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

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

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

It takes a lifetime - or the course of an entire novel - for the characters to begin to speak the truth

Actually nearing the end of Natsume Soseki's 1914 novel, Kororo, and finding it as strange nearing the end as at the outset - definitely not a novel for all readers, but I think it's an intriguing cultural artifact - whether the diffidence of the narrative is typical of Japanese literature and culture at the time, or typical of this writer (considered the greatest Japanese novelist of his era), I can't say. As noted in yesterday's post, through the entire first 3rd of the novel the narrator establishes a relationship with his (never named) sensei, visiting him regularly throughout his years in college and in what today we'd call grad school (in this novel it's translated as "university") - yet we never learn what they discuss, why the narrator seeks out the sensei, what the sensei's learning and scholarship consists of, not even what the narrator is studying in school. All we learn is that the sensei is a complete misanthrope, and his misanthropy was the result of some kind of difficulty or tragedy in his early years. It takes till the third and final section of the novel before Soseki gives us any info about the sensei's life; the 3rd section constitutes a long letter, or an essay we might say, in which the sensei tells the narrator of the great tragedy in his life: he was deprived of an inheritance by his dishonest uncle, which turned him against all people, and - the part I'm reading now - he has some kind of conflict, perhaps over a woman, with an impoverished and perhaps mentally ill friend - but the exact nature of this conflict is not yet clear (maybe it will be by the end of the novel? or maybe not). If this novel were complex, pretentious, or impenetrable, I would have stopped reading it already - but what keeps me going (I'm near the end after only a few hours of reading over 2 days) is that Soseki's style is so clear and pure, the narrative not obscure but elusive, and I think it shows us something important about a culture long gone: both narrator and sensei are so reticent and tentative with one another, there are great white spaces, so to speak, within and surrounding all of their conversations; as in the Japanese culture of that era (I believe) it does take a lifetime for people to open up to one another - here, it takes the course of an entire novel before characters reveal to one another the foundational events of their lives.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A strangely diffident Japanese novel from the early 20th century

Visiting in Florida found a pb copy of a classic Japanese novel by a writer I'd never heard of, Matsume Soseki, which was enough to pique my curiosity, so am now about 1/3 of the way through the 1914 novel Kokoru (which roughly translates, they say, as "at the heart"). There are so many ways in which this novel differs from what we now expect of literary fiction - and I'm not sure at this point whether the differences are because of cultural differences between Japan and the West or because of a something unique to the style of Soseki. In short, the first 60 pp. tell this story: a college student on vacation at a beach resort in Japan notices a "sensei" (we are familiar w this term as a teacher of the martial arts; in this novel, it's used in a broader sense as a something between a mentor and a "guru"); he gradually approaches the sensei (never named) and asks if he can visit him when home in Tokyo. Over the course of the next 5 years the student steadily visits the sensei, yet their relationship remains distant and mysterious. We learn this: the sensei has over the course of his life become misanthropic; his beautiful wife is completely devoted to his care and needs, but he has some scorn for her as she is part of the human race, which he scorns in general; he lost a great deal of money in some kind of family struggle about inheritance; a friend of youth died mysteriously, and he visits the grave, alone, once a month. What we don't know at all at least at this point: what information or advice he provides to the narrator, whether they narrator pays him in any way for said advice, how the sensei makes or earns his living, in short, what makes him so special too his devotees in general (whom we do not meet) and to the narrator in particular. Most other novels would take these matters on directly - think of The Magic Mountain, for one; the narrator would ask direct questions and receive answers. This narrative diffidence and the demure nature of the narrator may typify the slow pace of Japanese fiction - like a tea ceremony compared w/ a dinner - or may characterize Soseki or may be unique traits of these self-effacing characters. I'm still interested and will read farther - but I expect answers to at least some of these questions.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Reflections on why Their Eyes Were Watching God went out of print

A few thoughts on completing reading Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, including the foreword by Mary Helen Washington and the afterword by Henry  Louis Gates. What everyone focuses on is the mystery - how could this great novel have gone out of print for about 20 years, and this established and accomplished author die in poverty and be buried in an unmarked grave? Both Gates and Washington note that ZNH was out of the mainstream of black literature at the time she was writing (30s and 40s) and criticized for her lack of social realism - note how different her style is from the two other leading black writers of her time, Ellison and Wright. The literary world didn't know how to place her lyrical writing and her interest in folklore and anthropology. in fact, black readers criticized her for her portrayal of the black rural culture in Florida, for creating comical types to amuse a white readership - think of the difference between Tea Cake and bigger Thomas or Ellison's invisible man. Then, once ZNH was re-discovered and her books brought back into print, thanks largely to Alice Walker, there was a new round of debate about Their Eyes Were Watching God (which Washington details): readers and scholars questioned Janie's silence and passivity, especially at the end of the novel (Walker responded that her silence was a way to state that women would speak when they were ready to do so, not when they were called upon to do so by white authority figures), why Janie retreats back to Eatonville at the end (Washington points out the significance of the frame story - Janie telling the narrative to Phoeby, and it will be Phoeby's role to share the tale w/ the world), the acceptance of significant violence against women, among other critiques - but all this set against a portrayal of an independent black community, a powerful female protagonist, a strong and honest love story, a revival of black folklore. Their Eyes Were Watching God didn't take on black politics and racism in the direct way that Ellison, Wright, even Baldwin did but in her way ZNH was by far more open and honest about black culture in her time and more imaginative and daring in establishing an entirely unexpected narrative setting. She opened a door through which hundreds - Walker, Naylor, McMillan, others - have passed.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Among the best New Yorker stories I have read in years - Quarantine, by Alix Ohlin

Yet another story in current New Yorker from a writer unknown to most of the readers of the magazine, I would guess, Alix Ohlin - I know nothing about this author but am guessing Alix may be a woman, based on focus of her story, and possibly Canadian? Well, what does it matter, after all? The story, Quarantine, is truly one of the best I've read in this magazine for many years. It begins with uncertainty, as Ohlin informs us in the first sentence (or at least first paragraph) that Bridget had spent a year in Barcelona, and then we quickly get a raft of names of various Americans and Europeans with whom she lived, crashed, had sex, etc., and just as I'm beginning to think I can't keep these names straight and really do we need another how-I-spent-my-gap-year story of disillusionment, depression, and drugs, the story takes a turn: Bridget is called home because her father is seriously ill, and only then does the story come into clear view: we are reading about the lifelong relationship between Bridget and a "friend" from her year in Spain, Angela - and we follow this relationship, swiftly but with great precision, beauty, and sorrow, over the course of a lifetime. I won't give anything away, but will note that part of the power of the story is the imbalance of the so-called friendship: B feels she knows A only peripherally, but A, as we learn, thinks of B as her closest friend, which gives us a small window into the tragedy of Angela's life. I'll also note that the last paragraph or two of the story is truly a killer ending - a wise and startling reflection by the author on the nature of friendships and the shape that long-term and ever-evolving relationships give to our life and to our perception of what it means to have lived.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Mary Gaitslkill story that is powerful but difficult to read

