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

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

Thursday, June 30, 2016

An excellent example of updike's best work: pigeon feathers

John updike's 1962 story Pigeon Feathers in the collection 100 years of the best american short stories is an excellent choice representative of updike's best work - not only the topical descriptions for which Updike was justly famous but also the a young man's grappling with ice and fate. The story is one of the first in a theme that Updike would return to many times - his family's forced move when he was a teenager from the city into his grandparents' remote and primitive farmhouse, w all the attendant worries about money and loss of social standing. His alter ego - david kern - begins reading some of his other's old boos recently unpacked - so typical that moving books was an essential part of the relocation - and begins to question his Christian upbringing - what happens after death? Does the soul endure? He gets unsatisfactory answers from the somewhat insipid country minister and from his doting and intelligent mother as well. His crisis of faith is resolved when he completes a task of shooting pigeons that have nested in the barn - and examines feathers of the dead bird and surmises that a God who would take such care of the beauty of these feathers surely would not extinguish his soul - he would not let david kern die. The egoism here is astonishing but also so comprehensible for that's exactly how a sensitive teen such as he would perceive the world - centering on him - and in the process of attaining this revelation or true epiphany he gives us access to a whole world : the crumbling sandstone of the farmhouse, the outhouse, the dusty fields, the sounds and movements of the night, the kerosene lanterns (no electricity or plumbing) and of course the adjustment of a city kid not to these hardships per se but to loss and displacement - and to a brush w loss of faith.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Flanner O'connor's humor and her characters

Another incredible story that truly deserves its place in the anthology 100 years of the best american short stories - is flannery o'connor's late story everything that rises must converge - probably the epitome of her morbid comic style, a style unique to her in that as a whole her stories are full of grotesques, bigots, fools, and acts of violence yet line by line the stories are hilarious - if you could read the stories slowly enough I think you'd laugh at almost every line. As w many of her stories the plot as such is minimal but the characters themselves undergo in a short narrative space a complete transformation- sometimes a revelation. In this one a young man one year our of a third-rate college takes his mother by bus to her exercise class, which she attends to alleviate high blood pressure. It's in the Deep South - Georgia probably - in the early days of integration and the mother is disturbed that black people can sit anywhere on the bus - not like the old days. She mortified her son by her ignorant racist comments on the bus - and the a black woman with a child board and the woman is wearing the same odd hat as the mother. The mother against son's warning tries to give the boy a penny - showing her tolerance as she believes - which leads to a pretty awful confrontation. Typical of the humor, to son's mortification the mother says to a fellow passenger that her son wants to be a writer but so far he's making a living selling yew rites - to which the other woman says well you could move easily from one to the other. Typical of O'Connor these characters are outsiders left behind and bewildered by the changes taking place in their world and culture, vestiges, characters who even at the time of composition - 1962 I think - seemed of another century.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The importance and the failure of Sonnie's Blues

Good decision by Partisan Review in 1958 to publish James Baldwin's long story Sonnie's Blues and good decision by Lorrie Moore to include it in 100 Years of the best american short stories - Baldwin definitely brought a new voice and a new world view to american letters probably the first New York born black intellectual to tell of his life struggles and ideas. His first novel the semi- or maybe the very autobiographical go tell it on the mountain was and is a classic coming of age in Harlem, with the struggle between the ambitious and worldly son and the religious fundamentalism of the storefront preacher father. What is striking tho in looking back at baldwin's early fiction is that he never wrote about his homosexuality - that was a taboo that he couldn't break until later in life - and I think Sonnie's Blues suffers from baldwin's inability at that point in his career to be completely honest. It's obvious that he establishes a narrator quite unlike himself. - an algebra teacher w wife and kids one of whom died young of polio - who bears some guilt as the older brother of drug addicted sonnie who finds salvation, maybe, in jazz (as did Baldwin in writing).  It's a powerful narrative that at times feels like it ought to be on stage - but it also feels for all its length a bit compressed and generic, like notes for a novel that never happened. Neither the narrator nor his brother feel fully developed and the other characters are peripheral. The story is important because it touches on baldwin's central themes and those of many writers to follow but it's more like a note toward a supreme fiction than the thing itself.

Monday, June 27, 2016

A classic feminist manifesto and literary landmark

Tillie Olsen's 1952 (?) story I Stand Here Ironing is a classic feminist story manifesto and literary landmark  (in 100 years of the best american short stories Ed. Lorrie Moore), truly one of the first to give voice and recognition to a working-class american woman and her struggle not only to survive but to raise her children in a smart way and toward fulfillment in a world geared toward a two parent family and toward success and power for men almost exclusively. Part of the greatness of Olsen's story is its economy - the entire story an interior monologue by a mother as she irons clothing, miming the back and forth rhythm of her ironing motions in the oscillation o f her thinking. A note from a teacher ignites the thoughts : the daughter has a special intelligence and the teacher would like to help. The narrator (unnamed) then reflects back on the girl's life and her struggle to raise her child (& 4 others) while working menial jobs (slinging hash in one phrase) and entrusting her at various times to barely adequate child care, watching the beautiful child lose her beauty and self-confidence, then in rough teen years emerging with, showing surprising skills on stage. How much did the mother help? What more could she have done? How could she have done better?  It's not about mothering or parenthood however but about a system of life and culture that is full of obstacles and low expectations for girls, for women. Nobody was writing about femism in this way at that time. The story today does thankfully feel a bit antiquated - but our culture is still as class-bound and unequal as in the 50s,smoke battles won and others on-going. Olsen gave voice to the unheard millions of her day, and her story has been since then a million times imitated. One other striking fact about this story: it was published in a small west coast magazine now long gone I believe. Why not in the New Yorker or the partisan review or some other high- end mag? Why couldn't mainstream editors see the originality and importance of this piece? I think we all can answer that - but props to the editor of best american short stories back in the 1950s who picked this up from obscurity and probably made Olsen's reputation.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The true significance of Cheever's Enormous Radio

