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

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

Monday, October 31, 2016

Why Eliot is like other Victorian-era novelists - and why she isn't

It wouldn't be a 19th-century British novel without: a mysterious woman shows up out of nowhere and warns the heroine that she should not proceed with marriage plans, says she was formerly the engaged to the scoundrel and he's fathered her two children - who should be his rightful heirs! Without: a handsome wealthy orphaned nephew of a titled gentleman learns or at least suspects he's not the gentleman's nephew but his son out of wedlock and he should be an heir to the title (and fortune), not the so-called "legitimate" sons. Yes, George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, pace its many quirks and innovations that set it apart from the typical Victorian potboiler or tearjerker or polemic rant, is still in some ways very much of its age. Looking for moment at the first instance: Yes, the heroine, Gwendolen, is warned not to proceed w/ her plans to marry the wealth Grandmountain (or whatever his name is) - and in receipt of this warning she takes off from home and heads off to the Continent with some friends of the family (leading us back to the point where the narrative began with Gwendolen carelessly gambling like a wealthy person, which she is not, and attracting the attention of Deronda). But here's the difference that Eliot makes in her use of this convention: Gwendolen doesn't go off heartbroken, and she hasn't left behind the man of her dreams, as might happen in an Austen novel, for ex. She was uncertain and even somewhat cynical about her plan to marry GrandM - she'll marry him not because she loves him but because his wealth can buy her independence. Her ambivalence, her ambiguity, and her forthright confidence in her presence and her beauty make her a much more complex character than we see elsewhere in Victorian fiction - a "round" character, and not at all a "type."

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Character, didacticism, and the narrative consciousness in Daniel Deronda

As part 1 of Daniel Deronda builds and concludes, we find ourselves definitely in Austen territory - in fact it's almost impossible not to think of Pride and Prejudice, as Eliot unfolds the narrator of the new rich young guy coming into the area where he's bought a mansion to use as his outpost for hunting and sports - and everyone in the area wondering who's going to catch him in marriage. The difference here tho is that instead of the wise Liz Bennet and her beautiful and kindly sister, Jane, we have the sharp-tongued, superproud Gwendolen Harleth who's sure she's better than everyone else (she probably is) in everything but fortune (and lineage) - two big things. Her cousin Rex falls in love with her and she rebuffs him, sending him into a terrible depression - he more or less drops out of Oxford and plans or at least threatens to head off for the wilderness of Canada (his sister Anna, Gwendolen's only friend, says she'll go w/ him); his father wisely suggests he not do anything rash - he's obviously very immature and inexperienced regarding women and love. The section ends with the town-wide archery competition - of course Gwendolen wins, showing up the music teacher who dared to criticize her singing - she definitely holds a grudge - and the new guy in town notices her beauty and bearing and asks to be introduced to her, and there the section ends. Friend WS (not Will Shakespeare) suggests that I read Leavis on Eliot, which I will after I finish DD: apparently he argues it's a great but flawed novel, a terrific character study but at times entirely didactic. Haven't gotten yet to the didactic part, but agree that at least the character of Gwendolen is vivid, a "round" character, as Forster would have it - but all that said I think I probably read Eliot as much for her aphorisms, for her own authorial intelligence, which none of her characters can quite match - they all are her consciousness in part, but the narrator's consciousness supersedes all.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The many unanswered questions in Daniel Deronda

Looked back to first chapters to get better clarity on the time scheme of Daniel Deronda and, yes, it does appear that after the initial plot event - Gwendolen (Harleth?) learning that her mother (and uncle?) have lost all their money leaves her European jaunt and heads back to England - the novel takes a step back and we see Gwendolen about year or two previous when her family of 6 moved in w/ her uncle's family, the Gascgoignes, in a rectory in Wessex. We see in these chapters that Gwendolen is a spoiled brat and she comes in and takes the small town by storm - she draws everyone's attention at the provincial parties and dances, and she's quick-witted and even fresh, like Sh's Beatrice in some ways, completely free of maternal control and conventional manners. I'm still trying to puzzle out her family history: it seems her mother and aunt inherited a great fortune from their mysterious parent or grandparent who "amassed" the fortune through trade w/ India. It also seems her mother was married to a sailor who was seldom at home - Harleth, I think - not sure if he died or how that ended, but she remarried, so the 4 or 5 younger sibs are Gwendolen's half-siblings. It seems also that her stepfather was mean, maybe even abusive? She pointedly asks her mother why she chose to remarry, and her mother is brusque and cold in her response, closing off that topic forever (and leaving us a bit in the dark as well). That marriage ended, too - another death? - and that's when the family moved in w/ the uncle, obviously a tremendous strain on his finances. It's a very odd novel so far, or I'm a very inattentive reader (more likely), but there is so much hinted at w/ so little information in these early chapters: abuse, death, illicit earnings. I also know from what I've read and heard about this novel that it's in large part about Zionism, maybe about Judaism as well - I assume the eponymous Deronda, whom we met in the first chapter as he is infatuated with the reckless Gwendolen, is the Jewish figure, but Eliot has not touched on this, at least through the first 6 or so chapters.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Some confusion about Daniel Deronda and an extremely selfish character

I'm going to have to go back and re-read part of an early chapter because I'm not sure about the time sequence in Daniel Deronda - I know that the lead character, Gwendolen, after wasting time and $ at the roulette table gets a message from her mother back in England that the family finances are ruined, and she takes off by train for home. Then we're in a chapter where Gwendolen and her mother (and 4 younger sisters who seem entirely peripheral) move into a house with their in-laws, including a young woman Gwendolen's age and two brothers also near her age and potential suitors, though the families don't want that to happen. She seems much younger, though, in these scenes and I wonder if this is a flashback to an earlier family re-location? In any event, these scenes establish Gwendolen as self-centered, selfish young woman: She opines that she'd love to ride horses, and uncle, who will now be supporting this additional family of 5 or so on his income as a parish priest, demurs, fearing he can't afford a horse for her, he offers a pony, but she says she detests ponies, and so forth - she has not a clue about the family circumstances and not a care about the needs of others and not a bit of gratitude for the family taking her in; she will get what's coming to he, no doubt.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

