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

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

Monday, February 29, 2016

Authorial manipulation and mismanagement in Muriel Spark's Memento Mori

We're all familiar with the cinematic device that Hitchcock call the McGuffin (sp?), a fact,clue, or object that sets the plot in motion and that over the course of the narrative diminishes in relevance until, b the end, we've pretty much forgotten what started everything rolling. Mission Unnecessary. That's what Muriel Spark does in Memento Mori - she begins the novel with a hang-up call to an elderly woman that could be interpreted either as a death threat or as a simple statement of fact: Remember, you will die soon (or words to that effect). It would be one thing if Spark left that element alone, but she keeps developing it over the course of the novel - others start getting similar threats, the police investigate, a distinguished retired detective offers his services, and so forth. And guess what (spoilers coming): She doesn't ever tell us who's making the calls. Just gives us some nonsense like: Death itself is calling. Hey, a novelist can do whatever she wants - but as this is clearly not a scifi or fantasy novel but an otherwise completely realistic drawing-room British drama, wealth elderly Brits squabbling about inheritances and past infidelities, the type that translates so well, usually, to TV screens - doesn't she owe us a little more on the payoff, can't she even make an effort? Compound this with the plot itself - which becomes a very complex web of accusations and guilty disavowals, of characters continually revising their wills - and the one will at the center of the story - which seemed to be destined to the elderly woman's caretaker - gets snatched up by an old literary lion who, everyone suddenly, had been secretly married to the late Lisa. But then - oh, surprise - we learn in the last chapter that the marriage was invalid because Lisa's first husband, presumed dead, was alive and is still alive in a mental hospital - so he inherits all the loot. This is even more manipulative and random than, say, Dickens at his worst. Despite all this authorial mismanagement, there are a few good scenes in this novel, in particular the inter-relationships of the elderly women in a hospital ward. We can see that Spark matured in her later writing and she learned to focus the story on smaller set of characters and a well-defined struggle for power - thinking her of her later and far more accomplished novel Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mortality and art

One of the better elements in Murial Spark's Memento Mori is the group of scenes in the hospital ward for elderly women - at the time (1959) considered a progressive step in health care, better, I suppose, than leaving the working-class elderly to die alone w/ no medical care, but today obviously there are many more options and much more, if not perfect, equity. But I saw potential in these scenes for a whole novel about the inter-relations of the women on the ward, their battles with the nurses, their conflicting personalities, their differing backgrounds, their relationships with the few relatives (and former employers) who visit, or don't, and of course the ever-present reminders of death. I wish I could say the same for the rest of this novel, most of which focuses on a few wealthy elderly Londoners and their rivalries and petty quarrels and deceptions. At the heart of it, Godfrey, heir to a brewing-industry fortune, is ashamed of various affairs and business practices in his past and is subject to blackmail by his wife's attendant because he dreads his wife's learning of these event; we learn, however, that the wife, Charmian, a successful novelist in her youth and now having a re-discovery, has always known about her husband's past and doesn't care. (Nor do I.) The driving force of the novel is the mystery as to who's making hang-up calls, initially to Dame Lettie (Charmian's sister; we learn in passing that she was well-known advocate for penal reform) telling her to remember that she will die - gradually, the caller, or group of callers, is phoning many people in Lettie's "set." I dread where Spark is going with this, but fear that it will be some kind of narrative nonsense such as "death itself" is making these calls. In a sense, every work of art is a memento mori, the artist's grasping for "eternal life" or at least life beyond his or her death, and a reminder to us the readers, of the temporality and mortality of existence: Had we world enough and time, most art would not exist.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Still reading Memento Mori and to what end?

Well, I've got not much more to say as I move further along w/ Muriel Spark's curious 1959 novel, Memento Mori - the characters continue to talk about their complex current relationships and past entanglements, we still don't know who's calling Dame Letti and reminding her that she's going to die, and do we care about these people - bored aristocrats, faithless servants, pretentious artists? Do we relate to them in any way? Much of British popular fiction over the past century has been about the relationships among and between the social classes. I'm trying to make sense of the class relationships in MM. The wealthy all seem to need a loyal retainer or two, especially for the elderly women - and the loyal servants seem to be maneuvering for a piece of an inheritance. The maidservants, surprise surprise, also establish some kind of sexual relationship with the husbands of their "ladies" - all part of the deal, I guess. One curious element Spark establishes is the restraint and kinkiness of some of these relationships. The lead male figure in the novel, Godfrey, has a thing for looking at a woman as she hikes up her dress or skirt so he can see the top of her stocking. Shocking! He pays his wife's maidservant a pound each time she lets him have a look. He also spends a lot of time in another neighborhood - Chelsea - surreptitiously visiting a young woman (granddaughter of the dissipated poet we've encountered) who charges a bit more for the privilege. She's also involved in some way with Godfrey's son, Eric. Wow, it's hard work keeping all these strands clear in mind while reading - and to what end?

