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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

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The ambitious but sometimes impenetrable plot of Yokoyama's Six Four

Still moving along with Hideo Yokoyama's Six Four, a rcime-mystery-police novel set in 2002 Japan - extremely long for the mystery genre, at nearly 600 dense pages, but HY's aspirations are higher, as this is a novel with the scope of literary fiction - not simply a who dunnit, so to speak, but an examination of the complex relations of the police and the media, internal politics w/in the PD, family psychodrama, political corruption and police protection thereof, and of course a crime - kidnap, murder, of a 7-year-old girl - unsolved over 14 years and now a priority for the PD as the statute of limitations looms. I find a lot of the drama difficult, even impenetrable - I really think most American readers will throw up their hands in frustration as we try to follow the complex internal politics in the PD, as there's not a lot of background and the inter-relations of various departments and officials is extremely hard to keep straight, even w/ a cast of characters at the opening (as in many Russian novels). So I find myself skimming these sections and focusing on the more immediate and apparent elements. There are several "mysteries" unfolding here: Who killed the young girl 14 years back? Why did the police fail to find the killer? Why did the girl's family break off all relations with the PD? Why is the central office suddenly focused on a reviving this case? The main character in the novel, and the only one so far (1/3 of the way through) with any even partially developed back story, is the police officer Mikami - recently bumped from detectives to "media relations." In his new role he finds himself completely shut off from info about developing cases - a familiar, and completely wrong, way for an agency to deal w/ media relations and communications. He receives the low-level assignment of speaking w/ the kidnapped girl's father and asking if he is will to allow the top police chief based in Tokyo (I imagine his role is comparable to the head of the FBI) to visit - in an attempt to build media interest in the case and unearth some clues.When the man unexpectedly refuses, this ignites Mikami's suspicions and he embarks on a quest to find out what caused this split and why the police may have screwed up the case. In a subplot that I think will eventually be tied to the main plot, Mikami's daughter, who suffers from BMD (hatred of her own body and appearance), vanishes, and police nationwide are in a search for her, or for her corpse. Novel opens w/ Mikami called to a station to ID a corpse that turns out not to be his daughter's; I expect that the novel may end w/ a similar scene?

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

When crime-fiction approaches literary fiction: Six Four

I was drawn to the 2012 Japanese crime novel Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama, by the glowing front-page NYTBR review a few weeks back; I don't usually read crime fiction, but this one seemed to be a big step above the standard police procedural, the investigation led by an eccentric cop/detective/investigative journalist with quirks, failings, flaws, and enough personality to drive a series of novels. This novel has grander aspirations - reminded me a little from the outset of Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, a novel not about a crime per se but about the nature of criminality and justice and the effect of a crime on individuals and on a whole community. (These are elements you'll see in the great currently running series, American Crime, btw). So how does it hold up to expectations? Well, it's long, as advertised, about 600 large pages w/ dense type! In the time it will take me to read this I could be reading Crime and Punishment. And it got off to a slow start. The novel centers on a police officer, Mikami, who has served most of his career as a detective but has recently been transferred to "media relations" (a position I know well). This transfer seems to him a demotion, but he's trying hard to improve relations w/ the press. Here we see one of the differences between Japanese and U.S. culture; the 13 reporters that cover the police in this unnamed city outside of Tokyo are pushing the police to release the name of someone in an accident report. The police refuse, and the reporters threaten to send an official protest to the police captain. To everyone involved, this is a huge deal - whereas in the U.S. it would be a waste of everyone's time, to put it mildly. For a while, I thought I wouldn't read this novel for more than a day, as much of the early going concerns internal politics in the PD, about which I cared not at all. But there are two other plot strands: first, Mikami's adult daughter has disappeared, and there's a nationwide search for info about her. Second, a major unsolved kidnap-murder case is nearing its statute of limitations, and the police are pushing for more info before the case is dead; Mikami was a detective involved in the original investigation. I have to say this novel has grown on me and I'll continue w/ it as long as it holds my interest. It doesn't seem like great literature - the writing is smooth and efficient but hardly probes the interior life of the character and leaves the settings bland and abstract, the City of D as it's called could be anywhere in Japan - but the complex web of the plot is drawing me in.

Monday, April 24, 2017

An alienated man and a great anti-war novel: The Land at the End of the Earth

Right to the end, Antonio Lobo Antunes's The Land at the End of the Earth stands as one of the great war, or I should say anti-war, novels of the 20th century. By the end, we see how service in the colonial war in Angola destroyed the narrator for life, making him isolated, cynical, unable to connect with his family, his ex-wife and their daughters, his profession, his home town, his native land - or with anyone in any sort of normal, healthy relationship. The novel is structured as the narrator's account of his life, particularly his wartime service, to a woman he meets in a bar; he chats her up through the night - almost every chapter includes some moments of his addressing this woman - in a clumsy seduction attempt, one of many evidently - this one ultimately leading to "success," as they go back to his apartment and have sex and continue the dialog, or monologue, until dawn when she leaves for work and the narrator reflects that he seems to like her (perhaps because she's an undemanding listener; he seems to be the one doing all the talking) but no doubt will never see her again. He is a completely alienated 20th-century man - although he does retain one faculty, and that's his extraordinary ability to convey the horrors of his wartime experience. As a narrator, he is engaged - and obsessed, like the Ancient Mariner (does translator Margaret Jull Costa make this comparison in her helpful intro?). Yes, war is hell - but his narrative goes beyond that, in eviscerating the hypocrisy and corruption of this particular war of colonial aggression, believed to be in the best interest of the conquered African nations but actually just propping up the wealth of the Portuguese aristocrats and the generals safe in their offices in the capital. Final note: in an earlier post I said there were 26 chapters arranged alphabetically (A thru Z); in fact, there are only 23 chapters, as the Portuguese language doesn't use three letters of the Roman alphabet (k,w, and y).

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Possible meanings of "deaf and blind" in Vapnyar's NYer story

Lara Vapnyar's story in current New Yorker, Deaf and Blind, brings us to her familiar territory, Moscow in the late Soviet era, and she accounts in first person a friendship between narrator's mother and a very beautiful Russian intellectual, a philosophy prof of some sort (the mother is also an intellectual and holds a doctorate, but is decidedly less glamorous, to the chagrin of the daughter, as the narrator relates, looking back from her own adulthood). Both women are in bad and doomed relationships: the mother's because she just plain does not love her husband enough, she's kind of indifferent to him; the friend's because her husband dotes on her too extensively. Strangely, the friend announces that she is having an affair and has fallen in love with a famous philosopher who, as the title indicates, is both blind and deaf. It's hard for the narrator and her family to fathom how this love began and how it could endure - and it's hard for us, too. What draws this beautiful woman to such a difficult and charged relationship? We have to think, first, that something in her likes being so needed, the only source of communication between this man and the world, the one who literally communicates all of his brilliant ideas (he is a philosopher of perception, interestingly); second, perhaps she is drawn to someone who does not fall in love w/ her because of her beauty? The story builds to the scene where the woman comes to dinner at narrator's mother's Moscow apartment; the visit is less fraught and awkward than we might expect - the couple seem to be very much in love and, as communicated by mother's friend, the man sense true love and feeling in this family. So maybe the translator is lying; how would we know? In any event his misses that the family - grandma, mother, narrator - is being wrenched apart by narrator's father's indifference to his daughter: constantly trying to arrange get-togethers almost all of which fail to materialize. It's obvious that there are more important things, to him, in his life - and another climactic moment, in this sub-plot, is when the narrator tells the father that she can't make one of his proposed dates. I'm wondering if there is some metaphorical significance to this domestic tale; perhaps being deaf and blind is characteristic of so many relationships among those who can see and can hear. Perhaps being deaf and blind is also characteristic of the late days of the Soviet Union - the government oblivious to its imminent collapse.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The difficulty of William Carlos Williams's Paterson and the failure of Jim Jarmusch's film thereof

William Carlos Williams famously wrote (paraphrasing): "I wanted to write a poem/that you would understand." Paterson, the book-length poem he wrote over the course of about 10 years, roughly 1942-52, is famously not that poem. The concept is simple and elegant: a man named Paterson represents the soul and spirit of the eponymous N.J. city. The poem or collection itself is not simple. Although the poem includes the repeated dicta "no ideas but in things" - which could serve as the guiding principle of almost all of WCW's writing - e.g., Red Wheel Barrow, the bowl of plums in the refrigerators, asphodel the greeny flower, and on and on - most of the lyric verse in Paterson is elusive and abstract. WCW, however, makes Paterson more accessible by constructing its as something like an anthology of found poetry, including many news items about the history of the city and also letters and messages WCW has received, notably several significant letters from an acolyte, the then very young Alan Ginsberg. The work is a success almost in spite of itself - a success as an idea or concept, but less so as a collection of verse - probably not read today by many other than true Williams' devotees. Which brings us to Paterson the movie, from 2016, by NY indie writer-director Jim Jarmusch. JJ had the smart idea of a film in contemporary Paterson on the same theme and model, a man named Paterson lives as the heart and soul of his city. The man, played well by Adam Driver, is a bus driver and aspiring poet, who jots down his poems in a small journal while on lunch break at the Paterson falls (a key setting in WCW's poem) and otherwise learns about the city from overheard conversations while driving and at his nightly visits to a neighborhood bar. Good idea, but, sad to say, lousy film. First, JJ is in no way interested in conventional narrative or plot; good for him, but it makes for an extremely flat and unengaging film. In fact JJ toys with the conventions of narrative, disappointing all of our expectations; e.g., a car pulls up to P as he's walking his bulldog and the toughs in the car say the dog is in danger of being "dog-napped." But that never happens (confession: I didn't watch the last 40 minutes of this 2-hour film). Strangest of all is P's marriage to an artistic stay-at-home, Laura. They live in a small, undistinguished house w/ a pink door and a slanted mail box; inside, Laura has gone wild w/ b/w decor, showing it seems a real talent for fashion and design (how she does all this work in one week and how they can afford the materials is unanswered). She has grandiose visions, e.g., she sweet-talks P into letter her buy a $400 guitar (they live on a shoe string) so that she can learn to play and become a c/w star. She does sing for him - a pathetic rendition of "I've been working on the rr." Seriously? Worse, in a way: She encourages him to publish his writing, the world needs to see these poems, etc. Well, in fact, the poems are vapid and inane: one for example is about a brand of matches, and written with neither wit nor verbal insight - not even close to WCW or to the Beats or to any published poetry. JJ seems to know that these poems are amateurish (he has P meet a young girl in a scenes that on a realistic level is truly disturbing - why would she talk to a stranger in an alleyway? - who reads him a poem that's good, at least for her age), so what's his point? Maybe the film itself is the poem, but JJ seems to have a hipster disdain for the shortcomings of his own characters.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Two passages from Antunes's The Land at the End of the Earth

