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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

Friday, September 30, 2016

Ian McEwan and the willing suspension of disbelief - and a gap in the education of the narrator

Your taste for Ian McEwan's new novel, Nutshell, will depend on far more than your willing suspension of disbelief - because we're not even talking here about accepting possible narrative but about throwing all expectations of realism aside and putting yourself in the hands of a narrator who is - a fetus. Talking about a concept novel (or conception novel)! We have to be willing to belief, for the sake of enjoying the narrative, that a fetus can not only reflect on its life in the womb but can absorb all of the conversation it (not sure if it's a he or a she) hears from the mom and her acquaintances and make sense of it - not in some childish, dawning way but with all the intelligence and perception and cultural knowledge of - Ian McEwan. So here we have a fetus that not only uses words like helical, for one example, but who also know cultural reference points - like Claude Debussy, for example, and is an enormous wine snob (as is McEwan, it would seem). So either resist it entirely or throw fate to the wind and just accept this nonrealistic premise - the ultimate What-Maisie-Knew novel. So what does this fetus overhear? A plot between the mother and her lover, and some strained and difficult conversations between the mother and the father during their "trial separation." I'm not going to give away the plot mechanism right now, in case you, dear reader, have not yet started this novel; in the next post on the novel I will give it away - but I suspect most readers will figure out what's going on in the first few pages - definitely by the end of the first few chapters. Suffice it to say for the moment that the unnamed fetus-narrator has a great deal of cultural knowledge but there's one work of literature that it has apparently never encountered.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Trollope's prescient narrator and some remarks on the conclusion to Barchester Towers

Yes, Trollope does bring Slope back for at least a cameo in the closing chapters of Barchester Towers - still think he missed a big opportunity to give Slope an exit scene - I'll be revenged on the whole lot of you! - but it's not that Trollope didn't recognize his mistake. His sly narrator is always a few steps ahead of the game, and in one of the concluding chapters he acknowledges the very flaw I discussed in yesterday's post: Novels tend to end w/ happiness and unity, and the evil and eccentric characters get pushed to the side, and he wasn't about to break w/ convention. Well, he should have - I think all readers will agree, all contemporary readers at least, that AT was spinning his wheels in the last chapters, tying the threads together and meeting his word quota for payment. All that said, BT is a pretty fine achievement - I think the less-read Dr. Thorne, the follow-up in the series, is probably even better - so at some point I will continue with the Barchester novels and I wonder what Trollope's prescient narrator would have to say about that.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Odious characters in Trollope and how Trollope squanders his resources

Who's more memorable - Iago or Othello? Shylock or Bassanio? We like the bad guys, the oddballs, the weirdos - at least we remember them. That's the main problem w/ Trollope's Barchester Towers: he creates a slew of truly odious characters, each distinct, each much more than cardboard villains because we can also sympathize with them and pity them (to a degree): the Bishop's officious wife, the narcissistic Signora, the self-centered Bertie Stanhope, and most of all the conniving and self-righteous Mr. Slope - but the problem is that, by the end of this long novel, the bad guys are pushed to the margin as the story focuses on the romance between Mrs. Bold and the (shy) Mr. Arabin - tied in with the (financial) salvation of the timid but morally upright Mr. Harding - in other words, this is a typical British novel of its time, with all of the (major) characters brought back into good graces and into the fold of society. But we don't care - and neither does Trollope, as he half-admits in one of his really cool narrative asides in which he apologizes for compressing into a day or two the courtship between Arabin and Eleanor Bold rather than drawing it out of months (and chapters). What held us through the novel wasn't Eleanor's plight but the personalities of the wicked, the eccentric, the hypocrites, the frauds (Dickens-like characters, but more rounded and complete). Now I have to say that, first, I have a chapter or two still to go so maybe T will bring some of them, or at least Slope, back on to the stage and, second, this is a six-part series - so maybe we hear from Slope again in a later volume (not in volume 3, however, which I read out of sequence). Too bad, for all his words, Trollope can tend to squander his resources.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Not to be churlish, but some significant reservations about story in current New Yorker

I don't want to be churlish about this but what about Petina Gappah's story A Short History of Zaka the Zulu makes it major- magazine publisher other than the fact that it's set in Central Africa? If this story were set at, say, an American boarding school circa 1980 it would seem trite and conventional, right? Everyone in the school (this story, like several other narratives of youth such as the Virgin Suicides, is written in the rare 1st-person plural, which gives a sense of universal truth and concurrence, all share the same perceptions and memories) dislikes the martinet senior proctor the eponymous Zaka and are surprised to learn in adulthood that he was charged with the murder of one of their classmates - and then, after several pages describing Zaka's intellectual prowess and several schoolboy shananigans, all pretty innocent by today's standards at least, we see Zaka in great servitude toward a less pre-possessing student - and then the narrator(s) recont meeting Zaka in the years after graduation, he's pretty much an apparition, and then the murder - and the facts behind the murder (I won't give it away, though I suspect you can figure it out or guess) clumsily recounted by a classmate years later at a reunion. OK, so the setting is what makes the story - I can grant that - we see relatively little African lit in American publications and even less in this kind of setting: a prestigious boarding school in what appears to be Uganda, a prep school for the boys who will become the nation's elite. Of course one of the many delights in reading is the possibility of experience a life far different from our own - and making sense of the what we share with other times and places, and what we don't. What would have made this story more powerful for me would have been some unique insight about this boarding school: there's not a moment of reflection about the political life in the country, the sense of privilege that the boys have, where they came from, where they are headed. The very familiarity of the setting and the behaviors may be the whole point of the story, but it leaves me thinking there's too much unsaid.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The meaning of "nothing" and other thoughts about the conclusion of The Sympathizer

