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

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

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The unbearable moral dilemma in Endo's Silence

Continuing to read S Endo's Silence, which Scorsese adapted into a film that is, as least so far (about half-way through Endo's novel), faithful to the source. The novel is great in its own right, but reading through makes me even more impressed with Scorsese's adaptation; it's almost impossible not to read the novel w/out thinking of the strong cast Scorsese brought together and his great facility to creating a range of environments - the desolate Japanese landscape, the mountainous coastline, the charcoal hut where the 2 priests live in hiding, the fishing villages, and most of all the period setting and the pervasive sense of loneliness and dread that these 2 priests, believing themselves to be the only priests in all of Japan, trying to bring solace to the few remaining Catholic enclaves, in a time of brutal, almost sadistic repression. The book, as noted yesterday, gives a real sense of verismilitude by conveying the narrative through a series of letters from Father Rodrigues; Endo stops using this narrative device about halfway through (doing this allows him to increase our sense of dread because we don't know if Fa R. actually survives - his communication just stops, like a space mission that has gone beyond the range) and adopts a close 3rd-person narrative, which means the narrator knows not only the action seen and dialog heard but also what's going on in Fa. R's mind. This device is especially important as a great part of the drama in the novel - less so in the film, which by its nature is more about action and dialog - is his questioning of his faith. The pervasive question, and one that people ask to this day of course, is how can a loving god be silent while his faithful adherents are made to suffer? If he's all-powerful, why can't he provide a sign to the faithful? These thoughts torment Father R., as he faces an almost unbearable moral dilemma: Once he is captured by the Inquisitor (another great casting by Scorsese, btw) he is told that they won't torture him but they will torture his Xtian followers until he renounces his faith.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Scorcese's excellent adaptation of Endo's novel Silence

As long as we're into comparing movies with the source material - yesterday I began reading Endo's novel Silence, which is the source for the recent excellent film of same name by Martin Scorcese. I haven't read too deeply yet into the novel, though I did read the translator's lengthy intro., which provided useful background (both film and the faithfully adapted novel are about Portuguese missionary Jesuit priests in Japan in the early 17th century, in search of info about the vanished priest and mentor, Father Ferreira, and in hopes of helping maintain the persecuted Xtian minority on the Japanese islands) and made it clear that both book and film are based on real events and to a degree on actual priests - at least Father Ferreira is historically accurate, though the translator notes that we know little about his life in Japan after his apparent apostasy (Scorcese has quite a bit about Ferreira's later life; will see whether that's drawn from the novel), largely because records of his later life were destroyed in the bombing of Nagasaki. It strikes me that Silence is a particularly difficult book to adapt for screen; it's obvious to any reader that it's an exciting adventure story that touches on a lot of deep and important issues of culture, assimilation, hegemony, faith, history. But the novel is written as a series of letters home from Father Rodrigues (one of the 2 Jesuits in search of their mentor, Fa Ferreira), so Scorcese didn't have the advantage of working w/ a dialog-rich document, such as a Graham Greene or Elmore Leonard novel. Additionally, every scene involves re-creating the look of the 17th century in a remote and isolate setting - another challenge, to which Scorcese rose, as it happens. In one way, the cinema version is always going to be more engaging: We are drawn in visually and musically and we get the full arc of the story within ab out 2 3/4 hours (long, but held my attention throughout); in other ways, the novel is more engaging in that it's told via letters from Fa R., and we can feel that we are reading actual documents from the era, as if we're the historians or perhaps the contemporary Jesuits following the story as it unfolds over time.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Comparing Almodovar's film Julieta with the source stories in Munro's Runaway

