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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

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The American independent, isolated protagonist

No surprise that Alex, the car thief in Theodore Weesner's same-name-novel, gets the shit kicked out of him by Cricket Alan, the tough guy in his Detroit (?) high school - Alex stole about $30 from wallets in the locker room at the school and Cricket trying to get the $ back with a little for him on the side. What is surprising is how alienated Alex remains even on his return to school - he did go out for the basketball team and played well and was gaining a sense of pride - but his interest seems to wain and, even though he has teammates he does not seem to have any friends - that's kind of surprising, as he seems like a pretty intelligent and interesting kid who would have at least a few close friends, even one. But no - and in that sense he's not exactly realistic but more like an avatar for a familiar figure throughout American literature and popular culture: the lone outlaw, the isolate, the guy who's going to head out to the territory or across the tundra our out to sea on a whaling ship. But that all lies ahead of him - right now he seems destined from the school for delinquent boys, in Lansing (Michigan), a scary place it seems - though Alex is a little blase. Though he has plenty of sorrow - absent mother, unreliable father, separation from brother, transient existence - he doesn't have the deep sensitivity of say a Holden Caulfield, he's not nearly as self-reflective - he's closer, maybe, to a Mersault (French, I know) - and securely in the tradition of the American independent protagonist (usually male), unattached and stoic.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Thinking ahead about what the ending might be in The Car Thief: tragic, uplifting, ambiguous?

Alex (the eponymous Car Thief in Theodore Weesner's 1972 novel) gets out of the juvenile detention center and is home with his kindly alcoholic father and it's just before xmas - and things are going pretty well, for the moment. Alex remembers previous xmasses, when he and younger brother, Howard, shoplifted most of the presents - now he has a little money and gets a tree, decorates, gets a Zippo for his dad, of course Dad goes on a bender and completely forgets the holiday, forgets his son, but when he does show up they have a nice celebration - and then Alex has to go back to high school. He's apprehensive but for the first time in his life he's focused, figures which courses he can pass (having missed almost half the year) and which he can't, talks about going out again for the basketball team - he's no star, but maybe a good JV player - but it's something, he's not the complete outsider that many teenage car thieves would likely be - he even makes tentative overtures to the girl he has a crush on, and she doesn't completely push him off - yet in the background, he learns that one of the school toughs needs to "speak" with him, and we know right away what this is about: Alex not only stole 14 cars but he stole about $30 mostly in $1s for the wallets he pinched in the locker room. This is a much bigger crime, in the high-school world, than the car theft - the cars all got back to their owners, unharmed, apparently  - and Cricket demands double payment in return. How can Alex possibly manage that? The third section is titled "The Beating," so we have a pretty good idea of where he'll end up. The tone of the novel is often elegaic - but the structure will not be clear until the fourth and final section: Is it a bleak and tragic ending, an uplifting ending of triumph over circumstances, or a freeze-frame ending (cf 400 Blows, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner - for 2 other works about juvenile detention) that is open and ambiguous, full of possibility and full of dread?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Dickensian horrors: The juvenile detention center in The Car Thief

The 2nd (of 4?) sections of Theodore Weesner's The Car Thief (1972), Detention, finds the protagonist, Alex Hausman, in a juvenile detention facility near or in Detroit (or Flint?), Michigan; Alex was picked up on a string of car thefts (obviously); he's one of the oldest boys in the facily, at 16, and one of the few white boys in residence. He's pretty much a model "inmate," working reasonably hard at the chores, not getting into trouble. He's challenged to a fight at one point by a guy on his unit who talks tough; Alex is stronger and more adept than we would have thought, and the tough-talker turns out to be not much of a fighter - they reconcile afterwards (though Alex remains afraid of a knife attack). He flifts with a young girl inmate while they're both on kitchen duty - but she's caught and reprimanded. Mostly, he thinks about his younger brother, recalls with guilt some nasty tricks he'd played on the boy - one in particular in which he left him alone after school and didn't get home by dark on his own, leading to a frantic search involving the police. Alex also remembers living in a boarding house when his mother had left and his father was unable to handle the two boys - but despite these hardships he was treated well by adults. The core of this section is the detention center itself. Though the boys (and girls) are kept relatively safe, the scene recalls some of the worst work-house Dickensian horrors of Victorian England - the kids are pretty much just pent up; their education essentially stops, they have limited contact with the outside world, know nothing about their cases or their likely future, and have little to do other than chores, some of them pretty nasty. At one point the boys on Alex's unit received a donated box of books. Alex is apparently the only one truly able to read a book; he picks one at random and is mesmerized, as well as proud of himself for actually reading something other than schoolwork. We see a glimpse there of a future Alex - and maybe a future Weesner. I have no idea how much if any of this novel is autobiographical, but the punk's recovery through literature sounds like an autobiographical strand - this doesn't feel like a researched novel so much as a painful remembrance and recollection. Alex as a protagonist, howeve,r remains opaque - we don't know or understand exactly why he embarked on such a reckless course of action - other than a cry for attention? But in pieces, as the story progresses, we learn more about his early life, and the full picture may come together by the end.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

What makes Alex run?: The Car Thief

Started Theodore Weesner's 1972 debut novel, The Car Thief, a novel that seems to have had 3 lives: not sure what attention it received if any on initial publication (though Weesner went on the a great teaching career), became one of the first pick-ups from Vintage Contemporaries in the 1980s - probably the hottest series of its day - and now I think getting a little attention from those, like me, who read earlier this year of Weesner's death and wondered: Who was this guy? The first section of the novel is excellent. It's the story of a 16-year-old, Alex, in 1970s Detroit-Flint area, living w/ his father, mother out of the picture although near by, and the story begins w/ his joy riding through snowy and slushy industrial Michigan in a stolen Buick Riviera (my dad's car in that time!) on a school morning. The account of his drive through and around the city, one wary eye looking for police cars, is great and tense, cinematic even. Alex cruises past the lakeside inn where his long-estranged mother works, drives by a suburban school where a few weeks back he'd picked up a girl who was captivated by his city toughness, then heads back to school. Over this span, we see that he's a deeply troubled kid - he's been on a spree, stealing more than a dozen cars over the past few weeks - but also he's enigmatic: It's not entirely clear why he acts out so radically. Although there is no mention of friends male or female, he seems to be on the school basketball team and to enjoy sports. A kindly teacher, noticing that he's been cutting class, tries to speak w/ him privately about his troubles - but Alex resists. We also learn that despite the cool that enabled him to "pick up" a girl at a the suburban school he is completely awkward with girls - won't go to school dances, blurts out to a girl he barely knows that he loves her, obviously upsetting her in doing so. We also learn that his dad, though a serious drinker prone to binges, is kind and caring - has a good factory job w/ Chevy and is doing his best under tough circumstances. So what makes Alex run? Toward the end of the section he gets picked up by the police and locked away in a juvenile detention center - extremely scary, though Alex seems a little blase and disengaged. Not sure how much of the novel will be set there. This story obviously recalls Sillitoe's Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner - car theft, acting out, working class family, juvenile detention; I also see a parallel w/ the great Italian movie Shoeshine, another harrowing look at so-called juvenile justice. Novel off to an excellent start, and its ultimate success will depend on the deepening and development of Alex as a character.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Far West: Tom McGuane's short fiction