First impressions of Daniel Deronda

I've read only a the first 50 or so pages - about one one-thousandth of the novel, or so it appears - of Eliot's Daniel Deronda and my first impression is that this does not seem like a George Eliot novel at all. Did I get the wrong ibook? It begins in a casino, w/ a young femme fatale (Gwendolyn?) recklessly playing roulette (a sucker's game, but kinda fun) and observed with great interest by the eponymous Deronda, a tall handsome sort. Have we somehow wandered into Le Carre or Ian Fleming territory? You knew that G. Eliot was such a player? I associate her work with squires and thanes and parish priests, but there you go. Then the novel takes a sudden jolt as the spendthrift Gwendolyn (if that's her name, I can't remember) gets word that her mother has lost the entire family fortune and she heads back to England - and at that point we pick up (I think) with she, mother, and sisters settling into a new, modest rental house in "Wessex" (I thought that county was exclusive to Hardy - another surprise). So now we're in a different kind of English literary sub-sub-genre: a group of attractive sisters fall on hard times and have to step down on the social scale (obviously an important theme and a great fear women rightly held a century+ ago, as they had no control of family finances and no ability to earn a living) - although to modern readers the circumstances don't seem all that straitened - as they continue to employ servants (like to see this told from the servant's POV): Sense and Sensibility, Howards End, maybe some others? It will take a while before this narrative takes shape, but Eliot is extremely smart and trenchant and sketches in her main characters deftly. Will keep reading, more to come.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Lost patience with Marias's A Heart So White. Why?

What yesterday seemed a torrent of words as the narrator of Javiar Marias's A Heart So White recounts in a series of multi-page paragraphs the odd events that occurred on his honeymoon as he and wife, Luisa (?), overhear a lover's spat in an adjacent hotel room has become on my 2nd (and last) night of reading this novel not a torrent but a cement wall - pages andp ages of narration about events that to my mind don't cohere and don't build a story. We get a very long chapter in which the narrator describes how he met his wife: they are both translators, and he was assigned as an interpreter and translator for a private meeting between the PM of Spain and, apparently, Margaret Thatcher; Luisa, also a translator, was assigned as the "net" to monitor the narrator's translation and step in if there are egregious errors. There are, as the narrator has a little fun distorting and editing some of the conversation - which remains small talk and never gets into any diplomatic issues, in any event, and Luisa lets his deliberate errors go unchecked, forging a bond between them that will endure. OK, so if you read this chapter with close attention it's pretty funny, but then follows another dense chapter and another and at last I felt entirely oppressed by this self-conscious narration and lack of clear design or even plot momentum. Obviously, I'm wanting something from this novel that it's not going to deliver; Marias, like so many European novelists of the late 20th century, is interested in narrative doubles, self-referential narrative, high-level irony, and technical dexterity - books to be studied, perhaps savored by some, but not by me; that said, I did read his (most recent?) novel, The Infatuations, a few years back (posted on this blog) and found it compelling and provocative - like this one it began w/ a sensational act and then settled into a slow narration - but not nearly as slow and obscure as this one, and its story centered on this single sensational event - a shooting if I remember - and everything developed around that act, while this one is all over the place: we see a suicide in the first scene but 90 pages later there's been no further reference to that event, for just one example.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A challening, typically European novel by Javiar Marias

Read and was impressed by a Javiar Marias novel a few years back - a difficult and eminently European (Spanish, in this case) author - nothing is as it seems, self-consciousness is all, the unexamined life is not worth writing about - and when I saw he was one of the consensus picks for this year's Nobel - sorry, Javiar, but the best person won - thought I'd read more of his work and have started what I think was his 2nd novel (at least into English translation) from the early '90s, A Heart So What (S. allusion there, as the epigraph reveals). Again, from the first 50 pp. or so, we can see that it's a difficult novel - lots of type on big pages with only rare paragraph breaks - meant to capture - and does capture - the rolling, inquisitive, consciousness of the narrator: we don't narrate our lives to ourselves in paragraph breaks; "stream of consciousness" is not exactly the apt metaphor, at least not in this case (nor my own I think) but more like a rush, a torrent, a waterfall of consciousness. OK so it's not the most accessible novel in the world - neither was the other one I read, can't even remember the title, it's in the blog index to the right of these words - but what keeps it going is the plot unfolding beneath the narrative torrent. This novel starts with a bang, literally - a young woman shoots herself in the heart in the midst of a family dinner; they're a formal and upper-crust Madrid family, ca 1950, the woman who kills herself has just returned from her honeymoon - and her husband, as we soon learn, was widowed from a first marriage. Hm. In 2nd chapter we just toward the present; the narrator - who recounted for us the dramatic events of ch. 1 - is the nephew of the woman who shot herself - I forget the exact family connection - and he describes the early days of his marriage. What's truly striking and weird is his very dark sense of what marriage entails: surrendering your identity and individuality to your spouse, someone who once you're married you can never escape from: most would not describe marriage thus, or at least not a happy and successful marriage. We go back to his own honeymoon, a very awkward and unloving one it seems, spent partly in Havana - during which a woman sees him standing in his hotel balcony and yells at him, believing him to be a man w/ whom she has a planned tryst; the man she was meeting, it turns out, is in the adjacent room, and narrator (and his wife) overhear not only their love-making but also a plan to kill his wife, who is back in Madrid - if she even exists at all - she may be just a fiction he makes up to prevent his marrying the woman he's w/ in Havana. In a weird way we begin to see that the man in the adjacent room is a double for the narrator - whose job, by the way, is as a translator (his wife's too), which has a lot of connotations: translating one life, one time, one event into something else, one person into another, life into art, dross into gold. This edginess to the story makes the challenge worthwhile - at least up to a point. We'll see as we move on.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Tying Gatsby's conclusion to the long-forgotten opening paragraphs

