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

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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The plot thickens, and a young man takes a step toward his ruin - Bleak House

A third of the way through Bleak House we begin to see the alarming decline of Richard, and another plot element begins to take shape. As to Richard, Ada's affianced, Dickens has shown him to be an affable young man with a perverse concept of money - very typical in Dickens of those who actually have plenty of money or have access to it - and with no clear idea about his future other than that he wants to marry Ada. All well and good, but - he starts out studying medicine but has no real interest in what he's doing. And then he decides maybe he's more suited for the law. And we can see where this is headed: he will pursue the case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, through which he hopes to land a huge settled that will carry him and Ada to prosperity. And of course that will be his ruin. It would be one thing if he were ambitious and intelligent - that type of character might cut through all the red tape and actually bring the case to settlement; or if he were shrewd and conniving and could work it out, as dozens of other lawyers have done, to keep the case in court and to continue to collect fees. But, no, he's naive and weak and will got swallowed alive by the case. As to the plot element, Dickens has set up a few strange scenes that are a little hard to figure out: a legal copiest who dies mysteriously, and several people who for no evident reason concerned with learning his identity and his fate. We begin to think that one of the people interested in the dead man is Lady Dedlock - and then, when Esther sees Lady D in church, Esther has a sudden feeling that she knows that lady and that face - so we begin to think that of course Lady D is Esther's birth mother, but who is the dead man? Was he Esther's father? And what would that have to do with Lady Dedlock, and why should she care about the man who died in isolation and poverty? Dickens know how to set the trap - but this one is particularly obscure and unfathomable, at least at this point in the narrative.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

New Yorker debut story shows great potential

Looks like a debut story from a smart young writer in current New Yorker, The Philosophers, by Adam Ehrlich Sachs - really 3 shorts that are a little like cerebral out-takes from NYer Shouts & Murmurs, each on a philosophical conundrum: the first is about a philosopher stricken with a paralysis that sounds much like ALS of Huntington's communicating the essence of his entire life's thinking to his son through a series of eyeblinks, the son stricken by the same (hereditary?) disease passess the message on to his son, and so forth across several generations to current narrator for whom the message is a garbled set of letters, and he wonders whether there has been a breakdown in communications or if his ancestor was mad or if he himself is losing his mind - which altogether seems like an allegory for the decline of civilization. The strongest piece is the 3rd, about a man found near-frozen sitting in a cardboard box, and the man claims to be the most intelligent person on earth and the inventor of a time machine. The cardboard box? Some very clever twists, which I won't divulge. We'll probably see more stories by AES in coming issues. Hoping he continues to develop and use his intelligence to create characters, mood, and narrative.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Is Esther Summerson too nice?

Is Esther Summerson too good (to be true)? At this point in the novel (Bleak House) she visits her friend Miss Jellyby, the young women who is pretty much enslaved by her self-centered mother who devotes all her time and attention to a charity for African children and who criminally neglects her own household, has managed to carve out a bit of life of her own and has become engage to a dancing master, Mr. Turveytrot (that's close, but not exact) - a mild-mannered young man who is completely exploited by his father, Turveytrot Sr. who is known for his great "deportment." Dickens has a lot of fun w/ descriptions of Mr. T the elder and his deportment - his puffed up chest, his contempt for the falling standards of his world, his hob-nobbing with the aristocracy, which probably thinks of him as a crumb at best, his unfairness to his son, who does all the work and lives on cold mutton while Mr T senior goes off to a French restaurant and to his club. It's a great and unexpected chapter, but the only thing wrong w/ it is that Esther makes no sense as the narrator - she's too nice, kind, and demure to write or even to think w/ Dickens's bitterness and sarcasm. She's too nice. She's so nice that she doesn't seem to care at all that her her best friends are getting married and she doesn't think for a moment about her own future: She says they'll get married and she'll live with them, her fellow wards of the Jarndyce estate, and all will be happy together. Why must that be so? Doesn't she want a conventional marriage, life, children for herself? Is she afraid of sex, of commitment, of her own sexuality, or her becoming anything but the sweet, wise friend who's always there to take on everyone else's troubles? Her passivity about love is almost a pathology. But there is a hint that a young man - other than Guppy, who scares her, and whom she'd mock if she weren't so "nice" - might be interested. We know - not only from having read this novel many years ago, but also from the obvious nature of plot structure - we're only a third of the way through the novel, so it's too early for Esther to find happiness - that her fate is not sealed and her love life will develop in yet unforeseen and surprising ways (and it's also obvious by now that the will of the wisp Richard will become obsessed with and consumed by the Jarndyce case in chancery).

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Dickens and love - further thoughts on Bleak House

As to Dickens and love ... his novels are not generally successful as love stories or romances, with Great X a possible exception, but probably only if you accept the "sad" ending - Dickens's broad comic sense and his tendency to make all of his characters extreme types with numerous tics and odd yet defining characteristics plays against the romantic mode, which requires subtlety, tact, and gradual shifts and changes of emotion, love, and sorrow. In Bleak House, the "good" characters are just too good and their adoration for each other is so extreme and untempered as to verge on the comic. I know that I'm only 1/4 of the way thru the novel and that there will be some unexpected romantic developments regarding Esther Summerson, who narrates many of the chapters - but pausing at the chapter in which her two friends Richard and Ada declare to her that they are madly in love with each other - and they suspect that she has not been aware of this all along - makes Richard and Ada seem at best dim-witted and at worst idiotic. And the too-good Esther is just completely thrilled about their love for each other and their plans for marriage - even though there are man of alarms about Richard's extremely passive and indifferent personality - that we have to wonder about her judgment and her repressed feelings. The Richard-Ada love is set aside the love directed toward Esther - by the law clerk Guppy, who has become something of a stalker. If he were not so feckless he could actually be an element of danger in this novel. Thought Guppy is yet another one of Dickens's comic characters, Dickens is a little unfair to Guppy, and to us - he makes it so obvious that Guppy is completely unsuitable for Esther, but why is that? They're both of the same "class" - but Esther seems far more educated and polished than Guppy - it's impossible to imagine him as the well-tempered narrator of of this novel. Is his strangeness part of Esther's perception,, her fear of how she might be seen by others, her sense that she can never fit in among the "upper" classes with whom she spends much of her time? Had Guppy been a suitable but uninteresting suitor - say, like Goodwood in Portrait of a Lady - Bleak House would be more successful and natural as a romance. But Dickens is not James nor was meant to be.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Dickens, in love and squalor