Tom McGuane's story The Driver in current New Yorker raises questions and hackles, which I believe is good - a story that truly comes to a conclusion but leaves you wondering and a bit puzzled or troubled is one of the strengths and beauties of the short form. Story gets off to a little bit of a weird start as we quickly, in one para, learn the history of a three + generations of an old Montana family, now into serious money and social snobbery thanks to the minerals and energy boom, with the third or youngest generation failing to live up to family name and tradition and expectations - and then we jump back to the boyhood of the child of the youngest generation, the one we know will sell the land a vanish - and we see him with his mother at a visit to the school principal, who recommends he be moved to "special education," at which the social-snob idiot mother bristles and mother and son storm out of the meeting. The mother, very oddly, drives off w/out her son and doesn't realize this until she's half-way home - pretty improbable, if you ask me, but still - stories are built on the odd and infrequent. The child starts to walk home, gets completely lost - again, a bit unlikely, but he is a troubled child with some kind of learning disability, so maybe his spatial relations are poor; a man - the driver of the title - picks him up and offers him a ride home and we sense trouble immediately. The child is to shy and inarticulate to tell the man where he lives, how to get him home - they drive around aimlessly for a bit, the driver gets frustrated by the lack of communication, orders the child out of the car, then changes him mind, child finds a gun in the glove, driver tells him to put it away, gets a little harsh - and then is stopped by a sheriff's roadblock and booked on a kidnapping charge. Yes, that is possible - but I do find it hard to believe that the man would drive around all over town with the kid - not try to get help from the police or some authority more quickly. We learn almost in an aside that the accused killed himself in prison - which could happen, wonder if he had some background that made him more likely to face conviction? - and we learn nothing more about the child - other than the glimpse forward from the first paragraph. So there seems to be a vacuum at the heart of the story: what happened to him? What happened to the family? Perhaps McGuane tells us in other stories (or chapters?) - but it's another strong installment in the opus he has built over many years about modern-day life in the Far West, far different from what we conventionally think of as Western fiction.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The sorrow and the pithy: Why short stories are rarely "life affirming"

A friend asks if there are any short stories that are entirely life-affirmative (part of the FR Leavis criteria for "great" novels), and that's a really tough question to answer. First let's take off the table stories that are overtly comic (e.g., The Kugelmass Epiode) or formally playful and inventive (stories of Calvino, Barth, Borges, for ex.) but stay with stories in the realist-naturalist tradition. And the quick answer is - no - pure life-affirmation finds little or no place in the modern and contemporary short story. Some stories, sure, may have so-called happy endings, but always or almost always with some nuance or shadow of sorry. In American short stories in particular the characters tend to be loners and isolates, often life's losers, and though they may survive through the story we don't feel that their lives are complete and whole and promising. I'd be interested to hear about exceptions to this broad generalization, and some stories may give the reading a feeling of uplift, although the journey to that point may be poignant and even heart-wrenching. At the top of that list I'd put some of the stories by IB Singer, notably Gimpel the Fool and Crown of Feathers (title stories to 2 of his collections). I might add in some stories by Lorrie Moore - for their wit - even though the protagonists are often lonesome young women for whom we can't help but feel some sorrow. Ann Beattie's stories are also witty and sometimes upbeat: I have described her characters as unlucky in love but lucky in friendship, and that sometimes is enough to make her stories life-affirming. Old friend Charles Baxter would be similar - very finely written stories about people trying to get along in life and sometimes they do. But overall stories seem, with the tight and strict demands of the form, seem overwhelming to involve struggle, crisis, loneliness, social isolation - and they rarely if ever seem to end in a crisis resolved and a feeling of harmony. The classic conclusion of a romantic comedy or a bildungsroman needs more space and scope to develop a network of social interaction and romantic inclusion.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Two groundbreaking stories by Zora Neale Hurston

Two stories by Zora Neale Hurston from the 1920s, Spunk and Sweat, make a good air and any reader can see that they were groundbreaking in their time and still unusual a near-century later - among the first to effectively use Southern black dialect in a literary and not a comical or condescending way - she was really trying to get at the heart of life in black communities in the rural and obviously strictly segregated South. The first of the two, Spunk, is about a tough black guy hated and feared by pretty much everyone in the small town, who brazenly steals another man's wife - the other man is a quiet and unassuming man who now feels pressure to defend what's his - a mission he knows will be suicidal. He takes it on anyway - and his spirit then haunts Spunk in the form of, I think, a black wildcat. Story give life to a community that up till then had not appeared much if at all in serious literature - Toomer's Cane a possible exception, though I think that was later. My only quibble with this very short story is the descent into the supernatural - would have been stronger had a man and not a ghost given Spunk his due - and ZNH's strange decision to not show us the most dramatic scene, the attack - from the back - on Spunk and Spunk's vengeance. Sweat is a stronger and more developed story, about a woman working hard all her life to house and support a no-good husband who's cheating on her - and beating her into submission - and her act of vengeance, an attack involving a concealed rattlesnake. This story is the stronger because it's a great depiction of a woman's spirit rising and because we see her take a direct action - as a person, not as a spirit. It's also a much more ambitious story - a portrait of a horrible yet probably all too typical marriage - and with village folks on the fringe of the story, sad for the poor abused and beaten wife but unwilling or unable to do anything about it. Too many people are unwilling to "interfere," and as a result too many wives and children live in terror and sorrow. .This story shows one woman's rebellion against oppression - not just her husband's but the oppression by indifference of her entire community.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The beauty, the sorrow, the cruelty of Pnin and of Nabokov

I will admit that Nabokov's Pnin gets better toward the conclusion - first chapter promised a sly, comic novel about a bumbling academic, then the novel devolved into mean-spiritedness, but there are some very fine sections in the last (of 7) chapters - in particular the chapter in which Pnin visits a summer colony of fellow Russian emigres. A woman among the group introduces herself to him and mentions some mutual acquaintances, which gets P thinking about some childhood moments andhe recalls a young woman he'd been in love w/ briefly and remembers that she had been killed in one of the Nazi camps - all this material that could be maudlin and cheap and is certainly familiar, even over-worked ground by now (not so much in 1957 admittedly) but in N's handling becomes extremely beautiful and moving, with the chapter closing on a stunning image of a young couple seen - or imagined? - standing in a clearing in profile. This chapter would stand alone (and maybe has done) as a great story, as would the penultimate chapter: Pnin's dinner party. He has moved into a new house that he hopes to buy (the undercurrent of the whole novel is the emigre's constant yearning for a home). He invites a group of fellow academics, serves them bountifully in the Russian tradition. At the end, his department chair lingers to tell P not to buy the house, that he's going to lose his job. The chair is a cruel and egocentric man who has no idea of the power of what he'd said - he actually believes he's done P a great favor in warning him (he could have done a much greater favor by ensuring P's job security). The final image here - of P driving away, alone, in his crappy almost comical car - is very sad and touching. It's odd how much this reminds me of the novel I've recently posted on, the near contemporary Stoner - w/ the difference that Stoner is a weak but more deeply understood character, whereas P is a comic (and tragic) foil. The final section of the novel reveals that the narrator is actually the new dept chair arriving and clearing out the deadwood (i.e., Pnin) - so what does that tell us? The narrator isn't Nabokov exactly, but it's odd how N is willing to identify so closely with a narrator who is cruel and hard-hearted - to VN, I'm afraid, Pnin is not just one of his creations but one of his specimens, captured and pinned to a board.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Some things to like about Pnin - but not about Lolita