Friday, February 26, 2016

The difficulty of modernism and the novel - Memento Mori

Started next book-group selection, Muriel Spark's Memento Mori (1959), a few years before her more famous (and maybe deservedly so?) The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (I'd forgotten she was the author of PMJB, about which I've blogged, when we selected MM) - funny to see in this very different novel, btw, characters talking to one another about being in their prime or past their prime, a Spark obsession? In any event, MM is potentially a good novel in the very English tradition (even though she's Scottish) of both substance and modernist style: a lot of characters spending a lot of time talking, over tea, in sick rooms, in salons, over the funeral baked meats (yes, the Hamlet reference occurs in the novel, too, without annotation - lots of literary "winks" are also an English tradition), and in the modern sense, like Woolf and maybe Ford Madox Ford, too, of a limited third-person narrator - we see and hear what the narrator sees and hears, but the narrator is stingy - we get almost no back story unless the characters discuss their lives, histories, inter-relationships. This style makes the first 50 pages or so very tough going - we have no idea at first which of the many characters is central, which peripheral, we learn about their backgrounds, professions, earlier complex relationships in pieces - the modernist style not only in fiction but also in art and maybe music - think of Picasso or Manet perhaps. There's a tension right at the start that may make you think you're involved in a murder mystery: one character, Dame Lettie, in her 80s or so, is receiving hang-up calls saying, Remember, you're going to die (cf the title - is it a philosophical observation of fact, or a threat?). But Spark doesn't do much w/ this bone-in-throat opener - as Lettie doesn't care particularly who's making the calls so why should we? Gradually we see that Lettie (we know little about her life, but there is a hint that maybe she's a writer - a mystery writer, a v of Dame Agatha?) and her brother, Godfrey are key characters; G's wife, Charmiade  (sp? - it's a name from A&C I think), was a writer, now in a state of near-dementia. We also meet their former housemaid or servant, Mrs. Taylor (?), in a ward for elderly women - apparently she had a relationship long back w/ Godfrey, and she still is quite sharp and maybe attractive - a gerontologist doctor friend visits her to discuss various things and perhaps to test her wits and reactions. A parallel plot involves the death of one of their wealthy friends, a patroness of the arts, who dies leaving her fortune not to her long-serving housemaid who'd hoped to get it but to a dissipated artist who, it turns out, secretly married her years ago. Lots of story lines, not a lot of hooks though.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

News from the Front - story in current New Yorker by Luke Mogelson

Luke Mogelson's story in current NYer, Total Solar, has the raw and authentic feel of a documentary, by someone on the battlefront, in this case an American independent journalist in Kabul, working a couple of angles to get a good story, and caught in a random bombing and violent shooting raid. Who's on whose side? It's impossible to tell and doesn't much natter - every moment in this story, and presumably in that world, is full of danger and treachery. The story has a bit of a jumbled feel, and it's pretty difficult to keep the pieces of the story in order, at least the first half of the story, before the narrator leaves the scene of the bombing and wanders through one of the marketplaces, soaked in blood. I believe the broken narrative - not too hard to put together into sequences if you do a little re-reading after completing the story - intentionally mimics the chaos of an explosion and attack. Mogelson does a great job describing the mood and scene just after the attack - sound deadened, brown cloud in the air, watching others moving in slow motion in great pain, on the edge of death - the young woman slowly removing the long splinter from her face, then waving at the approaching gunmen thinking they're there to help - they're not. A story like this - it's really one of the reasons we read fiction - to bring us the reality not of the facts but of the experience and the sensations, particularly from places where we've never been and will never go. Mogelson's either very wise, very imaginative, or very brave - or maybe all three.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A novel about the "life" of an outsider artist - Stone Arabia

So among other things Dana Spiotta's 2011 novel, Stone Arabia, is a fantastic compendium of info and a encyclopedia of terminology about every conceivable nuance of indie-grunge West Coast rock in the 1980s or thereabouts, fun to read and marvel at as a cultural icon (or mausoleum): How does she know so much? Did she make most of this up? It certainly has the feel of authenticity, which is great, of life lived in love with the music, but Spiotta also playfully mixes in real name-checks and references, not only to the music scene but to movies, celebrity gossip, and the ever-present news crawl of the era depicted in the novel - a few months in 2004, mostly - that to be certain or clear you have to keep checking Wiki or some such source - all to her credit. It's also a fine portrayal of the mind, the genius, and the dereliction not just of a rock singer - there's been plenty of that - but of an outsider artist: the heart and soul of this novel is the narrator's brother, Nik, who, as we come to see over the course of the work, had very minor, local success as a musician and then devoted most of the rest of his life to creating a "character" - Nick Worth - and a whole opus of his works, not only recording these but creating a complete archive about Worth's live, consisting of reviews, diaries, news clippings, and the hardware of rock music - jewelcases for the CD with liner notes etc. Gets you thinking about other outsider artists recently depicted in film, notably for me the great documentary Marwencol (similar in that the artist created not just artworks but a whole artistic world; different in the deep impairment of the artist). His audience is of about 20, including the narrator and her daughter/his niece - but he lets on that he hopes that if his work is unearthed centuries from now the archaeologist will believe that Nick Worth was actually an influential rock star. This of course gets us thinking about what it is to "create" a character - for this is exactly what the novelist is doing as well, after all - Nick Worth is no less real than the narrator, his sister Denise - which gives the novel a neat postmodern flip or veneer. I only wish that this were a little more plot driven - Spiotta doesn't seem interested in plot especially, she's going after setting, mood, and, to a lesser extent, character - Delillo has been cited as her influence, mentor, and friend, and the connection is obvious - but I think she could have built more suspense about Nik's character and could have had a more clear resolution. A really smart writer, though, and, although the book's clearly not aimed at my demo., an intriguing look at a scene long gone.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Spiotta working against tradition in Stone Arabia

A further note on Dana Spotta's Stone Arabia (didn't read much last night, sorry) - the novel, or at least a long stretch of it, is organized as the narrator's journal, daily entries over a stretch of a few weeks in February 2004 (novel published in 2011); entry I read last night was a few pages in which narrator takes her brother, Nik, to visit one of Nik's former bandmates, now living in the Valley and dying of emphysema and edema and other ailments associated w/ the musician's life of drugs and drinking and road trips. So we see these two ruined men, formerly part of the punk scene in LA (Spiotta has a lot of fun with the nomenclature of the many subsets of indie rock, some of which I would guess she's invented just for kicks), and it's kind of sad, pathetic - especially re Nik, who was a young man of such promise and talent who now works in a bar, listens to CDs of his own music, and drinks to excess, essentially killing himself. In isolation, it's a good chapter - but I just don't see the cumulative effect here. These seem to be a sequence of events but I don't get a sense of the shape or direction of this novel, why the narrator is focusing on these days in particular. Spiotta is working against tradition and expectations here, building a character study through college and through accrual of incident rather than through plot: collision of forces, arc of development, moment of crisis or decision. Not sure if this is typical of her work, and not sure (I'm about half-way through) whether there will be more payoff as the narrative unfolds.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The anointed novelist of the moment : Spiotta