Another excellent story in the best american stories of the century anthology is john cheever's The Enormous Radio, title story in I think his first collection and one of his sharpest and most disturbing portraits of life among the well-educated , privileged Manhattanites of the 1940s - just a few years ahead of the mad Men era - similar in caste and background but w a little less flash. This story is about a couple 9 years married w two children meeting all of the parameters for conventional success - he a product of Andover in some demanding but dull and unspecified Jo's in finance and she with her empty forehead signifying nothing a stay at home w little to do - it's taken for granted that she will have a maid to do all the child care and housekeeping (even tho $ is tight whatever that means). Husband purchases the eponymous expensive radio and it receives mysterious signals which woman gradually understands to be pickups of conversation from many other units in thei building - all of them sad and desperate including worries about $, about health, about loneliness, nasty comments about neighbors, finally a man hitting his wife - in short she begins to understand the tormented secret lives of so many of her neighbors and social peers who wear a veneer of happiness and content. This of course leads her to ask her husband about their own lives and he responds with at first seems subtle contempt but becomes increasing domineering and disturbing. The story recalls in some ways the famous Yellow Wallpaper but in this case without the implication the she is going insane - the radio is accepted as real within the parameters off the story (he hears it too) - in fact the radio is something like the author himself living among others of his class but surreptitiously listening, observing, exposing the hidden and frightful truths about himself and others.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A demanding story and one of welty's best

I takes some work to get into this story - Eudora Welty meets you only half way and you have to really concentrate while reading to not only catch the nuances but even to figure out exactly what's happening in the narrative - but if you're willing to do that - I have read the story now 3 times - her 1948 story The Whole World Knows (included in the 100 years of best american stories collection ) is truly a masterpiece of wit, scope, sense of place. Narrated by a 20-something man, Ran, who works in a teller's cage at the bank in the small Mississippi town of Sabina (i.e. Welty country) he's recently split from his wife, Jinny! Who left him for another guy at the bank. Ran begins spending time w a rather flighty 18-year-old in town but he still yearns for Jinny - and the story is laced w his fantasies about Jinny - the one not there - and his violent revenge fantasies (part of the challenge is sorting fact from fantasy throughout tho they do converge at the conclusion). Many of the Welty-trademarked busybodies in town encourage him to forgive Jinny and take her back. Others, not so sure: the whole world knows what she did to you, his mother says , and that's part of the humor- seeing this tiny town as if it were the whole world which for some it is. The ending - a trip to Vicksburg w the young girl - is powerful, violent, and a little mysterious at the end - and we get a terrific and disturbing picture of a young mind in crisis and headed for destruction, and of the complex and insular life in a small but perhaps microcosmic community.

Friday, June 24, 2016

She's mean to all her servants- a forgotten story about wwii

Have to wonder why the editors of best american stories of the century could possibly have selected the story "they all are brothers" ( or some such abstract title) by Nancy Hale - a writer as far as I know completely unread today. Ok great if it were a terrific story that would lead to a revival of interest in her work but really it's such a period piece. From 1942, it describes a woman living in Connecticut thinking and worrying about soldiers overseas and a little domestic drama between two servants who help out on her property and at a neighbor's. The two are both German - the man is a Jew and had been held in a concentration camp ( how he not only survived but wound up in Connecticut in 1942 is not even explained). The German woman shares his loathing of hitter but still condescends to him (at best)because of his faith. At end of story the neighbor woman a real nasty person mean to all the servants fires the Jewish man and threatens to turn him into to immigration- the other woman says she'll write a letter on his behalf (why not hire him?). Maybe the subtlety of the story eluded me and I do appreciate the idea of a domestic story about the war years (there are millions of these from England but few from the US) but does this one really get at the complex relationships among Americans of different classes and ethnic backgrounds? Does it even make sense? How man concentration camp survivors could have been in the states in 1942?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Two stories about: bowls

Can't be a coincidence that two of the stories fellow blogger Charles May posted on during Short Story Month concerned: bowls! And one of the stories is a truly excellent work, Ann Beattie's subtle and surprising story Janus. Most of the story focuses on a realtor who has a favorite bowl that she finds very simple, elegant, and attractive, which she uses to "stage" rooms in houses she is trying to sell. Over time, she becomes almost obsessed with this object - believing it's something like a talisman that brings her luck and success, to the point where it almost becomes crippling - she can't really do her work w/out this bowl. What would happen if it were to break? She describes herself as organized and determined, and she seems that way - and not particularly likable, either - one of those "pushy" realtors most of us have come across. Her husband is a big-deal stockbroker; she can't talk to him about her obsession. About half-way through I began to wonder where and how she acquired this bowl - and Beattie slips that in, like a knife in the back (I won't give it away) at the end of the story, surprising us (or me at least) and making me re-think the whole story in a different light. The other - a much more conventional, writing-seminar-type short story by David Leavitt, Gravity (w/ multiple meanings in the title), quite beautifully written - he was always a fine stylist - but a little simple and obvious in structure (it was one of his early stories): a young man dying of AIDS (apparently) moves back to NJ to live w/ his mother, who cares for him beautifully. She takes him out to a gift shop to look at a bowl she's picked out for a wedding present - with the idea of sending something both pricey and unattractive (due to past family issues). She literally tosses the bowl to him; he barely can handle it, drops his cane, almost drops the bowl that weighs him down (one meaning of the title), and mother decides bowl is the perfect (hideous) gift. So what's that about? Some kind of hidden aggression, displaced, mother hoping son will drop the bowl (it may be significant that the shop owners, who watch in horror, appear to be a homosexual couple)? Mother showing the son he still has strength and coordination? I'm not sure, but it does feel very writerly and not like something likely to happen, or at least not to these characters.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why Chekhov's Grief is a great story, plus a story by Ambrose Bierce

