Follow by Email


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

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A novel in the tradition of Tolstoy - but Life and Fate is by no means another War and Peace

Everything about it suggests that Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate, which he completed in 1960 but was held by Soviet authorities and not published till a microfilm copy was smuggled to France in 1980, would be a great 20th-century novel - one of those vast Russian works in the tradition of Solzhenitson and, especially, Tolstoy - an examination of a crucial period if Russian history, a novel in which scenes of military and domestic life develop in parallel - and yet - through the first 100 or so pages (it's a 900-page novel) this novel totally fails to live up to hype and expectation. We get various scenes of the siege of Stalingrad in WWII, but the scenes are so lifeless and bloodless and devoid of action and feeling - you almost understand why the Soviets wouldn't publish the novel; it would have bored too many Soviet citizens to death! None of the characters seems alive or distinct in any way; time and again Grossman misses opportunities to capture the military life as experienced by ordinary soldiers (as in two novels I've read recently about the first WW - All Quiet on the Western Front and War and Turpentine). There are a confounding # of characters, introduced abruptly and haphazardly. Obviously he's trying to write a 20th-century v of W&P, but he in no way approaches the narrative elegance of Tolstoy. W&P seems as if it would be hard to read but it's actually quite easy because Tolstoy's characters are distinct and his sense of action is vivid, always. Life and Fate is a slog from the jump. I am just getting into some chapters about domestic life, which focus on the family of a physicist living in exile from the war in a small city where they feel out of touch w/ intellectual and academic life. I will read more chapters today in the hope that maybe I was just unreceptive to this work yesterday (that happens - I always recommend giving books at least 2 days' worth of reading before putting them aside), but I'm not confident. Grossman may have been a dutiful scribe, but he does not seem to have the creative spark and insight that makes for a great or at least a good novelist.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A military novel in its purest form, devoid of ideology and almost outside of history: All Quiet on the Western Front

The brief afterword to the Random House "Reader's Edition" (who else would buy a book?) of Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, makes two good points. First, the editor (can't find editor's name online; sad) notes that here is no heroism in this novel; that is, it differs from most war fiction in that the life and death of the soldiers is almost entirely a matter of chance. Though there are some scenes involving courage, or at least endurance (notably, the night the narrator spends in a bomb crater alongside a dying French soldier) we don't have the sense that skilled or heroic soldiers have any better chance of survival than anyone else. The soldiers are part of a massive human attack wall, and some are mowed down by bullets or killed by explosions (later, by the advance of tanks) without distinction, just by chance. This novel makes the case that the 1st World War was the worst possible set of circumstances for foot soldiers: the military technology was lethal and there was no defense against advancing forces - just two armies facing off in trenches and killing each other one at a time until one of the forces has nothing left: pure brutality. Second point: The Nazi party and government hated this novel, tried to stop distribution, would have killed Remarque had he not taken refuge in Switzerland, and in fact did kill his sister. The crime: Showing German soldiers and cynical, vulnerable, sometimes afraid, sometimes shirking orders or standing up to authority - in other words, a realistic portrait of soldiers and military life (editor also notes, as I have posted earlier, that you could pretty much change the proper nouns and this could be a novel about English, French, or even American soldiers). This portrait directly opposed the Nazi vision of valorous, patriotic, loyal soldiers devoted to the fatherland; in fact, the one character who espouses patriotism and service is despised by the young men he'd encouraged to enlist. All Quiet is a war novel in its purest form, devoid of ideology and almost outside of history (in that it could, with the necessary changes, apply to any modern military action).

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The strange experience, for Americans, of fighting a battle within miles of the "homeland"

A few developments in Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, as a few of the German soldiers, recuperating in a base camp away from the front for a few days, swimming in the canal spot three French young women and begin flirting - and they make a date to meet them that night. The soldiers purloin some bread and sausages and swim across the river (naked, but carrying their boots!) and visit the young women; They ply them with provisions and then, presumably, have sex with the women (in keeping w/ protocol of the time, scenes of gruesome violence are OK but not scenes of sex). Readers have to think about these women: Are they prostitutes? Are they just that hungry that they'll sell their bodies for food? Are they just women out for a good time with some soldiers? There's no doubt that after the war these women will be branded as traitors, and perhaps justifiably. We develop some sympathy for the German soldiers over the course of this novel, but there are limits; consorting w/ the enemy seems beyond the pale. Later, the narrator goes home for 2 weeks of leave - a painful chapter as he feels he doesn't fit in anywhere; he senses that his family - mother ill w/ cancer, no social services to speak of, father working OT to pay medical bills, not enough food anywhere - is suffering, but he can't talk openly about the experiences of the front. He hears the usual bloviation from older men not in the service who have their own ideas about how to win the war and what territory German should seize - so easy for them to talk and boast, and there's nothing to say in response. In yet another painful scene he visits the mother of a dead comrade and swears to her that her son died instantly and w/out pain - an obvious palliative lie. It's strange for Americans to read of these two week visits home after service on the front, as we realize that for the past 150+ years we've never fought a battle on American soil. It's odd, to us, to have the battlefields so close to the "homeland" - making it easier in some ways to service, and in other ways much harder, as every town and village is in jeopardy. When the narrator returns from leave he's put to work in a post guarding Russian POWs, men who are suffering from near starvation. He is a humane man and provides them w/ some morsels of food when possible, and it's true that nobody really has enough to eat - but, still, the treatment of the POWs is deplorable and by today's standards - the Geneva Convention, if that's still in effect - borders on being a war crime.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A war novel without ideology: All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Marie Remarque's 1928 classic, All Quiet on the Western Front, is justly known for its depiction of battlefield conditions in the first World War - and by the middle of the novel, when the squadron of 150 men encounters its first days of continuous bombardment and attack, the vivid account of carnage becomes almost unbearable: details such as the rats and their constant attack on the few crusts of reak on which the soldiers depend for survival, the gruesome infantry attacks, w/ the German soldiers using spades (rather than bayonets) to kill or maim the French troops, the constant whistling, screaming, and thunderous explosion of shells and grenades, the aftermath with the moaning of the injured and maimed, the gas attacks that rip apart the lungs of the unwary, the rats fattening on the battleground corpses, so much, almost too much - and then the soldiers get a reprieve, a few days away from the front, and we wonder how they can ever summon the strength to go back. But Remarque's point is that the "veteran" soldiers - they're only 20 years old for the most part - become numb and inured, and as he notes several times they will never recover from the experiences they endured in the war (he wrote the novel about a decade after the war, in which he apparently served for a brief time in battle and a longer time in the hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds). English-language readers will always be a little uneasy reading this novel, which focuses on German troops attacking the French and possible English lines; in part of course the message is that for the ordinary soldier war is almost absurd - there's never a mention of any purpose in the war; the only hawkish patriotism comes from the elderly on the home front, notably the schoolmaster who encourages his students to enlist for the "fatherland." You could almost literally change the topical references and make this a novel about English, French, or even American soldiers and it would read just the same - translating not only the language but the nationalities - and that's also part of EMR's point - like that famous war poem "The Man He Killed." It's a novel about war stripped of politics and ideology.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A war stripped of politics, strategy, and enmy soldiers

Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, was brought to my attention recently when of all tings Bob Dylan cited it in his Nobel lecture s one of his 3 early literary inspirations - the only one of the 3 I hadn't read. I had, however, seen the movie when I was in h.s. and considered it one of the most influential films I'd ever seen - the first to get me to think seriously about pacifism and anti-war activities - in the beginning of the Vietnam era. I've read many novels about the first World War, most recently the excellent War and Turpentine, but reading All Quiet for the first time I can see that it was tremendously influential and formative, mainly because it's about the experience of war as lived and felt by ordinary foot soldiers. These soldiers are with the German army, pressing toward a front in France - but the nationality and the specifics of any one campaign are irrelevant. The power of this novel is that it's a work stripped of politics and of military strategy. It starts with the life of soldiers in an advancing army who are driven mainly by boredom, discomfort, and hunger. In the strange and powerful first scene they get their first full meal in sometime because an advance patrol lost half its men in an attack - so now the 80 remaining soldiers have enough rations for 150 men. The novel focuses on them martinet-like drill sergeants, the absurdities of military bureaucracy, and notably the bombastic patriotism of the schoolmasters who encouraged all patriotic young men to enlist - this latter played a big role in the movie and will I suspect in the novel, too. But just as we think this may be a forerunner to the mordant war comedy of say Catch-22, the men advance into a firestorm and we get a brutal scene of death, destruction, and survival by chance - a truly terrifying scene. What strikes me in particular is that we see absolutely no enemy soldiers - just the bombs, rockets, shells, bullets, and the sound of war - it's a war stripped of people and of antagonism, and all the more terrifying for that.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Thoughts on the ending of If Beale Street Could Talk and the forthcoming movie

There will be spoilers here, as I'm thinking about how Barry Jenkins may adapt James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk into a movie, with particular attention to the end of the novel. Now that I've finished reading the novel and have been surprised, in a sense, or maybe let down, by the ending, I think what Jenkins needs to do to give the narrative some structure and tension, that is, a dramatic arc, is to focus more than Baldwin did on the illegal incarceration of Fonny. I think I'd begin with the young couple, Fonny and Tish, as they search for a loft in which they can live and Fonny can work on his sculpture; there's a nice scene in the novel - almost at the end! - in which they rent the loft from a sympathetic landlord. Then they go out to celebrate, have a nice dinner at a restaurant owned by Fonny's friends, and then a confrontation at a grocery store where a young Italian guy starts touching Tish, Fonny comes to her rescue, and a racist cop intervenes and is obviously infuriated and humiliated by Fonny. Thus begin the troubles. I think there's a moment when Tish spits at the cop, and this can be the bridge back to the beginning of the relationship between Tish and Fonny - the screenplay can cut all they way back to their childhood and then bring them up to the present - and then the trouble resumes, as the cop engineers Fonny's arrest on rape charges (Jenkins will have to build this out more than Baldwin does). Then begin the family disputes over the fate of Fonny, and a rather desperate and odd effort to prove his innocence by tracking down the victim all the way to Puerto Rico and trying to get her to w/draw her testimony. The real dilemma: Does Jenkins want to stay true to Baldwin's vision and end w/ Fonny in prison for an indefinite period awaiting trial? With Fonny's father a suicide, frustrated by his inability to raise enough $ for bail? It's such a dark ending, and feels almost slapped on, as if Baldwin just had to finish with this novel so pulled some plot elements together in a rush. Yet that is his vision, and I doubt his executors would approve a version that completely changes the vision. Maybe there's a compromise - with Fonny out of prison but still facing doubt and anxiety about the forthcoming trial? As all of the world knows, there are many racist cops and literally countless frame-ups of young black men - but this story goes even further and imagines a complete racist conspiracy, a cop literally waiting for a crime that he can nail on Fonny, even though there is a ton of exculpatory evidence. Jenkins might do better to tone that down - not make it about a criminally vindictive cop but about a racist and indifferent system. All told, I thought this novel was headed toward a more upbeat conclusion - following on yesterday's post, I'd thought that JB made a point of noting that Fonny was not circumcised and I thought that would be a key bit of exculpatory evidence, boy was I wrong; I suspect Jenkins may ease off on the despair at least a little, making it a story of sad times but with a ray of hope, like the adaptation of Sapphire's Push (movie title: Precious).