After watching Almodovar's excellent film, Julieta (2016), I went back a re-read the 3 Alice Munro stories that A used as the source for his screenplay - three single-word-titled stories in her 2004 collection, Runaway (can only remember the title of the 3rd, Silence, which oddly is the title of Scorcese's excellent most-recent film; titles have been Munro's single flaw as a writer). A # of things strike me: First of all, I'm surprised at A's fidelity to the source material, picking up virtually all of the scenes in the 3 stories for his film. Of course he transposed the film into a setting in contemporary Spain, but he even goes so far as to make the fishing village where the eponymous Julieta (Juliet, in Munro's stories) settles and has her child (Penelope, in the stories) a remote location in NW Spain (parallel to the NW American setting of the stories). There are differences between the 2 treatments, however. A devotes a lot more attention the Julieta's contemporary life in Madrid, and in fact begins the movie with J as a 50ish, stylish, intellectual woman in Madrid and with the encounter w/ her daughter's childhood friend, which is near the end of Munro's mostly linear narration. Second, Munro emphasizes that Juliet is a sort of dorky, sexually inexperienced young woman; A keeps the info that she's a classics teacher in a h.s., and even shows her teaching a class (quite effectively), but his young Julieta is a cool teacher and very pretty, not dorky at all. Third, J's visit with young daughter in tow to her parents' rural home is a much bigger part of Munro's stories - in fact, it's the entire 2nd story - and in the Munro stories the parents, or at least the mother, as devout and are disturbed by the fact that her daughter has never married the father of her child; that's not a factor at all in A's film - his whole metier is more hip, multicultural, vibrant contemporary Spain, whereas Munro's stories seem to be set in the 50s or so, in a much more provincial Canada (though published in the early 21st century, they clearly draw on the world of Munro's youth, as so much of her fiction does). 4th, the disappearance of the daughter - though it strains credibility somewhat in both versions - is a little more grounded and explicable in Munro's, as we can almost accept that the daughter is seeking a spiritual dimension to her life that is absent in her birth family. In the A film her disappearance seems even more odd, perhaps driven only by anger at her mother for - perhaps - driving her father to his death (in both versions, they had an argument about his infidelity just before his fatal fishing expedition). Finally, a bit of a spoiler here, A's version, tho by no means a "Hollywood ending" and still leaving much uncertain, ends with J receiving from her daughter the daughter's address (unclear what her daughter's life has been like, though there are hints perhaps of a cult or a ascetic sect) and embarking on a visit to her, whereas Munro's ending is darker - J learns a bit about her daughter's fate (it seems she is living a prosperous life, w/ husband and 5 children, in a remote part of Canada) thru her chance encounter w/ the childhood friend, but J never gets any word from her daughter at all.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

Excellent Danticat story in current NYer about family dynamics and elderly dementia

Excellent story, Sunrise, Sunset, in the current New Yorker ,by the Haitian-born American author Edwidge Danticat (a Soho discovery!) - one of the best depictions I've ever read of the early onset of Alzheimer's disease or at least of some form of dementia in the elderly. The story is tightly encapsulated, keeping well the principle of unity of action, really about a gathering for the christening of a newborn, largely from the POV of the grandmother, who is distressed by her daughter's apparent indifference to the child, with some told from the POV of the mother, suffering from some form of post-partum depression. Part of the effect of the story is to see almost from the inside how the grandmother fades in and out of consciousness; another strength is that, though the story in some ways is universal, it's also a nice depiction of a tightly knit Haitian-American family in Miami. The story builds toward a dramatic, climactic action, as the grandmother enters one of her episodes and grabs the baby and holds him out over the railing in the third-floor condo, putting everyone into a state of panic - and of course part of the beauty of this horrific scenario is how it spurs the indifferent mother into action, perhaps beginning a new phase of her motherhood. Danticat's narrative is swift and eloquent without being overladen, despite the dramatic action with fevered writing. My only quibble: the characters all have short, rather indistinct names (and no surnames) including the names of the mother, father, and baby all beginning w/ J - this allows Danticat to get a nice quip about the "triple-J's," but it makes it hard for readers to sort the characters out in our minds as we're reading (one of the fundamentals of a screenplay, for ex., is to make sure that no two major characters have a name beginning w/ the same letter).

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

The characters in A Way Through the Wood: Careless People

Yesterday I referred to The Great Gatsby in discussing narrative voice in Nigel Balchin's A Way Through the Wood (1951), by way of contrast - Nick Carraway's first-person narration is a rare example of a first-person narrator - not the author - with a deep and complex literary style whereas Balchin's first-person narrator - not the author - is a more straightforward style, sometimes with the arch, cynical tone of an American noir detective. It's probably not by chance that I thought of Gatsby when reading Way Through the Wood: the narrative styles may differ but the characters themselves, w/ their moral obtuseness, narcissism, and bigotry are much like Fitzgerald's characters in Gatsby. This novel centers on a fatal car accident - the driver kills a man and takes off and much of the "moral" issue of the novel concerns how to protect her identity. Throughout the long passages of the novel as the narrator, Jim Manning, tries to repair his marriage there's hardly a thought about the accident, the guilt one might or should feel, the obligation to report the crime, and so forth. As Carroway ways about the Buchanans: They're careless people. Though I can recognize the nearly untenable position of Jim - should he encourage his estranged wife to report the crime? - it's hard to feel an iota of sympathy for him or for any of his set, including wife (Jill) and her lover (Bill). Much of their hatefulness derives from their extreme class prejudice. They pretty much think their guilt over the death can be assuaged by a payment of 2 pounds a month to the widow (who is a housekeeper for the Mannings). Stop and ask: How do you think they'd act and react if a working-class man ran down a "upper class" man and killed him? Their condescension to workers and servants, thinking themselves to be great benefactors and thinking they're beloved by those whom they employ is astonishing, and one can only hope that there's at least a touch of irony in Balchin's depiction of class relationships. In fact the only truly noble action in the entire novel is the widow's refusal to press charges and to seek revenge or even redress. As a final note, we learn at the end that the entire narration is a record Jim is preparing to submit to the court in his application for divorce; if he actually does submit it, he's telling the court that his wife was the driver in the fatal hit and run (and in fact that both he and Bill withheld evidence) - though the latter two are safely out of reach in Switzerland. Nice peopl. 