Book group pretty much concurred yesterday that there were many fine things in Viet Tranh Nguyen's The Sympathizer - lots of material, lots of good writing, smart thinking about political movements and ideologies - and probably many things that could have been cut from this otherwise impressive novel: the imprisonment and torture section was hard to read, confusing, and too lengthy; the movie-set sequence seemed peripheral, to cite two examples. At LR said there were a lot of characters but most didn't really com to life; MR made the wise observation that they're not entirely characters - they are part of an allegory. Yes, that seems right, but an allegory for what? I suggested the obvious, that the unnamed narrator (sometimes called The Captain) is a representation of Vietnam, divided, torn between Europe and Asia, between capitalism and communism, between complicity with the enemy and resistance. Over the course of the novel I grew to appreciate more the portrayal of the insurrection - yes, it is believable that 100 or so right-wing exiled men would dream of returning to Vietnam and liberating the people from Communist rule - and if there were such a movement if would end in folly and tragedy, as in this novel. On the other hand I never quite bought into the narrator's devotion to the cause - would he really assassinate two innocent men, one of whom was his friend, just to keep up his cover as a spy? He never seems devoted to any cause - he seems like an outsider, and one who more likely would have settled into life in America and made his fortune. We spent a lot of time discussing the philosophical conclusion of the novel, in which the narrator realizes that "nothing" is more important than "freedom," and in a sense sheds both communism and imperialism and becomes a nihilist - yes, that's quite believable, that seems in line with his outsider status and his chilly indifference to others. If he makes it back to the U.S. as one of the boat people, he'll fit in just fine.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Guessing at the likely ending of The Sympathizer

Book group tonight to discuss Viet Tranh Nguyen's The Sympathizer and, gulp, I don't think I'll be able to finish reading the novel by this evening - but will say that I'm glad the novel  gets down to business at about the halfway point as the Vietnamese in exile in LA begin organizing into a platoon, under the leadership of The General, and that they're planning to invade Vietnam via Thailand (which will mean a crossing through Cambodia!) and liberate the country from Communist rule - this right after the conclusion of that bloody and pointless war. Was ever a mission of such folly attempted or even conceived (even the Bay of Pigs had direct and supposed backing of the U.S. govt.; this escapade has the backing, it seems, of only a rogue congressman). I'm glad the detour of this novel - the narrator's stint as an advisor on a film about Vietnam - is over with; it was colorful, but a distraction - one of the many false paths the narrative seems to follow. So what do I think will happen in the last 3rd of The Sympathizer: for all evidence, the narrator will be part of the invading force and captured and interrogated (this novel is, supposedly, his written confession) - but who arrests him and why or how? My guess he will be picked up as an American spy - in part because he worked so closely w/ American forces, also he's half-European (French). But there has to be more to it - perhaps he's betrayed by his supposed ally, Man, who will denounce him and not vouch for his status as a spy for the VC and the new Vietnamese government; and perhaps we will wonder, too, be the authenticity of his spying - maybe it's just a story he's concocted to deceive his captors?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Good Morning, Vietnam - Hollywood and The Sympathizer

Viet Tranh Nguyen's novel The Sympathizer does begin to get into the politics - the new VC government in Saigon concerned about an America/CIA-backed invasion or counter-revolution, as far-fetched as that seems to day and certainly completely out of touch w/ what was going on in the U.S. at that time, and the elderly Vietnam exiles fecklessly plotting a return to glory. If the narrator was a half-way decent spy he would have communicated to his handlers that Americans were entirely sick of Vietnam and in no way would ever get sucked into that quagmire again, but I guess that's the very point - he's not a good spy, he's a terrible spy who can't seem to do the right thing of convey accurate information. He keeps getting sidetracked into weird projects, and at the 1/3 point where I am, approximately, he's asked to read a screenplay about life in Vietnam, called The Hamlet (yes, we get the reference to a prince who can't make up his mind), which he finds - correctly, I'm sure - completely condescending to the Vietnamese people - and he tells the big-shot director so, in a pretty funny scene of clashing Hollywood egos. The director, however (not sure if he's based on anyone? FF Coppola maybe?), licks his wounds and ends up hiring the narrator as a consultant during six months of shooting in the Philippines, so off he goes - as the narrative veers onto another course. This story is rich with incident and with humor and w/ some startling strong passages; it's beset, though, by a complex story line, which I hope will cohere as the narrative progresses.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Trying to understand the forces at work in The Sympathizer, and thinking about Conrad

With surprisingly little affect, the narrator of Viet Tranh Nguyen's The Sympathizer pulls off the assassination of a fellow exile whom they suspect of being a spy - working in league w/ the newly established VC government in Viet Namh, even though he knows the he himself, the narrator, is the spy and the victim was an innocent dullard. All this raises, or perhaps begs, the question: why is all this so important? Why are these Vietnam exiles still either (a) working in secret for the new Communist government (i.e., the narrator, the eponymous Sympathizer - why can't he go back now that the movement he'd been secretly supporting is in power? Won't they recognize and accept him? Or is he more valuable as a plant in the U.S.?) or (b) plotting to overthrow the newly installed government. It seems that there is literally nothing they can do to change the course of history in their homeland, and of course the vast majority of Vietnam exiles quietly and effectively joined the American mainstream/ So I don't have a real grounding in what's going on - how the right-wing exiles are plotting (we don't see them do much but drink and sulk), why the VC should fear them, it's all a mystery. Some wonderful writing in various sections, but I keep wishing this novel were more Conradian (viz. The Secret Agent or Under Western Eyes) with real intrigue and high stakes.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Plot twists in The Sympathizer