Friday, July 14, 2017

Issues Barry Jenkins will face in adapting Baldin's novel for the screen

A couple of scenes in James Baldwin's 1974 novel (his last?), If Beale Street Could Talk (do others find this title kinda odd, given that the entire novel takes place in Manhattan? - I get the reference, but still), that Director Barry Jenkins (of Moonlight, looked his name up, sorry) will have to consider as he adapts this novel for his next film include: the "summit meeting" between the 2 families, Tish's and Fonny's (sorry, got his name wrong in yesterday's post my bad) to inform all that Tish is pregnant (while Fonny is in prison). What starts off as an OK meeting between two families that seem to bear each other no animosity becomes a violent, profane confrontation between the 2, leading to a complete break (this may touch on the Romeo-Juliet doomed lovers theme that JB introduced, though it's not quite the same as two long-term feuding families and a forbidden love affair - this just pushes the young couple into Tish's family orbit and estranges them from Fonny's). Jenkins will have to make this a central scene, but will have to cut radically; the novel reads much like a play at this point, but it would take far too much screen time to preserve all of the dialogue. The first sex scene between F and T will obviously be in the movie, but (one hopes) without all the talking and w/ no voice-over narration from T. The post-sex scene when the young couple goes to T's family to announce that they plan to get married is sweet and realistic and I'm sure BJ will want to make this a central, character-establishing scene. The big question is: How much of the false-arrest plot will he preserve and how will he handle it? To be honest, it's not Baldwin at his best here. Fonny was arrested on what by all accounts appears to be a case of mistaken ID and of police racism and malfeasance: He is charged w/ raping a woman, and a lot of the facts don't match up: he was far away from the scene at the time, for one thing. What Baldwin never or at least has not yet made clear is why and how the police would nab Fonny as a suspect. This element of the plot would be much stronger if JB had made it ambiguous, provided some explanation for the false arrest, some understanding of why the police would grab the wrong guy - this guy, in particular - and frame him. This may be something BJ will work on in his adaptation - building the tension and the doubt. I would say JB has dropped a major hint as to how Fonny will be exonerated; I won't divulge this now but will see if my hunch proves correct.

Thursday, July 13, 2017


Started re-reading James Baldwin's 1974 novel (his last?) If Beale Street Could Talk - I'd read it first sometime in the late 70s - which I've read that the writer-director of Moonlight is adapting as his next movie. The story itself is tame by today's standards (and by Baldwin's, much less groundbreaking than his debut Go Tell It on the Mountain or his novel on homosexuality Giovanni's room or his essays), as if he was trying to write a more conventional bed seller about a teen romance. The 17-year-old Tish, who has just learned she is pregnant by her 20-year-old boyfriend, Lonny, who is locked up in the Tombs. Over the first third we don't yet know why he's in prison; we do know that his family is sure he is innocent and has hired a pricey (white?) lawyer for his defense. Director (sorry can't remember his name right now) will have a lot of decisions to make. Novel begins w Tish and Lonny conversing thru glass at the prison as she tells him she's pregnant. Do you begin w this scene and then flash back or so you tell story chronologically: from their first meet on playground as kids fighting each other thru their first date (to L's family's Harlem church) to first sex at Lonny's e village apt (following dinner at rest where everybody knows L - a scene that reminded me of lady and the tramp!) and up to present when the 2 families gather to hear Tish' news? How do you preserve Tish's narrative voice: thru voice over? Do you have clear breaks among the various time segments as in Moonlight or go w the more conventional use of present narration w flashbacks? How much time if any do you spend on the back stories of secondary characters esp the parents and sisters of the two main characters? Most of all how do you build the narrative, which is pretty static - mostly back story - for the first third? What's the central conflict? Ominously Tish notes that her friends cal her and Lonny Romeo and Juliet - tho as she says they probably hadn't read the play. There may be an ominous note here; their families are by no means at war but is their romance doomed - and if so by what? Fate? Race? Poverty?

Sent from my iPhone

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

South Korean films are among the best today; a new piece of South Korean fiction in the New Yorker

Fine piece of fiction in the current double-issue (how do they get away with that?) New Yorker, Caring for Plants, by South Korean writer making I would guess first English-language magazine appearance, Hye-young Pyon. I'll consider the piece as a short story for the moment, and found it gripping and engaging right from the start, as we get a vivid "close-3rd-person" (i.e.,  told in 3rd person but never leaving the POV of the protagonist) of a 40-something man who is severely injured in a car accident that, we quickly learn, took the life of his wife, a passenger in his speeding car. Over the course of the story we follow his painful, gradual, partial recovery; he eventually leaves the hospital and goes home, under the care of his mother-in-law, w/ whom he had a tense relationship and who of course blames him for her daughter's death. The story touches on the creepy and horrendous as we gradually understand the magnitude of the mother-in-law's mistreatment of this man, and his frightening incapacity to do anything to improve his fate - it's a horror story in a way, but of a true-life sort, the horror of being imprisoned in a nonfunctional body (for ex., he can barely speak and cannot use a telephone). The story ends with a weird twist that I'm not sure I got - I think I did - but I won't give it away. But I will say that when you look at the bio-info at the front of the book you'll see he has a novel forthcoming in English, and I'm pretty sure this piece is an excerpt - you'll know what I mean when you finish. In some previous posts I have slammed New Yorker editors for relying too heavily on excerpts from forthcoming fiction, which seems to me often just flag waving and promotion; that said, this excerpt, if that's what it is, breaks the rules because of the stand-alone quality of the piece and because it introduces most if not all readers to a new voice. South Korean films are among the most interested made today, and this is a good step toward our seeing more of contemporary South Korean fiction.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Why I've change my thinking about Flaubert's Sentimental Education

Finished reading Flaubert's Sentimental Education while flying home from Paris via Air France - a great experience re-reading this novel daily while traveling through France over past 2 weeks; the sense of the streets of Paris in particular the great homes in the Fauborg Saint Germaine brought some sections of the novel even more to life - made it easier to comprehend the clashing of grandeur and privilege with the working-class lives all through the society that made life in such splendor possible for the few. Of course the working classes of Paris today are nowhere near the Fauborg, except insofar as the restaurants and bars are part of the working class - so the rage in the streets and the governmental upheavals in 1848 that GF re-creates so brilliantly seems like ancient history, which it is. Most of all I was struck by how different the novel seems to me at this stage in my life. I wouldn't have thought so but, like many great novels, it inevitably means something different to readers of different ages. I loved this novel when I was younger, and experienced it primarily as the story of a group of young men, one in particular (Frederic Moreau) who devote their lives to the pursuit of an abstract and elusive ideal and at the end look back and recognize that they have failed but that it was better to fail in a grand manner than never to have aspired. Frederic's obsession with the beautiful and inscrutable Mme Arnoux seemed to me a paradigm for love lost: His desire to the inaccessible woman seemed a way to protect himself from all true feelings, or sentiments, of love. Reading the novel today I am much more struck by Frederic's cruelty and vanity: He betrays 4 women, including the woman who gives birth to his only child; he inherits a great deal of money, which he squanders and wastes on senseless and useless possessions and items of status. He dabbles in politics but with no commitment to anyone but himself and no views or ideals. He is, in short, a dislikeable and shallow character, mean to everyone he meets and knows, a liar and a spendthrift. He sometime friend and sometime rival Arnoux is a scoundrel but at least good-hearted and full of life. So, in fact, I don't love the novel as much as I once did, sad to say, but still find it one of the great political novels of all time (even if much of the politics is obscure to contemporary readers), a terrific establishment of a set of characters and their inter-actions over the course of time, and most of all astonishing in its re-creation of various scenes and milieus, especial the pastoral interlude on Fountainbleu with the guns in Paris in the background, the street demonstrations, the salons and drawing room, Arnoux's art gallery and his ceramics factory, the near-death of Mme Arnoux's child, the boat ride up the Seine in the first chapter - so many. It also strike me that 2 other potential novels lurk in this one: Frederic's friend Deslauriers seems to have a life story worth telling (he fills us in a bit in the last chapter), and especially Rosanette, the "mistress" of many in this novel, would have been as good a subject for GF as Mme Bovary: the abuse she suffered in childhood, her rise to prominence in society as a mistress and, to put it bluntly, a whore, her devotion to Frederic, her own duplicity, her need to survive, her loss of a child - a great potential novel there!

Monday, July 10, 2017


Part 3 of Flaubert's Sentimental Education includes the long "pastoral" interlude in which Frederic and his "mistress," Rosanette, leave Paris for several weeks near Fountainbleu - they rent carriages and drive idly around the countryside day after day - neither money or time is ever an issue in their pointless lives - as the gunshots ring in the background. There's revolution in the air to which they are indifferent and oblivious. Over the course of this interlude we see the inevitable doom of this relationship of convenience - R clearly uninterested in the cultural observations the F offers. We also learn of her tragic background, sold into sex slavery at 15 to support her mother's drinking. F seems strangely unsympathetic- a shallow man. But his growing estrangement from R leads him to so far his most ennobling action in the novel - a dangerous return to Paris to help his wounded friend Dussardier. As it happens tho D doesn't need his medical attentions and the short-lived revolution is soon suppressed and F is none the wiser. In fact his relationships w women at this point descend to a new low as he not only continues to pursue the unhappy and vulnerable Mme Arnoux but he betrays R - now pregnant by the way - and is cruelly dismissive of Mlle Roque, the young woman from his home town who know nothing of his philandering and dissolution and naively believes they are soon to become officially engaged.

