how it used to be - how far we've come. I don't know - perhaps these characters would grow on me and tensions would mount and drama would build and it would in the end be as grand as War and Peace, but life is short, this novel is long, and I'm moving on.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The mean neighbor and Swedish angst: Current New Yorker story set in Stockholm

The Apartment, the short story in the current New Yorker, by Jensen Beach (first I've heard of this author) is set in Stockholm - takes a bit before we realize this - so of course it's a story I read w/ some interest; to a degree, I felt it could have been set in New York or just about any city, but as I read further I came to see that there was a quality in this story particular to Sweden: a repression and sense of shame so typical of the Swedish psyche and much recounted in Swedish literature and, especially, cinema. The story is entirely about a 50-something woman who lives w/ her cold and distant husband in a small apartment complex in Stockholm; a new neighbor moves in (stranger comes to town), taking over the unit of an elderly woman who died in her sleep and whose body rotted for several days in the apartment before the stench aroused anyone's attention (this, too, is a Swedish motif - the loneliness and isolation, even w/in the urban crowd). The story at first seems quite dull and even insipid in its style: a series of short, declarative sentences that seem at first just the trivia data of the events her day - lunch w/ her (adult) son, and so forth. But we very gradually realize that this woman is troubled and has a secret life - she has a serious drinking problem that she conceals, or tries to, by buying some of her alcohol outside of her neighborhood. Through her afternoon of drinking alone at home, she ponders the new neighbor, who she believes may be the daughter of a professor w/ whom she'd had a relationship shortly before her marriage. The story becomes even creepier at the end, when she visits the new neighbor, ostensibly to welcome her, but manages, in her drunken state, to say some incomprehensible things - I think you could be my daughter - and some reprehensible things: A woman died here; it took months to get rid of the stench. The story takes us by surprise - as Swedes can do - seemingly a placid and rather dull series of events, but the dull style is a mask for great turbulence and trouble. On a final note, however: somehow, somewhere I recently read a story or saw a film or somehow heard of an event like this: someone cruelly informing a new neighbor about the troubled history of the house/apartment they'd just bought: A Shirley Jackson story? Alice Munro? I can't remember.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

England is an island, but our language is an ocean: The Great Tradition is exinct, the novel lives

Continuing on yesterday's post/rant about FR Leavis's incredibly limited view of what he archly calls The Great Tradition - granted, yes, he's writing about the Great Tradition in his own very narrow sphere of English literature, writing in I think about 1930? So of course he misses all the great English writers from many cultures and, yes!, social classes who emerged after World War II and yes, by his design, he's writing only about "British" writers (we'll give him Henry James, and TS Eliot as well if he wants him, as long as we can keep Bellow, IB Singer, Alexander Hemon, Jhumpa Lahiri, E Danticot - and all who have settled here and made their literary career in American-English). But how can he dismiss the 18th-century English writers (Austen aside) who established the entire tone for British literature - the struggle for inclusion, recognition by society at large, for successful and happy marriage? How can he dismiss Dickens (Hard Times aside), with his compendious and entertaining and often hilarious view of London and of British culture high and low? What happened for Forster, whose Passage to India (and Howards End as well) meet all of FRL's criteria of greatness of form and welcoming insight into society and culture? And Woolf, and Joyce - has he no patience or ear for the beauty of language and the will to expand literature beyond its known and accepted boundaries? I started a list yesterday of a few types of "greatness" that FRL entirely overlooks, and the list can go on, with many writers appearing in multiple categories (e.g., Proust gives insight into consciousness, philosophy and ideals, view of society, humor, experiment in form, beautiful language, just for starters) Yes, I have expanded beyond the boundaries of English fiction, and why not? England is an island but our language is the ocean. EM Forster said something like English poetry fears no man (or woman?), but English fiction cannot stand up against the greatest in French and Russian. Probably true, but really who cares? If you can’t recognize the greatness of Tolstoy, Dostoyevky, Chekhov (short stories only, but that’s another topic), Flaubert, Proust, Stendahl, andCervantes of course, then why are you even reading this? We are standing on the shoulders of giants and can see far more great novels that FRL could see even in his limited scope – all those mentioned above, and yesterday, and who can we not count among the greatest Kafka, forexample, and Lampedusa?, and Gracia Marquez? And in America what about Roth and Updike and Morrison? The Great Tradition ix extinct; the novel lives.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Examining and expandin the so-called Great Tradition

In the wake of reading (some of) FR Leavis's The Great Tradition, in which he narrowly finds greatness in literature (novels, actually) as works "of a consistent and clear form that express a view of the world and a dedication to humanity" (quoting my previous post on Leavis). As I noted these values are unassailable but they omit so many other kinds of greatness in literature and force him to such a narrow scope of appreciation and such an Olympian stance as to reduce rather than expand our appreciation for and enjoyment of literature. There are so many other types of great literature, or novels if you prefer - not just his anointed few of Austen, Eliot, James, Conrad, maybe a Bronte or 2 and the then-emerging Lawrence. (He was writing of English literature only - although he makes some condescending references to Proust, Joyce, and Flaubert, none of whom meet his exalted criteria). Here are some:

Beauty of style: Woolf
Access to another's consciousness: Proust, Knausgaard
Access to a time and place: Joyce, Tolstoy, Jones (Known World)
Drama: Dostoyevsky
Ideas: Mann, Camus
Unique and groundbreaking style: Hemingway, Faulkner 
View of society: Wharton, Sillitoe
Humor: Svevo, Naipaul, Toole
Pathos: Dickens
Advocacy and engagement: Steinbeck, Ellison
World Cultures: Achebe,
Imagination: Rushdie

And this is just a start...

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Does any novel get off to a slower start than The Palace Walk?

Few books get off to a slower start that Naguib Mahfouz’s The Palace Walk (1956), the first volume of the trilogy most often cited as the masterwork of this Egyptian Nobelist. Well, there are other great books that start of slow and gradually, incrementally build a pace and interest as we come to know the characters, so I wwon’t give up on this after one night’s and 40 (small-type) pages – but I am also waiting for something, anything to happen. So far it’s just introduction of character and to a degree setting: one of the mansions in old Cairo (set during the first World War) that houses a large family: the imperious and even by the standards of his day chauvanistic patriarch, his demure and oppressed wife, the 5 children – the 2 sisters rivals one beautiful the other industrious – and the 3 brothers in varying degrees of rebellion against tradition and father, esp. the youngest – plus several devoted servants. The wife has almost literally never left the house in her 205 years of marriage, and the first chapter shows her gazing longingly at the city through the latticed windows that imprison her. The husband goes out drinking and carousing w/ his buddies literally every night. So all this is established in 40 pp – but it’s like a summary of a novel, a proposal for a novel – as nothing happens of import among the family members, there’s no immediate tension, plot, problem – the kind of thing we expect to launch a plot. The presence of Europeans, the English especially, in the city, hinted at a few times, appears to be a source of some tension and will probably drive an element of the story – and of course the degree to which wife and children will break free from the father and find their independence – an allegory perhaps of colonial and 3rd world oppression and of Egypt emerging slowly into the modern age. Just don’t make it too slowly!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Jane Bowles and the short story v the novel