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Social class and issues of first-person narrators in Balchin's A Way Through the Wood

It's probably unfair to expect a first-person narrator such as Jim Manning in Nigel Balchin's 1951 novel, A Way Through the Wood, to create a rich sense of place; that's one of the main differences between first- and third-person narrations. First-person narrators can only rarely develop mood and atmosphere, or they will risk losing credibility as they will sound, inevitably, like the author and not the character (exceptions: Proust's narrator, who obviously is the author; Nick Carroway, just the exception that proves the rule). First-person narrators are, however, a way for the author to establish character and voice; the danger, which I see here in Way Through the Woods, is that they will slip into type. Oddly, Balchin's narrator changes "type," chameleon-like: for the first 100 pp. or so he seems like an uptight, upper-caste Brit, snobbish and bitterly reserved. This tone holds through the first stages of the investigation of the car crash and culminates in his cool acquiescence when his wife, Jill, says she needs to go away to Spain for a few weeks to work things out with her lover, Bill Bule. Wouldn't any normal guy say something like: If you go, don't come back. But JM is fine and understanding and not even angry with the insidious Bule. Go figure. He in fact enters into a little conspiracy with Bule. JM is willing to play along with Bule's subterfuge in order to protect his wife from a charge of hit-and-run fatality; Bule's chauffeur indicates he can provide testimony that will undo Bule's fake alibi, and Bule get JM to go along with him in putting the squeeze on the chauffeur: Bule accuses the chauffeur to theft (rightly so) and tells him to get lost or they'll report it to the police. Well, actually, the chuaffeur should have the upper hand; he should have told Bule you do that and I'll nail you w/ my testimony (additionally, Bule asked him to repaint the scratches on the car!) - but what we see is class politics coming into play: the chauffeur figures, maybe correctly, that no judge would accept his word over the word of an landowner like Bule. Why, however, does Manning sink so low? Then the novel takes a strange turn, as Manning goes off for a visit to Venice w/ an American couple, old friends - and he begins to sound (and act) increasingly like an American noir detective, as he prowls the night haunts of Venice, always with a holier-than-thou attitude (refusing the advances of a friendly, alcoholic, high-class prostitute). The novel is veering off course - as we more or less have forgotten about the fatal hit-and-run and Manning's only concern is his disintegrating marriage and his personal malaise. That said, something about the clean writing and the focus on action keeps me engaged, and I'm eager to see how - or if - the strands come together and who (which social class) will come out on top. I'm betting the wealthy walk away from all responsibility and consequences.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

An entertaining novel of social class in England by a writer long forgotten

Nigel Balchin is a British author so obscure that (to my knowledge) not a single R.I. library has a copy of any of his (dozen of so) books, but a blurb on the English edition pb of A Way Through the Wood (1951) that friend DC recommended and kindly sent to me notes that in his time he was among the most popular English literary novelists, so go figure - sic tempus gloria, or some such phrase. Judging from this novel - the title is a reference to the opening lines of the Inferno - Balchin is a skilled writers with a fine sense of plotting and it's no surprise to also read in the blurb that he wrote several screenplays and several of his books including this one were made into films. That said, he falls a bit short of the standard that his contemporary Graham Greene set, in that this novel, intriguing as the plot may be, doesn't go beyond the plot, at least in the first 100 pp. or so; the characters, a 40-something prosperous Sussex couple, Jim and Jill Manning (Jim is the narrator) don't seem especially complex characters and aside from the social milieu - upper crust - he isn't that interested in establishing a sense of time and place: compare this w/ say The Quiet American or The Heart of the Matter (or even Brighton Rock, a mere "entertainment" acc GG). That said, Way Through the Wood does grab our attention and hold it. Narrator Jim begins by telling us his world fell apart in one year and he will tell us the story (he references Dante; another possible model could be Job). Some spoilers here, but any attentive reader will pick this up in the first 20 pp or so: a working-class man who lives nearby is struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver; Jim quickly determines that the driver is a friend, who had just attended a party at their house. He pursues this information and over time learns that the man - Bill Bule - wasn't driving his own car. Anyone who's read The Great Gatsby has by this point in the novel figured out who the driver is. This fact raises certain moral and ethical issues, which the novel will play out - all against a background of British upper-crust snobbery and repression. When Jill tells Jim what is obvious to all readers, that she's been having an affair, his reaction is so calm and blase - Oh, dear, were you terribly bored in our marriage? I suppose we shall have to tell him that it's all off from here on - and so forth - as to be a form of dark comedy. Socail class is a huge theme of this novel, made paramount when the Mannings visit the decrepit cottage of the man who was killed: this is one in a long history of scenes of the benevolent aristocrats visiting the peasants and offering a few drops of charity - see Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, even H James (The Princess Cassimassima) - I wish I could summon all the examples from memory, but a see a potential doctoral dissertation in this. 

