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

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

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Why Ferrante's novels would translate well to movies or TV (and why Proust doesn't)

I suspect, despite my many reservations about her flat narrative tone and her steady accumulation of incidents w/out a lot of reflection or development, or maybe because of these reservations?, Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend (vol. 1 of her Neapolitan novels, not a trilogy as I had previously posted but at least 4 vols and maybe still counting) would make a pretty good movie or, even better, TV series. How can this be? Think of Ferrante's work as the polar opposite from Proust's narrative-fiction: in Proust, the events themselves are generally quite staid and superficially uninteresting - dinner parties, concerts, train rides, long conversations, salons - and what makes the work great are Proust's observations and perceptions throughout. Proust has been adapted into film, w/ no success - one I saw about 20 years ago about the Swann in Love section was so bad it was laugh-out-loud funny; I wrote about it at the time that only those who love Proust could possibly like this film and they will hate it. Ferrante, the opposite, has many scenes of action and social drama: street fights, a murder, a rather spectacular wedding, and many others. But few of these scenes are developed to any length and there is virtually no authorial insight - making the novel feel flat but giving rich opportunities for a screenwriter to open up the material and show the action, bring it alive. Similarly, Proust has relatively few central characters, and (aside from confusion resulting from the use of titles sometimes and not at other times) they're pretty distinct in behavior and easy to keep apart in your mind while reading; Ferrante's characters blend into one another - there's little physical description and it's hard to remember who's in what family, who loves whom, who's seeking revenge against whom - problems much easier to resolve on screen, when we can much more easily  identify each character by their features, voice, behavior = they're not just "names" (in fact it's often hard to remember the names of secondary characters in movies/tv). If the Neapolitan novels haven't yet been optioned, I'd say it's only a matter of time. I can wait.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Two themes in Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend

My comments over past few days about Elena Ferrante's flat writing style aside, let's look for a moment at the overall themes of My Brilliant Friend (vol 1 of her Neapolitan Trilogy). Though there have been countless novels, YA novels, films about the coming of age of young girls (and guys as well), what separates MBF from the crowd is its sense of place: Ferrante creates a portrait not only of the two best friends, Elena and Lila, but of a working-class Neapolitan neighborhood in postwar Italy. We've seen these streets in films but none of the Italian neo-Realist films that I can recall focused on (a) girls or (b) schooling (Shoeshine was about two young boys of this time and place, but they were on a rung below the children in Ferrante's working-class neighborhood - they were street children one step away from prison). We see over the course of MBF how family feuds echo across the generations, or perhaps move through the generations, up and down in waves, like a Slinky: kids may fight in the streets because of a dispute among their parents; brothers go after one another because of something said to one of their sisters - the whole novel is about these feuds and shifting alliances - and in particular the effect on children - whom they can befriend or date and who is a blood enemy - like Montagues and Capulets played out in a "lower" social class. There are unexpected shifts in the family alliances - truces, forgiveness - often because of a couple's getting together. BTW these relations are extremely difficult to follow in this novel, as Ferrante really never clearly enough delineates or differentiates among the many characters and families, w/ the exception of the two central figures. The other thing that strikes us is this expose of the Italian education system and of the extremely limited opportunities for intelligent young women, regardless of class. It's astonishing that in the 1950s education beyond high school required payment of tuition and cost of books and materials. Almost all kids in this neighborhood stopped after elementary school and simply joined the family business - or, for women, got engaged by about 15. Those who stayed in school, like the narrator Elena, were a rarity - and the heart of this novel examines the different pathways that Elena and Lila - forced by her family to leave school and join the family shoe-repair business - follow. Toward the end, Lila is about to "marry up" to the wealthy son whose family runs a food store (if I remember right), and we have to wonder where all his money comes from - there are hints and references throughout to organized crime an the money accumulated by a much-feared gangster family, while others live just above the line of poverty.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Truth or Consequences?: My Brilliant Career as novel or memoir

A reader commented on yesterday's post, and she put it very well: Though Elena Ferrante's memoir-like series of novels (more on that in a moment) is full of incident, there's a numbing sameness and lack of direction to her work. Everything she narrates is told w/ the same cool detachment, and the book feels like a chain of events,, with relatively little authorial commentary, observation, or perspective. All, whether trivial (grocery shopping) or profound (murder) are presented in pretty much the same manner. The book is very easy to read - esp in electronic format through which you can easily check to get the quick background on one of the many hard-to-distinguish characters - and there are enough episodes that, in isolation, make for pretty good narratives: the first trip w/ her friends into downtown Naples, the New Year's Eve fireworks war, the journey to Ischia where a seemingly suave and sensitive man - father of the boy she has a crush on - tries seduce her. But there's also the sense of a novel stuck in place: repeatedly EF tells us how her best friend, Lila, is really smart and rebellious and struggles w/ her parents who refuse to pay for her additional schooling, etc. We get it. There's just not enough change in the two main characters or in the relationship between them to justify such a long work. Could the same be said of Knausgaard's My Struggle, which I have given the highest praise in many posts? Do I prefer KOK's work because of gender alliance? There may be some truth in that - but I would definitely say that Knausgaard is far more analytic regarding the events of his youth, far more detailed and complex in describing his difficult family, the feeling and experience of adolescence and first love, the yearning for career and success. KOK's work feels more like a memoir that Farrante's, by the way: as we move alone in volume one of Ferrante, My Brilliant Career, there are many long scenes, esp involving her friend Lila's family, that EF could not have experienced or narrated first-hand; and the coincidence of her working in the tiny pensione that the family of the boy she has a crush on just happens to rent for the summer is very unlikely aside from the exigencies of fiction. The Neapolitan Series is a novel, and we should judge it as such.

Monday, December 28, 2015

My problem with Ferrante

Continuing reading Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, volume 1 of her Neapolitan Trilogy, and, oddly (or perhaps not so oddly) I find myself having the exact same thoughts I had several years ago when reading Ferrante's best-known novel, The Days of Abandonment (you can see my 2 posts on that novel to see what I mean): She gets the novel off to a good start, clearly establishing the two main characters, the narrator (Elena) and her best/brilliant friend, Lila, both intelligent but Lila much more intuitive, self-taught, bold; though both live in the same Naples working-class neighborhood, Elena has more parental support, as her parents somewhat grudgingly support her continued schooling (voluntary and costly beyond elementary school, amazingly) while Lila's family pulls her from school and insists that she work in the family shoe-repair business. OK, Ferrante sets that up very well in the first third of the novel, yet as I continue reading I find I'm stuck at the same point: she keeps adding incidents that show in various guises this same initial theme; although the characters mature - the first half of the novel covers roughly 10 years of their lives - their relationship doesn't change or evolve, it's just a more-mature version of the same thing, focused on boyfriends rather than on play w/ dolls for example. Ferrante is an easy writer to read and to like, but in this novel as in Abandonment I find she doesn't get past her initial premise; she makes a point and then makes it again and again - maybe OK for a short novel from for 3 volumes? We'll see.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The life story of Elena Ferrante, whoever she or he may be