The NY times mag yesterday anointed Dana Spiotta as the novelist of the moment so an an attempt to stay ahead of the curb I started reading her  - I think I've read some of her stories but that's about it. Started her 3rd I think of 5 novels , Stone Arabia, not because it's the best but because it's the only on my town library had on shelf. The title itself is symptomatic of this novel - 2 cool words oddly juxtapositioned but to what end? Most likely they are a band or album name - as this novel is loosely about the west coast indie folk rock scene of the 70s. Inevitably this has be nor was compared w goon squad and I find it better -!goon squad struck me as a work of reaseach where as Stone A feels like an authentically loved life. The narrator is a single mom - daughter fully grown and independent- of no particular distinction - dull job dull boyfriend who stops being nonce a week, mother showing early signs of dementia. The central relationship is between her and older bro - musician, hoarder, cataloguer, self-publisher - not clear the level of his talent but he did seem to have a few albums and now is battling post fame syndrome, mainly alcohol and cigarettes.. The problem tho thru first third of novel is - what is the why? Spiotta assiduously avoids putting the bone in the throat and we really don't know, yet, what crisis or challenge these characters face.  She ver slowly enters the narrative,strew in along the way various postmodern tricks - eg a long journal excerpt that we learn gradually was written by the bro in his sister's voice. Hoping this mostly appealing narrative will take some direction as novel proceeds m

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The obsessions of Hedayat in The Blind Owl

The smart intro to the Grove edition of Sedagh Hedayat's The Blind Owl suggests that this short novel merits many re-readings - probably - and that many of the seemingly disparate pieces fall into place on multiple readings - possibly - but based on my just one reading this novel from the 1940s by an Iranian author - apparently very well know to Iranian readers but not to most Western readers - I'd say this work is strange, unsettling, unconventional, difficult, and probably not as carefully constructed as some readers and critics would like or suppose. By all indications Hedayat was a troubled guy; we do know that he killed himself (gas) in Paris about a decade after writing this piece. And The Blind Owl is about an alienated and troubled man of undetermined age. In the first half, about which I posted yesterday, the narrator describes his obsession with the image of a beautiful woman by a stream, an image he paints repeatedly on the "pen cases" he decorates for his (meager?) living, and then actually "sees" outside of his building, invites her in to his house, offers her a drink of wine (from a bottle we later learn has been poisoned), then dismembers and buries her body - very gruesome and disturbing. We are led to think this may be a dream of vision - but there's also a suggestion that the murder and dismemberment were real and that the unnamed narrator hallucinates about this event. The second half is similar in character,setting, and mood, but in this telling the narrator narrator is unhappily married (always calls his wife "the bitch") to a woman who never loved him, whom in fact he has never kissed on the lips, and who flaunts her affairs with other men, some of whom are quite decrepit. The telling of the story, involving similar images of the woman by a stream entertaining a man, culminates in the narrator's embracing his wife, almost coming to orgasm with her for the first time, and then stabbing her to death. Again, we are uncertain how much is real, how much illusion, how much delusion; but if we look for the recurrent images we can see that the driving force throughout this short novel is self-loathing and venom against women. And speaking of venom, surely the most striking passage of all is the "cobra test," in which two men are put in a dark room w/ a cobra and when the cobra attacks one and he screams the other man is freed. The intro essay compares Hedayat w/ Kafka and Poe - yes, true, but without the political world view of Kafka (man against the system) and without the pure entertainment value of Poe.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Portrait of the artist as a young nerd?: DeLillo excerpt in NYer

How you take the novel excerpt in current New Yorker, Sine Cosine Tangent, from Don DeLillo, will depend of course on how well you like his work - which I find both mysterious and sometimes irritating - but I don't think this piece shows him at his best, and wonder what others may think. Partly, though this is just an excerpt, I don't think DD works too well in short form - the effect of his novels is cumulative, both within the works and across the body of his work, a sense of doom and conspiracy and the world hooked up to all the wrong values all of which are out or reach or just beyond our capacity for comprehension. There's a touch of that in this excerpt, in particular the young man's reflection on the mysterious and elusive occupation of his estranged father - who seems to be an economist focused on the profit potential of natural disasters, and someone who consults to hedge funds and maybe governments at the highest level- and the later occupations of the young man, all of them bullshit sounding job titles like Network Integration Consultant and things like that, which mean exactly nothing, even to the young man holding the job - jobs you hold for about 20 minutes and then move along. But those are only small segments of this piece, which for the most part is a rather pointless and unengaging account of the young man's life after his father leaves the home and marriage - he absorbs himself in long novels that he can't quite understand, he develops an obsession with certain words - these to idiosyncrasies or perhaps pretensions are typical literally of every young novelist - he develops and hones certain affectations, such as a fake limp. Later he has a girlfriend about whom he cares little and in fact doesn't even know how she spells her name: Gail? Gale? - and thinks about her differently depending on which spelling he imagines, i.e., the word more important than the relations. So, what have we? Portrait of the artist as a young nerd? Or is this man not an artist in development but something maybe more sinister? That's the mysterious part of DeLillo's writing, and it may pull you, or me, into the novel, but if this is the start it's a bumpy one.