I'm gonna break w/ past practice and quote a passage or two from Antonio Lobo Antunes's 1979 novel The Land at the End of the World because I can't think of another way in which to convey his beautiful imagery and unusual perspectives, reminiscent only of Proust perhaps, though in an entirely different milieu - the Portuguese colonial war in Angola as perceived by a military doctor, his postwar depression, his disgust w/ and contempt for the Salazar dictatorship, the horrors of military action (some of this reminiscent of the American Vietnam-era literature and to a lesser degree of all anti-war literature as seen from combatants, such as Catch 22), and of sexual longings unfulfilled. Here, almost at random, is the opening sentence to Chapter F (novel has 26 chapters, id'd by letters in alphabetical order, not sure of the significance if any): "Have you ever noticed how at this hour of the night and with this amount of alcohol in your blood, the body begins to emancipate itself from you, refusing to light your cigarette, grasping your glass with a certain tactile clumsiness, wandering about inside your clothes with a gelatinous fluidity?" Note how he does not talk about the drunk's losing control of his body; rather, the opposite: the body freeing itself from the person. Or this, literally selected by random opening of book: "I tried to perform heard massage, but his chest was soft and boneless and it crunched beneath my hands, like a sort of pulp, an explosion was all it took to turn Macaco into a rag-and-sawdust puppet, the captain disappeared again into the mess hut and returned with more whisky in his glass, the plain began to drain of color, announcing the coming of night, the medic, still saying Fuck fuck fuck, came and crouched next to us, under our breath we were all saying Fuck, the captain was whispering Fuck into his whisky, the duty officer standing to attention before teh flag, his fingers adjusting his beret, was screaming Fuck, the moist imploring eyes of the stray dogs sniffing at our ankles were moaning Fuck, their eyes as supplicating as those of the people in this bar tonight [note: he is addressing a woman in a bar at about 2 a.m.], moist with resignation and a stupid kind of tenderness, eyes adrift about their glasses of Cognac ... " - and so forth. You can see that this is like a prose poem (does it remind anyone of Michael Casey's great Vietnam poems, Obscenities?) yet also note the shift in perspectives - from the action in the field, to the reactions of those around, from realism to anthropomorphism (the dogs) to a present-day (1979) setting in a bar, sad in disillusioned but so distant from the war except in memory and scars. Many props at translator Margaret Jull Costa - and not that English translation did not appear until 2011 - three decades+ after publication. No wonder Antunes has not been properly recognized as a leading world writer (if this novel represents his overall work) - a travesty.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Blown away by the beauty and complexity of The Land at the End of the Earth

I'm again blown away by the beauty, complexity, and depth of Antonio Lobo Antunes's short novel The Land at the End of the Earth (1979), an examination of the horrors of the Portuguese colonial wars in the 1970s and the effect of the war on a young soldier. A plot summary, however, does not and cannot convey the excellence of this novel, in which literally every sentence is full of oddities, insights, wit, and bits of philosophy and insight. Antunes's prose seems at times like beat poetry - like taking Howl and turning it into a prose poem. But he still manages to tell a story, of sorts. He doesn't dwell on back story but over time we learn more about the narrator's life: halfway thru, we now know that he is a doctor who joined the army (drafted into the army? not clear yet) and we see him dealing with the most horrendous and grotesque of war injuries, including loss of limbs from roadside explosives. He also is recently married, and is wife gives birth to their first child while he's in service in Angola. One of the powerful chapters recounts his visit on leave back to Lisbon, and Antunes captures succinctly the shock of return, the difficulty of adjustment to the proprieties and conventions of civil life (he gets in a weird dispute with the customs agent in the airport), the alienation and estrangement from his family - nobody can understand service in the the colonial wars from the safety of Lisbon. The novel is presented as a tale or confession from the narrator to a woman he's trying to seduce during the early morning hours in a bar - the novel is addressed to her, or to "you," but Antunues does not dwell on this narrative device, just returns to it from time to time, and by doing so lets us know that the soldier never does adjust to civilian life (the narration takes place about 8 years after the events described), that his marriage must have dissolved, and we sense he's no longer involved w/ his young daughter nor with the bourgeois family. It's a challenging novel to read - the syntax is at times Proustian in complexity, there are many topical references (as noted yesterday, translator Margaret Jull Costa includes helpful yet unobtrusive footnotes), the vocabulary is rich, even arcane at times - but pick up almost any sentence, almost anywhere in this novel, and you'll be blown away from Antunes's insight and wit.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The horrors of the Portuguese colonial wars - The Land at the End of the World

Judging from the first 50 or so pages, Antonio Lobo Antunes's novel The Land at the End of the World (1979) is among the strongest and most unusual novels I've come across in many years - who is this writers and, if this novel holds up and his other dozen or so novels are equally good, why does nobody in the English-reading world know much about him? Well, he's Portuguese, so maybe there aren't a lot of great translators, and it would take one, I think, to manage this work, with its highly unusual metaphors and its arcane vocabulary (plus many topical references); Margaret Jull Costa does it justice, though, as far as I can tell, and even includes helpful yet unobtrusive footnotes for our guidance. The novel is narrated by a young Portuguese man of a conventional, perhaps well-to-do Lisbon family with a strong military background. Though he tells us little about his childhood or background - except obliquely, the terrific opening chapter tells in some detail about his childhood memories of a visit to the Lisbon zoo, very Proustian - we see that he joins, perhaps against his will or perhaps out of indifference - the Portuguese army, and he his shipped off to the colony of Angola to participate in the war against rebel forces. Antunes's description of the arrival in Angola, of the train convoy to the military outpost, and of various frightening and decrepit scenes, including a visit to a leper colony, are outstanding. The Portuguese colonial wars in some ways mirror American engagement in the Vietnam war - bitter, stupid, hopeless, producing so many needless deaths and other tragedies, breaking apart families, etc. This novel could well be read alongside novels of the Vietnam era and perhaps other novels of American engagement in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the Portuguese war was even more horrendous than the American follies - racist, the product or a corrupt dictatorship, and in defense of an archaic and criminally unjust colonial system of oppression (and much longer in duration as well).

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The strange conclusion to Cather's The Professor's House

What a strange novel The Professor's House (Willa Cather) turns out to be. The first section, which constitutes about 3/4 of the novel, sets up a lot of family conflicts - tensions between the 2 sisters over the wealth and showiness of the elder, Prof. St. Peter's strained relationship with his wife who is pushing the family into a new house, the professor's anguish over the death of his son-in-law and favorite student, Tom Outland, and his conflicting feelings about the wealth Outland bequeathed to his widow through his patents, hints of anti-Semitism (the son-in-law is Jewish), inter-faculty rivalries and campus politics, and other strands. The 2nd section, Tom Outland's Story, ostensibly written by the professor but in Outland's voice, describes Outland's discovery of ancient cliff dwellings in New Mexico. Where I left off yesterday, the direct wasn't clear - but what happens in the 2nd section is the Outland along w/ 2 partners spends much of a year cataloging all of the artifacts on the site. By today's standard, his actions are a travesty - disturbing the entire cliff dwelling without proper study or protection of the site - but his goals are noble. After the season's work, he heads to D.C. to try to get the Smithsonian interested in undertaking the study and preservation of the site. Cather makes D.C. seem horrendous - fuel for any contemporary anti-government ideologue ready to blame all society's ills on "Washington" (Reagan, Bush, Trump - all pretty comfortable in Washington, btw). In short, government bureaucrats are at best mindless pencil-pushers and careerists and at worst corrupt to the core. Outland returns to NM discouraged only to find that his partner has sold all of the relics to a German (!) collector - fully intending to do the right thing and share the profits but oblivious of Outland's desire to preserve the site. They quarrel, and his friend disappears - presumably dead, or perhaps in another country, shamed and hurt. Outland never recovers from this betrayal and from his own guilt for chasing off his well-meaning partner. In the very short final section, The Family, we see a couple of new strands. The professor recalls his visits to the SW with Outland, then his favorite student, and his love of the beauty of the desert landscape stands in sharp contrast to the squalor of DC and the dullness of his college campus. Most strange of all, though, is the professor's complete estrangement from his family. He has no interest in welcoming with and adult daughters back after their summer in Europe; he prefers to dwell, romantically, in the past: in his old study, in memories of his camping adventures w/ Outland. There is a sexual undercurrent to this relationship, though Cather tactfully does not explore that channel. More evident is the professor's complete disillusion, his feeling that his whole life (aside from those 3 summers in the SW) has been a sham and a failure. He takes no pleasure in The Family. Yet we don't understand the late Outland, either: What made him tick? Why would a young scholar recently married enlist in the infantry to fight in the World War? He, too, seems to be in flight from something - maybe that, too, is the unexamined sexual relationship or attraction between the young and the older man.

