Wednesday, August 31, 2016
A different Mann - Klaus (forever unfortunately to be known as Thomas's son) - is much less known than famous father but has emerged recently thanks to a new bio of this guy whose life sounds movie-like - gay, addicted, literary, troubled family, contrast w/ father who was closeted, exile, opponent of Hitler, endangered species, died too young - and maybe will become a movie who knows? Inspired by a review of the bio, I am reading K Mann's best-known novel, Mephisto, from 1936, in German (I think K Mann later wrote in English?) and the first chapter itself is amazingly brave and prescient, an account of a huge Nazi party gathering (set contemporary 1936 - seems it could have taken place at any time up to about 1944) to celebrate the anniversary of one of the party big-shot monstrosities married to a movie star. Obviously each of the people introduced at this party scene is based on someone in contemporary German society and in the Hitler hierarchy. I can't ID them; an annotated edition of this novel would help but probably isn't necessary as we get the picture: these are horrible people with no values other than survival and blood-lust, more obvious to us today looking back than it would have been necessarily in 1936. The center of the novel is the eponymous Mephisto (stage name), who is the young, ruggedly handsome, recently appointed director of the national theater. His appointment is a bone of contention between his patron, a military leader, and the perverse minister of propaganda (Goring?). The first chapter, called the Preface, just sets up the characters and the mood of the time - lots of lavish celebration at party, that is at the public, expense for the insiders "fortunate" enough to be invited to celebrate this travesty of a marriage; the plot is not yet under way - but I think it will have something to do with people who claim to be Nazi opponents but are in fact collaborators. Mann's bravery in writing this novel, wherever he may have been living, in 1936 is evident - there wasn't to my knowledge a lot of literature in the 1930s that truly exposed the Nazi horrors.
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
Trollope's The Warden, the first of his Barchester novels, is nowhere near as complex - nor as provocative - as the other T novel I've read recently, Dr. Thorne (Barchester #3), but it's elegant in its simplicity, esp for a fairly long (by 21st-century standards) Victorian novel: very few characters, really only 4 of significance and just a few on the periphery and essentially only one action: public outrage rises regarding whether the church of England has misappropriated a charitable legacy and used the funds to richly pay the eponymous warden while the intended beneficiaries, the elderly impoverished men of the region, live on a pittance. Though the advocate for the poor drops the case, for personal reasons, the warden feels he cannot continue to live in this manner, even if the law is on his side, and he decides to give up he sinecure and live on much smaller church pension, in near poverty. Almost nobody, esp his fellow churchmen, can understand why he would do such a thing - which, by the way, will not put a penny more in the pockets of the indigent (in fact, it will take some money away from them). But we can understand his actions: he's a true hero, selfless, a man of feeling and conscience, and the beauty of the novel is that we see him grow and mature, we see him change and rise up to take an incredibly courageous and selfless moral action. At the outset, he seemed like a milquetoast, he seemed oblivious and unable even to comprehend the charges against him - he was within the system and couldn't imagine that the system could be wrong. But over time he gains much greater understanding and becomes heroic (he was always kind and, within reason, generous). It's a fine short (by 19th-century standards) novel that could be adapted well to circumstances today.
Monday, August 29, 2016
Trollope really has a lot of fun with the chapter about 2/3 of the way thru The Warden in which he indulges in a little postmodernism well ahead of its time: the morally upright John Bold who has decided to drop the case he'd been building against the eponymous warden - and did so at the request of, maybe under pressure from, the warden's daughter Eleanor, whom Bold hopes to marry - but then finds himself frustrated at every turn: his opponent, the archdeacon Grantly, refuses to drop the matter and says he will press forward with the case and seek damages from Bold; his ally, Towers, the reporter for The Jupiter, says that the case is too far along, it's become part of the public sphere, and there's no possibility of giving it up. And then Trollope gives us 2 examples of the public discourse about the case of the wealthy Church of England v the poor men in the old-age home - so we get a novel that contains another version of the same novel (by a different author). First, a Germanic philosopher almost impossible to comprehend in his abstractions and his dialectics - this is probably Engels? - and then a novelist whose novel about the case, The Almshouse, turns the characters into types and extremes - and this is obviously Dickens, which I found especially amusing - as you can see from an earlier post when I speculated on how Dickens would tell this story. Well, so did Trollope but he went a thousand times better and showed how D would handle it - and probably ruin in w/ sentimentality and comic exaggerations. I can't say that Trollope is a better novelist than Dickens, compared with D he's a little bloodless and tame, but we can definitely see how Trollope is more subtle and thoughtful in developing characters and in probing the nuances or moral and political issues.
Sunday, August 28, 2016
The social, moral, and ethical dilemma and entanglements get even tighter - and more complex - as the narrative of Trollope's The Warden develops, in short: The warden's daughter Eleanor goes to see her beloved John Bold who is leading the fight against the warden - trying to end his sinecure and use the funds to provide more aid to the elderly indigent - and tries to persuade him to give up his lawsuit, which she is sure will kill her father. He resists, but then, in part because of the intervention of his sister, Mary (Eleanor's best friend), he relents and says he will give up the lawsuit because of his love for Eleanor. She is pleased in a bittersweet way; she feels - rightly - that in a sense she has prostituted herself to him (Trollope would not have used that metaphor): she has said if you drop the suit you can have my love (and hand in marriage). It's exactly what she intended not to do; she, like Bold, wanted to argue out everything on a high moral plane - wanted him to drop the suit because that would be the right thing to do - not in order to "win" her heart. After his decision, Bold goes off to see the main antagonist, Archbishop Grantly (who is also the warden's son-in-law - and, if his marriage to Eleanor goes through, would be his brother-in-law) and tells him he's dropping the suit. Well and good - but then Grantly, instead of letting things end right there, goes off on a tirade and tells Bold how much they have already invested in the defense (probably a lie) and says he won't let the suit rest (probably stupid - he still could lose) and will purse claims for expenses and damages against Bold and is cohort (reporter for The Jupiter, which has waged a public-relations campaign against the church and specifically against the Warden). Bold leaves feeling he was completely misunderstood and his motives misjudged. Grantly is an evil soul; in a Dickens novel, he'd get what he deserves - in Trollope, who knows?