As to love, maybe I'll get to that in a future post - depiction of love is probably not one of Dickens's strengths in any event - but when it comes to squalor he's the man. Among the great passages in Bleak House, which I'm reading now, would be for sure the visit to the antiques and collectibles shop owned by the weirdly named shopkeeper, Krook; the visit to the cramped apartment in which the woman obsessed with her case in chancery lives, with a view of the courthouse; Esther's visit to the workingman's hovel where she sees the last moments of life of the little child; and the office-supplier's shop with its thousands of gadgets and items - each of these places (except maybe the sad little apartment of the madwoman) is jammed with objects, smothered by foul air, packed with dust and grime and sometimes mud or rot - and each seems to have exuded from the crowded city full of waste and noise. These are generally meant to be distasteful, even horrid scenes - but you can't help think as you read the passages that Dickens must have really enjoyed writing this stuff - and must have enjoyed reading it aloud as well. His interest is sparked by squalor and his rhetoric and descriptive capacities rise a notch - he seems always a little bored with and distrustful of wealth and station, and with good reason, but when it comes to squalor he's on familiar ground.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Social classes in Dickens

To state the obvious, the class structure was much more rigid in 19th-century England than in America then or ever - encapsulated in all the damn titles and honorifics, baronets and earls and Lady and Lord this and that - and no writer was more cognizant of this structure than Dickens. His view of the world was determined but the structure of his society, of course, yet he was prescient enough to not see any social class in only one of its facets. Reading Bleak House, you can see the contempt he had for the cold and cruel British aristocracy (Lord and Lady Dedlock), who think of none but themselves, contribute nothing to society, and in fact have never done anything worthy or worthwhile through their 700-year history, as he notes. There are also the social do-gooders like Mrs. Jellybe who think they're helping others but are really just meddling and seeking praise for their commitments to a cause, like the celebrants for various charities depicted weekly to this day in various Sunday papers - but then there's also the kindly and curious Mr. Jarndyce - maybe not as high in social rank as the Dedlocks, but he's affable and takes steps to help others, notably the 3 wards whom he more or less adopts. On the other extreme, he often sees the working class as loathsome and violent, crude, drunk, neglectful of their children - but he also recognizes traits of honesty, devotion to hard work, family values. He sees the complexity and variability of each of these two classes - yet the classes are fixed. The driving force in his fiction, however, are the free-floating integers - the rare occasions of one who has the potential or opportunity to move from one class to another - and it's these people - Pip, Esther Sommerson, David Copperfield - who distinguish his fiction. These characters are vulnerable, and often naive or just plain too nice (Esther), and the novels cover the course of their maturation into wisdom, their hardening, and their re-incorporation into society (unlike Fielding, where the incorporation generally involves a discovery of high birth or wealth, the 19th-century incorporation is a product of personal will, fortune, sometimes marriage "up").

Monday, January 25, 2016

Seven qualities of Dickensian fiction

Why am I not reading Bleak House? I am reading Bleak House! After many years - and after watching some years ago a great BBC series on BH, it's good to come back to the original, and let's see for a second what makes this work "Dickensian." First of all, the narrator is so distinct in style and observations, given to oratorical flourishes - similar to the most famous Best of times, worst of times in Tale of 2 - as to become almost a character in himself/itself - an attribute of much 19th-century British fiction (Hardy, Trollope) but extreme in Dickens. Second the importance of setting, with descriptions full of flourishes and exaggerations, in BH most notably the extensive description of the London fog. Dickensian novels define place by citing and embellish some extreme characteristics (Hardy is quite different, closer to naturalism; place is almost immaterial to Trollope.) Third, characters as well are defined by eccentricities, even central characters. A novelist (John Barth) once noted that if you can't create a character just put together a bunch of characteristics and readers may mistake it for a character. Ha - but Dickens can create characters, yet uses chracteristics (e.g., Jarndyce's obsession with the wind direction) as markers to clearly distinguish and delineate characters, to separate them from one another. Fourth, minor characters are all characteristics, flat not round, but even so they are so extreme and often bizarre as to become the most memorable facets of the novel (Mrs. Jellyby, focused on her charitable work and ignoring her family and home, e.g.). Fifth, we begin with a sympathetic character on the fringe or margin of society, often an orphan or at the least a ward, entirely likable, whose course of maturation over the long novel will bring them into a position of social acceptance in the world that initially spurned them - in other words, the typically English novel of inclusion (not the typically American novel of rebellion). Esther Summerson in BH is the perfect example. Sixth, almost always with a strong urban (usually London) setting, sometimes as seen by the main character for the first time - the protagonist is often a provincial arriving in the city. Seventh, and finally at least for this post, multiple characters, settings, and, in some instances multiple plot lines that all feel like part of the same story rather than stories told in parallel. (Does this sound anything like City on Fire, if you've read that? No - ConF is Dickensian in length and urbanity only.)

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Bailing Out: Sorry, but I'm not going to finish reading City on Fire, here's why

One-third of the way through City on Fire and, sorry, but that's about it. There's a good story lurking in here somewhere, and there are some wonderful descriptions that capture the looks, feel, scent of New York streets, subways, apartments in the late 1970s, but by this point I feel that the Garth Risk Hallberg is just pumping out information and that's fine if you want to just lay back and read a 900-page novel but so much of the middle section of the book to me feels like filler: the long back stories on the many characters, central and peripheral, each of which feels somehow generic; the tedium about the punk rock band and the political harangues of Nicky, the band and cult leader, which also feels like familiar ground (Goon Squad, perhaps?), long interpolations such as what purports to be a New Yorker-esque magazine article on the fireworks industry but just to me seemed tedious and distracting. In short, this novel's too long! I do think, oddly enough, that it might have a chance as a miniseries - which would inevitably focus more on plot, would trim the dialogue, would make each of the characters more distinct (from one another - they tend to blend and confuse, partly because of the proliferation and partly because, except in the broadest social terms - rich v poor, young v old - they're not clearly enough delineated). For similar novels that handle this diverse material - portrait of NYC in time of crisis and turbulence as seen through multiple lenses - check Bonfire of the Vanities or Let the Great World Spin, for just two examples that work very well because the connections among the character are more organic, the plot is more fully developed, and the characters are more sharply differentiated so that each adds something other than length and bulk.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Recipe for short fiction and a great name for a Russian writer and a correction re City on Fire