As The Sympathizer moves along the unnamed narrator settles into his dismal life in LA, working as a clerk at a college, carrying on an unhappy affair with a colleague, an older woman, Japanese - we get the sense that there's no attraction or even liking there, just sexual satisfaction. The narrator makes a point of being a confirmed single guy - attributes that in part to the loneliness of his childhood and his outsider status as bastard son of a catholic priest. His "bachelorhood," to use an old term, puts him in the tradition of many noir detective heroes - but also makes him a difficult and less appealing character. We just don't know what makes him tick. We know he's a loyal spy for the VC, still communicating via an old friend who stayed in Vietnam with the new government and spying on Vietnamese exiles in the States - but why does he care so much? He doesn't seem like a man w/ values and ideals - more like a cynical, indifferent survivor, who would cut ties to the homeland rather than nurture them. And why is the new Vietnamese government so interested in the doings or exiles in the U.S.? Could that ragtag community really pose a threat? In any event, the narrator joins forces with the right-wing exiles, former military types, and gets involved in a plot to kill a supposed traitor (they know there's an informer among their group - but he steers them to the wrong guy; they don't know that the narrator's the informer - but will he have the capacity to assassinate the wrong guy? If he doesn't won't he be giving himself up?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Excellent account of the exile's life in the U.S. in The Sympathizer

The writing definitely picks up in chapter 3 of V T Nguyen's The Sympathizer, as he recounts the difficult evacuation from the U.S. embassy in Saigon. The narrator (unnamed?) is on what appears to be the last transport out - they're attacked by VC as they taxi toward takeoff, and we get a harrowing scene of confusion and carnage, leading to the death of the child of his best friend, Bon. The scene is cinematic - that could be good or bad - and really not very probable but it does kick this story into a higher gear. And then he's off, first to a holding camp in Guam, then to a camp in California, and then settled into a clerical job at a college (Occidental, I think) in LA, where he'd studied English and made some connections years back. At this point - he's in a small apartment and rooming with the desolate and traumatized Bon - we get a sense of the hardship of immigrants' lives, maybe especially those who were well off in their homeland (thinking of Andre Dubus III's fine novel about Iranians settled in California, can't remember the title). We also get some terrific writing from Nguyen - some passages are incantatory and read like prose poems. It seems, if these chapters are predictive, that he writes more powerfully and emotionally about the immigrant, exile life - in the States in this case - less so about life in Vietnam. Up to this point, we know that the narrator was a spy for the VC and that he believes his childhood as an outsider - born out of wedlock, his father was a Catholic priest, he was shunned by many - led him to adapt well to the life of a spy, but we don't know much (yet) about what specifically drew him to this life - much less about how his double-agent background will affect his postwar life in the U.S.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

History, or fiction?: Telling the story of the fall of Saigon

Started Viet Tranh Nguyen's Pulitzer-prize winning novel (how many times has it been thus described?), The Sympathizer, with high hopes and a lot of interest, being one who lived through those terrible war years but in a completely different country, different social and political sphere altogether - and who has written about that era and tried to recreate the feelings of conflict and fear and paranoia and loss and of something going on the world the seemed unique and epochal, and the music and art, all in an upheaval - so he's got a lot of material to work w/ and ground to cover. The first two or three chapters (long chapters - unusual in today's fiction) go over a lot of back story, material pretty familiar to many of us about the evacuation of Vietnam after the fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong - most recently seen in the Kennedy documentary about those days, Last Days in Vietnam (looked up title) and, for me, in the excellent play Viet Gone (coming soon to nyc). I found the first chapters full of lots of information but it almost seemed like a nonfiction account, the characters not yet emerging as distinct enough: the narrator (unnamed?) apparently writing his story as some kind of confession in a military prison (he addresses it to his "commandante") perhaps in today's Vietnam?, and he tells of his days as an aide to a Viet Minh general while he was actually a spy for the VC, and of his two best friends, blood brothers, Man and Bon, the former like the narrator in league w/ the VC and Bon a loyalist - the first chapters describe the machinations involved in engineering an escape from the collapsing city, the bribery, the connections, everything you'd expect - and of course for many - though not especially for the narrator - the leaving behind of family. Hoping that the characters emerge and grow more complex as the narrative develops. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

A comic conclusion, but not for all - in Barchester Towers

Nearing the end of Trollope's Barchester Towers, and it's interesting how this novel that started out to be about the politics of the 19th-century Anglican church (yawn) has evolved into a ... love story: which of the 3 eligible men will marry the widow Eleanor Bold? Well, Trollope in his peculiar way told us in an authorial aside hundreds of pages back that neither Slope nor Bertie Stanhope will marry her - so we've known all along it will be Arabin - yet Trollope still manages to get some great scenes out of this courtship drama: Eleanor telling Slope to go to hell and slapping him hard across the face; Bertie in a pathetic conversation telling Eleanor that his sister wants him to marry her so as to save the Stanhope family finances (he has never worked a day in his life nor does he intend to), and finally Eleanor summoned to meet with her some-time rival, the flirtatious Siognora Neroni, who surprisingly tells her not to be an idiot and to marry Arabin, that he truly loves her. So, yes, we're moving toward a traditional comic novel happy ending - for some, not for all, as in Shakespeare's comedies - with a lot of dark matter left in this universe: it appears that Harding will once again be turned away from the house and position he longs for, warden on the Barchester "hospital"; and it seems that Slope though frustrated in love is still on the rise: Anthony Powell must have thought of Slope when he created Widmerpoole in his Dance to the Music of Time, and I wonder if Faulkner thought of him also in creating the Snopes clan?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Authorial asides and diversions from the plot in Trollope