Saturday, August 27, 2016
With great assistance from M in interpreting Curtis Sittenfeld's current NYer story, Gender Studies, about a professor of same on a business trip who narrates this tale, first giving us the sorry details of her long-term failed relationship w/ a self-centered fellow academic who cheated on her for years then dumped her to go with a much younger grad student, whom he married almost instantly. The narrator's story, oddly, focuses on the working-class, Trump-liking driver of the airport shuttle, He obviously comes on to her a little, gives her his card with her cell #, she's contemptuous of him but - in a way that she seems even completely unaware of as she narrates this story a year or so down the line - she's attracted to him, consciously and sub. She seems to lose her photo ID and calls him to ask if it's in his van; he comes to the hotel later, hinting that he has the ID, but wants a drink w/ her first. She obliges, leads him up to her room, they have awkward and incomplete sex. He confesses he doesn't have the card, suggests maybe she made up the card story to lure him back to her, he just wanted to "hang out" w/ her, she kicks him out, then she finds the card - so what's obvious to us is that he was right, she wanted him back to her room, even tho she can't admit or even recognize this desire, she can't wait to tell her friends about this amusing encounter, then decides not to do so (not clear why she would then narrate this story or to whom exactly) - she feels shame and disgust for going w/ this guy who she sees as her inferior - he even likes Trump!, as she ends the story - but we look from outside her perspective and see a lonely woman in a series of crappy relationships with her intellectual "peers" and unable to recognize or even in a sensible way act on her true desires - a snob, in other words, or at least in part - but in a broader sense this story explores the chasm between classes that we see in our country, especially in the heat of this weird election. This may be Sittenfeld's first NYer story? She has written prolifically and always has a pleasant, welcoming, informal style - nice to see on these sometimes arid pages.
Friday, August 26, 2016
Dr. Bold, the small-town surgeon who is pursuing a legal action against the Church of England for misappropriating the Hiram legacy - giving the old men who are to be the beneficiaries a couple of pence a year and giving the warden, the church underling who manages the old-age home where the men live, a really excellent income of 800 pounds a year - even though the eponymous warden (in Trollope's novel) is the father of the woman, Eleanor, whom he loves. Got it? We want to like Bold - he's clearly right in his analysis of the misuse of the legacy and his opponent in the struggle, the archdeacon Grantly (who is also the son-in-law of the warden) is a totally loathsome man and a pompous bully - his kids, as we learn in chapter 8 or so, are equally noxious - is a perfect antagonist, a guy you'd really want to kick to the gutter. Yes, we really want to root for Bold, the obvious champion - but this is not a Dickens novel (see yesterday's post) with obvious right and wrong, good and bad - Bold himself if self-righteous and confident to a fault. By pursuing this action, he estranges himself from mild-mannered warden and, more important, ends the relationship with the warden's younger daughter, Eleanor. And Bold can't see anything wrong in that. It's not that he's wrong to pursue the legal matter - but it's emotionally and socially wrong that he can't even perceive the consequences of his actions, the hurt he's bringing on the woman he purports to care about and the man he'd considered a friend. He's smart - but obtuse - and we fear that things will only get worse for him as he goes up against entrenched antagonists who can squash him w/ a thumb.
Thursday, August 25, 2016
The 3rd and 4th chapters of Trollope's The Warden introduce us to the 12 men living in what today we'd call a home for the aged, who have been told they are entitled to far more than the few pennies a year they receive from the century's old Hiram legacy - this group that had gotten along well together and had been extremely grateful to have a beautiful place to live at no cost, suddenly start to turn on one another - one faction completely loyal to the churchmen - Harding (the eponymous warden) and his officious son-in-law the church "deacon" (I think), Grantly; the other faction, rising to dominance, feeling angry and oppressed and signing on to an agreement to pursue a court case against the church. A very old story - how money corrupts - going back at least to Chaucer (the Pardoner's Tale) - yet Trollope makes it new. He's interested in the social forces and the moral ambiguities: yes, it's obvious that the Hiram legacy was meant to provide care and comfort for aged working-class men and not to provide them with a meager pension and to enrich the church officials; but on the other hand it wasn't meant to enrich 12 men w/ a pretty huge annual legacy, either. The money is far more than Hiram could ever have anticipated and obviously a better use would be to benefit the entire community and not just 12 men. It's a situation that Trollope's near-contemporary Dickens would have had a lot of fun with - making the 12 angry men into caricatures, really heightening the evil and selfishness of Grantly and the self-righteousness of the advocate for the 12 men, Bold. But Trollope leaves the ambiguities and ambivalence in place, he never (or seldom) resorts to irony and comic exaggeration: Harding (the Warden) himself is a timid, vapid character, afraid to make a decision or take a stance, and it will be interesting to see whether he grows in some way. The 12 men are somewhat faceless and flat, and I think Trollope wants it that way: they're a force, and not a set of personalities. He does have a little fun at the expense of lawyers; the church is advised to hire an attorney who sits in Parliament and has the Dickensian name of Haphazard - but in general the whole tone of the novel is more serious and analytic - compare with that other great novel about litigation and its effect on family and personality, Bleak House, which is far more boldly comic and nakedly sentimental, even melodramatic (the death of the child, Esther's illness, the long mental and physical decline of her cousin).
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Trollope's first Barchester novel, The Warden, sets up the typically Trollopeian dilemma/conflict involving money, clash of generations, clash of families, and changing nature of the English economy and countryside. Here goes: in the 15th century (or so) a wealthy landowner, Mr. Hiram, left in his estate several tracts of land (amusingly, Hiram's Butts), a building, and a legacy with the idea that the rents from the land would go to the church to support the local warden and to run a charitable operation - what Trollope calls a hospital but we would call a home for the aged; the trust said it was to house elderly wool workers and pay them a couple of pence a day. Five centuries later: there are no more wool workers, so all agree the home will hold elderly, impoverished men. The land that Hiram left is now very valuable and produces significant revenue for the church, so the post of warden is now pretty cushy. And the amount stipulated in the trust is a pittance in daily revenue in the 19th century. The warden, Mr. Harding, is a nice gentleman but oblivious. Recognizing the pittance of the revenue he gives a few more pennies per day out of his own pocket - and considers this a personal sacrifice. His elder daughter is married to someone higher up in the clergy, Mr. Grantly, who thinks this whole arrangement is just fine - and he tries to sneak retired church employees into the home, rather than retired manual workers. Younger daughter, Eleanor, is serious about a young surgeon in town, Dr. Bold, who donates most of his time and practice to serving the poor. He is agitating for a realignment of the trust: use the money from the rental of the fields to improve the lives of the poor and elderly, not to fatten the churchmen. Grantly despises Bold, obviously - and we can see where this conflict is leading - or can we? It's a long novel, and Trollope is always adding complications and nuances as he builds is plot. So British, so fun.