Mary Gaitskill's 1993 story The Girl on the Plane, collected in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, is really difficult to read, not for the style or narrative technique, which are clear and straightforward (although the narrative does encompass a series of flashbacks) but because of the unseemly and demeaning subject matter, in particular the portrayal of a young woman as  grotesquely forward about her sexual desires - specifically, her attraction to the protagonist, he co-worker - a woman who gets blindingly drunk and hurls herself at the young man, who has made clear he's not interested, and who ultimately is the victim of a gang rape. I suspect that if a man had written this story he would have been lambasted (had it been published at all); Gaitskill, however, gets away with this - in her early career she was known as an unconventional writer who'd led a tough life - and w/ good reason. It's actually a good story and powerful indictment of male subjugation of women. The story turns on a dime at the end, redeeming the unsteady beginning. In essence, story is about two strangers on a plane who get into a discussion about their early lives; the man, married, is obviously flirting w/ his seatmate and becoming increasingly drunk (and bold), and toward the end of the flight he holds her hand and "confesses" to her that he'd participated in a gang rape but, he asserts, it wasn't so bad, she didn't mind she was a part of it. That's where the story shifts gears and Gaitskill moves away from her central figure and focuses on the woman's repulsion at the man beside her - jerking her hand away, getting away from him as quickly as possible at the end of the flight - and he never quite gets it. Oddly, in one of the flashbacks he similarly had "confessed" to his wife (before they were married) and her reaction was blasé, even curious - which I guess emboldens him, the jerk. One oddity of the story is that the woman on the plane shared many of the characteristics of the rape victim, as if MG were toying w/the idea of making them one and the same (w/ the guy not recognizing this), but if so she pulled away from that type of weird, strained story structure, a good decision.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A story that illustrates Alice Munro's unique narrative style

In the early 1990s the world was just beginning to recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of Alice (the Great) Munro in the short story; her story Friend of My Youth that ran in the NYer then and is collected in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories is a great example of the layered narrative technique that Munro developed, her sharp and sensitive accounts of life in rural Ontario in the early 20th century, her weaving of personal narrative and narrative fiction. As best I can recollect and reconstruct, here are the layers of Munro's story: It begins w/ her statement that she has been having dreams about her mother, who died in her 50s and whom AM felt she rejected during her teenage years and never properly reconciled. Just as we're settling into that, Munro shifts the narrative into an account of her mother's youth: time in northern Ontario as a teacher, saving money and preparing for her marriage; the story now seems to be about the family w/ whom AM's mother was a boarder - two sisters and the husband of the younger. Then we shift again and learn the back story of the sisters, how the older was engaged to the man, who then got the younger sister pregnant and married her - though the 3 stayed under the same roof. Story shifts again when AM's mother leaves the town and learns through correspondence that the younger sister has died, and that the man marries the younger sister's nurse - a 2nd "jilting" of her friend, the older sister. She writes a letter of condolence, to which the older sister responds harshly - in effect, "mind your own business." Shift again: AM's mother tells AM that she could write a story or novel about this family, which would focus on her friend, the older sister, as a saintly sufferer. Of course we know that AM would treat the story differently - we're reading it! - and she says in fact that she would write about the brother - a dangerous and powerful man, the very type that interested her (of course this is not the story we're reading). Shift again, and older sister writes to AM's mother much later in life, saying she has moved out and lives in an apartment in the small town; this leads AM to speculate about the older sister's romantic life, and her sex life, if any. And w/ a final jump, AM tells us she has done research and learned more about the almost cultish religious sect the farm family was part of - ending this strange story with an anecdote about the founder of the sect and his intolerance and his suffering. What a long way from the beginning of this story - but it does all feel of a piece, illuminating the changes and transformations we all go through w/ friendships, love, and memories over the course of a life, examining what it is to be a friend, a friend from "youth," a casual acquaintance, a curious outsider.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Zora Neale Hurston - novelist and anthropologist

Continuing to be impressed with Zara Neal Hurston's 1937 novel, Their Eyes were Watching God, particularly for her ability to convey black culture and communities in the Deep South in the early 20th century.  She is one of the few novelists of her time to have formal training as an anthropologist, and that training I think is what helped her tell us about worlds long gone and but for her long forgotten - notably a fledgling all-black Florida village , black rr workers in Jacksonville, and most of all the cane pickers and migrant workers in the Everglades. Of course these community portraits never feel scholarly, staid, or mired in research largely because she brings the novelist's skills to the fore - character (Janie in particular , a strong and tragic woman in fiction), plot, dialog, and wit. Who wouldn't love a novel w characters named Tea Cake, Who Flung, And Sop-da-bottom? I am also impressed by her honesty toward her characters. Tea cake in particular - she starts off idealizing him as a female-fantasy sexy romantic guy but we soon see that he is deeply flawed - an inveterate gambler and no one who can walk out on his wife for a few days without even an explanation or excuse. ZNH also includes a character who is terribly racist and she's not afraid to let this vile character have her say - in other words she includes all the complexity of these black workin-class and migrant communities, not all of which or all of whom are admirable. They're just people getting by against terrible odds and w limited possibilities. In same ways these isolated worlds are gone and so much the better - laws have improved and opportunities have expanded over the past century - but in other ways rural and urban black communities can still feel cut off from the mainstream - not of american culture as that permeates everywhere but from the american dream - think of  worlds we see today in say The Wire or Last Chance U - are their chances that much better than those of hurston's cane-cutters?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Another novel about college freshmen - will this one be original?

Elif Batuman, a NYer staff writer, holds the fiction place in the current New Yorker, keeping up a string of author debuts, w/ a piece called Constructed Worlds. I'm deliberately not calling this a story, as it seems to be a selection from her forthcoming debut novel - at least it has none of the hallmarks of a story, not even attempting to create a narrative arc or to have any point of tension, development, crisis, or resolution. So taking this piece as it is - a scene-setter, a sketch - your interest in Constructed Worlds will entirely depend on your tolerance for (another) piece of fiction about college years; this piece is about the first days and, to a lesser extent, the first semester at not just any college but Harvard, where the narrator, a Turkish-American, arrives and finds herself in probably the only place in the world where 17-year-olds can talk readily with one another about whether Einstein's genius is over-rated. To a degree this is yet another academic satire; the freshmen courses are so weird and obscure and the professors such narcissists, and the kids so privileged (sorry I'll have to miss next week's seminar because I'll be in Davos - or something like that) that you begin to think this is ridiculous, it's way over the top - and then you realize, no, it probably isn't, it's probably pretty accurate: One prof insists that the students go into various museums (at least Harvard museums) and "demand" to see the works that the museum keeps hidden in storage. Talk about radical action! Another reads aloud various passages from great novels in the original French and Russian to show the students how bad the translations - and they get it (I guess). This piece of fiction reaches its climax when the narrator creates her "constructed world" for one of the art classes - re-creating a hotel her family once stayed in (in Mexico, I think?) - and - OK, so what? This fiction excerpt shows Batuman has a sharp wit and an eye for detail and ton of intelligence; does she know how to use the skills to "construct" an original world of fiction?