Two stories that fellow blogger Charles May noted during May/Short Story Month (who comes up w/ these "months" BTW?), one I'd never read before the other I'd read many times. First, Chickamaugua (sp?), by Ambrose Bierce, a 19th-century American writer about whom I know very little - was he a friend of Twain?. This story focuses on a 6-year-old boy living on a Southern plantation who is fascinated by military adventures - he wanders off into the woods pretending to be a soldier on the attack, gets lost, falls asleep for a while, wakens and sees thousands of men crawling like animals - he can't figure this out, begins to follow, climbs on the back of one of the men who tosses him off, and so forth, until he gets home and finds his house in ruins. At the end Bierce gives us the "surprise": the boy is a deaf-mute and slept through the entire eponymous battle - and at the end sees, without really understanding, the devastating effect of war - far from the romantic nobility of his imagination: all a bit heavy-handed and polemical, but the description of the wounded and dying after battle, as perceived by a child who can't understand what he is witnessing, is quite powerful. The other story I read last night was Chekhov's famous "Grief" - a story that is probably very widely taught, so simple, so sad, so powerful, almost the perfect image for a story: a cab-driver (this is circa 1890, cabs were horse-driven carriages) in the Petersburg snow: each fare he picks up is mean and abusive, pushing him to whip the horse, to go faster, and each time he turns to the fare and tells him that his son just died. The man is literally dying to speak about his grief but no one will listen, they are completely isolated and hardened; to them, he's a servant, an object. At the end, he finally begins to tell of his grief and relieve his aching heart, as he speaks to the old horse. Like all great stories it's "about" nothing but itself, a purse action or image or moment - but you could say it's also about class relationships, about human kindness or lack thereof, about treatment or mistreatment of animals, and most of all about the pain of loss and the potential for alleviation through kindness, expression, and exposition - or for that matter through reading, and though literary creation. The story itself eases the pain.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Karen Russell's wit, her neologisms, and her originality - or maybe not?

Though it's easy to dismiss Karen Russell as a gimmick writer - swamps, alligators, zombies, tropical eccentrics of every variety - the fact is - she's very good at what she does. Her current NYer story, The Bog Girl, is, I think, some new territory for her - the peat bogs on an island off the coast of Ireland or Great Britain, a setting that first seems long ago - because the primitive nature of cutting squares of peat turf for use as heating fuel probably hasn't changed much over the past 5 centuries - but as the characters in the story develop we realize it's a contemporary story, with the main character a lonely and somewhat disturbed 15-year-old high-school student, Cillian, with all of the tempests and trauma that high-school students endure: uncertainty about love and sex, pecking orders, physical awkwardness. The premise of the story is simple and unsettling: while cutting peat, Cillian comes across the completely preserved body of a beautiful teenage girl apparently killed and left to die in the freezing bog about 2000 years back. He helps unearth the body and then - here's where the story gets into the fantastic - takes her home and lives w/ her over the course of several months as his girlfriend - bringing her to school w/ him, taking her to the prom. Toward the end of the story she begins to come to life and reaches out for him and, though Russell is surprisingly discrete on this point, they have sex and that's the end of their relationship - back into the bog she goes, and this time her body breaks apart. I usually don't have a lot of tolerance for such fantasies, but Russell brings this one off better than most, thanks to her terrific sense of humor and her startling linguistic turns: to take one example I can remember, from one moment in the story, she talks about an energetic puppy "berserking" into the room; she notes the insects "millioning" around a floodlight: using nouns as verbs is generally one of my peeves (hosting a party, e.g.), but Russell turns nouns in the neological verbs - great! The story, of course, is not as original as one would hope or expect, as who can help but compare it with the sweet (and more realistic) Lars and the Real Girl or the odd and more peculiar Gogol's Wife (the secret must be revealed at last: Gogol was married to a balloon)?

Monday, June 20, 2016

What makes and unmakes Clarice Lispector

As the translator's note at the end of Clarice Lispector's collection (her final?) of "stories," Soulstorm, notes, it's hard if not impossible to classify her work. None of these short pieces is conventional, though a few follow the traditional narrative arc of a story and some are more like fables - but even the more traditional stories have an edge and an anxiety or desperation, and many include a few authorial asides or comments on her own work, that mark these as from the postmodern era (and yet: none is a clever trick like a John Barth story nor is any a mysterious parable a la her contemporary, Borges). A few - and these are often her best - are like meditations on a theme, essays or pensees more than fiction: one is a reflection on silence, one in its entirely describes the sensation of entering a chilly ocean for a swim. Many of the stories are violent, almost all involve sexual desire, often unfulfilled. Among the best is the relatively long story of 2 women, strangers, traveling by train away from the city on to a new stage in their lives - Lispector moving back and forth between the consciousness of the 2: every traveler holds secrets. The weaker pieces - and this may be in part a problem of translation - are those that seem like prose poems, dime-store Baudelaire, or the lengthy dream-like story that seems like a 60s drug experience and today seems very tedious - that said, the prose poems may be better designed for performance or public reading. Notably, she doesn't seem drawn to the magic realism that during her lifetime was the life's blood of so many (male) Latin American writers. The variety of style and the extremes of emotion and violence in one way are makes Lispector - 30+ years after her death her name still keeps coming up - but her inconsistency and experimentation with form has also unmade her: it's much easier to categorize a writer like Borges of Garcia Marquez and you like them or you don't and those who do so are true devotees, but with Lispector there inevitably will be some pieces you like, others not, which has made her elusive and I think has kept her on the margins - a writer with some great works, maybe many, but not one who appears on many reading lists or bookstore shelves (or library shelves, for that matter), at least not today.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The typical Lispector character

The typical character in a Clarice Lispector story (assuming, that is, that her collection The Stations of the Body, part of the double-edition Soulstorm, are typical of her late work): an elderly woman driven to extremes and to strange behavior by her unfulfilled sexual desires, or, a young and somewhat Puritanical or repressed woman, same fate. This particular volume of stories is like a series of sketches, variations on a theme - none fully developed or especially nuanced, but each or almost each powerful, a kick to the gut, and memorable. The second volume included in Soulstorm - perhaps her last story collection? - touches on these themes in some but not all of the stories, and the stories, though unconventional in style (although not out of line with the highly inventive world fiction of the 1970s) are more fully developed. One in particular is a near-classic, When the Train Left the Station (?), a story of two women, stranger, sharing a compartment in a train heading from a major city (Rio?) toward the country - one an older woman, feeling displaced and alone, on her way to spending the remaining years of her life with a son in the countryside; the other, a young woman, leaving her boyfriend/partner, a serious intellectual and scholar beside whom she feels inferior (and unloved), planning to live in the countryside for 6 months - story moves back and forth between the thoughts and impressions of the two women, with only an occasional interaction, very insightful and sorrowful. Some of the other stories in this collection, however, seem quaint and dated - a meditation on women and horses, a dreamlike apocalyptic vision that's extremely difficult to follow and, in the end, no worth doing so.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