Friday, February 19, 2016

A horror classic from the pov of a delusional man

Sadegh Hedayat's short novel from the early 1940s, The Blind Owl, is considered a horror classic and  it may be so. I'm about halfway through. It's narrated by a very strange solitary man, something like a Kafka narrator but more odd and menacing. In the first section he tells us that he is sufffering from a disease that is destroying his brain and he is writing this manuscript so that we understand. He suggests that he lives outside of himself and the actual person is a shadow in the wall. He talks of the gulf or chasm that separates him from all of humanity - in short a fairly typical outsider narrator in the tradition of Dostoyevsky's underground man. We learn the his profession so to speak is illustrating pen cases, whatever they are, and all of his illustrations reproduce a scene that involves a beautiful woman by a stream. One day he looks thru an aperture in the wall of his apt and sees the woman. He is in love, and Perseus her to no avail but unexpectedly she turns up on his doorstep. He invites her in, serves her a drink from a decanter of old wine and in the night she dies. He cuts her body into pieces, puts them into a suitcase, and sets off to bury her in a remote spot. Ok - it doesn't take long before we realize the perversity of his story and look at it from outside of his consciousness - he has killed a woman and mutilated her body and then disposed of her. How long before the police are on the scene? It's a narrative told by a delusional and dangerous man but is so convincing from his point of view that we almost disbelieve the horror of what he has actually done.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

After all, how can you not like a novel like Bleak House?

You can pretty much see the end of Bleak House coming over the horizon long before you get to page 2,000 or whatever; it's still a heart-warming moment, schmaltzy though it may be, when Jarndyce gives up his "claim" to Esther, freeing her to marry the much more suitable suitor, Mr. Woodcourt. All we have to know is that she calls Woodcourt "Allan" and she calls Jarndyce "My guardian." Marrying him would have been such a mistake, leaving her life so unfulfilled, sexually and maternally. We have to wonder in some way about Jarndyce's life - did he have any love life or family life at all? What was his life all about? There is so much sacrifice in this novel, and so much death as well. It's hard not to love this novel despite its flaws, the most glaring of which, to me, is the utterly bland character of Woodcourt. Dickens has so much fun with is comic characters, his evil characters, and the extremes of wealth and poverty - but he doesn't quite know how to create a heroic character (other than a heroic narrator, who will grow and change over the course of the narrative, as does Pip or David C.). Not that Woodcourt is meant to be the hero of the novel  - the hero is the unrelentingly kind and self-sacrificing Esther, of course - and wouldn't we like her a little more if for two seconds she showed a flash of temper, anger, or disgust? As noted previously, she's just too good. But those quibbles aside, how can you not enjoy a novel with such breadth, comic verve, rhetorical flourishes, and even some trenchant social criticism? It may not be the best Dickens novel, and Dickens may not be the best novelist of his century (though he may be the most entertaining), but it's one of the those rare long journeys that's worth the time invested.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The ending of Bleak House and thoughts on what makes a work "Dickensian"

As Bleak House hurtles toward its conclusion, we see Dickens at his extremes - best, worst, funniest, schmaltziest, you name it. First, how about the resolution of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, seemingly resolved after decades when they discover a charred version of the final will and testament of one of the J's, among the ruins of Krook's shop (Krook died in a rare case of spontaneous combustion), and that seems to be the definitive record that will resolve all the claims. (Even the dullest reader must realize by this point that there will be no money left for any but the lawyers and creditors.) And Esther - clearly she is not going to marry her guardian, Jarndyce. Sweet as he may be, its a totally asexual match - and especially with the handsome and heroic Mr. Woodcourt in the wings - and yes, Woodcourt offers her his undying love (the 3rd suitor for Esther) and she can't really even listen to him - she is so torn because of her commitment to her guardian, as she always calls him, even in their engagement. Dickens is at the end of his rope here, and the dialog gets so ludicrous it's probably the only place in this very funny, at times, novel in which the humor is unintentional: "Forebear! Forebear!" Esther pleads with Woodcourt to stop professing his love. But, as in all great novels, the plot is working itself toward some kind of resolution, and, also as in all great novels, there are mixed emotions (ours, theirs) on reaching the end of the arc: yes Esther may live HEA (happily ever after) with Woodcourt, but look at all the suffering she has seen: the ruin of her friend Richard (and by extension of his wife, Ada), the death of Jo and of her birth mother, the poverty of London, the cruelty of the court system, the absence of any kind of welfare of social services system, the snobbery and irresponsibility of the wealthy (including the funny but actually quite evil "friend" Skimpole) - so the novel - I'm not quite finished yet - ends with a range of emotions - very fitting for such a capacious and ambitious piece, a true example of what people mean or ought to mean with they define a work as "Dickensian" - not just long, urban, and with multiple plot lines, but a vast society that and a complex narrative that uses humor, caricature, pathos, and rhetoric to create an image of society in a specific time and place, an image that mirrors the author's mind rather than a mirror held up to nature (naturalism, later realism).

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Dickens and cinema

As noted yesterday, the plot of Bleak House doesn't really stand up to close scrutiny - but that's not the point. As we near the conclusion, there's a great dramatic, two-chapter sequence that probably makes no sense at all when you think about it - Lady Dedlock, feeling humiliated and mortified that her husband will learn of the child she bore out of wedlock (Esther) and perhaps - I can't quite figure this one out - believing she may be arrested and charged, wrongly, with the murder of Atty Tulkinghorn - leaves a note behind and takes off into the stormy night. Sir Leicester Dedlock (Baronet), learning of his wife's sorrow, suffers what appears to be a stroke - but then in the first note of kindness and humanity he's ever shown, indicates that all is forgiven, Lady Dedlock should come home. Well and good, that's just plain old-fashioned melodrama. But how to get her home? Inspector Bucket hires a horse and driver, picks up the always ready Esther, and rides off into the night - and he follows her for two days, along the Thames, into the countryside, then a reversal and back to London, and finally Esther finds Lady Dedlock (her birth mother, one whom Esther seems to have strong feelings for, though only someone as unrelievedly good as Esther would have these feelings - although, yes, I understand her yearning for the mother who had been absent for her whole life) in disguise lying (she traded clothes with a brickmaker's wife so that Bucket would lose her trail) just at the moment of her death. It's a completely needless and improbable scenario - and yet, and yet - such a great one, too! Entirely cinematic - notably the visit to the men on the banks of the Thames whose job it is to recover the bodies of the drowned, and the crossing of the Thames by night and the dark reflections in the water. If Bleak House were not essentially impossible to film (although it made a good TV miniseries), this scene would be a classic - much like the great opening scene of Great Expectations, captured so well in the David Lean (I think?) movie. Dickens, like Shakespeare - O, for a muse of fire! - was a writer far ahead of the media of his age.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Dickens and the aristocracy - and a note on Dickens's plots