How could you not be drawn to the one-page story in current New Yorker, Aspic, by Russian writer Tatyana Tolstoya (pretty awesome name for a Russian writer, yes? Like maybe Hermione Melvilla or Ernestine Hemingwaya?). The story, simply, is about a Russian woman, mother of young children, cooking a beef aspic, apparently a traditional dish for New Year's Eve, and it's about her loathing of the entire process, from shopping (always a cold dark night in the most miserable time of year, the visit to the market, going back past what she amusingly calls the artillery of turnips and cauliflower and the signal lights of clementines to the meat section where the butcher, Igor, wields his axe), the creepy nature of buying cows' and pigs' feet (what if the pig tried to shake your hand), carrying the heavy load back to the apartment and struggling with the elevator (light always stolen, just the little red light on the panel, the slow ascent, creaking at every floor), then preparing the awful dish, boiling the beef parts as the gray scum rises to the surface – as if this scum is all of the fear and death locked into the flesh and bones of the animals who cannot escape the axe – she hears the cattle “mooing” – and on to the final preparation, leaving the cups of aspect out on the balcony, covered (in their coffins) as she smokes a cigarette and waits. For what? It’s a new year and should be a celebration of revival and a fresh start but this seems to be an immersion in death and fright. This story is straightforward as a recipe, step by step, but it’s also strange and disturbing, creates a mood and sense of time and place with precision and economy – a story without character development or plot or action to speak of but it’s a snapshot rather than a film clip.

A note on yesterday’s post: Yes, as pointed out, in City on Fire it’s Charlie’s father, not mother, who dies unexpectedly (I was also reminded of that as I read further, particularly into the long chapter in which Charlie sees an analyst at his mother’s insistence and, walking away from the therapy session, he wanders into a record shop where he meets, or re-meets, Sam(antha), who is the young woman shot in Central Park in the first part of the novel. It’s William whose mother dies at a young age and whose plutocrat father marries, bringing the mysterious brother-in-law Amory into the family. Sorry.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Should an editor have cut City on Fire?

Noticing FB posts on the worst sentences in Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire - and there some horrible Hallbergians, no doubt, but really that's a stupid way to have at a novel. His middle name is appropriate; he does take risks, with his prose, with his structure, with the whole enterprise, and sometimes they totally fail but there are also some very fine passages - I noted yesterday the heroin passage, and there are others, such as description of the city streets with rotting mulberries on the sidewalks, the particular grungy look and feel backstage at a punk concert, the scent of New York in summer, garbage and tar ... and in any of these passages you could probably pull out a sentence that, out of context, makes no sense. The more justified critique could be: do we need all those passages? Or, should this novel be shorter? It's an example of anti-editing - but to edit, trim, cut would have made this novel into that which it isn't: another story about innocents arriving in the city and trying in their various ways to figure out who they are and how the fit, or don't. This is a novel of multiplicity - as noted yesterday, each of the back-story chapters in section 2 could probably stand alone as a short story, and each represents a path the GRH could have taken but didn't. Yes, City on Fire is probably too long, but to shorten it would kill it. Its magnificence, its grandeur, is its gargantuan size. It's not for every reader, and I'm still not sure it's even for me - why am I not reading Bleak House? - and I still might abandon it at some point if he doesn't pretty soon get back to the center of the plot, the crime he put into motion in part 1 - but really would I be reading this if it were 400 pages? Would I even have heard of it? It could flop, but it would do so in thunder. He isn't the only one taking a risk.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

What we learn from the back stories in City on Fire

Garth Risk Hallberg moves along in section 2 of City on Fire with the back stories of some of the major and some of the peripheral characters. Does he need to unload all this material? Maybe not, but each is well written and there may be payoffs down the line as further elements of the narrative emerge. The strongest of the back stories - each could almost stand alone as a short story, I think - is probably that of William, the nyc artist and heir in waiting to a large Wall Street fortune. We see in this story the formation of his band, ex post facto, which is the vortex that all of the characters get drawn into and within which their lives collide, and, most impressively, we see how he gets lured into the world of serious Rx, culminating in his first hit of heroin - a rather astonishing passage. Personally, I have no way to vouch for its authenticity but it's a frighteningly convincing account of the lure and danger of the drug - I'll take GRH's word for it, without knowing anything about his experience, either. The Mercer back story - he's the homosexual black man from the Deep South who comes to nyc to find himself or maybe to free himself - taking a job teaching English at an upper-crust all-girls day school - is more conventional and out of the box, doesn't really give me any deep new insight into this character but on the other hand he was by far the dominant character in the first section of the novel so I know him more by his actions and interactions and maybe didn't need so much background on him. Others: Keith, recently separated from Regan (William's sister), another heir to the fortune (and a mother of one of Mercer's students) - is he really so important to overall narrative? I don't see it yet. Charlie: a witness to the shooting of the young girl, his friend, in Central Park and a likely suspect though this has not yet emerged - GRH does nice job delineating his adolescent struggles as a boy adopted into a Jewish family but always feeling a bit of an outsider, and then thrown into a depression when his mother dies and father withdraws - this chapter builds sympathy and compassion for a young man likely to feel the sting of fortune in later sections of this long narrative.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Back stories in City on Fire and elsewhere and how publishers deal with them - or could

The second part, or section, of Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire seems, so far, to consist of the back stories of several of the characters, not exactly minor characters but those who seem to this point to be tangential to the main plot. Each of these back-story chapters is good in its own way, but I feel a little frustrated - GRH managed to really get me involved in the plot and now he seems to have pulled back and said, let's slow down here and let me tell you about each of these people, about their lives before the confluence of events that sparks the narrative. The back-story chapter feel separate and distinct - I almost wonder if he composed them separately, perhaps even before he began weaving the strands into a literary narrative. I can tell you for sure that if GRH had submitted a 400-page manuscript and earned a modest advance his editor would have said (if he had an editor, that is), cut this extraneous stuff and cut back to the chase. But a 900-page novel and a $2-million advance - it's leave everything in, everything that can make this book seem, look, and be big. Does the world have a place today for 900-page novels? Or longer? I've seen, lonely on the shelf of my town public library, a massive novel by William Vollman, and I can't even imagine reading it - I literally don't believe my hands could hold it. Someone's buying it and maybe even reading it, I guess, but I doubt anyone's making money - not till the TV series is made perhaps (same for City on Fire). To share some experience from my own writing, my publisher at Soho did ask me to cut some back story from the manuscript of Exiles - a chapter in which several war resisters recounted at a bar the experiences that drove them to exile in Sweden, and another section or two I think - and that was great advice. The novel didn't need that, and it was pretty long anyway. She also asked me to cut 4 letters that the protagonist, Spiegel, received from his girlfriend back in the States. These letters may have interrupted the narrative flow, briefly, but I regret cutting them: much of the criticism of the novel concerned the lack of motivation, why did Spiegel go to Sweden and risk so much?, and I think these letters helped set the political and romantic context. Oh well. I had always envisioned perhaps an online version of Exiles - and of any novel - in which these "cut" chapters could appear as options, like extras on a DVD for example - but publishing, in its glacial way, is not ready it seems to make these accommodations to the preferences and ideas of writers - or readers.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

To my surprise, I'm getting caught up in City on Fire. How did he do it?