OK I'll go a little easier on Vladimir Nabokov today, not that he can't take it, but there are some endearing moments in his 1957 novel Pnin - about a Rusiaan prof at what is most likely Cornell who's kind of the anti-Nabokov, a shlemiel, a misfit, a bumbler in love and in language (although please, give him a break - so what if his Engish isn't flawless, how's your Russian?). The first section - Pnin en route to deliver a lecture to "ladies' club" - is the most sarcastic about America and Americans - maybe this section was a rehearsal for or a reprise of VN's most renowned and notorious novel, Lolita (not sure which came first, Pnin I think) - but the rest of the novel is not quite as bitter and narcissistic: we see Pnin prepare for the awkward visit of his ex-wife's son, and we see him visit with some fellow Russian emigres at a private summer colony, and it's hard not to like the poor guy. But you can also see that this novel is a collection of sketches and segments - today, if would be sold I think as a series of "linked stories," as there's no single conflict or action that develops around Pnin, he faces no particular problem or dilemma of conflict, he just bumbles along. VN's account of P's fledgling driving experiences on American back roads is quite funny. So it's kind of a fun but light novel - a "pale" version of Lolita (a novel with serious problems and issues of its own - the most serious being the indifference to what is clearly child abuse and predatory behavior). Lolita, however, is in some ways about discovery, of self, of America, whereas Pnin is much more flat - the Pnin that we know by page 120 or so (about 3/4 through the novel) is not really any different from the Pnin of page 10. It's been said many times that one of the two basic plots begins: A man/woman goes on a journey - and that is where Pnin begins, but after that first section Pnin returns home and we have neither a journey nor the other trope (a stranger comes to town) - P's journey, from Russia to America - is in the rear-view mirror.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Some reasons to loathe Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov's 1957 Pnin is a totally different kind of academic novel from the one I have posted on recently, Stoner - Nabokov's more of a comic satire profile of a hapless Russian emigre professor at an unnamed rural university who bumbles and stumbles through life, taken advantage of by his ex-wife, unable to find suitable campus housing, obsessive-compulsive to the nth degree, absent-minded of course, possibly brilliant in a limited sphere (Russian literature) but it's hard to ascertain whether he's brilliant or just obscure, working hard but not especially devoted to teaching or students, who are little more than a series of names, at least through the first half of the novel. What particularly strikes me aside from the humor - an amusing first segment in which Pnin gets on the wrong train en route to a lecture he's to deliver to a ladies' club, his occasional solecisms - is Nabokov's tone, typical of his work throughout but perhaps at a pinnacle in this novel: the underlying message seems to be that Pnin is a comic fool, a subject due for mockery, a man who'd had similar life experiences to VN unlike VN was unable to succeed at life, academics, literature (early exile from homeland for liberal politics, difficult sojourn in Europe, resettlement in the US, landing in an academic career - in VN's case it was at Cornell, and that's obviously the campus he's depicting here; and, apparently, despite the sly disclaimer at the outset that all characters are fiction etc. I think it's well-known that Pnin was modeled closely on a VN Cornell colleage) - and by setting up Pnin as a foil VN is continually reminding us that nobody is smarter than he, that as Pnin stumbles through American English VN is writing this gorgeous prose with occasional forays into Russian, German, French as well, that American's are crass and oafish, that America is devoid of culture and good will - not a word, not a moment of praise and gratitude for this country that took him and others in as refugees and not only tolerated them/him but enabled him to get a premiere teaching job, which he seems to have tolerated with a kind of noblesse oblige. How much of VN's personality can be explained by his passion for "collecting" butterflies? - probably the only pursuit of beauty that entails capture and killing of the object of attention.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Why I hold a grudge against Amos Oz

Amos Oz story with title something like My Curls Have Blown All the Way to China - about a 50-something woman whose husband has just told her he's leaving her for another woman he met at a factory "outing" - appears to be one of the NYer "stories" that's really just a piece of short fiction, no doubt an excerpt from a forthcoming novel. This piece establishes a mood, a condition, a situation, with some deft skill and with some admirable quirkiness, but doesn't go anywhere w/ the material, as the story or whatever it may be just stops short. Oz certainly needs no praise or support from me, whistling in the wind as I am with these daily posts, but allow me to point out that Oz was I believe the one and only writer who came to R.I. to read during my tenure as a books editor at the Journal who refused an interview request (he did not refuse a request from the NYTimes), so I have a grudge against him and I don't forget slights. That said, I can such it up and note that the Curls story is worth a read - I wonder if women readers will admire how he enters and conveys the consciousness of a woman scorned, or if women readers would find his attempt to do so vapid and demeaning. The narrator, who laments that her husband is abandoning at the same time that she had most of her curly locks shorn - the symbolism, hair as sign of strength, beauty, and youth - pretty obvious, as she enters a new stage of life - seems to be a bit of a doormat, whiningly asking her husband if it's something she's said or done that's causing him to leave - and a keeper of to-do lists - the quirky element in this story, in that Oz uses the lists to delineate the quotidian of her daily life and to express a few moments of outrage and bitterness.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sorrow and literature and the elements of the novel