Though she wrote (published) only 7 stories (and only 1 novel for that matter), it seems to me that Jane Bowles was more assured and accomplished in the shorter form. Read one of her stories - Capote recommends it in his foreword to her collected works - Camp Catacomb - and found it to be strange, disturbing, and sadly believable - about two 40-someting sister, one of whom is spending the summer at the eponymous camp, which is clearly for people with psychiatric disorders - the other sister is at home, which she shares w/ a 3rd sister and her husband, feeling inferior and belittled and put-upon (she does all the housework, as she cannot afford to pay the upkeep, and does it badly it seems). The story in a sense is about which sister is the more - the most - disturbed. The at-home sister visits the camp unexpected and uninvited, and we see many awkward scenes in which the sisters try to behave normally and act civil toward one another. Bowles has a great sense of and empathy for the disturbed and the outsider. There are throughout hints of homosexual attractions but the theme always remains in the background. There are also suggestions throughout that each sister wants to "break free" in some way, that they see themselves as rebels or adventurers - but nobody else would, they're bound to home and to convention. Although men are peripheral in this story and in her novel, they all come off badly: narcissistic, domineering, needy, and weak. This story is in my view much stronger than the novel in that it feels unified and concentrated; it feels as if Bowles knows these characters and what they signify and what will happen to them over the course of the story - whereas the novel, despite its strengths and its unusual tone, feels improvisational - a series of loosely connected events that don't lead toward any grander picture or design. Stories may require more skill, but novels are far more demanding on the mentality and stamina of the writer, and it seems that for whatever reason - apparently she had much trouble in her life - Bowles foundered when working in the longer form.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Seriously odd: Jane Bowles's novel

So in what sense are the two ladies serious in Jane Bowles's novel, Two Serious Ladies?: They are NY women in presumably their 30s, they on the surface prim and proper,almost society ladies, well-to-do, but over the course of this very odd novel we see that neither is exactly what she seems. (The plot lines touch briefly in the first chapter and come together at the end when the two ladies meet in a Manhattan bar or supper club.) You could say that they are both abandoned by the men in their lives, but that's only partly true. Mrs. Copperfield is left behind by her husband who heads off on his own to explore South America, leaving her in Panama - but she is very complicit in this, and makes it clear that she's comfortable hanging around with the prostitutes of Colon. Strangely, there does not appear to be a sexual aspect to her attraction - she's just drawn to danger and the down low. Miss Goering's case is a little different: she's never been married, lives w/ a companion (again, there appears to be no sexual component to that arrangement), gets pursued by a lonely of a guy, Arnold, and also by Arnold's 60-something father (to whom she's more attracted) - both of whom move in w/ her on a rundown house she buys on an island somewhere near NYC (maybe a purely imaginary place?) - she's quite wealthy but living infra dig. In this story line - she abandons Arnold and pere, heading off to a small city on the mainland where she gets picked up by a rather seedy and unpleasant man in a bar, eventually moves in w/ him for I think 8 days, then leaves him for another guy she meets in the bar - a mobster thug, obviously, though maybe not obvious to her - and he abandons her in the aforementioned NYC supper club as he goes off with other goombahs on some kind of job. So both of the ladies like rough trade and danger, both have bad taste or bad luck in men but do nothing to try to establish or maintain any sort of healthy relationship, and neither really has a serious thought about anything other than her own comfort and survival. There are no children in this novel, and there is really no arc to the story - each narrative proceeds as a series of sequential but almost random events, somewhat like a dream though narrated in a very straightforward style with little access to the thoughts, perceptions, or backgrounds of either woman (aside from a first chapter on Miss G's childhood that feels as if it was pasted in from another work). It seems to me that Bowles may have just written along as her fancy dictated, and never went back to make the novel deeper or more internally consistent. Who knows? There are elements here that must come from her marriage to Paul Bowles - the Third World exploration, the woman's difficulty keeping up with the restless man - but this may be her revenge or last work on Paul B., the women have their strength and peculiar yearnings and desires as well, which may take them in a different direction altogether.

Monday, August 24, 2015

An intriguing curiosity: Two Serious Women

Now I don't know of Jane Bowles's novel Two Serious Women (ca 1943?) is artfully weird of just out of control. We leave the Copperfields in Panama, as Mr. C heads off on a boat and leaving wife alone to fend for herself - although she's pretty happy palling around with the prostitutes of Colon (and she's a prim and proper NY suburban society woman, hm) and jump back to the other ongoing plot in the novel, which we'd abandoned 100 pages back or so: Mrs. Goering is living in her small and rundown house on an island somewhere near NYC (the geography is extremely difficult to parse), trying to live on a shoestring (she's also a wealth NY society woman), along w/ her "companion" whom she doesn't seem to like or need in any way and the sponger Arthur, who's just plopped himself into their lives and sleeps every night fully clothed on the living-room couch (there are only 2 bedrooms). He gets in a tiff with the companion and throws a bottle at her, which smashes on her forehead. After than, Mrs. G goes off on a jaunt of her own, a train ride during which her behavior is odd to say the least (talking to strangers, upbraiding some children, falling face-first in the aisle and landing on her chin ... ) and then a ferry ride to some little town where she hangs out in a bar and goes home with a man who approaches her - only to rebuff his advances and then listen, at length, to his own sad story of a relationship he had with an armless, legless circus performer. Enough! This whole novel has the structure, if you can call it that, of an extended dream sequence - but it's not written in a dream-like style, the prose is quite ordinary and even-handed, as if this is a realistic narrative about the 2 serious women of the title. So I at times am thinking this is just an improv - Bowles can write well and she lets the narrative, and her imagination, take her and us where it will, without any thought of structure and faithfulness to reality - you really can't believe the behavior of these characters for more than a second - and certainly without any revisions or editing: what is the relationship between these two narratives? Will there be any kind of arc to either story, any conclusion? As noted in previous post there may be some echoes of her own life - husband Paul Bowles was an inveterate traveler and 3rd-world adventurer, maybe a bit like Mr. Copperfield in Panama, although her characters are not in the least the literary, intellectual, beat/hipsters among who she and husband lived and worked. In short - this novel is an intriguing curiosity but it's not hard to see why, without other novels on which to build a particular artist's world view, it and she have been largely forgotten.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Great Tradition of English literature - and its discontents