Monday, January 23, 2017

How Zora Neale Hurston engages builds the character of Janie and earns our empathy

Reading further in Zora Neale Hurston's great novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and it's obvious why this was a forerunner of a raft of other feminist novels from The Golden Notebook to The Color Purple to The Handmaid's Tale and beyond - yet compared with its descendants it's funnier, more complex in emotional range, and more cinematic (has it ever been filmed or dramatized? I would hope so.) ZNH does a great job establishing the complex character of her protagonist, Janie, who is always yearning for something more from life but can't, at least for the first half of the novel, exactly describe, explain, or even understand what it is she's seeking. Early in life she has her first flush of sexual arousal - ZNH conveys this very well their an epiphany scene in which Janie looks into flowering trees in the summer and is overcome with a  feeling of unity with nature and desire for reproduction. Her grandmother, fearing where these desires may lead the teenage Janie, forces her into a dreadful marriage with an older, dour man - the kind of marriage thousands, millions of women must settle into as a life - but Janie abandons, running off with Joe (Jody), a powerful, ambitious man - and they settle in a small, fledgling black community where Joe becomes the mayor and leading figure. Again, this is the kind of marriage millions of women settle into - wealthy, prestigious (at least within the microcosm of this world) - but Janie cannot abide her oppression: Joe keeps putting her down, won't let her do anything but "mind the store," won't be crossed or contradicted. She cannot live in his shadow. ZNH is subtle and thoughtful about this; she doesn't preach or explicitly make Janie the symbol of her gender, her race, or her time - but we feel for her and her plight, we empathize (and we empathize with Joe and his needs as well - ZNH avoids making him devilish or unduly cruel - he's just obtuse and needy, in his fashion). After Joe dies the novel takes a new turn as a much younger, sexy black man enters Janie's life - Tea Cake: TC will be a central, and tragic, figure throughout the rest of the novel (as we were told in the first chapter); I find his introduction to be too closer to a Lifetime movie/Bridges of Madison County fantasy of a middle-aged woman and a younger man, but we'll see how ZNH manages to tell the difficult story of their life together.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Robert Stone's story Helping is a good intro to American fiction of the 1980s

I'm sure I've read Robert Stone's story Helping before (not too many stories whose protagonist  shares my somewhat unusual name) and sometime fairly recently - not when it was first published in about 1987 - perhaps someone reprinted it when Stone died in 2015? - but oddly I can find no reference to the story elsewhere in this blog, which is a pretty solid reference to everything I've read over the past 7+ years, so you've got me. In any event, the story appears in the collection 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, and it makes for a good entry point into Stone's work and into the fiction in America in the 1980s. This story is about a Viet Nam veteran living in central Massachusetts and working for the state (or county) as a counselor; on this particular bleak, snowy winter Friday he's treating a difficult patient who claims to have Viet Nam stress flashbacks, though he never served in the war, all of which angers to protag (Elliot) and sends him eventually on a bender. His wife, a lawyer for the state who protects the rights of abused children, has lost a case to a group of scary rug addict bikers, who call the house with threats; Elliot responds in kind, leading to a tense standoff, as he drinks heavily through the night and awaits their arrival on his remote land, shotgun ready. The story has the tough-guy, sharp-edged dialog of so many male writers in that time, all following the lead of the great Raymond Carver (and before that, Hemingway): short sentences, sometimes disjunctive and clashing w/ preceding sentences and observation, the sense that the narrator or in this case protagonist is on an Odyssey of sorts but in a downward spiral rather than a return to home; damaged characters, too much Rx and drinking, working-class themes, remote (often Western) settings. Most typical of all - the dramatic action leading all too often, as in Helping, to a freeze-frame moment (perhaps inspired by French New Wave cinema) rather than to a real culmination, catastrophe, or epiphany. I'm with this story all the way, it's tense and dramatic, but I also feel a little let down by the end, which leaves us guessing, wondering, not fully satisfied.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

An early look at Richard Ford's style ad thinking

Richard Ford's story from the 1980s Communist, in the 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, is a good representation of his work: beautiful topical description of the lonely wheat fields and mining towns of northern Montana (in the decades since this story's publication Montana has become kind of a hot literary territory - Ford was the pioneer), sensitive story told through a single incident of the coming of age of a young man, thoughtful account of adult relationships as seen from the POV of a young man, an intelligent narrator looking back on an episode of his early life, and the taut and unsettled relationship of a young man w/ his still-young and attractive mother (father absent from this story, presumably prematurely deceased). In fact, this story seems to me like a sketch version of the topics and themes of one of his novels from the 80s, Wildlife - a novel that most don't consider among his best, and that maybe worked better in the tighter format of the short story. In this story, the teenage version of the now more mature narrator recalls the sudden and unexpected visit from a man (the communist of the title, although nothing is made of this - surprising as it would have certainly set him apart from most other Montanans in that era), probably a little inebriated, who wants to take the boy hunting geese; the mother petulantly joins them. Eventually, they successful flush a "raft" of geese out of a pond and into the sky - the boy shoots two, and remembers the beauty of the geese in flight for the rest of his life. What to make of this? In part its the guilt the boy feels about the rush of excitement in the needless kill - they don't seem to want the geese for any reason, food or down. There's also a hint that this wanton destruction of the beautiful is part of the American psyche, especially during the 60s (the time period of the events of this story) and than the hunter had been part of the American incursion into Vietnam (and now regrets that). But it's no a story that you want to push too far into allegory or analogy: for the most part, it's a story about the uneasiness of a young man's maturation, calling to mind other great American stories on this theme, e.g., the Bear, or the Big Two-Hearted River, to name two. Maybe not Ford's best or most important work - some of the novels he wrote in subsequent years are really the foundation of his reputation - but an early glimpse into his style and his thinking.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Mona Simpson story that is beyond controversial

Mona Simpson's story from the 1980s "Lawns," in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, may represent an aspect of the anything-goes thinking of its era but today it feels nothing but disturbing and unsettling. The story is narrated in the offhand, cool style of the time by a student at UC Berkeley who tells us in the arresting opening paragraph that she steals - particularly jewelry, from passers by and strangers, and then she describes her systematic robbery and violations: she works in the campus mailroom (yes, in those days people communicated by letter) and she steals letters and packages meant for students - in particular seeking parcels of snacks and cookies, but sometimes cash - and then she gets into targeted stealing, taking letters directed toward her high-school classmates, particularly the popular, in-crowd kids. It looks as if Simpson has something good going here - perhaps the narrator will discover something in one of the purloined letters that will place her moral thicket: a planned crime, perhaps? But around mid-way through the story Simpson veers off onto another tack, as the student's dad comes to visit her at college and at first he seems a little creepy and clingy - he wants to hold her hand as they walk across the campus, and she rebuffs him - and then the creepiness really starts as we learn that he abuses her sexually and has done so since her early childhood - with everyone else, the wife/mother - a high-profile attorney - and the kid brother oblivious. OK maybe this explains the narrator's loneliness and spiteful criminality - but there's something so alarmingly breezy and cool about the Simpson's tone and attitude throughout. No consequences for the horrendous father, for example - the mother's reaction, when the daughter informs her of this lifetime of abuse, is: How could he do this to me? I'm not saying the story should lead to a B-movie act of murder or vengeance, but seriously there should be more to this rather than having the narrator go on with her life, a chapter closed and a new one opened. She is, or should be, a terribly troubled and alienated young woman and the story just does not come to grips with that. She seems so unharmed, and there's no moral outrage at the dad or at the mom who's been worse than oblivious - perhaps complicit. I'm sure this was a controversial story in its day; today, I think it's beyond controversy - it's just reprehensible.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Their Eyes Were Watchking God reverses a standard narrative trope