Elena Ferrante - who is she? She's (or he's?) a writer a pseudonym for a writer about whom the public knows literally nothing other than what we know through her works of fiction; she outdoes even Pynchon and Salinger, in that she has never publicly disclosed her name or any biographical information of any sort (though, unlike Pynchon, she has done some interviews online or through correspondence about her work - she's not one who refuses to comment but one who refuses to disclose autobiographical information - not that the work must speak for itself but rather that the author's life has no significance in our judgment or enjoyment of the work). That said, it's especially strange to begin reading her Neapolitan trilogy, the first volume of which - My Brilliant Friend - seems by all evidence to be a very closely autobiographical story of a young girl growing up in a tough working-class neighborhood in Naples, in about 1950. The narrator - Elena - focuses on her lifelong friendship with Lila, her on-an-off rival for position as smartest kid in the school, but Lila is much more tough and unconventional, more daring. The first third of the volume establishes the culture of the neighborhood - lots of blood feuds and rivalries among the families, which trickle down to the schoolchildren who get in fights that carry on the same feuds of pride and prejudice. As the girls finish elementary school and move to middle school - which requires an entrance exam (rather amazing to see the limits of public education opportunities in post-war Italy), the girls drift apart: Lila's parents keeping her out of school so that she can help in the family shoe-repair business. The tone of the novel is simple and matter-of-fact, extremely easy to read, at least on the surface, though there are a lot of characters and families, which are sometimes hard to keep straight. Compared with the great European autobiographical sagas - Proust, Knausgaard, to name two I've also been reading over the years - this is the least literary and reflective; Ferrante stays closely to the facts of her childhood without long passages to analyze her experience from the adult point of view. Though she has a few breaks in chronology - the first section is contemporary and tells us of Lila's sudden disappearance at age 60 or so - she stays pretty much in straightforward chronology (unlike KOK). Assuming the events in the novel closely track her childhood - which maybe they don't? - I would guess that, even in this non-literary culture of her youth - there would be plenty of people who could identify the elusive author.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The one great dishonesty at the core of Search for Lost Time

Sodom and Gomorrah, vol 4 of In Search of Lost Time, ends w/ narrator Marcel making the "discovery" that Albertine has engaged in lesbian relationships - bringing back to his mind a memory of a lesbian liaison he had observed secretly as a much younger man in Vol 1 - to this volume is framed by two surreptitious observations of homosexual encounters, both of which fill Marcel with wonder and with loathing (self-loathing?). In regard to Albertine he is physically repulsed by this realization and cuts himself off from her immediately - and then, oddly, goes back to his room in the Balbec hotel, is up crying till dawn, at which point he calls his mother into his room - she has been present in the background throughout this volume but played almost no role - and she reminds him of his beloved grandmother, and then oddly he tells her that he must marry Albertine. Why is this? Again, like Charlus (discussed in yesterday's post), he's drawn to what he loathes and fears. Also, as w/ Proust's writing about Charlus, we can see her an oblique way in which Proust can present his own homosexuality in his literature - something that he could not do directly, in literature and maybe in life (as translator John Sturrock points out in his short introduction to this volume, Proust was not a hero to the gay readers and writers). The theme of sexuality - homosexuality in particular - really opens up in volume 4 of Search and sets us up for the theme of jealousy and betrayal that will dominate the next 2 volumes - but Proust's strange attitude toward homosexuality, perhaps typical of the attitude of his time and his class, is disconcerting and disorienting to the contemporary reader: one the one hand, so frank and matter-of-fact about some of the encounters, those of Charlus in particular, and on the other hand so full of revulsion and jealousy - Marcel re Albertine above all; it's as if MP felt compelled to write about a heterosexual love - M and A - but felt that he himself, as a writer, was constrained and dishonest: in this novel of the most deeply personal confessions, recollections, and obsessions, there is this one great vacuum at the core, the inability to write directly about love and sex as he knew and felt and experienced it. This tension doesn't detract from the novel but actually drives it, makes the work even greater and more fraught w/ emotion: not just a confessional novel of memoir, but an obsessional one.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Two reasons for Charlus' anti-Semitic outburst - vol 4 Search for Lost Time

Toward the end of vol 4 of In Search of Lost Time the imperious and hateful Baron de Charlus sets off on an anti-Semitic diatribe in the entire novel, a bitter, acrimonious attack on Marcel's friend Bloch, who is Jewish, and by extension on the entire Jewish population of Paris, the entire Jewish people. This spewing of hatred is an eruption of the anti-Dreyfus beliefs so prevlaent in the so-called nobility in Paris at the time - a major sub-theme of the entire novel - and is an eerie precursor to the diatribes of Nazi Germany some two decades down the road. What causes this eruption? Charlus throughout the novel continuously talks of his long "noble" lineage and his membership in many exclusive clubs or "orders." He's also the great enforcer of social protocol and the first to feel a snub or flub. But as we know by this point in the novel Charlus is also a not-so-secret homosexual and sadist, praying primarily upon much younger, more vulnerable men of a different social "class." In this scene in vol 4, Charlus has just asked Marcel to introduce him to his friend Bloch; for complex reasons (his own jealousy regarding this "girlfriend" Albertine), Marcel doesn't do it - which is in part what sets Charlus off against not only Bloch but against all Jews. Two possible reasons for this at least: first, he feels a compulsion to degrade, denigrate, and insult that which he cannot have. If he can't flirt w/ the young Bloch, then he is compelled to treat him as worthless dirt. Second and a little more mysterious: He only wants that which he can degrade (and by extension he projects his own feeling of shame and sordidness onto others). Through his long verbal attack on Bloch and the Jews Charlus seems in some way to arouse himself - to make the object of his momentary passion even more desirable because lower, more sinful, thereby more alluring. Charlus continuously crosses the boundary between respectability and shame - a pathetic figure, if hardly a tragic one.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Giving the lie to Tolstoy: Tim Parks story Bedtimes

Starting to notice Tim Parks, an English writer who has fallen below my radar at least, but who now has had two very good recent stories in NYer, and quite different from each other in fact; really admired his story from earlier in the year, Vespa, which was an account of teenage love crossing social-class boundaries and centered on a stolen Vespa and the mysterious attempts to get the bike returned and restored, a very fresh voice and very credible - while his current NYer story, Bedtimes, is a short one, only 2 pp., and focuses on a middle-aged couple in a strained marriage. The story consists of brief passages about each bedtime for the couple over the course of a week; it has a deceptively flat and unengaged tone - you read the first "bedtime" and think so what, man and woman go up to the bedroom at different times and don't speak much to each other. But subtly Parks we've in some themes and issues - wife suspecting husband of an affair, husband awkwardly trying to build rapport w/ college-age daughter and teenage son, husband yearning sexually for indifferent wife. From the outside, seen "objectively," it's seems to be a happy family - kids get along very well, parents take them out for burgers, movies, a visit to a pub - but the glimpses we get of the inside of the marriage, those private and discrete moments, bedtimes, together but apart, we see the faults and fissures and looming catastrophes. In a sense, this story gives the lie to Tolstoy's famous though simplistic observation: even "happy" families are different, unique, subject for literature.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Baron de Charlus and his fractured homosexuality in Volume 4 of Search for Lost Time