Yes, I have posted recently on some sad books, in particular Stoner, one of the saddest and most moving novels I have read in many years, and Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, sad in a completely different way as it's not the characters that we feel deeply for (actually, I hardly feel for them at all and probably won't even finish reading this novel) but the author herself and what this strange novel reveals or confirms about the social ostracism she experienced in her own life in a conservative NE town. Are all great novels sad in some way? Is sorrow a driving force in great fiction? I can't quite agree with that but would say that all great novels involve a conflict - some kind of obstacle or condition that a character or several characters must confront and overcome - this "conflict" is a modern version of what Aristotle called the "action" of a work of literature (drama, in particular). Obviously a character faced with a conflict, obstacle, or problem will be in jeopardy in some way - so there is an element of stress, discomfort, and concern in all novels, to one degree or another - the degree of its development will determine (along w/ the author's skill) our empathy for the character(s). A second element in great literature/fiction is, I think, that novels involve a "journey" of some sort - can be from place to place (the Odyssey ... or from Hannial to Cairo) or point in time to point in time (Ulysses) or even an interior journey of growth and development (or birth to death) - in any event all of these are a journey in some way from innocence to experience, and in great fiction we experience the same journey, along with the characters (this is similar to the classical definition of "story," or the story arc, in cinematic terms). Whereas the plot or the action necessarily involves conflict, difficulty, sorrow, trouble, or danger - the "story" does not - in tragic mode the "story" may be sad or piteous; in comic mode, not - as the comic novels (in the broadest sense, not humorous or witty novels) end in social inclusion or marriage or even glorious and hopeful independence (heading out for the territories). But comic novels (and comedies) have their own conflicts and dark sides, often hidden - my first critical writing (my dissertation and my book on Shakespeare's comedies) were entirely devoted to revealing some of the social conflicts in S's comedies that had gone unrecognized by generations of critics for literally hundreds of years. What did it get? Ostracism, I guess.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The incredible sadness of Shirley Jackson's novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Shirley Jackson's short novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle is another one of her creepy stories about outsiders - in this case two sisters, Mary Katherine (the narrator) and Constance, living with their elderly and frail uncle in an old mansion on the periphery of a small New England town - living in near isolation and near total alienation from the townspeople. We learn that Constance 6 years back had, for reasons not yet known (60 pp in) mixed arsenic with the sugar and essentially killed all the others in their family - parents, other sibs, maybe more? She was acquitted at trial but has never left the family house and property since. Mary K makes occasional forays into town for provisions, and is always met with hostility and cold stares, and even with bullying. This novel plays within the key of all of Jackson's fiction - stories not only of outsiders and isolates but stories of social ostracism (The Lottery being the prime example). What makes this novel, up to this point anyway, almost unbearably sad and poignant is what we've come to know in years since her death about Jackson's life; a recent bio (I read reviews but haven't read it) details the vengeful hostility of Jackson's Bennington neighbors - she didn't fit in, she was strange and artistic, an alcoholic, a Jew - and we can with no difficulty see how Mary Katherine is an avatar of Jackson herself, suffering teasing and bullying - and how frightening that is to know that your neighbors want you out of town when all you're trying to do is quietly live your life and get by.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Missing Person just misses

Patrick Modiano's Missing Person just misses - it's a fun, atmospheric, provocative novel with a great concept - a private detective out of work sets off on a new case, finding his own identity - his memory has been largely erased. Over the course of the novel he makes a series of discoveries through very lucky detective work (the way these things always happen in books and films: they always find the guy they're looking for, who just happens to have a photograph of the next person they're looking for, who just happens to remember that ... ). Unfortunately, the ending of this novel is unsatisfactory for a couple of reasons - most of which is that I think Modiano was just improvising on a theme and had no clear sense of the design of this puzzle. I'll give stuff away here so back off if you plan to read this novel: at the end, the protagonist somehow recollects a big patch of his memory and leaving Paris and heading for the border w/ his wife (girlfriend?) and another couple; they hang out in a chalet in the Alps and then hire a very sketchy guy to bring them across the border into Switzerland. The guy betrays them, and the woman vanishes into the snowy Alps and protagonist moves on (there's a shart last set of chapters in which he goes to a South Pacific island to track down one last clue - a section entire out of keeping w/ the rest of the novel and not necessary). The conceit Modiano is working with is that the loss of memory is parallel to the French self-imposed amnesia about the German occupation and the Vichy government. That's fine as a starting point (or ending point in this case), but starting or ending - what's the point? We don't know why these characters need to cross the border - none seems to be Jewish or active in the resistance. And the ending that has been approached so carefully and deliberately is not a big reveal - there's no big surprise or turnaround that I could see (this novel would probably benefit from a 2nd read, but really ... ). I wish there were more in this novel - but it's not a Bolano or a Sebald or a Pynchon - it's a little romp that has some great moments and many sharply delineated scenes but a plot that's too meandering and an ending that fails to deliver on the promise of the early chapters.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

New-York, New-York

The narrator and amnesiac private eye "Guy" in Patrick Modiano's Missing Person contineus to search for his own identity, and through a series of improbable, dreamlike stages (now halfway through this short novel) - he finds the apartment where he apparently used to live, meets at last a woman who seems to recognize him, learns from her through careful questioning (he never lets on that he has "lost" his identity and memory) that he was a diplomat with most likely the Dominican Embassy with the odd name of Pedro McAvoy and that she'd last heard of him when he'd left the country with his then-wife. Hm, of course we are not expected to take this series of revelations literally - seems very unlikely that no one would recognize him over the past 8 years, that he would have lost not only his memory but his fluency in Spanish, and so on - and all these apparent facts are malleable - what's true on page 60 may be untrue by page 160. As noted yesterday, his quest to find his identity is like a parable for the life of an everyman/woman - we all are in constant search of our memory and in a constant "struggle" to form our own unique identity (pace Knausgaard). The dark and atmospheric style of this novel - deserted neighborhoods, rain-spattered nights, lonely street corners and near-deserted parks and grounds, ruined chateaux - remind me a little of Bolano and, w/out the historical context, of Sebald: they're all in the same school of European writing in thrall to the American detective tradition. One salient feature of Modiano's novel, however, is the fun he has w/Paris geography (recalling O'Neill's Netherland a la NYC) and w/ Paris street names - some are real of course, but I would suspect some are fabricated and evocative (as w/ Proust, to a degree). Can there really be an Avenue New-York? (Yes, there is, I looked it up - but I believe Modiano sets a scene there largely for the name, not the location itself.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

In search of lost self: Missing Person

Started Patrick Modiano's Missing Person (the original French was something like Rue des Boutiques - English title is better), and at first thought it was an homage to Paul Auster, extremely popular in France, but then noted that Modiano is a bit older than Auster and probably publishing earlier, this orginally published in 1978, so maybe the homage is the other way around. Missing Person is also an obvious homage to the American noir detective tradition: begins with a younger detective being let go by his boss, owner of the detective agency, who abuptly announces he is retiring and closing shop; they go out for a drink in a cafe and we learn that the sr. private eye hire the younger guy, whom he calls Guy (nice anglo-franc pun there) after taking him on as a client: Guy had lost his memory, hired the detective to find out who he was/is, unsuccessful, but he got an 8-year job out of it. Now, as his ex-boss heads off into the night w/ his few belongings, Guy says he will try to discover his past (this is a very French mocking nod to Proust of course). Then follow a series of improbabilities, which we're clearly not meant to take literally: Guy finds an old pal, a waiter, who says he seems to recognize him as someone who hung out w/ a Russian emigre, whom Guy tracks down and who then gives Guy some photos of other emigres, including a beautiful and mysterious girl ... and so forth. This is a sequential novel rather than a novel w/ a true arc, and it has a dreamlike quality of course - one odd event following another, people behaving oddly - the emigre weirdly invites Guy into his flat, and asks him to sit next to him on the bed while looking at the photos - w/out a hint of self-consciousness, takes him to a restaurant and order for him - an odd meal, boiled herring I think. So is this a novel w/ deep meaning - that for all of us, maybe writers especially, our lives are self-conscious constructs and most of our waking life, or consciousness, is an attempt to find out (and to express) who we are? Or is it just a toss-off, an off-key detective story about a private eye in search of his most elusive client, himself? (I believe Modiano won a Nobel for lit - something Hammet, Chandler, let alone Proust, never did).