For all the strengths and quirks of Trollope's novels, and I've mentioned many in previous posts, you also have to recognize that these novels, by today's standards and probably even by those of the 19th century, are what I'd call "baggy" - lots of extraneous material, lots of sections that could an editor could tighten or cut altogether. Trollope was writing in serial format and paid by the page or word or installment, so it was not in his interest to rush the plot or make a virtue of concision. The Warden is a bit of an exception, a short novel for T., but Barchester Towers shows T at his best and his most wheel-spinning self indulgence (it may have been that at some periods when installments were due he had no idea where to take the plot so he took it on a tangent). In BT we therefore get, quite late in the novel, a long side trip into a grand party that the Thorne brother and sister throw for the near-entire populace of their village of Ullathorne. All the major characters do attend this event, and we do see their interactions - pushing forward, if ever so slightly, the courtship narrative of this strange novel - 3 suitors for the hand of the widow Eleanor Bold, two of whom are being let into temptation by the beautiful flirt Signora Neroni (the one not tempted by her is her brother, Bertie Stanhope) - but essentially this whole long chapter, or chapters, are a side channel in which Trollope can skewer some of the class prejudices of his time - much discussion about where to seat and entertain the guests, according to their rank - and to question with his wry authorial asides the whole practice of entertaining: not only is it hard work that everyone dreads to throw a big party, but nobody really likes to go to these parties, either, so why do we do this?, he asks. Good question - but let's get on with the story.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The non-niscient narrator in Rivka Galchen's story

Impressed w/ Rivka Galchen's story in current NYer, Can I Help You?, one of the rare stories to use the non-niscient narrator as a device: that's a narrator who's the opposite of omniscient but in fact knows significantly less than the reader does. The narrator here is a young woman who works as a supervisor in some type of call center - seems to be that the "resolve" disputes between the people and their medical-insurance companies. The narrator describes a difficult worker with bad spending habits, at least in the narrator's opinion. Only gradually do we learn that the profligate employee is the narrator's sister, and there's a whole history of family jealousy and dysfunction behind them. The more the narrator tells us about how she is trying to help her sister, the more we learn and understand about the narrator's callousness and, incidentally, about the horrors of working in this kind of modern-day sweat shop - a job that the narrator is perversely proud of: she likes to think that they're "helping people," one of the prime sources of happiness and satisfaction in life, but we can see around the edges of the narrator's knowledge that her company is paid essentially to move complaints along w/out resolution: this seems to be a story of two pretty much ordinary young women trapped in a George Saunders corporate dystopian world.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A slippery Slope, as the plot quickens in Trollope's Barchester Towers

The stakes get (a little) higher in Trollope's Barchester Towers as a high-level church position opens w/ the death of "the dean" (do we ever even learn his name? He's a minor character who plays no role whatsoever until he dies), and the odious Mr. Slope, sinecure to Bishop Proudie,starts maneuvering his way toward an appointment to that position: He half-convinces the Bishop that he would be the right choice. The Bishop has been feeling pretty terrible having crossed his termagant wife and sided w/ Slope on the appointment of Harding to be warden of the "hospital" (a very cushy and well-paid job with minimal responsibilities); this has led to a rift between Bishop and Mrs. Proudie - Trollope discretely opts not to tell us what went down between them when they retired to the bedroom - and now the Bishop is looking for a way to heal the rift. One way: he tells Slope he might consider himf or the appointment but that he needs Slope to back off on the Harding appointment and go w/ the candidate favored by Mrs. Proudie (guy named Quiverful, with 14 children). Slope quickly acquiesces; he doesn't give a damn about selling Harding down the river (he supported him only as a way to win the affections of his widowed daughter, Eleanor Bold - now he may not need her anyway, and he remains smitten w/ the beautiful Signora, a married woman no less). Don't we have a suspicion that Slope will get what he deserves, which is to say, nothing? Don't we have a suspicion that Mrs. Proudie will get her revenge? The plot quickens.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

How the ipad connects us with Victorian fiction

If you're looking up blog posts on Trollope you may note some of my earlier posts on him, particularly posts on one of his Palliser novels, Can You Forgive Her? - I think I'd tried reading Trollope before, but that was the first I'd tried in recent years, and I abandoned it a couple of hundred pages (that is, probably about 1/10th) of the way. You can see in those posts my frustration w/ Trollope, a complete inability to engage in his narratives, confusion, lost at sea. You can also see that about 2 years ago, urged on by friend and fellow writer AF, to try again - and I did, and really liked Dr. Thorne, the first T novel I'd ever finished reading, and now I'm on the 3rd Barchester novels (read a bit out of sequence). So what happened? It's not that the Barchesters are better than the Pallisers - I think they're pretty similar - and I don't think it's that I have changed. Strangely, I think in part it's a matter of mode: I've read the last 3 T novels on my iPad, and I find that to be a perfect mode for reading Trollope (or actually any of the Victorian novelists). First, the novels are public domain and therefore available at no cost - although admittedly they're poorly edited. Also, much lighter and easier to navigate - esp with the "search" feature - hugely valuable in any long novel but especially for Trollope, who does kind of overwhelm us with a deluge of characters at the outset and with very clipped intros to many of them, some of whom become important, others not - it's hard to tell at first. What I can do when reading on the ipad is make a fairly large # of notes (can't do that at all w/ library books, obviously) and many highlights as well: even highlighting the name of each character when introduced helps me to track what's going on in the early pages and build a better foundation for understanding ans the sinuous plots develop. In other words, the Victorian novels require more engagement - somewhat ironic that the older novels demand this more than the unconventional narratives of the Modernists, which are actually much easier to follow qua plot. Ipad reading for some may feel sterile and removed - and I too at times romanticize the heft of a book and the feel of paper, and of course the cover art, with us throughout the reading experience - but tablets, esp if you use notes and highlights - make us engage much more actively with the text; they enable us to reach across a full century and engage with once-obscure novels the size of paving stones.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Slpe in love