Tuesday, August 23, 2016
As I'd anticipated Janet Frame does a terrific job w/ the 4th section of her debut novel, Owls Do Cry, section called "Daphne," and obviously the section about Frame and her life; the rest of the novel describes the life courses of the other Withers siblings, but there has been almost no contact w/ the sister who is locked away in a mental hospital - family in fact forbidden to visit her, over the course of years, if you can imagine - and in this section we learn about life in the NZ mental institution in the 1940s (I think) directly from the experience of the author. Here the odd imagery and syntax and the strange juxtapositions of stream of consciousness really pay off and work well as a narrative device because we are reading the account of a truly troubled mind. It's incredibly sad and moving to read about how horrible the diagnoses, treatment, and conditions were for mental patients back in that era - and what's even more astonishing is that one could live to tell the tale. Frame's recovery from her mistreatment - not dwelt on at all in this novel, other than a glancing reference at the end to Daphne's later life working in one of the woolen mills (Daphne does not, as one might suspect, become a writer) - but the fact that the real Daphne lived to become a writer and to tell these tales is a near-miracle. Interesting contrast with the Campion film about Frame's life, based on Frame's 3-vol autobio - which was much gentler and avoidant regarding her medical treatment and also regarding Frame's true mental disability: the Campion v made it seem as if she was mildly depressed w/ some suicidal ideation (and one half-hearted attempt) whereas Frame's own account has her in a complete mental breakdown and w/ complete disassociation and aggression (some maybe a reaction to her mis-treatment?). The very final section of the novel, which obliquely fills us in the later lives of some of the main characters, is a tack-on, but as noted in earlier posts we don't read a novel such as this for narration or plot - clearly, the plot will be episodic, following the events of the lives of the 4 siblings - but we read it for access to the consciousness of others, which this novel provides in abundance.
Monday, August 22, 2016
Janet Frame's debut novel, Owls Do Cry (1957), remains impressive in many ways but she does not do a good job with the section devoted to the youngest of the 4 Withers children, the kid sister Chicks (Theresa, as an adult): this section is almost entirely a "diary" that Chicks keeps about her domestic life and social aspirations, many of them sweetly pathetic: they invite a prominent physician and spouse to dinner and she frets about what music to play - selected Beethoven's 5th - then what to say about it, setting on "fate knocking at the door." Later realizes that to true music afficiandos the 5th is almost a cliche in and of itself. Etc: what to wear, what to serve. We learn in later diary section that the doctor was later arrested for shooting his wife to death, tried, sentenced, hanged - quite a bit of melodrama there, and a diary kept by a person who know little or nothing about the murder is not the way to tell that story, to put it mildly. The importance of the diary for this novel is, first, to establish Chicks as the one "normal" and successful member of the family, to contrast her with her siblings, and to show her deep self-doubt and insecurity, partly because of shame about her family and, second, to build to the drama of brother Toby reading the diary and realizing how his sister - and others - see him. Frame misses the mark here as well, by having Toby burn the diary, crate a little bit of damage in his sister's house, and leave w/out explanation. No confrontation? And his sister never figures out how she "lost" her diary? Opportunity missed. Building now to the last section of the novel, about Daphne, the stand-in for Frame herself, held in a mental institution for years and forbidden to see her family - an incredible travesty and horror, sounding more medieval than 20th century.
Sunday, August 21, 2016
Very impressed, two-thirds in, with Janet Frame's debut novel, Owls Do Cry (1957) - yes it's a little eccentric, with a # of transitional chapters in italics built as strange stream-of-consciousness passages that seem a little out of date even in 1957 and yes it's, like so many debut novels, essentially a family saga that follows a stream of events in the life of the family without any other shaping principal but, that said, it's a tremendously powerful saga told on an intimate and personal level. We focus on the 4 children - clearly, fictional representations of the 4 Frame children that many will know from her 3-vol autobio and esp from the Campion film and TV series: here they're the eldest, Francie, who dies in a fire (Frame's actual older sister drowned); the brother, Toby, a sweet child but best w/ a # of problems including seizure disorder and some form of retardation and obsessive behavior (counting his money every night, for ex.), and the youngest sister, Chicks (aka Theresa), the only one married with a family and reasonably prosperous and moved away from home in S. New Zealand. (The 4th child is the stand-in for Frame, named Daphne, and living for several years in a mental hospital and w/ family visits forbidden - this will be the 4th section of the book I'm pretty sure). Frame's account of Toby as he tries to make a life for himself in their small town, awkwardly courts a young woman who is clearly "not into him" (as we'd say today, not then), a sad and bewildered young man, is a highlight; the next section is mostly made up of Chicks's diary, in which she expresses her social anxieties and aspirations (reminded me a little of Babbitt) - it's hard to believe she would actually keep such a detailed diary, and Frame pushes things a little to far to have Toby, on a visit, come across the diary and read it (first, she would have protected it more assiduously; 2nd, it seems from other evidence that he can barely read) - including passages in which she expresses shame and even loathing toward him. But whatever its faults this novel is emotionally powerful and stylistically challenging and in some ways original: the use of stream of consciousness much more personal and confessional than in Joyce or Faulkner, for ex. Pound said "make it new," and Frame has followed this dictate - it's fresh and surprising on every page.