Monday, September 14, 2015

Are the children in High Wind in Jamaica "amoral"?

Book group discussion of Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica centered on question of the amorality or immorality or evil of the children - is Hughes's point of view that childhood is necessarily evil and cruel? He does at various points in the novel discuss how it is impossible to think the way a baby thinks, that alligators can never be tamed, and other asides suggesting that childhood is a state of mind or stage of life inaccessible to adults - and that may be so, for him, in that his children don't seem to be "realistic" - as M noted several times it's impossible to imagine that none of the children would express any fear or any longing for his or her parents - even given the astonishing estrangement between British children and their parents in the 1840s and to an extent even today. That said, it doesn't seen to me that Hughes views the children as "evil" - we talked briefly about comparison points between High Wind and Lord of the Flies (Prose mentions this in her intro); I noted that the point of Lord/Flies is that left to the own devices seemingly innocent children will replicate and re-create all the cruelty and class division of the adult world - maybe even more cruel and pitiless. That's not what happens in High Wind at all - yes, the children are cruel to animals (and abnormally piteous regarding the little tabby cat that was lost in the hurricane - caring more about that animal than about people), but the children don't do anything hideous, cruel, or immoral to the adults, with single major exception of Emily's stabbing the Dutch captain and letting Margaret take the hit for that. But this immoral action is to me clearly a result of her trauma - Captain Jonsen's coming on to her when he was drunk, the whole crew watching and laughing, and all her suppressed fears about their fate and the disappearance (and death) of John, whom no one will ever discuss - rather incredibly. So in other words on the surface these children look like "normal" staunch English schoolchildren of their class - the closing image of the novel in fact -- they have had a traumatic experience that comes out in Emily's sudden violent rage, in her chanting and singing to herself in the last days on shipboard, and in her hysterics in court when asked if she'd seen any killing. Someone raised the questions as to whether she was on the verge of confession, which would have cleared the pirates of the murder charge; that's really unknowable, but what is knowable is that the adults interpreted her breakdown as evidence against the accused - yes, she had seen a killing - because the adults really don't want to know anything about the truth or about the children - the indifference of the Bas-Thorntons to the fate of their children is astonishing - though maybe not exceptional.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Is Joy Williams a great writer?

In the 1980s, in the shadow of Beattie and Carver, two looming giants, there emerged a forest undergrowth of short stories - the mantra was that the novel was dead, the world was too fast-paced for readers to engage in long works, we were moving toward a literature of short fiction, and of course short stories - cultivated in the writers' workshop hothouses, made for the perfect debut publications - agents were actively seeking short-story writers, incredible as that may seem today. Among those emerging then - Mason, Tallent, Phillips, Minot - many others - some still writing, some not most have of course moved on to longer fiction -one of the luminaries of the era was Joy Williams, who has been pretty much off the grid for a # of years and is now, thanks to a Knopf selected new and collected and to a glowing piece in the NYT mag has been suddenly re-discovered as one of the great American writers. To me, that's going too far - her work back then seemed to me very sulf-consciously off-beat and eccentric, very mannered, although clearly polished and professional - she appeared regularly in various anthologies, and of course she was very well connected via her high-profile marriage. I approached her story Chicken Hill n the current NYer with some trepidation and was, at first, put off by it: a 70ish woman living alone with (or w/out?) 5 dogs in a somewhat isolated area gets approached by a neighbor child who speaks like no child in "real life" has ever spoken, quirky, full of shrewd observations, off-beat connections, elliptical phrases - in other words, she talks like a smart, literate graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop striving for effect - and yet, and slowly - the story began to work on me. Of course the child is not meant to talk like a child; of course the child is meant to talk like a sassy, troubled, isolate writer, perhaps (I don't know her at all) like Williams herself. And of course the child is the writer - she is, I believe, imagining this child as a way for her to confront and recollect elements from her past - the title refers not to the present day but to a hill where the protag remembers childhood sledding and horse-back riding. The story is about loneliness and fear of dying, and is much darker and more troubled than it seems on first, surface reading. If this is an indication of Williams's new work, then perhaps the hype is justified - in late career she may emerging, or re-emerging, as a powerful and original presence.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Are the pirates victims or villains in A High Wind in Jamaica?

And then suddenly - not much explanation - the six captive children are aboard a British ship bound for England. A lady aboard the ship in particular befriends the 10-year-old Emily, and they try delicately to get her to talk about her experiences - she's very reluctant and evasive - and when the ask her if she saw anyone killed she goes blank. Of course they assume her trauma comes for her memories of the pirates killing someone - not from her memory of her killing the Dutch captain. The same scene plays out later - in the final courtroom episode - when E screams at the mention of murder and killing, and this terror becomes crucial "evidence" in the case against the pirates. We see at the end that the pirates were railroaded on the way to execution - that, as Prose notes in her intro., none of the English adults is interested in learning the truth, only in justifying their opinions and prejudices. And yet, and yet - though it's true that the pirates more or less befriended the children and that they didn't kill anyone in their two (or more?) attacks on passing ships, let's not forget what they did do: they took the children hostage, though they certainly had no reason to do so other than potential profit; they tried to essentially sell them into slavery on a Caribbean island, taking them back again only when negotiations failed; were so irresponsible that one of the children died in a fatal accident that they could have prevented; kept the children locked in the hold of the ship in conditions worse than that of any of the sailors, shot at the locked cabin in which the children were captive in order to terrorize sailors into disclosing where they'd hidden $ (a missed shot could easily have killed one of the children), made no effort to bring the children to safety over the course of what seems to be several months, and essentially tried to execute one of the children (Margaret) whom the belief killed the Dutch captain (which she didn't), making no effort to get at the truth - much like the English court. So this novel - A High Wind in Jamaica - is full of edges and ambiguities. Though the English adults behave horribly throughout, the pirates who hold the children captive aren't exactly heroes, either. The life aboard their ship may to some of the children have felt like a glorious adventure, to others - esp E and M - there was a great deal of fear and trauma and on E's part in particular perhaps a version of Stockholm syndrome.