How Lispector difffers from Lucia Berlin

To give a further idea of the short, very short in fact, stories by Clarice Lispector, the 3 of I read last night told of: an 80+ woman who still has strong sexual desires and consults a doctor about what to do about these unfulfilled desires, he says "that's life," and she goes home and masterbates; a woman who moonlights as an exotic dancer gets into a bitter rivalry with a transgender woman over the affections of a handsome customer; young woman has her leg amputated on the eve of marriage and family encourages fiance to proceed w/ marriage because she has not long to live in any event.
These are each brief, dark, sexual melodramas told with some some humor and attitude - in fact the sharp edge of Lispector's tone, with more than a few references to her own uncertainties as a narrator - sometimes suggesting she can't remember the "facts" of her stories so is making things up as she goes - reminded me at times of Lucia Berlin's stories, but w/ this big difference: with Berlin, her stories seem to be a repeated attempt to tell her life story in different phases and guises, while w/ Lispector we learn little or nothing about the writer herself - these are tales she's heard, read of, or invented, some very extreme, in which she plays no role except as the narrator, the chronicler, and the story-teller.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Sensational (literally) stories by Clarice Lispector

Clarice Lispector, Brazilian writer who died in her 50s in 1977, one of those oft-mentioned writers I'd never read - how did I miss her? - and started last night reading the New Directions collection, Soustorm, of what I think are her last 2 collections of short stories (she's mainly known as a short-story writer). The stories I've read so far are short (sometimes 2 pages only), sexual, violent, powerful, and odd, so what more could you want? Two that seem typical are the first two: one about a woman living alone in London, hard working, austere, devout, even Puritanical, lonesome, a bit self-pitying - and one night she hears a noise and sees a man in the room, has a vision that he is some kind of spirit or angel, the man has sex with her and she' enraptured, waits for his return, changes her entire personality and, quite amazingly, begins a life of prostitution. Second story, a trio contentedly living in bigamy, highly sexual relations among all three, the man also spend time with prostitutes, the more time he spends away the closer the two women become and then they begin a lesbian relationship, when they learn he's been w/ prostitutes they withhold from him and, eventually, stab him to death in his sleep and bury him in the garden (the police investigate his disappearance and the women lead them to the grave). The police, not wanting to deal w/ the complexities of the case, suggest the women take off for another city, which they do, case closed. OK, quite sensational - and made even a little weirder by Lispector's author's note saying she wrote those stories on commission and that they are true stories. I don't quite believe that, but it adds a little frisson. Interesting potential comparisons among Lispector and two other female short-story writers who have perfected the very short form, Lydia Davis and Lucia Berlin, which I'll take up in future posts.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The nature of plot in Modiano's fictoin, and his major themes

The plot structure of a Patrick Modiano novel involves not tension, crisis, resolution - but a gradula unfolding, a sequence of events that follow the path of a sinuous journey, so that the end point, by the time you get there, may have no apparent relation w/ the opening of the novel other than that a sequence of events, recollections, memories, and discoveries led you from one point to another - case in point So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood. I looked back at the opening chapters, which involve an elderly writer getting a call from a stranger who says he's found the writer's missing address book; when they meet so that the caller can return the book the caller says he has questions about one of the entries in the book, and it turns out - coincidence? - that he's read the writer's books and is investigating a murder that may be connected to the writer's first novel - and we're off. But this novel, as it turns out, never makes an attempt to solve the "mystery" how the caller managed to find the address book that happens to have a key clue to his own investigation. By the end, the caller (and his girlfriend) have vanished from the narrative, which by the latter part of the novel focuses on the writer's attempt to learn about the fate of a woman, Annie Astrand, who took him in when he was child during the Occupation - and we're in the heart of a major theme of Modiano's works: a child abandoned by his mother (an actor or dancer) and ignored by his father (a small-time gangster) and left in the care of a woman with a shady history, associations w/ gamblers and night-club owners, the child left more or less on his own. In this novel, the woman, Annie, flees Occupied France, heading for Italy, but somewhere near the border she realizes she cannot bring the child with her and she leaves him alone in a village near the border. Again and again, Modiano wrestles, in various guises, with this theme of abandonment, always against a backdrop of the Occupation, with many opportunists and collaborators (like his father) - a time which is in effect obliterated from the charater's memory, much like this shameful epoch in French history. His search for his past, very much unlike Proust's, for example, is an unearthing of secrets and shame.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Knausgaard and Modiano - similarities, differences

Thinking for a moment about the differences between two writers whom I've been reading pretty extensively over the past year: Karl Ove Knausgaard (I think I have more posts on him than on any other writer) and Patrick Modiano, each an obsessed writer, each in his own way. KOK tells the story of his life in 6 near-autobiographical volumes and gives us every detail, every recalled moment or conversation, all the friends and lovers and family members, every emotion and blunder, even - especially - the most painful, humiliating, and embarrassing - he's far beyond shame, and writes as if he has to unearth these memories, give them shape and form, that is, put them into language, almost as if to purge the pain from his soul. Modiano tells the story of his life in veiled form, crytically; his novels are far from memoirs, they are highly stylized and almost all written in the style of urban noir detective fiction (they are not, however, mysteries or genre writing); taken as a whole, we get a sense in broad outline of the themes of Modiano's life, as they appear repeatedly, though always in slightly different form, with different surface and topical details, different nomenclature, in every novel: a child (often w/ an Italian name) in Paris during the Occupation, mother an actor or dancer who more or less abandons him to earn a living on the road, leaving hm w/ another family that's artistic or bohemian and not particularly responsible - often involved w/ gambling and horse racing, night clubs and sports cars. The father is on the periphery, a gangster of some sort engaged in black-market activity. Often, the father steps in and "rescues" the son, and the son is sent to a boarding school. The boy spends much of early youth on the Left Bank and eventually becomes a writer in Paris, very peripatetic. It seems that all of Modiano's fiction is an attempt to recall and to tell this story, but he never does so in a straightforward confessional manner - his past is fog-shrouded and elusive, which I think his part of his message: not only that the past is often beyond recovery, but also that the French have buried their past, particularly the years of the Occupation.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The recurring themes in Modiano's fiction