Saturday, August 20, 2016
The protagonist in Tom McGuane's story in the current New Yorker, Papayas, typifies a McGuane character: man in late middle age, reasonably prosperous in some sort of business field - in this case, writing marine insurance; others are often men in real estate - generally living in a remote community being transformed by tourism and escapism, in this case Key West but many other stories in Montana, with land prices rising thanks to 2nd (or 3rd) homes of the entertainment elite, generally unattached (widowed, divorced, children if any living afar) - similar in many ways to Richard Ford characters, but with rougher edges, generally not well educated, though smart in ways beyond book-smart. Papayas tells a life story in 2 phases: at the outset we meet the narrator and his friend, one of his few we gather, a Cuban-immigrant doctor, whom he visits regular more for conversation than for medical care. Then we "flash back" and we see the narrator in his ragged youth - abandoned on a beach in the Bahamas (robbed of everything including his boat following a night of debauchery) and taken in by a native woman who basically makes him her slave laborer, shoveling guano and dumping it as fertilizer on her papaya trees (pretty dangerous work, though there's no recognition of this in the story). After a period of this servitude, which he doesn't mind especially as his life is adrift, the woman, Angela, brings him to a boat, which will transport him back to Florida; the doctor (and his wife) turn out to be fellow passengers, paying a lot of $ to be smuggled from Cuba to the U.S. So that's how their friendship formed - and in the process of telling the story we learn about the formation of an entire personality, self-reliant, independent, grateful. McGuane has built a huge opus of short stories that cover similar ground - this is one of the strongest.
Friday, August 19, 2016
Janet Frame's first novel, Owls Do Cry (1957), pretty closely follow the outlines of her sad, nearly tragic life - at least insofar as she portrayed her early life accurately in her autobiography and insofar as Jane Campion captured that in her film/TV series on Frame: Frame was born in the 1930s in New Zealand, in a large working-class family in a fairly remote part of the country, lived in pretty serious poverty throughout her childhood, in her 20s was diagnosed (incorrectly) with schizophrenia and underwent years of hospitalization and electro-shock treatment, against her will obviously, and on release became a successful writer - sometimes considered NZ's best writer and a perennial Nobel possibility (she never won). The novel has the strengths and weaknesses of many literary debut novels: a powerful narrative that barely disguises its autobiographical elements and a florid, anything goes style - lots of stream of consciousness, lots of echoes of Joyce and Faulkner, with some occasional odd passages and metaphors, which I'll try to remember for a future post. The novel benefits from slow, careful reading and absorption into her style - because that's really what it's about - the events, while powerful in and of themselves, are largely "episodic," that is, the novel has the shape of a life - one thing after another happening to the same person - but not the shape of a narrative: there's no plot per se (which is probably why in later life Frame just told it as it is in her 3-part memoir). Interesting, the first section of Owls Do Cry (a passage from The Tempest, btw) focuses on Francie, a stand-in for Frame's older sister, while the Frame character is marginal. Francie dies falling into a fire pit (Frame's sister died in by drowning, a powerful moment in the film and the memoir); after the death of Francie, Frame recounts the horrid experience of shock therapy - which the film, btw, largely ignored, so it will be interesting to see going forward how much we learn about Frame's mis-treatment; she says little about her own troubled childhood as a perennial misfit - again, that's somethings he later took up in her memoir. In this novel, perhaps the material was too raw and painful and she gets at it obliquely only.
Thursday, August 18, 2016
Re-read one of old friend Charles (Charlie) Baxter's early short stories, and one of his best, rightly collected in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories as selection from the 1980s: The Harmony of the World. The story is learned, almost pedantic in its presentation of information about classical music - but the pedantry is not CB showing off but is integrated into the fabric of the story. The narrator is the pedant - a man with talent but with limited capacity for feeling, empathy, and love. The narrator tells us the story of his life, and of love lost: he was a piano prodigy in childhood, but his childhood was in a small town in Ohio and he quickly learns when he goes off to a conservatory that the world is filled with small-town prodigies (athletes find this out, too, when they turn pro at 18). He leaves music school when his very cruel and insensitive teacher tells him he has technical skill and no passion and he will be a failure as a performer - perhaps prescient advice, but delivered with malice. The narrator leaves the conservatory and becomes a music critic at a small upstate NY newspaper (in those days small papers had music critics; now, big papers don't). Earning a little on the side as an accompanist, he meets a delightful if fragile young woman who hires him to accompany her voice recitals: she pays for these herself and basically entertains her 40 friends. What's more, she's a poor singer - Baxter has the narrator describe her weaknesses in very learned terms - and the narrator eventually tells her so (much as his mentor once told him), leading to the breakup of their relationship and, we suspect, the end of his one chance at love and happiness. This sad story is paralleled by a piece the narrator is writing for his paper about Hindemith, a composer largely forgotten, the composer of the eponymous opera The Harmony of the World, based on the life of Kepler, a long-suffering man with the odd theory that the rotation of the spheres in the solar system caused harmonic waves and our musical scale. This theory is an example of thinking rather than feeling, or passion, as evidenced by the dry and boring performance of the opera (or its score) in the narrator's small town. The mean mentor was right: art, and life, are about passion, not ideas, not technical skill. He had love but threw it all away.
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
Grace Paley's story Friends (1980) deservedly appears in the 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories collection, a seemingly simple and even melodramatic concept that Paley turns into a subtle and moving elegy. Three friends - Ann, Sue, and narrator (Faith) - visit their lifelong friend Selena, who is dying of cancer at an undisclosed NE location; after the visit, the friends ride Amtrak home to NY and engage in various reflective conversations - later learning that their friend had died (probably intentionally from an OD of her Rx) while they were traveling home. That's it - but Paley establishes these characters and their lives and milieu all through oblique conversational references: the daughter who died of an OD, the son who has disappeared, the children lost and out of touch, the many tragedies that have touched their lives since they came together over Manhattan playgrounds, watching their kids grow, full of hope, their clipped and abrasive tones with each other, their no-nonsense attitude toward life and death, their left-wing political engagement - all come to life, in a few phrases. At the end, one of the women, divorced and alone, accepts the advances of a man traveling alone on the train - they surmise he's a business-guy-out-of-town type, and he's clearly not her type - but her willingness to have him give her a call shows both her spunk and her sorrow. Altogether, a fine story - and typical of Paley's people and her literary tone, from what I know and remember of her stories.