Monday, April 17, 2017

A strange turn of events in section 2 of The Professor's House

Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House (1925) takes a weird turn in section 2 (of 3), Outland’s Story, which is purpotedly a “memoir” that Professor St. Peter composes to capture some of the tales of youth that his favorite student and late son-in-law, Tom Outland, used to tell to entertain the St. Peter daughters (one of whom he will eventually marry). A # of things strike me as strange: Outland on the one hand seems much too old for this plot – he was an outstanding college student telling tales of his youth to the very young daughters of his favorite professor, and then w/in a few years marries the older daughter? He seems to be literally twice her age. On the other hand: he seems much too young for the part. He’s a college student (albeit he did not enter as a conventional undergraduate) and he has come from working on the railroads and in cattle ranching and has roughneck stories w/ which to entertain the St. Peter children: he seems here as if he must have been in his mid-20s when entering college. So I don’t know, maybe I’m messed up but either the chronology or the characterization seems off base. In this 2nd section, Outland, via St. Peter, tells of a summer he spent grazing cattle in New Mexico w/ 2 other men, and of their explorations on what he calls the “blue mesa,” pretty much unexplored territory, on which he discovers ruins of cliff-dweller civilizations. I don’t know how much the world at large knew of the cliff dwellers in 1925 (or, the setting of this part of the novel, which was probably about 1910?), but maybe this is supposed to be the discover by white settlers of the Mesa Verde dwellings (though those are in SW Colorado)? Not sure the significance, to St. Peter or to this narrative, of this sudden shift in terrain and mode; I’m pretty sure we’re not heading toward a Broakback Mountain romance – but for some reason St. Peter feels compelled to preserve and to tell this tale – which must have some bearing on his family story and must be some foundation for Outland’s scientified success, which will lead to a great fortune for his widow (St. Peter’s daughter) and her “outsider” (that is, Jewish) businessman-husband.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Character complexity in Cather's The Professor's House

Part of what engages us in Willa Cather's 1925 novel, The Professor's House, is the complexity of the central character, Prof. Godfrey St. Peter. On the one hand, is kind of a curmudgeon: he insists on retaining his run-down, thrid-floor study, where he's composed all of his books, even when this entails renting the entire house (as he has built a new house with recent profits from his surprisingly popular series of history book). He is testy and uncomfortable with his son-in law Louie Marsellus, uneasy about accepting gifts and hospitality, such as having Louie pay for a hotel suite in Chicago or a vacation in France (Louie is extremely wealthy, as described in earlier posts, having made good on the patents held by St. Peter's best student). He is never explicit about this, but he seems to pull away from Louie, and toward his other son-in-law, the journalist, Scott, in part because Louie is crass and nouveau - and maybe even because Louie is Jewish, though the anti-Semitism is not (yet) expressed outright. On the other hand, St. Peter is independent and proud and, unlike so many others in literature and in life, unwilling to fawn all over Louie just because Louie is wealthy, unwilling to exploit his son-in-law's wealth for his own comfort or betterment. In fact, St. Peter intervenes a couple of times - notably meeting with another professor, Crane, who believes he should have a share in the patent profits, and though St. Peter tells Crane point blank that he has no valid legal claim he also says he'd be willing to talk w/ Louie about some kind of settlement; he's a generous man, at least w/ someone else's $ he is. He's a man who should be content w/ his life: a good marriage, daughters married successfully, a late-career academic success as well - but he feels that something is missing, possibly that he's spent is life in a goldfish bowl, a small mid-western university beleaguered by pressure to be more "relevant" and career-oriented (a familiar academic relent even a century later), perhaps because of something mysterious in his relationship w/ his best student and former son-in-law, the late Tom Outland: his, and everyone's, obsession w/ Outland is one of the curious and to this point unexplained aspects of this novel, but part 2 is called Outland's Story, and perhaps the mystery will be clarified (or maybe further darkened).

Saturday, April 15, 2017


Willa Cather' 1925 novel, The professor's house, as noted yesterday, is a novel that's against Cather's type, or against her type-caste - a campus novel in some regards but actually more than that it's a character study and family drama. The professor, Godfrey St. Peter , is toward the end of his career at a non-prestigious Midwest university and he's recently achieved modest wealth and renown through his series on the Spanish explorers. Both of his daughters , Rosalind and Katherine, have seemingly married well - but there's a great deal of family tension: r initially married St. Peter's best student , who died in the world war leaving behind several patents on engines. R remarries Louis Marcellus and thru his business expertise, as St. Peter grudgingly admits, he has become extremely wealthy. As a result K always feels inferior, and in particular St. Peter is torn - he likes the comforts that Louis can provide but he he feels in some ways that Louis's success is a perversion of his student's genius. As the novel progresses we get more of a sense of what these judgments are about: it's at first hinted and then stated outright that Louis is Jewish- so as a result his expenditures are considered crass rather than tasteful, he's discouraged from applying for club membership because they say he hasn't lived in the area long enough (hmph), and his business skills are disparaged as if the crass world of commerce is a corruption of the pure pursuit of knowledge and scientific discovery. It's obvious what underlies these seemingly mild and benign criticism and judgments - and this is a topic rarely examined in American lit prior to 1925 - another and unexpected way in which Cather was a "pioneer."

Sent from my iPhone

Friday, April 14, 2017

Cather is not just a prairie writer - The Professor's House

Willa Cather is of course known, if not typecast, for her "prairie" novels, in particular the widely read My Antonia (a great book for young readers, too) and O, Pioneers (not recommended for young readers), but these books, though they define her in some ways, do not encompass the range of her work (as her readers know, btw, she was born in Virginia and spent most of her adult life in Pittsburgh, NY, and other sites far from the midwest). I've long thought that Death Come for the Archbishop is one of the great 20th-century novels, though it was barely mentioned in an intro I read recently to O, Pioneers. That intro did note, however, that in the author's opinion (was it Doris Grumbach?) The Professor's House is he finest novel. Now there's a surprise - I'd hardly heard of that one; the copy I found in my local library was published in 1964 and it is absolutely pristine - I may be the first to read this copy in more than 50 years! And it starts off really well: Professor St. Peter (truly), a history professor in a small and nonprestigious Midwest college, has come up with a surprisingly popular history series that has earned him enough late-life $ to build a house of his own (he and his family had been tenants for decades). This new prosperity, though, disturbs him: he is uneasy about leaving his comfortable house and study better quarters, he's testy w/ his daughters, esp the elder who had married his star student (named Outland) and widowed in the first World War, remarried a foppish guy, and they are living in luxury based on engine patents Outland had bequeathed. St. Peter detests that they are focused on material things and resents that they have named their new estate in memory of the ex-star student/husband, Outland. There are also hints of a lifelong faculty rivalry between St. Peter and an English-dandy type, even though they're now at the end of their careers and there's no sense in struggling any longer for control of the tiny history department; as Cather shrewdly notes, it was a draw, they both lost. This, in general, is a fine set-up for what is now a familiar genre (because so many writers were or are college profs), including among others the great novel Stoner (a must read), Roth's When She Was Good, something that Malamud wrote early in his career I can't recall the title, Francine Prose's Blue Angel, an academic satire from David Lodge, maybe even Pale Fire - there's a dissertation in here waiting! We'll see how well The Professor's House holds up, but it has a promising start - clear, concise writing, sharply drawn characters, commitment to a narrative plot.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The second wave of Indian-American fiction and a story by Akhil Sharma

Strong and disquieting story by Akhil Sharma, You Are Happy?, in current New Yorker - another one of the fine stories so important to American literature and ever-evolving on the immigrant experience. Stories of Indian-American immigrant families live today in the shadow of Jhumpa Lahiri, but she seems to have moved on to other topics and Sharma is one of the writers thriving in the 2nd wave. This story is told from the POV (though in 3rd-person narration) of a teenage boy, Lakshma (surname) who watches in silence the horrible dissolution of his mother's well-being and of the unhappy, arranged marriage. As in many stories about Indian-American immigration, the Indian immigrants are well-educated and relatively prosperous; the L family seems to have a wide range of friends and close connections with the families back in India (unlike an earlier generation of Indian-immigration stories, in which travel to the U.S. was like a complete break w/ the homeland, here the families travel back and forth, for business reasons, with ease). But his mother is an alcoholic whose life is spiraling down the drain. It seems there's a particular shame in Indian culture about a woman with a drinking problem, which leads to the disturbing part of the story: the father and his family believe she has betrayed the family and that she is therefore disposable, not as in divorce but as in murder. Ultimately she is sent back to India on a "visit" and she dies a few days later, supposedly of dengue fever. The young boy gradually, through hints dropped by an uncle and through phone conversations of his father than he overhears, recognizes that his father has a relationship - essentially, a form of child prostitution - with a young, uneducated farm girl back in India and that he's had the mother killed in some manner. The story ends with the young boy trying to make sense of what he knows and feels - in a great scene he runs through a track practice w/ tears streaming. Of course there is no way to make sense of these events; it's a terrible clash of cultures and ideologies, and as a young American boy, with little sense of or sympathy for the ways of the homeland, L. can only puzzle and despair. Not sure if Sharma develops this story further in a novel or a series of stories, but I think it stands alone well, ending as it does in a cul-de-sac.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

An experiment that none have built upon or emulated: Woolf's The Waves

I can't say that everyone should rush out and get a copy of Virginia Woolf's The Waves, but if your taste in literature leans toward the experimental and the unconventional, this might be worth a read. As noted in previous posts, it's a novel composed of "soliloquies" delivered in turns by six characters, w/ each section covering a different span of their lives. It's not a style or motif that has exactly caught on - though Faulkner experimented w/ multi-vocal narration at around the same time Woolf was writing. It reminded me in some ways of the documentary films in the Up series, as part of her intent is to follow the characters in intervals from childhood through adulthood. One difference, though, is that the characters are all from the same upper-crust British milieu. It could, however, have been a greater novel if it weren't so damn depressing. None of the characters seems, as an adult, to have fulfilled the dreams of his or her youth; all are depressed and out of sorts (or dead) by the end; particularly depressed is Bernard, the aspiring writer and intellectual who never amounts to much as a writer, businessman, or family man, and he fittingly has the last section all to himself (the only section in which all don't speak at least for a bit), as he speaks to a stranger in a restaurant (perhaps to "you," the reader) and tells of the sorrows of his life: very Prufrockian, measured out his life in coffee spoons, heard the mermaids, but they don't sing to him, etc. Woolf herself must have been in dark days around the time of composition of The Waves (1931); she begins each section w/ a topical description of landscape and of waves moving across water, but she can't seem to get out of her own way with these passages, the beauty of nature is almost always corrupted by some kind of vision of decay: pus oozing from a dead caterpillar, that kind of thing. For an experiment to be great, does it need to have great results? Woolf is on a dead-end course in The Waves, it seems - it's a work of, at times, great beauty, but it's an experiment none have built upon or replicated. It's a work designed for grad students ("Water imagery in Woolf's The Waves," etc.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