Friday, September 11, 2015

A killing at sea and what it shows about justice, swift and corrupt

Continuing on yesterday's post re the crucial scene in Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica, following the killing of the Dutch (yesterday I mistakenly said Danish) captain we see a different side of the pirate crew: so far, the surprise has been that they are generally kind and thoughtful about the six children held captive aboard - but never forget that they are robbers, that they have made no attempt to bring the children to safety, that they know they'll be in serious trouble if they're taken by authorities, British or other (they've bribed the Spanish apparently), and are found with these children (who are presumed dead), that they'll be in worse trouble because of the death of one of the children (John), that when they're drunk they're dangerous as when Capt Jonsen fondled the 10-year-old Emily, that they treat the children like pets who are eminently disposable and subject to torture (the monkey, the lion and tiger, the pig doomed to slaughter). And we see another flash of their malice: they have a code of their own and when they discover the murdered Dutch captain and suspect, wrongly, that the dour Margaret killed him without hesitation the crew throws the young woman overboard. It's by luck and chance that she swims reasonably well and gets picked up by a rowboat (bringing crew back from the captive Dutch ship) and brought right back aboard. But we see how for the pirates justice such as it is is swift and immediate - different from the English justice system, deliberate and corrupt, that we will see in later chapters. The entire personality of the ship changes after the killing of the Dutch captain, with Margaret withdrawn and Emily, who stabbed the man to death, more or less going insane, singling tunelessly, talking to herself. The crew is now serious about sailing and realizes that the children are a huge problem and not sure what to do about them - if they bring them to safety, will they talk? Or will they hold to the fiction that the men rescued the children from another piratical band? And of course, we have to think, safest of all for the pirates would be to throw all of the children overboard - but how immoral can they really be?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The crucial scene in A High Wind in Jamaica

Let's think about what turns out to be the crucial scene in Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica, I mean the scene in which the Danish captain, whose small steamship the pirates have just overtaken, gets stabbed to death. So the pirate ship - holding the six English children (one has died ashore) - overtakes a steamship that turns out to be carrying no useful treasure - they're transporting wild animals. They tie up the Captain and, I'm not sure why, leave him aboard the pirate ship near the captain's quarters where the oldest Bas-Thornton child, Emily, has been sleeping in the Captain's bunk recovering from a severe cut to her leg. The crew of both ships get drunk and entertain one another by provoking the captive lion to fight a captive tiger; not much happens but it distracts everyone for a time. Back on the pirate ship, the Danish captain tries to ask Emily to hand him a knife so he can cut the rope that binds him; he can't speak English, however, and she, seemingly, doesn't understand him. He wriggles his way across the floor and nearly gets the knife - but Emily takes it and stabs him multiple times, then falls back on her bed. The strange Fernandez daughter, the oldest child aboard (Margaret), who keeps to herself and says almost nothing, walks over and sits on the hatch and watches the Captain die. When the pirates come back aboard, they assume the M killed the Danish Captain, as Emily is too weak and now retreated to her bed. Nobody says otherwise. So what's happened here? For the first time, several weeks into the journey and the captivity, we see that the children are traumatized and repressing their fear and their anger. Emily is traumatized not only by the captivity but by the strange episode with the pirate captain Jonsen: the crew got him drunk one night (he knows he cannot hold his liquor and tries to avoid drink) and he approached E sexually; to fend him off she bit his thumb. Afterward, he is ashamed and avoids her but she thinks he's angry because she bit him. This scene is part of the suppressed sexuality on the periphery throughout this novel: the black men who dress as women to be decoys when the pirate ship approaches a target; the fat lady with the mustache who kisses the little boys; the bizarre letter from the captain who was entrusted with the kids assure the parents that the girls were not molested (only killed - which was not true) - and here we see Emily fighting off a sexual advance with a weirdly sexual action (biting his thumb?!) and now acting out her terror and revenge on another captain, one who had no intention of harming her. She's got a bit of the Stockholm Syndrome - even more violent and protective than her captors - but it's not hard to see that she's really protecting herself from a sexual advance and maybe, taking it a big step farther, attacking a father figure to get back at the man who abandoned her and her sibs. The reaction of the pirates - and later of the English establishment - to E and M will be revealing both about life aboard the ship and life back in so-called civilization. If English fiction is known for moving people toward civilization rather than out to the "territories," High Wind is a perversion and reversal of that trope.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The incredible cruelty and indifference of adults in HIgh Wind in Jamaica

Re-reading Richard Hughes's 1929 High Wind in Jamaica for upcoming book group - much easier 2nd time thru, esp the first chapters - this novel has a notably odd beginning in which we're not quite sure which characters to focus on, which the novel will be about and which are peripheral. And just as we're settling in for a novel about a British colonial family w/ 5 young children struggling to make it in Jamaica after a hurricane blows their house away, the parents put the children aboard a ship for England and the novel truly begins - 2nd time through I knew what to look for and what to overlook (atmospherics aside). Even w/ that advantage, though, it's still hard to know exactly which children and how many children get aboard the ship: I'm pretty sure now its 7, 5 from the Durant (?) family and two from the Fernandez family, along w/ their "nurse." The 5 sibs, amazingly, have no adult accompaniment. Among the many astonishing things about this novel, even more so 2nd time thru, are the parents' incredible indifference to the fate of their 5 children, the childrens' general lack of interest in or longing for their parents, the abominable cowardice and cruelty of the seemingly friendly captain who write the parents a horrible letter full of lies telling them they were overtaken by pirates and their children were killed, saying he saw that w/ his own eyes, which he did not - he's protecting his reputation. I also read Francine Prose's intro to this edition (another fine NY Review of Books Press rediscovery), and she notes the cruelty to animals - yes, true - and the strange attitude toward sex (yes, also true - so weird how the captain in his letter makes such a point of telling the parents that the children were killed quickly so there was no time for them to be sexually abused - hoping this will put the parents' minds at rest!), and the general sense that the adults in the novel just never want to know the truth about anything. These are good observations, but I still think the strangest thing of all is the gulf between parents and children - how little they seem to care about each other. Hughes makes a point of showing the parents getting back to their farm in Jamaica and putting the children out of their minds; and what he says by omission is equally important - even the youngest child - I think they go down to age 3? - never seems to cry in fear or in longing for a parent or for any adult company. On the surface, this is a story like Peter Pan or Treasure Island - a pirate adventure of kids on their own, etc. (Prose also notes that is is often compared w/ the much more schematic Lord of the Flies), but High Wind is much darker not so much in its view of children as in its view of adults.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The saddest novel you'll ever read? - & one of the best: Stoner

Readers of this blog have seen my series of posts in praise of John Williams's Stoner (1965); you'll also have seen many of my posts about novels that start off w/ promise but never deliver. Stoner is the real thing and I was not only continuously engaged w/ every aspect of this deeply sorrowful narrative but I think the narrative got more assured and stronger as we draw toward the inevitable conclusion - I don't think I'm giving anything away in that this is obviously the story of a life, and it ends in a death. Williams handles the death scene as well or better than any writer I can think of or recall - on a par with Tolstoy, in fact. Stoner's slow demise at the end had me nearly in tears - not only for the pathos of his death but in particular for his reflections on his life: what had he accomplished?, what meaning did his life have?, what meaning, what purpose does any life have? Like so much in this novel, and in all great fiction, there is much ambiguity and much to ponder - we know a little more about Stoner than he does about himself - so even as he dismisses his life out of hand (or does he?, not quite, he finds some solace in his final moments) we can understand that his life may have had greater effect on others than he could think or imagine. But so much of life slipped through his fingers - his lack of spirit, his many compromises, his failure to stand up for himself - in contrast w/ most protagonists - even up to the last moment, when the man who ruined his life holds a tribute dinner party and gives a speech full of bromides and hypocrisy - and what does Stoner say? Pretty much: thanks for giving me the opportunity to teach. We wish he would have ripped into Lomax - but then, he wouldn't be the character, the person I almost want to say, that he is. This is a truly trenchant, thoughtful, and beautifully written novel beginning to end, and it's also among the saddest books you'll ever read - so perhaps not for everyone, but it's a mystery and a disgrace that this novel should have lived in obscurity for so long - till NY Review of Books press reissued.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Open endings v conclusions - in short fiction - and a strong story in current NYer