Sent from my iPhone

Sunday, July 9, 2017


In part 3 of Flaubert's Sentimental Education we see the utter chaos of the political scene in Paris ca 1848 w a political party representing every shade and nuance of political belief and every special interest group (e.g. A party of artists...). To his credit Frederic has become interested in the world around him and is encouraged to run for a seat in the legislature. Of course it's not clear what he believes is, if anything, but at least for the moment he has stopped obsessing about Mme Arnoux, about his "mistress " Rosannette and about spending his fortune on trivialities. Flaubert has some fun w a few comic scenes at political rallies - Frederic does not fit in at all w these lifetime political obsessives, figures entirely familiar at American universities in the late 20th century and probably today. We also get a delightful scene in which the self-centered and probably corrupt aristocrat Dambeuse (?) comes to Frederic for protection - uttering self-serving inanities such as "after all, all of us are workers" or "dammit Proudhon has some really fine ideas." In other words the world has turned upside down overnight and everyone is doing what he or she can to survive - there are dead bodies in the streets as a reminder

Sent from my iPhone

Saturday, July 8, 2017


Part 3 of Flaubert's Sentimental Education strikes a new tone as the first chapter focuses on the revolution in the street. Frederic at least for the first 20 pages or so has no direct or participatory role; rather, he is our point of view onto the revolutionary events - some of which are bloody and cruel. Flaubert seems to be a writer of omniscience but that's not quite correct; his omniscient descriptions of place, setting, character, and milieu are always mediated - Flaubert gives us in heightened form what his characters would see all around them but of course could never capture in language (part of the joke: Frederic has dreams of becoming a writer tho it's obvious he will always be a dilettante). The exceptions in Flaubert's narrative style, the few moments when has as author speaks directly to the reader, are therefore all the more striking bcz of their rarity as well as their beauty and precision - such as the famous aside in Mme Bovary about a mirror carried along beside a highway or about a writer pounding an a drum for bears to dance to when he wanted to move the stars. In Sentimental Education the 3rd section has F observe how each of his coterie has been engaged in the revolutionary actions- and for the first time in the novel F begins to think about others and about the forces that oppress others in his society - the beginning of his attaining self-knowledge, however painful and belated.

Sent from my iPhone

Friday, July 7, 2017


The conclusion to part 2 of Flaubert's Sentimental Education is a classic, possibly the best example of cinematic that is montage-like naturalistic writing from the 19th century or from any era for that matter. Flaubert moves fluently among three narrative strands but not in a simplistic, ironic manner - rather each narrative strand complements the others and sharpens or perceptions about the character of the protagonist, Frederic Moreau, and about the culture in which he lives. Main narrative strand: F at last has gotten Mme arnoux to indicate that she loves him that she is tired of her troublesome husband and that she may be available. So F has rented and furnished a "love nest" and he sets up an appointment to meet Mme Arnoux and to secretly bring her to this abode. He by chance has set the assignation on a day that Paris is erupting w anti-royalist demonstrations so as he waits for her we hear gunshot and get occasional glimpses of the demonstrators - uncle F's friends. But he abandons his friends and any ideals he has left as he awaits Mme A and is furious that she does not show up. She is at home w her young boy who is near death from croup - and she comes to see this as a message from providence and vows to renounce the adulterous relationship she's almost entered. In the end F goes to the high-class prostitute, Rosannette, and declares he is no longer patient or gentlemanly - he flings himself on her and they have sex and he cries and says he's never been so happy. We have to wonder at this point if he had actually been virginal- or had some kind of sexual inhibitions or misfunctions (the end of the novel would suggest not). In any event by the end of this section we see his complete abnegation and solipsism - his indifference to the upheavals under way in his world, to the need of his so-called friends, and to the whole concept of marital and interpersonal fidelity.

Sent from my iPhone


Toward the end of part 2 of Flaubert's Sentimental Education Frederic begins a relationship w the young (she seems to be 15 at most!) daughter of M Roque, the widower who has been interested in not exactly marrying but more like building a business alliance w F's mother back home in the provinces. We know F's relationship w Mlle Roque will fail as he is too drawn to the dissolute, amoral milieux of Paris - he will inevitably hurt her but it will be good for her to move beyond him. She is still young. But we get insight into F's troubled mind through his awkward "courtship" of Mlle Roque: He seems touched that she seems to be in love w him and he says she is the first person ever to do so and we feel that this is sad and true : even his mother seems mostly to want to push him into a career and she seems unaffectionate. He, too, is drawn to Mlle R by the wealth of her insidious father. Finally we sense that he will inevitably hurt her, that he is afraid of success in love, that he is attracted only to the unobtainable and that this kind of attraction is a defense that protects him from engagement with and commitment to others.

Sent from my iPhone

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


In some ways Flaubert's two major protagonists - Mme Bovary and Frederic Moreau - have much in common and in other ways they are opposites. First, both are young people from the provinces who believe the only suitable life for people of their ambitions is the "big" city, which I put in quotes bcz for Bovary that's still a provincial capital. Second, each is dissatisfied w his/her station and place - EB believes she should be a great romantic figure and FM believes he should be an aristocratic gentleman. Both betray those closest to them in pursuit of their ideals and both prove destructive, cruel, and careless. Yet their endings are vastly different: Emma does by her own hand leaving family behind in tatters. Frederic abandons his dissolute life and at the end looks back and realizes he has wasted his life and given up any chance at happiness. Which is a worse fate? I would only say that the two dates differ in part because of gender and in part because of class. We cannot really imagine Emma ending her life by traveling (alone) across Europe and then looking back and saying her childhood adventures were the best time of all. She is beset by too many obligations to do so. Nor can we imagine Frederic poisoning himself; men of his class or at least he likes to imagine his class are not prone to histrionics - killing himself by poison would have been the ultimate in déclassé and would have made Sentimental education a trashy romance novel - the sort that Emma would read in fact.

Sent from my iPhone

Tuesday, July 4, 2017


Left off at a dramatic point in Flaubert's Sentimental Education last night as Frederic prepares to duel Cisy, his pretentious and insecure aristocratic friend, in a matter of so-called honor. C at a dinner of other young aristos is made increasingly uncomfortable as the others insult him and it's obvious he's the least sophisticated and worldly in the group. Trying to sound tough and experienced he says something insulting about Arnoux; F steps up to A's defense. C stupidly says the one good thing about A is his sexy wife - at which point F gets enraged and throw a plate at C. I love that Flaubert slyly notes that as the drinking boys try to sort out this affair of honor the waiters clean up the mess. Anyway: a duel. Even in this comic duel, which reminds me of augucheek's duel in 12th Night, it's obvious that this behavior w all of the attendant code - the seconds, the choice of weapons, and so on - show the 19th c aristocracy at its most barbaric. This novel continues to bring Frederic deeper into the lower depths and what we have to wonder is will he ever become educated about feelings and responsibilities and if he ever does will there be anything left of his life to save.

Sent from my iPhone

Monday, July 3, 2017


By the midpoint of Sentimental Education the protagonist, frederic, has touched the lower depths. He completely abandons his commitment to his lifelong friend, Deslaurier, after promising to give him a lot of money to back his political publication F changes his mind and gives the money to the insidious Arnoux to pay a creditor. Even F can't be stupid enough to believe A will ever pay him back. In fact he gives him the money so as to ingratiate himself in the eyes of Mme A whom he continues to pursue - at least in his mind. But despite his obsession w her he cannot bring himself to approach her directly and all of the "signals" she gives him suggest that she is virtuous and loyal to her husband - who is not faithful in kind. In short F is at this point in the novel completely feckless and immoral. At the same time his friends are becoming increasingly obsessed and bitter in fact Delaurieais seems to be a bipolar character talking feverishly about his political plans. Meanwhile the wealthy Desmaurier (?) has enticed F to buy shares in a coal scheme - another way in which F is throwing away his money to impress others - he cannot see how people are abusing him and takin advantage of him. One scene I particularly like is F'a visit to A's ceramics factory - which turns Out of course to be far less grand than he'd been led to believe. In fact if I could edit Flaubert for a moment the scene would have been even better is there were no manufacturing under way at all. Either way, F is a fool and we'll see what he learns in his "education "

Sent from my iPhone

Sunday, July 2, 2017


In part 2 of Sentimental Education Flaubert sets up a contrast between the two social milieux that pull Frederic on opposite directions. He goes to a social gathering at the dwelling of the prosperous high-ranking businessman Desmaurier (?) where the conversation is insipid and politically reactionary - and later F has a gathering of his friends from the old days before he was wealthy and they have a lively debate about art and politics, leaning to the left of course. His friends begin to emerge as distinct characters and we esp focus on Deslaurier, his best friend fro youth, who becomes increasingly angered by political injustice. His goal is to run a newspaper that will espouse views of the left and he and another of the crowd out the squeeze on F - he at first says he's a little strapped, which stirs D'a anger: it's ok for you to live in a mansion while others are on the street. Guilt-tripped, F comes thru w a large contribution, realizing that he is already running thru his vast inheritance. Meanwhile, he is trying to make the flirtatious (at best) Roseannette (?) aka The Marshall, his mistress - not clear how this fits in w his obsession about Mme Arnoux except that maybe he is afraid of winning her. He develops a ridiculous plan to have one of his crowd paint R's portrait and to be present at each sitting. In sum, he thinks he's a great lady's man, a great schemer, a great friend, and a great patron - but he is none of these. He's a shallow and ignorant young man who treat women and his male friends badly and his heading toward a fall.