Let's jump back to the beginning of The Great Gatsby. As noted a few days ago, probably not one reader in a thousand can quote the opening line - so much happens and there's such beautiful writing throughout this great novel that by the time we finish we don't exactly recall where it all began, and that's in part because the opening is prosaic and it involves advice that Nick Carraway's father gave to him long ago - and why should we remember? Nick's father has no role in the novel at all and is barely mentioned after the first page (if at all), and Nick himself is the perfect narrator but not a actor in the plot except as a go-between. Old sport, could've been anyone. The opening statement is advice from Nick's father: don't judge other people as they may not have grown up with the advantages you've had. Good advice - except that all of the major characters in TGG have advantages equal to or greater than Nick's: They're people of privilege, the right school, jobs, sports, clubs, to that extent the advice is pointless, or at least beside the point. Why not judge your social equals? And Nick does - and finds them cruel and careless (and by the end we have to agree - Tom and Daisy skating off, leaving the wreckage behind). All are his social peers but one - the eponymous Gatsby. Now here's a guy who didn't grow up advantaged - he's self-made, left home to work the fishing fleets, takes on a job as crew mate on a yacht (owned by the mysterious Dan Cody - is he the one that introduced young Gatsby to a life of crime?), then goes into the army, does really well in the World War, promoted to major, and then - what happens exactly? It is and always has been a puzzle to me: If Gatsby's sole purpose in life is to win back his lost love, Daisy, why does he pursue a life of crime? Of course she is superficial and likely to be attracted by his great wealth, all of which proves to be a sham. But wouldn't you think Gatsby would have gone into stocks and bonds - like Nick - and made a fortune that he could call his own? But no - there's something completely perverse about him and in my view not typical of the self-made American hero. He's a criminal and a thug, just as repulsive a man as the cruel Tom Buchanan, certainly more repulsive than the Jewish gangsters whom FSG strews about the story: they, too, are guys who didn't have privileges, so let's not judge them (though FSG seems to judge them - while letting Gatsby off the hook - he's tragic, they're comic). Maybe Gatsby didn't deserve his fate, but it's with a sense of glee, or schadenfreude, that we, or at least I, watch his empty funeral and depopulated mansion. Nick's a good guy but why does he care so much for Gatsby? Because Nick is a romantic, I guess (his vision of returning home to Chicago for xmas, all the parties, the folks in his set largely taking over the train stations, the landscape - so confident, so protected, so naive).

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Why The Great Gatsby requires two readers - and the most intelligent narrator in literature?

Sometimes the Fitzgerald's writing in The Great Gatsby is so fine and evocative (and sometimes so difficult - I have to admit that there are passages where I put a ? in the margin) that I get lost in the writing and miss key elements of the story - and then have to go back and clarify - for ex. I am always confused about the car trip to NYC w/ Gatsby's car and Tom's - who's in which car and when?. There are other times when I'm so involved in the beautifully calibrated plot that I read too fast and just read over some of the fine writing. You have to be two readers at once to truly appreciate and comprehend TGG. But for the moment let's look at another element: the characters. Esp., the character of Gatsby. I was surprised - if you'd have asked me I'd have said that the great reveal about his background comes only at the end, at the funeral, when his rather bedraggled and puzzled father arrives - but in fact about half-way through the book Nick Carroway tells us that his real name was Gatz, that he worked in the Great Lakes fishing industry for a while after high school, became enamored of a yacht he saw at a pier and signed on as crew and learned the ways of the upper crust - leading to his new name, new life, new fortune. People talk about this as a typically American success story - only in America could one completely make over one's life and rise to the aristocracy - yet that's a half-truth, I think. Most who become extremely wealth in the U.S. (particularly in the pre-income tax days) actually boast of their humble origins, with Lincoln perhaps being the model: in literature, think of Silas Lapham, whom I've blogged about recently, as a model. There's something odd about Gatsby's social climbing - and it's peculiar that, if he new image as a bon vivant "Oxford Man" was so important, why did he build his fortune on gambling and bootlegging? I guess that was the opportunity most available to him? The story hinges on his long-held passion for Daisy Buchanan - everything he accomplished was in an attempt to catch her eye and win her back - but it's a strange passion, and we can't help but think he wants her as a trophy, as another purchase, another accomplishment. He is entirely about exteriors - and about European emulation: the stupid fake castle he lives in being the primary symbol. And he's completely self-involved, as are all of the characters Nick meets during the span of his life: they are careless, as Nick says, which is a complicated word: without a care? unable to care for others? for themselves? The ultimate carelessness is car accident, a fatal hit-and-run and all they can think of his protecting one another, and how upset Daisy must be by her killing a pedestrian. Horrible people, all of them, but the novel soars above all of them, so carefully and thoughtfully unspooled for us by tone who may be he most intelligent narrator in literature.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Blog post #2,500 - and about elliotsreading

I believe this to be post #2,500 on the elliotsreading blog, and to my knowledge I have not missed a day in the nearly 7 years since I began this project (there may have been a day when I was off the grid in California and the post never made it from my phone to the Internet). My goal has been to write every day about what I'm thinking about what I'm reading - for my own benefit (it's made me a better reader for sure) and for anyone else who might enjoy access to the consciousness of a fellow reader. I've tried not to hurt anyone's feelings, and not to bruise anyone's fragile ego. What this blog is not: it's not "writing" (these posts are all brain dumps, written quickly, without consulting a text and without revision except on minor points, though yes I do sometimes check authors' names and things like that); it's not literary criticism (again, not sourced, referenced, analyzed, revised, or considered part of a larger system or scheme), not reviews (occasionally I will give away key plot points; I'm not necessarily looking to evaluate or rate anyone's work; not interested in take-downs; among contemporary book I read only what I like and will abandon or ignore other works); it's not broad in scope - I read almost exclusively fiction, and poetry occasionally, but not much nonfiction or memoir. To those of you who follow this blog or check it regularly - thanks for being there, wherever you may be!, and your comments are always welcome (the blogspot format is a little weird, with the text saying "no comment" - simply meaning none have been posted, not that none are welcome). I hope to keep going w/ this blog for as long as I'm reading! Meanwhile, sometime in the next few months I'm thinking about pulling together an ibook or ebook of 25 posts from the first 2,500, including the post that launched a thousand term papers.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The greatness of Gatsby

Not sure how many times I've read The Great Gatsby, nor am I sure when I last read it, but I know that every time I come back to it I find new things to admire and again and again I'm surprised at its beauty, in every possible manner: TGG is one of the rare, almost unique, novels that's great both for its plot and the beauty of its style. In fact the plot is so good and so well paced, the characters so vivid and "round" yet mysterious and elusive, that we tend to read right through the beauty of the writing - and to take for granted the incredible economy and precision with which Fitzgerald creates a character or establishes a scene. Although the last line of TGG is universally famous, I bet not one reader in a hundred, maybe a thousand, can quote the first line; I can't - but it's something about advice his father gave him to the effect of don't judge other people because they didn't have the advantages you have. FSF goes from there to establish Nick Carroway as the perfect narrator: his very personality is that of a narrator; following his father's advice he is a listener, and the type of person to whom people open up and confess - a perfect narrator, in other words. There are so many matters to marvel over in the first chapters - which in effect present 3 or maybe 4 social gatherings or parties: the dinner at the Buchanans' (who can forget the description of Tom, and his "cruel body"), the party at Gatsby's (the great and surprising intro of Gatsby to the story), the evening of heavy drinking at the NY apartment Buchanan keeps for his mistress, Myrtle (can it really be on the west side at 158th? Could that be a typo? should it be 58th?). Among the great passages: the description of the twin towns of East and West Egg - reminds me of the 2 different moods of Guermantes and Swans Way; the "valley of ashes" with the weird billboard and the lonesome Wilson auto shop (is this based on a real location outside of Queens?). I also note that someone could do a study or write a book about the characters not in Gatsby: The father, whom we never hear from again; the girl left behind back in the Midwest; the Jersey City girl Nick has an affair with; the guy with whom he'd originally planned to share the L.I. house who had to leave for another job - does he realize he walked out on the chance to be a character in one of the greatest American novels?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The unlikable in literature