En route to Florida have been reading Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which I hadn't read in many years, and am delighted to come back to it and think not only is it as fine as I remembered it but I'm wondering if I really understood or appreciated this novel when I first read it. Back then it was perceived, or at least I perceived it as, a feminist tract: the protagonist, Janie, is a strong woman who seems (at least in first third of the novel) to be continually subjugated to men - the cold and unattractive farmer to whom she's first linked against her will and against all her instincts, then to the domineering, dashing man for Georgia who sets off to become the mayor in a newly incorporated Florida town that's exclusively inhabited by black families (this would be in the late 19th century). Her husband is a leader, an entrepreneur, a man of destiny - but he believes his wife should be silent and in the background, a "helpmeet." Coming at the novel now I see all this but so much more: the plaintive, sorrowful condition of all black people in the South in the wake of the Civil War, women especially but the men don't have it so great either. Also the humor is fantastic - the conversations among the women in the first chapter wondering about what brought Janie back, alone, to her previous dwelling; the men grousing about uppity blacks and talking in wonderment about the Janie's beauty - completely our of their reach. You could almost pick a page at random and find a great turn of phrase or a hilarious patch of dialog and discourse, just about anywhere. Hurston's ear for dialogue and her memory of odd phrasings and observations - as well as her own off-beat observations about the landscape, about Janie's dawning sexual awareness - all very powerful; and set this against the account of Janie's mother's escape from slavery just before the end of the war, pretty much as harrowing as any slave narrative - all make for a fine novel that is entertaining, meaningful, and broad in scope. I also note that ZNH reverses a standard narrative trope: It's been said that there are two basic narrative plots: A stranger comes to town, and a person takes a journey. Oddly, TEWWG begins with a  familiar figure (Janie) returning to town, raising the question: Where has she been, what brought her back, what went wrong? The townsfolk seem to relish in her failure - the mighty have fallen - but Janie begins telling her story to her one loyal friend, and thus it begins.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The strengths and shortcomings of volume 2 of the Deptford trilogy

Nearly finished (done w/ first 2 of 3 sections) of Robertson Davies's The Manticore, and still find it very readable and thoughtful - but - I'm wondering just what the point is, after all. We do get an up-close look at the months of analysis during which the protagonist, David Staunton, reveals some of the shameful and difficult moments in his past to his analyst: Sometimes Davies tells this through script-like dialogue between patient and analyst, sometimes in a "brief" that Staunton, an attorney, prepares to present his analyst. But as we near the end of the volume, what does all this amount to beyond a recitation of fact? There are some shameful and difficult moments in Staunton's past, which he reveals, but they don't seem to have any great consequence for his adult life or his life post-analysis; one example, the account of a teenage escapade in which he and 3 others literally destroy a house and all of its contents - a "prank" that one of the the four led them into and that Staunton and the others felt compelled to join. What was the reason? And does Staunton still feel a lifetime's weight of guilt? Has he had any subsequent contact w/ the instigator? Does he draw some lesson from this about tyranny and group behavior? No and no. All told, this volume (2) of the Deptford trilogy moves along well but feels bloodless. Staunton is a cool character and reveals the events of his life readily, but shows no feeling or emotion. Shouldn't this volume culminate (and perhaps it will?) and a howl of outrage against his father, or mother, or both? This volume spins off from volume 1 of the trilogy, in that the protagonist of this volume was ancillary to the first and vv, but it doesn't seem truly to advance our knowledge beyond where we were at the end of volume 1; in fact, the protagonist in this volume know less about the central event, the murder of his father, Boy Staunton, than we readers do.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

How Robertson Davies comments on the short-comings of his own fiction

Not sure exactly where volume 2 of Robertson Davies's Deptford trilogy (The Manticore) is heading; we are learning the details of David Staunton's life, son of the wealthy industrialist and political figure Boy Staunton, who was found dead in a suspected murder at the end of volume 1. Like many sons of powerful fathers, he has lived his life in awe of his father and in great need for his father's love and respect, neither of which was offered to any great degree. About midway through the volume we learn about the sex life of the teenage David Staunton - his love for the young woman from a prominent Jewish family, Judy, and his initiation into sex when his father provides him with a night with a high-class Montreal prostitute. A couple of things: it seems that night of sex was literally the only sexual experience of David's life. Why is this, and how can it be so? (He's quite clear that he's not a homosexual, neither active nor repressed.) It also seems that we hardly know Judy, nor do we understand why David is so attracted to her - she's an abstraction and an ideal. Interestingly, as this entire volume is told via David's sessions with his analyst, the analyst has the same reaction (which is a way for Davies, in effect, to comment on his own story-telling): She asks why we know so little about Judy. Staunton's sex life is an unexamined region - so far - and is in direct contract to his father's, who was well known as, in the terms of this novel, a "swordsman." It may be that David is repulsed by that and pursues only the chaste and unattainable. The novel is still a good read, but we are losing sight of the thread by this point: If part of David's goal is to determine who killed his father, we're no closer at the mid-point than we were at page one. Ditto, if his goal is o heal the wounds of his psyche - we know a lot about him, as we would with any literary protagonist, but it all fees like back story: Will he change? Will he take action? Davies needs to stir the pot a little.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Whom does Boy Staunton remind you of?

If you've read the first volume of Robertson Davies's Deptford trilogy (if not, spoilers may follow) you are pretty much sure of the answer to the central question: Who killed Boy Staunton? It has to be Mrs. Dempster's son, now become a world-famous magician and illusionist. The second volume, The Manticore (halfway through still no idea what the title means), is entirely centered on Stanton's son, David; the entire volume (at least the first half) is his account to an analyst about his life story - including childhood traumas, struggles, and incidents of guilt and shame. He wants to learn to killed his father and wants to rectify his strained relationship w/ his father, who always seemed to view David as a failure. He also wants to alleviate his suffering - he lives alone, has had it seems no significant love relationships w/ anyone of either gender, and has a serious, unacknowledged drinking problem. What's missing - intentionally - from this inquiry is any mention of the magician-illusionist whom we believe did in fact kill Boy Staunton (and leave a mysterious stone in his mouth). So for all David's search into his life story, he seems to have no information about or knowledge of the likely killer of his father. BTW, this trilogy seems of particular interest today esp in re the personality of the central figure, Boy Staunton: a blustering, narcissistic businessman, drawn to beautiful women, a philanderer, a war profiteer, who rises to position of power in the government - until his final un-doing. Remind you of anyone? (There are differences, of course - Staunton is largely a self-made man, and he doesn't have the dangerous characteristics of a demagogue.)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Recommendations from friends, and family - what to read next?