Impossible to fully understand In Search of Lost Time without making some sense out of the character of the Baron de Charlus. As we learn definitively at the outset of volume 4, the aptly named Sodom and Gommorah, Charlus leads a "secret" life as a homosexual - he's a certain recognizable type, an older, distinguished man, going to pot a little bit (getting notably fatter over the course of the volumes) who is attracted only to much younger men and of a much lower social status; he's also a stalker, picks out likely pick-ups and engages in quick, violent, masochistic sex with them and then he's gone. There's much discussion about what today we'd call his "gaydar," as he seems to have a lot of trysts and, at least to the knowledge of the narrator, never gets beaten or assaulted by straight men he tries to pick up. Over the course of volume 4, Charlus develops his first, it seems, long-standing gay relationship, as he links up with a man who fits the type but is a little more cultured than the shopkeepers he previously picked up: Morel, an accomplished violinist who is in active military service (as a side note: military service in France at this era seems to be a joke; no wonder the country fared so poorly in the world wars). As Morel becomes Charlus' constant companion, we begin to see the fractures in Charlus' life. On the one hand, his homosexuality is supposed to be a deep secret. He never comes out, openly, as a homosexual - as he would today of course, and even in the time he would have, though it would have threatened his treasured social status and acceptance. On the other hand, everyone seems to know about Charlus' "taste" - hosts make a point of putting him and Morel up in "adoining rooms," for example, and there are various scenes in which someone says something off-hand like "Your taste is known to differ," referring to artworks, but that leads to weird and awkward embarrassing moments. Homosexuality is the great unspoken - and yet, it's not unspoken in this novel, it's a major theme, especially of volume 4. It's only unspoken in relation to Proust himself, a homosexual, as all readers know or surmise, who pretends otherwise. This fractured knowledge is part of the tension and excitement of the novel, and of French (and our) society, to varying degrees. As we proceed through volume 4 Charlus takes increasingly daring steps toward revealing his homosexuality - wearing lipstick!, for example - but he can never quite cross the line and everyone else pretends not to know what everyone knows.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Proust in Love: The strange relationships in In Search of Lost Time

I'm sure books have been written on this topic, but let me note the strange nature of love in Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Aside from his sincere and affecting love for his mother and his grandmother, Marcel's love for girls or women of his own age seems to me alien and unrecognizable. Of course all modern readers recognize that Marcel, as in MP, didn't actually love women and girls, he was, using the term he prefers, and "invert," and though much of the novel looks upon the other "inverts in French society with a mixture of horror and disgust, clearly what Proust is afraid to look at the only thing he's afraid to look at - is his own sexuality: in this and only thins he's a victim of the conventions of his time. So instead he creates for his narrator, Marcel, the life-dominating relationship w/ Albertine. this is a relationship completely dominated by violent bouts of jealousy - Marcel cannot be away from Albertine for an hour w/out being tormented by jealousy, often imagining that she is with another woman. In vol 4, Sodom and Gomorrah, the novel comes closer than in any other section (I think) to a truly romantic idyll and interlude - as Marcel hires a car to take him and Albertine to various scenic spots on the Norman coast where she can dabble in drawing and painting - and then at night they often go to a beach and lie together under a blanket and kiss (there are hints that Marcel has had sex with prostitutes, but he relationship w/ A up to this point appears to be chaste) - and M suggests that he has never been so happy. But it does not truly seem as if he's happy: he's always concerned about her faithfulness and obsessed with worry. Will she want to go out w/ him again tomorrow? We never see them talking, joking, enjoying one another's company. He never seems to be overcome by feelings for her, never seems to walk on air as people do in the first stages of love - she never makes him feel better about himself, their relationship is always fraught w/ uncertainty. There's also always the sense that they are separated by class, altho M does not dwell on this point. I hate to belabor the Proust v Knausgaard theme, but here's another area in which they differ: Every readers, at least every male reader, can easily identify w/ and recognize as accurate KOK's accounts of his first awkward adolescent loves. Marel's love, on the other hand, seems consistently abstract and exotic, a defense against love rather than a surrender to its power.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Further thoughts on Proust v Knausgaard

Further and maybe final thoughts for the moment on Proust v Knausgaard: One additional way in which they differ substantially concerns the very nature of what they're writing and what they hope to accomplish through their writing. Proust puts it very directly right in the title of his work: Search for Lost Time. As everyone knows, he lived the first half of his life as a silent observer and chronicler - nobody suspected the perspicacity of his observations, his skill, or his determination; they wrote him off as a dandy and dilettante - and then he essentially retired from life and write in order to capture and hold the experiences, thoughts, and sensations of his life as recollected. All writers before and since draw to one degree or another on memory; and many writers, I believe, write not so much to capture memory (or "lost time") as to purge it: personally, I have felt that once I write about my experiences, strangely, I can no longer recall those experiences with accuracy. The writing has in some way replaced the experience. Knausgaard is not retired from life and examining what it is to recapture experience; he is still "in" his life, in a sense. He, too, announces his objective in his title: he writes of his struggle, but the "struggle" is not to write. He struggle is twofold: one, to be like everyone else, to just be a normal guy, accepted by all, whereas he feels like an outsider; but at the same time, two, his struggle is to express his unique identity and experiences through his writing: so he wants to be both unique and "like everyone else," an impossibility, in a way, but maybe not so - as his writing can enable both possibilities. Proust is the outsider looking on his life like a scientist or philosopher; Knausgaard is the insider, laying his life bare, seeking acceptance, both literary and personal.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The 6-year anniversary of this blog - and the 5 most-popular posts on elliotsreading

Today marks the first day of year 7 of this blog, elliotsreading; I have posted every day since I began keeping this blog, a daily record of what I'm reading and what I'm thinking about what I'm reading. Thanks for checking in, and thanks for your occasional comments. Looking back over the past 6 years of posts, these are the five posts that, for one reason or another, who knows exactly why?, have had the most page views:

One Horrifying Concept and What it Means: George Saunders's story The Semplica Girls. June 17, 2013. I have championed Saunders's work since reading his first collection in an ARC; Semplica Girls, which appeared in the New Yorker and has been reprinted several times, is maybe the strangest and most disturbing of all of his stories. Somehow my post on this story rose to the top of the Google search for key terms, and there you have it.

Eudora Welty's Story "A Memory." June 20, 2011. This is a very short story by a great writer, and I imagine the story appears on many high-school reading lists. Somehow my post, which interprets this story, made it to one of the search engines - about.com I think. I call this one "the post that launched a thousand term papers."

What Is the Name of Sancho Panza's Donkey? November 8, 2011. I tried to answer this age-old question, which I guess a lot of readers are still asking.

Diamonds Are Forever: The Ending of The Art of Fielding. November 20, 2011. A lot of people read this novel by Chad Harrach back in 2011, but I doubt whether it's still widely read, so the popularity of this post is enigmatic. My guess is that many people may be searching "Diamonds are Forever" and are surprised to end up reading a post about a college baseball team and a faculty scandal.