Hm well wish I had more on the plus side to say about Ottessa Moshfegh's story in current NYer, An Honest Woman, but am finding it to be another entry in the unlikable story characters derby. OK, we don't have to like every character we encounter in literature and in fact I'm not exactly sure what it means to "like" a character - obviously not the same thing as to like a friend, a neighbor, an artist, a neighborhood, a brand of ice cream. Characters are images, concocted of words, and I guess if a writer can devise a character about whom we have any sort of feelings, as if the image were real - that's a positive. Literature: an imitation of an action in words, right? And literature, particularly American literature, and particularly short fiction, is filled w/ outsiders, losers, and loners - not necessarily likable types. But the losers and loners in, say, a George Saunders story, are intriguing and sympathetic and draw from us some kind of empathy - so different from a story with a creepy, kind of predatory, voyeuristic character like Jeb in Moshfegh's story: he lives alone, a homely-looking 60 something, spies on his attractive new neighbor, listens to all the sounds from her house, reaches out to her after her husband leaves, has his nephew meet her and invite her out for a drink - an evening's outing that improbably is to begin w/ a drink at Jeb's house - an evening that goes awry when Jeb's nephew bails out so Jeb is alone with the woman, who stays for a few drinks, improbably, and Jeb hits on her - but she rebuffs him crudely - hopping on his lap and saying something like - so this is what you want? Later she reunites w/ husband, he overhears them having aggressive sex, and in frustration and anger goes into town and walks the streets, seething. OK, what did I learn here and why do I want to spend any time w/ any of these people, if people they be? Can we maybe get a little back story, something to help us understand this lonesome and frightening man - or the woman/neighbor who weirdly leads him on a bit, teasing him, then turns angry and aggressive herself? These things happen, of course, but in literature they should happen for a reason, should provide us access to a consciousness, a life, and a way of thinking and perceiving - not "just because."

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Lady Susan, unique among Austen's novels

Finishing Jane Austen's short novel, Lady Susan, did check out some facts on WikiPedia and found I was mostly right in my surmises yesterday: it was an early work, she did finish it, but it was never submitted for publication and was published finally about a century after JA died (in the late 19th century, that is). Wiki also wisely noted how different Lady Susan is from other Austen heroines and how this novel breaks w/ the convention of the novel of manners of Austen's day - she was way ahead of her time, in other words. Yes, Susan is smart, acerbic, manipulative, self-interested, and funny - perhaps a descendant of Beatrice (Much Ado). She's a cougar, as well - flirting shamelessly, even cruelly, with a man about 15 years younger than she - and a selfish mother and friend: indifferent to her daughter and trying to marry him off to an idiotic man of wealth, and carrying on an affair - Austen is very circumspect about this, but even so it's pretty advanced for her time - with a married man. This clearly was a path that would not have led to literary success, maybe not even to publication, and the works Austen published in her lifetime are all so different from Lady Susan. They are driven generally by a young woman pursuing a match - sometimes for herself, sometimes for a sibling or a friend - and the young woman is smart like Susan but honorable and above board; her character flaws such as they are a degree of naivete or lack of self-knowledge - Liz Bennet's prejudice, Emma's "clueless" inability to see who's in love with her, for example. They are often (not always) from a family of middling wealth and therefore in need of a good match - similar to Lady Susan in this case - but they are not, like she, mercenary. Of course all of Austen's novels are comic in form - leading to marriage and assimilation into society (Persuasion a possible exception) - but in Lady Susan the marriage at the end, hers at least, is obviously doomed and meant clearly to serve as the "beard" for her continued affair with Mainwaring (Whit Stillman in his film Love & Friendship is more direct and overt about this than Austen could have been) and the society to which she, and her daughter, are assimilated is rotten at the core.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The challenge of an episolary novel - Lady Susan and the film Love & Friendship

Reading for the first time Jane Austen's Lady Susan - not sure why I've never read this one and don't know much about its provenance - was it published posthumously? is it considered unfinished? was it "finished" by another author? is it an early work - or late? - and maybe will read up on this after I'm done, but enjoying the first half (it's very short, a two-night read most likely) and impressed by how well JA works with the epistolary form: what a challenge for the author! She gives up so many valuable tools: the narrative voice, the author's sly asides, the ability to describe and establish a scene (or a character) in the way an author might, which is not the same way a "character' would do so or could do so in a letter (the characrters are not writers, and some of them are not smart, either), the inability to used extended dialogue except is a clunky manner shoe-horned into a letter in a way no letter-writer would do, the need to keep letters short and within reason, in short - telling an entire story through correspondence is tricky (could be and has been done, at least in story format, w/ email and texts) and provides the author with no obvious advantage except verisimilitude: Oh, here's how this novel came to be, someone found a stack of letter! The plot: Lady Susan, the most forward flirt (coquette) in England, comes to stay w/ her brother in law upon her widowhood and plots a marriage for her less-attractive daughter (money) and eventually for herself (freedom). Austen does a great job establishing Lady Susan's character through her own descriptions of her actions (confessional letters to a bestie) and through others' snide and alarming comments about her, esp. the father of a young man falling into her "clutches." Can't remark on this novel without giving huge props to Whit Stillman, who adapted this into Love & Friendship, an incredibly difficult work to adapt and he keeps it in period but in a way even improves on Austen, building out the humor and the sexiness (the suitor who's "a bit of a rattle," or as we would say, has a few screws loose, is just a little goofy in Austen but is hilariously funny in L&F: see his riff on green peas and on the village of Chuchill, which has a church but amazingly no hill!).