An unconventional novel by any measure, but improving as it moves along

I'm actually beginning to like, or at least to appreciate, Virginia Woolf's The Waves. It's like no other novel, narrated, if that's even the right word, by 6 characters; in each chapter or section (unnumbered), representing a phase in the lives of these characters (childhood schooling, boarding school, college, early career, etc.) the characters "speak" in turn - speaking at some length about their dreams and aspirations, early on ambitious and lofty (becoming a great writer, a great poet, a great beauty, e.g.) but in the later chapters looking back on their lives and suffering from a sense of failure (would anyone in this room know who I am?, the would-be poet opines, for ex.), disappointment, disillusion. It's by no means a conventional story, aside from the unconventional narration: We really never learn what brought these 6 (plus a 7th, Percival, who doesn't speak but is the great hero - athletic, not studious, who dies in an accident in India just after college, and the whole group seems to have lost its bearing because of that) together in the first place, and there are really no scenes, incidents, or conflicts described in any detail. A blurb on the back of my old pb edition of this novel opines that the novel is made up of soliloquies, and I guess that's right - the characters are addressing us, but never one another, yet it's impossible to imagine this novel on stage: the characters would be hooted down, as their statements, if spoken aloud, would seem so odd, so out of touch w/ normal human speech. Similarly, each section begins with an italicized passage in which Woolf describes a scene in nature, always involving water and waves (we get it), but these are so over-written, even for Woolf, and even poorly written - dependent on forced similes or metaphors, many adverbs - that they don't show VW at her best. All that said, I have grown increasingly curious about the characters, as I begin to distinguish one from the other (impossible in the first few chapters but more clear as we go along) that I'd like to see what happens to them, where they stand at the end of the novel, the end of their lives.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Virginia Woolf's most "experimental" novel: What was she trying to prove?

Some say that Virginia Woolf's The Waves (1931) is her most "experimental" novel, and yes, I guess you could call it that, but what's she trying to prove? The Waves isn't a difficult novel to read, but I believe it would be a difficult novel to finish reading (I doubt I will - somehow I may have read this one a million years ago in grad school when I made my way through the complete works of various major authors - but I can't remember anything about this one). Woolf is obviously toying with the idea of narrative: It's one of the few novels with multiple (six, I think, 3 male, 3 female) narrators, but the narrative is especially odd (and challenging, not to say off-putting) because the narrators speak in sequences, one paragraph at a time. In the first section (each section is roughly 20 pp. I think) the narrators are children on some kind of estate - the relationship among them is never clear, but it seems they might be related - siblings? cousins? - or for a time I thought they may have been children evacuated from London during the war, but I don't know if they did that during the first WW - they describe various childhood games and perceptions of life in the country. In the 2nd section they're all away at boarding school, "public" school as the English so charmingly call it - obviously the girls are in one school, the boys in another. In this section we begin to see a bit of the personalities, especially of the boys - one's an athlete, another a would-be writer, one is of Australian parentage and feels like an outsider - but honestly it's very hard to understand their relationships to one another or what they life is like in school other than in snippets, a few images here and there. None of the narrators speaks/writes like a young person - they each sound like Va. Woolf in fact - and by the end of the 2nd section I'm wondering, as noted above, what she's trying to accomplish or show: Does this fractured narrative serve any purpose, does it make the world she's describing any more vivid, real, comprehensible, or credible to us, to her readers? It's possible that the story will gradually cohere, like a canvas being filled one brushstroke at a time, but it's also possible that this style will become increasingly tedious and mannered: If this was an experiment, it opened a pathway that few have followed (there are other books w/ multiple narrators - e.g., Sound and Fury - and, similarly, with 1st-person plural narrators, but none I can think of w/ narrator shifting after each paragraph, which to me does nothing but isolate and frustrate the reader).

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Unlikable characters in a fine New Yorker story and some great moments in The Day of the Owl

Notes on two pieces I've been reading, first Emma Cline's story in current New Yorker, Northeast Regional, about a 50-year-old man who's summoned by his ex-wife to travel to their son's prep school in order to meet w/ the dean about some trouble that's involved the boy. Cline, whom I'd never read, shows immediately that she's great at building narrative tension and maintaining a narrative pace; she also does a terrific job w/ telling the story by indirection: We never learn precisely what the kid (Rowan) did to get booted from the prep school. She gives us a glimpse of a young man, as she describes him bulky not from exercise but from meds, who has obviously been bullied if not tortured in some manner, involving Rowan - and maybe others. We don't need the details - the sketch is enough. She's also terrific at building characters, especially the central character in the story, Rowan's father, Richard. And this - I hope! - is truly a story and not a piece of a longer work, because every one of the characters (possible exception, the headmaster) is unlikable, spoiled, despicable: Richard, who is involved in a relationship with a married 30-year-old; the 30-year-old herself, Rowan the spoiled self-centered brat; his anorectic girlfriend also spoiled a sick of mind; even to a degree the headmaster, kicking the kid out of school but not without assuring Richard that they won't notify the unnamed good college that's already accepted the kid for the fall. It's a great story, in its way, but we sure don't want to spend any more time with these worthless people. Second: finished Leonardo Sciascia's short novel, The Day of the Owl (1961), about a mafia killing in Sicily and the police captain (from Northern Italy) who takes on the impossible task of investigating the death (2 shootings actually). It's actually on one level a very difficult novel to read, w/ many characters, all of them with names, nicknames, and titles, really hard to keep everyone straight. But as you read, you realize - or should realize, I think - that we're not meant to track all of these plot lines in detail; the whole point is that the police captain has stepped into a maze, and underworld, where the facts are obscured by numerous obfuscations and cover-ups. Some of the scenes in which her interrogates a suspect, to no avail, are hilarious. As you can imagine - nobody ever sees anything, everyone's got an alibi, no crime in Sicily is ever solved. The novel includes a scene in the Italian parliament, in which the representatives scream oaths at one another but little else happens, any many other fine moments - including Sciascia's afterword in which he says with, we imagine, straight face that any resemblance between anyone one or anything in this novel is strictly coincidental.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A mafia novel set in Sicity that's a great example of Italian noir

Started reading Leonardo Sciascia's The Day of the Owl (1961), a brave novel that takes on the mafia in home turf, i.e., Sicily. It's easy to dismiss this as "just" a crime novel, but it seems, at least from the first 50 pages of so, that Sciascia is using a crime story to depict a whole society and its corruption, complicity in corruption, and reign of terror. The central characters is a police captain, from the north of Italy (Emilia), assigned to Sicily, who takes it on himself to conduct a serious investigation of a shooting in a public square, obviously a mob hit, the kind of thing that nobody else had ever looked at - maybe an outsider can get at the truth. We'll see. The first few chapters are grimly hilarious: the man is shot as he's running to catch a bus leaving the nearly empty square at 6 in the morning; there are a out 50 people on the bus, plus a street vendor at the bus stop. After the man is shot dead and the police arrive, all of the passengers somehow manage to "disappear." They track down the vendor and, after assuring him that they're not questioning his vendor's license of anything of the sort, they say they just want to ask him about the shooting. To which he says: Somebody was shot? So we see what the captain is up against. There's an interpolated chapter in which two men in Rome (I think) engage in discussion about the unions in Sicily and the communists and the "partisans" - these affiliations elude me, but they may become more clear as the plot progresses. The story has potential I would think to be a good, if by now pretty familiar, movie or TV show - but LS's writing lifts the story up to another level: His dialogue is smart, the captain is especially  intelligent and perceptive (he calls in a group of men in a construction firm that may have been a target of the shooting and has each man sign a register - we learn later this was to get handwriting samples to match against and letter he received from an anonymous tipster, as just one example), and he efficiently sketches in a sense of an entire community: we understand the secrets and lies that were a part of living in Sicily in that era, the fear of not knowing who's allied with whom, the petty and not so petty corruption - a really good example of Italian noir.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Whyt we hate "salon novels"

It really looked as if Guy de Maupassant’s last (completed) novel, Alien Souls, would end on a positive note. As noted in yesterday’s post, it’s impossible today to read about the Parisian salons with all their back-biting, pomposity, frivolity, and obsession with social rank w/out feeling contempt for these people and their miserable lives. In this novel, the wealthy dillettant Mariolle ends his relationship with the flirtatious and emotionally cold socialite, Madame de Brune: He realizes that he is still in love with her, but she can never return his love, as she is w/out passion and emotionally (and sexually) frigid. He writes her a letter breaking off their relationship and announcing that he’s leaving Paris for points unknown. In the short 3rd and final section we see him in the suburb of Fountainbleu, home then to many artists. He rents a small house and wallows for a time in his sadness and longing – even the natural beauty of the surroundings cannot assuage him. Eventually, he strikes up a friendship with an attractive young waitress in the nearby hotel; when he learns that she is being abused by patrons (and her boss), he hires her to be his domestic help, and of course we can see where this is headed. Shortly, he is involved sexually, and romantically, with her, and we learn of her difficult childhood in Paris and her need to escape. But then – Mme de Brune comes to visit, and Mariolle realizes he still loves her and will follow her back to Paris – leaving the young Elisabeth in despair. Bad decision? It’s worse: Mariolle tells Elisabeth he’ll bring her to Paris and set her up as his mistress, and she readily agrees – so they’re off to Paris (and no doubt to a sequel that died with Maupassant). So here is a novel that came so close to being romantic and morally above board – if only the protagonist had turned his back on the corrupt world of Paris and realized he had met a wonderful woman who loves him in return. But, no, the only course he can see is to subjugate her, to bring her into the world of moral corruption – and she timidly accepts this offer. Terrible – if there were a sequel he would probably get what he deserves, but she would probably suffer, too, in the process. We can only imagine: Elisabeth rises in society, displaces Mme de Brune as the “it girl,” and in then end is left alone and unloved.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Why Maupassant's Alien Heart is a surprise among the many "salon" novels