Don't look too closely at the plot of Bleak House, or probably of any Dickens novel, with possible exception of Great Expectations, because on close examination the plot falls apart - too many extreme coincidences, too much action that's inexplicable, to many surmises that turn out to be prescient, and so on - but these novels are not about plot, as noted in previous posts: Dickens is about character and caricature and the establishment of what appears to be an entire culture in its moment. He can be biting and cynical one moment, saccharine and sentimental the next. It's hard to comprehend how great his humor moment by moment, as we tend to read through these monumental tomes at a 21st-century pace, forgetting that in the 19th century these were to a great extent read aloud to groups - and Dickens was probably one of the world's great performers of his own work. Nearing the end of Bleak House and noticing a bit of his ambivalence toward the aristocratic class. It's true that throughout the book his sympathies are largely with the working classes and the truly destitute, and his antipathy is entirely with the class of lawyers (too bad there's not a single nice, honest lawyer in this tome - he's much kinder to other professions, notably doctors). Though Dickens is extremely hard on the Dedlock family, he can't quite bring himself to make Lady Dedlock a criminal: he leads us to think that she is the one who shot the lawyer Tulkinghorn to death, we know that cannot be, and pretty quickly learn that, though Lady Dedlock was on the scene no aristocrat would or could pull off an assassination - the guilty party? Cherchez la femme! Depsite his loathing of the titled, Dickens can't quite imagine the aristocracy behaving badly, at least not in the criminal sense.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The death of the orphan, Jo, in Bleak House - and what it signifies

The death of the orphan vagrant, Jo, in Bleak House is sad in a bitter and angry manner - far different from the sentimental death of the young and vulnerable in earlier Dickens novels. With the death of Jo, Dickens show a few good people caring for him and trying to bring him back to health and to life - Dr Woodcourt, Mr. George, Esther of course - but to no avail. The child is deathly ill, though no longer contagious he has infected and others. Brought into a murder investigation against his will, he's afraid, rightly, of authority, and his entire life has consisted of being told to "move along." Most of Dickens characters are types, extremes, and eccentrics - we recognize them, yet they are so distinct as to be one-of-a-kind - the only writer I can think of two balance these two poles of the singular and the universal in almost all of his characters. Jo is an exception: a type only, with almost nothing to distinguish him, which is as Dickens wants it. He's a face in the crowd, or a blur in the crowd - the type almost always ignored, overlooked, or pushed aside - maybe especially in 19th-century London, with its horrible mistreatment of the poor and the ill, but present today as well, even in our wealthy, first-world society. At the death of Jo, without making too much of a point of it, Dickens in a brief aside addresses his readers noting that Jo is one of thousands left to die in poverty and isolation, kids without a chance, the chaff cast aside. The kindly efforts of a few individuals are a completely insufficient response to poverty such as this - especially in a culture w/ so much wealth at the top, held by people who do nothing for the good of their world, did nothing to "earn" their wealth. Obviously today we have better social services for the needy, but isn't the story, on the whole, one and the same?

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Outsiders and oddities in George Saunders's fiction

Been a fan of George Saunders for some time and fandom continues w/ another strange story from GS in current New Yorker double-issue, Mother's Day. Typical of Saunders: capturing the interior life of quirky, outsider characters who generally inhabit no more than the margins of fiction/literature, bringing them to life with humor and pathos. As is typical, this story encompasses only a very short span of action - two women approach each other on the street, essentially that's it - but by giving us access the the odd, rambling thoughts of these 2 he captures and encompasses two lives led parallel and sometimes in opposition. One woman, Alma, a former beauty and no a frumpy elderly woman, on the eponymous holiday, takes a walk, against her will, with her two children, each of them failures in their way, and as she walks she thinks about her children and her shortcomings as a parent and tries, pathetically, to absolve herself from guilt; also thinks about her late, unfaithful husband. The woman she's approaching, Debi, same age, a one-time free spirit in what appears to be a fairly conservative, probably mid-Western town, and Debi reflects on her own failures a mother and on her many love affairs and sexual encounters, the most enduring of which was with Alma's husband. The moment of crisis in the story involves whether and to what degree the two women, once rivals, should acknowledge each other. Of course what makes the story is Saunders's unusual and always just slightly off kilter use of language, which in this story even involves a # of neologisms and oddly fractures sentences that really do see to capture the jumbled though processes of oddities, outsiders, actually, probably, all of us.

Friday, February 12, 2016

One of Dickens's funniest characters - and one of his weakest

One of Dickens's devices in Bleak House - sort of a cheap trick, but still - is to measure the worthiness of various men based on their reaction when they encounter the once very pretty Esther after her smallpox infection and see her face now marked with scars. One extreme is the lawyer's clerk Guppy who is fawning and solicitous until Esther raises her veil (a cheap trick on her part, here, and something the kindly Esther would be unlikely to do) and he sees her scarred face and wriggles to undo any profession he may have made of enduring love. He's really one of the most amusing of Dickens's characters, as he takes on every conversation like a legal deposition, in his unique, jumbled way. In any event, Dickens isn't entirely cruel to Guppy - he's very kind and friendly toward Esther once she agrees that he is no longer bound to love her (obviously, she had no interest in him from the outset and was, in my opinion, a little mean to him, as mean as she can get anyway). He's quite funny, as they depart, running back and forth not sure whether to still be solicitous or whether to turn his back on her. The opposite character is Dr. Woodcourt (?), the one who, it's obvious even to the dullest readers, will eventually marry Esther. He is sorry for her suffering but still feels as warm toward her as when he saw her last. Dr W is one of the weakest of Dickens's characters, in my view, as he's just a cipher, almost inserted as a necessary plot element, to balance the kindly but unsuitable Mr. Jarndyce, who has overstepped the boundaries a little by proposing to Esther - how could she refuse, but what a wrong a limiting choice it would be for her.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The meaning of Chancery in Bleak House