It's almost comic how the same elements arise again and again and Patrick Modiano's novels, as if he's working different versions of the same narrative in a series of short novels that span a half-century. It's amazing to me that I keep finding this story, so elusive and suggestive, fascinating and engaging but there you have it; I'm a reader who has little taste for fantasy, surrealism, and so-called experimental fiction, and maybe that's what makes Modiano's fiction so compelling to me: he has the strange and rare capacity to tell a story that seems to be a straightforward if complex narrative - with the exception of his first two novels, generally in the mode of a noir detective narrative - but there are always some inexplicable elements that make the work feel just a little out of reach, as if he is dealing with an obsession or delusion rather than with a true narrative plot. I'm reading now his 2014 novel, So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood (an accurate translation of the French title, for once), about an elderly writer living alone and in some degree of solitude, roused from sleep by his phone (which rarely rings) and it's a man who says he has found the writer's address book, and they make arrangements to meet for the return of the book. The writer finds the man's voice to be threatening, for some reason. It turns out that the man - who found the book at a train station (the writer confirms that he lost it while traveling) wants to know about one of the entries in the book because it's the name of a person he's investigating for a book he's writing about a murder; turns out the name is a brief reference in the writer's first novel - and he, at first, can't recall anything about the name, but later recollects that the man was a casual encounter who'd claimed to be a friend of the writer's mother. And so on. It all kind of makes sense, except when you stop to wonder: what are the chances that a found address book would have the name of the very person under investigation? Zero. So did the man steal the book, like a pickpocket? No evidence for that. It's just part of the labyrinthine world of a Modiano novel, in which the plot includes man odd connections and overlapping of layers of time and memory - much like the complex street maps of Paris that fascinate Modiano and play a predominant role in his fiction.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Poe's ghastly Cask of Amontillado and how it deceives us

Read a couple of short stories following the lead of blogger Charles May and his postings for Short Story Month (last month), including E A Poe's A Cask of Amontillado, which I'd read many years ago - an early 19th-century American story, touching on the horror genre, not the most sophisticated story you'll ever read but strangely compelling nevertheless. The (unnamed?) narrator begins by nothing that a man named Fortunato has insulted him - we never learn of the nature of magnitude of this insult - and the narrator plots his revenge. He's particularly diabolical in that he makes it a case in point to befriend Fortunato to the ultimate, to flatter him, so as to take him unawares - but he also wants Fortunate to know he's exacting revenge, so no sudden assassination of poisoning. So he plays up to F's vanity - tells him he's purchased an expensive vintage of the eponymous Amontillado (the annotations in the edition I read show that Poe really was not a wine connoisseur) and he wants F to taste to to ascertain its excellence (he lures F by stressing that he could also ask some other buy, Luchresi, which just spurs F's desire to prove he has the most sophisticated wine pallette. In short, he brings F into his basement crypt - lots of skeletons of ancestors stacked against the walls, and Poe describes the dank, humid, rotting atmosphere in the crypt - leads him to a dark cul-de-sac where he snaps F into chains and slowly and methodically builds a new wall of brick and mortar, sealing F into a tomb to die. What's especially perverse about this confessional story is that whether we want to or not we identify with the narrator - even though we know nothing about the so-called insult and even though we know his reaction is criminally perverse in fact deranged - esp because Fortunato is such a egoist and so easily flattered, a guy who probably deserves an evil fate though probably not this one.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Why God in Ruins is better than Life After Life

This will have spoilers for those who have not yet read A God in Ruins: Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, in which protagonist Ursula leads several "versions" of the same life - in one of which she apparently tries to assassinate a young Adolf Hitler?, I guess that version didn't work out (this is not one of those alternate history novels such as what if the South won the Civil War) - and in the last chapters she gives an alternate life, of a sort, to Ursula's younger brother Teddy. Teddy is a fighter pilot for England in WWII and in some of the chapters that follow Ursula's life in London during the war we learn that Teddy's plane was shot and went down in flames over Berlin. There's no definitive identification of his body or anything, but Ursula speaks w/ others in his platoon who confirm that his plane went down and nobody could have survived. Still, alert readers will spot the hint and be suspicious, and sure enough Teddy turns up in London on Armistice Day and reunites with family and with his fiancee, Nancy. This is especially odd because his resurrection, the "real," within the terms of the narrative, is improbable (though possible), whereas throughout the novel Atkinson has characters die then reappear in later chapters - so why the concern about verisimilitude regarding Teddy's survival? Beats me. In any event, the sequel, A God in Ruins, is about Teddy - and in my view it's a much stronger novel. I read them out of sequence, but if you read them in sequence the 2nd novel - though told in fragments out of chronological order (and very artfully done) - the narrative flows seamlessly from Life After Life: Teddy as a fighter pilot shot down and held as a POW until the end of the war - and the novel is about his childhood and his life after the war. Only at the end, the very last chapter, does Atkinson pull the rug out from under us so to speak and say that Teddy actually died in the plane crash and that none of the subsequent events happened or could have happened as such: a literary version of It's a Wonderful Life, in a way, showing how one person's life touched so many others. In God in Ruins Atkinson has us posit only one narrative disjuncture, and it's a big one, but she doesn't knock us about like ping-pong balls over the course of the whole narrative, as she does in Life After Life, and to what end? LaL does so only to confuse and befuddle, to move us away from narrative engagement; God in Ruins, more successfully, keeps us engaged throughout and then at the end asks us to ponder the narrative in a different light; I didn't love that, but didn't feel betrayed, either.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