In part Guy de Maupassant's last novel, circa 1890, Alien Hearts ("Our Heart," in the original, but at least Richard Howard explains his decision to translate the title thus), is about a failed love affair: the dilettante artist and flaneur Mariolle has fallen in love with Madame de Brune, a beautiful young widow who holds a week salon for artists and would-be artists, and she prides herself on being an a-list "coquette." Each of the men at the salon has fallen in love w/ her at at one time or another has thought he was the "favorite." W/ Mariolle it's different - he's the only one who she truly claims to love; he sets up a little "love nest" apartment where they meet every few days for sex, all the while keeping their relationship secret from others at the salon (including, presumably, her busy-body father). We expect, following the course of so many French novels, notably Flaubert's (he was close to Maupassant, we learn from Howard's intro) that one or both of them will tire of the relationship - but that's not exactly what happens. In fact, Mariolle continues to pursue her but is completely frustrated in that she never seems passionate toward him, only, we might say, tolerant and submissive. Maupassant can't say so directly, in his era, but it seems that Mme never experiences orgasm. She certainly is uninterested in Mariolle's affections and far less drawn to their rendez-vous than he is. He believes she is tired of him, but she swears that's not so - she loves him as much as she could ever love anyone - and that seems to be true. What's this about? It could be that she is afraid of and bitter toward all men because of the abuse she experienced, including sadism it seems, from her late husband. It could be that she is just non-passionate, more driven to the flirting and the controlling than to the sexual relationship itself. It could be that Mariolle isn't the great lover he thinks he is. Or, and Maupassant drops some hints on this score, it could be that she is drawn to women, perhaps even w/out being consciously aware of this. As with other French novels about salons, at times we want to throw up our hands and say can't you people get a life? Don't you have some kind of work to do? In this case - they do: there are real artists (including writers) who attend the salon, and the writer does so, he claims, to gather material. An important scene toward the end of part 2 of this novel involves a visit to the salon for a newly celebrated sculptor - we don't need Howard's intro to clarify that this character is a stand-in for Rodin - who delivers a long discourse about art and beauty and about his specific craft. The salon guests seem politely attentive and mostly bored - but it's a bright moment in the novel for us, as we get a glimpse of the mind of someone serious about his art, someone who's committed his life to creation and is a misfit in this society of "poseurs."

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Guy de Mauspassant and a Shakespearean idea about love

It's by no means a great novel, but Guy de Maupassant's Alien Hearts is yet another under-the-radar piece of serious fiction rescued from oblivion by the great NYRB publishing house (Richard Howard, translation - very readable, too). We're standing in this novel on what at first seems very familiar ground: another Parisian drawing room, another society dame's salon, frequented by artists and musicians, home to private recitals, strictly by invitation only ... does it remind you of Proust? James? But there's more to this than just a social satire; it's actually a profound psychological novel: the host of the salon, Mme de Brune (?) is a 20-something beauty who married young to a nasty brute of a man who abused her in every way, including sexually, and whom she was glad to be rid of when he died of an aneurysm. Now she's set out to wreak revenge by being mean and hurtful to all men. She attracts many admirers to her salon and she flirts with them serially, so that each man at one time or another thinks he's the one she loves - then she dashes their hopes while leaving them on a string. A newcomer to her salon is the male protagonist, Marillot (?), a wealthy dilettante who feels that his life has amounted to nothing - he has many talents, none developed. This time, despite her initial protestations, Mme falls in love w/ him, and he sets up a little love nest in some working-class neighborhood where they begin to meet in secret. And then, the inevitable - a new man shows up on the scene, a dashing Austrian aristocrat, and M. finds himself out in the cold. So we see a lot of conflicting forces and drives going on here: the idea that one can only love what's unavailable, that the chase is more important than the consummation, that we sometimes desire only what others desire - a very Shakespearean idea, by the way (see esp Midsummer Night's Dream).

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

It's unfiair to compare Anne Bronte with her siblings, but here goes

Does everything work out OK for Agnes Grey at the end of Anne Bronte's novel? Of course! - this is 19th-century British fiction, a novel of manners, and the only possible resolution is for the narrator to marry the sensible, kind, caring man for whom she was entirely suitable, and destined, throughout the narrative: incorporation into society is the end point, not lashing out at a society that can treat servants and governesses like dirt, at the mean-girl sisters who tormented and humiliated Agnes throughout a year of suffering, at the hypocritical church rectors who know nothing about charity nor about any of the teachings of Jesus. Oh well, it's unfair to compare Anne with her betters, or even w/ her Bronte sisters, whose novels are far more complex and disturbing, with uneasy resolutions. Agnes Grey is a typical novel of its age, and would not be read today were it not for the sibling connection, and it does make an enlightening contrast w/ the other two great Bronte novels. And it is still worth reading - it's relatively short, at least for 19th-century fiction. How can you not enjoy the final get-together of Agnes and Mr. Weston, the stuffy but kindly rector of the neighboring parish. His "courtship" dialogues with Agnes are actually quite hilarious - perhaps intentionally. AB must have known that he (and Agnes, for whom he's so well suited) sound like the definition of nerdiness as they talk with each other in the loftiest and most abstract terms. And how can you not like that when they meet on the beach after months of separation they're brought together by the cute little dog, Snap? Agnes Grey is by no stretch a great novel - though AB is at times a great writers, there are some fine, Austen-like turns of phrase and bitter judgments Agnes makes of other characters - but it's worth reading if for no other reason than it puts the 19th-century classics into a context: We see the literary field from which the classics emerged.

Monday, April 3, 2017

What we wish would happen in Agnes Grey

As noted previously, Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey is a good novel, entirely readable and enjoyable, though not nearly as profound or complex as those of her sibs nor is it groundbreaking in any way - a novel typical of the age. Like Jane Eyre, it shows us the difficult if not impossible position of educated young women put out to work as governesses, how they were "neither fish nor foul," had to befriend the children in their charge yet had to command their respect and attention; they were not quite members of the family but not servants either. And of course they were entirely dependent on the "masters" - generally, it seems, paid at the end of their year of service, entirely depending on a solid recommendation if they're ever to work again, usually paid very little (in return for "free" room and board) - it sounds a little like prep-school teacher today, except that many of those are from wealthy families whereas the governesses were often from poor or marginal families, if not orphanages, who couldn't feed another mouth, so to speak, and were depending on getting at least a share of the annual pay. Agnes Grey also shows the limited straits of all middle-class women in England at the time, and earlier - it's a continuation of the conversation that started w/ Austen - women so dependent on the attentions of men, and raised to be passive, submissive, never expressing their views directly, never acting "cross" or "forward." Their fortunes were entirely dependent on what they might inherit - which in Austen and the Bronte's was nothing - or what they might marry into, and their options were few, especially for those trapped in remote towns or villages. So, Agnes Grey is an exemplar of the feminist "problem" novel, as noted in previous posts, is that the characters, Agnes in particular, are "fixed" and unchanging, they don't evolve, grow, mature, or change. I think all readers will agree with me that we wanted, just once!, for Agnes to let it rip, to tell her charges to go to hell or tell the Rev. Hatfield that he's a hypocrite and full of crap. Of course to do so would be to risk everything, but on the other hand, what's she really got to lose? It would make her a stronger character, and would make this a better novel.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Why it's worth reading Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey

It's fun to read Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey but it will never be mistaken for a great novel - it lives because of the association with the 2 other Bronte sisters. Why not great? It's a novel almost completely w/out nuance: the eponymous Agnes becomes a governess to, first, a household with children so evil and monstrous that, with another "turn of the screw" we'd be in James, DuMaurier, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King territory - the children seem almost possessed by evil. When Agnes is, thankfully, fired from that job she takes on another, as a governess to teenage sisters who are the most vain, crass, and selfish imaginable. Their vanity and cold-heartedness is matched by that of the local pastor, who evokes the wrath of God and has never undertaken a charitable act in his life. But the assistant pastor, a homely man, is a good man and thoughtful and kind and obviously interested in Agnes. Can you see where this is going? Of course, and that's only half-way through the novel. A great novel has to involve some kind of change or development in the major characters - think of the evolution of, say Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Weston, or, for that matter, of Rochester, keeping it in the family. This novel places characters in a fixed mode - the tension isn't about their changing, learning, or growing, it's about getting Agnes in touch w/ the right people. What makes this novel readable, then? All of the above. It's entertaining to see a novelist eviscerate these awful characters, and Anne Bronte's writing, aside from a few absurd passages of dialogue, is a good as anyone's; her wit at times does approach Austen's (humor was not the strength of her sisters). Once in a while, I think, it's good to read a novel that has survived because it is typical of its age, not because it was exceptional - we get a better understanding of what people in another era sought, expected, and accepted in popular fiction. Emily Bronte was no doubt ahead of her time; Anne was part of hers.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Why Anne is the "Zeppo" of the Bronte sisters