Everyone knows that Bleak House is "about" the horrors of the bureaucratic mess of the chancery court in England that kept cases tied up in procedures for years and sometimes at the time of settlement there was no money for anyone but the lawyers, whose fees came off the top. Why should we care about the ineptitude and corruption of 19th-century England? And it's not as if our government is anything like that today, no matter how long you have to stand on line to register your car at the DMV. Yet we do get caught up in the plight and recognize the feeling that drives or crushes the characters, frustrated by the legal stalemate of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The only answer is that the court of Chancery and the legendary J and J case are metaphors for the way in which we imagine or picture ourselves in relation to the world at large, the cosmos. There are some who, like Miss Flite or Richard Carstone, pass through their entire life waiting for some great benevolence to happen - and it never will. You will not win the lottery. Your troubles will not magically disappear. There will be no final judgment, not on this earth anyway. Others can maintain a cool indifference to the workings of fate, to the ways of the world that are beyond our control; these characters are content and elevated and, at least within the world of fiction, or Dickens's fiction anyway, they become incorporated into society and find happiness and a proper mission in life - not a perverse mission like Mrs. Jellyby's African charity but they help others through charity and kindness. Today we know there are many vast systems far beyond the comprehension and scope of any individual - thinking of the vast web of social media and digital information - and I think part of the meaning of Bleak House is that we should not look to abstract and remote systems of knowledge and information to find meaning in our life, or salvation if you will, but we should look to one another - only connect.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

More to Joseph O'Neill's story than initially meets the eye

Read Joseph O'Neill's story The Trusted Traveler in Harper's - readers of Netherland alrady know that O'Neill can be a great writer in the long form; this was the first story of his that I read. Story is well-paced and clear and mysterious, and seems to mean more for me on reflection than it did first time through. Story narrated by a mid-60s h.s. teacher who has retired and moved, with wife, Chris, also a teacher I think, from Manhattan home base to the coast of Nova Scotia. The eponymous traveler is a 30-something man who claims to be one of the narrator's former students and who has visited them pretty much annually for the past 10 years right around tax time (the former student is an accountant, we learn in one passing reference). The kick is that the narrator and his wife do not like these visits, and in fact he cannot even remember that this younger man was one of his students. They try politely to dissuade him, but he's annoyingly persistent, and shows up for a visit - with wife, also named Chris, not along w/ him - and he later lets out that they are separated. Another couple joins, some awkward conversation over dinner, he leaves the next morning, time passes, and the next year the couple surprisingly realize that tax season has passed and they have not heard from the former student. Is he well? alive? what happened? End of story. Easy to stop right there are think, OK, so what - but I have thought more about the story and think there are some nearly hidden mysterious elements. For one thing, the couple have this little game they play in which they create an imaginary life - the time we spent in Corfu, for example - one will say, and the other has to pick up the strand. So we suspect that the traveler is someone whom they have mutually fabricated (much as George and Martha do in Who's Afraid of V Woolf? - a married couples game with delineated rules). And then we think: are the narrator and his wife "imagined" characters as well, imagined by O'Neill and in a sense by all readers of the story? And for that matter, to what extent are our friends, especially our distant friends and acquaintances, "real," especially in this age of FB and social media when we "friend" people we hardly know or don't know at all - and then "communicate" with them more than we do w/ people whom we really know, even our family? So this small story is seemingly simple but strangely provocative.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The "nicest" character in world literature?

Without question Esther Summerson is the "nicest" character in world literature - did she ever for two seconds have a thought or said a word or done a thing that wasn't kind, considerate, helpful, sympathetic, or wise? Did she ever for a second have a scintilla or self-pity, despite all the hardships of her life? Did she ever for a second put her self-interest ahead of the interest of any of her friends, or anyone? She seems in fact for at least half the book perfectly content to never have a love life of her own so long as her two best friends can be in love with each other. The love song her swain might sing to her would be: Come live w/ me and be my housekeeper. In fact - it's too much. We know that Dickens does things to the extreme, but her case is too much. She's so likable that she's on the verge of becoming unlikable. Please, Esther: Tell someone off. Lose your cool. Grab the last slice of cake. Stub your toe and swear. Anything.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Book-group reflections on My Brilliant Friend

Small turnout (6) for book-group discussion of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend - overall not a great deal of enthusiasm for the book, with concurrence by and large with my expressed disappointment: the novel had man incidents but its overall tone was flat and unengaging, without much introspection, reflection, establishment of mood, or, other than the broadest delineations,establishment of character. I offered that it would make a good miniseries, and would be far easier to follow as such; to me, the characters were distinguished from one another primarily by their names (except for the 2 central characters), but if seen on the screen we could discriminate among them visually. One male member of the group was the most enthusiastic about the novel and is now on volume 3 of the 4-book series; M has indicated she's going to read volume 2 but there was not much further sentiment to continue. We did engage in some discussion about the identity of the author - including M's account of news stories about a Milanese husband-wife team who have been posited as the possible ID of Ferrante. As to themes in the novel, M noted the mysterious lack of relationship between Elena and her mother. MR noted that Lena and Lila may really be 2 aspects of the same character (I agree). General discussion about the extreme differences between Italian school systems - in which children were not expected to proceed beyond elementary school - and the U.S. We also took note of the Italian post-war ruined economy - as seen in many neo-Realism films from Italy in the 1040s and 50s, and the dawning prosperity that we begin to see in MBF: the small corner shops growing into successful grocery stories, the shoemaker reluctantly moving toward becoming a shoe factory - capitalism taking hold - will probably be a theme in further volumes. And obviously we talked about the feuds and violence that dominate so much of the daily life in the neighborhood - feuds that cross generational lines and that build alliances and antagonisms among the families.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The identity of Elena Ferrante revealed