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Why not end a novel in mid-thought? Life is like that.

I guess Dag Solstad's style at least in his 1996 novel (1st to be translated into English), Shyness & Dignity, is just totally weird and he's not trying to reach a wider readership, rather a coterie of devoted fans of narrative peculiarity and experimentation; I can see why Karl Ove Knausgaard might look up to DS as an inspiration and possibly a mentor - KOK's narration goes off on long tangents and can at times focus on the minutia of memory and sensibility - but there's something almost willfully perverse about Solstad's style. In this short novel w/out chapters and w/ only a handful of section breaks, we, first, meet the main character (Elias) on a day that he has a nervous breakdown at the h.s. where he teaches English; then we get the back story of E's college friendship with an older student, who abandons wife and daughter, and the extremely shy and inexperienced E moves in w/ wife (Eva) and later marries her; then we hear how his love for his wife has diminished and we get a long and sad segment in which we learn about how E feels the world has left him and his generation in its wake, the feels alone and friendless and as if he's wasted his life - and then we snap back to the present (day of the breakdown) and leave E in despair at a street crossing. I don't want to give a spoiler, but have to note that - huh? what kind of ending is this? Are we to surmise that he steps into traffic and dies? Or that he ambles on home and tells Eva that he has been an ass and is likely to lose his job? What? But Solstad, as noted, will thumb his nose at narrative convention - and just end this novel in mid-thought. He could have gone on, but why bother? Don't expect a sense of an ending; life is not like that, nor should fiction be, at least in this case. I did like some of the writing in the sad third segment of this novel, particularly the sorrow of Elias overhearing a fellow teacher (a math teacher, much younger) make a passing reference to Hans Castorph (?), and Elias begins to obsess about this teacher, how to befriend him, should he invite him to dinner, and on and on - in fact behaving very much like the indecisive Hans himself - almost expected him to ask the math teacher if he could borrow a pencil. Elias speculates that he himself would make a good character in a Mann novel, and imagines novelists holding something like casting calls to select characters: Would he meet Mann's criteria? Kind of a funny concept, and a jarring one that affects our reading of this novel - I can't remember another novel in which a character speculated about whether he could or should be a character in another author's book (closest I can think of would be Woody Allen's great story The Kugelmass Episode). 


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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

More on the strange narrative style of Dag Solstad

Norwegian writer Dag Solstad's Shyness & Dignity (1996) continues in its weird, meandering narrative manner; it's a short novel - only 150 rather small pp., with no chapters or section breaks - and even so very little happens. As noted yesterday the first 40 pages or so tell of a burned out h.s. teacher who has an outburst and nervous breakdown one day in school and will no doubt lose his job as a result. (Most of this section taken up w/ tedious recollection of the class lesson he's trying to convey to bored students.) Over the next 40 pages or so, we get the back story on this teacher's youth and his marriage, which is in short: in college he (Elias) became close friends w/ a dynamic and seemingly brilliant grad student (Johan?), a real counterpoint to the shy and self-conscious Elias. At one point J introduces E to his new girlfriend, later his wife, Eva (?), whom the narrator describes as extraordinarily beautiful. As time goes on, the Elias settles into a quiet loneliness and bachelorhood - extremely awkward w/ women - and J's life doesn't follow the prescribed course. His dissertation was not quite as brilliant as all had anticipated, he fails to find a good teaching job. Then one day he calls Elias and, with no forewarning, tells him he's moving to NY to take a job in advertising and leaving behind wife and daughter, whom he says are now E's responsibility. We can only assume that J has mental illness, probably bipolar disorder? Elias does marry Eva, but we know, from the outset of the novel, that she has lost her beauty and their relationship is cold and strained. What drags this potentially good novel down is Solstad's odd narration, in which re redundantly repeats points again and again - much like this sentence. At best, the prose has a kind of incantatory effect - for ex., his repeated references to the beauty of Eva seem almost Homeric - but you also keep hoping Solstad will get on with the story. As readers of this blog know, I am very patient with long interior narratives, from Proust the Karl Ove Knausgaard (who has recommended Solstad to readers), but only if the interior narration continues to provide insight and emotion. Here, the narration feels stuck, stalled - perhaps like life (we all do ruminate over and rework the materials of our inner lives), but offputting as well, for all that.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Among the strangest narratives I've ever read: Dag Solstad