Started reading Agnes Grey, the "Zeppo" of the Bronte sisters, the least-known Anne, and, well, it's surprisingly good after all, but from the first 100 pp or so (of about 400) you can see that she has neither the breadth and personal touch of sister Charlotte - the eponymous Agnes is not as distinct a character as Jane Eyre by any stretch, nor does she have the sense of drama, the imagination, the weirdness of Emily. In some ways, though, she combines the traits of the sisters with some of her own observations: the family - father a minor church figure, mother a diligent housewife, competent older sister, and Agnes the youngest - recalls the Bronte family is some ways: the family lives in almost complete isolation from the world at large. The father is impoverished (lost all his money in a foolish, risky investment), the mother and older daughter are so competent at all their tasks that they'd rather do everything themselves than have Agnes do anything - so she's a young woman without a place in the world who yearns for something greater, for a sense of worth (we can imagine a sisterly rivalry here). You'd literally think Agnes was 10 years old by the way she's treated but in fact she's 20 and goes off with family approval to work as a governess. Here's where the novel becomes odd and unsettling in the Bronte manner: the family she works for treats her horribly, and the children in her charge are complete monsters, especially the young boy who, aside from bossing around his younger siblings and throwing temper tantrums and fits and just about anything to bedevil Anne, gets great pleasure out of torturing animals - surely a sign then or now of serious mental illness. Eventually, Anne leaves this horrendous family and returns home. It makes, so far, for good reading, but there's a lack of nuance and complexity - the family is horrible, Agnes is good, etc. - that keeps the novel from rising to the first rank.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Last look at Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian: I must be missing something

Ultimately (though I didn't read the whole novel), Marguerite Yourcenar's 1951 novel, Memoris of Hadrian, falls short by being "neither fish nor fowl." If you want to know the facts about the life of Hadrian why not read a nonfiction, scholarly work - as this format of a fictional memoir allows MY to create and change facts and offer suppositions as she sees fit (based of course on her serious research). If you want a great novel on historical themes, however, you probably should find something that focuses on a moment or period of crisis or a fraught relationship - something like one of Gore Vidal's historical novels, or The Executioner's Song in a completely different vein. The problem w/ MofH is that there's too damn much material, and by writing about Hadrian's entire life MY never finds a dramatic scene of relationship. Props to her for her honest and forthright inclusion of Hadrian's homosexual relationship with a very young man, Antinous, who commits suicide to show his enduring love of Hadrian. Or so Hadrian thinks - a little more self-reflection on his part would have been helpful. The novel takes the form of a 300-page letter to H's successor, Marcus Aurelius; as such, the memoir is really H's apologia for his own life. It would have been a stronger novel, I think, had it been his Confessions: he leaves MA a find account of his benevolent reign over Rome, but there's not a moment of guilt, hardly a passage of secret intrigue, just one successful campaign after another. I'm surprised that so many consider this work MY's masterpiece and a great work of 20th-century fiction. I must be missing something.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

My up-and-down reaction to Memoirs of Hadrian

I'm going up and down like a yo-yo on Marguerite Yourcenar's 1951 novel, Memoirs of Hadrian. In yesterday's post I noted that after a rocky start this novel begins to get interesting in section 2 when Hadrian becomes emperor and vows to change the entire nature of Roman politics - moving from an era of expanding empire, which he believed to be unsustainable, to an era of peace: stopping the march of conquest, building strong relationships with the countries and cultures that Rome had conquered, making wise judicial decisions, etc. Unfortunately, having established his principles, Hadrian then goes on for 50 or more dense pages of text explaining he theory of governance. I'm losing sight of this work as a novel; it felt as if I were reading a philosophical tract or a book on governance. What MY seems unwilling or unable to do, now about halfway through this novel, is create any tension, conflict, or semblance of plot aside from the sequence of events in Hadrian's life. (For one thing, there is no dialogue whatsoever. For another, Hadrian is the only memorable character - although about half-way through his "boy" love, Antinous, is introduced - not that he has much personality either, but at least MY opens a new dimension in this history, an topic glossed over by most historians I would think.) I kind of cheated and looked ahead at the two appendices: MY's account of her research and some of her notes during the composition of the novel. I learned from these appendices that she did an enormous amount of scholarly research, involving many primary sources - enough to qualify this novel as serious scholarship (though she notes that she made some changes to historical fact in the interest of narrative). Also learned that she began this project in the 1920s (when she was about 25), dropped it and picked it up again at several points - the story of Hadrian had always fascinated her. It would be good if she could say precisely why, or what specific relevance Hardian's governance had for life in postwar Europe. I will read further in the novel today, and maybe the up-and-down process will continue, but I fear that I'm losing the thread here and may not want to pursue the narrative, such as it is, to the end.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What drew Yourcenar to the topic of the emperor Hadrian?

Have to say that Margeurite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) is growing on me. Even though I know little about Hardian and had not thought I'd be particularly interested in a Roman czar from when, the first century?, somehow MY is catching and holding my interest. It's a little tough going at first - there are so many names, various Roman figures including politicians, soldiers, artists, others, and so many place names, and believe me unless your a scholar of the Classics most will be unfamiliar to you, but ultimately you have to say, it doesn't really matter, it's as if you're reading a recently uncovered manuscript about a distant time and the references, familiar and topical at the time of composition, are obscure to us and meant to be so. Getting through that barrier, the novel moves along well and fairly swiftly; it's not about character developing (except for Hadrian's) and not about detailed accounts of war or senatorial debates. The many incidents are all dealt with summarily, as if the readers - or, the reader, as the conceit is that Hadrian is composing this memoir to aid his successor, Marcus Aurelius, would be familiar w/ the details. But the overall picture is important: MY portrays Hadrian as the first Roman emperor to seek peace and resolution. His predecessor and benefactor, Trajan, lived and served to expand the Roman empire, a venture that Hadrian realizes, during his service in the army, was reckless and unsustainable. (You can still see Trajan's column in Rome, on which are engraved many scenes from his significant battles; the novel includes several images from the column). Hadrian comes across as the first modern democratic leader; his goal is to pull back the scope of the empire, to make peace w/ the surrounding states - he realizes that otherwise Rome will be in constant battle and will be drained of all its resources (he's mindful of Alexander's demise through over-reaching). Pursuing this course, he develops enemies; he tries to reconcile, but fails, and one of his loyal supporters assassinates H's 4 key enemies. Hadrian laments that he has to be cruel to the supporter who went outside the law and he exiles the man - but notes in the memoir that the exile was for short term only & both understood that. So H can be a pragmatist and brutal realist (as long as others do the dirty work) as well. One open question still is what drew MY to this material? I have to think that in 1951 she (a French author) was still thinking about WWII and maybe her attachment to Hadrian has something to do w/ the growth and corruption of empire and the need to international accord? 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Why I rarely read historical fiction

Marguerite Yourcenar has been on (and off) my to-be-read list for many years; after seeing the movie Coup-de-grace based on one of her novels I've tried to find that novel in my local library - no luck. then Fran Liebowitz opines that MY's 1951 novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, is a truly great novel - I would not have expected Yourcenar to be at the top of Liebowitz's reading list - so that's what I'm reading now. Generally, I'm not drawn to historical fiction, such as the Hilary Mantel Cromwell trilogy: reading historical (especially historical-biographical) fiction I sometimes thinks, well, why am I not reading a biography? What value is the novelist adding to this material? The answer is that the novelist has the freedom to share (i.e., invent, surmise) the subject's thoughts, feelings, secrets. Can the novelist invent incidents? Probably, but with caution (remember that ridiculous "authorized" Regan biography that invented heroics to demo the late president's character?!). Like most contemporary readers outside of Classics departments, I know almost nothing about Hadrian so Yourcenar has a free pass there. The 1st section of the novel is pretty strong; we see Hadrian at 60 on his deathbed and thinking about his life as he begins a (book-length) letter to his successor in waiting, Marcus Aurelius. Well we know Marcus was not only a Roman emperor (the last one, if I can recall correctly) but also a great writer - people still read his Meditations (some people, anyway). Hadrian, at least in Yourcenar's imagining, is similarly literary; the opening section is full of some really thoughtful insights into the pleasures and pains one endures in the course of a life. In fact, the pages in which he (Youncenar) ponders the nature of sleep (and its relation to both health and death) are worth the price of the book alone. That said, as the novel moves into the 2nd section and Hadrian begins recounting his early life and political rise, particularly through his military career, the purpose of the novel begins to blur: MY doesn't develop incidents in deapth (this is not the Confessions of Saint Augustine), there are just a lot of name-checks, although there are some intriguing insights into Roman military strategies. I also like that Hadrian rose to power in the Roman Senate as an excellent writer, who penned speeches for the emperor (Dacius?) and others - the first communications officer! Reading forward, still pondering: Hy Hadrian? What's so important about him? And how does this add value beyond a well-written, fact-based biography?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Further thoughts about Iza's Ballad, Soviet censorhip, aand allegory

To my surprise there was pretty much consensus yesterday at book group on my suggestion that perhaps Magda Szabo's 1963 novel, Iza's Ballad (Pilate, in the original) may be an allegory or some kind of extended metaphor for the Soviet control over the state of Hungary: like the Soviet state in relation to the satellites, Iza takes complete control over her widowed mother's life under the guise of being her benevolent benefactor and protector. In fact, over the course of the novel we see that Iza has no affections or emotions, that she's a monstrous automaton who acts as if she's doing good works - and many believe that she is, that Iza is the perfect daughter, but we realize gradually that everything she's doing is to aggrandize her own power over others. As I noted, I don't think authors generally set out to write allegories - I believe Szabo set out to write about a complex set of family relationships - but the additional or the underlying themes develop in the course of composition. PK concurred w/ my views and added the intriguing insight that Iza represents the perfect Soviet heroine: upending a private enterprise and bringing health care to the people, resisting the Nazis, etc. That's true - and it's another reason why the Soviet censors would maybe have liked this novel and missed out on the entire point, on how it's disruptive of Soviet hegemony. RK noted that Iza perhaps has autism or Asperger's Syndrome, in that she cannot feel empathy. RiRi noted some of the oppositions within the novel, most particularly the new ways (life in Budapest) and the old, traditional (life in the small city or the villages); that's true, but it's also important not to romanticize the old, even though Ettie is scared of life in the city and more comfortable "at home" - that life is hard and full of hardships, as we see in particular when Ettie returns home and feels out of place. We had some discussion as well as to whether Anton is at fault in leaving Ettie alone - so that she leaves the house and wanders to her accidental death; I for one felt he was blameless - there was no way he would expect her to leave the house at night and wander the foggy streets (esp in that he did not know she had kept a set of keys). Finally, someone suggested that none of the characters aside from the late Vince was likable; I disagreed with that and believe that the only truly unlikable character was Iza - who pushes away each of the others, w/ the exception of her late father, whose dead sets this novel in motion