Sent from my iPhone

Saturday, July 1, 2017


So Frederic returns to Paris as a rich young man and immediately sets off in search of the Arnoux family - now that he's rich he suspects he can sweep Mme A off her feet so to speak - but on arrival he finds that the A's have moved inexplicably and given no forwarding info. He spends two frustrating (and comic) days trying to track them down for which we say serves you right - he is entirely Del-centered and a complete ingrate at this point in the novel. When he finds them m Arnoux explains that he had to give up hid line as an art dealer and go into ceramics because nobody is serious about art any longer - and F is foolish enough to believe this, while it's obvious to all readers that A is a scoundrel who had to run away from creditors. Making thing worse F goes off w A - leaving Mme at home - for a night of debauchery at one of the most decadent soirees in literature - the complete counterpart to the salons of, say, Proust - party ends w the guests literally smashing all the china and nobody seems to care except maybe A who provided the china to the host, his mistress. At this point we can only say to Frederic: if you can't see how worthless these people are you will get what you deserve. To top it off he spends a huge part of his inheritance buying and furnishing a new house - noting that there would be room to house his impoverished best friend but he doesn't want the guy around interfering w his efforts to seduce Mme Arnoux so he knocks out a wall and converts the extra bedroom into a smoking lounge. How petty and mean-spirited.

Sent from my iPhone

Friday, June 30, 2017


It seems as if Flaubert's Sentimental Education will end before it has a chance to begin as the protagonist, Fredoric, leaves Paris and returns home to his mither's house in what must be Normandy: he learns from his mother that his expected inheritance will be much less than he'd thought, he feels shamed and deprived by this loss and determines he cannot possibly lead the life of leisure in Paris and vie for the attention of Mme Arnoux. He settles into a job as a law clerk and does poorly - a huge disappointment to his mother and others who'd expected great things from him. Interesting to speculate on how many Frederics Flaubert must have known as he devoted himself to writing in his native town in Normandy. There must have been so many in his time - and ours - who went off to the city w "great expectations" and returned to settle unhappily into Provincial life. At this point in the move Frederic maybe in a sense the male v of Mme Bovary - feeling stifled and unappreciated in a provincial town. We begin to see what Flaubert meant by madame Bovary c'est moi: maybe he set out to establish this identification more directly in at least part 1 of SE. One other oddity toward the end of part 1 is federic's brief flirtation w m rocque's daughter, who is 12! He can't be serious about her but does ask to kiss her and allow her to visit in his bedroom - obviously he is stirring up her sexual fantasies - and then he drops her suddenly when he comes into an unexpected inheritance and leaves again for Paris. She is left behind in tears and bewilderment- perhaps to suffer for him as he has for the equally unattainable Mme Arnoux.

Sent from my iPhone

Thursday, June 29, 2017


Eventually you have to wonder: what's the significance of Frederic's fascination w Mme Arnoux? He sees her initially as like a vision and spends what seems like the next year or maybe two in Paris trying to get her to notice him. He insinuates himself into M Arnoux's art and publishing circle all w the intention of knowing his wife. Over time he more or less abandons his legal studies and becomes increasingly indifferent to his lifelong best friend, Deslaurier - borrowing money from him that he cannot afford to loan - to buy stupid prints from Arnoux only To remain close to the wife. I could go on , but what's the point of his action? First, he's attracted to her because of her exotic looks - worshipping someone different and distant, a break fro all of the conventional expectations and obligations of his family- and because she is unavailable: he's so inexperienced at love and at relationships that he attaches to a person whom he can never hope - at least at this stage of love - to engage w in any serious manner. Second, he seems to be in search of 3 things: a mother, a father, and a family. It's significant that he first glimpsed her on the boat as a madonna-like figure caring for her young daughter. We sense that F's mother was cold and indifferent, always worried about money and pushing F toward success in a public career. Also significant that he always approaches her by means of her husband- the many dinners and salon invited and business dealings w the affable arnoux may be the real point of his obsession: he wants a father (never having known his own) and maybe wants to be "married" to arnoux. Which is another way of saying that what he wants is incorporation into the Arnoux family- he is envious of the happiness he saw among them on the boat ride up the Seine, and perhaps jealous of their capacity to travel together for a month of so when he is traveling alone. He idealizes Mme Arnoux but that may be just a screen to protect his more unconventional yearnings from view; easier to pretend to be in love w the beautiful woman who is already"taken."

Sent from my iPhone

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


In ch 2 of Flaubert's Sentimental Education we meet Federico's best friend and learn how they had each other's back while in school. Now that F, the younger of the 2 has graduated they find themselves uneasily on uneven footing: F is fairly well off or at least he can live as if that's so and he can be more cavalier about his preparation for a career in law. His friend has toil diligently at a clerkship in an out-of-the-way locale - but he kindly and magnanimously support F in his dreams. Then, we see F settle into the academic life of Paris - as he loses interest in the law and is dangerously close to becoming a dilettante. He makes a number of academic/artistic/political friends, one of whom helps F get an invitation to Arnoux's house - which can both open some doors to the artistic circles in Paris and, more important to F, can lead to an introduction to mme Arnoux - the exotic woman who appeared to him like a vision. He ridiculously decides to become an artist and spends an evening in her thrall - so much so that he completely and conveniently forgets another social obligation- his best friend is moving to Paris and has stopped by to visit. F abandons him - a sign of his social recklessness when under the spell of mme arnoux.

Sent from my iPhone

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The journey home: Thoughts on first chapter of Sentimental Education

Started re-reading Flaubert's great (greatest?) novel Sentimental Education, possibly the 3rd time?, though had not looked at it for many years - and I'm hoping to post on each chapter or group of chapters as I read this novel once again - a young man's novel in many ways - story of a coming of age, of the years just after college and the young man trying to find his place in the world, live up to family expectations, and fulfill his own desires, sexual, social, and artistic. SE begins like many novels with a young man taking a journey, but the twist and surprise is he's not setting off on adventure, not setting out to see the world, but he's heading home. He boards a little river steamship on the Seine, and it takes a few paragraphs before we recognize that he's leaving Paris and heading upstream, going home for the summer. He's just graduated from college, where he excelled, and is planning to study for the bar - but this trip home is to meet family obligations. His mother lives well, she's from an historic French family, but she's been widowed since childbirth - the young man never knew his father, which become significant - and tries to live frugally, which of course puts greater pressure on the young man to succeed: family expects him to serve in high government office some day. He has just visited a wealthy relative whom his mother hopes will support him in some way, but the young man is mum and indifferent on this score; we sense his reluctance to buy into any of the family expectations. Most important, on the boat ride up the Seine he meets a 40-something Parisian businessman who owns and art studio and publishing house, and he's immediately taken with the "father figure," who seems to represent an alternate career path. Equally important, he spies a beautiful woman alone on the boat - later learns she is the man's wife and other of a young girl - and he is entirely smitten: as if he's seen a vision, Flaubert notes. The beauty is obvious, but what else draws him immediately to this woman? She is "exotic," he thinks maybe biracial (Creole), and also she is "taken," unavailable - do we see an Oedipal theme here? Or a young man pursuing the unobtainable, perhaps to strike a new course in life or perhaps to prevent himself from achieving a goal that would disrupt family expectations? The entire voyage up the Seine is a classic example of naturalistic description of landscape and scene; students could learn much from studying F's use of detail and sensory images - and simple sentence structure. The idea of a journey novel beginning w/ a journey toward rather than away from home. Unusual, though the Odyssey may be a similar example, In contemporary culture, his journey is something like journey home after college in The Graduate.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The state of Europe as seen in Best European Fction 2017

One of the strongest entries in Best European Fiction 2017 is from the Spanish/Basque writer Karmele Jaio, Two Stories - one very short piece, Mirros, which simply involves a woman examining her body in the mirror and unfolding her thoughts about her ex-husband, her sexuality, her maturity, her aging, a subtle insight into a life in just a few paragraphs. The longer story, Scream, is narrated by a writer, a woman, who does her work in the evenings in the family living room; she's devoted to writing and her husband is devoted to soccer. He watches soccer matches in the living room, using a headset so that he doesn't disturb her, but he can't help but, on occasion, screaming out some comment about the game or cheering a goal. Over time, she becomes curious about his soccer fascination - which has an effect on her writing, and on their relationship, that's startling and kind of funny - a terrific and surprising scene from a marriage. I also liked the entry from another Spnish Castillian) writer, Carlos Robles Lucena, Don't Ask for Gagarin, which describes a visit to the now nearly abandoned Soviet space center - a spooky and strange piece of fiction, or maybe journalism - not sure how closely Lucena bases this account on an actual visit, if at all. This story, though, shows what works and what seems amiss about this anthology: Some of the pieces are strong, almost all worth reading in any event, but I'm surprised at how little the writers have to say about their own culture, time, and place. Most of the pieces are unconventional in regard to structure and narrative tone, which may reflect the editor's taste although it's fair to say that European writers have often been in the vanguard in various literary and cultural movements - not always to good effect. None of the innovative stories strike me as true stylistic breakthroughs, however, and the best selections - my own prejudice, or course - tend to be the more conventional in structure and tone.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Thoughts on what may be William Trevor's last story

Moving and sad to see in this week's New Yorker what will probably be the last William Trevor story, a pretty short 2-pager that he must have left behind unpublished on his death. Trevor was w/out doubt one of the great English-language short-story writers; his only peers during his later years were Munro and Updike - only Munro still alive and seemingly retired from writing. This story, The Piano Teacher's Pupil, shows us some of the beauty, tone, and unusual narrative voice for which Trevor is justly remembered: In a short span he covers the breadth of the Piano Teacher's life - her years teaching piano at her home; her devotion to her elderly father, a chocolatier; the affair she was engaged in with a married man whom she hoped would leave is wife for her but who never did - in short the sad missed connections of a life quiet on the exterior and inside full of tormoil - like so many lives! In such a short space, inevitably this story feels more like an outline than a fully developed narrative; we can imagine that had he been younger and in better health he would have built out this story. The essence is that for the first time in her life the teacher recognizes the one pupil is a prodigy; she nourishes this relationship - throughout the story the pupil never says a word - even though it appears that at each lesson the pupil steals something from her home. At the end, the pupil drifts away, as most do, but years later returns for another lesson or at least a visit. Then Trevor, as was his wont, adds a final paragraph, a coda, summing up the teacher's thoughts and emotions: in this case she seems to feel blessed by working with this one (potentially) great pianist, after all. No knock on Trevor to say that most readers will find this conclusions insufficient: there was so much mystery in the story - the silence of the pupil, his apparent hostility and kleptomania - that I think we expect more of a recognition at the end, and maybe a more melancholy conclusion as well: Is she really satisfied to have worked with the ingrate? Doesn't she feel a bit of a fool? But in a grander sense, maybe Trevor is saying something about his own career: each book, each story, was like something lifted from his psyche, released from his memory, in return for his creation of great art. The theft may be painful and humiliating, but in the end, when his memory is dry and skills are depleted, the touch of greatness was enough.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Two selections - very different from each other - worth reading inBest European Fiction 2017