Slope in love (Barchester Towers) is sometimes hysterical and a great example of Trollope's sly sense of humor - he has this priggish, insidious underling to Bishop Proudie in a dilemma: whom to love? He would really like to marry the widow Eleanor Bold - she's got a 1,000 pounds a year! - but he finds himself smitten by the beautiful Signora, Dr. Stanhope's daughter, abandoned some time back by (but still married to) her no-good Italian husband. As Trollope reminds: a man who tries to sit between two stools will fall to the floor. So Slope writes a long letter to Eleanor trying so hard to strike exactly the right notes, proper and businesslike as to the sinecure he's trying to secure for her father but also showing affection - but not too much! - although he goes over the top in the really funny paragraph about her son (about whom he obviously cares very little) playing w/ her "tresses." If she has any sense at all she'll laugh aloud when she reads this letter. Meanwhile, as said letter is being delivered, he visits the Signor, finds her alone on her sofa (she's a self-declared invalid who must always sit on a sofa - today we'd probably call it a chaise - and be carried around by 3 servants). She flirts and teases mercilessly and gets Slope to declare his love for her - even though loving a married woman goes against all of Slope's rigid, almost Puritanical preaching - a complete fool and hypocrite, in that it's completely obvious to all readers that the Signora is playing with him, like a child who is cruel to a pet. Trollope give a great account of Slope taking hold of the Signora's hand: like a rose in the hand of a carrot! We can see where he's headed and it couldn't happen to a less likable man: he's like a venomous and conniving Malvolio.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

How to make readers care so much when the stakes are so low - Trollope's fiction

Trollope's Barchester Towers is pretty much a case study in how to make the readers care so much when the stakes are so low. Would you ever think you could get engaged for a minute with a plot like this (let's see if I can lay out the bare outline): Slope, the insinuating churchman, advances in stature by aligning himself with Bishop Proudie's wife and being a strict believer in Sabbath observance; at the Bishop's request he goes to Harding, who used to be the Warden of the local poorhouse (a cushy and remunerative job) and offers Harding the job back; when the Bishop's wife interferes, though, he backs her in her plan to give the cushy job to another minister, Quiverful (!), who lives in poverty trying to raise his 14 (!) children. But things change: Slope breaks from Mrs. Proudie and decides he wants to marry Hardin's widowed daughter, so he goes back and promises the job to Harding, then goes to Quiverful and tells him to back off. When Q's wife brings the issue to the Bishop and Mrs. Proudie, it leads to a big confrontation - Mrs. P tells Slope to get lost, Slope tells the Bishop - about the most feckless man in literature - to bar his wife from interfering in church business. For the moment, the Bishop sticks w/ Slope (and Harding) - but we know this won't last, as Slope has made an enemy of the powerful Mrs. Proudie. Got it? And why should we care about 19th-century church politics? Well, we don't - but Trollope engages us with the characters, and with their ways of speaking and thinking. In other hands, this would be a novel about global politics or some topical domestic struggle, but Trollope seems to delight in making his novel entirely provincial and overcoming our resistance, engaging us even though we actually care very little about the outcome - just about the process.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Why Trollope's narration is different from the "omniiscient" narrator

Sorry to perseverate (?) on this topic but Trollope's Barchester Towers just seems to continually raise questions and pose problems regarding the "omniscient" narrator. There's a dichotomy here: Trollope's 3rd-person narrator is indeed omniscient, not only knows all the facts of the story but obtrudes at times w/ his own voice, offering commentary on the story and at one point giving away - stating well in advance of the narration, that is - some key plot developments (Eleanor will never marry Slope, Dear Reader...). So the omniscient narrator is not some all-pervasive and immaterial narrative God - the narrator is much less than a God, in fact less than a first-person narrator who is really just a character in the story give voice - but the Trollope narrator is - Trollope. It makes sense that the author-as-narrator would arise in Victorian fiction, 2nd half of 19th century, which - a JH Miller wrote in his famous critique - was the epoch of the disappearance of God - replaced by science, business, the humanities. In a Godless age, the novel creates the godlike narrator in his own image, so to speak. By chance, an interesting piece in current NYTRB on narrators and narration - describing a reading at which a young person in the audience found the very idea of an ominscient narrator "spooky" (was referencing a novel, Everything I Never Told You, in which the narrator is reflecting back on past events - he or she knows all the details and the events were long ago). That's not surprising as literature now is dominated by first-person narration or the old-fashioned omniscient narrator who "disappears" in the work (the author of the NYT essay rightly summons Flaubert on this point: the narrator must be everywhere and nowhere - to me, that is the ideal of fiction), but there are few Trollope-like narrator as author books appearing recently - the author of the essay recalls Fates and Furies, for ex., in which the author speaks to us occasionally in brackets, the text separated from her narration. It's not exactly that Trollope's narrator is omniscient - it's that his narrator knows everything the author (Trollope) knows, but no more.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The most famous paragraphs in Trollope: Writing is hard