Thanks to WS for sending me a pb copy of F R Leavis's The Great Tradition - opening the package was like a opening a grad-school time capsule, the weird 1970s cerise volume with the quaint typeface that sat on my shelf unconsulted for so long - maybe this was the very copy I'd ditched years ago. In any event, this volume, what I have read of it to date, is very much of its time and not of ours. Leavis sets out to in essence discriminate among novels, to determine which are the truly great novels, or novelists, in English literature. That in itself feels as quaint as the typeface and long outdated: Granted, all readers have tastes and preferences, and critics have standards for judgment and analysis, but the need to rank novels and novelists and set up a core of elite writers is far removed from the way we read today - in which all books are "texts" that can inform, move, and change us in various ways, some more profoundly and more meaningfully than others. FRL's standards for judgement and discrimination are no doubt unassailable: novels of consistent and clear for that express a view of the world and a dedication to humanity. Yes, these are high and valuable standards - but are clearly not the only ways by which to value a novel. The writers he reveres - Austen, Eliot, James, Conrad, and Lawrence - are all great by his measures and probably by any serious measure (and he discriminates among their novels as well, judiciously). But his narrow criteria exclude many great English writers: e.g., the only Dickens he greatly admires is the very atypical Hard Times, his praise of the 18th-century novelists is condescending, he's puzzled by the great one-offs like Emily Bronte, and he's very reluctant to include his contemporaries, such as Forster, FM Ford, Woolf - where are they? Aren't there other criteria for greatness?: access to consciousness of another's consciousness (Proust, Knausgaard), development of a character over time, a journey through time and space, beauty of language and form (Joyce, anyone?), news from another culture, to name just a few. Looking back today at his work from the 1940s, we have to realize that anyone writing about English lit today - much less about world literature - would have to recognize a far wider sphere of background and influence than anything FRL could have imagined as part of his canon: Indian, Caribbean, post-colonial (Rushdie, Naipaul, Zadie Smith, Monica Ali) class (Sillitoe, Trevor, Kelman et all if we make it British lit rather than English) - maybe not all these writers in and of themselves "great" but definitely part of a great and ever-widening tradition.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Strangeness of Two Serious Ladies continues

Weirdness of Jane Bowles's Two Serious Ladies continues as Mr and Mrs Copperfield (sorry, had name wrong in yesterday's post) wander thru Panama City (previous day was spent in Colon, Panama), through an obviously dangerous neighborhood that never sees N American tourists - people stare at them as they pass - to a rocky beach. Mr. C sits on a rock, talks about how beautiful it is - but Mrs. C is afraid and wants to leave. He whines at her, says she always spoils his good times. You have to think that here we may be witnessing a version of an argument btw author and her husband, Paul Bowles - anyone who's read him know he was apparently a fearless traveler and wanderer who journeyed to some remote and scary spots, wife or partner in tow - in his novel it all seemed to go OK, but perhaps she has a different version of the events. In any event, Mrs. C is not exactly timid herself - as her goal is to go back to Colon so she can spend more time with the prostitutes whom she's befriended - she's an adventurer in her own, quite different way. (But is she a "serious" lady? I have no idea what Bowles means by that title.) The Copperfields take a long bus ride to a entry point to a Panama jungle, and Mr C is very excited about visiting the jungle - she's not, and they agree that she'll go back to Colon and they'll meet up, eventually, somewhere - all left very unclear. She does go back, meets her two friends, Pacifica and Mrs. Quill (!), and they continue their discussions of the night before. Not sure where this novel is going - and I know we will return to the other serious lady of the thus far entirely unrelated story line - at some point later in the narrative. The strangeness continues - most notably, in Mrs. C's complete indifference to or defiance of some forms of risk and danger and her husband's complete indifference to her.

Friday, August 21, 2015

One of the strangest novels ever: Two Serious Women

I'm sure you've never heard of Jane Bowles's Two Serious Women, who has?, but I've seen it recommended a few times in past months and started it last night; published in I thin 1943 and reissued in a book of her complete works in 1966, and since mostly ignored. It is without a doubt one of the strangest novels I've ever read - not because it's experimental or extreme but because its surface style is so clam and traditional - a pretty long opening segment about the woman whom we think will be at the center of the story, Miss Goerhing, and her unhappy childhood, then leaping forward into her as an unmarried mature woman living with a companion (herself completely strange, shows up one day on the doorstep and Miss G invites her to live with her, which she does, almost on the spot - they might seem to be a couple but apparently aren't, not yet, but both rather bitter and cynical); then Miss G goes to a dinner party - these are pretty upscale people in a NYC suburb, where a gentleman, Arnold, 39, invites her to his house - she accepts, spends the night there (though not in his company) and he tells her he's in love with her, shows up at her house the next day and says he will travel with her (and her companion) - and she's by no means attracted to him. At which point we go into chapter 2, which is novella length, and is about a very minor character in chapters 1 (another dinner party guest), Mrs. Christopher (I think), traveling w/ her husband to Panama on what seems to be a pleasure cruise for fairly wealthy Americans. They take a cab into the city (Panama City, I guess), rent a roomy a a trashy hotel, and then go out and spend the night among prostitutes and street pimps - one comes up to them and says $1 for the two of you, and Mr. C leaves Mrs. C. with the prostitute as she goes off on her night of adventure. It sounds like a wild, crazy story - but it's told in such a staid and demure manner that it's completely unsettling: the characters seem deliberately so extremely against type that the novel almost falls apart in your hands - and yet, it's kind of appealing in a crazy way. It's like a couple of Edith Wharton characters have wandered into a William Burroughs novel (or maybe a Paul Bowles novel, her husband). She breaks rules by abandoning seemingly important characters, having her characters engage in very weird and risky behavior without apparent fear while they're also wildly inconsistent - Mrs. C. is comfortable walking alone in the night in the red-light district of Panama City but she was concerned that her 5th-floor hotel door didn't lock securely; she wanders into dingy restaurants led by a hooker, but she was mad at husband for not checking into the more expensive, tourist hotel. Even simple conventions: giving the two leading characters in part one names that each begin with G. Just to make it hard for us? I know nothing about Bowles, and there's no bio info on the jacket (I'll read the intro by Capote later); she appears to be an African-American, but the novel itself is strangely ungrounded from race, time, and place - I imagine it's set in the late 1930s, but there's no reference either to the Depression of the War or anything topical. Seems superficially in the realist/naturalist tradition but within the narrative it's anything but.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The short, dark works of Alice McDermott