In a recent NYTBR column Karl Ove Knausgaard touted fellow Norwegian writer Dag Solstad, noting that he would be a well-recognized world writer had he not written in the rarely translated language of Norwegian. Truly, works by Solstad are hard to find, but I did locate a copy of his 1996 novel, Shyness & Dignity. Not sure if this novel is in any way representative of his work, but I an finding it to be among the strangest and, at least initially, intentionally off-putting narratives I've ever read. The novel begins with a 50-something man nursing a hangover and bidding a cold and indifferent good-bye to his wife as he sets off for his job, as a teacher (actually, department chair) at a Norwegian high school. Over the next 30 pp or so we see him teaching a lesson on the Ibsen drama, The Wild Duck; he teaches w/out enthusiasm and is glum and morose and even scornful of his students, who are bored out of their minds by his pedantry. Problem: So are we. Esp non-Norwegian readers, as virtually none of us is familiar with this play (maybe could have worked with the better known Hedda Gabler or Doll's House), let alone the role of one of its minor characters, which the teacher (we don't learn his name until about 50 pp in) makes central to his lesson. (An English translator might take a real leap of faith and translate the whole discussion to, say, Shakespeare.) I was about to throw up my hands in exasperation, when things take a turn: the teacher (his job doesn't seem very demanding of his time) leaves for home mid-morning and when his umbrella won't open he throws a fit - smashing the umbrella against a post, cutting his hands, yelling vile insults at the students who silently watch this emotional breakdown. Then he starts to wander the streets of Oslo (a bit too many street names and neighborhoods of no interest to anyone but and Oslo resident), upset and disturbed about ruining his career and maybe his marriage and his life. A very odd book to say the least, but for the moment I'm hooked by this pathetic, disturbed character. 

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Monday, September 11, 2017

You can hear a lot by just listening: Rachel Cusk's narrartive

Some of this may be repeating thoughts I had at the end of volume 1 (Outline) or Rachel Cusk's in-progress trilogy, but it seems to me, having finished volume 2 (Transit) that she has succeeded, at least in part, by turning conventional ideas about narrative inside out. That is, the primary lesson in all writing classes, programs, and manuals re fiction writing is "show, don't tell" - that is, the author or narrator creates scenes involving action, conflict, insight, characters, change in order to convey the essence of the novel, the story line. Cusk has built to date 2 novels that are almost entirely "told": we rarely (some of the boat scenes in volume one and a few moments of conflict with the downstairs neighbors in Transit) have a scene of action and conflict; rather, Cusk has created a narrator who is expert as eliciting stories from others, so in virtually every chapter the narrator (Faye, though she seems a lot of Cusk from what I know) meets someone - sometimes an old friend, sometimes a stranger, sometimes a passing acquaintance such as a construction worker on the job at her house - and hears from them the story of their lives or, most often, of their disintegrated marriage(s). Part of her point, I think, is to have a narrator completely opaque and a world view of narratives in which people are deracinated - separated from their homeland, or their children, or spouse, by economic forces (need to earn a living) and psychological forces (inability to carry on a successful long-term relationship) - and in which the narrator is literally defined by her absences. There are hints that she has a sex life and she is obviously attractive to # of men, but she reveals nothing about her thoughts, feelings, fears - and only occasionally about her ideas. Others do all the talking. Well, as Yogi Berra said allegedly: You can hear a lot by just listening. But is that enough? I feel a little frustrated by the end of Transit - as I think a novel, and even more so a trilogy, needs a sense of direction, an arc so to speak. Cusk intentionally avoids that in that characters aside from the narrator rarely make more than one appearance (at least in Transit) and there are no carry-over characters from Outline. The novel ends with a dinner party that involves lots of conflict among the guests and between the guests and some of the children, who have been invited along - but the thing is that we care little about them becuase they are new to the novel at this point, so when the scene ends with the narrator packing up in the a.m. (everyone spent the night and all are asleep) and heading home (to London), it doesn't really make any great statement except that she woke up and is ready to more on (see the title). Cusk has found shaky ground between in novel, in which characters evolve and develop, and a collection of short stories, in which the link is the consciousness of the writer but not necessarily a continuity among characters or settings. Here we have neither - the chapters don't fully stand alone as stories, but they don't connect or interact w/ one another either.