Thinking ahead to book group tonight have been re-reading parts of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend (and reading my posts on same) and wondered about this, back to my original question: Who is Elena Ferrante? The obvious and perhaps too obvious answer is that she is the protagonist of this four-volume memoir-like novel, whose name is Elena (Greco, at least that's her birth name). E describes herself as very bright but often in the shadow of her more brilliant and unconventional friend, Lila. But I wonder. Note two things: First, there are many passages in this memoir-like novel that the narrator could not have and did not observe; they're created or re-created as by a narrator of a work of fiction. (Note for comparison that, to my knowledge and recollection, there are no such passages in all the volumes of Proust or Knausgaard). Second: what about this beginning of MBF? Story begins w/ Elena, now about 60, getting a call about the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of her best friend from youth, Lila - and she seemingly sets about to write this series of novels to explain, perhaps to herself, why Lena disappeared. Doesn't if make more sense, however, that Lila = Ferrante, that she "disappeared" (she is well known for being unknown; EF is a pseudonym and it has never been revealed or determined who wrote her, or his for that matter, novels) and is revealed only through her published works. Elena is, therefor, Lila's creation - and her narrative mission is to tell Lila's story, that is, the story of the writer who created her and disappeared.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Story in Harper's and its possible relation to another piece in the magazine

Haven't read Harper's in a while, picked up a copy in the airport, still impressed with the Harper's index and especially with the short features - book excerpt, fiction, poetry, artwork - at the front of the book. Read some in flight and story from front-of-book last night, My Diagnosis, by Jeremy Davies, an author I haven't read before. Though not entirely blown away by the story - from (as we learn well into the piece) a first-person female narrator who has received a diagnosis of an illness that she cannot or will not name and that, she believes, only those suffering from this illness (mental? physical?) cannot comprehend, so why even try to explain it or how she feels? Story involves her ongoing phone dialogue with a group loosely called her mother's friends, who keep asking about her condition, and she refuses to divulge anything - we see over the course of this back-and-forth that she has been a disappointment to her mother, because of her lack of achievement (maybe linked to her diagnosis?), esp compared w/ the success of the children of her mother's friends. Narrator tries to justify her life by explaining that it only because of her great discipline that she has avoided certain accomplishments: takes discipline to not learn to play the violin, e.g. Over course of story, although mother does not appear, we learn, if narrator is to be believed, that mother is no prize herself. The story is great as a swift portrait but it's quite constricted and doesn't develop much beyond its established premise - still, Davies does create an unusual and successful character sketch. Interesting in particular set against another front-of-the-book piece, part of an oral history, in which a well-known artist (Judson, if I remember correctly) describes employment of his youth as friend and caretaker for a woman with bipolar disorder or maybe schizophrenia. She could be the narrator of Davies's story, when you think about it.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Esther's character, her birth, and her secret, in Bleak House

OK, a little disappointed that Dickens goes for broke and goes down the conventional path: we learn about halfway through Bleak House that Esther Summerson is actually the out-of-wedlock daughter of the austere and beautiful but cold, proud, and snobbish Lady Dedlock - she had apparently been led to believe her daughter died at birth but it appears that Esther was sneaked away by an evil aunt and given up as an orphan and a ward - it's not just the melodrama of this plot element that bothers me but it's the presumption that all of Esther's goodness and wisdom comes from her being "well born" - I expect that of, say, Fielding, but Dickens should be better than that - just yesterday I was posting on his sympathy for and understanding of the working class. Well there's more to come of Esther's lineage I'm sure. At the midpoint of the novel we come to the plot element I remember best from my first reading of Bleak House: the smallpox episode, when Esther, caring for her servant whos come down with the disease (infected by the orphan lad Jo, possibly the lowliest and most sorrowful character in the vast cast of this novel - who disappears overnight - he's obviously alive somewhere and will make a later, dramatic appearance in Bleak House) and then Esther herself gets infected. She religiously maintains her isolation so as not to infect anyone else, especially the lovely Ada - but Esther, in her way, is surprisingly sanguine as the disease progresses, and the chapter I finished with last night ends with the startling revelation that Esther is completely blind (I think she must recover her sight later, but it would be a pretty cool concept if she were narrating her portion of the novel, from a future vantage point, as a person without sight). The story of Esther's lineage will also become increasingly important - I'm sure that she does fall in love over the course of the novel, and it's almost as if she cannot be in love w/another - she can only be a devoted servant to others in love, even though she's smarter and prettier and wiser and kinder than any of them - until she knows herself, knows who she is, that is to say, by birth. She feels well-born but to her knowledge is not well-born and is only attracted to those who are "well-born" yet cannot give herself to a person of higher rank for fear of diminishing their stature - only when she learns of her birth will she be free to persue the kind of love she desires as an equal.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dickens & the working class