Monday, October 17, 2016

Some impressive elements in Nutshell but overall a missed opportunity

Book group last night gave a tepid endorsement to Ian McEwan's Nutshell, universally impressed with some of his (his narrator's) riffs on culture and perception but concurring that overall McEwan never quite got control of his material in this novel: It was a vehicle for his voice and to display peacock-like his formidable knowledge and intelligence, with the gag that all this is coming from the mind and consciousness of child in utero. But really remove the narrator trick and what do you make of the plot? Not much. It's filled w/ holes and improbabilities. The central characters blithely proceed on the course toward a dastly murder, and for no good reason. The linkage to the Hamlet narrative is a framework, at least at first, but ultimately makes little sense as it completely lacks the drama of the original: there's no ambiguity as to whether the perps played out their murder plot. And there's no role whatsoever for the main character - Hamlet (assuming that the fetus could not be the unborn Hamlet, as the timing does not match up at all). Mk made the observation that no woman in her right mind would entrust Claud to deliver her baby. MR made the observation that the Trudy character does not think or behave like a woman in late stages of pregnancy. JoRi had the observation that the novel would be far better designed if at the moment of birth the fetus reverted to the newborn/infantile state - which would raise the possibility that all the unborn bear the mothers' perception of the world - a perception totally vanished at birth. But McEwan missed that opportunity as well. I talked a little about how McEwan started with the concept of limited perception - the narrator, for example, is puzzled by the concept of color, which he has never seen - but McEwan dropped that concept altogether. I also talking about the difference between Hamlet - a kingdom at stake, the central character is unsure as to whether his father was murdered, his anxiety and anguish, his springing the trap to reveal the plot, and much more - compared with this Hamlet whose only action is to speed the birth and why? So that he can be born in prison rather than in freedom? Makes no sense. McEwan is super-smart and can turn narrative dross into gold, at times, but he lost his footing on this one.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Why McEwan's Nutshell misses the mark

Tonight book group will discuss Ian McEwan's Nutshell; have been re-reading it, and my thought at the moment is that it's less that the sum of its parts. McEwan has 2 tricks going at once, and at times in conflict: a novel narrated from the POV of a fetus, and a retelling in contemporary setting of the story of Hamlet. Taking the first "trick": OK it's clever at times, as at the outset when the fetus/narrator has a sense of what people look like but no idea what the color "blue" actually is (is there any way to describe colors to someone born blind?), but McEwan doesn't do much w/ the obvious limitations of the fetus - in fact the narrator is as knowledgeable and worldly as ... McEwan. The explanation?: he hears a lot via the podcosts is mother listens to. OK. Second, the Hamlet story. Well, it just does not work in the 21st century; people just don't go around poisoning one another - it wold require a completely deranged person to so that, and the central characters - Trudy and Claude, ha ha, are selfish, foolish, reckless - but not murderers, sorry. The strengths of the novel are the narrator's, i.e., McEwan's shrewd observations and verbal riffs; two that came up early in the narrative a litany of all of the global crises or our time, and, as a counterweight, another litany about all the ways in which science and technology have given us a better life. These are fun to read tours des forces (?) but in the end they are peripheral to the narrative itself. In the 2nd half of the narration, the narrator at last plays a role in the narrative, forcing a premature birth to derail the escape plans of Trudy and Claude - but how does McEwan tie this to the Hamlet story? He doesn't. I thought maybe the child would be born, christened Hamlet, and a revenge plot set in motion? But no McEwan just abandons ship. He still stands as one of our finest contemporary writers in English - Atonement is one of the finest novels of the past 25 years w/out doubt, but his is kind of a one-off.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Fine Bruce DeSilva story graces Providence Noir collection

Back to reality, sort of, after a few days blogging about Dylan and the Nobel Prize, and catching up on some reading of my own, in particular the Ann Hood Providence Noir (Akashic) collection where I found of particular note old friend Bruce DeSilva's story about the famous art heist from the Gardner Museum. Yes, that's in Boston, but he does a great job making this a Providence story: an untenured art-history prof at Brown (I wish he'd set it at a more "Providence" school such as RIC or PC, but whatever) who has loose family connections to the Patriarca crime family gets a strange call asking him to step outside the faculty building where he's prepping for a class; he's escorted into a limo, blindfolded, and taken to an undisclosed locale (he figures out that it's on Federal Hill, near the Patriarca family haunts) where a mobster unknown to him asks him to be an intermediary in returning some of the stole art, in return for a piece of the recovery reward. I'll leave it at that and not divulge any of the intriguing plot twists that follow, right down to the last scene. Bruce has had a lot of success with his excellent crime series set in Providence, centered on an investigative reporter, Mulligan, at a paper that is the Journal (where Bruce and I were colleagues) in all but name. This story presents an interesting twist, as Mulligan appears only as a minor character, not the locus for the story. Another brief mention from this collection: Taylor Polites (whom I don't know) has a good story, 2nd in this collection set in the Armory District, which is unique in this grouping I think in that the central characters are not the usual "noir" types - detectives, criminals, the deranged, the vindictive - but an ordinary young couple caught up in a scene they never sought.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Dylan revisited: More thoughts on the Nobel

Following up on yesterday's post and the great news about Bob Dylan, noticing that some of the coverage over the past 24 has emphasized how he broke ranks w/ folk music when he "went electric," but I think that misses the point. He didn't split away from a musical/literary tradition, but he joined traditions, fused them, through a dialectic process created something completely new. As noted yesterday, my friend Mark L said on folk v rock: There's no difference anymore And, as people fight it out as to whether Dylan deserved the literature award because he's not "a writer" - another theme in today's coverage - the point is that the only answer to the questions - is it literature or entertainment? Is it song-writing or is it poetry? - is: There's no difference anymore. Yes, Dylan is part of a long and great tradition of American song-writing; I'm no expert on that but the names Foster, Porter, Berlin, Sondheim come to mind. But there's a difference (and it's similar to the difference between Classical British poetry, through the 18th century, and Romantic poetry and everything thereafter): the great songwriters of the 20th century wrote beautiful songs for others to sing - there was not a sense that the lyrics were a self-expression (of course they were, are - but that's another point) whereas Dylan was the first great songwriter whose songs were his: we can sing them, many have covered them, but they are always above all Dylan songs, his self-expression, much like, say, Keats, the symbolists whom Dylan revered in his youth, even Pound and Eliot, whom he name-checked - yet paradoxically, as is true for all literature, because they are such profound self-expression we identify and empathize: Johanna, Ramona - are, were, might have been women in Dylan's life, but anyone who has ever loved in vain - i.e., everyone - understands those emotions, and that's partly because his writing (and music) has given these emotions and feelings a shape in our lives. His personal expression - like all great art - enables us to understand and express that which has previously been ineffable. Yes, many others - in folk rock, pop, rasta, rap, metal (kinda), lyric, indie, and alt - all popular songwriters today and for the past 40 years or so are in his wake, it's understood and accepted that popular music is in part or at least can be expressive of the artist's unique experience. Art or entertainment, lyrics or poetry - those questions now are beside the point. There's no difference anymore. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