The End of The Portrait of a Lady: How Could You! November 30, 2010. I imagine a lot of readers are frustrated by the end of James's novel, as was I. On the other hand, maybe a lot of readers are not going to get to the end of the novel and are searching for someone out there - me - who will clue them in on the conclusion.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

More thoughts on Proust v Knausgaard

Continuing w/ further thoughts on Knausgaard v Proust - One difference should be immediately clear to any reader: the difference in literary style, in particular sentence structure. Proust has about the most complex sentence structure of any prose writer in the world, extremely long sentences with many qualifying clauses and phrases and unusual layering of tenses, some of which have no obvious parallel in English. Many of his sentences go on for a page or more and require constant attention and sometimes re-reading. His sentences and paragraphs often end w/ a summative flourish. KOK's style is much more natural, flat, and accessible, not rife with allusions, obscure references, or sefl-reflexive twists and turns - much easier to read and, I suspect, to translate. Neither style is "better"; each serves the needs of the author and establishes the author's voice - which brings us to another key difference: MP's Search for Lost Time, while it is an many ways an autobiographical novel that encompasses a coming of age and a painful retrospective on the life and times of Marcel, is very much a novel seen from the outside. In almost all of the society scenes - the soirees, salons, and dinner parties - Marcel is an acute and trenchant observer who barely participates. He reflects, analyzes, skewers, but largely we feel he is giving us access to a world we could not have otherwise known. KOK's My Struggle differs greatly: Karl Ove is the key figure in every scene, every moment; it is entirely the story of his life. While of course we could not access the many scenes of his life, from childhood through the time of the actual composition of his volumes, we don't feel so much that KOK is providing us privileged access to a cultish and near-extinct society but that he is providing us access to his own consciousness and experience, and the world he lives through does not feel alien but rather exceptionally familiar - not just that he is a contemporary and MP wrote a century ago but it's the very nature of his style and ambition: as one reviewer said (I have quoted this before): It's like reading someone else's diary and (gradually) recognizing that it's your own. Nobody, I think, would ever or could ever has said that of Proust - although his observations and apercus are sometimes so astonishing - its as if he expresses a thought you have always had but had never put into language and you had assumed it was yours alone: loneliness and isolation v community, each with its own shame, pain, and struggle.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Proust and Knausgaard - comparisons

Many readers including me have compared Karl Ove Knausgaard w/ Marcel Proust, and justifiably so, but let's look for a second at the similarities and differences, which are substantial. Both have written multi-volume  (KOK=6, MP = 7) novels that hew so closely to the facts of their lives as we know them - granted, we mostly know them thru the novels so this argument can be circular - that they could be considered memoirs. Both write with astonishing honesty about their lives, even the most embarrassing or shameful moments and encounters, and both tell the story, over a long period of time, of the forming of a consciousness of a writer, and both incorporate vast passages of dialogue that feel as if they must have been recorded at the time but which obviously are reconstructed through memory and invention. But now some of the differences, for starters: MP is far more of a philosopher than KOK, his novel filled with observations about perception and strikingly odd analogies and explanations, while KOK's style is much more straightforward, much more driven by events (though there are a few "proustian" moments such as the opening segment in which he wonders about how our society treats death and corpses, or his beautiful paean to beer); KOK is more straightforward and honest about his family and about sexuality, MP being inhibited by the conventions of the day and unwilling to open up about his own homosexuality; KOK more of a typical child and man of his day, a son of a teacher and a nurse, not raised in a precious and gilded literary enclave or bubble, and much of the novel is about his "struggle" to write and to become a wrtier, while MP always seems to be a special case, not at all like any or at least most of his readers, a spoiled, precocious poseur, or so it would seem, until he retired from society and wrote his masterpiece, and only rarely in the novel does her references the narrator's desire or need to writer; Knausgaard intentionally writing out of sequence, while MP writes his 7 volumes in strict chronological order. Many more comparisons come to mind and will come to mind, and I'll post further on these over time as I read thru MP vol 4.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Two societies in Search for Lost Time: Paris, Balbec

In vol 4 of Proust's In Search of Lost Time (Sodom and Gomorrah, in whichever tr you're reading; I'm reading the Penguin Deluxe John Sturrock tr.) narrator Marcel makes his second visit to Balbec, this time he's older, more mature, more sexually experienced and confidant. The real contrast, though, is not so much w/ his earlier Balbec visit (in vol. 2, when he's fascinated by and ultimately brought w/in the circle of the "young girls in flower") but w/ the social scene in Paris that constitutes the first half of this volume. Put simply, the Paris world - seen mostly through the soiree chez the Prince and Prince des Guermantes - is a world that Marcel looks at somewhat from the outside. Though the Guermantes family welcomes him into the social event, he seems throughout to be an observer and chronicler (little did any of MP's aristocratic friends have any idea how this young dilettante would later memorialize, and skewer, in a great work of literature). The world of the Guermantes, or The Guermantes Way, is exclusive and privileged, even to those invited into the circle - as we see from Marcel's strained efforts to be "introduced" to his host and from the extreme deference the guests all pay to all of the Guermantes clan, including the repulsive bully M. de Charlus. The Balbec society, a seaside culture more informal and relaxed, centers on the Wednesday-evening gatherings at the Verdurins - and MP's depiction differs greatly from his depiction of the Paris salons. In Balbec the guests all see one another as part of "the little clan," and there's a long, somewhat sweet (unusual for the Search) passage about how they recognize one another on the "little train" that takes them to the Verdurins, saving seats in the carriage, etc. In this group, Marcel is an insider, a long-time member. It's true - the group is probably just as exclusive and proprietary as the Paris salon, when seen from the outside - MP includes a scene in which they basically kick a farmer out of "their" railroad carriage, for example. The "little group" together act as if they own the railroad, and to others the group must seem as snobbish as the salons of Paris - but here Marcel is an "insider" and his tone is different, if not his (or our) ultimate judgment.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Judaism, homosexuality, and the two "ways" in Search for Lost Time

Judaism, like homosexuality, is a topic Proust approaches with a lot ambiguity. Proust was both Jewish (maybe half-Jewish?, same thing) and homosexual but in his vast novel in which almost every nuance of feeling and experience is examined and laid bare, the oddity is that his self-named narrator, Marcel, is neither Jewish (it would appear) nor homosexual. But there are differences between these two "outsider" groups, in Proust's mind and treatment: his narrator has a loathing for homosexual men and Lesbian women, which as noted in yesterday's post is a weirdly distorted self-loathing, loathing seen as in a mirror, projected, distanced, and reversed. As to the Jewish characters, Marcel has no such loathing or hatred - but many, probably most of the characters in his "set" do. The Jews are outsiders, on a fringe, trying to be accepted by society and by the nobility, but inevitably marked and treated as different: M's Jewish friend Bloch and his social blunders, Bloch's sister w/ her flamboyant and provocative Lesbian relationships, most of all Swann, seemingly of the upper caste but always somehow looked at with scorn, more or less ushered out of the Guermantes soiree ostensibly because of his views on the Dreyfus case. (Dreyfus and Proust is another potentially grand and complex topic, much of it a little obscure for today's readers though, including me of course.) Swann is a great collector and society figure, but can never attain the highest rungs, his social position only worsened by the fact that his wife, Odette, had a colorful past. Many of the characters say nasty things about and do nasty things to the Jewish characters, but Marcel never does - their anti-Semitism is a sign of their own ignorance and intolerance. He's not as defensive about this issue as about the sexual issues. I wonder if the famous choice of two "ways" (cotes) that he sets forth in the first volume is also a choice between straight and gay, and between his Jewish (Swann's Way) and his Christian ancestry (the more "noble" Guermantes Way).