These Short, Dark Days, her story in the current New Yorker, pretty much sums it up for the world of Alice McDermott - she's a writer of darkness and gloom, a NYC author who sees the city like few others, from the outer boroughs, the Irish families with their tight bonds and family secrets and lives of suffering and sacrifice and the omnipresence of the church. She's not a fun novelist and rarely a funny novelist but she has captured, or maybe created, a world of fiction all her own and can stand among the best of the sub-cultural novelists: her world is as delineated and fully conceived as Erdrich's, her near contemporary, Roth's, O'Connor's - to name just 3 seemingly different novelists. This story is her work in miniature: a 30-something man (Irish-American, in one of the NYC outer boroughs, not named), alone after his wife goes off to buy groceries, on a drizzly and gray February late-afternoon, barricades their small apartment, turns loose the gas, and lies down to die. The gas accumulates leading to an explosion - nobody seriously hurt - but they find his body on the bed. It's obvious that he committed suicide - a sin! - but some of the rescue crew and, in particular, a 60-something nun from a nearby convent who wanders by and knows she can help, assure the widow that it was an accident and he can be buried in hallowed ground. As it happens, that assurance was premature, the funeral director cannot comply, and we learn in a very brief coda that his daughter (wife was pregnant at time of husband's death) never found her father's grave site. Much of the story centers on the nun, Sr. St Savior (the daughter is named for her) and on the petty bickering and political maneuverings in the convent - subject perhaps for an adjacent novel (I don't think this story is part of a novel, but can't be sure). What's mostly striking is the overall mood, fatalism and darkness, the world is place of weary and difficult trials through which we must pass on our way toward salvation, or not. The one weakness of the story is the blankness at its heart - it's never exactly clear or even credible that the husband would kill himself (he has lost his job as a subway conductor because he refuses to work to someone else's schedule - what kind of personality is that? - seems McDermott's attempt to step aside from the cliche of alcoholism?), much less in such an orchestrated manner that could truly have killed many people along with him. But maybe his blankness is shrewd author's strategy, to keep the focus not on the "event" of the story but on the aftermath and the lives touched peripherally, and even across time.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Sillitoe and Hemingway: Two fishing scenes

Alan Sillitoe ends his ground-breaking Saturday Night and Sunday Morning with two quite different and distinct chapters, one an interior monologue, almost a screed, in which the protag., Arthur, lashes out at all of English society, including right and left, factory workers and plutocrat owners, the military system, labor leaders, women - everything - almost an founding document for the English "angry young men" of the 1960s. But the final chapter: Arthur heads off alone to go fishing upstream from the factories of Nottingham, reflects a bit on his life - at this point it seems he is settling in with the nice young woman, Doreen, who probably deserves better than Arthur, esp as he still seems to have a longing for the drama and danger of carrying on with married women, and he and Doreen engage in an inauspicious spat about his drinking - all this bound to get worse with time - but the final chapter is a pastoral moment in this largely urban novel, and it's impossible not to compare this with Hemingway, esp Big Two-Hearted River: Arthur finds some peace and solace, lands a big fish, in an interesting passage he ties to see the world as the fish does "out of water" - kind of a metaphor for the way he feels about his life - and releases the fish, as a tribute, but swears the next one he'll keep. There are huge contextual differences between this chapter - which, again, could stand alone as a story - and H., in that H's protag was a returning soldier who is facing the challenge of adjusting back to civilian without the clear delineations of heroism and cowardice, and the story is almost entire told in the details of his actions, making camp etc.; Sillitoe's Arthur has nothing but contempt for the army and war and his retreat - much more introspective than Hemingway's, and much more in the shadow of urban life - is more of a refuge, even an escape - an ominous scene that portends no good.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Conclusion, redemption, insight, or freeze frame: Where is Sillitoe heading?

Arthur finally, and as expected, gets what's coming to him (in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Sillitoe), as the husband of one of the women he's been carrying on with follows him for a few nights and at last catches him unaware outside of a pub and two "swabbies," which I take to be British slang for thugs, beat the crap out of him. He's laid up for a few days, then goes back to work and confronts the rather timid husband of the other woman he's carried on with, Jack, and lays into him for disclosing his whereabouts that fateful night. It's quite impressive how Sillitoe balances our feelings and reactions - in part we like Arthru very much for his spirit and for his devotion to his own family and to (some of) his mates, as well as for his intelligence, sensitivity, and as a hard-luck working-class guy with a dim future unless he watches out - and at the same time we see him as a real shit, who betrays one of his mates and is quite callous to an attractive young girl who's become attached to him - in other words, he's a narcissist, a loser, and a violent, vulgar guy. As Arthur recovers from the beating we enter the much shorter 2nd part of this novel, Sunday morning, much of which so far is taken up with a rowdy weekend in which Arthur's aunt and her enormous clan entertain a visitor from Africa, the Army buddy of one of their sons and the first black man most in Nottingham have ever scene - it's a quite powerful and riotous chapter that could stand alone as a short story and probably has. I keep waiting for some kind of redemption or insight - only about 20 pages left so Sillitoe had better move it along - although am suspecting it will end with an ambiguous freeze-frame, like Loneliness of the Long Distance runner or its French cinematic near-counterpart (though about a much younger protagonat), 400 Blows.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Angry Young Man in English lit

Arthur's journey as a lovable rogue (for the most part) continues through the "Saturday Night" portion of Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning - and I keep wondering if the Sunday Morning (a much shorter segment) will provide some form of redemption. It's odd - you can't help but like Arthur and pity him to a degree; we see that, despite some postwar prosperity in the English Midlands, he and all his "mates" are consigned to a very narrow scope of life, a sense, or sentence, made all the more embittering by the glimpse they had of a wider world during their service in WWII. The novel has some very beautiful passages describing both the desolation of the factory towns - Nottingham, apparently - and some scenes of pastoral beauty: One of Arthur's endearing qualities is his penchant for fishing, and he occasionally takes a Hemingway-esque journey up one of the rives to a remote fishing spot where he finds some serenity. But then there's the other side to Arthur, not only brutish even thuggish (overturning the car of a man who insulted him; a youthful episode in which he stole gathered blackberries from some little kids - a bully no less), but he's a complete bastard to his friends: carrying on affairs with not 1 but 2 married women (sisters), one of whom is married to one of his so-called mates. Late in this section Arthur meets Doreen, who seems like a really nice young woman and someone he ought to stand by - but he seems on the verge of tossing her over, just so he can retain the freedom to carry on with the married women. He's not only destructive, but self-destructive - and all the sympathy he (and Sillitoe) build for Arthur, particularly as representative of an entire social class and moment in history (he's the near-prototypical Angry Young Man of British lit circa 1960), gets undermined by Arthur's unsavory behavior - which clearly is Sillitoe's intention; one of the strengths of the novel, and of his writing in general, is the refusal to argue and to judge.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A true anti-hero in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Arthur, the protagonist in Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958, his fist novel), is a classic anti-hero - and that's a term that you don't see or hear much anymore but was in vogue in the 60s and 70s - the age of Cold War, Vietnam War, and Existentialism, maybe the ultimate example of anti-hero being Camus's Mersault? Or in a comic vein Heller's Yossarian? Sillitoe's Arthur (last name Seaton?, not sure) is a classic in that he's the driving force and focus of the novel, which involves continued bouts of pub-crawling, drinking, smoking, fighting, etty vandalism, and sex - but he does not seem to be learning or growing in any way (compare with the conventional hero, Joseph Andrews, say, who propels the bildungsroman, or novel of education), and though Arthur's story is entertaining and we want the best for him, he's a likable "character" that is, he would not be a likable person: he's someone you'd want to read about but not to know and definitely not to befriend. He thinks nothing of betraying his so-called "mate" and carrying on a long affair with his mate's wife because the man is weak and naive. And he thinks nothing of having another fling with the sister of his wife's mate, also married - in fact, he cares for nobody but himself, a true existentialist, and for nothing but the moment at hand. But we don't dismiss him: clearly, he's representative of a time and place, working class England post-war, when for the first time there were at least some possibilities for success for the returning working-class soldiers but for so many, for people like Arthur, that success remains out of reach - he's comfortable drawing his weekly pay and spending it on cigarettes and beer (and clothes, his weakness) and not thinking about responsibilities to self, family, community, future. He was made by the war - had his first taste of a life outside the factories of the Midlands - and unmade by it. He does have a nascent sense of working-class politics, and maybe in the 2nd half of the book that will develop - I think Sillitoe clearly did develop the political consciousness of his protagonists in later fiction: the iconoclasm of the protag in Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and the activism of the somewhat older version Arthur in the story I recently posted on, Isaac Starbuck.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