Ok call me a liar but to my complete surprise I am now caught up in Garth Risk Hallberg's 900+-page novel City on Fire. In yesterday's post I said I was just dropping into this copious novel for a quick visit, that I didn't have any strong feelings for the characters, and that I could not imagine devoting the time to a novel of this length unless it was on the scope of other literary monuments such as Bleak House or Anna Karenina. Well GRH doesn't rise t that heights, but moving through the first 150 pages or so I have to say he does know how to get an engaging plot under way, his prose is always smart and clear, with some terrific passages of description and turns of phrase (and some real show-off vocabulary for better or worse) and, though I have no great sympathy for his characters, each of then fuck-ups in a variety of ways (sex, drugs, spoiled rich kids, alienated teen, rock-band groupie, Manhattan plutocrats, and, the most sympathetic character, Mercer, a black homosexual from the South teaching prep school in NYC and staying under cover, as too many had to do in the 1970s, which now seems eons ago) I am curious and interested in their state and their fate - and what more can we really expect of a novelist? What seemed at first to be a series of loosely twined NY angst narrative strands really tighten about 100 pages in when, after a long New Year's Eve social gathering in a CP West domain a young girl is short in the Park and two of the characters we've been following are potential suspects (though we know they're both innocent, the cops don't know that). Not to mistake this for a crime novel, even though a crime occurs, it's moved up a big notch in my estimation as I can see that, subtly, slowly, and surely GRH knows ho to build interest and suspense within a narrative of high literary style and aspiration.

Monday, January 18, 2016

City on Fire: Worth reading this 900-page novel?

I certainly hope that Knopf's incredible investment of $2 million in advance for the first (?) novel by Garth Risk Hallberg, City on Fire, pays off for the renowned publisher (it has for GRH for sure) - I'd like to think that a novel can earn out that much $, but it also seems the investment, though it bought a ton of publicity for this writer and this novel, is a typically idiotic investment: who makes these decisions? I've started reading this massive (900+ pp) novel, am pretty sure I won't finish it - honestly, there are many other books I want to read - but I'll give GRH his props: His writing is sharply observed, witty, clear, and, once you start to get the characters straight in your mind, pretty easy to follow. It's been compared w/ Dickens, though I'm not sure why other than amplitude, but it seems a closer comparison to other Manhattan opi such as the Let the Great World Spin, The Emperor's Children, or even Bonfire of the Vanities: a large cast of peripheral characters, a few central ones, lots of interaction and path-crossing, against background of gritty urban life and social movements and, in the first two cases I cited above, against a background of a major news event. He hits a certain trifecta, which I'm sure helped build the hype and the advance: writing about the generation of publishers and editors in their youth (the late 70s), about hip urban youth of a certain era viewed in hindsight w/ romance and pathos (it's about several young people in nyc in the 70s, which a nice look-back in the brief opening sequence), and of course it's about New York - would a similar novel set in Chicago or St. Louis have drawn a $2-million advance? Are you serious? I am no doubt one who from time to time enjoys settling into a long and complex novel, but from the first 50 pp or so I'm not convinced that the game is worth the candle here. I'm impressed w/ the writing moment by moment but only vaguely interested in or invested in the characters. I'm not in this world, I'm just a passer-by for the moment.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

American writers with a humane world view

As friend WS has noted, and I agree, the vast majority of short stories, particularly American stories, are about outsiders and misfits, are often sorrowful or even tragic, ironic or even cynical. The same holds true, to a lesser extent, to American literature in general - the quintessential American hero being Huck Finn heading out for the territories or Holden Caulfield all alone (not Tom Jones, Pip, or Emma finding his or her place within a welcoming society). But there are some contemporary American writers who provide a more inclusive, welcoming, humane, and even uplifting world view - or at least world glimpse - without being saccharine, sentimental, or trite. Like all great writers, each of these writers presents a range of moods and ideas, so some of their stories may not quite or may not at all fit in with this mode, but these are writers worth exploring for an inclusive, yet still distinctly American, world view:

Charles Baxter, an old friend of mine from grad-school days, who writes beautifully about people facing moral and personal crises and dealing with their issues in sensible and mature ways

Four writers known for their wit and humor:

Antonya Nelson
Lorrie Moore
George Saunders
Ann Beattie (The New Yorker Stories collects most of her best) 

Edward P. Jones, only one story collection that I know of, about the lesser-known side of life in the capital city

Louise Erdrich, though best-known for her novels, her stories as well re-create an entire culture of life on a prairie reservation - a creation equal in scope to Yoknapatawpha

Jhumpa Lahiri, excellent stories mostly about the children of immigrants from India and their issues of family ties and the yearning for assimilation

So, here's a start. Further suggestions? 





Saturday, January 16, 2016

Where could Hardy go after Jude?