Sunday, March 26, 2017

A possible allegorical reading of Szabo's Iza's Ballad

Book group will meet today to discuss Magda Szabo's 1963 novel, Iza's Ballad (original title: Pilate), and I proposed one additional possible reading of this novel. Yes, we see pretty quickly in the novel that the eponymous Iza thinks, or convinces herself, that she's a devoted daughter who is sparing no expense to take care of her recently widowed mother - and all the neighbors agree that no one could have a daughter as devoted as Iza, but we see that she is completely controlling and not giving her mother an ounce of the care and affection that she really needs, meaning, no time to mourn, no independence, no freedom to live the rest of her life in her familiar surroundings - and over the course of the novel Iza becomes ever more monstrous, till at the end we realize she has no feelings for other people and lives in cold isolation, despite her attempts to "do good," both to her mother and to her patients (she is a successful physician). I have also noted in earlier posts that the politics of contemporary Hungary - the 1956 uprising against the Soviet state, in particular - are notable by their absence; reading this novel one would think that 1960 Hungary was a land of prosperity and culture: great public services, great health care, plenty of concerts and literary events, excellent public transportation, and so on - not a word about the crappy housing and services let alone the political oppression that we know existed under the Soviet reign in Eastern Europe. Obviously, Szabo had to be wary of the censors if she wanted to publish in Hungary in her lifetime. But maybe Szabo was even more sly than we first thought; could this entire novel be an allegory? Isn't it possible that Iza's control of her mother's life, under the guise of being a good daughter and taking care of all of her mother's interests, much like the Soviet state?: promising freedom and prosperity for the satellite countries while creating a regime of oppression and terror?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Current New Yorker fiction entry has much going for it - but is it really a story?

Current New Yorker fiction piece by Vincent Lodato w/ the intriguing title Herman Melville, Part 1 had better be a selection from a longer work, perhaps a novel, as it illustrates what's right w/ New Yorker fiction selections and what's wrong w/ them, too. First, what's right: It's great to see the New Yorker present new work by a a little-known (I'd never heard of him or read anything by him) American (I presume) author. And this piece, which is entirely about a 20-something woman who's lived for the past year or so out of a backpack as she hitchhikes among various West Coast towns with her boyfriend as partner and protector. Anyone who's traveled in the West has seen dozens, maybe hundreds of the itinerants, and who hasn't felt sorry for them - where have they come from, what are they doing with their lives, are they truly homeless and indigent or are they on some kind of adventure? - wondered about them, and been as well a little afraid of them: Would you pick one up if your car? Would you walk through a park where dozens of the homeless vagabonds have gathered? In this story, the woman's boyfriend has vanished overnight, and she roams in a cold city, probably in Oregon, trying to find him. He's either a total shit who's abandoned her (and, as we learn later, taken her wad of $) or he's in serious trouble himself. Lodato does a great job showing the hardship these folks endure - to what end? - and he creates an intriguing tension between the protagonist and an older woman who offers her shelter and, eventually, a lift out of town. These are people on the margins, generally forgotten or ignored, and Lodata brings the central character to life, without romanticizing her in any way. So what's wrong w/ that? Unfortunately, this fiction piece raises many significant topics - the family she's escaped from, the life of her boyfriend, so different from hers, it's suggested, the annoying nature of those who try to help (telling tales of their youthful travels in Europe, as if the homeless are out on a lark), and the difficulty and dangers of life on the margin, always worried about getting rolled, about the next meal, cup of coffee. shower, etc. - but nothing gets resolved. We don't learn what happened to the boyfriend, where she's headed w/ the seemingly benevolent woman who offers her a ride, what becomes of her or of anyone. A slice of life is something - but if we're not getting a complete story, something with at least a semblance of a beginning-middlle-end, is that what we want to read in the New Yorker? Or is the magazine at times just a shill for aggressive publishes, pushing new novels?

Friday, March 24, 2017

How did Soviet censorship affect Szabo's Iza's Ballad?

Re-reading Magda Szabo's Iza's Ballad (original title, Pilate - why change an author's title? too much translator's liberty there I'd say) for book group Sunday, equally if not more impressed on re-reading, noting how Iza's bizarre and even cruel personality just slowly edges up on us - this woman whom we initially see (and others see) as a deeply devoted daughter gradually becomes almost monstrous in her controlling and officiousness and obliviousness to her mother's need to grieve and to live her own life, different though that may be from Iza's life. Another matter of note: This novel was published in Hungary in 1963 or so, set in 1960. To what extent is the picture of life in Soviet-controlled Hungary accurate? To what extent distorted by Soviet censorship (or Szabo's self-censorship)? Reading this novel one would think that 1960 Budapest was a thriving, modern country with excellent health care and housing, great public transportation, minimal crime (though there is a reference to prostitution) - can this be accurate? Maybe so and maybe the idea of a backwards, oppressed economy with crappy government housing, terrible food and social services was myth perpetrated by American anti-Soviet propaganda? I visited the USSR in 1971 and found conditions pretty horrible, although they tried to build a nice facade for tourists. My guess is that Szabo had to be cautious about how she portrayed her country - though she slyly included a few hints of difficult living conditions: the relatively primitive life in the rural communities (Iza's mother, Ettie, cooks on a wood stove, for example - though there's also a sense of nostalgia there, and clinging to old ways) and even a class structure (Iza, a prominent doctor, hires a cleaning lady/cook to take care of her housework and she gets special treatment at the health spa she co-founded - though she does still have to pay the bill for her mother's stay there).

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Modiano's narrators and their attempts to recover the past

No doubt Patrick Modiano is a throw-back writer - all of his novels (I've read about 15 of them) are about the narrator's or the protagonist's attempts to piece together information about the past, generally his youth in post-war Paris, based on documents (old notebooks of work, such as the eponymous Black Notebook from the 2012 novel), artifacts (photos, letters, post cards), interviews, and bits of memory, usually evoked by roaming the streets of Paris, usually in out-of-the-way neighborhoods. Of course time, and technology, are catching up w/ Modiano: in his early novels, from the 1960s o 70s, artifacts such as city directories and old phone books were essential to his search for lost memories (in one novel the narrator lugs around a steamer trunk filled with directories!); The Black Notebook is kind of quaint and almost comic in the narrator's reliance on old typewritten police reports and notebook entries as he searches for the woman, known as Dannie, who vanished from his life in the 1960s. He's never heard of the www? Of Google? No, Modiano stays true to the quaint methodology he has established. Black Notebook, as noted in yesterday's post, is among the most concise and focused of all Modiano novels; the narrator is driving by one goal: What happened to Dannie? And in his search for information about her, he deals with only 2 other characters - unlike many other Modiano novels that depend on a chain of characters, each of whom refers the narrator to someone else. This won't be much of a spoiler but, as in all Modiano novels, we never learn precisely what happened to Dannie, how or why, after months in which they seemed to be a serious couple, she simply vanishes from his life. What we do learn is that Modiano is a naive narrator - it's a first-person narrative, but we know more than Modiano does - not more facts, but we can piece together things the he evidently cannot. He cannot for some reason comprehend that Dannie is part of some underworld ring, centered on a # of thugs who'd emigrated from Morocco to Paris. He can't see that she's at best a thief and more likely a call girl who's being run by the Moroccans? (He wonders why he often meets her at an apartment building, and she exits by the back door, carrying a wad of franc notes; he wonders why at times she shows up at his apartment at 4 a.m., he never seriously thinks about how she can be a student but never attend clases or study or what she may due to earn money, and so on.) ut his failure to recognize Dannie's underworld connections makes his story even more poignant; at their time of life, he was like a naive child (she was not - and we do learn that she was quite a bit older than he), so the time he is trying to recover - first love, first years of independence in Paris), were for others a time of fear, criminal behavior, and a duplicity.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The maturation and simplificaiton of Modiano's narrative style

The Black Notebook, the most recently translation of Patrick Modiano's 20 or so novels (2012 original publication date) shows, at least in the first half, a maturation and simplification of Modiano's style. All of the recognizable elements of his work are still there: a protagonist or narrator in search of his past, using scraps of memory and a few artifacts in his pursuit; the association with lowlifes, petty criminals, nightclubs, cafes; the obsession with obscure and dingy Paris neighborhoods; the proliferation of names of streets and villages; lots of perambulation by night; a mysterious woman who was very important to the narrator at an earlier stage of his life but who has disappeared; a narrator with a troubled upbringing filled with dislocation and small crimes, dead phone #s and dead ends - just to name a few. What makes this novel work especially well is the simplification; in many other Modiano novels a clue will lead to one character, and that character will lead to another, and so forth - and though the narrative is appealing as a series of events we lose concentration. Similarly, in some earlier novels the narrator will piece together his past through the unlikely discovery of a series of clues, such as a photograph from long ago that helps him identify someone he's seeking - again, mysterious, compelling, but improbable, when you examine it closely. The Black Notebook is unique in Modiano's work in two regards: First, there are really just three characters of any significance, the narrator, girlfriend of many years past (Dannie), and his rival for Dannie's affections, the smalltime hood Abaghouri (?). Second, the only "clue" the narrator works from is the eponymous notebook - a book in which he'd made minor notations throughout the years he's trying to recollect, and some of his notations make sense to him, some don't - all this very believable, in fact likely, in the life of a writer. At about the halfway point, the tension builds effectively: we know that Dannie has been involved in some kind of serious crime, that she's using a fake ID and a false name; that she's beholden to Abaghouri and some of his tough associates for some unknown reason. In 2 unusual scenes she, with the narrator in tow, in effect burglarizes the homes to two people she had lived with or known. A missing element, however, is the war and the Nazi occupation - always in the background in almost every Modioano work, but not this one, at least not yet - thought it's possible that Dannie's past criminal behavior may have had to do w/ collaboration.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What's the real conclusion of Cather's O Pioneers!?