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Jealousy, self-loathing, and homosexuality in Proust vol 4: Sodom and Gomorrah

Shall we continue w/ the strangeness of In Search of Lost Time? Why not? A huge turning point in this vast novel occurs midway through vol 4, Sodom and Gomorrah, when Marcel's jealousy regarding Albertine ignites - and it's this jealousy and torment that will propel the novel through volumes 5 and 6. The key is that he is not jealous because he suspects Albertine has been w/ other men. Au contraire. His jealousy sparks when the elderly and pedantic Dr. Cottard sees Albertine dancing w/ Andree in one of the seaside pavilions, and Cottard notes, quite absurdly, that their breasts are touching while they dance and he goes on to discuss female arousal. So Marcel creates this vast conspiracy in his mind, constantly obsessed with Albertine's supposed liaisons w/ Andree and perhaps w/ other women. What makes this strange - a mirror within mirrors in the "funhouse" world of Proust's fiction - is that of course Proust himself was gay and the relationship w/ Albertine that he created in his fiction was actually based on a relationship w/ another young man - so in some weird way he cannot write about his own homosexuality but rather he transposes that Albertine's supposed lesbianism (Sodom into Gomorrah) and he rails against that as a perversion and disgrace. It's as if he suffers from guilt and self-loathing and the only way he can extirpate these feelings, through art, is through transposition. So the gay author creates a straight relationship between M and A that M destroys because of his (false) belief that A is in love with or at least cheating on him with another woman. This complex structure - projection of self-loathing onto another - also plays out regarding Judaism in Search for Lost Time, a topic for another post.

Monday, December 14, 2015

A writer attempting to deal wioth trauma: McCann and Thirteen Ways of Seeing

All in book group agreed that Colum McCann's Thirteen Ways of Looking was a strong collection of (4) stories, including one long story. Kind disparate discussion as we all weighed in on each of the stories with a wide range of comments, quibbles, and commendations. It seems, oddly, that we talked the most about the 4th story, the one about the nun who was tormented by a captor in her youth and now, years later, learns that the man who tortured her is a respected world citizen and she goes to London to confront him. We all were glad she did so, though some of us - maybe me in particular - wish she hadn't just made it a personal resolution that she had outed the guy and told the world what a woman-hating criminal he was and maybe still is. As to the title story, we all seemed to agree that we admired the unusual time scheme - we learn early on that the central character gets murdered, the question is why and how - and the way McCann blended a close third-person account of an elderly man coping with his ailments and limitations and essentially a police procedural as several detectives scour videocam recordings for evidence. I noted that I didn't like the coincidence that the killer just happened to work in the very restaurant where is victim was having lunch - that it should have been a hired hit or an act of rage gone wrong; M disagreed and said that placing the killer in the restaurant and making his act impulsive rather than premeditated added to the story. Someone - RR? - believed that the central figure sounded too Irish and Joycean and not Jewish enough. Some discussion about Stevens's framing poem, and we agreed that the verses are not meant to tie directly to each of the sections of the story. Not much to say about the xmas story although some more than others liked the idea of a story about a writer struggling to write a story (I not among those). Much talk also about the story about the boy who nearly drowned - and the mystery of what exactly happened to him, which will remain unsolved. Much criticism of the mother for her poor judgment and even for her desire to live with this demanding child in a remote village rather than in a city or suburb where help would be at hand. Finally, we obviously discussed the relationship between the assault on McCann and these stories. I for one am skeptical of his claim that the title story was written before he was assaulted; in any event, it's clear that each of these stories represents a writer's attempt to deal with and overcome trauma, through his writing and through his characters, which in a way is what all writers do all that time, to varying degrees and w/ varying success.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Good New Yorker story that would make a great play: Jelly and Jack

Good story this week in the New Yorker, from Dana Spiotta, Jelly and Jack, set in the 1970s, about a woman (Jelly) who makes anonymous calls to people in the film industry (most of them anyway, I think) and engages them in conversation and over time builds a set of fairly intimate, though never sexual, relationships with all communication being by phone. This story focuses on one such relationship, all seen from her POV, and we understand the power she feels in guiding these phone relationships and what role they play in her life - and in the life of the person on the line, Jack, in this case. As you might well expect - and this is even more apparent in today's world of social media and online dating sites - w/out actually lying she leads the men she talks to into believing she's young and attractive, which is for her a way to feel younger and more attractive, but a way that also imposes a burden, makes her question her worth rather than recognize her worth and her strengths. Inevitably, her phone contacts ask for a picture, and that's where she's pushed to the limit and at one point sends a photo of someone else - younger and prettier. And that kind of puts her in a box - even when the phone-friend asks to meet her (she lives in Syracuse, as it happens) she now feels she can't do it and cuts off the relationship altogether. Very sad - and I think this would make a great two-person play (probably with only she on stage; or maybe there could be different versions played on alternative nights, one with Jelly on stage and the next night with Jack?). There's a one-act opera, can't recall the title, entirely based on one woman and a telephone. This could have the same power. (Today, obviously, the relationship would play out on line - where disguise is easier of course but on the other hand it's much easier to track someone down based on a few basic facts.)


Saturday, December 12, 2015

The most disappointing books and stories I read in 2015

And now we come to the reading (books, stories) that disappointed me the most in 2015. These are by no means the worst books and stories of the year - why would anyone want to read the worst? - but they're books and stories that let me down because of the initial hope or promise they offered based on author's reputation, recognition of the work, or establishment of a fine premise at the outset - and then?:

Lauren Groff's novel Fates and Furies. This novel has been earmarked as a literary version of the best-selling thriller Gone Girl. But for me the thrill was gone. After a promising start in which we learn the back story we go on for a hundred pages or more with a very unlikable crowd of Vassar grads trying to make it in the arts in NYC and if any one of them had any insight, wit, or thoughtful conversation I must have missed it. I know that part 2 contained some surprises, but I bailed. (This was disappointing as well because I admired a few of Groff's stories that I read this year.)

Milan Kundera's story The Apologizer. This guy wrote some of the best fiction of the 20th century about the artist-intellectual's life under Eastern European communist rule, but in his years of exile in the West - in Paris - his writing has been weary and self-indulgent, like this piece of about a man trying and failing to write a story. Exactly.

Haruki Murakami's story Kino. I was a huge fan of Murakami's early works but as he continues to publish he seems stuck on one place. The many symbols and idees fixes that characterized his early works and made his writing distinct and mysterious - cats, ears, ghosts, coffee shops, jazz bars, running, mysterious journeys, just to name a few - now seem like literary tics. In this story a man orders the narrator to take a journey and send back post cards to a certain address - which he does. But why? Who knows?