No idea what Kate Atkinson is up to

I have well established my frustration with Kate Atkinson's Life After Life - terrific writing, great use of historical research, strong characterization (potentially), vivid re-creation of a time and place - all undermined by her fixation on narrative tricks and feints, having her protagonist die several times and live through various versions of her life, a series of "what ifs." As she nears the conclusion, she doesn't tie the strands together but, rather, she piles it on: From the outset we knew that Aunt Izzie had borne a child "out of wedlock" when she was a teenager living in Germany, and that the child had been given up for adoption - a potentially rich narrative strand: Would her son reunite with the family in some unexpected way, perhaps as a captive German soldier? I had suspected, without any evidence for this, that the brother Teddy was actually Izzie's son, that the Todd family had "adopted" him and put forth the fiction that he was their natural-born son. But now KA gives us a chapter in which Aunt Izzie's son, Roland, is in fact adopted by the Todds, then drowns in swimming accident (the same scene earlier played out with Ursula the drowning victim - or the near-drowning victim - so to what end, what is the purpose? I have to say the drowning scene is astonishing - nobody watching the children playing in the ocean water - it would be something, one would think, that the mother, Sylvie, would bear w/ her throughout her life, though we see no evidence of that. Honestly, I have no idea what Atkinson is up to; will probably finish the novel tonight, and will most likely post tomorrow on the differences between this and her much stronger sequel, A God in Ruins.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Death and resurrection - in Life After Life - and why that's a problem

Sounding like a broken record but here goes: Kate Atkinson's Life After Life continues to have some of strongest, most convincing, most vivid account I've ever read of the London bombings during WWII, seen from the POV of ordinary Londoners trying to live their lives w/ that famously British stiff upper lip, or, as she says a few times in the course of the novel, "needs must" - much of the narrative following closely the POV of the protagonist, Ursula, who spends time as part of an air warden team and experiences some horrifying, grisly moments - and gradually becomes inured to the sight of death and mutilation and destruction. She captures not only the facts of the bombings but the very sense in living through, the odor, the grit on face and tongue, even the sense of touch - description of stepping on the body of a dead child, the squishiness of organs. Lots of literary references - maybe too many for some - though it's fun in a snobbish way to try to ID her citations. So why can't she construct a novel out of this material, why does she break all convention and have her protag lead several lives, dies multiple times: If she "needs must" provide is with a multiplicity of experiences and points of view, why not tell this story through several characters? And as we hit about the 75 percent mark, she has a penchant for odd and unexpected encounters among the characters: that strange feeling, which Anthony Powell played out in a comic way, of there being only a few hundred people in all of London and they're constantly coming across one another. Of course one of the powers of wartime writing is that characters get plucked off the "stage," they don't get to finish the arc of the narrative of their lives; in this novel, sudden death has much less of an effect on this because we're always thinking the death can be rectified, and the character resurrected, by authorial authority.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Choose Your Own Advernture - in Kate Atkinson's novels

Some aspects of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life are so good, and some other aspects are so, well, frustrating - I don't know what to make of it, honestly. Now at about the 2/3 mark and reading several sections that describe the bombing of London - so strange to think of living in a major European capital under nightly aerial attack - something really no American can imagine about any of our cities. Great as the London bombing is as a trope that illustrates the strength and fortitude of British character, I still - as noted in other posts - stand amazed at how significant, even contemporary, this period of history now nearly 80 years back, remains for so many English writers. That said, some of the scenes of bombing - the stench, the horrible deaths, the fear, the bravery, the comradeship - Atkinson makes it feel so vivid and real - again, as in God in Ruins, she shows herself the master at drawing on historical documents and accounts to re-create a past era. The novel feels as if it's contemporary - I'm constantly wondering how she could know so much, so much of the topical detail, of life in London 80 years ago - even such things as what it was like to ride in a train locomotive, what people ate during the war, the sounds of the bombing raids, the feeling of being under attack, of being blown away by an explosion - so much is in her - and yet - what is she doing? Why does she give her main character, Ursula, a # of different lives, and deaths? It's a novel with pathways rather than a narrative, and I wonder whether she'd have been better suited to write the novel as an electronic script: choose your own narrative. For ex., she could bring the narration to a point of crisis - loutish guy Howie comes on hard to naive 16-year-old Ursula, and what does she do: submit? push him away gently? hit him in the face? - and what she decides at that moment leads to a different course of her development as a character, with other moments of crisis and potential pathways to follow. But this does not work in a conventional print novel - it just feels as if she couldn't decide what to do w/ her character(s) so keeps writing alternate versions of the same life, with a  diminishing rather than a cumulative effect. Playing with narrative is fine, but it should be to some effect.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Hard to make sense of the German material in Life After Life

The next "life" for protagonist Ursula Todd in Kate Atkinson's Life After Life finds her a 20-something living w/ a family in Germany in the 1930s and observing with cool indifference the various Nazi ceremonies and exhibitions, the song-spiels, the hiking clubs - only in her correspondence w/ sister Pamela does she get a bit of an understanding as to what's really going on. Oddly, she marries a German guy - we learn very little about him and virtually nothing about their marriage or courtship - but he seems somewhat skeptical about the Hitler youth, at least at first, but as he advances in his law career, we realize, he's becoming more of an apologist, at best. The novel takes an odd turn as, in 1939, Ursula is a young mother who's palling around w/, of all people, Eva Braun, and she gets invited to spend some time and the Berghof (?), Hitler's mountain retreat, where she has first-hand observations of Hitler. All very well for the novel - this whole segment would seem completely out of whack w/ everything else we know about Ursula except for the very short first chapter, which gave us a hint, and I wonder what possible insight she, or Atkinson, can provide into Hitler's life and into the atrocities of Nazi Germany. This is by no means a spy novel or a war novel (the sequel, A God in Ruins, is very much a war novel, from the POV of a fighter pilot), and this whole German section of Life After Life seems odd, out of character rather than a stage in character development - possibly because we have read so many chapters about Ursula's life in London during the war that made no reference to a time in Germany, a German husband, the birth of a son - let alone hanging around at Nazi hq, that even in this unconventionally plotted novel it's hard to make sense of and incorporate this material.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