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
Read a good piece in vulture.com - Christopher Laurentzen? - on the importance, or not, of plot. Noted that plot is what keeps us moving forward with, engaged in, a work of fiction (or of literature, if you want to include drama) - and plot is how we try to "recall" or recollect a novel we've read (or film we've seen) as will be evident in about 90 percent of the posts on this blog. But plot is also what we least remember about a novel, it's least significant element - what we really remember are characters, mood, setting, style - all the ancillary aspects, and the most elusive, those that make the work what it is. CL spoke about Aristotle, still one of the greatest of literary critics, hard as that is to believe, who ranked plot - he called it "action" - as the most significant literary element - but then again he had an extremely narrow view of action: a true tragedy should have one unifying action, he said, and yes that's still true, in many genres - an action that involves a collision of forces, that forces the "hero" to make a choice that will define his or her character. Today we talk about the arc of the story, a Hollywood term that does apply well to traditional fiction, and of course, as CL notes Aristotle was scornful of the episodic. With good reason in some instances - episodic novels involve a series of events with nothing holding them together into a unified work of art other than that they involve the same characters or setting. We are much more open to this structure today - especially in the era of episodic television (CL makes the point that, if you binge-watch any of the great series you will see how all kinds of flaws in the structure - they don't hold up as well as novels, by their very nature - collaborative, commercial, seasonal. That's one reason I don't binge watch!) I recollect a woman in a writing group I belonged to who wrote some emotional, lyrical stories in rather exotic settings - but nothing happened. Criticized for that, she said she wasn't really interested in plot. After a painful silence, one of the members (a poet, as it happens), noted wryly: Readers like plot.
Monday, August 15, 2016
It's hard to figure Flaubert's fascination with the "near East" - if my memory serves me well I think he traveled in Egypt in his youth and kept some pretty explicit diaries that were published posthumously? - except maybe it was a style of the time, the way India was for Americans in the 70s and maybe Prague and Budapest today? but Flaubert was the greatest naturalist writer, and looking back on his work it's obvious that we read Flaubert still a century + after his death for 2 works: Mme Bovary and A Sentimental Education, and not for Salammbo, The Temptation of Saint Someone (can't even remember the title), Bevouard and Pecuchet, if I have these names correct - so why, in his final work, 3 Tales, does he end w/ this rather boring and impenetrable piece about Herod and the crucifixion, all told from Herod's POV, more or less, as he tries to form an alliance with the Roman consuls, worries about uprisings of the Jews, holds John the Baptist in captivity, pushes back against the militarism of his wife, Herodias - the eponymous Herodias, in fact, though the story doesn't seem to be hers. There's obviously drama to be made of of these events, and others have done so, in numerous art forms - The St. Matthew Passion, the Wakefield Mystery Plays, and how many paintings in the Lourvre? - but Flaubert brings to little of his great style to his tale, it has no inherent drama - all of its dramatic energy comes from without, you might say, from the pre-knowledge we bring to the tale and not the knowledge and insight it offers to us - and it's a mishmash of place names and names of various generals and leaders - perhaps he's trying for an epic effect as in the Iliad listing of armies and ships?, but it all serves to make the story incredibly difficult to follow.
Sunday, August 14, 2016
Stanley Elkin always was a writer (from the 70s through 90s, more or less) who always seemed on the brink, always just about to receive much wider recognition but never quite getting there. Sure, he published a lot and won a fair share of awards, including I'm pretty sure a National Book Award - but he never reached the level, in wider public esteem, of a Roth, a Bellow, a Barth, even a Malamud - and why not? I have to think part of it was that he spent his career teaching as Wash U in St. Louis, which, certainly in pre-Internet days, was far from the literary vortex. Second, and more important, sadly, I have to say he was just not at their level of gravitas - he did some great comic turns, and I imagine his stories, colloquial and imaginative, read very well aloud. But - well, take a look at his story selected for 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories: The Conventional Wisdom (1978). The story starts very well: a beset upon Minneapolis man, Ellerbee, tries to do the right thing in life but is met by obstacles at every turn. He's made terrible investment, is in what seems to be a cranky marriage, and his liquor store has been held up twice and he's trying to do his best to continue to support, out of his own pocket, the families of the two clerks shot in robberies - despite continued nagging of his shrew-wife. He pulls together enough money to open a new store in a nicer neighborhood but gets robbed there as well (he believes, probably accurately, that a syndicate arranged the robbers in order to buy him out on the cheap) - at this point in the story we have a lot of sympathy for him and wonder what will happen next to the Job-like character and whether he will triumph over fate - and then he dies. So - we go off to heaven with him, where he sees that the dead really wear halos and play harps!, he sees God, meets St. Peter - and then gets sent to hell, where he sees devils with cloven feet, and he suffers in fire and brimstone. So, literally, what the hell? If you're going to send a character into an afterlife, at least use your imagination, right? Ultaimtely, he gets an audience with God, who condemns him for breaking various commandments - coveting, not honoring his parents, and so forth. In frustration, at the end, Ellerbee vows to meet the man who shot him so they can curse God together. This is a total mishmash of a story with originality or insight or point of view - Elkin seems to have given up on the narrative he began and gone down an avenue of cliches and cheap tricks. I know he wrote better stories than this, but this one does show how he came close to excellence and then fell short.
Saturday, August 13, 2016
Flaubert's story A Simple Heart, a beautiful account of the life of a servant, a poor woman whose life was filled with loss and disappointment and poverty but who never lost her faith or her spirit, is oddly the source for Julian Barnes's fine novel Flaubert's Parrot - it's actually Felicite's parrot, the maidservant in this story - and it becomes for her a symbol, the last vestige, of all she holds dear in her life - all those she's loved have died and she thinks of the parrot, a gift from a departing family and one of the few things of beauty she ever owned, one of the few gifts of any sort bestowed on her, and at her death she imagines the parrot - which somehow in her mind becomes conflated w/ the Holy Ghost (which she cannot envision, as she cannot make sense of a globe as someone tries to explain to her that it represents where her nephew, a mariner, has traveled). Though Felicite bears little in common w/ Mme Bovary, we can see that this story is like Bovary in miniature - a full life encompassed, but in more confined space, a jewel compared w/ a mountain (Flaubert, btw, following on yesterday's notes, rarely uses metaphor - but when he does it therefore strikes us even more forcefully - the famous lines in Bovary for ex. about a mirror held up on the side of a highway or a pounding on a drum for bears to dance to). The 2nd story in his late work 3 Tales, The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitator, is a fable and a morality tale, about a cruel privileged young man and his journey to salvation and sainthood. Flaubert is never a crude moralist, but this story is strikingly different from most of his other well-known works - the great naturalist telling a fabulist story. But it does have all of F's narrative and literary strengths, passage after beautiful passage, and I kept thinking this story would be powerful and moving if read aloud (at times it also seemed cinematic, but I cannot imagine it as a movie, w/ all of its scenes of animal cruelty).