Zadie Smith's story Escape from New York. Some of the blame here is not Smith's but lies with the New Yorker editors who used this piece to lead off the summer fiction issue. 3 people - Michael, Marlon, and Elizabeth - rent a car to get out of NYC just after the 9/11 attacks. These are 3 celebs - you can figure out who - and story leads to various lame jokes such as they have never heard of the kind of car they're renting (Camry). They're bound for Bethlehem, which they hear is "some place in Pennsylvania." Biblical allusions aside, it's almost insulting that this is Smith's or the NYer's take on the events that changed so many lives forever.

Bram Stoker's Dracula. The first section - the narrator's visit to the Count's castle in Transylvania - is truly fabulous and exciting, as he gradually realizes the nature of his host and as he escapes his captivity. Then we go to England for an endless, tedious investigation into the vampire phenomenon, completely uninteresting to the contemporary reader.

That's it - there were a few other novels I started and couldn't or at any rate didn't finish, but that was mainly because they were the wrong books at the wrong reading time: various dark European novels that were obscure and too demanding and a 1,000-page Trollope tome.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Proust, names, and baseball cards

There are many reasons to read Proust's In Search of Lost Time, including to name a few depiction of a society, observations about human consciousness and perceptions, trenchant wit, examination of love in all its facets, some beautiful passages (could anything be more so than the description of apple blossoms in early spring, end of part 1 of Sodom and Gomorrah, Spurrock translation?), psychological depth, ( a psychiatrist I know tells of beginning his residency and asking his advisor what books he should read and rather than a list of medical treatises his advisor said: Proust), philosophical examinations (comparable to Wittgenstein - above all, I think Proust was a philosopher) and most of all consciousness of the consciousness of another. Proust's consciousness is about as strange as that of any novelist I've ever encountered not only perceived things others didn't (until they'd read him) but he perceives everyday things in his own way. One of the strangest aspects of Proust's consciousness is his endless fascination with proper nouns - almost an obsession, something that today would most likely put him "on the spectrum." Not only is there a whole section on place names (in Swann's Way, I think) but this obsession continues throughout: in S&G, which I'm reading now, there is a long section on the "nicknames" for the little railroad along the Normandy cost (railroads are another obsession), the names of all the stations on the line, and very long passages filled w/ names of the blue-blood guests at many of the soirees, many of the names so long as to be comical. Apparently Proust drew some of the names from old social registers - and each to him resonated in some odd way, I'm sure. Don't you have similar experiences, though? I think of my boyhood looking at baseball and football cards, and I became a "fan" of certain players based entirely on their name and on their image on the card (or even on the background color of the card) - most of them, I'd never seen play, not even on TV. The name and the image alone settled into my consciousness and created a set of moods, and memories. It's not by chance that a book I have on card collecting has called baseball cards our "cardboard madeleins."

Thursday, December 10, 2015

What's new?: The 10 best contemporary stories I read in 2015

Following up on my post on the 10 best classic short stories I read in 2015, here are the ten best contemporary stories I read in 2015 - not ranked, and sometimes tough to pick the best among several by the same author, but I offer this to give you a sense of the range of stories published today, obviously with a bias skewed toward my taste, which is probably more conventional and traditional (character, plot, resolution, clarity) than the taste of most editors who are often drawn to the new and the extreme (understandably - they are flooded with so much good material - and bad material - that the unusual and exceptional tends to stand out). These selections are from a # of anthologies I read over the year, a few collections I read all or part of, and of course from the New Yorker (wish I had time to read a more diverse selection of magazines, though):

Charles Baxter, "Charity" - A fine example of his work, a story of random violence and human kindness. (CB is an old friend of mine; that said, I'm sure he's on everyone's list of best American short-story artists.)

Ann Beattie, "The Indian Uprising" - Great example of Beattie's wit and acuity; Beattie, who kindly did me a favor re my own work, continues to write great stories that capture the zeitgeist of her, my, generation - over many decades.

Lydia Davis - could choose from among many in her collection Can't and Won't but how about this that I'll quote as best I can in its entirety from memory: "Beneath all the layers of dirt, the floor is actually quite clean."

Louise Erdrich, "The Flower" - An epic captured within the scope of a short story, with Erdrich once again examining the clash between Native and White cultures on the frontier, with a bit of magic realism as part of the mix.

David Gates, "A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me" - One of the rare short stories that chronicles a relationship developing, evolving, and resolving over the course of a lifetime.

Tessa Hadley, "Silk Brocade" - Hadley is quietly emerging as the premier British short story writer, esp now that Trevor seems to have retired. This is one of her trenchant accounts of social class and love and memory.

Ben Marcus, "Cold Little Bird" - A perplexing and gut-wrenching story about the sudden and unexplained changes in the behavior of a child and the effect on the family, especially the father who finds himself in the cross-hairs.

Tim Parks, "Vespa" -  Even though I assume Parks is far beyond his teenage years, somehow this story about a stolen motorbike captures the tensions and craziness and dangers of teenage life today.

Joy Williams, "Chicken Hill" - From a writer who this year re-emerged from obscurity and received a ton of press and attention, this story shows why - a very odd mix of wit, realism, and perhaps delusion.

Alejandro Zamba, "Reading Comprehension No. 1" - A great account of the self-destruction of a teacher from the POV of a student, with some real technical wizardry and formal surprises.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

How Proust keeps us engaged with the loathsome people in Sodom and Gomorrah

Pleased to announce that I have embarked on volume 4 of In Search of Lost Time (Penguin Classic Deluxe edition; will have to check on the translator, sorry), Sodom and Gomorrah, and have some impressions obviously from the first quarter of this volume. First, it seems that the sexuality and in particular the homosexuality is more open and direct in this volume than in the previous three, where homosexuality was hinted at and alluded to but never, if I remember correctly, described so overtly - in fact the volume opens w/ Marcel observing the aristocratic bully M de Charlus making eyes at a shirtmaker, and then Marcel spies on them as they have a loud quick fuck - and all this leads to much discussion of what Proust or the translator calls "inverts," in which he distinguishes between those inverts who actually have sex and those who don't, whom he calls the solitaries, and, as the title of the volume suggest, Proust establishes or posits that a great many of the men (and a few of the women) in the blue-blood social set of Paris in the era (ca 1910?) were homosexual or lesbian. He of course won't go so far as to acknowledge his own homosexuality, but he has helped us to see his world and to interpret his relationship w/ Albertine - which gradually becomes the dominant plot motif of this volume and the subsequent 2 - in a different way, as a screen memory in a sense. Second striking thing is how much we loathe and are meant to loathe so many of the central characters; this goes far beyond the typical social satire and becomes a damnation of an entire society. Much of the 1st quarter of this volume takes place at the soiree at the home of the Prince and Princess de Geurmantes, and much of the conversation revolves around the Duc and Duchess de G., and by the end we can only feel that the whole set is not only narcissistic but actually evil: full of prejudice, hateful and contemptuous of anyone not in their circle, believing that the whole world revolves around them, not having a thought in the world for others (the Duc brushing off the news that his cousin has died as he heads off for a midnight costume ball, worried about his clothing, just one example), and finally doing nothing for anyone else, contributing nothing to the world, not working, thinking, creating, even earning, just living like parasites off their wealth and rank. The amazing thing is how Proust keeps us engaged with these loathsome people - through his wit, his trenchant observations, and his rich images and ideas.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Forgotten Gems: The 10 best classic short stories (I read) in 2015