Danielle McLaughlin's story In the Act of Falling in the current New Yorker had me right from the start, a strange and moving account of a mid-career mom whose 9-year-old son is clearly disturbed in some way though exactly how is not clear, to her or to us or probably to anyone - the kid is solitary, easily obsessed with strange topics such a dead birds, focused at present on some sort of apocalyptic theories espoused by a woman in the neighborhood, he's been out of school for weeks, expelled for unprovoked fighting (the story is set in Ireland; at least in the present-day U.S. no child would be expelled for two weeks for pretty much any reason); the dad, an unemployed financial consultant of some sort, stays at home with the child but he seems terribly irresponsible and narcissistic so all of the responsibility, as usual, falls on the mother. Story centers on a day when of all things the dad gets a job interview - the job prospect seems very sketchy and by all appearances his doesn't want to work or do much of anything but look at the expensive art books he buys and they can't afford - so the mom ( who btw is never named) has to make arrangements to come home to watch the kid. When she gets home, later than she'd thought, the child is nowhere to be found, which leads her to a half-panicked odyssey around the neighborhood, including an encounter with a seemingly disurbed man who tells her he knows where the child is, and leads her to a scary, unoccupied house. All this was great, had me totally engaged, shows that McLaughlin - I'd never seen her fiction before - is a writer of great skill and promise - but unfortunately the story does kind of deflate at the end. Instead of building to a conclusion or revelation, McL brings the main characters back together - mom, dad, son, apocalypse lady and the mom looks up at a flock of birds, starlings. This is classic "open" ending for a short story - a strand that runs back to her forebear (I assume she's Irish) Joyce, but has also become a bane, a trick, almost a cliche, a way for less experienced writers to close the narrative without but leaving possibilities open and suggested and sometimes ambiguous. This story - if in fact it is a story, maybe it's part of a longer narrative like so much NYer fiction? - needs a conclusion rather than just an ending.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Stoner - a tragic hero?

It was obvious that Stoner's relationship with the English instructor Katherine Driscoll, which brought him a brief spell of happiness in his sad life, would come to no good end - and so it was, as Stoner's nemesis the vindictive and bitter department chair goes to the dean, Stoner's long-time friend but from all I can see an insipid, narcissistic wuss who's repeatedly calling Stoner into his office for a "conversation" and then telling him how he's being screwed by someone or other in the school - Stoner is now a 40-year-old assistant professor who's been consigned throughout his career to the worst possible course schedule - and telling him he wishes he could help but there's nothing he can do etc. - what a liar and what a phony and what a poor excuse for a friend - and Stone is a guy who really needs a friend - anyway, department chair spreads rumors that men have been seen going in and out of Miss Driscoll's apartment at all hours and he cannot have that among his faculty to he has to fire her. Both Stoner and Katherine saw this coming, and they have a sad scene of lamentation - Stoner says he wishes he could file for a divorce, wishes they could leave town together, and so forth - but guess what?, the ever-pliant Katherine packs her bags and moves out in the night and Stoner, apparently, never sees her again. Any reader of this novel wishes he would say the hell with you and stand by Katherine - either pursuing a painful and expensive divorce or leaving town with her, fate be damned. But of course it's the Depression, he would never find another job, and, more to the point, to wish that he would stand up against fate and opposition is to wish that he would be a different person, or character. He can't do it - even to protect someone he loves, who's bound, no doubt, for a much worse fate than his. What will become of her? We don't know - she's stepped outside of the plot of this novel. One of the many strengths of John Williams's writing is how he makes us feel sympathy and pity for Stoner - and makes us see him in all of his complexity, extremely weak in some ways but with a fortitude and commitment to his work and his fate that is almost heroic.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Why some novels others consider great - I consider to be duds

I've posted a few times recently on FR Leavis's Great Tradition and my own take on the limitations of his viewpoint and on the many types, modes, genres of works of literary fiction that fall outside of Leavis's definition and can be considered "great." My compendious and liberal definition or description of great literature led friend WS to ask, OK, so what isn't great? What books that other consider great literature would you push off the list? This is a much less pleasant question to consider, as my goal - anyone's goal, I guess - in reading literary fiction (for pleasure) isn't to find the duds but to take pleasure in the best works of imagination, not to say no, in thunder, but to join the chorus or, switching metaphors, to unearth the hidden gem, occasionally. But, yes, there are works that others consider great or nearly so (not to mention popular - there are thousands of those) that I couldn't or wouldn't finish - sometimes my limitation, sometimes I think the author's. These duds or phonies suffer from these (and perhaps other) fatal flaws: works in which the characters do not seem believable or credible but rather concoctions of the author's imagination, manipulated by author to say or do things that people would never think, do, or say; works in which the plot seems completely improbable but just designed to show off the author's supposed architectural skills; works that fall apart after the first few chapters or even halfway through, as if the author had a good idea but had no idea what to do w/ his or her idea - or even may have sold a book on an advance chapter and then stopped short; works not only obscure but willfully obscure as to make reading an act of deciphering and suffering; long novels that should have been short stories; novels in which the research is jammed in and showy and not well integrated into the story line; novels that purport to give us a view of another culture or another time and end up doing nothing more than that and that perhaps were sold and politely reviewed in an act of condescension rather than appreciation; works that seem only to show off the author's style or learning with nothing behind that facade; novels usually late in an author's career that seem as if the author is running on fumes and just trotting out themes that served him or her better years ago but that he/she now has nothing new or fresh to say or develop. To name just a few. Do these bring to mind any novels you've read, or not read?

Friday, September 4, 2015

Some happiness in Stoner's sad life, but for how long?

At last some happiness comes into the sorrowful life of Stoner in the eponymous novel by John Williams as he (Stoner, not John Williams) begins a relationship with a similarly awkward, shy, and nerdy English instructor. Williams notes, as their relationship begins, something like: And so William Stoner had his affair. But I think the word "affair" is off in this case; Stoner's wife, Edith, is so mean and their relationship is so nonexistent that his new relationship w/ Miss Driscoll (you almost expect him to call her that) doesn't in any way seem to have the illicit, surreptitious characteristics of a marital affair. It seems consensual by all parties - though no doubt when Edith learns of it she will fight it out just to make Stoner's life more miserable. In any event, watching the two of them get to know each other and begin their relationship was so sweet and painful - once again, a beautifully rendered action in this excellent novel: she's a former grad student who'd audited Stoner's seminar on the renaissance lyric, she shows him some of her work and he's very impressed and goes to her tiny basement apartment to share his ideas - which leads to many meetings in the apartment, drinking coffee, entirely chaste and nerdy, and eventually he determines maybe she's just being polite in welcoming his attention, stops going to her, then hears around the office that she's out sick, he goes to her place bringing some ridiculous scholarly article for her to read and, at last!, he figures out she's interested in him and so begins the "affair." They're very well suited to each other - so it probably will come to a tragic or sorrowful end - but what's so striking is the delicacy with which Williams develops this relationship, the complete credibility - they are totally recognizable types familiar in any academic setting, yet they're not just types, they - or in particular he - feel like fully rounded characters, living, suffering, surprising us a little from time to time. I wish the female characters were more developed - but maybe that's material for another novel (in some ways this reminds me of another midwestern novel - what's the title? Mrs. Something? a diptych of novels one about the husband, the other about the wife, a whole sorrowful life told in very short chapters - [Mrs. Bridge, just cheated and looked it up]. Stoner's wife, a likely victim of abuse by her father, is almost necessarily more two-dimensional, locked onto the page, in that this novel is from 1965 and set over along period of time but largely in the 1930s; from today's vantage, she would have much more opportunities for healing: therapy, support groups, medication, and general support and reinforcement by various political liberation movements and by a much broader cultural context and understanding - in 1930, however, she had little choice but to repress and resent.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Stoner: A man of constant sorrow