Two additional pieces of interest in Best European Fiction 2017: First, selections from Polish writer Agnieszka Taborska's book Not As In Paradise, each a short (one paragraph) essay about a strange encounter or observation: a person shopping for groceries is embraced by a man who claims to be the long-lost brother-in-law; two friends sit down to dine in a restaurant, one is served right away and the other is never served, as the restaurant gradually clears and closes; a family whose house is wrecked by fire installs all water beds, to their later chagrin; and so on. Each of these is worth reading and pondering - yet I have to wonder: a whole book of these apercus? Not sure if they would be enhanced by the cumulative effect, or diminished. Another selection worth reading is from Russian writer Liza Alexandrova-Zorina, a Russian writer, whose story Bad Town is about the Tajik immigrants into a rural Russian community, the hardships and discrimination they face, their banishment, their eventual return - life is even worse back at home, they offer glumly. Something about this piece reminds me of Chekhov, particularly his stories from the steppes: the sorrowful tone, the sympathy for the outsiders, the somewhat detached omniscient narrator. This story is one of the few in the collection that focuses on contemporary European issues.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The challenge of finding one work of fiction from each European country

Another story in the anthology from Dalkey Archive Press Best European Fiction 2017 is  from the Irish (i.e., writing in Irish/Gaelic, who knew?) Daithi O Muiri, Duran - a straightforward story about a pair of malevolent preteens who break into an unoccupied house and pretty much destroy the place, but it turns out they made a very bad choice as to whose house to destroy. O Muiri tightens the knot of tension w/ each page, as it becomes increasingly obvious that the mob-connected victim of the random vandalism is tracking down the perpetrators - all good, but I only wish the conclusion of the story were more explicit and less tentative, and even vague. Otherwise, not so many great stories and I wonder if this is really the best Europe has to offer; clearly, the editors were seeking little-known (though not always young) authors, and maybe they couldn't get the right to the more prominent European authors such as Knausgaard, Houllebecq, or Ferrante - but seriously wouldn't be better to come clean and ID this as new or "undiscovered" writers, or some such term? Other selections I read yesterday that are worth a look: the selection from the Italian writer Marosia Castaldi's novel The Hunger of Women, an appealing vignette about older women in distress comforting one another with conversation and shared recipes - I loved the descriptions of the Italian home cooking. But this is an excerpt and, as such, offers a glimpse at a longer work w/out offering a real arc of a story. I also like Jonathan Hutton's story Moondust, about the last days in the life of an astronaut, but it's inclusion in this anthology is odd: Hutton is an American living in Liechtenstein and, though he wrote this story in German, its entire setting and scope is in the U.S., so it doesn't feel in the least like an insite into European literature or contemporary culture (I get it that it's a bit of a challenge to find one work from each European culture and language group).

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A French-language writer - Gauz - who will be worth reading when his novel comes out in English

It's surprising, halfway through Best European Fiction 2017, how few of these stories and selections from novels have anything explicitly to say about the changes, struggles, and crises in Europe today; most of these pieces could just as well have been written by an American writer - although perhaps they're a little more experimental in form than most contemporary American work, which may be typical of European fiction or may just represent the taste of the editors. One exception, and perhaps the most interesting piece in the first half of the anthology, is by the French-language writer Gauz, living in Paris and a native of the Ivory Coast, an excerpt from his novel Stand-by-the-Hour. The piece begins with a description of a job fair at which a recruitment firm is hiring a vast # of men to work as store security; all of the applicants are French-speaking of African descent - and Gauz has some striking passages in which he ticks off the cultural differences - in clothing, in style - that mark one African nationality from another. This passage gives us a sense of the struggles of the African immigrants (or sons of immigrants) and helps us see a segment of the capitalist system generally hidden from view: who are these men who take these dreary jobs of literally standing by the hour, paying watch and keeping the peace simply through their slightly threatening presence? Then we take a step aside w/ two of the men who are living in one of those Parisian shared apartments - they clear out during the day and leave the room to workers on the night shift; Gauz gives us the sense of the despair of their lives and the need to stay out of trouble - and they seem headed for trouble as they befriend a seriously drunk white woman and literally carry her back to their apartment where they hope she'll sleep it off and sober up. This seems like a novel worth reading, if and when it appears in English. Another piece of note is the Hungarian writer Zsuzsa Selyem's story Confectionary 1952, which describes a police interrogation of those suspected of anti-Soviet activism; strangely, the story seems to be narrated by some kind of insect or animal that thrives off the blood of the prisoners - a mosquito, maybe? Very unusual perspective; but why focus on the politics of that long-ago era? I really expected more in this anthology about multicultural tensions, the immigration crises, terrorism, Brexit - life today in Europe.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A glimpse at contemporary European fiction - experiments in form and adherence to tradition

Am reading through or at least around in Best European Fiction 2017(Dalkey Archive Press), and breaking w/ usual practice I have a copy next to so that I can recall the names of some of the authors; book is structured as one short story or novel excerpt per European country/language group (e.g., there Spain Basque and Castillian). I had literally never heard of any of the authors, which says something either about me, about cntemporary European fiction, or about the editors of this collection (the preface is by Eileen Battersby). The first several stories in the collection were not promising; we know that European writers have long been interested in experiments in form and style, heavily influenced by French New Wave cinema and structuralist and post-structuralist (and many other "ists" I think) literary criticism. The first several stories in this collection involve shifts in narrative POV, broken chronology, and various other devices and, you know what?, this is no longer avant garde or cutting edge. Broken narrative is by now a cliche, and an off-putting one at that. Moreover, the first few stories focus on the adolescent angst of writers or hip artists. Ugh - this topic is suddenly coming up all over the place (see 2 most recent NYer stories), and I think it speaks to the proliferation of writing programs - too many people writing too much when they don't have enough experience of the world to write about anything but themselves. One of these stories, though, The Two Writers, by Stephane Lambert, does make a terrific observation that I think makes it worth reading: Lost opportunities in life are the starting places for writers. That's a really smart observation - absolutely true, writers can and do use these missed opportunities to explore through art the lives they could have or almost led. Two more conventional stories in the collection, one by Czech writer Jiri Harjicek, about a soccer coach who faces a crisis when one of his players may have had unprotected sex with a young girl, and Ida Jessen, of Denmark, give hope that the entire volume won't be an experiment in form. Harjisek's story is like a well-made play - very convention, perfect in form, beginning, middle, and end, could have been written, mutatis mutandis, 50 years ago. Jessen's (Postcard to Annie) is especially moving, as a middle-aged woman reflects on a turning point in her life based on one tragic incident that she witnessed in her youth - I wonder if this story of achieved opportunity is her version of working out a missed opportunity from her own life? - and then, in the present, reflecting back on the course of her life; it's a story broad in scope and deep in feeling.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Worth reading to the conclusion of The North Water

Final word on Ian McGuire's 2016 novel, The North Water: Clearly not a novel for all readers, but if you can work your way through the first chapters and steel yourself for a series of gruesome scenes involving brutal fights, sodomy, butchering of animals, consumption of raw seal blood and organs, freezing Arctic conditions, crude language to the extreme, mistreatment and denigration of women, primitive medical treatments including an appendectomy performed the field - well, you get the drift - it's really a gripping story told in high style. McGuire builds to a dramatic and startling violent conclusion, and then ends with a chapter that's surprisingly pacific, involving redemption and sorrow - I won't give any of that away, but if you find yourself at all captivated by the narrative it's worth pursuing to the end. As noted her and in previous posts, McGuire is a really talented writer, with a vast working vocabulary and a smart sense about 19th-century arcana, in particular whaling, medical practices, and the Arctic populations. But he wears his research lightly and never - well, rarely - seems to be showing off to earn special props. I have no idea what McGuire may be working on now, but hope he'll go easier on the gore and profanity that will inevitably put off many of his potential readers.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The spiritual aspect of The North Water

Ian McGuire's The North Water does have me "hooked," and I'm just nearing the conclusion. It's not a book for everyone; it's at times crude, cruel, and gruesome, and all of the major characters - the men aboard a whaling ship - are corrupt and immoral in all sorts of ways. But: McGuire writes as well as anyone, he knows how to build tension and hold reader attention, he keeps the plot short and taut, so if you're not turned off by the atrocities of the first few chapters you're probably, like me, along for the whole trip. The book is a strange mix of an abundance of talent, of scrupulous research, and arcane vocabulary - and at the end a great sailing-adventure tale, as the men aboard the Volunteer face one catastrophe after another. I've commented in earlier posts about the inevitable comparisons with Moby-Dick, and there's one element to add to that: toward the end of the novel discussions about religion and morality rise to the fore, as the ship's surgeon, Sumner, nearly freezes to death and is resuscitated by a sole British missionary, who talks to him about the grace of god - and whom Sumner crudely, and rudely, rebuffs. (Earlier in the novel Sumner had conversations with one of the whaling men, Otto, who is a Swedenborgian and believes man's fate is in the hands of a benevolent if elusive god.) So the world of the sailing vessel, which seems so isolated and forlorn (and fallen) is also part of a vast universe - a speck in that universe - and at least some of the men try to comprehend the conflict between man's will (and evil nature) and the benevolent, yet absent, god. Melville wrestled with these issues as well - as about a million doctoral dissertations can attest.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The North Water as Moby-Dick in reverse