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Notes getting repetitious toward the end of volume 2 of Rachel Cusk's trilogy

Keeping w/ the theme of the disappearing, or invisible, narrator - who, btw, is named Faye, as we learn in I think one aside in this entire novel - so though she may seem like a stand-in for Rachel Cusk in Transit (and the preceding novel, Outline) - she isn't exactly to be taken as the author herself: in the penultimate chapter of Transit we step in for I think the 3rd maybe the 4th time on the reno work under way on the narrator's apartment. The workers are creating a mess and a racket as they put in new flooring and sound-proofing; their work of course displaces the narrator, disrupts her family (her two boys are off elsewhere in London w/ their father and occasionally make appearances via frantic phone calls), and establishing a contentious relationship w/ the downstairs neighbors, two mean and vulgar louts who threaten the narrator and trash-talk her to the neighborhood - an extreme case of antagonism toward the gentrification of an old neighborhood. Throughout all this, the narrator is cool and distant; we know nothing about her longings and fears and anxieties. Once again, her role to elicit stories from others, such as the worker in her house, an immigrant from Poland, whose family is back home and whom he misses, and who is in a contentious relationship w/ his father because he built a house for his family that his father believes is ridiculous because of all the open space and glass (the builder yearns to be an architect). Strange that we know more about him than about the author/narrator. We even go into one of her writing classes, but the class is more or less commandeered by one of the students - we don't get to see the narrator talk or teach or even opine. At the end of the chapter she has dinner w/ a man who has for the past year been trying to get a date w/ her; not much happens on this date - but it further builds the case that the narrator is attractive, draws men to her (in part because of her intelligence and literary stature), but offers the men little or no affection in return. We learn about her through what she's not - but nearing the end of the 2nd vol of this in-progress trilogy the notes are getting repetitious and I am hoping (against hope) for some kind of development or denouement.

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Saturday, September 9, 2017

A current Allegra Goodman NYer story that rings true to any parent

Smart and intentionally disturbing story, The FAQs, in current New Yorker, by Allegra Goodman - a story about a young woman landing back at NJ suburban home after 2nd year of college and boyfriend breakup and we watch her seeming gradual disintegration deeper into withdrawal and breakdown - obsession about eating and about conservation of resources, refusal to engage in any of her interests, withdrawal from social interaction, hours spent looking one at a time at photographs before deletion, denial to her parents that there's any problem, and so forth. Part of the beauty and success of this story is the careful balance of narrative POV - a detached, all-observant narrator focused on the family dynamics, which are credible yet astonishing: the father insisting that the daughter pull herself together and snap out of this, the mother in a deeper denial. There's no one to blame - tho the marriage is tense, it's not without familial love, and would have been so easy to make either or both parents the "villains" - and the story rings true to any parent, our deepest fear being a child in trouble and beyond reach, and the withdrawal of a child from all efforts and contact and support - a grotesque exaggeration of the process that all children must pass thru en route to becoming responsible adults. Reminds at times of a contemporary version, in miniature, of Roth's American Pastoral (w/out the radical politics of course). You will probably think you know where this story's going but you probably don't; I found the end surprising and appropriate - so unusual for a "realistic" contemporary story to provide a satisfactory and credible sense of an ending.

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Friday, September 8, 2017


More and more it becomes apparent that Rachel Cusk's theme in her novel Transit is invisible women, women who believe they have lost their place in the world - starting w her narrator, who seems to be a near stand-in for the author without the burden of veracity that a true memoir (of which cusk has written several) would entail. She is "in transit" between dwelling and relationships - her ex-husband and her children are on the periphery as she moves into a rundown house and hires workers to do a completed renovation. We see her in one chapter meeting w a younger, aspiring writer in a room w all of the furniture covered in plastic sheeting. We know over the course of this move so much about a large # of people - friends and near strangers - but so little about the narrator. As to the others - we see the aspiring writer, a professional food photographer, who wants to write a book about an American artist (marsden?) because, she oddly asserts, she has literally become him. She needs more than a writing coach!, and the narrator offers her no useful advice. We meet a friend of the narrator who is also revamping her flat and in a relationship w the contractor - who now she says is working for love not money. There is a sense of the remodeling (this woman works in fashion tho she is not herself fashionable) as a form of self-effacement. We also hear from one of the workers on the narrator's project, an Albanian immigrant who is proud of how well his young daughter speaks English but laments that his wife knows no English and cannot really communicate w their daughter - marginalized or exiled in her own deracinated family.