Taking suggestions from friends as to what I should read next, esp. while traveling. Have been following friend/family suggestions for a while, usually w/ positive results (my friends and family members have good taste!, or at least know the limitations of my taste), e.g., it was Cousin Fred who directed me toward Robertson Davies's Deptford trilogy (he has mentioned it to me for many years), and I am enjoying reading those books at present. Last night friend PP strongly encouraged me to read Amos Oz's recent memoir, comparing in favorably to the work of an author we both have been enjoying, Karl Ove Knausgaard. As I have posted before, I bear a grudge against Oz, who declined a polite interview request when he read at Brown many years ago (he was perfectly willing to grant interviews to larger publications such as the NYT), but maybe I can overcome that animus and give his newest book a chance. (Sorry to be so stubborn.) Radio host Frank Prostnitz, who interviewed me recently on his show, suggested I read Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved Country - published in I think 1948. There was a time when everyone (except me, I guess) was reading this novel, about racism and apartheid in South Africa. My guess would be that the novel would feel dated and perhaps condescending (like A McCall Smith's Africa-based popular novels?), but who knows, I may give it a look. Also on the list: Book Group next selection is Jane Austen's Persuasion (her last completed novel, I think), which I read so long ago it was practically a contemporary novel. And another author I've been meaning to get back to: Sebald, one of my all-time faves, who I've been thinking about as we consider plans for a trip to Europe. Last night we were discussing French RR and in particular the train stations of Paris, and OM mentioned that the old Gare Austerlitz is now used for freight only - and that made me think about Sebald's Austerlitz, in which I think there is a section in which the protagonist enters a RR station and passes through a doorway and finds himself in a vast, abandoned RR waiting room - that must be the old Gare Austerlitz, with its abandoned passenger facilities, right?

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Such a relief to get back to reading the Deptford trilogy

I don't want to sound like a Phlistine but it's an incredible relief to move from the artsy and pretensions Booker-winning John Berger novel, G. (how do they determine those awards? On merit, obviously... ) and go back to Robertson Davies's Deptford trilogy, picking up w/ volume 2, The Manticore (I know, another ridiculous title - somebody should have helped this guy). No, Davies is not Dostoyevsky or Proust, but his interest in developing plot and character and presenting his story in clear, lucid prose is like a welcome oasis - all the more so in that he's never condescending to his readers, he's full of thoughts and ideas (and obsessions - one of his weaknesses, at least in volume one, was his fixation on magic and on circus entertainment - what's that all about?). The Manticore, first section, Why I Came to Zurich, is almost entirely built upon the dialogue, monologue mostly so far, of a partient speaking w/ his (Jungian) psychiatrist. That's a convenient narrative device, and a familiar one (viz. Portnoy's Complaint e.g.) but Davies holds his end of the bargain up well, not burying us in back story but moving along with a good murder mystery: Who killed Boy Staunton? Volume 1 ended w/ Boy dead and the protagonist, Dunny, privy to some of the details of the death. This volume so far centers on Boy's son, who was peripheral in volume 1: He is a successful lawyer, never married (and quite insistent that he's not homosexual), suffering from living in the shadow of his famous father and, in particular, of never measuring up to his father's (unreasonable) expectations. To him, Boy's death is a complete mystery - and we learn that he was the one who shouted out in a crowded theater during a magic show: Who killed Boy Staunton? Unable to solve that mystery, and getting deeper into alcoholism, he goes to Zurich in search of an analyst who might help him figure out the cause of this depression. A reluctant patient at first, he opens up gradually and the story comes to life. Obviously this narrative device will not carry the whole novel - but Davies uses the analytic sessions to get this volume off the ground.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Another writer introduction in the New Yorker and a surprising turn toward scifi

New Yorker continues its streak of introducing little-known (at least to me) writers though this week, unlike last three weeks, it's an American writer, Thomas Pierce, w/ a scifi, sorta, story, Chairman Spaceman. The premise: Sometime in the distant future, a bullish and narcissistic hedge-fund leader gives all of his billions to a church and in return gets to be one of 500 or so people on a space voyage; the voyage is to a distant planet where they will establish a new and egalitarian society. We've seen similar premises in any # of scifi movies, and of course who hasn't thought about the need sometime in the far future to establish new colonies beyond the solar system - the sun won't burn for eternity, after all. The question is: Does Pierce move this story beyond pop science fiction? Answer: yes and no. Much of the middle section of the story concerns the relationship of the man, Dom, w/ his ex-wife and, later, with the church member assigned to be his protector and guardian until the launch of his flight; so we see some of the internal struggle of this man, willing to give up all his earthly belongings and possessions, to embark on this strange journey. I suppose there's some kind of religious allegory working here as well: the journey to establish a new society is somewhat like placing faith in a life after death, in some kind of afterlife or resurrection. On a literal level, it's really hard to accept the story, however; it would have to take place far into the future, but Pierce give no sense of how the earth may have changed or will change in any other respect. And the story ends with a whimper: the space ship returns to earth and Dom disembarks; earth time has progressed by 30 years or so, while he is at the same age (or maybe younger? maybe an infant? ending is clumsily ambiguous on this point). I'm guessing that I shouldn't be calling this a "story" but rather "short fiction," as perhaps it's part of a novel and readers will learn more about Dom's life as a stranger in a strange land. In short, this piece is a good intro to Pierce and, though it doesn't stand up alone all that well it promises more to come from this author.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Who is the hero of John Berger's novel G.?

So, continuing w/ the weirdness of John Berger's 1972 novel, G., the last section of the book is set in Trieste at the outset of the first World War, when Trieste was a city up for grabs in a struggle between Italy and the Austrian states. What? You didn't know that? You didn't even know where Trieste is or was? That's the way Berger works - he chooses these obscure geographic locations and long-forgotten (even in 1972, more so now) moments in world history and writes about these events and locales as if we all should know what he's talking about. That shows either his clumsiness, his arrogance, or his shrewd use of research, you pick. I don't really care, I kind of like learning about these hidden moments in history - if the novelist tells the story well. What's going on throughout this novel, however, is an oscillation between the world events and the personal events in the life of G., a self-described Don Juan, and in this final section of the novel we move back and forth between a resistance group, a group of Italian spies, a political prisoner who was arrested in a border crossing - and G. in a wealthy Austrian's drawing room trying to seduce the wife. As w/ all the women he meets, she pretty much flings herself at him (male fantasy) and the husband acquiesces (ridiculous). G.'s flirtations and seductions in my view don't add to the drama of the story - they detract, they make the world-political events seem and feel incidental and trivial, rather than the reverse. His attitude, which I hope is not Berger's attitude, toward women is one of objectification and subjection, and his attitude toward men is one of contempt. I believe the true hero of the novel is the one husband who took out a pistol and shot G., injuring his shoulder (and adding to his insouciance and allure, I guess).

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

G.: A good novel, or a narcissist mess?