Part of the fun in reading Trollope is the strong personality and presence of the narrator - quite unusual for a third-person narrator to be so confidential w/ the reader. Noted in yesterday's post on the most unusual paragraph in all of Trollope how he steps aside from his own narration to comment on the story in progress - telling us that Eleanor will not marry the evil Slope nor the feckless Bertie Stanhope - and then ruminating for a few paragraphs on why that kind of information should not affect our engagement w/ the story, why readers are too involve in the minutia of plot and thereby miss the whole meaning and significance of the literary work. A little further on in the story he has another smart and rueful aside to his readers: as he's about to introduce a new and seemingly significant character, Arabin - and we're already about a third of the way through the novel - T talks about how difficult it is for authors to create literary characters: We know and perceive them so well in our minds, but how do you put that knowledge and understanding into words, how do you make them real, he asks. Is it by dialog, interior monologue, interaction with other characters, the back story, physical description? These are issues that have beset every writer who's ever taken a hand at a story or a novel, and they always will, and the solutions are infinite, but infinitely elusive. As Trollope concludes - in words succinct and true - writing is hard.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Coover story and today's U.S. politics

Old Friend Robert Coover has a story in the current New Yorker, The Invasion of the Martians, that recalls some of Coover's best, early work - riffing on American politics like his most famous novel, The Public Burning, and even going back earlier: who else remembers his great story  The Cat in the Hat for President? That story showed how a character speaking in anomalies could generate national support (the book and movie Being There took on the same theme and got more attention); today, that feels nostalgic: we only wish the candidates spoke vapidly. In fact, one of them is all too clear in his hateful messenging, and the Martian story picks up on that theme - it's by no means a roman a clef about the current election, but the connections are pretty obvious. The story is about sexually crude Texas Senator who learns of a Martian invasion in his home state and who shows up on the scene to annihilate the invaders; in reaction, they hit him w/ a ray of some sort that has the effect of destroying his "masculinity" and leaving in its place an itching blister. Yecch. The Senator is pressured to go on air live to show the nation that he still has his stuff and, with the aid of a prosthetic penis and balls, he does so. So you can see the allusions to Trump's sowing of fear and hatred and his crude sexual boasting. The story ends pretty abruptly, and I wish Coover had made more of it - what happens after the big reveal? What is the Senator's fate? The nation's? - but it's an amusing send-up of U.S. politics in its present sorry state.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Trollope's famous disdain for plot

In what is certainly the must famous or at least the most unconventional paragraph in Trollope or maybe even in 19th-century literature, about a third of the way through Barchester Towers Trollope tells us in so many words: Don't worry, this character is not going to marry the odious Mr. Slope. This brings any reader up short: what, the author is creating his own spoilers? Who would do that? But T goes on in this paragraph (or maybe it's 2 grafs) to disparage authors who care too much about plot and scoffs at readers whose joy on their reading would be quashed if the plot details were foretold rather than simply foreshadowed. OK, well readers do like plot, and that's especially so for readers of genre fiction (mystery - which are entirely dependent on the mechanisms of plot) and romances (half the fun is figuring out how the characters will happily pair off at the finale). But what about literary fiction? Trollope's observation about his own peculiarities as a writer (and reader) seem fair and on point to me; as I've noted in several recent posts, we don't read T for his lot or narrative: how could anyone today possibly give a damn about a dispute involving 19th-century Anglican church doctrine? The stakes were low then, and lower now. In Trollope, what keeps us engaged is not how much we care about these matters but how much the characters do - the plot is simply like Hitchcock's "McGuffin," a device to animate the characters of the novel. His novels are about people and relationships, not about events, crises, or even ideas.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Trollope's minor characters

Trollop introduces the Stanhope family in Barchester Towers. You'd think scams like this work only in America, but in this family the father is a minister responsible for one of the churches in Barchester county. At one point he traveled to Italy for his health - he had a "sore throat"! - and he and the family just decide to stay there - for 12 years! Not doing any work whatsoever for the church but still drawing his salary. Trollope describes the family as the most self-centered, narcissistic grouping of people in the world. They enter the story as the new bishop - generally an odious and feckless person but he's right on this point - orders them to return home. We meet them - or at least the 2 youngest of his children, completely self-centered 20-somethings - as they are invited to a big party that the Bishop Proudie throws for all the important people in Barchester (his conniving, social climbing wife convinces him that he must entertain - which of course means new dishes, silverware, everything). The daughter who was briefly married to a  ne're do well Italian guy is a self-declared invalid. She injured her knee and decided she will never walk again, which makes her the center of attention wherever she goes; at the party, she insists that they prepare and set aside a sofa just for her use, for ex. The son, Ethelbert or Bertie, has no interest in ever earning a living - like the sponger in Dickens's Bleak House - but he's not a comic character - he's a truly unlikable character, not liked by us, not liked by anyone outside of his family. He spends his time at the party blurting out inconsiderate and ungracious questions and observations, insulting his hosts, and asking strangely provocative questions about "the Jews" (he had traveled to Palestine to convert the Jews but ended up converting himself - and then reverting). Not sure what role this family will play in the narrative - probably not a major one - but another example of how Trollope drives his story forward by creating complex characters - even the minor characters go beyond caricature and satire.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Plot and character in Trollope and elsewhere