I was very pleased and amused to read A. Alvarez's afterword to Jude the Obscure in the old Signet edition I was reading - I swear I did not read his piece until I finished reading the novel - and found that not only did we agree on the main point, that the novel is primarily about sexuality and about Jude's torment on being torn between two women who represent two poles of his sexual desires (maybe pretty obvious to a contemporary reader but not so apparent to Hardy's contemporaries who focused on his attack on Oxbridge and on his so-called attack on the sanctity of marriage) - but Alvarez's concluding line was almost verbatim the same as I line with which I closed one of my posts. It's obvious why Jude was Hardy's final novel. As both AA and I said: He had nowhere else to go. (I might have added: but down.) Jude is the antithesis of a feel-good novel, about as dark as they come, particularly w/in the world of Victorian and late 19th-century English literature (Alvarez compares it w/ the opprobrium and controversy surrounding the publication of Chatterly - which I'd thought was a little later, but may well have been in the late 19th century). As to my reading - I guess there's nowhere to go but up. Tomorrow, most likely, on request from friend WS (not William Shakespeare), I may post on some suggested short stories or collections that fall outside of the conventions of the genre, which in the whole tends toward the sad, the stressed, the distressed, the obsessed, the lonely, and lost, and the outsiders. Are there story collections that, without pandering, help you recognize some good in the world? To be determined.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Why Jude the Obscure is fitting conclusion to 19th-century British fiction

Thomas Hardy certainly turns the English novel on its end in Jude the Obscure, and, as noted in yesterday's post, it's unsurprising that this was his last novel - where do you go from here? English novels, famously, are about inclusion, the hero or heroine beginning as an outsider and over the course of the narrative brought into society, often concluding with a marriage. Hardy concludes with two marriages, each a horrendous disaster, leading the two central characters to isolation, desolation, and death Old friend John Kusich wrote an entire book about Dickens's endings, and although many Dickens novels are dark and many of his endings, as far as I can recall, contain notes of longing, unfulfilled desire, and wistfulness, none are as anti-societal as Jude - Dickens notably wrote the famous 2 endings of Great Expectations, as the "sad" ending did not meet his needs, or his public's. Hardy fittingly closes out the century - Jude written in the late 1890s - with a sense that inclusion is impossible, that people are controlled, doomed, by fate. In his later-written intro to the novel (1912), Hardy wrote about the terrible reception Jude received on first publication: the English critics were not ready to accept Hardy's vision (and also bristled at some of the polemics of the novel, which deal with issues long-since resolved - divorce, and a more inclusive education system - though this issue still looms, in a different form). Critics weren't ready, but there is clearly something readers saw that critics didn't seem: the skewering of injustice and the class system, the critique of the university system (which most of the critics probably benefited from), the precise picture of the hard life in rural village and in the small-town working class, and most of all the firm belief that not everything in the world works out for the best, that some are just tossed by the wayside and forgotten (obscure), in literature and in life.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A horrifying scene in Jude the Obscure and what it signifies

I'm guessing that Jude the Obscure has never been made into a movie or that if it has it's never been made into a good movie, and there's a reason. Hardy's early novel Far From the Madding Crowd has been adapted, even recently, but Jude, his last novel, is far too dark and even gruesome to translate well onto the screen - particularly the horrifying incidents in the 6th and final section. What astonishes us on the page would repulse us on screen - and would strain credulity as well. It had been decades since I last read Jude, and I'm surprised I didn't remember this late scene, although it came back to me as I was re-reading it: Jude's you and preternaturally aged son, alarmed at the family poverty and how it's difficult to find housing for such a large group, kills his two half-siblings and hangs himself - all while his parents are out at breakfast. He leaves a note saying something like: Dead because were too menny [sic]. As if Jude could not be crushed any more or sink any lower, this sensational killing sends Sue into a terrible depression, or course, and also into a religious, fanatic mania: just at a time when Jude thinks they need to be together for support, she needs to separate from him. She, who ha campaigned against marriage (we now learn what we had suspected, that they had never gotten legally married) now feels guilt and remorse about his and her first marriages - she believes she is still Phillotson's wife (she now calls him Richard, for the first time). Is she really suddenly so devout? Or his this her asexuality and rejection of men that is coming once again to the fore? Her rejection of Jude and her embrace of religion, a complete turnabout for her, is a defense to protect herself from her own guilt - for blaming the children, for leaving them unattended, perhaps for wishing them gone. Jude is befuddled to say the least - oddly, he seems to not miss the children terribly, or maybe Hardy doesn't miss them (unlike earlier Victorians such as Dickens, he does not write often or well about children) - but with Sue now separating from him he is a desperate and despondent man. It's no wonder Hardy stopped writing novels after Jude - there was nowhere to go but further down.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Jude sums up Hardy's dark philosophy of life

Jude and family - now (part 6, final section of Jude the Obscure) w/ 3 children in tow - after several years of itinerant labor in Wessex, head back to Christminster, the city was once at the pinnacle of Jude's dreams and aspirations. You have to wonder: why? He could only feel like a ruin and a failure returning to the place where he was never welcomed, where he was coldly turned away from the college gates. Surprisingly, on arrival, he's very excited about seeing some sort of convocation procession, and he drags the family to stand in the rain for hours as the procession moves by - with all of their possessions, not amounting to much but still, left at the train station and without even a place to spend the night let alone to settle down and live for a while. This is cruel and almost abusive behavior - something's wrong w/ his mind, it seems. As always in the coincidental world of Victorian fiction, he's recognized in the crowd watching the parade - some of his old fellow stonemasons call out to him, mockingly, noting how disheveled he looks. And Jude at that point launches into an apologia de vita sua (I'm sure I spelled that wrong - apology for, or explanation of, his life), which is really a summation of Hardy's philosophy of life: If I'd come back as a success you'd say there goes a great man who worked hard, and as you see me now as a failure you think there goes someone who just never had the talent or drive - when it's all a matter of fate, and all of us are doomed to suffer and die anyway. Very dark novel - maybe the darkest in all of Hardy.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Jude was better off when obscure

Good news for Jude - it appears, though Hardy is very circumspect about this, that his partner, Sue Bridehead, is pregnant! So apparently they are no longer living in monkish celibacy. As noted in yesterday's post, there is a lot of evidence that Sue is asexual, homosexual, afraid of or repulsed by sex, and possibly a victim of abuse - so to know that she and Jude are now involved in a sexual relationship is good, at least for Jude, at least kinda. There's still a very weird quality to their relationship: Sue never responds to Jude's constant diminutive endearments, which makes us wonder: Is she really in love with him? Does she find him, in some way, as oppressive as her ex-husband? Sue is an odd contradiction: uptight and moralistic, but in another way a true free spirit. She clearly is the one who resists marriage, as an unequal bond between man and woman. At last Sue and Jude head off to London where they are ostensibly married - but Hardy carefully does not show their marriage, so we can assume that the the trip was all for show: they want to appear to be married because they are jointly raising Jude's son. It doesn't work. Up to this point, Jude had truly lived an "obscure" life - he hasn't achieved his lofty ambitions of scholarship and service, but he gets along and makes a living and nobody bothers him or about him. But now he and Sue are seen as weirdos and outcasts; business dries up, and they are unable to make any ties to the community. They sell all their meager belongings at auction (isn't there a similar auction scene in Casterbridge?) and prepare to move on, into what will be a lonely, peripatetic existence. The son is a strange character as well and it would certainly help the kid's case if somebody gave him a name; he's always called Father Time, because of his preternaturally calm demeanor. Today we would suspect that the child, quiet and withdrawn, is on the autism spectrum. Sadly, rather than draw him into a community - through a network of teachers, classmates, friends, neighbors - the son seems to bar them from social interaction. Jude was better off when obscure; now he's an object of scorn.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Sue Bridhead's asexuality in Jude the Obscure