It's Al'right, Ma!: Dylan wins Nobel for Literature

What a great day, so happy - walking around as if in a glow, the only comparable day was the day after the Red Sox won the World Series (October 2004). I actually said to M the other day that I hoped it would happen this year - and we had the radio on this a.m. and I walked into the living room and thought I heard it and couldn't be believe it: Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize for literature. I posted on this in 2011, so you can check that out using the right-hand index under "Dylan." A few cranks today have suggested he doesn't deserve the prize, it should have gone to a "real writer." I think back to the day when I first heard Subterranean Homesick Blues - my childhood friend Mark Lewis - whom I hadn't seen in decades until last weekend at our h.s. reunion - was the first to buy the album and we listened together and I remarked: Is it folk or rock?, to which Mark presciently said: There's no difference anymore. Of course he was right - Dylan changed everything, including the way we think about music and, now, the way we think about literature. To suggest he doesn't merit this award is churlish and short-sighted; get out of the new one if you can't lend a hand. His works will endure as long as there are people to listen to music, to sing, to read, to laugh, to get angry, to fall in (and out of) love. So here's to: Visions of Johanna, Love Minus Zero - No Limit, To Ramona, Like a Rolling Stone, Positively Fourth Street, The Hour that the Ship Comes In, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol, Blowin' in the Wind, It's Al'right Ma, I and I, It Ain't Me Babe, Spanish Boots, I'm Not There, Idiot Wind, Just Like Tom Thumb Blues, Just Like a Woman, Series of Dreams, License to Kill, Feel My Love, Sign on the Cross - do you get the idea? I could fill this page with a list of his great songs, from so many different genres, eras, periods of his life and work, and yet all recognizably Dylan - his entire corpus is an account of his life and thoughts and feelings, as is the work of Proust, of Joyce (two whom the Nobel passed over, amazingly), Keats or Whitman - particular to Dylan, but universal as well, not only enabling us to see his life but to make sense of our own lives, in the moment and over time. I'm fortunate to be a near-contemporary, just a few years younger, and my life has in some ways followed the course of his music, been shaped by his music. To have been his contemporary, I imagine, is similar to having been Shakespeare's - not to see the work as a fixed monument in time, as we look back on the Shakespeare canon, but as a work of genius continuously unfolding and developing. This was a great day.         

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Above par - writing about golf in Providence Noir

Supporting the idea re writing about sports - the smaller the ball the better the writing - old friend Thomas Cobb's story $1,000 Nassau in the Ann Hood-edited Providence Noir (Akashic) is pretty terrific writing, even if you don't like, or play, golf (like me). Simply, it's the story of a single round of golf, played by a golf hustler who joins 2 guys for a round on Triggs (a Providence course adjacent to RI College), plays a little below his ability and hustles the into upping the bet on their round well into the thousands - which he cannot cover and which he desperately needs - but the catch on at least by the back nine that he was suckering them as he plays just a little bit better, and gradually we realize these were not 2 guys to mess w/, shades of the Sopranos or, I guess, mob-world in Providence. Won't give the outcome away but even if some of the golf terminology eludes you this story will grip you beginning to end. I would say that the story is not particularly a Providence story, other than our knowing that there are plenty of wise guys who find time to spend part of their day on the links, and I wish TC had given some sense of the atmosphere of Triggs - I don't play so I don't know but guess it would be a pretty hard-scrabble public course, or at least it would propel the story a little more if we had that sense - but these are writers'-group quibbles - fine story in a strong collection.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Truly noir - excellent story in Providence Noir collection

Reading along and enjoying Ann Hood's selections for Providence Noir (Akashic) and, at about the half-way point, note that Amity Gaige's story set (in part) at the Providence Armory is among the best in the collection: One of the few that recognizes that noir does not necessarily = a murder plot or a grisly death but can be a whole attitude of darkness and disturbance. Also her story is one of the best at establish a sense of place - not just by name-checks but by a swift analysis of a local cultural scene, the collision of forces, as an editor I used to work w/ would put it - in this case the urban hipsters descending from College Hill (Brown & RISD) to inhabit a more affordable and (at one time) marginal city neighborhood, the Armory District in this case. Also a powerful story about the struggles of a young woman - emotional, and identity issues - who's a victim of abuse; she herself is from the gritty mill city of Woonsocket where she was the intelligent misfit only to become the working-class misfit at Brown - and who gets engaged in a really creepy and frightening revenge plot. Great selection, and btw Gaige is one of the (few) authors in this collection whom I don't know.

Monday, October 10, 2016

A mystery story that completely baffles me

I am completely puzzled by the Elizabeth Strout story (Strout is a fine writer of course, though I'm not persuaded that she knows much about Providence) - At Trinity Repertory Company, or some such title - in the Providence Noir (Akashic) collection (Ann Hood, ed.): about a production of A Doll's House at Trinity Rep in what seems to be maybe the 1960s or so? - certainly before the so-called Providence Renaissance and set in an era when a theater production would be a big deal in Providence, meriting extensive coverage in the press (i.e., the Journal). In this production an ingenue plays the lead, and the story is narrated by the owner of the boarding house (today, as she notes, she would call it a B&B) where the actress and her still-young mom are staying during the run of the show. We don't learn too much about either of them - it's a pretty tight story - but we learn in the first paragraph or so that the actress met a tragic fate during a performance. At the end - I'm really not giving anything a way here but stop here if you wish - we see her fall dead on the stage in the last act. (I'd wondered whether her death involved a shooting w/ a live gun that was supposed to be a prop - but I guess that would have to be in Hedda Gabler.) The narrator tells us that the police investigated the death for some time, came around to the boarding house asking questions, but found nothing suspicious. Then - and here I will "give away" the ending although I could make no sense of it - the narrator reports that the mother left behind a scrapbook (unlikely) and she looked through it and found something of interest. What?: "the sun," and with that the story closes. Huh? Was this a misprint? Was it a play off the word "noir"? Is it suggesting that the young girl was secretly unhappy? Secretly happy? Did I miss somethign? Anyone with a theory, please weigh in via the comments box below.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Defining noir (in Providence)