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Several views of personal narrative in Cusk's Transit

I spoke a little too soon in yesterday's post in noting that the life-stories that the narrator elicits in Rachel Cusk's novel Transit are not from among the literary world (as they largely were in her previous novel, Outline) -as the very next section (about the mid-point of then novel) has Cusk as a panelist at a literary lecture series somewhere in rural England (precise location not disclosed). There are 2 other writers on the panel, plus a moderator she refers to only as the Chair. The first panelist talks with wit and verve and would take up the full allotted time for the so-called discussion if allowed; apparently the theme has something to do w/ memoir and fiction (two areas for Cusk herself), although she does not make the explicit. The first panelist says that he writes to get praise and recognition, something he was deprived of throughout a difficult childhood. He loves speaking about his work, and he showed his work to his family members before publishing in the spirit of openness (if not of reconciliation). The 2nd panelist is the diametric opposite; he prefers anonymity to recognition, found the writing of his memoir to be painful and difficult, not sure if he'll ever write again, and hopes to fade back into anonymity. These are two takes on the art of personal narrative; it's kind of fun to wonder if these two panelists are based on real authors (the 2nd at times sounds like KOK, though the sexual orientation differs). Cusk, or I should say the narrator of Transit, is 3rd to speak and in her sly way she says she pulled out a manuscript and read it - and tells us nothing about her remarks. There is no time left for discussion - so the Chair has an easy time of it (he'd expressed to the narrator some nervousness before the event, though he noted he was always glad to be invited to these types of forums). After the program, the narrator hears a lament from the 1st panelist's boyfriend (much younger), who tells of his troubled youth, his gradual discovery of his sexual orientation, his alienation from family - then tells her how much her story has meant to him. Finally, the Chair talks to her, walks her back to her hotel, and at the door gives her a long, passionate kiss. This is quite strange - she doesn't reject him in any way, but she shuts the door after the kiss. We saw in Outline the narrator's rejection of sexual advances, but here she seems ambivalent at best - perhaps the Chair (like the Neighbor in Outline) will play a bigger role, and perhaps he will prompt the narrator to offer a little more about her own sexuality and experiences. She is a blank at the center of this canvas, once again. 

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Rachel Cusk's Transit - and how it carries on, or doesn't, from Outline

Volume 2 of Rachel Cusk's in-progress trilogy, Transit, doesn't exactly start of where vol 1 (Outline) left off, in that none of the "characters" save the author/narrator is carried over, but the mood and structure is the same: the narrator passes through her life w/ an astonishing facility for eliciting from others their life stories or stories (sometimes fabricated, it would seem) about their lives. As in Outline, the characters who tell their stories in essence paint the background of the canvas, leaving the center of the portrait, Cusk herself (or her narrator, if you will) an opacity. There are some differences and developments, however. In Outline, the narrator was living w/ her 2 sons (she's recently divorced) on the downs on the s. coast of England; Transit begins w/ her relocation to London and in fact her search for housing (hence, the title, at least in the literal sense). Another difference: Outline was very much about the narrator as a writer; it takes place during a week she spends as an instructor in a writing workshop in Athens, and all of the characters she encounters (save one, the "neighbor" she befriends on the plane to Athens) are writers or involved in publishing. Though she self-identifies as a writer in Transit, her occupation doesn't seem central to his narrative, as least through the first third or so. The people she meets are not writers and, in fact, save for an ex-boyfriend she encounters who's an avid musician (amateur perhaps - he's unaccomplished professionally in comparison w/ the narrator), they're not even in the arts: the realtor who directs her to the share in a townhouse she buys, the contractor who comes in to undertake major repairs, her hairdresser (that's kind of a cliched chapter, in my view, as a hairdresser by his profession is going to be telling over and over again his life story - the other encounters are more the result of the narrators capacity to listen to strangers and others; also, the hair salon chapter ends when a young man in an adjacent chair getting his hair cut against his will it seems slams a door on exit shattering a set of glass shelves - who in his right mind would but glass shelving within the swing range of the front door?). No clear theme emerges just yet, but there seems to be a lot of attention to the changing demographics of contemporary London - neighborhoods that once were sketchy are now priced out of sight, for example, which could probably be said, too, of NYC, Paris, many other major cities. The narrator seems caught in squeeze - perhaps having overpaid for a house in deep disrepair. We'll see. 

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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Two American stories that are the opposite of Barbara Pym, and of each other