How Sillitoe upended British propriety

Following up on my reading of the story Isaac Starbuck, by Alan Sillitoe, I began reading his first (1960) novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning - started with an old 50 cent Signet pb with one of those ridiculous salacious covers, a real collectible if it were in good shape, but the pages and binding literally started crumbling in my hands as I read so reverted to a library hardcover, not much better, which says something about the weirdness of Sillitoe's reputation: two books that 50 years ago everyone bought and read and, as I've learned, a slew of books following that nobody, at least in the U.S., paid any attention to. O tempus, o fugit, or whatever the phrase is. In any event, from the first two chapters, SNSM is a good novel that still stands up, depending on your capacity to withstand reading about binges of drinking, smoking, infidelity, and the tedious hours of work in a bicycle factory - actually, all better than it sounds (although I might not feel this way at 250 pp.) because if Sillitoe's fresh and clear narrative voice. You can easily see why this novel was such a shock to the British system, a story of post-war working-class life in the Midlands, very rough and very crude, times a little bit improved post war thanks to a domestic appetite for material goods (many references to the first car, the first "telly" in the working-class homes), the maturity and confidence that young men felt on return from the war, realizing it's a big world and they could, maybe, have a place in it, the stirrings of political activism as they realize they're not condemned to work in the same factory their entire life, and also a sense of despair - that a factory job and a detached house and a weekend at Blackpool may not be all there is - this mood I think made stronger in his next novel (or collection actually) Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. These were people whose voices had never been heard in English fiction, and in fact who were barely known or recognized by the British establishment - these people simply, for so many, did not even exist except in the abstract. Sillitoe upended so many standards of literary propriety it's hard to fathom today - post Kelman and so many other chroniclers of working class life, particularly in the world of immigrants to Britain - when Sillitoe's fiction seems much less exceptional, even conventional

Friday, August 14, 2015

The antidote to Joyce, Trevor, McCourt, et al.

Finished the collection of European Short Stories (published in about 1970) that I've been dipping into over the past few months w/ story by Irish writer Frank O'Connor, First Communion. I don't know much about O'Connor, seems his stories turned up from time to time in the NYer and in various anthologies - from this selection I can see why. He's the antidote to the dark Irish fiction (and memoirs), a tradition that stretches at least from Joyce through Trevor to McCourt, with homage along the way to Edna O'Brien and many others. O'Connor, judging from this story alone, has the wit and turns of phrase, the insouciance toward extreme poverty, the ambivalence toward the Church, the tangled web of family so characteristic of the national literature, but what sets this story apart is that the young boy - 7-year-old going under duress to his first communion, fearful of confessing his loathing for his grandmother who favors his bossy older sister and who has in various ways disrupted family life since moving in after her widowhood - actually tells his confession to a wise and sympathetic priest who uses the occasion to give good counsel and to help the boy feel better about himself and his family. The boy confesses to wanting to kill the grandmother, for ex., and the priest comes back w/ "But where would you put the body?" And he confesses to going after his sister w/ a breadknife, to which the priest opines that there will be plenty of people coming after her with a breadknife soon enough. With his humor he helps the young boy feel that his urges are not sinful but natural and in effect harmless, that he will grow out of them, he will grow up. Albeit, the priest is maybe a little too indifferent to the pent-up rage, but it's also clear that he sees these urges are nothing but passing illusions and that the best course of action is to befriend the child and welcome him. A very sweet story, well out of fashion these days but refreshing to come across.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Conrad's greatness, his not-so-greatness, and his racism

Even Conrad's staunchest defenders - WS? FRL? - cannot possibly make a case for the end of Victory, a melodramatic, contrived, engineered, almost screwball conclusion in which the woman in distress, Lena, pretend to let the card-sharp, Ricardo, come on to her in one of the most awkward and clumsy seduction scenes ever written (he ends by kissing her foot!) in order to get close enough to him to steal his concealed knife - but her lover/protector, Heyst, mistakenly thinks she's betrayed him and aligned with Ricardo and the other two thugs out to rob them. And then - who knows? - it's so weirdly complex, but in essence she's shot by the leader of the gang (Mr. Jones) and by pure chance the traveling merchant shows up on the island and ends up on giving us a report on the demise of all the characters, who variously shoot one another and self-immolate. Only the servant, Wang, and his Malay wife, whom we never see, seem to survive. I honestly couldn't make sense of it - and, after all, what does it matter? It seems to me Conrad at this stage in his career was trying to write potboiler, sensational romances an adventure stories -but sometimes his own intelligence gets in the way - he can't help but create characters who speak w/ a great deal of nuance and scenes of occasional haunting beauty, in other words, literary fiction - but these are not his best works and don't stand up well against the maritime novels and stories, plus a few oddities like The Secret Agent, as mentioned in yesterday's post. I have to say I'm continuously troubled as well by his colonial mentality and his not-so-subtle racism, far more than was typical of his time, I think - w/ his casual and offhand use of racial epithets (the author's intro to the 1920 complete works edition is an embarrassment today) and, more subtly, his complete dismissal of the lives, even the presence, of anyone not white: for example, he continuously describes the island on which most of Victory takes place as uninhabited except for Heyst, Lena, and servant, Wang (and Wang's unseen Malay wife) and only in the very last pages of the novel is there a passing reference to the native villages on the island. When he says inhabited by only one man he means, quite literally, by only one white man.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Is Conrad part of the Great Tradition?