The North Water is something like a whodunnit in reverse; the "mystery" is the sodomy attack on one of the cabin boys on the whaling ship and the subsequent murder of the cabin boy, which sets off an investigation by the captain and the ship's surgeon. In this novel, however, we know more than any of the characters - and in particular we know who attacked the cabin boy, as we'd met the crew member Drax in the 1st chapter, in which he got drunk, beat the crap out of an innocent man, and raped a teenage boy. So we know he's the one who attacked the boy on this ship - and we watch as gradually. thanks to the perspicacious surgeon, Sumner, the truth comes out and Drax gets chained in the hold. But, hey, we're only about half-way done with the novel; what else will happen? As noted in previous posts, this is a novel as dark as they come (at one point I misremembered the title as The Dark Water), and we begin to see that there's another nefarious scheme afoot; the captain has plotted to sink the ship - but slowly enough so that the valuable whale oil can be offloaded to a sister ship - in order to claim the insurance. Obviously, that's not going to work out so well, in the ice-choked waters off Greenland. There is no character in this novel who's benevolent, honest, or even likable - Sumner comes the closest, as he seems to be trying to redeem himself, but Ian McGuire does fill us in on his back story, his discharge from the British army because of his scheme to extort valuables from a man seeking help for his wounded son in an army hospital, a stupid action that leads to the death of several British soldiers (aside from its obvious violation of medical ethics). Though all whaling stories live under the shadow of Moby-Dick, this novel is Moby-Dick in reverse (as well as whodunnit in reverse): the ship is star-crossed not because the the captain's obsessions but because everyone aboard appears to be a ruined soul - a voyage of the damned.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The North Water: Could this really be McGuire's view?

Ian McGuire's story-telling ability is keeping me going with his novel The North Water, meaning I do, at least for now, want to know what's happening aboard the whaleboat the Volunteer en route to Greenland: the ship doctor, the central character though hardly the moral focus (we learn his back story in a grotesque chapter about his service in a hospital in India working on the grievously wounded soldiers - and about an abominable scheme he engages in to extort money from an Indian man seeking help for his wounded child) examines a cabin boy and finds that he's been sodomized. The boy won't divulge who attacked him, and at a later point the crew finds the boy's body stuffed in ballast barrel. So you can't not want to know who dunnit - but finding out will involved more episodes in this completely morally corrupt world - in which just about every character introduced is a horrible, cruel, selfish being, and in which every scene reeks w/ the stench of feces, vomit, dead creatures. I'm left pretty much where I was yesterday: There's something compelling about this story and there's no question that McGuire is a powerful writer and an avid researcher and historian, but this novel verges on the sensational and again I wonder why such a talented writer would create this world. Could this really represents McGuire's world view? If so, I pity him.

Friday, June 16, 2017

An extremely talented writer who's created an extremely unpleasant world

Obviously any novel about a seafaring adventure aboard a 19th-century whaling ship is going to have to live under the shadow of Moby-Dick. Also obviously, Ian McGuire, author of the 2016 novel The North Water (and an English=born professor of American lit.) knows this. His novel even opens w/ a 3-word sentence: Behold the man! But unlike the mysterious, observant Ishmael narrator, McGuire opts for an omniscient 3rd-person narrator - which allows him to introduce a lot of characters and plot elements pretty quickly: The ship captain is trying to regain his reputation after some kind of disastrous shipwreck, the mission to Greenland has a goal other than whale oil though only the captain and ship owner are in on this, the boat is dangerously understocked, the crew is volatile, and the ship's doctor, probably emerging as the central character, is a opiate addict and tells an phony story about why he wants to go to sea - he has some secret in his past (previous service was w/ British army in India), like most who go to sea no doubt. What brought this novel to my attention were a # of glowing reviews and subsequent comments by many writers about the McGuire's beautiful and engaging writing. No question, he is terrific at creating a sense of time and place - in this case the seaport of Hull in the 1860s - with exquisite and excruciating detail about the stench, the hubbub, the and the technical details of preparing and launching a whaling voyage. His is a counterpoint to Melville's somewhat romantic view of whaling and of the men aboard the Pequot; Melville's opening, in New Bedford, is by comparison a scene of comradeship, diversity, and faith - an optimistic opening to a voyage that will become increasingly bizarre and troubled - because of Captain Ahab's obsession of course (not because of the crew). In McGuire's world, everything and everyone is corrupt and evil-natured. In the opening chapter we meet a crew member who becomes drunk, belligerent, and destitute, attacks an innocent man with a brick, steals his money, befriends an impoverished black teenager, then rapes him - shall I go on? The world of this novel is not just dark, it's sordid; I will read further to see how things develop but I have to wonder why a writer with such obvious talent as McGuire - his prose is vivid, though at times willfully obscure and punched up w/ nautical terms (mizzenmast, taffrail) and possible neologisms (chuntled?) that seem a little bit of a show-off - would want to devote himself to such a unrelentingly nasty set of characters. All writers love their characters, usually, but how can anyone love these guys - or even care about them?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Powerful concluding section to War and Turpentine

The concluding section (III) in Stefan Hertmans's War and Turpentine resolves the mysteries and uncertainties that SH established at the outset, beginning with the opening scene in which the narrator/author (this novel seems more and more like a memoir or bio of his grandfather, as we read through it - though I appreciate that SH probably took many stylistic and factual liberties and is careful to call this work a novel - it definitely has the major components of a novel - plot, character, literary style, arc of story, design, cultural reference points) introduces his grandfather as an old man, taciturn, austere, rigid, dressed in black w/ a formal old-fashioned bow tie, on a beach beside his wife, feet resting in wet sand. From that first section, in which we learn about the grandfather (Urbain) in his youth, in particular his relationship w/ his father, Frans, an artist, we wonder about a # of things: the mystery of his two marriages, of the two marriages of his mother, of the nature of his own artwork, of his obsession w/ one particular image (a portrait of a half-naked Venus gazing in a mirror). The last section not only resolves and clarifies these issues, but also provides a sorrowful portrait of the grandfather in his post-war years: we see the tragedy he faced, the half-life he settled for in a resigned and obedient manner; the  varied aspects of his personality - heroic at times, at other times the fool - as SH notes; the prejudice against the Flemish and his complete mistreatment by the authorities who provide him w/ a meager pension as a disabled veteran; as well as a final mystery about his painting. The final section is also the most "Sebaldian" in this novel, as the narrator, whom we might as well call SH, visits some of the battlefields where his grandfather fought and the military cemeteries - and is struck by how history has vanished from these sights - construction all around them, new housing, schools, hard to locate on GPS.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Is War and Turpentine truly based on Hertmans's grandfather's memoirs?

One thing that's striking about part II (1914-18) of Stefan Hertmans's 2013 novel War and Turpentine, through the entire account of Urbain's experiences in the first World War - in the trenches, in various skirmishes and firefights, wounded and in recovery - there's no mention whatsoever of the cause he's fighting for (or against), of the politics of the era, of the great strategic plans of the generals, of the progress of the war - we know that he's from Flemish area of Belgium, that French is the language of the educated, that he's fighting an invasion of the German army, but that's about it - there's not a moment of reflection on the purpose of the war, on nationalism or patriotism or democracy. And I believe this is an entirely accurate account of war; the ordinary conscripted soldiers such as Urbain (though he is notch above the ordinary, having attended a four-year military secondary school and having shown courage and leadership enough to earn a battlefield promotion)just think day to day about their survival and about food, clothing, shelter (aside from an undifferentiated visceral hatred of the "krauts"). The 80 or so pages are among some of the finest and most gruesome writing about warfare from the soldier's point of view; I wonder while reading it how much - if at all - Hertmans drew from an actual manuscript that his grandfather may (or may not) have prepared. The writing seems far beyond that of the educated amateur - so if it's based on a memoir it's been transformed into a literary work; it's possible that it's all a work of the imagination and that his grandfather never composed a memoir manuscript. As an aside, interestingly (to me), my grandfather in his 50s composed a memoir of his childhood in a shtetl in what today is Ukrainia and his emigration to America in the early 20th century; like Hertmans (not as well that) I polished his manuscript and tried to interest publishers, but there was no market for a memoir unless the author matured into a famous American. Oh, well - I tried. Great to see the success of this beautiful tribute to the lives and accomplishments of another generation, another time.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Part II of Hertmans's War and Turpentine and the Tolstoy theory of warfare

Part II, the second half, of Stefan Hertman's War and Turpentine is centered on the war years, in this case 1914-18 - and a smart decision that is. The first half, much of which was about the art of painting, was the "turpentine" of the title, obviously. Turpentine is a great metaphor, by the way - a thinning and cleansing agent - as if the act of writing a biography of his grandfather in some way cleans the soul of the narrator/author. By using the first half of the novel to tell the grandfather's back story - the struggles of his childhood, the early death of his father, his difficult work in an iron foundry, his initial interest in painting, his rather severe personality as an old man, at least as seen from the grandson's perspective - all make us care more deeply and understand more fully the war experiences. He's in one sense just a typical, ordinary soldier conscripted to fight on the first World War - an everyman - but because of the extraordinary first section of the novel we know the full arc of his life, he's a vivid and vital character for us as we enter into the war years. As expected, the scenes of battle are precise and terrifying: the 20-year-old Urbain is conscripted, ordered to report for duty in the town square along with other conscripts on about 10 minutes' notice - and then they are transported to the front, somewhere in Belgium, and then, after interminable waits typical of military movements, sent directly to the front. Hertmans captures the terror of battle as well as any writer - the scents, the lack of information, the smashing sound of guns bigger than any they'd ever seen or heard of, the dead and wounded being carted back to the base camp as the soldiers advance toward the front and probable death. Hertmans is in the Tolstoy tradition when it comes to warfare: battles aren't won by brilliant leadership and strategy, as warfare is chaotic and unpredictable, but rather by the personal strength and valor of individual soldiers - war as seen from the combatants point of view. We will also see how the experience of warfare shaped (or distorted) the surviving soldier's view of life - and by extension, how the war affected an entire generation and culture - and truly ambitious novel that is sharp and poignant in every scene.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The surprisingly powerful War and Turpentine worth reading for many reasons and on many levels