Escaped from the fussy, microscopic world of Barbara Pym w/ two American short stories that could not be more different from her work, or from each other for that matter. First, Miranda July's quirky piece in current New Yorker, The Metal Bowl, about an eccentric and somewhat w/drawn LA mom - story opens w/ her young son entering the bedroom and, noting blood on the sheets, informing mom that she's just had her period - show heads off to the mall and believes a man is staring at her, that he "recognizes" her, which leads her to recount a time in her youth when she starred on a one-person sex video (fans of the video would recognize her in public). Turns out the man is her next-door neighbor; the next night, when an earthquake hits the area, she and he spend the night outside on a blanket, spooned together. Eventually she cops this to her husband and tells him for the first time about the sex video; strangely, though maybe not surprisingly, this turns him on and he re-enacts for her the sex scene, exciting both of them (the eponymous bowl is one of the props). This is not something that would happen to anyone in a Barbara Pym novel! Later I (re)read Edward Jones's great story, Old Boys, Old Girls, reprinted in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories (what happened to Jones, who wrote some great stories plus The Known World, one of the best American novels of the past 30 years - and who seemed to compose entire works in his head before putting them into print or writing?); this harrowing story about a black man in DC who seems to have some retardation or other cognitive difficulties, who murders 2 men and can't really remember why or keep the 2 events straight in his mind. He goes to prison, and his time in Fulton is I think foundational for contemporary prison movies/TV that have followed - I certainly saw the influence of the struggles for superiority, the alliances, the favors and disfavors, the violence - not random but calculated for effect - in the recent The Night Of. The protagonist is the kind of person we would pass w/out a 2nd thought, who is never the focus of a book or movie (he's not sympathetic, nor an anti-hero either, just an ordinary disturbed criminal) - but Jones treats him w/ empathy and respect, if not with love. The ending is dark and somewhat open-ended - as we follow a short time in his life after prison, with few supports and with a surprisingly welcoming (and successful) family, whose love for him seems to push him away and make him more self-conscious and anti-social. Nothing here is lovably quirky or eccentric as in July's story. 

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Monday, September 4, 2017

Not the ideal reader for Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym is well aware that she is writing in the "high comic" tradition of Austen, brought up to date for the mid-20th century; she even has her narrator, in Excellent Women (1952) remark that hers is a life story of small occasions, not wars, fights, tragedies that usually form the basis for most novels, literary and otherwise. Her characters are prim and proper and leading circumscribed lives; Mildred (the drabness of the name typifies the narrative), the narrator of EW, is an unmarried 30+ and unlikely, by her account ever to marry - and same for most of the others in her life; the only married couple we meet so far (100 pp in) in this novel is the somewhat racy Rockwell and Helena couple. High drama occurs when Mildren's friend, the rector of her church, is seen holding hands in public w/ his new tenant, the recently widowed (her husband was also a church man) Allegra (?). The typical scenes in this novel: drama surrounding church members shirking their responsibilities at the weekly "jumble sale"; a boring lecture at a learned society, followed by questions that the narrator cannot understand; the annual lunch w/ her best friend's brother - yet another fussy lifelong bachelor - who is eager for gossip and is rude and oblivious about Mildred (she notices flowers for sale after the lunch, and he does not offer to buy them for her!). At this point, I throw up my hands and cry: Enough! Or, more precisely: Not enough! I appreciate Pym's fidelity to her cause, the minor interior dramas of everyday, circumscribed life; I admire her occasional forays into topicality: we get a sense of postwar London and the persisting; in particular, a service in a church still half in rubble. I see the parallels w/ Austen - as it seems part of the theme is overcoming harsh and sometimes inaccurate first impressions, and gradually - perhaps - learning to love another (and one's self). But I'm smothered by the closeness and the tiny nuances of proper British behavior - when to use surnames, for example. Recognizing that I'm not the ideal reader for this novel, I bow out. 

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Sunday, September 3, 2017

Barbara Pym's Excellent Women and the "novel of education"

The narrator of Barbara Pym's 1952 novel, Excellent Women, appears at first glance as almost a parody or mockery of the English literary spinster type: She's in her late 30s, living in a small "flat" in a house on the "wrong" side of Victoria Station, sharing the bathroom w/ the 2 other tenants, working for some sort of dowdy English charity, daughter of a clergyman, devout herself - regular church-goer ar the "right" Anglican church in the neighborhood, closest friends are the rector and his 40-year-old sister, neither of them married. She is self-described as "plain," and, w/ a touch of literary wit, notes that she is not a Jane Eyre type (the type who gives hope to other plain women - reader, I married him). For all that she's upbeat, slyly self-deprecatory, and a touch ironic - as in her dinner with her two friends and joins them in speculation on who gave an anonymous donation to the church for window repair (like, who care?). Will anything at all of import happen in this novel? Well, yes, because, following one of the literary formulae, a stranger has come to town - there's a new tenant in the flat downstairs, a woman who's got a glamorous career (she's an anthropologist), a husband in the Navy, and, seemingly, a lover on the side - and brash manner about her - one of these two women will influence the other, and the question is which will change, and will they both survive their close kinship (much discussion about the shared bathroom, and who will clean it and how effectively, and what brand of toilet paper to buy). It sells this novel short to call it domestic or trivial, in that it's also a powerful portrayal of an England still rattled and suffering shortages after the war, and of the plight of women in England - still, in 1952, if unmarried so hard to find decent employment, to be taken seriously, to find a role in life outside of church and charity. The title gives us a hint - we expect the narrator to grow and mature; she may not be a Jane Eyre, but this may also be a bildungsroman (novel of education) of a different sort. 

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