Friday, August 12, 2016
A few notes toward trying to understand the excellence of Flaubert's style - which if I could explain would be a real feat, as his brilliance is so evident yet so elusive: First, of course, the perfectly crafted sentences, clear and rhythmic with the perfect amount of status detail while never showing off - the style is invisible, we see through it right to the subject matter. I think the term for his sentence construction is "periodic" (I may have that wrong) sentence that become clear and complete only at the final word. Each sentence has a sense of closure, but also a sense of moving forward, pushing us along to the next. Few writers can do this consistently; Jhumpa Lahiri is one of the few contemporary writers to do so (which may explain her language facility as well). Of course he is a prime example of the key points in Elements of Style: write w/ nouns and verbs and avoid the passive tense. Also, Flaubert more than any other writer has the deepest understanding of and sympathy for his characters. He famously said Madame Bovary, c'est moi - but he's also all of his characters in a way that few or no other authors are: I'm reading now, just starting, 3 Tales, and he comprehension of and love for the main character, Felicite, in A Simple Heart, is a great example: a maid working for a self-centered widow, grossly underpaid and taken advantage of, in love with the 2 children in her care, devoted to her church - there are millions of people like this and few ever become the center of a piece of literary fiction, but Flaubert's imagination encompasses her and presents her without a touch of irony or cynicism or condescension - except the irony of the title - nobody is really "simple," each of us has a complex life of emotions, hopes, dreams, fears, suffering, and joy.
Thursday, August 11, 2016
It was 3 (not 4) chapters from the Underground Railroad that the NY Times published on Sunday; very intriguing start (I guess it was the start) of Colson Whitehead's novel - not entirely sure what to make of it but will most likely pick up a copy and continue. As noted yesterday, what starts out seeming to be a dramatic and reasonably realistic escaped-slave narrative takes some really weird twists and turns into the fantastic and the alternate history: the "railroad" that takes Cora and Cesar out of Georgia to a safer spot in S.C. turns out to be a real railroad line that sympathizers have dug and maintained - obviously an impossibility on every level - but we accept this as a signal that this will in no sense be a conventional narrative. And we see that right away, in ch. 2, as Cora is working as housemaid in S.C., a state that is in some ways much more progressive and sympathetic to escaped slaves, more than any other state - they're treated as citizens, with certain comforts and social advantages (housing, medical care, some protection) - but just as the bounty hunters were a menace in chapter 1 in Georgia, here the well-meaning sympathizers are a menace - conducting medical experiments on the unsuspecting black population, and trying to sterilize as many blacks as possible - and this part, ghastly as it seems, is probably not a fantasy but is based on fact. Cora, separated from her partner, head north once more in ch. 3 and finds herself on an abandoned spur of the "railroad," in N.C. - which, oddly, is a far more dangerous and reactionary state that SC or Georgia - she's moved north, but also backwards, and she lives in the cramped attic crawl space of a very nervous sympathizer (it's never explained in the least how these sympathizers can cover up such a massive movement of population). Core watches in horror the lynching of a black woman, the stirring of a gang of "night riders" - all this also based on fact, but pushed beyond the limits of naturalism, as N seems to be a world where black bodies hang from hundreds, thousands of trees. So, overall, not sure where White head is going w/ this or how it will develop - more fantasy and alternate history? or but I may want to find out - though I think in some ways the true story of an escaped slave is about as powerful as a narrative can get (viz., the recent great film 12 Years a Slave).
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Props to the NY Times for its new occasional Sunday section, printing a book excerpt on broadsheet newsprint available print only (how's that!) - a great idea because book excerpts work very well in this format and most online readers are too impatient to read 4 chapters of a book at a sitting. The debut for this feature is Colson Whitehead's new novel, The Underground Railroad, a book that certainly didn't need this extra push but a worthy choice from the NYT - Whitehead's a really good writer who probes American culture and history, with a particular interest in black culture and experience, and with a literary edge that pushes conventions but not to an extreme. The first two chapters of the novel start off like a pretty typical account of an escape from slavery and a journey north - I'm sure all readers will be reminded of Beloved - well narrated, a good and scary adventure and a sorrowful look at a low point in American history - and then the narrative takes a strange turn: just as the 2 runaways arrive safely at the "underground rr" safe house the owner takes them into the basement and - there's a real tunnel and a real locomotive. Whitehead has made the figurative into the real. Strange. It appears that each of these first 4 chapters centers on a different state - literally and figuratively - in the journey to freedom, w/ chapter 2 in SC - and again, it seems to be a straightforward narrative w/ the main character now known as Bessie - a name she assumed to avoid pursuit and capture - working as a housemaid, but then, oddly, she goes home to a large brick tenement that the state of SC has built for "negroes" and we learn that her papers now say she's property of the US govt., which has bought escaped slaves to protect their freedom - so, wait a second, we soon realize that this isn't a historical novel but an alternate history, a South (and North) that never was. She is pursued by various demons, giving the narrative great tension: an ardent slave catcher/bounty hunter, and a sinister doctor and medical system that is striving to sterilize black people and to use unsuspecting escaped slaves in a cruel study of the effects of syphilis (this part is, sadly, real). Who wouldn't keep reading?
Tuesday, August 9, 2016
Last thoughts on John P. Marquand's The Late George Apley - at his (GA's) death you can't help but think of him as a well-meaning man born into a life of great privilege who tried in many ways to be honest and upright, generous to his community, loyal to friends and family, and you, or at least I, felt a sorrow and pity as GA in his last days writes long letters in which he laments that he has accomplished nothing in his life. I really want to like him, and I put much of the blame for his failure or his sense of failure on the controlling, domineering parents and on the smug self-satisfaction of his social set, from which he just can't break free. But that's only part of it: though he is generous to charities, to Harvard, to his clubs, and though he is in some ways a political reformer (fighting corruption in Boston politics), his last writing also show his pettiness and narrow-mindedness, the class-bound limitations on his point of view: for his funeral, for ex., he makes a big deal of having as pallbearers (honorary) his old Maine camp guide and a worker from the Apley Mills. As the otherwise uninspiring intro to the edition I read - from "the Editors of Time" - notes, he was of the set that believed in charity but fought to put down (sometimes violently) worker "uprisings." He assumed in every fiber that people got what they deserved, that it was in the order of things that he would be wealthy and his workers, not. He also has some odd bequests, such as leaving a bunch of his college books to the long-lost love of his life, the Irish-American girl he threw over, bending to family pressure. Would she really want these? Does she think of him the same way he does of her? All told, he's obviously born at just the wrong time: had he been a generation older he would not have lived through or even been aware of these struggles for independence; a generation later, he would probably have broken free - although his son, John, never quite does so, returning in the end to the protected, clubby life of Boston. The family lives on, for at least one more generation.