The puzzling thing about John Berger's 1972 novel, G., is how to judge the protagonist - and, more specifically, what to make of Berger's attitude toward the eponymous G. (Why this coyness about the protagonist's name? His school nickname was Garibaldi, in homage to his Italian parentage and to the revolutionary leader.) To start, G. is a despicable guy: OK the novel sets him up as a Don Juan character, and DJ in literature and art isn't always despicable: he's a creep and a cad in the great opera, but also funny and lovable (mille tre!) and he gets what's what in the end. But what works in opera does not work in literature: we can't help but see how G. goes about ruining lives and destroying marriages. He has no feelings for any of the women whom he seduces; he's acting out a compulsion - and he's particularly drawn to the most young and vulnerable women. Why would we like him or even be interested in him? Strangely, I see no evidence that Berger is stepping aside from his protagonist; rather, Berger holds him forth as some kind of sexual idealist - going off in rapturous and sometimes incomprehensible narrative ecstasies about G.'s various conquests. And by the way, how does G. manage to seduce all of these women? He's not especially handsome, bold, intelligent, or wealthy. Berger seems to have the weird belief that women just fall under the spell of a guy who shows persistent interest in them, who pursues them relentlessly. What a juvenile idea. And what makes this so strange is that throughout the novel there are some fine passages and some progressive politics: Berger is attuned to social classes and to class struggle; he seems to have sympathy for the people's in Italy and for various European freedom fighters in the early 20th century - so what's with his archaic attitude toward women? Is he perhaps saying that the male domination of women is analogous the domination of a powerful state or government over oppressed people and classes? That's something I thought about maybe in college, but it's a line of thought that today to me looks puerile and shameful. He's a writer of such talent, learning, and at times insight - but so unbridled. This novel is a good (or bad) example of what goes wrong in an era when anything "new" in style was lauded, accepted, and published, even if it made no sense and turned a potentially good novel into a narcissist mess.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Berger and the "bad" DH Lawrence - and other narrative problems

An NYT review on back jacket of the Vintage International ed of John Berger's novel G. compares Berger with DH Lawrence. That's sweet, but unfortunately - the comparison should have specified: the Bad Lawrence, the one who wrote mawkishly and w/ high seriousness (I doubt there's a single funny line in all of DHL's fiction, for that matter) about sex. Berger's novel is ostensibly about a young man, the eponymous G., who becomes a Don Juan/Lothario in his late teen years and, following the path of his father, has a # of affairs throughout Europe in the first half of the 20th century, some apparently just flings, others more enduring. His first sexual encounter (aside from an infancy crush on his nurse) is w/ his first cousin (once removed) who was essentially raising him. This strange encounter between a 15-year-old and the widowed cousin give Berger occasion to blather on for several pages about the mysteries of sex and why it's so hard to write well about sex (that is true). Unfortunately, Berger wanders into some strange territory, with some ultra-anti-feminist diatribe about about woman's subjugation (DHL could maybe be excused for this but by 1972 Berger should have known better). Part of the strangeness of this novel is that it contains many sections full of empathy with the oppressed: Italian workers, African slaves, e.g., and some pretty sensible Marxist observations, such as a short discussion about how ruling classes build an ideology (e.g., the caste system) that suggests it's the way of nature to oppress others. Well and good - Berger's political sympathies are well known - but when it comes to the narrative, the drama of the novel, he loses sight of his ideology and his characters, G. in particular, behave w/ blithe indifference to their class privileges and the harm they bring upon others (G. has an affair w/ a hotel maid - an example of exploitation if there ever was one - which she later realizes will ruin her impending marriage to a working-class man in her town). What makes this particularly galling is that some of the sections of this novel are so well written and so compelling, such as the episode about the pilot trying to be the first to cross the Alps into Italy; why couldn't Berger have stayed with this more conventional narrative, rather than dressing this novel up w/ all of the gimcrack of the 1970s: scraps of pseudo-philosophy, shifting narrative POV, interpolated poetry, postmodern references to the work under progress itself, even a few freehand sketches?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Reading the late John Berger's best-known novel

British writer John Berger, who died earlier this month, was known primarily for his socially conscious journalism-nonfiction (Pig Earth, esp.); somewhat less known, at least in the U.S., as a novelist, but he did win a Booker Prize (value that as you will - there were some fine winners and others who were beneficiaries of clubbiness and log-rolling) for his novel G., published in the U.S by the usually trustworthy Vintage, so I'm giving it a shot. So far - about a third of the way in - it's a pretty impressive novel that bears some, perhaps too many, of the stamps of its age. Published in 1972, G. (the handle of the lead character, I think) can't help but dip into some of postmodern waters of its era: the entire novel is told in short sections, usually the length of one paragraph, sometimes a few paragraphs or a snap of dialogue, sometimes just a sentence; more annoyingly, Berger steps aside from his storytelling from time to time to comment on his own writing: I really don't know how to conclude this scene; words are inadequate - phrases to that effect. These devices must have seemed clever and liberating at the time, but now they seem almost quaint. On the plus side, G. is a pretty good character study: Berger begins with the protagonist's parentage, father a wealthy Italian vendor of candied fruits; mother a American divorcee and heiress, settled in Paris. The two meet and have a long-running affair. The mother gives G. up to 2 English cousins to raise him in the countryside - and that's our window into class politics, which is really Berger's main theme. G. is begin raised as a young English gentleman, but, partly under the influence of his nonconformist (and American) mother who sees him from time to time, he is developing a sense of the class struggle in England and, in particular, in Italy, which is going through a workers' revolution (G. is born int he late 19th century). In probably the best scene in the first third of the novel, a teenage G. witnesses a worker's revolt in Milan, getting caught up in the riotous crowd and coming under fire from the Italian army. Another fine scene: G. rabbit hunting with the cousin who is raising him (Jocelyn, who ever heard of that as a man's name?) and recognizing the privileged status landowners hold, for no good reason,  in turn-of-century England. As a "bildungsroman," this novel is occasionally sprawling and unfocused, but  the picture of G., at least in his youth, is beginning to emerge. Over the course of the novel, the question is: will he acquiesce and accept the privileges of his class, or will he struggle against the system?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Amazing how much actually happens in Davies's short novel Fifth Business

The first volume of Robertston Davies's Deptford trilogy, Fifth Business (I won't even bother to try to explain the ridiculous title - couldn't an editor have helped him out?) ends w/ what seems to be a murder. I won't give anything away - but will note that the "jacket" copy of the Penguin pb I'm reading did give too much away; thanks, guys. Not sure if we'll learn more about this death in subsequent volumes (I believe Davies did not initially envision Fifth Business as part of a trilogy). Throughout, I found this novel readable and engaging. Davies is a writer full of incident and conversation; it's kind of amazing how much actually happens in this novel, including the narrator's childhood in the small eponymous Canadian village, his career as a boarding-school teacher, his journeys to Europe and to South America in pursuit of his scholarly interest in saints and in magic, his wartime experiences and his recovery (in England) from serious battle injuries, his hero's homecoming - just for starters. But the main tenet of the novel is the narrator's relationship to two characters: his boyhood friend and rival Boy Staunton and the woman whom he believes may be a saint but who spends most of her life, under his guardianship, in a series of mental institutions. That's a lot for a 250-page novel - but it's easy to follow, if at times hard to take seriously, or at least literally, Davies's interest in the supernatural leads him to touch the hem of magic realism: a character seems to die and then, touched by the saint-like woman (Mrs. Dempster), comes back to life: Was it a miracle? Or was it, as the town doctor says, a wrong observation and the boy never actually died? Davies leaves the possibilities open - maybe to be clarified in later volumes. I have to say that I was most drawn to the realistic settings, particularly the childhood (and the return from war as a hero) in Deptford - less so to the lengthy discussions of faith and sainthood and magic shows. I may continue, however.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Robertson Davies and 1 reason why he was never as populat as Jonathan Irving