Friend WS notes that I don't seem to have a lot of appreciation for or enthusiasm about Conrad, based on recent posts on Victory and before that on Nostromo - which may be so for those two novels, about which I've shared my views - but I wouldn't say that's true for all of Conrad. Like many, maybe all, prolific writers there are highs and lows, and like many the later works seem attenuated compared with the works that brought early fame (and suffering). In the scheme of things, even weaker Conrad novels have something to offer and are far grander in scope, style, character development, complexity of plot, and ambition than almost anything written today - yet, that said, I can't quote tell people to get in line or go on line and read late Conrad novels: Nostromo and, more so, victory seem to be striving to be exciting and complex yarns or tales - the one about a political revolution and the desperate attempt to save some of the plunder from a silver mine, leading to the literal death of several men and the moral death of the title character; Victory, which I've not quite finished, is about a man who's in retreat from the world, which he believes to be godless and pointless, yet out of his own benevolence he rescues 5 people, by my count, yet puts himself in great danger doing so. These sound great, right? But in the actual reading the move along slowly with some very clunky scenes, and Conrad's colonialism and even his hints of racism (or at least xenophobia and exceptionalism) add another discomforting element. Yes, they're worth reading at least once - but there are other Conrad works so much greater, the obvious ones being Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness (I love great novellas and this is one of the greatest ever), stories notably The Secret Sharer (and almost anything about life on shipboard, too, especially if my memory is correct, Youth), and surprisingly some of his European espionage novels, The Secret Agent and the overlooked Under Western Eyes. WS suggested I read Leavis on The Great Tradition, and I'm not really drawn to do that but I'm sure he made the case for Conrad as one of the great writers and thinkers of his time, which he was - but in my view not consistently across all novels, and the later "potboilers" fall flat in many ways, despite their ambition and occasional passages of extraordinary beauty and mystery (discovery of the hanged body in Nostromo, the arrival of the three thugs on the nearly deserted island in Victory).

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

How Conrad builds a plot

But today's standards, Conrad moves his plots along at a crawl - but by any standard he is a master at constructing a plot and holding our interest and attention over long, often languid spans of narrative. In Victory, 300+ pages in and nearing the end, he slowly, meticulously builds the tension as the gang of 3 approaches the nearly deserted island with plans of robbing Heyst of his accumulated wealth. They imagine a hidden treasure but we know that he's got only a small amount of cash hidden away in a secret drawer in a desk. He has no suspicion that the three men who land at his wharf have arrived their with the intent of robbing him; his servant, Wang, seems suspicious but we have no idea (nor does he) as to whether Wang would be loyal in a pinch or if he would betray his "master." The most interesting and important player in all this is the woman that Heyst brought to the island, Lean (as he calls her). The car-sharp, knife-bearing Ricardo pretty much attacks Lena as she's alone in her bungalow combing her hair. To our surprise, she's a tough one and nearly strangles Ricardo to death in her defense. She lets him go, and he's learned not to mess with her - but he tries to bring her around to his side and against Heyst (he doesn't realize that she's fallen in love w/ Heyst): tell us where the money is and we'll cut you in. She's really smart and realizes that if she tells them there's no hidden treasure they'll kill her and Heyst - so she agrees to play along. But I suspect, despite the seemingly positive tone of the novel's title, that this will not go well, that Heyst will see what she's doing and misinterpret, suspect she's playing him, and some harm will come to her - there's a loaded gun and a lot of knives around. Six people on the island - who will survive?

Monday, August 10, 2015

What happened to Alan Sillitoe?

I don't even know if Alan Sillitoe is still alive - but as a literary figure he seems sadly eclipsed - a bright and shining figure for a time and then what? Either he stopped writing or he stopped writing well or he went commercial or, most likely, he faded into the background - but in the 1960s his stories and novels about working-class British life and the postwar anxiety as the soldiers returned home to dismal conditions and the class structure that he kept them on the bottom with a knee in their back, the structure that had been there since, I don't know, maybe Richard the Lionhearted. His fame was spurred of course by the excellent film of Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner - for many of us who were teens when it came out in the States, it was our first sense of the possibilities of contemporary cinema - we hadn't yet seen the French, Italian, Swedish classics - not till we got to college - but we saw this one about ordinary people and their lives, a young man with whom we could ID in some ways but in others was completely outside of our realm - stealing cars, and money - and a class system that seemed shocking to us at the time - not so much now - and all in simple, understated b/w. And it was a damn good novel, too. Last night read a Sillitoe story, Isaac Starbuck, in the collection of European short fiction I've been going back to from time to time - excellent story, about a few days in the life of a Midlands factory worker, active in his union and trying to better himself (and avid reader and intelligent conversationalist) but feels drawn down by friends, family, difficult wife, 3 kids (though we never really see them in this story) - he's generally a good guy but makes some bad and selfish decisions, a one-night fling with a pub pickup, spending all savings on a fast car - yet we can understand at least some of this, his life so bleak, far more so than his American contemporaries, partly because of the post-war deprivations in England (also the class structure nearly as nefarious as racism and segregation in the US in th 1950s). The story seems an obvious homage and rethinking of Ulysses, a day (more or less) in the life of a pubcrawler, seen from several perspectives, including his sharp-tongued, lustful wife and several untrustworthy friends and family members. A lot in this story - perhaps not as great as Loneliness and some of the novellas, but further evidence that Sillitoe was a great talent with, at the time, a unique perspective on English life. So what happened?

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A battle of the souls - in Contrad's Victory

Gun found in first act must go off in third act - and you can be sure Conrad will follow that dictum, as we learn that the mysterious Chinese servant, Wang, has apparently lifted Heyst's revolver - Heyst has no idea why Wang may have taken it - he doesn't tell Lena what the missing item is; she assumed it was money, and thought he was accusing her of lifting the cash. But he's worried - suspecting that Wang, with his silent ways, could do them in at any time. But we know more than he does: while he's suspecting Wang the three thugs who showed up on the his dock nearly dead from dehydration are now plotting how to kill him, or at least how to rob him of what they think is a stashed fortune - but they can't act too precipitously, as first they have to get him to tell them where he's hidden the treasure. They, too, are concerned about Wang; only one of the 3 even knows about Lena - that they're an even match, 3 against 3 - depending of course on whose side Wang chooses. As long as they don't know W has a gun, Wang and Heyst may have the advantage. But you have to expect - despite the title of the novel (Victory), that no good will come of this: there's no treasure, and whoever ends up w/ the gun will kill the wrong person, or people: it's a battle of the souls, or of beliefs - Heyst's idea that life is without purpose, that we can do no good in the world but just pass through as best we can - v. the unspoken ideals, that we can do good, that we can help one another, that there is more to life that accumulating wealth. Heyst, despite his amorality, has already "rescued" 5 people - he is in a way like a benevolent god himself, a strange moral and ethical position for an avowed atheist.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Atheism and irony in Conrad's Victory