The miserable Mr. Slope preaches a sermon arguing against the use of music in Anglican church services, which sets off a huge public debate in Barchester. Hard to believe, in today's terms, and had to believe this would be of interest to any contemporary reader; yet, as noted yesterday, Trollope keeps us engaged because we understand, recognize, and know about the characters - his great description of Slope, with his face the color of roast beef (in England, I guess that would be gray? or grey?) and his moist, clammy hands; and of course the honorable but unfortunate Warden, Mr. Harding, who is led to believe he will regain his abandoned post as the churchman in charge of the "hospital" (home for the aged, we would call it today) - and we know that obviously he desires will once again be thwarted - he's up against much more serious and unprincipled antagonists. What Trollope is getting at, what he's demonstrating in this novel (and others) is that you can write a great narrative about almost any conflict - as long as there is a conflict, that it comes to resolution, and that the characters propelling (or propelled by) the action are "round" and complex, not props or puppets (they can, I guess, be caricatures, if the author has the right comic touch, e.g., Dickens). This goes back to discussion of the importance of plot: readers like, even demand, plot - but plot is not what makes a novel great or otherwise (exception being certain genre writing, sci fi and mystery, e.g., which are more plot-dependent than literary fiction); we remember plot, plot is the string we pull on when we try to bring once-read novel back into our consciousness, but it's rarely what made the novel worth reading (and remembering) in the first place.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Can a novel about 19th-century church politics still be of interest?

Starting Trollope's Barchester Towers and it really helps to have recently finished reading The Warden, as BT picks up sometime after The Warden ended and the complex back story would be hellacious for someone starting BT fresh. BT is about the next generation of the leaders of the Anglican church in the fictional town or county of Barchester. The kindly Bishop Grantly has died and his snooty and priggish son, Archdeacib Grantly, expects to be appointed to fill his father's shoes but as his father is dying the government is in an upheaval and the PM gets dumped and the new PM passes over Grantly jr and puts in an outside who becomes Bishop Proudie. As I understand it Proudie is a liberal on some church doctrine but under the influence of his protege and sidekick, The Reverend Slope, he becomes a proselyte and fanatic on the issue of sabbath observance. Is there anything more selfish and pointless, and in fact more self-serving than that? Of all the issues and cares in society, that's what the church will now focus on: making sure nobody rests or has fun on Sunday but that the entire day is about devotion. OK, great for the church leaders - build up your own business and prestige - but what about the poor workers in factories and fields, not to get a moment's pleasure on the day of rest? Naturally, Grantly, despicable as he was in The Warden, becomes Proudie's gravest antagonist, so this time he's on the right side of the moral equation. Hard to believe a novel about church politics will hold my interest for 800 pp., but then again Trollope tells his stories through people, through characters, so even if the dispute in hand doesn't matter a whole lot to 21st-century readers it's kind of fun to watch these opponents fight it out to the death.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Janet Frame's last novel - narrative standing in place

You know when you read a Janet Frame novel you will get nothing conventional, straightforward, or ordinary - she was consistently pushing the edges of narrative, trying new forms and structures, all to the good. I enjoyed a few weeks back reading her first novel, Owls Do Cry, essentially the story of her childhood and of her siblings, but told in fragmented form - owing a debt to Faulkner, Woolf, and Joyce - but the mashing of styles worked effectively as an embodiment of her own troubled, confused mind: much of the narrative was about her time confined against her will in a mental hospital, where she was bombarded with electro-schock therapy. For the past 2 days I have been trying to read her last novel, The Carpathians (1988), but even with these forewarnings have found the book extremely difficult to engage with - not only because of the peculiar narrative structure but also because it seems devoid of energy and excitement. In short, it's a novel about a wealthy woman from NYC who decided to leave home for a few months to leave her husband free to finish the novel he's writing; she rents a house in remote NZ (Puamahara - is that a real town?) and decided to do "research," getting to know each of the families on her ordinary street. One might think that this will lead to a Sherwood Anderson-like portrait of life in a small town, each family w/ its own agony; but for me, unfortunately, none of the family stories quite develops into anything substantial - there's even a murder on the street, and Frame does nothing to build out that narrative possibility. Her main interest, as a writer, seems to be to build an elaborate postmodern web of authorial identity and mis-identity: who is writing this novel? We would suspect it would be the NYC woman, Mattina, but it's also hinted that these are the musings of one of the people on the street whom she meets, a would-be writer who leaves Mattina a manuscript (this manuscript?) in which she argues that everyone on the street is an "imposter," whatever that means. But then - there's an "author's note" at the outset signed with 3 initials that lead us to believe Mattina's son, John Henry, wrote this novel upon the death of his mother. On top of, or beneath, all this there are several chapters and numerous references to something called the "Memory Flower," part of some Maori legend concerning the village and honestly I could not understand this at all. Frame's problem may be that she at heart is a memoirist and not a writer w/ any great facility for creating plot and narrative, so her work when it leaves the personal angst of her life seems to stand in place.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Powerful memoir by Mai Donohue that somehow had to be self-published - why?

Been reading a self-published memoir by friend Mai Donohue, Crossing the Bamboo Bridge: Memoir of a Bad-Luck Girl, and I'm actually startled that this book was not picked up by a commercial publisher, as it seems to have everything going for it: a terrific personal narrative of a woman who overcame incredible adversity to emigrate to the U.S. and build a life w/ a terrific family and contribute to her community in many ways. Mai was born in rural South Vietnam about 70 years ago and lived her entire youth amid various wars - which she recounts from the point of view of a villager. Death happened all the time, and the villagers were continuously threatened and intimidated by the rival forces, Viet Minh and Viet Cong (the latter come off as smarter and more humane). But this isn't a political narrative, it's a personal narrative that is both unique in its particulars but universal in what many women, especially 3rd-world women and girls, experience and endure (to this day). Mai, despite her obvious intelligence and ambition (she hoped to become a school teacher) was pulled from school, engaged against her will to an unpleasant "first son" from a nearby village, and she endured beatings and humiliation in her early married years until she was brave enough to go off on her own and escape to Saigon (leaving a sickly son behind). The journey by bus to Saigon is in itself worth reading. That's about as far as I've gone to the this point, but knowing Mai's story, as so many in this town do, we know she met an American naval officer, fell in love, married, became a U.S. citizen, and has had a long career in education in the U.S. Book is from Stillerwater River press.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Conrad + 1 century: Lethem's Singapre story