Robertson Davies's Fifth Business (1970), the 1st volume of his Deptford Trilogy, is what they call a good, old-fashioned yarn; as noted in yesterday's post, he's really not part of any school or tradition - completely removed from the two major trends in American fiction that were dominant (and to a degree at odds) in the 60s and 70s: postmodernism (Barth, Hawkes, Barthelme, Gass et al.) and minimalism (Carver, Beattie, et al.). He's similar to Jonathan Irving (right down to the interest in circuses and magic), and both owe a huge debt to Dickens - but he did write in the 20th century, after all, so his novel is more open about sexuality, careerism, and accumulation of wealth. In essence, it's a Tale of Two Boyhood Rivals: the narrator, Dunstan Ramsey, who led a seemingly uneventful life as a boarding-school history teacher (the whole premise of the novel is that it's Ramsay's communication to the headmaster to show him that in fact his life was full of events), and his outwardly more successful friend and sometime rival, who goes by "Boy," who becomes really wealthy through shrewd investments before, during, and after the Depression. What distinguishes this volume, however, is Davies's (and Ramsay's) fascination, even obsession, with spirituality: as a historian, Ramsay's subject is hagiography, and through this we learn about the lives and times of various saints (from what I checked out, these are accurate, not fanciful, narratives, odd as they may seem) - and he is on a lifelong quest to determine, or perhaps to prove that a mentally ill woman from his home town of Deptford, Mrs. Dempster, may have the powers of a saint: He believes she brought him back to life after he was wounded in battle and performed other miracles; over time, he becomes her guardian and has no option but to place her in a public mental asylum in Toronto. So all told the novel is a mixture of bildungsroman narrative, religious speculation, a some toying with ideas of mysticism and miracles - lots of material, very well paced, accessible prose. Could it have been a hit on the scale of Jonathan Irving? Maybe - will think about that further - but for one thing Davies did not help himself with his ridiculous and obscure book titles (something at which Irving excelled). Couldn't an editor have helped him out there?

Friday, January 6, 2017

Davies's Deptford Trilogy - and why it's worth reading

At the suggestion of Cousin Fred (he has been suggesting this for years, in fact), I have started reading Fifth Business, the 1st volume of the (weirdly titled) Deptford Trilogy, by the Canadian author Robertson Davies. I've read a couple of things by Davies before (like one, not so much another), interviewed him years ago when I was a books editor, not sure why I never got to the Deptford books, but on first take I'm impressed and maybe ready for the long journey. The first volume was published in 1970 and pretty much established Davies's reputation as one of the leading Canadian novelists (interviews always mention his three-career background: first as an actor at the Old Vic, then as a newspaper editor, then an academic at UT) and an often-mentioned Nobel candidate (too late - he died in ca 1995). This book is a memoir-like novel, first-person narrated, part of that really long English-lit tradition going back to Fielding, the "novel of education," about a young man's coming of age, often of provincial or impoverished origins (or so it seems - in Fielding "noble" lineage is sometimes the late reveal) and rising into a place of stature in the culture. Davies's narrator, Dunstan Ramsey, was born and raised in a small Ontario farming village, population about 800, but still large enough to have 5 sometimes contentious churches. The frame for the novel is Ramsey's response to a newsletter from the school in which he taught about his retirement; Ramsey finds it to be condescending and inaccurate, and he writes, allegedly, to the headmaster to set the record straight. The major motif in the first parts of this novel concern the most profound of mysteries, w/ obvious religious overtones, of death and resurrection. There are at least two incidents in which a major character dies, or seems to die, but is revived by the attentions of a woman: in the first instance, it's Ramsey's older brother, who seems to die of an infection while Ramsey is watching over him; for some reason, the teenage boy runs across the village to seek help from a minister's wife who is deranged and ostracized; she lays hands on the brother and brings him back to life - though no one in the village believes this. Later, Ramsey himself "dies" in action in World War I, but it turns out he was in a months-long coma and was nursed back to life by a lovely young English nurse; a romance ensues, ends, and Ramsey returns home to a hero's welcome in Deptford, which he believes he does not deserve. Back home, he finds that the young woman he'd "left behind" is now engaged to another young man from town, Ramsey's lifelong rival and to some degree his antithesis: he rose in rank during the war to major, though it's not clear whether he saw any action. The writing throughout is clear and straightforward and engaging; the closest contemporary in manner and style would probably be Jonathan Irving - himself a bit of a literary throwback (often compared w/ Dickens).

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Third week in a row that the New Yorker introduces a new writer

The New Yorker continuing its streak of introducing relatively unknown (at least to me) writers, with an emphasis on world culture, this week w/ a writer named Yiyun Li - a rare two-part introduction for the New Yorker, as in last week's issue she had a nonfiction personal essay about her decision to write in English rather than in her native language (Chinese Mandarin?). It was strange and disorienting essay, moving with apparent ease from straightforward discussion about the difficulty of translation and adaptation (w/ the expected head-nods to others who have made similar transitions, Conrad, Nabokov, some other Chinese writers - no mention of Lahiri and her essay about transitioning to writing in Italian, which would make an intriguing contrast w/ Li) to discussion of deeply personal and upsetting matters, notably her two hospitalizations following suicide attempts. Yikes. Her story in currrent NYer, The Street Where You Live, is equally unsettling and quirky. It starts off with the narrator, a young woman (30ish?) looking at paintings in a museum and fixating on vandalizing one of them. Only gradually do we figure out the setting and the context, and only as the story settles in do we gather that the central point is her relationship w/ her 6-year-old autistic son, who refuses to communicate in school and has no interest whatsoever in friends or in other people, except that strangely he is deeply afraid of being alone. Li tells her story in a series of scenes that don't quite harmonize: visit to a music instructor who works w/ autistic children, chasing a purse-snatcher - and a few odd moments w/ the son, who at 6 speaks with a British affectation: "shant" "I concur." As we read through the story we feel sorrow and pity for mother, son, and even husband, a cardiologist, who is on the periphery of all the action. The parents are desperate to help the child, feel guilt as if his condition may be something that they brought on or caused, and through all this the child insists that he doesn't want help - why should he be interested in other people?, he seems to ask, and that's probably a good question.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