What if: Kate Atkinson just told the story instead of undoing her own narrative

So by my count Kate Atkinson writes 3 narrative sequences in which her protagonist, Ursula, dies in a London bombing raid: one in which she's a lonely 30+ woman with a crummy job and no social life (this is the life version in which Ursula is raped, becomes pregnant, endures an abortion), another in which she has an affair with a dashing, somewhat older, married co-worker and returns to her home (it's the same building in all 3 versions) and dies in bombing raid, a 3rd (in this case she playfully fought off the advances of her near-rapist) in which she breaks off the affair w/ the co-worker (she's strong-willed and not the one jilted) and goes back to see her old apartment building and, while out on the street, dies in the bombing. I may have over-summarized or mixed up some of the details, but you get the picture. Each one of these narratives is fine, powerful, gives a vivid account of what it would be like to live under daily air attacks - so weird to think of that in a city like London (as opposed to, say, Aleppo or Damascus), even though the narratives cover similar or even identical ground I found myself caught up each time - and yet, and yet - what exactly is Atkinson's point? Why would she want to alienate us, her readers, to keep us from getting engaged w/ her characters because anything that happens in one chapter she can simply undo or re-do in the next? And it's not as if this is an extremely "clever" narrative, like a story by Barth or Borges, say - it's just that Atkinson keeps examining different narrative "what ifs." I'll tell you what if: What if she decided to tell the life story of a character of her invention, came to points of crisis in the character's life and made some decisions about how the character would live (or not) and followed each decision point on to it's next step or stage or conclusion? What's wrong w/ that? In her penchant for trickery and narrative gamesmanship she gives up far too much w/ not enough payback. I suspect she learned from this, as the sequel to Life After Life, A God in Ruins, does in fact give us a life narrative that doesn't come undone and embroiled in narrative trickery until the last chapter - at which point I felt a little cheated, but at least the narration didn't undermine itself from step one.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Characters die and then live again and at some point, what's the point, Kate Atkinson?

Kate Atkinson continues to develop the narrative line of Ursala's marriage to the domineering lout Derek, as she gradually he's a phony and liar, and he becomes increasingly abusive, going beyond the verbal abuse and throwing food around the kitchen, then slapping her hard, then punching her in the face, at which outrage she finally leaves him and shows up at her Aunt Izzie's house in London, her place of refuge. Derek tracks her down there, suspects she's been "fornicating" with another man (the man in the house w/ her is her brother Teddy) and smashes her head against a coffee table, twice - killing her. An extremely powerful section of Life After Life, and yet, two things: I kind of wish she had bad enough alone; I know there are wife-abusers who become pathological killers, but really that's such an extreme case and in fact not in keeping w/ Derek's pathetic, victimized personality. The section would have been more powerful I think he she left it as physical abuse rather than homicide. Second, readers will not be surprised by this point but Ursula's "death" becomes another plot point in Atkinson's continued un-doing of her own narration. Yes, we get the point, characters in novels aren't real people and authors authors make decisions about their characters' fates all the time during the writing process, authors are God-like, but at some point what's the point? We do want the author to make those decisions, to hold the mirror up to nature, even a cracked mirror, so I find myself frustrated as we move on to the next section in which Ursula punches her assailant, Howie, in the nose, therefore no rape, no pregnancy, no abortion, no 10 years of guild and misery and bad marriage and abuse and death - rather, a smart young woman sets off her career, plays some kind of role in the Home Office during WWII, and then - in one of the bombing attacks on London, dies in the sub-basement of her apartment building, or should I say "dies"?

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Patience is rewarded for those who persist when reading Life After Life

Reading further into Kate Atkinson's Life After Life the novel further examines the sorrowful after-effect of the trauma that Ursula suffered as a naive teenager: raped in a back stairwell in her family home by her brother's loutish "friend," pregnant and completely unaware of any facts about pregnancy or childbirth, led to an abortion clinic by her free-spirit Aunt Izzie, nearly dying of blood poisoning following the procedure - terrible stuff, narrated with great vividness. And then the deluge - her long depression, leaving school even though she was apparently a very capable student, enrolling in a tedious secretarial college to learn shorthand, taking a menial job where she feels alone (she is alone), serious bout of alcoholism that she manages to overcome when she meets a young man and falls in love - everyone had begun to expect she would never marry - the shame she still bears about her experience, and then the domineering nature of her husband, everything on his terms, not obvious in the courtship but becoming more apparent to her, and to us, after the marriage. It's a very sad narration - much more so than the sequel A God in Ruins - but wisely Atkinson gave us a hint at the start that Ursula would not go down easily, that she might even have an important role to play in WWII, perhaps as a spy in Germany? It took a while for this novel to get its bearings - so many characters introduced quickly, w/out a lot of back story, lots of cross-cuts in time sequence, and Atkinson's peculiar obsession w/ killing key characters and then bringing them back to narrative life - but patience is rewarded as thenovel builds in gravity and dramatic tension as it moves along.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Terrific chapter on Ursula's plight in Life After Life

Terrific chapter in Kate Atkinson's Life After Life in which main character, Urusula, a somewhat sheltered teenager in the London suburbs, is raped in a back stairwell in her family home by a "friend" of her very nasty older brother, an American student, Howie, several years older than she and a very big guy. The scene itself is frightening and horrific, and then the aftermath - this poor, naive girl knows nothing not only about sex but about childbirth, doesn't even realize she's pregnant for quite some time, can't tell her parents or anyone, considers suicide, heads off to London where she wanders all day and finally goes to the doorstep of her progressive and artistic aunt who takes her in - Ursula at last tells of her situation, Aunt Izzie arranges for an abortion - very abrupt, nothing explained to this poor girl who somehow imagines the fetus will be a baby given up for adoption, she becomes very ill after the procedure, her parents called in finally to help, they're angry and ashamed - all told chillingly and credibly (makes a sharp contrast w/ one of the Lucia Berlin stories I read recently about an abortion clinic in Juarez) - and I'm really glad Atkinson didn't have Ursula die (and be reborn) after this experience. Definitely the most powerful and dramatic scene so far in Life After Life, which seemed to be treading water up to this point. My quibbles: Despite her shame and fear, I think she would have discussed this w/ her older sister, and maybe even w/ her brute of a brother. Second, OK, Howie is a totally loathsome character but why does Atkinson go out of her wayto make him an American? Are there no British louts? What's her point?