For one reason or another I read a lot of short stories this year (I tend to read stories when traveling, sometimes after reading very long novels for a break in pace, sometimes when I can't quit decide what novel to engage w/ next) - many in the New Yorker, some in anthologies I've had around or borrowed from the library, a few from collections, quite a few on recommendation of fellow blogger Charles May who writes exclusively about short stories. So as the B-side of my Sunday post on the top ten books (I read) in 2015, here are the top ten stories I read in 2015. This list (alphabetical by author) is of classic stories only; I will follow in a future post of a list of the best contemporary stories I read in 2015. I have intentionally not included stories I read this year by writers from the absolute pantheon of short-story writers: Borges, Chekhov, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Kafka, Lawrence - everyone's read them, and if you haven't you can pretty much choose your pick. But here are great stories by somewhat lesser-known or less-often-read (today) writers:

Isaac Babel, "Guy de Maupassant" - one of the great and sometimes overlooked Russian writers. His stories are rough, sometimes difficult, always provocative.

Heinrich Boll, "Murke's Collected Silences." - German Nobelist; in this strange story he wrestles with what it is to remain silent when one ought to be shouting "No!"

Tomaso Landolfi, "Gogol's Wife" - a totally odd, surreal story about a great writer married to a balloon.

Katherine Mansfield, "The Garden Party" - Why is this writer almost forgotten today? Could have picked any of a # of her stories, but this one lays bare the whole English class structure in the simplest of settings.

W. Somerset Maugham, "The Outstation" - Another writer who has fallen far out of fashion, and another story that looks at the dark underside of social class and caste.

Alberto Moravia, "Bitter Honeymoon" - Sex, jealousy, passion, sorrow - I'm sure someone has tried to turn this one into a movie, but it's best left in its original, succinct style and format.

Katherine Anne Porter, "Theft" - She became famous with a late-life best seller but her early stories may be her greater legacy, including this one about 20-somethings in NYC nearly a century back.

Alan Sillitoe, "Isaac Starbuck" - The English writer best known for honest protrayal of working-class life, and this story is a great example.

John Steinbeck, "The Chrysanthemums" - From another Nobelist-novelist - but this short story about a lonely woman on a remote California farm is as fine in its small scale as (almost) anything else he wrote.

William Carlos Williams, "The Use of Force" - Often anthologized and rightly so - compact, honest, clear, and striking, like all of WCW's work, especially his poetry.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Fiction or not?: Martin Amis's Oktober

Martin Amis's Oktober runs under the heading "fiction" in the current New Yorker but it seems about as close as fiction can get to journalism/essay/reportage. I suppose "fiction" allows him some latitude to compress characters or even to invent characters as needed. Still hard not to read this as an essay: Amis on a book tour through Europe this summer in his last stop, Munich, consumed by thoughts about the Syrian refugees streaming toward Europe and on the doorstep of Germany, and the great social angst an upheaval as Germans generally seem ready to open the doors but fearful that the stream of refugees will become a torrent. Amis artfully weaves strands together: a photographer working with him shows pictures he'd taken of refugees on a train and Amis sees them for the first time not as a mass but as individuals; thoughts about the terrible history of Germany and of Jews trying to flee the Nazi regime blocked at borders, his own peripatetic life with due acknowledgment of how easy it is for him to cross borders, the publishing and publicity business, the life of exile of another great writer (Nabokov) chronicled in VN's letters to Vera (Amis reading an advance copy; his review appeared recently in NYTBR), and the bitter mouthings of an English businessman whom Amis twice encounters and who screams orders into his cell phone and then expresses the benighted and probably majority viewpoint about the refugee hordes. That's a lot for any one story, or essay, and Amis handles the material well, with seamless transitions among these topics. Over great time he could, and maybe will, use transform this material into a structure more closely resembling short fiction - characters (not just the nondisguised author), plot, resolution - but it's also the raw, front-line qualities that make this piece compelling, engaging, and timely.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Read, Reviewed, Remaindered, Rediscovered: The 10 Best Books I Read in 2015

As usual, looking back I find that most of the best books I read this year are classics; in fact, only 3 on my personal 2015 top-ten list are contemporary books. But isn't that as it should be? Isn't there something reassuring in knowing that books don't necessarily fade into oblivion once they've hit the three R's: Reviewed, Read, Remaindered? You'll also note, however, that of the 7 "classics" that I enjoyed the most this year only 1 is somewhat widely read these days and 2 languished in obscurity for many years before recent "rediscovery." In alphabetical order, here are the top ten books I read in 2015:

Alexanderplatz - Berlin, Alfred Doblin. Social realism in Berlin in the 1920s, low-lifes and thieves, in and out of prison, and you can maybe see the seeds of the horrible crimes and the hatred that were to ensue.

Bread and Wine, Ignazio Silone. A terrific and exciting account of political activism and the Italian underground in the 1930s, another great work of social-realism.

Can't and Won't, Lydia Davis. Very short stories from a completely unique stylist. Some are moving, some hilarious.

The Car Thief, Theodore Weesner. Weesner died this year, bringing this forgotten novel from 1972 some belated attention. Excellent account of a troubled teenager caught up in petty crime and trying to make sense of his family and his life.

A Dance to the Music of Time, Volume 12: There Are No Strangers Here, Anthony Powell. The saga of 50 years of political and literary life in England, centering on the drama and trauma of World War II, ends with this volume set on the crest of the Cold War and the dawn of the New Age.

A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes. It may seem like a swashbuckler about pirates and children but it's a much deeper and more disturbing novel than it appears at first glance.

My Struggle, Volumes 3 and 4, Karl Ove Knausgaard. The greatest fiction-memoir of this century, so far (haven't yet read Ferrante though), chronicles KOK's first attempts to write fiction and his bumbling attempts to lose his virginity.

Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan. Man Booker judges get it right for once - a terrific novel about World War II imprisonment and its aftermath over the course of decades. Just when we thought there was nothing new left to say about that war ...

Nostromo, Joseph Conrad. Long and complex and ambitious so not read as often as his more approachable works such as Lord Jim.

Stoner, John Williams. One of several books rescued from obscurity by the New York Review of Books Press, this account of the life of an English professor in the Midwest, from birth to death, is among the saddest and most beautiful novels I've ever read.

Also-rans, classics all: Doctor Thorne (Trollope), Jane Eyre (Bronte), The Mayor of Casterbridge (Hardy).

Coming in future posts: Best short stories I read in 2015 and the books I could not finish. 












Saturday, December 5, 2015

Whole greater than the sum of its parts in Thirteen Ways

Finished Colum McCann's Thirteen Ways of Looking and yes, he does note at the end that he wrote these stories before and just after he was attacked on a New Haven street and later hospitalized, so I'm sure that terrifying and sad event colored his thinking in writing these stories - variously about senseless violence, loss, revenge, and (Partial) reconciliation. It's much darker material than I'd expected from McCann, and some of it still feels like a raw wound probed, with the issues left tentative and unsettled at the end - maybe that's good, rather than resorting to pat conclusions, but on the other hand it does leave us a little in the dark as well. I think he's a really fine writer and is brave to complete these stories and gather them together; none is a great story, but each is good enough and they add to one another for a stronger and thematically developed unified vision that is greater than the sum of its parts - and I hope he continues to write and can take on the mountain-climb of writing a novel once gain.