Sue Bridehead, Jude's love interest, is a complex character, in most ways very sympathetic and in some ways very disturbed. As she points out, she and Jude are two people of extraordinary sensitivity - moved to tears easily, having great empathy for others. Among her most appealing qualities is her sharp intelligence - complete contrasts to Jude's estranged wife - and her forthright nature, particularly in respect to the rights of women (and to a lesser extent in respect to the rights of the working class). She has many moments in which she is trenchant and perspicacious as she discusses the oppression of women and the general societal devaluation of women - in particular noting the inequity of marriage, men choose freely but women must be "given" to the man. In the next generation, she would not doubt be a suffragette. But then there's the other side to her: we can't help but think that part of her principled opposition to marriage is a fear of sexuality and more specifically a fear of men (we know very little about her past - she sounds as if she may have been abused as a child - not sure if Hardy will fill that in later, or if that's a modern/contemporary "reading" of her character). Abused or not, her sexual history, or lack of same, is quite astonishing: she was in love with a young scholar and they lived together for 18 months or so (until he died), but she makes a point of telling Jude that they never had sex. She marries the considerably older Phillitson (a marriage similar to the central story of Middlemarch), and, though she never says explicitly that they did not have sex - it certainly seems as if they didn't - culminating in the scene in which he walks into the bedroom and she literally jumps out of the window in fright. She's repulsed by him, and it's easy to write that off as a mismatch - but then we come to her relationship w/ Jude - to his dismay and disappointment, after their endless courtship, he takes a hotel room for the 2 of them and she is shocked, shocked!, that he would consider doing that. Well, Jude is not only obscure - he's a saint, and lives with her for months without sex - until finally she agrees to get married (to provide a family and home for Jude's son who has just turned up), and then on the wedding day she goes through about 100 reasons why the time, place, something just isn't right. That's where I stopped last night - but have to think a 20th-century novelist would explore her a-sexuality more overtly - is she attracted to women? to no one? Is it fear of sex or a different sexual orientation? I don't think Hardy can answer those questions - he's brave and forward-thinking enough to raise them (esp in the scene when Sue fell asleep wearing Jude's clothes and he sees her boyish beauty).

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Hey, Jude - a liteary character who cannot catch a break

In one of those coincidence that 19th-century writers got away with but that would not fly today, Jude just happens to stop into a pub for a drink and who should be serving at the bar but his estranged wife, returned unexpectedly from Australia. Jude, town as always between the corporal and the spiritual, goes off with estranged wife Arabella (he calls her at one point Abby) and they spend the night together in a cheap hotel (Hardy is very discrete about this, but, hey, they're actually married so what's the problem?, and then Jude learns that she has "remarried" (and abandoned) a guy in Australia - she's very blase about that and says in happens all the time down there, probably true - and he has followed her back to England and bought a pub in London and wants her to work w/ him there to build the business. Well, here's an opportunity for Judge - perhaps he can get his marriage annulled? - but unfortunately for the poor guy the true love of his life has gone ahead w/ her marriage to the crotchety schoolmaster, Phillotson - in fact, she has asked Jude to "give her away" (she sharply notes the hypocrisy that men can choose their wives but the wife must be "given away" by a father or father figure). Jude just cannot catch a break, cannot find happiness, either in love or in his chosen career. He still yearns to study Greek and Latin but seems to be stuck forever in his stone-mason trade. Oddly, the novel is quite peripatetic, each section centered on a different location as Jude uproots himself - first to Christminster, then the Melchester (seems to be Winchester), then to another small city - seeking some kind of happiness, always in pursuit of the elusive.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Two poles of Jude's personality - and the 2 women in his life

The two women in Jude (the Obscure)'s life are polar opposites, or in a sense they represent the polarities of his strange personality. Arabella Donn, his estranged wife, was physical, sexual crude, and devious - from the moment she catches Jude's attention by hurling a pig's penis at his face (!) to the gruesome scene in which she slaughters a pig while the more sensitive Jude cringes to her abandonment of the marriage w/out a touch of remorse or regret. Sue Bridehead, his 2nd romance is annoyingly moralistic without being devout or doctrinaire (she lived with her previous partner for more than a year but she makes it a point to tell Jude that they never had sex, if you can believe or imagine that), in some ways a-sexual - she gets engaged to the elderly (well, he's probably no more than 50, but seems older than that by today's measure) schoolmaster, definitely not a sexual attraction there, exceedingly honest - she tells Jude all about her previous relations and he has not (yet) copped to the fact that he's still married - and actually quite boyish, or, in the word Hardy uses, epicene: after she flees from her strict convent-like school and takes refuge in Jude's apartment she sheds her wet clothing and spends the night in Jude's best Sunday suit, and he admires her "epicene" beauty. So that's another side of Jude, not homosexual per se but definitely an attraction to an a-sexual woman (or maybe it's a repulsion after his terrible relationship with the highly sexual Arabella?). All readers I'm sure are rooting for Sue Bridehead, who along with Jude seems to know what's what - telling off the tyrannical leaders of her abandoned school and recognizing the honesty of workers and the dubious intelligence of those stowed away in the colleges of Christminster, aka Oxford - or many universities up to this day.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Rejection letters - and Jude strikes back!