Monday, August 8, 2016
Marquand seems to be rushing a bit to tie the strands of his narrative together and we can see it coming - apley's college girlfriend, the Irish-american beauty his family would not let him marry - turns up late in his life when apley is picked up as a john in a seedy hotel and threatens to sue the police for running a scam - she tells him the cop he's going after is a relative and to please lay off, which leads to a meeting at which apley finds he really likes these Irish cops and he becomes a hero to the south Boston Hibernians - well I just don't believe the relatively easy resolution to this problem and I think Marquand squandered the chance to really make something of apley's late-life reunion w the love from his past. That's too bad. - flaw in this otherwise stellar novel. As apley really ages he goes w family for one final visit to Europe Rome in this instance and, as in his earlier visit, he likes Boston better than anything he sees in his travels. He is still spending a lot of time w Clara Goodrich - and as a result there are still some mysteries at the end of the pseudo-biography: has he been carrying on a life long romance or affair w her or are they simply just friends? Similarly was he set up while seeking a liaison w a prostitute or was he truly and naively "investigating" police corruption ? Perhaps we can take him at his word on that point but he is strangely reticent - hard,y a word in any of his many letters- on the issue of Clara Goodrich.
Sunday, August 7, 2016
The privileged but beneath-the-veneer tortured life of The Late George Apley continues as we near the end of his life: He feels almost betrayed by his hon's leaving for NYC and for a NY law firm rather than the staid family firm Apley & Reid - there is behind this sense of betrayal a sense that NY is new money and a vibrant, aggressive, competitive legal and social circle, completely different from the caste-bound business culture of Boston - also a few hints that NY "has its Jews." But alongside Apley's many letters of advice to his son there some pleading, almost pathetic letters in which Apley protests too much: he's not a prude, he's heard course language, he understands that men will seek the comfort of women, and so forth, and even asking his son to take him to visit some speak-easies and to see some current Broadway plays - he's, in other words, drawn to and luridly fascinated by a life that he can't have. In a side story, he incredibly over-reacts when he learns that his daughter has visited, near Boston, one of these speak-easies - with a male friend no less! - banning the friend from their acquaintance, fearing his daughter is ruined. The ever-controlling Apley is very upset that his daughter turns down a proposal from a young architect - will everyone now think she's nothing but a flirt? (he wasn't nuts about the architect, but thinks he might be the best his daughter an do); then, he's extremely upset that his son, John, has married a divorcee! - but feels much better about that when he learns that she is from a prominent Connecticut family and has plenty of $. In other words, he constantly talks about freedom, independence, personal expression - but he's also bound by the ties (and the privileges) of his class. Toward the end he becomes involved in a political movement to end corruption in the police department, particularly re a scam some detectives are running to lure men into assignations w/ prostitutes and then busting them and blackmailing them - and then mysteriously finds himself charged in this ring. It's obviously a set-up - but we have to wonder why he's so interested in this particular example of corruption - there's something lurid about his fascination with prostitutes, right? Final note is that son, John, is part of the Algonquin round-table; I know nothing about Marquand's life but wonder of Marquand was a member and whether the story of Apley pere is in part autobiographical?
Saturday, August 6, 2016
I continue to be impressed by Tessa Hadley's short stories - as noted in earlier posts it took me a while to come around to her, or maybe she's just getting better? - seemed that her earlier stories were bland and undramatic, a moment in life that didn't always ring true for me, but over the past several years she's become, it seems to me anyway, much more adept at narrative, plot, and the element of surprise. Take the story in the current NYer, Dido's Lament: a 30+ woman caught in the pre-xmas rush in central London gets knocked about by a guy pushing his way into the Underground station and she pursues him through the crowd and right onto the platform, planning to tell him what's what - and when she catches up to him sees that: He's her ex-husband! Now, I don't quite believe this "cute meet," or re-meet, but that aside Hadley builds the story very well: they decide to go for a drink to catch up, he invites her to his house, she has some trepidation about meeting his new wife (and kids), he tells her they're out of town, and she feels even more trepidation but agrees to go anyway. We think we know where this is heading, but Hadley pulls off a few surprises (spoilers): After a glass of apparently pretty good wine, she leaves - and then we go into both of their minds, and see for the firsts time that the husband, since the bitter breakup, has dreamed of bring his ex into his new house, not a have sex w/ her or make up w/ her in any way but to show her what a success he's become: he was truly seducing her, but not in the way that we'd supposed or guessed. She, on the other hand, goes off into a rainy night, her ankle sore from their Underground collision (she never confronts him on this), and realizes, with some ambiguity, that she does not have what he has achieved but she is better off "free." As a slight twist at the end, for some off reason, husband doesn't get rid of the plastic carrier (with a jazzy top that she'd purchased?) but rather stows it away in a corner of his study - surely a dangerous act that may cost him later. His ambiguity, possibly his fetishism, gives the story another neat twist. The title, though? A reference to an opera based on the Aeneid in which she has a lead role - does it really fit this story? She's not about to burn herself on a pyre because her lover is heading off to establish Rome, right? I don't quite get the reference there, sorry.