Heyst and the young English woman whom he'd rescued from near captivity and brought to live w/ him on his near-deserted island, Alma, whom for some reason he renames Lena, you tell me, have been living there for 3 months with, seemingly only one other person, the mysterious Chinese servant, Wang. H and L go for a walk to the highest point on the island - Wang seems continuously to spy on them and then to disappear somehow - and Lena feels uneasy looking at the broad expanse of ocean: they're so alone, she realizes. They sit down and Heyst in his awkward manner tries to flatter her, then goes on to speak of his philosophy of life (adapted from his famous and austere philosopher father): man is insignificant, there is no god, there is no purpose to life - all of which explains his life as a solitary wanderer. She is afraid of him. She has heard that he killed a man - the man was Morrison, who died on a return visit to England; Heyst protests that he actually saved M and devoted his life to him, against his will, which is true. Then he says how he has never loved a woman: How to interpret that is a good question. Does he mean he has never been in love? Or in fact that his a virgin (35 years old)? Conrad dances around that question - but H advances on Lena and they do have sex - between the chapters, by the way. After they have sex and return to the small house, H reads more philosophy while Wang almost magically prepares dinner for the two; they are perhaps, just maybe, on the verge of happiness - but we know (and short peak ahead tells me this is coming up soon) that Schomberg's emissaries, Ricardo and plain Mr. Jones, are on their way to the island to rob H of the treasure that he doesn't possess. What's with all the philosophy? It seems that Conrad, in the great modernist tradition, is an being an ironist here - we knowing much more about the characters than they know or realize about one another: As H talks about the world being godless and man being w/out purpose, we also see, inevitably, that he is godlike - rescuing a woman on the verge of captivity and ruin - and that in fact the two of them are like modern-day, tropical Adam and Eve, alone (nearly) in their garden, living in innocence, sheltered for the moment from the dangers of the world (and the pleasures and obligations of the world)  - and the question is, now that they have had sex, are they fallen? or awakened?

Friday, August 7, 2015

Contemporary versions of fairy tales - who writes these and why

The idea of re-telling so-called fairy tales from a contemporary point of view - either making them over into a contemporary setting or giving an unusual narrative twist - was a staple of the post-modernists, who reveled in formal experimentation and narrative playfulness: Barth's retelling of the 1001 Arabian Nights from POV of the silent sister at the foot of the bed, Barthelme's Snow White, Angela Carter, Robert Coover - still writing these re-imaginings, others no doubt. Though the genre may be a bit passe, Michael Cunningham weighs in in current New Yorker with a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, Little Man, with the twist that it's told in the 2nd person, w/ "you" the reader being the unnamed gnomic wizard (though all readers know his name, the guessing of which is the task he imposes on the beautiful queen, the name is never uttered in the story). This story shows what seems to me a new dimension in Cunningham's style, not at all in the breathless prose modeled closely on Virginia Woolf's style and sensibility - this is a brusque and witty prose - actually, quite reminiscent of many of the postmodernists - that I found accessible and appropriate to the material. That said, your interest in the story will depend on whether you find it of interest to read a familiar tale told in a new way. I'm not really into that and don't see in particular what he's added to the tale: maybe we're more sympathetic to the ugly and love-deprived title character, maybe we have more of the sense of the king as a maniac and not worthy in any event of marrying the beautiful miller's daughter. The story seems to be medieval - castles and keeps and the spinning of straw, for God's sake - but Cunningham mixes in contemporary references and phrases, such as the idea that the king was cruel because he was the victim of childhood abuse and is likely to abuse his newborn son as well. But he doesn't make it truly contemporary - as if this is, say, a Sadam Hussein-type monster abusing the beauties in his fiefdom. There are no text messages, cell phones, or references to contemporary events - so the story is at best timeless and at worst mixed up. It's very readable, but in the end do I really see this story in a new light? Is it now more meaningful? Have I learned anything about storytelling, or about people?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Two ways in which Conrad falls flat - the limits of his vision

For all his strengths as a great novelist and story-teller, Joseph Conrad pretty much falls flat on two scores, both evident in the chapter I read last night in Victory: Love scenes. Come on are there really any in all of Conrad's work that strike a true note or move you or even surprise you? (Hate scenes between husband and wife? Yes.) In Victory finally, half-way through the novel, we see the main character Heyst return home to his solitary island with the woman whom he'd rescued, Alma, and claims to have fallen love with - and we see and learn almost nothing about them: they arrive, she looks at the house where he lives, she's reluctant to enter for a moment (why? fear of him? of sex? or her decision to run off? of the condition of the house? of the solitude in which they'll live?), but does go in and a few moments later we "hear," from the POV of his Chinese servant, Alma calling to Heyst saying she's in the garden, or something like that. Maybe we'll learn more later, and in a way maybe this particular scene accomplishes its ends by minimalism - her hesitation is a significant message, conveyed without words - but it also seems like there's a whole dimension to this novel, to life in fact, that Conrad is reluctant or unable to examine and "unpack." As to the Chinese servant - I have to say that even making allowances for his time and for some of the long-changed conventions of language regarding racial characteristics (need we say more than "The Nigger of the Narcissus"?), Conrad seems generally unable to see 3rd-world populations and people of color as little more than narrative conveniences. Heyst's servant, Wang (and I can't remember the back story to their relationship - had he been living w/ Heyst on the island? and why?), speaks an embarrassing broken English ("Me savee") and Conrad portrays him in the most cliched and perhaps offensive of terms - e.g., he's "inscrutable" (maybe to Heyst, maybe to Conrad, but not to all). These are quibbles, perhaps, but they do show the boundaries and limitations of Conrad's vision.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Conrad's heroes in a world without a god

As the plot "thickens" in Conrad's Victory, the smarmy hotelier Schomberg gets an idea: He's completely terrified by the story Ricardo tells him about how he and his associate in crime, "plain Mr. Jones," got set up in a gambling operation - they're now operating a small illegal casino in Schomberg's hotel - and he makes it clear that they will readily kill anyone who gets in their way - he gives a rather frightening account as to how easy it is to break someone's neck, "snap," and they go limp - that word - snap - reverberates in Schomberg's petty mind (reminding me of the phrase "a drop of 20 feet" - I may not have it exactly - that resonates through The Secret Agent). So Schomberg, very eager to have these guys out of his hotel yet frightened about confronting them in any way, steers them toward the tiny island on which Heyst lives in solitude - or, not exactly in solitude because he ran off with the English woman musician whom Schomberg had set his sites on - tells Ricardo Heyst is a long-time thief and has plenty of money and no protection. Ricardo, against his better judgment, can't help but be interested. We know that everything S. said was a lie - and in part 3 of Victory we join, for the first time, Heyst on his island. This section begins oddly, for Conrad, with quite a bit of reflective back story, as Heyst, enjoying his solitude, thinks back on his last meeting with his father, a famous philosopher who espoused a rigid atheism: though Heyst does not in any obvious way appear to be his father's disciple, perhaps his aimless wandering of the South Seas is a parable for the aimless life of mankind in a world without a divine presence. He is alone in the world - and that feeling of solitude, the actual yearning for solitude, may represent the moral and social condition of the first generation of Europeans to recognize what JH Miller called "the disappearance of God" - to be replaced by what? Commerce? Adventure? Treasure-hunting? Exploitation of less-developed lands and people?