Jude (the Obscure)'s sad tale continues as the poor guy, working hard as a stone mason repairing many of the crumbled gothic facades in the university town of Christminster (aka Oxford) still studies Latin and Greek at night on his own and has dreams of entering one of the colleges. He gets the bright idea of writing a letter to the heads of several of the colleges seeking an interview for admission. He waits days, maybe weeks - no response at all. (All aspiring authors will understand this anxiety.) He pretty much gives up hope, believes he was a fool to hold to this dream or fantasy. Then he gets an envelope, opens, reads, it's from one of the college heads who writes in a sentence or two: You say you're a stone mason and you'd be well advised to stick with what you know. Horrible man! - and he's the only one who at least had the courtesy to respond to a respectful letter. Jude goes off on a bender - in a way, that's when he's at his best - ends up reciting some Latin on a bar bet, feels remorseful, wanders the streets - and has a kind of epiphany realizing that without the working people such as he the entire city would shut down - takes a piece of chalk (he always carries chalk, part of his profession) and writes on the gate of the college that "rejected" him a passage from Job that says something like: I have as much or more knowledge than you have. Good for Jude! It's the first moment in the novel when I felt anything other than sorrow for him. But of course it's just a gesture, and he has to get on with his life. He returns to his unlikable great aunt in Marygate, and then considers the next step in his life, as he follows his cousin Sue - with whom he's still in love - to another Wessex town where he will try to enter the church at the lowest level - a curate, I think - and serve a ministry in a remote parish or an urban slum. His goals aren't altogether clear, but he knows he still is in love with Sue - even though he's married and, as he learns, she is engaged to the much older schoolmaster: in other words, they're meant for each other but each is locked into a difficult an unsuitable commitment - in a way, this is a contemporary story in antique clothing.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The saddest moment in Jude the Obscure?

Perhaps the saddest moment in Jude the Obscure occurs when at last he has fulfilled his dream and moved to the university town of Christminster and finally takes the initiative to find his childhood teacher who had left for Christminster and provided Jude with the inspiration that has guided and directed his life. He comes to the door of his former teacher, who clearly has not attained the hope and promise of his life, which was to rise to prominence in the Anglican church, and Jude introduces himself and the teacher says: I don't remember you at all. What a line! - and it makes us think of the great title of this novel, and how in a way each of us is "obscure" - there are people we know and remember who do not know or remember us, to whom we mean nothing - and this must often be the case with teachers - who play such a huge, formative role in the lives of children - I think every one of us can recall the names of our grammar-school teachers - but who teach thousands of children over the years and can recall only the exceptional (for good or ill). Jude, as is his wont, recovers from this shock and re-builds a relationship with his teacher, and in fact encourages his cousin, Sue Bridehead (?) to give up her plan to leave Christminster and to take a job as the teacher's assistant. Jude's relationship to Sue will be dominant throughout the novel it seems - though they are cousins they have never met till they come across one another in Christchurch, and their families have feuded over a bitter divorce - but they agree to put that aside, and, from Jude's POV, he falls in love w/ his cousin (even before they met - based on a photograph - and he kind of stalks her for weeks in Christchurch before she actually looks him up) - but we can see the moral, ethical, and practical problems that lie ahead, most notably Jude's disastrous and hasty marriage to Arabella, who supposedly has disembarked for Australia - and they never took steps to dissolve the union. Jude is an intensely moral guy and he is already fretting about the problems that would follow if he were to start a relationship w/ Sue - so does he proceed w/out telling her about the marriage? Or does he tell her, and accept the consequences or outcome? He was tricked into marriage by Arabella, and it seems unlikely that he would be deceptive or furtive.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The most sorrowful of all Hardy protagonists: Jude (the Obscure)

The hapless Jude (the Obscure) gets led, tricked rather, into marriage with Arabella Donn, a woman who in every way seems to be his opposite - earthy, sexual, crude - she, w/ complicity of her parents, overwhelms and seduces a very oblivious Jude and shortly after that tells him she's pregnant. Jude, always trying to do the right thing, offers to marry her right away. Done. Obviously the the marriage doesn't last - although I was surprised that it ended in the first section of the novel; obviously, knowing Hardy, Arabella will come back to play a key role in Jude's life and fate. After the break-up - precipitated by a squabble over the butchering of a family pig (Jude wants to kill it with mercy while Arabella wants the hog to bleed to death slowly, increasing the value of the meat) - we move forward about 10 years as Jude fulfills his dream of moving to the university town of Christminster (aka Oxford) where he hopes to pursue his classical studies. But he's such an outsider and has no idea how the university system works, or the class system: he's a stone-mason, and it's almost inconceivable that the university would offer him any kind of admission or instruction. Moving there, he will be even more of an outsider and an alien - in his native village he was the eccentric intellectual, but in Christminster he will be ignored, overlooked. As he enters the town and looks for lodging, we have to anticipate: will he manage to find his childhood teacher, who had inspired him to think about reading the classics, and how will his teacher receive him? And - what about his cousin who lives in Christminster, an attractive young woman and possibly a well-suited partner for Jude? Knowing the world of Hardy, we suspect Jude will want to marry this young woman - but his marriage to Arabella will oppress and torment him. He may be the most sorrowful of all of the Hardy protagonists.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Is Jude the Obscure the best literary title of all time?

Such a sorrowful beginning to Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, and, knowing Hardy, we can expect the novel to become increasingly sorrowful, a story of fate and a just man who does not get from life what he dreams of or what he deserves. Hardy is the ultimate author of unfair fate. JtheO (truly one of the greatest of all literary titles, right?) begins with the childhood of the young Jude at age 11 or so, orphaned and unwanted, enamored of his teacher who is leaving town w/ aspirations of becoming a scholar in the university town about 20 "leagues" away - obviously modeled on Oxford/Cambridge. Jude decides he would like to follow that course - he know of none other in his narrow scope of life - and begins teaching himself Latin and Greek - he's pretty bright and, even more so, very determined. He is the classic literary nerd, in fact, seemingly having few friends and no interest outside of his studies. Walking along a path one day with his mind lost in the classics he is startled by an outburst of three young women, laughing at him mockingly, and one, Arabella Donn, throws a pig's penis that slaps him greasily across the cheek (she and her friends are disemboweling pigs to get the chitterlings and other inner organs). This slap seems to mark Jude and seal his fate, binding him in some way to this physical, sexual young woman who is in so many ways his opposite, and potentially his doom. Though I don't think Hardy was religious or spiritual, I think there are obvious religious/spiritual themes running through the first section of JtheO: the yearning for the distant university town, its spires just over the horizon, much like a spiritual yearning for salvation, for one example.