Those who know Ann Hood know she's had some really difficult passages in her life and that she writes beautifully about personal tragedy and the her writing helps her heal and helps her readers as well - building in us empathy, compassion, and understanding. I was surprised to see these elements, however, in Hood's story selection for the Providence Noir (Akashic) anthology she's edited, but there they are in his story Beneath the Shepard Clock. I won't give anything away about this elegantly plotted story that turns on a dime toward the end. Noticing, as I read through the noir anthology, that teach of the 1st 4 stories involves a violent death or an assassination; is that de rigeur for a noir story, or just a predilection of the Hood's or just a coincidence in this anthology? It seems to me that not all noir fiction has to be about violent death, and I'm interested to see how (and if) the later stories in the anthology establish a noir attitude. I'll note also for the record that Leuci's story in the anthology has Providence tough-guy lingo down the best, so far.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

A story that nails one Providence community in Providence Noir

Enjoying reading Providence Noir, part of the "noir" series of short-story collections, this one edited by old friend and not particularly noirish personality Ann Hood. Of course this collection would be fun for any RIer to read and, the better entries, fun for anyone. What constitutes a "better entry"? What I'm looking for is not just a good story with atmosphere, dark thoughts and behavior, and sometimes a clever and compact narrative with twists of fate - but also something that captures the mood and spirit of the great city of Providence. So if it's a story that really could have taken place in any city, a story that stakes a claim to a Providence connection just because of name checks, OK well and good for noir but not so much for Providence. One of the successes in this regard is the leadoff story by Luann Rice - a neat, grisly piece about a young RISD grad artist living in Fox Point, a changing neighborhood that Rice really nails: the Brown/RISD/young metro crowd moving in and melding or sometimes clashing with the long-standing indigenous Portuguese/Cap Verdean community. The young artist is living in a place paid for by her (married) boyfriend, a mid-level State House lobbyist - and that kind of interconnection seems very true of Providence, with the one caveat that this could hardly be kept a secret in such a small community. Rice does a great job conveying the troubled mind of the artist, as we follow her plot to do away with boyfriend's wife a plan that inevitably goes awry.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Distrubing story in New Yorker that doesn't make sense - unless the central character is herself disturbed

Kevin Barry's strange story in the current New Yorker, Deer Stalker (?), is disturbing in many ways, not all to the good. He writes in a lush, overly descriptive style - lots of passages about the grass slowly waving in the soft wind, about the beautiful countryside - takes a while before we figure out that it's in Ireland - yet the central character, a 17-year-old girl at home from boarding school for the summer, sees the landscape as no more than a place in which, as she quite crudely puts, can fuck. She's a few days away from leaving for her school and she has it in her mind to lose her virginity and she sets sights on a lonely and strange young man - about twice her age as it turns out - whom she sees creeping about alongside the river. She plays up to him, almost attacks him sexually, and they engage in two abrupt and not at all sensuous or caring or romantic sexual encounters. He seems like a very disturbed fellow - living in dire poverty and stealing wood from the "forestry" to keep warm through the winter (the previous winter he burned half his books for warmth, he says - sure to bring sympathy from the literary types who'd be reading this story). Long and short, she goes back to school, her father learns of the tryst - never quite sure how that happens - and apparently the men of the village drove out this impoverished, drug-addled young man and the young girl feels - slightly - bad about that. Obviously it's Barry's intent to break with convention - it's the young woman, not the man, who's the predator - in fact he has the good sense to know it can only lead to trouble, but he can't resist. But what about this young woman? Aside from being cruel and selfish, what makes her tick? We know very little about her; she's opaque. She has no mother, and her brother is away studying medicine - but seriously no normal young woman behaves the way she does in this story. So she must be lonely,  troubled, anti-social, friendless something has really disturbed her mind if that's how she thinks about sex - picking up a stranger who's obviously a disturbed guy and just more or less rutting: Is she seeking to provoke her father? Her community? Does she hate men? Hate herself? All that is possible but none of that is developed so I'm left here throwing up my hands and saying that, given the info I have about this young woman, I just can't accept the facts on the ground. The story makes no logical sense and it does probe deeply enough in her character to make illogical sense.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Why I stopped reading Trollope - and why I don't binge-watch TV

I started, read the 1st chapter, in Trollope's Framley Parsonage, which is the 4th (and little known, I think) in his Barchester series and realized I'm just not ready to get back into Trollope again, so quickly: more families with fraternal rivalries and scheming parents and other gentry trying to get a "position" for someone in the church - nobody ever seems to enter the clergy because of piety or devotion or even the desire to do some good for society - it's always just a comfortable living and a step up the ladder. I can only take so much at a time, which makes me think about the way these novels were published - in serial form - which made it literally impossible to read the novel at a sitting- these novels are, I think, meant to be enjoyed as they unfold over time (off w/ the author under deadline pressure! - leading to some flubs and flops, obviously) - and I think that's a great way to approach expansive literature like 19th-century British fiction. Keep in mind: many readers would be working on multiple narratives in conjunction, reading a Dickens installment while waiting for the next Trollope, e.g. And there would be gaps of maybe a couple of years between the conclusion of one serial novel and the start of the next. I am one of the few holdouts who refuses to binge-watch TV - really don't enjoy more than one episode per night at most, and it seems to me that's how the best TV series unfold as well, to watch too many episodes in close sequence compresses the narration and makes the story less plausible than if there is a gap in time of viewing: often the gap matches the week's span between original broadcast, though that's not the case always. So, Trollope gets put aside for another day - or year.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Nasty characters in literature and a possible interpretation of Keret's story

There's been some debate in recent years as to whether characters in fiction have to be "likable" - and I would say, by and large, the answer is yes - with likability a concept that can stretch to encompass the eccentrics and the loners (we empathize w/ them, at the least, which is form of liking) and even the criminals and psychopaths - likable in the sense that we understand them - if they're just pure evil they're cartoonish and beyond the pale. Pure loathing is not a pathway to successful literature. But those are extreme cases; what about the whiner, the complainer, the nasty kid, the bully, the narcissist - they have their place in fiction, but the narrative won't work unless there's another dimension, that over the course of reading the narrative we find ourselves in league w/ these characters, against our instinct and initial judgments. So what about Edgar Keret's story To the Moon and Back in the current NYer? Has there been a just plain less likable narrator in a story in years? This guy is nasty from paragraph one and on from there - he's scornful of everyone, always a victim, never the one who's culpable, everyone else is stupid, he's the only smart guy. Story tells of his trip to mall with son for son's birthday (day after - damn family court judge wouldn't let him see son on birthday, etc.) to buy him whatever he wants (sure way to make your kid spoiled and nasty, too) and the kid decides what he wants in the store is the cash register, so Gabi tries to buy it, putting the poor clerk in a terrible position, feeling threatened, etc. Spoiled kid won't back off; this nasty narrator (Gabi) presses on, everyone's miserable. Well, I sure couldn't stand this guy for more than a short story - and even the story is so terribly unpleasant - an accomplishment to write it but why should we read it? There may be one reason: Keret is an Israeli writer, and I couldn't help but wonder if the story was a hidden allegory - is his bullying attempt to provide everything for his unappreciative son, even to buy the cash register from a store in a mall (that would shut down its business for the day, right?) some kind of analogue to Israeli territorialism and occupation? Just wondering.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