Tomorrow I will begin a series of posts on my favorite (and least favorite) books and stories of the year.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Thirteen Ways - quite different from Let the Great World Spin

I'm in the 4th and final story, Treaty, in Colum McCann's collection Thirteen Ways of Looking, trying to discern what if anything holds these stories together and inevitably thoughts keep coming bck to trauma and unexpected loss. Perhaps these are very common themes in literature, or in short fiction in particular, of a certain type - plot-driven fiction rather that fiction driven by character, mood, or setting. Though McCann, Irish-born that he is, clearly reveres Joyce and emulates some Joycean devices, he's not one to have an open-ended story that ends w/ an image or epiphany. In his stories things happen, usually bad things. I am pretty sure that I'd read that McCann was a victim of some kind of attack - I will look it up after I finish the book - which might explain his interest in disaster and distress: the first story is about a fatal assault on an elderly man, the 2nd though less traumatic is about a soldier in Afghanistan, the 3rd is about a deaf child who goes swimming alone and (seemingly) drowns, the last story about a nun who'd been held captive by South American revolutionaries who tortured and abused her. These are not elements that I recall from his terrific novel Let the Great World Spin; now obviously writers can grow and change and select different material, and a novel is capacious and embracing in ways that stories, with their demands for a quick cut to the action or central theme, are only seldom. Spin, as I recall, was about the day in NYC history when a tightrope, walker crossed between the towers, and he tells of several different lives on that day - including the judge who heard the case about the tightrope walker (I don't think he's Mendelssohn from title story here but he could be). These stories, strong as they are, feel so different in mood and technique that it's hard to fathom they're from the same author.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Thirteen Ways of Looking: Collection or Connection?

So it does turn out that Colum McCann's Thirteen Ways of Looking is a collection of stories, with the title piece being almost a short novel, taking up half the book (I started to suspect same when I realized section 13 was only about half-way through the ebook v I'm reading). I admire the title story as a rare blend or at least juxtaposition of Joycean psychology insight, word-play, and literary and cultural references set beside a police procedural: we learn early on that we're looking at the last day in the life of the protagonist, an 82-year-old retired judge who goes out to lunch w/ his quite unlikable and contentious son and, after lunch, is assaulted on the sidewalk and dies on the spot. Several of the chapters involve NYC detectives reviewing surveillance video and, later, conducting interrogations, to find out who killed Mendelssohn (and why, if there is a reason). I won't give anything away here,  but I wonder if others will find the conclusion satisfactory or even credible. The next story is like a literary sleight of hand: author gets assignment to write a New Year's story for a newspaper (the Times?) and story encompasses his many attempts to write the story and to think about what he's written (it's about a soldier serving in Afghanistan who calls home for the holiday). Am now in midst of 3rd story, which is about a single mother raising an adopted son who has some severe learning disabilities - she takes him swimming, in wet suit, on the rough Irish coast and he seems to get in a little over his head in both senses. Someone told me the stories in this volume were loosely connected; so far, I don't see even a loose connection. It's a collection, not a connection - I think.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Joycean novel with plenty of literary references that make us feel smart

Colum McCann's Thirteen Ways of Looking appears to be structured as 13 chapters (someone said to me that they were stories loosely linked, but I don't think that's so - at least thru the first 1/3 of the book they read loke chapters in a novel, slightly out of sequence) each beginning w/ an epigraph from Stevens's famous poem (I bet he paid dearly for the rights). The greatest things about that poem to me is the title - I've never really been able to understand what he's getting at in most of the stanzas, which is true for me re Stevens in general - he like his successors Ashbury et al. is someone I just can't appreciate or understand. The fault is clearly mine, I admit. (I once wrote a parody 13 Ways of Looking at a Cockroach; wish I could remember it.) Anyway, McCann's novel is about an 80+ man living on the upper E Side NYC, pretty wealthy, a retired judge, recently widowed, cared for by a full-time nurse, troubled by his hedge fund philandering son unfortunately named Elliot and worried about peace activist daughter living in Israel. Much of the first chapters, in very close 3rd person, describe the difficulties and humiliations of his day - wearing a diaper at night, needs help walking and washing, etc. - his nurse, from the Caribbean, is lively and devout, misses his wife - Irish born, we get the long and improbably back story of their courtship. We learn - spoiler here tho you'll get it by the 2nd or 3rd chapters - however, that the man, Mendelssohn (btw do they still elect judges in NY?) is murdered: what appears at first to be a Joyce-like account of one day in the life turns subtly into an investigation of a killing, as parts of one of the chapters involve detectives examining surveillance video of the apartment and of the neighborhood (he was killed on the way home from having lunch at a nearby restaurant - not clear why he was walking alone). Son is the probably suspect I would think; wouldn't surprise me if they begin to suspect the nurse, tho. Strengths of the novel thus far are the playful, Joycean/Nabokovian quips and turns of phrase (Mendelssohn is a writer manque, has published a memoir) and the many literary references - which both show us how smart and literate McCann is and incidentally allow his likely readers, i.e., us, to feel smart and literate, too: a mutual admiration society. I seem to remember reading somewhere that McCann himself was a victim of a random assault and was a long time recovering? Some of this novel may involve his working through that trauma; so far, about 1/3 way in, the violence done to Mendolssohn has been discretely kept "off camera."

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What's right and wrong about the ending of Trollope's Dr Thorne

I guess I was just too "American" in my speculations about the ending of Trollope's Dr Thorne - in yesterday's post I sensed that Trollope was setting us up for a sad  ending - something would go wrong and prevent the marriage between Frank and Mary - but I should have realized that Trollope is English to the core and English novels tend overwhelmingly to be about conciliation, reconciliation, and absorption into the community - the opposite of the American trope of heading "out for the Territories." So, yes, unsurprisingly to most, Dr Thorne ends with the happy marriage of the now very wealthy Mary and the noble-blooded Frank Gresham, and Mary will use some of her/their new wealth to restore the Gresham fortunes, and of course now Frank's mother, sisters, and cousins all think Mary is so wonderful - Frank's mother has the gall to try to defend her past behavior toward Mary - tho some of the most "noble" of his relatives still see her as a commoner and an upstart. Happily ever after? Sure - but wouldn't have been just a bit more satisfying if she told some of the Greshams to go to hell? If she weren't so damn eager to be accepted by the clan? If she had maybe said to Frank: Let's go to Australia and buy a million-acre sheep ranch? No doubt Trollope writes with some irony, even some sarcasm, about their "happy" marriage, and he's also built up a real context in which we place Mary's conventional behavior - she has been excluded for her whole life and does not have the courage or the desire to turn away from the acceptance she must have always craved - but there's also a sense that Trollope, that great creator of vast and interwoven societies, values assimilation and convention about all other virtues, if in fact they are virtues.