Friday, August 5, 2016
Another of the sorrowful elements in John P. Marquand's The Late George Apley occurs as we see GA providing to his son some of same the narrow-minded, class-biased advice that his father had once passed on to him: he tells his son, another one who got into Harvard (and Harvard law) entirely on the basis of his family name and connections, that the most important thing about college life is the contacts you make - and they must be with those of "our" class - and the club you join. For GA himself, yes, that was true - but his complete inability to reach out to others has been a problem and hindrance throughout his life. As one character notes of him, he has spent his life caught in a mesh of his own making. He always seems to want to break away but is unable to do so, and instead of encouraging his son to broaden his horizons, to meet new people, to live a life of his own, he can't see beyond his class-bound blinders. Yet: in one poignant moment in their correspondence he tells his son very briefly about the love he once had for the young Irish-American girl, how he'd wanted to marry her - and we get the sense that this is part of the great longing, and the great failure, in his life. One of the mysteries of the novel is his friendship w/ his kindred soul and fellow bird-watcher, Clara - there's more than a hint that he was carrying on an affair with her over many years, tolerated by his dishwater wife, but on the other hand it's also possible that all he really needed was a friend and a sympathetic listener, which she has been for him. Perhaps more will come out about this by the end of the novel. Another note: his son goes off to war (World War I) though sees no action, and GA laments that there wasn't a war in his youth - and we have to think he's right, he would have been very well suited for the military life and that would have introduced him to a wide range of people and maybe changed him for the better.
Thursday, August 4, 2016
The drumbeat goes on, in The Late George Apley, as he moves into fatherhood and his inevitable disappointment in his son, who is withdrawn and saturnine. Apley in some ways wants his son to be in his own image, handsome and popular and a success by most measures. Yet he constantly struggles with his own self-doubt, realizing that whatever others feel and believe about him he sees himself as a failure, a man who has led an empty life of pretense and privilege. He should want something more, something different for his son, yet his imagination is so limited in scope that he can't let his son pursue his own course, all he can imagine is a life like his own. Marquand's great triumph in this novel is that he never stoops to sarcasm or condescension; though he is deeply critical of Apley and the life of social set, and though he uses irony through every page of this novel - the narrator, Willing, who belies his own narration, as every excerpt from Apley's correspondence undermines the hagiographic portrait Willing was hired to create, - he never makes Apley loathsome or evil; we truly feel sorry for the poor rich boy, recognize his failures and his crushed aspirations, see him occasionally at his best - trying for social reform, scoffing at those who pick on the weak, ever the dutiful son and husband and father.
Wednesday, August 3, 2016
The sorrow of the life of The Late George Apley continue, as Marquand's narrator, Willing, recounts Apley's purchase of Pequod Island, on one of the lakes in Maine, which he envisions as a camping retreat but that in a few years becomes a wilderness camp for his family, in-laws, and the Boston set - the very people he was hoping he could get away from, if only for a short time. As is typical of this novel, the narrator has no idea of the significance of the episodes in Apley's life and Apley himself, ever affable and pliant, just shrugs his shoulders and move on - this is what life's about, and he accepts it. Next Apley gets involved in politics, both "club" politics and city politics. Club first: a strange episode in which Apley stands up, for once, and opposes the admittance of a new member to the club on the grounds that he is entering in order to make business contacts and not for the purely social environment of this exclusive men's club. Hm, it strikes me that the guy he's trying (unsuccessfully) to black ball is joining the club because he brought a lot of NY business to the Boston banking world. Obviously there's a sense that Boston is old money - nobody really has to work too hard to make (or maintain) a living - and that NY is more about hustle and connections. Is there also a sense that the new member is Jewish? Apley takes a stand, but it's kind of a ridiculous battle to fight and he loses. Then he gets involved with a political committee formed to design the rebuilding of Comm Ave - a lot of $ involved in that - and he's appalled at the petty (or not so petty) corruption he sees - and none of the other committee members even listen to him, making it plain that he's there for show and image. So he becomes involved in a Save Boston reform movement - to the horror of his family, why should an Apley stoop? - but again there's a lot of ambiguity: On the one hand, yes, fighting municipal corruption is a noble cause, but also there's the sense that this is old Boston losing control to the rising Irish political class. The Boston Brahmins were corrupt in their own way - they're all about charity and so forth, but everything on their terms, and through their clubs, foundations, and institutions. The reform movement was as much about power as it was about ideals.
Tuesday, August 2, 2016
The template for the narrative structure of John P. Marquand's The Late George Apley goes something like this: the narrator, Willing (commissioned to write GA's life story), will introduce a section, say, the first years of married life, and will have some kind anodyne phrasing, such as, George experienced a few of the uncertainties of early married life, as all of us do from time to time, but everything worked out and his marriage was perfect (I'm exaggerating a little), and then he'll go on to recount the first years of GA's married life w/ similarly palliative expressions, but his account is always built upon documents and written records - letters, diary entries, for the most part - that completely belie the narrator's account - in this instance, a series of letter from father and father-in-law attesting to the mutual hatred and the bitter dispute about what to name the first-born son and after whose family. Other examples abound, some more innocuous - such as Willing's account of what he considers (or is paid to consider?) GA's brilliant writing, as he recounts GA develop a paper on the man transactions involving a small plot of Boston property, originally part of a farm, and he reads the account to his club and it takes an hour and 10 minutes - can you imagine the boredom? - but Willing describes it as a smashing success. several sorrowful and telling comments work their way to the surface, notably Apley's observation during young fatherhood that he's extremely busy with his office, clubs, charities, family - but feels he is racing to nowhere: he's a man who to all appearances is a great success but who finds his life hollow and empty, and that's because he's never lived his own life, it's been lived for him, predetermined by family and class.
Monday, August 1, 2016
The sad chronicle of the life of The Late George Apley continues as GA begins "studying" at Harvard Law School (he was at best around the middle of his class at Harvard College; wonder how people got into the law school, let alone the college, in those days?) and it's clear he has little aptitude for or interest in the law, or in business. His time in law school is mostly made up of joining various social clubs and dinner clubs, and the stern letters from his father praise him for making the right social connections and warn him against wild behavior. He needs a little wild behavior! In one very touching moment, GA's pals at law school play a prank and have one of social misfits sit on a strip of flypaper; GA simply says: That's not funny, gentlemen. He's truly a good guy, whose life is controlled by his miserable and narrow-minded parents - and the novel is exceptionally powerful because the narrator, Willing, is completely oblivious to the social forces that push and pull GA through life. He marries in their set a young woman whom it's pretty clear he doesn't love, and then he's in for a lifetime of control by her obtrusive parents. And they get him a job in a law firm where he can do no harm because he does so little - watching over a few boring trust funds and, I would guess, putting the right name and the right social veneer on the doings of the firm.