Friday, June 3, 2016

Another British WWII novel but w a twist

Though Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is a British novel much of which takes place during and just after World War II - like just about every other Brisbane novel from the pas 80 years or so - it lacks at least so far some of the driving force of the sequel -A God in Ruins - much of which was about Teddy's life as a fighter pilot brilliantly researched and convincingly written. It's not yet quite clear (about 1/4 into the narrative) exactly what role central character Ursula will play during the war - we know from hint that she spent time in Germany before the outbreak and the first chapter showed that she may have worked as a spy or agent - but the chapters so far show her as having a tedious job as a clerk or stenographer so I'm not sure how Atkinson will weave these strands tho I'm pretty sure she will as she has shown her skill and developing a narrative told in segments out of sequence. One of the best of these segments in the first quarter of the novel show her in poverty in a small flat in a tough London neighborhood just after the war - Atkinson conveys well the poverty that the whole nation felt - as if they lost the war, as one character says - and the elation Ursula feels when she gets a food package sent from the family farm in the country. Survival itself is a challenge - not enough gas to cook or hear or illuminate anything. The mother Sylvia and her depression (and her marital affair) will play a bigger role in this novel than in God in ruins - ditto for Aunt Izzie the author who I suspect will also play an espionage role of some sort. It's a challenging and highly intelligent novel and I'm hoping the the pieces will cohere into a full picture. I still don't see what she giants by "killing" her main characters at various points in the narrative (and then resurrecting them as suits her purposes).

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Die and be reborn - Resurrection of the main character in Life Afer Life

Yes, we're reading these out of sequence - a month ago finished Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins and only later did I realize it's a sequel of sorts to her previous novel, Life After Life, which I'm reading now (as is the rest of Book Group?). It's clear they can be read with equal enjoyment (and puzzlement) in either order. They're about the same family (of 5 siblings), spanning most of the 20th century, God in Ruins about one of the sons, Teddy, who becomes a WWII fighter pilot and Life After Life about his older sister Ursula - and I'm not quite sure yet what becomes of her. I think I would have struggled to get ahold of this novel had I not already been introduced to each of the characters and to the setting - very English - by the sequel. Atkinson's a fine writer, but she pushes a lot at us without much context or setting, throwing us right in amidst the Todd family and their many servants and we figure things out as the narrative moves along - very much like Virginia Woolf at her best (Lighthouse, Dalloway). Life After Life seems much more a novel told in sequence than God in Ruins, which jumped about quite radically in time from chapter to chapter, with a cumulative effect. Life After Life begins with a scene in 1930 when Ursula enters a cafe in German and assassinates the young Hitler - or tries to - it's unclear from this first chapter who lives, who dies - and that's the motif that Atkinson plays w/ throughout the first 100 pp or so and maybe throughout the whole novel (and to a less extent in the sequel as well). After that first "teaser" chapter we learn of the Todd family early in the 20th century, and we see the birth of Ursula, who dies in childbirth. No, wait a minute - as we move on to the next chapter and she is an infant. In the first 100 pages she "dies" 4 times (childbirth, drowning, fall of a rooftop, flu - and maybe I forgot one?) and then "revives," so we see Atkinson playing around at the margins of fiction, showing us the godlike power of the author, making us think about what it means to "know" a character in a book. The question as we read is: Does this enhance the novel, provide any meaning or insight in the character and world Atkinson depicts, or are the multiple deaths a trick, a whimsy, a distraction, an affectation? In other words, your stance on this novel will depend on whether it's important to you as a reader that the author holds a mirror up to nature, or do you want to be (constantly) reminded that a novel is an authorial creation and not a representation, necessarily, of the world.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Two critical essays on Lucia Berlin

Two good introductory essays - Lydia Davis and Stephen Emerson - in Lucia Berlin's posthumous collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women. Both, despite the obligatory caution about assuming we know the writer's life because we've read the writer's fiction - yeah, yeah, but few writers have dealt repeatedly with the same narrative strands in literally every single published work over the course of a lifetime - make some sharp analyses of Berlin's style: rapid, efficient, quirky. Davis notes that she doesn't waste a word, and sometimes includes a descriptive detail as if it were a note: in the midst of a description of her old, quaint, NY neighborhood with Melville windows (immediately bringing us into the world of Melville in NY 19th-century, Bartleby et al) and no traffic on a Sunday and then she inserts the words: clop clop. Which tells us she can, we can, imagine the sound of horses on the street, another 19th-century detail, but see how she does both with one or two words, w/out spelling everything out? I don't especially like sentence fragments (blogging aside) and when editing always encouraged journalists to write out their thoughts and observations in full - write with nouns and verbs - but in some literary fiction fragments have a place, and we can see in Berlin the influence of objectivist poetry (Williams, Pound) and the Black Mountain poets: it was no surprise to me that she knew Creeley, and I'm sure he was helpful to her career, as he was to so many, a very generous and kind man. Davis also mentions her many medical stories (she had a few jobs in hospitals, and was a hell of an acute observer) and her sympathy with Williams and Chekhov, the two great doctor-writers: a coolness objectivity that a doctor needs in diagnosis and treatment, as well as the humanity and compassion that good doctors have, and we see this in some of her greatest stories, such as Mijito. Finally, Emerson notes her killer closing lines and her deft humor, citing, from the last story she wrote (he says - it's 3rd from last in the collection), B.F. and Me, about a guy she hires to put flooring into her trailer (!), she gives him a pretty awful description, huge, unkempt, reeking - and concludes the paragraph with: I liked him right away. As Emerson says: Who wouldn't want to read these stories? Or, as I'd say: Who wouldn't want to know this person? And, reading her stories, we do.