Monday, January 4, 2016

What I liked and didn't like about Makine's A Woman Loved

At the end, Andrei Makine's A Woman Loved is a daring novel that manages to give us an entire arc of Russian/Saviet history - from the 18th-centiury reign of Catherine the Great, to the Russian disaster of World War I, the Stalin era (in which Russians of German descent were exiled to Siberia), the Brezhnev era of state oppression, and finally the collapse of the USSR and the wealth of the oligarchs and the headiness of artistic freedom - and does this all in a compressed narrative focused on young man writing a screenplay about Catherine, and as we follow his life over about 20 years, as his life in a sense follows the course of his screenplay - which goes through several iterations before its final incarnation as a soft-porn soap opera about Catherine's sexual conquests and appetites. Makine - Russian born and living in France (and writing in French) - captures some scenes beautifully and does a great job tracking the professional ups and downs of the life of the screenwriter, Oleg - which is a stand-in for many writers in the Soviet and post-Soviet era, the need to compromise or be sneaky to get material past the censors; then, later, the need to just be crass and exploitative, producing trash to make tons of money and the heady early days of Russian "freedom" and corruption. I wish, however, that Makine gave more depth to Oleg's character -- we follow him over several decades and in some beautiful passages we get his back story but we never get his "front" story; we see the women his lives w/ at various periods of his life, but these relations never seem significant and his personality is opaque. I wish Makine had more carefully developed Oleg's character and spent less time on this many accounts of the filming of various scenes in the life of Catherine - these sections seemed repetitious and, though salacious, they were pretty dull and insignificant - maybe they mean more to Russian readers, but for men a brief account of the filming and more info on the main character and his thinking and yearnings would have strengthened this novel.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Yet another story about New Yorkers?: But this one is different, insightful, surprising

Very good somewhat long story, The Beach Boy, by Ottessa Mossfegh, in current New Yorker - a story that initially appears to be about a Central Park West professional couple, childless in their 50s, the man a dermatologist, who superficially appear to have all the privileges of wealth and comfort and friendship and a good marriage, about whom, over the course of the story (I won't give too much away) experience sudden loss through which the man awkwardly confronts some of the truths about the hollowness of his life and about his repressed homosexual desires. Mossfegh does a great job sketching in the characters - it's not that easy to portray shallow and rather unlikable characters while maintaining sympathy, or empathy, for them and not being snide or ironic, but she (?) manages to do so with great tact and balance. The heart of the story is the memory of the couple's recent trip to a Caribbean (I think) island, her condescending attitude toward the people and the culture and his odd fascination with the young male prostitutes who cluster around the hotels and beaches. At the end of the story he returns to the setting, unclear about his motives - which are pretty clear to us - and of course his visit ends in disaster and shame, though not exactly as you'd expect. I don't know anything about this author, but hope to see more work by her: the writing is calm and assured and scathingly observant, she takes on the issues of class and privilege without being heavy-handed or polemical, and, though I think there's a super-abundance of fiction about upscale New Yorkers, this story presents a slightly new slant on the familiar terrain by its shift to an older and seemingly more demure generation (and borough).

Saturday, January 2, 2016

A novel of scope and beauty: A Woman Loved

Increasingly impressed with Andrei Makine's A Woman Loved as I am now more than half-way through the novel; story is about a young screenwriter in the Soviet era, the early 1980s, working on a screenplay about the life, the sex life primarily, of Catherine the Great, and at first I was put off by how much attention Makine spent on the screenplay - his way of incorporating into this capacious novel a brief history of Catherine's life. I still think he spends too much time/space on that topic, but as the novel progresses we realize that it's about so much else: the struggles of a young writer in that era of severe state censorship, the tensions and prejudices - little know to Western readers I think - between native Russians and Russians of German descent in the years after WWII (the screenwriter, Oleg, is of German background - and a powerful section of the novel recounts the sufferings of his parents - banishment to Siberia, struggle to establish a career as an architect/engineer - knowing that Makine was born in Siberia I wonder to what extent this story is his own), the art of filmmaking - some very good scenes on the set once the film is actually - to my surprise, it seemed like the most ridiculously overwritten screenplay, the complex relations on the film set as actors pretend to love (and have sex with) other actors and then build personal - if ephemeral - relationships among the cast and crew. Ultimately, Oleg is kicked off the set, denounced for some anti-state activities, and his name is eradicated from the finished film. And the the world changes for him - and we move forward into the post-Brezhnev era, with opportunities for writers opening, broadening, the fall of the Soviet Union, and as we move into the 2nd half of the book we see Oleg now as an older man, now working for a small publication that's attacked by a gunman - not clear yet if there was a political motive for the attack - and Old heroically takes a bullet in an attempt to overcome the attacker, and we see him in the hospital, recovering, and it's a different world: patients have to bribe doctors w/ US dollars for sufficient pain meds, for ex. There's so much in this book - a history of Russia spanning centuries, the story of an artist in a time of change, a story of young love failed, and much beautiful writing. I wonder why Makine hasn't found the readership in the U.S. that some of the Easter European writers have - perhaps because, a bit younger than, say, Kundera, and an early emigrant, he never had the need or opportunity to confront the state while still living within and under Soviet rule.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Two aspects to the work of Andrei Makine

Some years back I was impressed by the beautiful writing in Andrei Makine's memoiristic novel Dreams of my Russian Summer. He never seemed to find the American readership that I thought he deserved, however. (He's born in Russia but has lived in France for many years and writes in French.)  despite the mixed reviews I decided to give his newest novel, A Woman Lived, a look. Based on the first third or so my views are: mixed. Describing the novel makes it sound incredibly unappealing - a young man in Soviet Russia is trying to write a screenplay about Catherine the Great, focusing on her many affairs and sexu relationships (including the much rumored sexual relationship with a horse) and on her conspiracy to murder her husband, the feckless Peter III, and take the crown. By all accounts the screenplay is dreadful, but that doesn't prevent Makine from describing it in some detail.  I was losing patience with this novel but Makine gradually developed what to me is the far more interesting component: the life and life story of the writer - Oleg - his relationship with girlfriend a film critic or theorist who leaves him for a young director, his relationship w his academic mentor who encourages him but warns him of the danger he will face when he presents his script to the censorship board, his struggle to earn a living through work in a slaughterhouse (wonder if Makine has seen Killer of Sheep?), and relationship with his father, a mentally ill engineer of German descent - which was a source for Opeg of torment and exclusion in his youth. Hoping Makine develops these themes further over course of the novel.