It seems that Willa Cather backs off from the darkness visible that she builds toward through the first 4 sections of O Pioneers!, her 1917 novel that begins as a celebration of the stark beauty of the Nebraska prairie and of the pioneer spirit that drove the first settlers to struggle and succeed - but over time the novel evolves as we see the fractures the split apart the Bergson family, the jealousy and the sexism, the misery of those who yearn to get away, the narrow-mindedness of those who stay on the prairie, building finally to a great eruption of violence as a poorly educated, crude farmer kills his wife and the man who'd fallen in love w/ her - not the ending we would have anticipated from the first glowing chapters. Yet it's not the end of the novel; in the final section, called Alexandra after the central character in the novel, the woman who successfully runs the wheat farm but in the process sacrifices any possibility she may have had for a family life of her own, goes to visit Frank, the farmer who killed her brother in a fit of jealousy, now in prison in the state capital. Perhaps oddly, Alexandra says she understands what he did, that her brother was wrong, and that she will devote her life to seeking a pardon for Frank. These are noble sentiments, perhaps, but it brings the novel to an even darker place; Alexandra leaves Lincoln for her small town shuddering in horror - she was repulsed by the visit to the prison, and she seems to have no direction - and then she gets a telegram from Carl, whom she has had a crush on since childhood, who's gone off to the Alaskan gold fields. Carl (?) read of the sensational murders in a West Coast newspaper and immediately headed back for his home town, presumably to console Alexandra. The novel ends w/ the two of them kissing (lightly) on the lips and looking out across the wheat fields. So, yes, it's a romantic conclusion, they will probably marry and continue managing the farm, or at least Alexandra will. Carl speaks about returning to Alaska together - he'd entrusted his share of the business to his presumably reliable partner. But do we believe any of this? Hardly - it's obvious that he's an incompetent, that she will continue to do all the work, that he will gradually become resentful, that there's no great sexual chemistry between the two of them, that he will stray or wander or even leave for Alaska, once again, alone. Cather sees this, too, one would think - of all writers she is completely aware that a powerful woman like Alexandra would not be a match for a weakling like Carl, or perhaps for any man. The true conclusion of the novel, had Cather the courage to write it at this point early in her career, would be Alexandra alone.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Melodrama and sexual questioning in Cather's O Pioneers!

Yes, Willa Cather's novel O Pioneers! becomes a bit of a melodrama toward the end - some spoilers here - as we have not one not two but three and maybe four deaths all of a sudden at the end of section, but what makes this sudden turn toward the tragic work is Cather's excellent pacing in this novel. As noted previously, when we read section one we're sure that we're embarking on a Little House of the Prairie-type song of praise for the hardworking farmers (and harder working farmers' wives) who scraped out a living on the tough, unforgiving prairie: the sod houses, the blizzards, the crop failures, the whole lot. But as the story moves forward it becomes more of a psychodrama about the tensions within the farm family: the two older brothers jealous and resentful of their highly competent elder sister, Alexandra; her yearning for some love in her life, although her chances for that are almost nil; the younger brother, Emil, and his love for the woman in the adjacent farm who is married to an oaf; the jealousy the locals hold toward those who leave the prairie to get an education or to find fortune in the city - and the failure of those who try to escape: yes, a lot of dynamic forces in conflict in this novel, and it's no wonder that the conflicts build to fatal explosions toward the end of the novel. Alexandra remains the key and central figure; she's by no means a stand-in for the author, who in fact did live most of her life in NY and had no trouble leaving behind - except in her imagination - her prairie upbringing. But Alexandra's confused sexuality may tie her in some way to Cather - whose sexuality was not well understood much less discussed in her day but whom today we'd call questioning or perhaps transgender. Cather was ahead of her time in some ways but not enough so as to create a transgender character - but contemporary readers will probably sense that part of Alexandra's yearning for love is her own recognition that she doesn't fit any of the social roles open to women in her time and place: The love she wants will always be out of reach, and even ineffable for her. The final section, which I have not read yet, is called Alexandra, and I suspect Cather will explore some of these issues more directly before she closes the novel.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

How Cather continues to surprise readers in O Pioneers!

Part of the power, and part of the sorrow, of Willa Cather's O Pioneers! comes through her depiction of the central character, Alexandra, the older sister who pretty much runs the family farm and saved the family from certain bankruptcy and failure by her bold decision to invest more land rather than sell off land to pay down debts. As the novel progresses, we see Alexandra in mid-life, and once again Cather defines expectations - this is not Little House on the Prairie. The family is bitterly divided, with her two older brothers jealous of her success and unwilling to acknowledge or recognize her contribution to the successful run of their combined estates. This conflict comes to a head when Alexandra's childhood friend Carl comes to visit; it's obvious that he's a bit of a ne'er do well and dreamer - he's en route to the Alaska gold mines, good luck! - and it's also obvious that Alexandra is interested in him. The brothers challenge her and warn her that Carl may just be after her $ - and that may be true - but she lashes back and says she can do whatever she wants with the land she owns and the $ she has earned. They refuse to recognize that a woman played a role in their prosperity and they split - a seemingly permanent rift. We feel for Alexandra of course and wish her to have some success and happiness in her personal life - but we also sense that yes, Carl may be trying to take advantage of her; it's not clear. In a parallel story line, the youngest brother, Emil, is obviously in love with his childhood friend, Marie, who lives in a loveless marriage to a crude and ignorant man. This all verges on melodrama, of course, but Cather beautiful writing - particularly in her lyrical description of the prairie in all seasons (especially the harsh winter) and her espousal of the rights of women and the importance of women to success in the farm communities - brings the novel up to another level, and it's continuously surprising as we, or at least I, expect her to revert to cliches of the happy farm family - yet she never shies from depicting the misery, the loneliness, the sexism, or the drive to leave the small farm communities for life in the big city (or for instant riches in the gold fields), and the sadness of those left behind in a diminished world.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why is the New Yorker publishing a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and why was it never published before?

This week the New Yorker publishes an previously unpublished short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The I.O.U., from ca 1920, and notes that it is part of a forthcoming publication of unpublished Fitzgerald stories. This publication raises the question(s): Why was it never published?, and, Why publish it now? As we know, Fitzgerald was a professional, which is to say commercial, writer. He of course had a commitment to the highest standards of artistic ambition, and his best works are without question some of the finest examples of American literary fiction. But he wrote to earn a living; his were the days before sinecure positions on university faculties and genius grants - so he wrote stories for publication, that is, for $. And in his day there was a huge market for literary fiction in the many weeklies and quarterlies. So as to The I.O.U., did he hold it back because it failed to meet his standard for publication? Or was it rejected by a # of magazines? Or did it just slip through the cracks - that is, he was maybe still working on it and revising it and never in his view completed the story. I'm leaning toward the latter, as from my recollection there are a # of mediocre stories in his complete published opus - he often needed the $ and publications then as now were highly influenced by the reputation of the authors when decided on what to publish, or not. As is the New Yorker today, of course. Clearly this story is middle-weight Fitzgerald at best; it's the tale of a successful publisher who publishes what he hopes will be a best seller by a psychic who claims to have had years of communication with his son who died in the World War; the publication scheme unravels, however, when the publisher learns that the son is alive and is livid about his portrayal in the book. I'm guessing this story may have been a a play on some successful publication of its era; today, it feels flat and dated. The strength is the first-person voice that FSF establishes, wry and funny and frank about his striving to make a buck; it's a tone that Woody Allan has emulated it some of his humor pieces for the NYer. The weakness, however, is the preposterous nature of the story: the idea that this book would be such a success, that the publisher would be shocked to learn that it's a hoax, etc. If I were able to give FSF advice on this piece (ha), I'd say it would work a lot better if the publication were something that the publisher could have and would have truly believed in: something like the Howard Hughes hoax biography of more recent years or one of the fake memoirs by a teenage gang member or a bipolar novelist that come up from time to time (a recent magazine piece examined this topic).

Friday, March 17, 2017

Why we shouldn't dismiss Cather as just a regional writer

Willa Cather's 1917 novel, O Pioneers!, is great in surprising ways.  When you start the novel you think you'll be reading a paean to the harsh beauty of the Nebraska prairie and of the tough life of persistence, ingenuity, and perseverance that marked the pioneer spirit - even in the late 19th century. Yes all that's in this novel esp in the first section, which begins w a description of a small prairie town in mid-winter.  But as we move into the 2nd (of 5) and the longest section, circa 1900, the novel begins to take shape as a complex family drama, maybe even melodrama - Alexandra the unmarried oldest sibling in the Bergson family runs the family farm thru her wit and common sense and makes the prescient decision to invest in more land even when times are hard. Her two adult brothers are each shifty in different ways, one just a big strong slug w no common sense the other a sly budding Midwest politician. Neither could possibly run the homestead on his own. Then there's the younger children now about 18 or so in this section, yearning for a life of their own in a big city, maybe in the east. And there's the one who got away, the you man who seems to be the obvious love interest for Alexandra - he went away to the city and now is returned for a visit and he's not what we would have expected. In a bad novel he'd be a romantic hero who would spur a passion in the isolated Alexandra - think bridges of Madison county - but in this novel has a sad washed out disappointment , heading on a foolish venture to the Alaskan gold fields. And then there's the next neighbor. "Bohemian" - i.e. Czech, farmer clearly a mismatch w his high-spirited young wife. In short there's a lot of tension, simmering sexuality yearning, and disillusion in this seemingly placid, romantic novel.  Cather is ever sly providing much more then we expect - it's too easy to dismiss her as a regional writer she's much more.