How Potok's The Chosen fails on points but wins the match

Published 59 years ago and set in the late 1940s (i.e., about 70 years ago), Chaim  Potok's debut novel, The Chosen, feels like a novel from 100 years ago - maybe 200. The central story concerns two young men - we follow them from teenage years through college graduation - and their difficult friendship; their both Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, so the playing out of their rivalries and family animosity - the narrator, Reuven, is from a somewhat emancipated household, his father is an intellectual who becomes an active Zionist after the war; Reuven's friend, Danny, is the son of a Hasidic rabbi, very strict and old world, opposed to Zionism because he and his sect believe only the Messiah, not a secular authority, can create a Jewish homeland. Well, talk about narcissism of small differences! To 99 percent of readers, it will be hard to see what drives these two guys apart: we're not talking about two people of different race or religion. Yet somehow this novel works - we really do care about these two kids and about the decisions they will have to make about their future. Will Danny's father bully him into becoming a Hasidic rabbi and community leader? Essentially, this is what today we call a "bromance," and almost to a ridiculous extent. These two guys go through high school and college together, without a mention of girls, dating, sex (well, there's a mention - the narrator at one point notes that Danny's sister is pretty, and Danny assures him that her marriage partner has been selected already, as has his own - and that's the end of it). Potok wins us over through his very earnestness. There's not a moment of humor, every point he makes is belabored, the characters are constantly talking about their tiredness and weariness, the novel is filled with arcane discussion about philosophy and the history of Judaism (it starts with softball game, but Potok never again picks up the theme of sports or or any other interest), and there are in essence only 4 characters, the two boys and their fathers (women play no role; the few friends introduced in the opening section vanish from the scene) - and yet, and yet - we also believe these 4 characters - they don't seem like "characters in a book," in part, perhaps, because they're so unlikely as characters in a book. Once in a while, like a totally clumsy but relentless tennis player, a book fails on points of style but somehow manages to win the match.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A unique narrative voice and central character in current NYer story

I'm impressed by the story in the current New Yorker, Most Die Young, by a French author, Camille Bordas - completely unknown to me and I suspect to most American readers. As with a NYer story a few weeks ago by an Argentine writer, it's great to see this august magazine using its clout and resources to fine new world talent and introduce them to a wider English-speaking readership (for years, the NYer fiction editors seemed affixed to big-name authors and to running excerpts from their forthcoming books, kind of a free service to the Random House, FSG. Penguin et al. marketing teams). This story strikes a fine balance between the personal and the political, between the mundane and the catastrophic, all with a narrative tone of wit and acute observation. The narrator is a young woman who suffers from a great deal of anxiety, most of it unfounded; a journalist, she is writing a magazine piece about a (fictional) Southeast Asian tribe that believes fear and wariness to be virtues and has no recognition of bravery - confronted w/ any threat or danger, they give in (thus "most die young"). Over the course of a few days, we follow this narrator as she meets w/ 2 professors, has long conversations with her sister, a veterinarian (introduced to us by saying, sorry I'm late, my last dog just died. Only later do we learn her occupation, explaining retroactively her calm demeanor). The story for a while seems like it may be just a wry and witty take on contemporary urban life, like many other stories, but then we learn there has been a terrorist attack at the nearby university (setting is Left Bank Paris), and everything is reversed: her crippling fears now seem logical, even necessary. All told, Bordas establishes a unique narrative voice and central character: ditzy but oddly observant, wise but suffering.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Thoughts on the nature of memory, of narrative, and why it's worth re-reading Modiano

I may have been the only book-group member who liked Patrick Modiano's Missing Person, and I think that's in part because I've read a # of his novels - it becomes increasingly evident to me that his work constitutes one magnum opus (is that true in a sense of all writers?) and I note, from looking back at earlier posts, that I liked Missing Person much more on 2nd reading than on first (it was the first of his novels I'd read). So I did encourage fellow readers, if they liked Missing Person even a little, to try one more of Modiano's works to see how he develops the same theme with minor variations, additions, and amendments. That said, we had a good discussion of the book, with general agreement that it's about the French "amnesia" regarding the yeas of occupation and that the ending might have been better, if more conventional, had it ended with the disappearance of Denise in the snowstorm at the Swiss border. JoRi made the point that you can try to keep a running log or list of Guy's series of "discoveries" about his missing or forgotten identities, but that it actually can't be done because there are internal inconsistencies. Is this the novelist's flaw, or part of his design? I would say the latter, in that part of his objective is to keep us off balance, never to give us reassurance and clarity (which explains his thinking on the unconventional ending rather than the symbolic and expected conclusion of vanishing into whiteness). We noted that at the key discussion, when at last one of the characters recognizes Guy and addresses him as McEvoy: one would expect that he would come clean and say, please help me, I've lost my memory - but, no, he goes along w/ the discussion, playing at "being" McEvoy, seeing what info he can elicit from the woman who seems to know him. We also were struck at the change in tone once Guy actually does (seem to) have reconstituted his memory: the Megeve section, in the Alps on the Swiss border, is far more conventional - like a truly and fully recollected series of events rather than events seen partially as if through a (mental) fog. I talked for a while about how all of our memories are actually partial and fragmentary and stirred or evoked by sensory cues - and all writers (esp French writers) know this: We are children of Proust, in that regard.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Looking back after 50 yeas on The Chosen

This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Chaim Potok's (first?) novel, The Chosen - never read it, started it yesterday. Potok's writing style would never be called literary, artistic, or beautiful - but he gets the job done in his workmanlike, plodding manner. There are so many aspects of this novel that are quaint and dated. First, there's not a hint of sexuality (in fact half-way through every significant character is male; the men are weirdly deracinated and desexualized - widowed, or completely isolated from their wives; and the boys, god forbid!, never talk about girls). Think of what Roth could do - and did - with this material (in his early stories in Goodbey,columbus, right through to his last novel, which had a sports-coach character much like the coach in The Chosen)! The story is about two orthodox Jewish teenage boys in Brooklyn, in 1945 (there are various references to the war, but more as time-check than as a true plot element): one of the boys, Reuven (the narrator) is from a somewhat emancipated if not assimilated household, and aspires to become a mathematician. The other - the extremely brilliant and athletic Danny - is the son of a Hasidic rabbi, from a completely unassimilated Orthodox culture, and he has no choice in life but to inherit from his father the leadership of the tight-knit community. The boys start off as rivals and become best friends; the long scene in which Danny takes Reuven to meet his father and gain his father's approval is one of the many weirdly desexualized scenes in the novel: it reads exactly like a guy taking his girlfriend to meet the family. Potok could have had some fun with this scene, but he's a deadly serious writer, sometimes a plodding writer. If he does get a gag going - such as the washed-up prize fighter in the hospital ward with Reuven and his constant references to 10-rounders and so forth, he hits the note again and again, in case we missed it. When it comes to the back story - forget it, Potok has Reuven's scholarly Dad go on for pages and pages about the history of the Hasidic movement, etc. - pausing once in a while to say something like, "I'm getting tired," or "Are you getting tired?" When a character ever asks that, the answer has to be: Yes! It must have taken some courage to publish this novel, as who would have thought a novel about internal struggles among Orthodox Jews would find a wide readership? (Roth had proven there was a wide readership for contemporary Jewish fiction - but her wrote about fully assimilated Jews - not these throwbacks to the 15th century). And the bet paid off: for despite all these flaws I've highlighted in this post, at the end of the day The Chosen is a sweet story, and we are caught up immediately in the lives of the characters and in their plight, their yearnings, their flaws. Potok is no stylist, but he's a storyteller - equally, or more, important; I don't know for sure, but I think The Chosen was made into a successful film, and that's no surprise, either - Potok has a good sense for dramatic scenes - the softball game that opens the novel, the Reuven's visit to the Hasidic service - that, with his plodding dialogue pared down - good sharpen the narrative and bring it even more to life.