John Williams's Stoner (1965) continues to blow me away, one of the most beautifully written and sorrowful novels I've read in years and why it's not recognized as a classic, who can say? Aside from the self-effacing life of the author? _ perhaps the academic setting in a MidWest U in the first half of the 20th century makes the novel feel a little unapproachable. True, many of its readers and devotees would be English majors - who else reads classic novels, anyway? - so we wouldn't be put off by the occasional long scene about presentations at a graduate seminar - at least I wasn't - though I recognize that many readers would skim through those sections. But there's so much more - the 100 pp. or so I read last night detail the joy Stoner takes in his small, tentative way when he realizes that maybe he could be a good teacher, his quiet pleasure in raising his daughter who's more or less ignored by her strange and distant mother. But Stoner is, at least thus far, a man of constant sorrow: it is painful to watch as his wife - returning from a few months at her childhood home in St. Louis following her father's suicide (his depression-era bank folded because of his incompetence) engages in a battle for the child's affections, trying to turn her against her loving father. And then Stoner, just gaining confidence in his teaching, crosses paths with a malevolent graduate student, perhaps doing the bidding of a faculty rival (you know what they say about faculty politics - so vicious bcz the stakes are so low). Friend WS wonders if all great literature arises from sorrow and sadness, to which the answer is, no, there is a whole comic/triumphant side to literature as well of course - but all great literature involves some kind of conflict or collision of forces, in classical terms it involves an action, so I suppose there are sorrowful elements, sometimes overcome, in all great literature. Stoner has the potential to be a novel of Job-like suffering, a good man tested for no evident reason - and its value will finally rest in part on how and whether Stoner, truly an Everyman, finds his place in the world - whether he suffers through his marriage, ends it, changes it in some way, changes her in some way. Although this is Stoner's novel, his wife Edith is the antagonist and it's easy, too easy, to loathe her - but Williams has slyly introduced some plot information that may explain her frigidity and her anger: It's just hinted (and this was not a topic in 1965 the way it is today) that she was a victim of childhood abuse, probably from her father: In the weeks after his funeral, she incinerates everything he ever gave her. Against this kind of rage and this damage, what chance does she have? Or Stoner?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

I can't believe John Williams's Stoner lived in obscurity for 50 years

John Williams's 1965 novel Stoner is almost unbearably sad, a story about Bill Stoner, a man who has missed, it seems, every opportunity for happiness in his life - or so it seems from first third of the book. He is a shy, impoverished farm boy in Missouri at the state U, becomes an English grad student to bewilderment and sorrow of his parents; has only 2 friends - they both go off to serve in World War I, he decides to stay on and continue his studies - they say he will regret this. One friend dies in combat, the other, Finch, gets a cushy stateside post during which he earns a doctorate at Columbia Teachers. After the war they both teach at Missouri - Finch a rising star who goes around in his uniform, pal of the elderly dean, everyone who's been in universities knows the type; Stoner the classic grind - we learn nothing so far about his teaching but have the sense that he's very ordinary; publishes a book from his dissertation on the classical influence on the medieval lyric, and that tells you all you need to know about his scholarship. Most sorrowfully, he falls in love at first sight with a young society woman, courts her awkwardly, she's clearly not interested but then kind of flings herself on him, perhaps believing this is her only chance at marriage. Her parents are snobbish, cold St. Louis would-be society folks. The marriage is a disaster - they are both so awkward sexually and she is cold and uncommunicative and increasingly disturbed. They have a daughter, and Stoner takes on almost all responsibility of raising and caring for the child, as well as earning a pitiful living, teaching summer school and extra classes - all while his showboat friend prospers, of course (and, unlike Stoner, Finch can barely remember their mutual friend who died in combat). All of this told in stunningly beautiful prose with a great deal of insight into personality, behavior, and mental disorder - an incredibly powerful novel and I can't believe it lived in obscurity for 50 years.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Academic Novels - including the very promosing Stoner

Started - and didn't get too far but am looking forward to continuing reading tonight - John Williams's forgotten and recently "discovered" (thank you NY Review of Books Press) 1965 novel Stoner, about an eponymous man (no, the word did not then carry any ironic or hipster connotations) who lived a decidedly not-glamorous, not-famous life as an English professor (retired as an assistant professor) at the University of Missouri in the first half of the 20th century. Academic novels often appeal to fellow-academics, many of whom are the critics and reviewers who establish literary tastes and trends, and I too have a soft spot for the genre, although not all of them are great: among the better would be Roth's When She Was Good, the novel by Malamud whose name I can't recall, Nabokov's Pnin (sort of a companion piece to Stoner, in that the eponymous academic was if I recall an Assistant Professor Emeritus), William Maxwell's short novel about U of Indiana, and some lesser contenders like The Art of Fielding, Proses's contemporary take on the Blue Angel, Smiley's Moo ... these just off the top of my head. From first sections, Stoner is really a cut above all of these, at least potentially (we'll see how it holds up - so many novels don't sad to say): he's a very poor farm boy whose family sacrifices to send him to the ag school at Missouri where he falls in love w/ literature and begins studying for a doctorate to become what they quaintly call a "teacher." Just comparing this the the Nobelist's novel I just abandoned, Palace Walk, could make a case study successful ways to present a back story, and not: Mahfouz just told us what each of the characters was like, what their characteristics were, without having them do anything or face any evident conflict, drama, or emotion; Williams in a very few pages sketches in the pathos of this young man's life, his loneliness working his way through college by doing farm chores for board, with having no friends, his uncertainty about his intelligence, the struggle to tell his nearly wordless parents that he's not coming back to the farm- an almost heart-breaking scene of sorrow and resignation - the sense not only poverty but also of poverty against privilege in the university setting, the haves and have-nots, and of course the provincialism of life in a land grant at the beginning of the 20th century - a despair that Williams must have felt in his own barely recognized writer's life at the U of Denver (I think) - hard not to think his work would have been much more celebrated had he taught at a major writing center like Iowa or at an Ivy or in NYC.