Not enough to go on in the current New Yorker short fiction, A Gentleman's Game, by Jonathan Lethem, obviously an excerpt from his forthcoming novel - the piece involves three American guys whose paths cross in an upscale, private casino in Singapore; the main character, Bruno, is a pro gambler, and he spots an old high-school acquaintance wandering into the den, looking very un-hip and out of place. The story concerns their re-connecting, an awkward fashion - the uncool guy turns out to be pretty wealthy - so we're set up for a story in which he'll be an easy mark for the pro gambler. In the background, Bruno's con-artist partner, Falk, another American drifter whose role, it seems, is to set up big gambling opportunities. Bruno's game of choice is cribbage - who knew? The piece ends, sort of, with a big match between Bruno and an Asian investor. So the problem with this excerpt is that there's not much atmosphere, and not much action. You expect that Lethem will show us these big matches, will build some tension - as Ian Fleming could do, to site a major influence on the genre and on this story - but most of the story concerns drinking, a tour of Singapore (mostly, hotel bars - boring), and back story - none of it enough to make any of these characters memorable or distinct (from one another, or from anyone else for that matter). The idea I suppose is that this is the non-Bond Bond - a bunch of ordinary schmoes for whom gambling is an occupation, not a romance or diversion - and a Conrad + 1 century: these are the European drifters in SE Asia that Conrad romanticized (and comprehended) in any # of novels or stories, most notably Lord Jim and Victory, I guess. They're no longer romantic, and they might as well be anywhere - Singapore, in this excerpt anyway, could be Tokyo or for that matter Los Angeles. I'd have to read more to really know but these seem to be people Lethem knows from his reading, not from his life.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Many burdens: Learning from even a bad novel

Klaus Mann's intelligent, significant, but in the end (well, I probably won't get to the end) bad novel, Mephisto, is still worth reading if for no other reason than to see what makes a potentially good novel so bad. The novel is significant and still of some interest because it's an inside look at the culture of Nazi Germany and it's also an inside look at the Mann family, about which we're interested primarily, maybe solely, because of the great works (and the complex mind) of Klaus's father, Thomas. Klaus gives it a go, but despite rich subject opportunities this novel falls dead flat because none of the characters "comes alive" - meaning, we have no sense of their interior life, their way of thinking about themselves and others. They are just a bunch of words driven by the necessities of plot. Potentially: awesome - an aspiring actor in1920s Germany sells his soul; in order to succeed in the world of stage drama, he becomes a Nazi collaborator and ultimately a friend of Goring. Even better, he marries Thomas Mann's daughter (the author's sister), and the names have been changed apparently not much else changed - leading to a massive lawsuit against Klaus, apparently. But why can't he develop these characters through action, through dialog, and through access to their consciousness? Few novels are better exemplars of the dictum show, don't tell: K Mann spends an entire chapter recounting the early career of actor - Hendrik Hofgen - how he came to a regional theater and dazzled with his wide range of performance, how he was troubled and moody and subject to fits of rage, how he was torn between his violent love affair with a black prostitute and the sudden new love for K Mann's sister (real name, Erika) - but none of this is "shown," it's all just told - as if this were a 300-page outline for a novel. K Mann would have been better off writing a memoir, or a family autobiography (as did T Mann, btw) - but perhaps K Mann just didn't have it in him, just didn't have the talent - either to invent or to confess. Sad - being the son of a Nobelist isn't life's heaviest burden, but it's probably enough to crush a budding novelist - and he had many other burdens to carry in his short, sad life as well. I feel for him, but won't finish reading him, either.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Mann Overboard - Wishing Mephisto were a better novel

Klaus Mann's 1936 novel, Mephisto, set among the "intelligentsia" of Nazi Germany, is important, brave, historic, controversial and, despite all that, I wish it were, well, better. How can you not give K Mann credit for overcoming the ridiculous expectations of famous father Thomas and for standing up to his horrific bro-in-law, telling truth to power in Nazi Germany from a position of maybe not so safe exile - it's a great thing that he wrote this novel, that he lived to see it publish, and, despite all the controversy - a complicated lawsuit from his ex bro-in-law who claimed the novel defamed him (ha! - imagine that, defaming a Nazi sympathizer and collaborator) - to go on with his difficult, short life and to continue writing. But much of this I learned from the short preface and the jacket copy on the edition I'm reading. The novel itself is really pretty dull and drab - long conversations amongst various theater folk, very gossipy, probably much more interesting at the time of publication when readers caught all of the allusions and references (the novel is very much a roman a clef) but today it's hard to follow, hard to engage. K Mann is telling the story of what I learned is his ex bro in law, an aspiring actor w/ stage name Hendrik Hofgen (I think?) who collaborated w/ the Nazis to advance his career - bad decision! - and anyone whose read Blood of the Walsungs or Disorder and Early Sorrow, T Mann's account of his family including his children, will get that K Mann had a weirdly close relationship w/ sister Erica (?) who married the actor represented by HH - so there's all kinds of autobiographical strains in Mephisto - if only Mann could bring these tensions to life. I will give the novel more time, but find it to this point stale, flat, unprofitable.