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Colonialism, imperialism, and the meaning of Ricardo's tale in Victory

Here's the story that Ricardo, the card shark, tells Schomberg, the hotelier (in Conrad's Victory) about how he and his gambling partner, "plain Mr. Jones," began their enterprises: they were hired to be aboard a small schooner as part of a team of men who were going to dig for treasure off the SA coast; as they were moored on the coast overnight, preparing to dig for the treasure in the a.m., R & J lured the captain on deck through some sort of ruse, Ricardo kept him there while Jones looted the cash box, and later they escaped on a small boat that the schooner had in tow as a launch (I guess). They hid in an inlet along the coast in a native village; when they learned that two brothers in the village were planning to kill them to steal the cashbox, Jones - whom R always describes as the essence of an English gentleman - casually shoots one of the brothers to death and the tie and bind the other bro., Pedro; when they cut him free he becomes a devoted, almost slavish servant to them. Thus begin their gambling exploits, leading finally to Schomberg's hotel. Is this just an idle tale? Or is it a metaphor for Conrad's view of colonialism and exploitation: The European treasure hunters arrive in the 3rd or new world, fight among themselves, one steals the plunder and both obliterates and enslaves the native population in order to retain control of the wealth - gold, silver, spices, whatever - of the undeveloped land. It's a version of Nostromo (the silver mine, the imperialism, the colonial uprising), of Heart of Darkness, probably many others - and a microcosm of the coastal trade and imposition of European culture and social hierarchy that we see playing out across the scope of this novel.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Something about Conrad inspires the autobiographical instinct

Conrad's stories, novellas, and even novels are part of the age of the great raconteurs - in so many the narrator is not some omniscient figure or authorial stand-in but an ancient mariner spinning out a tale on a long evening, or night - often, if my memory serves, on shipboard: e.g., Youth, Heart of Darkness. Victory doesn't quite fall into that category, it's more of a conventional omniscient narrator - though the narrator seems to be a person living in and of the times described - maybe mid to late 19th-century on the Indonesian archipelago - and familiar with the characters and legends he's recounting - though he has the powers of omniscience, able to recount in detail scenes he could not have witness and nobody could have told him of directly. About half-way through the novel one of the characters, surprisingly, shakes off his taciturnity and becomes a Conradian narrator: Riccardo, if in fact that's his real name, the card shark with with "plain Mr. Jones" runs an illegal casino on Schomberg's hotel, waylays Schomberg one evening and, for no evident reason (other than to fill us in), he tells him the story of his life - how he and Jones (not his real name, obviously) killed a captain and robbed a bunch of South American treasure hunters and took off with their ship - giving them, I guess, enough of a stake to travel through the South Pacific setting up quick, clandestine gambling operations. There's a strange old movie - can't remember the title, in which a western bandit holds a group of people hostage as their hideout is surrounded by rangers; one of the hostages, a Brit, I think, says: Something about this place inspires the autobiographical instinct. Something about Conrad's fiction - or maybe about the South Seas, does as well. (The grangster, Bogart?, asked his life story says something like: Whadda you think? I spent most of my life, since I was born, in jail. And it looks like I'll spend the rest of it dead.)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The cultural struggle that is the undercurrent in Conrad's fiction

Conrad's Victory is becoming a novel as much about the hotelier Shomberg (?) as about the nomadic Swedish merchant Heyst - Heyst - after a series of business failures settled into a hermit's life on a tiny South Pacific island, and in one of his trips to the the port city he stayed at Shomberg's hotel and rescued a 20-something Englishwoman who was performing at the hotel in an all-female band - this rescue infuriated Shomberg who claimed this type of incident could ruin the reputation of his hotel, but we soon learn, if we hadn't guessed already, that Sh had been trying to hit on the young woman, so there's a great deal of sexual rivalry and competition going on here as well. To this point - 100+ pages in - we see nothing at all about Heyst's life on the island, either before or after he brings the Englishwoman to live with him in seclusion - but our focus shifts to Sh., who has taken two shady characters into his lodging and they put the squeeze on him (one amusingly gives his name simply as "just plain Jones") to let them use one of his outbuildings as an unlicensed casino. Sh is scared and wary - there goes the reputation of his hotel! - but despite his constant bluster and bullying (esp of women, including his wife), he's afraid to stand up to these two toughs and evidently he doesn't care all that much about the reputation of his hotel, anyway. The strands will have to come together in some way, but I'm a little puzzled about how little we see of Heyst's life on the island; as noted in a previous post, Conrad consistently talks about his isolation and his life as a near-hermit, but there have to be native settlements on the island and Heyst must be dealing with them for supplies, at the very least - so he's not the only man on the island, he's the only white man on the island - a big difference. Has he "gone native" or been changed in any way by his interactions with or even proximity to another culture? The clash of cultures is obviously an undercurrent of much of Conrad's South Seas and African fiction (Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, e.g.), the West superimposing its values, the 3rd world with its own power and allure - an uneven battle perhaps, the outcome of which we pretty much know from our 21st-century vantage, but in Conrad's day the two cultures were much farther apart and the West was confident in its powers and naive about its virtues.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

One of the few English-language stories with a setting in Korea

A new (to me) writer appears this week in The New Yorker, Heinz Inzu Fenkl possibly a writer who is of Korean descent, w/ a story Five Arrows. Appreciation of this story will depend in part on your tolerance for and acceptance of stories that weave together myth and conventional narrative - Louise Erdrich does this extremely well with her stories about the Plains Indian communities in which she was raised; HIF explores the same technique in this story about a Korean community - material not much explored and examined in English-language fiction. Story starts off quite well with the protag taking a journey with his cousin by rowboat across a broad river, and they both reflect on the darkening and pollution of the water, now filled with dark green algae as a result of construction of a downstream dam for electrical power - so we quote obviously see that familiar man v nature theme (old joke that every English major wrote man v nature about a thousand times in the margins of their undergrad textbooks) and also of the conflict between progress and tradition. The two boys are on a mission to visit "Big Uncle," a reclusive and strange relative now living in a cave on the far side of the river. They do find him, and Big Uncle sets them a Herculean task of recovering five arrows he's shot, and when they recover the arrows and return them to him he will cook them a dinner of "mountain chicken," crow or raven actually. One of the cousins abandons the quest, and the other returns to hear Big Uncle tell a tale of his one-time enchantment by the spirit of a woman who died young and virginal. The next morning, main characters swims home across the broad river, almost losing his bearings and drowning in the algae but bursting safely to the surface. There is reference to the fact that the main character (perhaps like the writer?) has lived in America - so he's estranged from this family tradition - which is why Big Uncle reaches out to tell him of this lore. For me story would have been stronger had there been more of a point to Big Uncle's story - to me it felt like a pause in the narrative, a long-winded tale, and not like a culmination or an emotional or dramatic heightening; still, frame around Big Uncle's narrative is well constructed and provocative and I would be interesting in learning more about these two characters and their stories - one staying in Korean and other sojourning in the West.