Stefan Hertmans's 2013 novel (Engl-lang v from David McKay 2016), War and Turpentine, continues to be a terrific literary work. It seems like it may be a memoir or a personal biography - in which the (unnamed?)_ narrator tells the life story of his grandfather Urbain, based on his own recollections and on a manuscript that the grandfather left behind. This could just as easily be a fictional memoir about his actual grandfather - or it may be entirely fictional (it is published as a novel), and it really doesn't matter how we take it because it's not precisely a story about a single man but about an entire culture and an epoch. We learn early on that the grandfather served in the first World War and that the trench warfare and his various war wounds and periods of recovery were the formative events in his life - but  1/3 through the novel we are not at those events yet, they are like a dark hole around which all of the energy and materials of the novel swirl, eventually to be sucked in and consumed, I believe. What Hertmans focuses on so far is his grandfather's work as a painter, a copyist of world masterpieces, a passion that for him is a pasttime when his is declared a disabled war invalid; Urbain's father, however (narrator's great-grandfather) was a painter who restored church frescoes, who died in his late 30s leaving the family of six in extreme poverty. Among many other topics in this novel we see  the indifference of the church to a highly skilled craftsmen - eager to hire him at what must be low wages while he's healthy, and once he's gone they wash their hands of him. There are some truly amazing and outstanding passages throughout this surprisingly engaging novel, of particular note the grandfather's visit to the gelatin works (unforgettable images of the piles of animal heads swarming with blue flies and maggots), the great-grandfather's strange return to the village after months spent working on a church in Liverpool; the painful and lonely death of the great-grandfather and his widow's ensuing depression; the breaking of the family heirloom timepiece; and, on a much lighter note, the account of the grandfather's art lessons and his obsession and frustration with drawing lines. For the technical knowledge (especially about painting and restoration) alone this novel is worth reading, but there's so much more - a cultural critique, a family drama, a meditation on the nature of memoir and biography, an evocation of time and place - Proustian, but even more so in the tradition of Sebald (use of personal photos, albeit not as mysterious as the junk-shop photos that Sebald uses to work in concert with this writing) - and we haven't yet gotten to the material on service in the war.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A novel whose every sentence is worthy of our attention: War & Turpentine

I'm impressed and captivated by the opening pages of Stefan Hertmans's novel War & Turpentine - suspect it's recent not sure of it's pub date in the Netherlands but the David McKay translation English-language v. published 2016. The novel is a portrait of the 90-year-life of a World War (I) veteran and devoted amateur artist (hence, the title), as seen through one remove, as the narrator is the artist's grandson, who, in the 1980s, is trying to tell the story of his grandfather's life through his own recollections and through documents, including a draft of a memoir, his grandfather left behind. So we get a blend of Proustian narrative recollections - notably, for one example, the opening segment in which the narrator recalls his childhood image of his grandfather on the beach, dressed in black, with an old-fashioned black bow tie, in a chair, feet immersed in the wet sand - I know this doesn't sound like much, but it's such a precise and vivid recollection that we know from the outset we're in the hands of a fine writer (and translator, for that matter). There are some beautiful (and informative) passages on his grandfather's work in oils (and of his great-grandfather's work as a restorer on church frescoes - is this an homage to Carr's A Month in the Country?), as well as one short tour-de-force section in which the narrator reflects on the changes in the world from his grandfather's birth till his death. The heart of the matter seems to be the grandfather's service in the World War; there are hints and includes about the trauma of that time, but we have not yet (50 pp.) truly opened that section of the grandfather's life; there also are hints about an early marriage that left him a widow - I don't quite have a handle yet on the chronology or the players - and I believe part of the beauty of this novel will be that as we learn of the grandfather's life we also will learn more about the life of the narrator (who may be a representation of the author at a younger life stage?). It's by no means a novel of action and fast pace (the war scenes may change that), but it's a novel in which every sentence is graceful - like an artist's brush-strokes, if you will - and worthy or our attention.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Curtis Sittenfeld's winning narrative style

Curtis Sittenfeld's story in New Yorker fiction issue, Show Don't Tell (what a great title for a story about a graduate writers' program!) is a great example of her winning and welcoming writing style. I don't mean this in a condescending way, but over her career she has developed a narrative voice that is witty, confidential, open and honest without a touch of morbidity or self-pity, very much like a friend telling you a story - or a friend you wish you had. (Lorrie Moore has or had a similar narrative voice, but with a sharper edge). This story covers a lot of ground in a small swath of time, a couple of days in the life of a grad-student in a writing program, Iowa, obviously, as she waits to hear if she's received a prestigious scholarship. During her wait, we learn about her many complex relationships with other grad students and with the 50-something woman who rents an adjacent apartment. She captures the mood and the ethos of time (the 1990s) and the narrator's time of life (20s), with only one off note (email in the 1990s? pretty rare I think). As she wryly notes, grad school was the time of her life when she read the least and talked about reading the most. Hah! So true. The tight narrative does include near the end a present-day coda, at which she is disillusioned about one of her grad-school friends and reflects on the many others who had no writing careers - though, with characteristic generosity, she notes that they are still "writers" based on the way the live and see the world. It may seem that writers writing about writing school is like entering a room with closed windows and not enough oxygen, yet Sittenfeld brings it off - and I'm sure she's launched a thousand conversations among fellow writers or former writers eager to unlock the roman a clef: who's the writer w/ the "cult-like" following? who's the big success who's turned out to be insufferable? Don't know, don't need to know - good story.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Disappointed by Ali Smith's new novel, Autumn

I've liked some of her work and was drawn to Ali Smith's new novel, Autumn (no idea what's autumnal about this work btw), because of some strong reviews - but, seriously?, are these reviews based on the experience of reading this novel or are they pat-on-the-back, log-rolling tributes to a well-established author who in this work seems to be "mailing it in"? I just could not warm up to or engage w/ this novel in any way (through 150 or so pp.) Starts off w/ a pretty powerful scene in which a body washes up onto the shore, and then we are inhabiting the body, who recognizes, as he gains consciousness, that he's naked, and runs into the woods to gather some leaves as an improvised cloak. And then we learn that this is a dream or hallucination by a 90+ year-old man on his death bed in hospice care. Is there anything more tedious in fiction than a dream sequence, or at least a dream that doesn't serve a purpose within the plot and provide us with information and feeling? Over the course of the next 100 pp. or so we move back and forth between various dream-visions of this man (David Gluck) and memories on the part of the 20-something woman sitting at his  bedside (Elisabeth) who recalls various times in her life when she went on walks w/ and engaged in discussion with David, who was her neighbor in her youth. During these walks & visits they play various "clever" word games and he introduces her to some new concepts, in particular shows her images of a British pop-era artist, Doty, a real person in fact - and later Elis decides to do her graduate thesis on this artist. At present, she's a minimally employed art-history prof w/ no clear direction in her life. Now, if AS could build this novel so that there is some conflict, movement, development - particularly something between or about this friendship between Elis and David - maybe if E had been a truly neglected or disturbed child and he influenced her in a good (or even a bad?) way - then we'd have something, but for me all of her flashback recollections are just scenes, they go nowhere. Now AS is particularly known for her sharp political sense, and all of the reviews talk about this as a "ripped-from-the-headlines" novel - which in this case comes down to a prose-poem lament about Brexit Britain, a scene or two involving the fencing in of common land and E's defiance of authority as she walks the perimeter of the fence, and a building where immigrants live and where someone painted "go home." These all make us feel good because we, and AS, are on the "right side" of these issues - but a better novel would examine various perspectives and POVs (compare with Elizabeth Strout's novel, which I didn't really love but at least admired, about Somali immigrants in Maine). AS is good at creating straw men and then burning them down; some of the "bad guys" in the novel include officious bureaucrats who give E a hard time w/ her passport application, a security guard at the perimeter fence, a thesis advisor who tries to dissuade E from writing about a female artist -- these are such easy targets, and not particularly believable (e.g., the advisor seems like he's living in about 1955). Over and out.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Bob Dylan on lyrics and literature: The Million-Dollar Nobel Lecture

Bob Dylan's million-dollar Nobel Lecture is available to all on youtube, and I recommend listening to what he has to say. He takes on the issue of poetry v song lyrics and makes some important (it not exactly original) observations. First, he he begins by emphasizeingthat he is part of a long tradition of American songwriting, in particular part of the traditions of blues, country, and, to a lesser extent, popular music and rock; he includes a strange anecdote about a brief meeting with Buddy Holly shortly before Holly died in a place crash - a meeting that seems to have mystical significance for BD. I do think he sells himself short unduly, as he's not only part of a long tradition but he radically changed the way we think about folk and rock lyrics, almost singlehandedly establishing the concept of singer-songwriter. Second point, at the end of the "lecture," he puts the whole issue of lyrics as literature to rest - finally, I hope - by stating that people should experience his lyrics (and by extension those of other song-writers) as they were meant to be experience: on record or, as he dryly notes, however people are listening to music today. Most interesting, to me, however, is the central part of the lecture in which he reflects, at much great length than ever before publicly, on literature that his influenced his work, and gives a detailed if eccentric plot summary of 3 works he says he read as a teenager and that have shaped his music: Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the Odyssey. This is a surprise, and Dylan tantalizingly never says precisely how these works shaped his music and lyrics - he leaves that to us to figure out. I believe these 3 works mostly influenced his early, formative music (which would make sense, as he says he read these works in school- h.s. English teachers take note: You could run a great class on these 3 works, and you could inspire students to reading them by playing Dylan's lecture). Starting w/ All Quiet: it's a work I've never read (but will), although I saw the movie in h.s. and was deeply moved my it and I know it shaped my then-held views as a pacifist. BD describes the horrors of war as Remarque depicts in that work, and it's no stretch to see how this book lies behind Masters of War, John Brown, with God on Our Side, et al. As to the Odyssey, I would not have thought of this as formative but on reflection I think a lot of his early music was about find one's way home, from the obvious (Like a Rolling Stone, Hard Rain) and less so, such as Bob Dylan's Dream, From a Buick 6, or Lot to Laugh/Train to Cry. Moby-Dick is the most intriguing on the list (Dylan says in the lecture that it influenced at least 10 of his songs), partly because Bob Dylan's 115th Dream includes specific references to the novel but gets the novel completely wrong, even the name of the protagonist, whom he calls Captain A-rab. But we can see that the quest for an out-of-reach ideal was hugely important in early Dylan work (Visions of Johanna, probably all of the love songs on Blonde on Blonde); also the vast inclusiveness of Moby-Dick and powerful imagery throughout the novel may have shaped Dylan's imagery on some of his large-canvas early works, such as Desolation Row, Gates of Eden, Chimes of Freedom. What's missing? Surprised that Dylan says nothing about the French poets who were such an obvious influence (Baudelaire, Rimbaud), nor about his spiritual quests, his political commentary (License to Kill, Groom's Still Waiting), his social commentary (Hattie Carrol, Oxford Town, Neighborhood Bully), and especially  many beautiful love songs (from To Ramona and Love Minus Zero to Feel My Love). His work is vast; I'd love to know what he's reading now.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Skip Saunders's novel and read his stories