What's frustrating about Nutshell

What's frustrating about Ian McEwan's novel Nutshell is that McEwan can be so good at times - several riffs, paragraphs, pages of the narration that I pause to mark with a note or just an exclamation point - litany of all things wrong with the planet in a page or less, speculation on what the world will be like, or not, at the end of the century, others - wish I could recall them better, maybe wasn't as attentive last night as I should have been, will look some up when I get back to the novel - but the point is all of these great passages are to what end? A totally bizarre narrative conceit and a murder plot that doesn't pass the sniff test: I know the world is filled w/ lurid crimes, or at least the nightly news is so filled, but there's nothing for 2 seconds probable about this couple committing this coldly calculated and simply pointless murder - and even if they well so what? Do we care about the characters for a second? Do we believe in the narrator for a second? All this would be less frustrating if this were just a plain old bad book. It's not. There are many moments of brilliance. But in the end  - well, I'm not quite there yet - this book reads like a pot pourri of brilliant ideas and observations in search of a novel.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Can we take McEwan's Nutshell seriously?

Stop me if I'm wrong but seriously how can you take seriously the behavior of the characters in Ian McEwan's Nutshell? - and I'm not even talking about the governing conceit: that a fetus in utero could narrate an entire novel based on what he overhears from within the womb - and based on detailed knowledge not only of the English language but of all customs, cultures, arcana - OK I get it we're not expected to take the narrator as a realistic possibility, he's just a device to convey to us a narrative entirely depending on someone's overhearing the murder plot (unless if were told by an omniscient narrator, how boring), but what's the point if the overheard plot is preposterous? Yes, it's based on Hamlet, how clever, with clues and snippets of quotes cleverly strewn about. Yet does the Hamlet plot translate in the 21st century? Maybe 500 years ago with a kingdom at stake a jealous man would poison his brother to take over the kingdom. But there's not even a plausible motive in this plot: Gertrude dumps her husband, John, to get together w/ his brother, Claude - but as it turns out John is fine w/ that, he has a new romance of his own, and all he wants is to take back possession of their nice house - which really shouldn't be much of an issue because brother Claude is far more well to do. So for this they actually kill a man - not in rotten Denmark but in contemporary London? These characters would have to be seriously deranged if not demonic to do so, but, no, they seem like pretty ordinary Londoners - Claude in particular is quite hilariously played as a dullard, the world's worst conversationalist - so what causes them to carry through with this most drastic and dastardly of acts? They don't think they'll get caught? Jailed? Hanged? Why not? Just what's going on here, beneath the clever witticisms that sparkle on the surface?

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Naive and ominscient points of view in McEwan and elsewhere - and why rewrite Hamlet, anyway?

Ian McEwan's novel Nutshell draws so much attention to the narrative device - a tale of marital distress told by the fetus in utero, able to comprehend everything he (I think it's a he) overhears and bring to what's overheard a lifetime of knowledge and perception - in other words, to be a novelist much like Ian  McEwan, complete with acana, pedantry, and names checks - that we're in danger of losing hold of the plot itself. McEwan opted to make this a contemporary retelling of Hamlet - woman (Gertrude) and her lover (Claude) plot to poison her estranged husband/Claude's brother. What's missing from this equation? Hamlet! I suspect McEwan may have a trick or two up his sleeve, so to speak: Is the narrator/fetus to be named Hamlet? Is he actually going to play a role in the story, aside from telling it? I suspect, as he overhears the plot, which involves his being largely ignored by his father, that the fetus will act in some way so as to spoil the plan and solidify the family - maybe. If not, then, what's the point? If the narrator plays no active role, my thought is that McEwan has made this work overly complex and clever and would have been better off telling a simple tale of infidelity rather than a retelling of one of the greatest works of world literature. Is there any way in which this novel can actually shed light on Hamlet? Make Hamlet greater - rather than diminish it by squeezing into a contemporary setting, ill-fitted? Tall order, so to speak, and maybe McEwan's up to it. I keep coming back to thinking about What Maisie Knew, in which I child overhears evidence of infidelity but doesn't truly comprehend what she has heard - one of those rare, odd, and effective cases of the naive rather than the omniscient POV (the child doesn't narrate the novel but her limited perspective on events makes us much the wiser, more troubled and disoriented). It's a gag, a stunt, to have the fetus so omnivorous - not sure what it will gain for us, though

Saturday, October 1, 2016

So for any readers of Ian McEwan's Nutshell who have not yet figured out the plot - it's a retelling of Hamlet, set in contemporary London, and as narrated by the fetus in Gertrude's womb, whether than unborn child is to be named Hamlet who knows? In any event there is no 20-something Hamlet older brother - just Gertrude plotting with "Claude" to kill her estranged husband, John Cairncross, and take over the family estate, an old house in near ruins but in a posh, changing neighborhood and worth millions. McEwan isn't the first try to update the Hamlet story - Updike did so in one of his later (and less successful) novels, like McEwan he focused on Gertrude - and I have no idea where McE will go with this thread or how he will unspool the story: no Hamlet, no kingdom at stake, to Polonius, no Ophelia, no Laertes, no Fortinbras, and so forth, just a rather tawdry domestic drama about a planned poisoning with the odd twist that the story is narrated by an unborn child - beyond improbability, it's just fantasy, a schtik, and we'll have to see what this device adds to the narrative. It's kind of amusing, in the early going, if you can suspend your disbelief, but it makes the whole endeavor campy, a stunt. What if McE had told an updated Hamlet legend with a conventional narrator - either omniscient or Gertrude (or Claudius) in the 1st person? I keep thinking of Jane Smiley's retelling of King Lear in A thousand Acres, throughout which, as the tragedy unspooled, I kept thinking: Haven't any of you read or seen King Lear? Don't you see where this is heading? Likewise with Nutshell/Hamlet.