I'm convinced unless I hear otherwise that of all the 19th-century British writers Dickens had the most sympathy and empathy for and the best understanding of the working class. Yes, he's sentimental, and yes his characters are assemblages of extreme characteristics, each is a type with a bunch of tics, and yes, his novels are crammed with peripheral characters few of whom have any depth (though all have presence, and life) and yes he can be quite polemical and even at times contemptuous of extreme poverty, squalor as noted in previous post - but he's the only one of the Brits of his era to write of the working class from the inside - he really knew these people and cared for them. It's obvious he'd much rather go out for a drink with Mr George the trooper than with Mr Turveydrop or Mr Jarndyce. I'm thinking of some of the scenes I read last night about Mr George, an old army guy, and his shooting gallery, and his custodian and helper at the gallery, Squod (Phil?) - the very lovely moment when George describes his rural childhood and reflects that he could still identify all the birds by their call and climb all the trees, and Squod is in wonder; they have such friendly and warm relationship, no condescension, no exploitation, no high expectations or pretensions - Dickens really takes the time to build out these two characters - and it's true for so many across Bleak House - the domestic servants, the poor orphan kid (Joe?) who lives pretty much by his wits, many others who make only brief appearances - but all of them are sympathetic characters, unlike the uppers and, even worse, those like Mr Turveydrop who aspire to be "uppers" - to most other 19th-c British writers the working class is at the periphery of their novels (Hardy maybe an exception here), they're servants that help the plot along. With Dickens, the class lines are distinct - Esther in Bleak House is clearly not of the working class, even tho she has no name or fortune, as is clear her dismissal of Guppy, sensing that he is clearly "beneath" her even tho though there's no reason that should be so - but the working-class characters have a life. Dickens doesn't dwell on back story; he brings his characters to life in the present. His powers of observation or recollection (or invention) are so profound, though, that his characters are defined by their surroundings: the shops, factories, streets, offices, places of amusement all are sharply delineated and filled with detail - they help establish the characters that inhabit these spaces, the spaces are almost at times like characters themselves. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Borges story with a character and a little bit of plot ss well: Funes, the Memorius

One last Jorge Luis Borges story, at least for now - Funes, the Memorius, in a collection a few years later than the collection comprising the stories I've posted on over past few days, but still early - the mis-1940s and in my view a more mature work in some ways. The earilier stories, fantastic and strange as they may be, were each trick of the mind, a supposition turned into prose and carried to its extreme, a philosophical experiment. But Funes has a central character and even, to a small degree, a bit of a plot - not that all stories need to be conventional or even to have conventional elements, but the cold austerity of Borges's fiction can put readers off an Funes engages us a little more. The narrator of the story recalls crossing paths w/ Funes, while on a visit to some remote family lands in Uraguay, walking with his older brother who asks Funes the time and F answer mockingly. We learn that Funes is known locally as a savant who always knows the exact time. On a later visit, the narrator learns that F has been injured, thrown from a horse, and is in bed and partially paralyzed. F asks to borrow some Latin books (by well-composed letter) to learn the language, at which the narrator scoffs but sends some books. Needing to recover the books when he has to return home suddenly because of a family emergency, he visits F, where they engage in a night-long conversation: Funes, since the accident, is in a strange condition in which he can remember every incident and detail of his entire life, and even every detail (e.g., the # of leaves on a tree) - and he spends all his waking hours, usually in the dark, recollecting these memories that he perceives so powerfully. It seems like a kind of hell, but F seems to enjoy this state. So he has become a sort of god, and in another sense he is a paradigm for all writers: an Latin American Proust, in the cork-lined room recollecting his life, except the Funes doesn't write: he is the pure embodiment of an artist, without an art -- all perception and no creation, the opposite of a dementia, a kind of promentia. What artist hasn't envied that state - and feared it?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Two similar Borges stories - Babel and Babylon

Two similar Birges stories: The Babylon Lottery posits a case in which the citizens of Babylon play a lottery like any other but gradually people lose interest so the state that runs the lot adds a twist : for every 20 or so winning ticket there is 1'losing ticket and the  "winner" has to pay a fine. Interest picks up. Those who don't pay go to jail and eventually they end up skipping the payment and losing tickets go to jail. Then it becomes worse and stranger - losing tix may face torture or death and even later they may face odd commands ranging from order to kill someone to moving a grain of sand from one beach to another. So anything that may happen in Babylon - a man strangles his wife is one cited incident - may be the result of the lottery. Eventually we the readers realize that in a sense we are all part of a similar vast lottery which is life itself. Or, on another darker level, this is also a kafkaesque story about state control. Similar story: The library of Babel - in which Birges posits a library that hold books with every possible combo of letters possible - so not exactly an infinite library but infinite for all intents. People live and die in this library searching for particular books - he imagines books of vindication that will exculpate each living person - so what is this about - other than that yes  we are all searching amid an infinite number of possibilities and choices every second of every day for some form of truth meaning and happiness. The world may appear to be random and infinite but it is not so - it is only that it is too vast for comprehension. Borges slyly notes that in fact words may have unique meanings for each person or in each book so done really understand what he (or anyone)!is saying or writing even if we think we do? At the end he raises another possibility that all of the combination of words and letter could exist on a single book w infinitely thin pages.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The most cerebral stories ever written - Borges

Possibly inspired by story in current New Yorker, The a philosophers, by Adam ehrlich Sachs, unread two Borges stories yesterday - Borges is his obvious inspiration and guiding spirit. I was surprised at  the difficulty of the two stories I read - the circular ruins and another whose name I can't even remember something like Tlin utlin orb? (Just looked it up it's Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius) it's not just the name though of course Borges has fun w these obscurities but the whole mode of his fiction - the most purely cerebral of any stories ever written - no plot no characters just ideas and concepts. TUOT is one of borges's parodies or riffs on scholarship- b and a friend come across a reference ti an obscure region in the Mid East while reading an out of print encyclopedia and this leads them on a search thru libraries and old book shops etc for further references ultimately as they learn about a culture w it's own numeric system and other odd phenomena - like a mash up of swift and frank Herbert.  The problem is when you're done it's as if nothing's there - the story is like a game or an intellectual spree that has no significance or reference point outside of itself. Still this story did establish the voice of Borges as unique and mysterious and a true forerunner to the age of postmodernism - fiction of the 60s and 79s Barth Barthelme e.g. That was about fiction itself. The circular ruins is a more accessible story - about a man who dreams another man into existence and then realizes that he himself is the dream of yet another man or being - which raises cosmological questions such as the old conundrum are we just the dream of a god or another being, does the world exist or is the world just our perception - idealism v solipsism - as well as literary questions such as are characters in stories the dram of an author and a dream shared by others across time and space- a cosmological nquestion as well in fact. (What does it mean for two people to read the same story?ncanthe reader enter the story? See woody allen's the kugelmass episode)