OK, so what's good about George Saunders's first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo? First, it highlights an moment of passage in Lincoln's life that may be an illumination to those who have never read a Lincoln biography: the death of his older son, Willie, which occurred as the Lincoln's were hosts at a state dinner n the White House. I think GS's account of these events, told through the "voices" of several historians (Carl Sandburg, Doris K Goodwin, et al.) and from contemporary documents (including letters sent to Lincoln). He did his research and, to his credit, wears it lightly; though I have read several Lincoln books, I was glad to be reminded of the depth of his sorrow (I think the episode of his riding a horse to the cemetery to view Willie's crypt is accurate), the incredible hatred toward Lincoln by American's from N and S (the Civil War was going poorly, and many thought he had reached too far), and the curious contradictions in some of the descriptions of Lincoln. Second, among the many voices in the chorus that tell the story of Lincoln's visit to the cemetery, the voices of the dead slaves are particularly powerful; he does a great job giving us a sense of the oppression, hatred, fear, and sorrow that the slaves felt - important to read and be reminded, though obviously this is well-trodden ground, w/ particularly powerful examples from TV (Roots) and movies (12 Years a Slave, e.g.) as guideposts. But then - seriously - this novel is a mess, most of all because there's no way to comprehend who the chorus of voices represent: Yes, they're dead spirits, but why have these particularly spirits been sent to a limbo or purgatory? They are not clearly enough distinguished from one another as "characters," we never understand their motives or goals, in short there's no logical or even illogical system that explains their presence and their actions. Worse, GS doesn't build any suspense around these spirits; toward the end, someone bursts out to them that they are spirits of the dead. They didn't know that? OK, maybe. But why not do something to surprise us, give us some realization at the end of the novel. The whole construct seems to me an idea that was poorly framed and never worked out - and I believe the largely favorable reviews are a tribute to GS's accomplishments in short fiction. Pass this by, and read his stories.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

George Saudners as novelist: from What if? to So what?

Let's face it, some writers specialize in short fiction, and being able to write a great short story does not necessarily mean you can write a great novel (and vv. perhaps). Examples include Chekhov, Cheever, Munro, Trevor, Lorrie Moore - to name just a few; w/ exception of Chekhov, who has plenty of other claims to literary greatness, most try their hand at writing a novel, and today there's pressure to do so: commercial, competitive, point of personal pride. It's with regret that I say the George Saunders's first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which a jacket blurb says has been "widely anticipated" or words to that effect, is - based on the first half - a major disappointment: not a terrible novel by any stretch, but completely devoid of the quirkiness and insight that have made his stories so great. I've got to say I've been a fan of his from the outset; I even have a review copy of his first book (CivilWarLand...), which I loved immediately and knew I was reading the work of a major talent. He's continued to write great stories for 2 decades - my post on his Semplica Girls story has by far the most page views on Elliot's Reading - and they all bear distinct marks of his style: outsider misfit protagonists and a structure built upon the question "what if": What if humans were part of a theme park, living in diorama "cages" and enacting various stages of evolution  (e.g., caveman/woman era)? What if the latest status symbol were rows of young women from 3rd-world countries arranged in artistic patters on suburban front lawns? These ideas are creepy, weird, and just barely beyond the range of plausible - the stories make us think about our culture and our cultural assumptions. With Lincoln, Saunders has moved from What if? to So what? The novel is told by a chorus of narrators - including in the initial sections some Lincoln historians and some contemporaneous records - describing the death of Lincoln's son Willie. From that point a # of ghosts take up the narration, voices living in limbo (the bardo - a Tibetan term) and seeming to welcome Willie to their cemetery and puzzled by Lincoln's visit to the crypt where Willie is interred. I have to say that, so far, I receive no insight into Lincoln - let alone into the great forces in public life tormenting his soul, that is, the war, slavery, electoral politics - nor can I make much sense of the chorus of narrators: They are from various deceased characters, from widely differing backgrounds (a priest, a repressed homosexual, a man from an unconsummated marriage, a terribly foul-mouthed couple, etc.) and there are obvious references to other great works that visit the dead - Homer, Virgil, Dante, obviously - but no particular insight into death, or life, and lots of unanswered questions: Why are these particular people in limbo? How do they pass out of this state? Why do they have no knowledge about current life (none seems to know who Lincoln is, for example)? Overall, this reads like an OK narrative idea that GS has spun out to novel length (it looks like a long book, at 350 pp., but it's not really; present as a series of voices w/ no narrative guidance, the word count is pretty small). Friend AF recommended that I listen to an audio v., and I'm sure that's a good way to experience this work but not my style or preference.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Surprising and moving story from Sherman Alexie in New Yorker fiction issue

Sherman Alexie has (according to the bio note in the New Yorker fiction issue) published 26 books; I had no idea he was so prolific, but I do know that his books cover a range of genres. I'm also pretty sure most of his books concern his culture and heritage, Native American culture in the NW, and in particular in the cities of the North West. I can't vouch for his novels, but he's written some really excellent stories about the Native American pride, struggle, and despair. His story in the current New Yorker - Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest - is somewhat of a surprise or departure, in that it centers on a middle-aged white woman, devout if sometimes lapsing Catholic; there are no native Americans in this story - but it does strike the same mood as do many or most of his stories: the working-class NW setting, the anxiety, the struggle to find meaning and fulfillment in what others would see as an "ordinary" life, the kind of life rarely captured in contemporary fiction. In short, the narrator/protagonist, Marie, works as a maid in a low-budget motel. The story begins w/ some drama, as she describes the unpleasantness of her work, then enters a locked room, not sure if anyone is in the room - perhaps hiding in the bathroom? - and she begins to clean. We expect the hammer to drop, and to see a violent, perhaps sexual, assault - but, no, as it happens, she just cleans the room and picks up the dollar tip left for her. The story then becomes her tale of her life in the same place, the some job - seeing dozens, maybe hundreds, of other motel workers come and go, including a woman she considered her best friend, who takes off and leaves behind only a post card from the road. She has a brief affair with the son of one of the managers, feels guilty about that (it's the first we learn in the story that she's married), and the story ends w/ her retirement and finds her at home with her husband, reminiscing - the story of a life, in fact. It's a quiet story that avoids drama, conflict, climax - and movies us in its quietness and simplicity - a story that seems credible and true to life.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Why Man with a Golden Arm doesn't make it as a novel

Yes, I've been offering some praise for the fine writing in Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), but this is a "textbook" case regarding the elements of fiction: Writing alone, no matter how appealing or original, cannot carry us through a lengthy novel. As a colleague was dryly offered in one of the meetings of the old PAWs writers' group: Readers like plot. Count me in on that; much as i've enjoyed some of the highlights, insights, quips, and witticisms of Algen's novel, it's in the end (or in the middle, I'm not going to get to the end) more like a social canvas - a Breughel-like painting of a culture in time and place - than like a novel. Things happen - barroom fights jealous rages, petty scams, marital betrayals - but they don't cohere into a story line, the characters do not grow, mature, or change in any way: they are on page 150 what they were on page 1. Yes, the novel feels like vivid testimony about the lives of the marginal, the downtrodden, the forgotten - particularly shameful in that some of the forgotten are the war veterans who come whom injured and addicted to painkilling rx - and we have to tip our hat to Algren in his intimate knowledge - from research? experience? imagination? - about life among the small-time hoods and criminals of Chicago's West Side; the novel feels accurate and intimate and doesn't carry they heavy hand of research (or slumming, for that matter - whatever its fault or theirs, Algren seems to really love the people he's writing about). But it's also no wonder that those most influenced by this novel are nonfiction writers, writers who tried to follow Algren's pathway and capture the sound, voices, habits of an urban subculture. Fiction writers don't talk much about Algren today; Man with the Golden Arm is a great block of characters sketches and rowdy scenes, but it's a stretch to call it a novel. The plot's gone missing.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Some quotes to illustrate the humor of The Man with the Golden Arm

Looking for a few good, illustrative passages from Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) to give a sense of the flavor and originality of NA's writing about the life among the downtrodden on the West Side of Chicago. Here's one from memory: " 'I hope I break even tonight,' the sucker says. 'I need the money.'" Others found at random: " 'That's what I'm trying to tell , he's one big stink' t'in.' ' Don't say stink'in thing,' Frankie had suggested. 'Say reekin' t'ing.' " Or: "The diplomas hung about the waiting room, just high enough to make reading difficult, were mostly grammar-school graduation certificates. The only course Big Boy had completed was the one offered by the House of Correction." Or: " ' Each person has his own color.' .., Big Boy's own special color was the hard cold green of ten-dollar bills. ' What's my color?' Sophie asked. 'Turk-woiz blue. You can feel something, can't you?' 'Yeh, I feel somthin.' It was his right hand growing moderately bold as hie break grew warmer. 'My husband takes care of that angle,' Sophie told him quietly. ..." Or this aphorism: "A man who's ashamed of his racket is a man who's ashamed of his mother." Or: "'You read books?' 'No.' 'I do. Sex books. Intellectual sex books like Strange Woman. She has this guy, that's the sex. They get married, to that makes intellectual.' " Or, finally, another from memory: "' I walked into six or seven bars today, and in ever one, a guy bought me a drink.' 'The same guy?' "