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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

Friday, March 31, 2017

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

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

Thursday, March 30, 2017

My up-and-down reaction to Memoirs of Hadrian

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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What drew Yourcenar to the topic of the emperor Hadrian?

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

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Why I rarely read historical fiction

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

Monday, March 27, 2017

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

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

Sunday, March 26, 2017

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

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

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

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

Friday, March 24, 2017

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

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Modiano's narrators and their attempts to recover the past

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The maturation and simplificaiton of Modiano's narrative style

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

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

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Melodrama and sexual questioning in Cather's O Pioneers!

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

How Cather continues to surprise readers in O Pioneers!

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

Saturday, March 18, 2017

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

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

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

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Why Franzen over-states the case for Desperate Characters

There are many impressive aspects to Paula Fox's 1970 novel Desperate Characters, but I have to say that Jonathan Franzan, whose enthusiasm for this novel sparked its reisssue in 1999, w/ Franzen intro., that he ludicrously over-estimates this novel: Better than anything from Updike, Roth, or Bellow? Seriously? DCs is a thoughtful, provocative novel of NY domestic life among the professional class circa 1970, when the city was evolving, becoming increasingly gentrified, and the nation itself was in upheaval, with the social and political changes from the 60s generation and the anti-war movement, all threatening the establishment and established beliefs and customs. That's the background to this novel, and Fox pays the social context due homage; and Franzen is right that she is an expert at symbolism (the central character, Sophie Bentwood, gets bitten by a feral cat at the outset, and novel in effect is about her fear of and delay in getting proper treatment - throughout there is a sense that the Bentwoods, pioneers in settling into a "changing" Brooklyn neighborhood, are invading alien territory and are likely to be "attacked" by the denizens) and line by line she's up there w/ any writer - her phrasing, pacing, and imagery are perfect. The better comparison for her style would be Salter, as noted in yesterday's post, and Yates - she does feel like a 50s writer 20 years behind her rightful time. All that said, what makes DCs troubling for me is that the characters up and down are despicable. I'm not such a Philistine as to think that characters in novels have to be "likable," but Fox's people merit our contempt. Fox is terrific at topical description, but we need to take her descriptions in context. Some of the finest scenes involve her description of squalor - but the vision is always that of her characters, looking down on others, judging, and feeling no empathy or responsibility (except for pity for the damn cat). One example among many, as the Bentwoods are driving to their Long Island summer house they pass through Queens (Gatsby's drive in reverse?) and we get a long passage about the dingy neighborhoods and squalid housing - and then Sophie says to her husband, Otto, that she wishes there were another way to drive out to the Island, she hates this view. He tells her not to look at at. Yes, don't look, that will make things better. These people throughout have no thoughts for anyone but themselves - even treating like dirt their so-called friends and business partners and any of the younger generation representative of the spirit of the age. I guess there's a great irony at the end, when their summer house is trashed (not their Brooklyn house, where they live in wary fear of intruders) - but even there Fox can't resist having the Bentwoods meet with their so-called caretaker and his family, a group of grotesques, another order of being from the Bentwoods altogether. So in my view this is a novel to admire, to analyze maybe, but not one that evokes fear and pity - only disgust.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Urban pioineers - in Paula Fox's Desperate Characters

Paula Fox, who died recently, was known primarily as a top-flight YA writer, but she also wrote several novels for adults and over the years has been praised for these and "rediscovered" at least once - most notably when Jonathan Franzen raved about the 1970 novel, Desperate Characters, prompting a 1999 reissue with intro by JR. I read about half of this short novel last night - and - yes, it's very good of its type but it's a type that seems dated: a novel about a small set of NY intelligentsia professionals and their difficult marriages and criss-cross of relationships (reminded me for some reason of James Salter). Curiously, I took 2 books out of the library yesterday, the other being Cather's O Pioneers!, and, strangely, that could have been a (better?) title for Fox's novel - her characters are pioneers moving into Brooklyn brownstones at a time when the neighborhood was in transition: the main character, Sophie, walks the street on a Sat. morning and sees her neighbors scraping paint and updating windows while on an adjacent street they seem people dumping garbage into the alleys. I have to think part of Franzen's (and others') enthusiasm for this novel is about seeing a historical view of the kind of Brooklyn neighborhood now among the most posh and expensive and inhabited by folks much like JF. No doubt about it that Fox's style is smart and trenchant, although she does not have any sense of realistic dialogue - her characters all talk like, well, characters - not people. The scope of this novel is very small, and I don't (yet) see the desperation that drives the characters: Otto (Sophie's husband) is breaking up his law partnership, his ex-partner, Charlie, drops by their house in very late (or early) and he and Sophie go out for a drink, Sophie confesses to him that she'd had an affair, then we learn more about her affair (with one of Otto's clients), now a closed chapter, Sophie visits other friends and hears about their crappy marriages, and so far that's about it. The characters are never sympathetic - we just want to tell them, get a job, get a life, find something to do w/ your time and money. The looming crisis in the novel is of a symbolic nature: Sophie gets bitten on the hand by a feral cat, and though her hand swells significantly she refuses to see a doctor or go to a hospital for treatment. She could die! What's with her? We have to think that her reaction stems from a loathing of the people who she and her caste are displacing. The most sympathetic character, it turns out, is Charlie, who seems to care about his struggling clients - unlike Otto, who (like others in this novel) is crudely dismissive of the younger generation - in this era of liberation and anti-War protests - all that in the background, but Otto et al. are like Dylan's Mr. Jones: something's happening, but they don't know what it is. They're pioneers, but they're also a generation too late.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The problem with epiphanies and the sense of an ending

Wasn't going to post on Anne Enright's short fiction, Solstice, in current New Yorker because I found it such a nothing piece of writing but I've been reading a few different magazines over the past few days and, having finished David Szalay's story in current Harper's, Dona Nobis Pacem, I've been wondering if there's a theme or trend here: 2 stories that build anticipation, at least to a degree, and then amount to nothing. This may be the postmodern version of the Joycean epiphany: Ever since Joyce developed the device of the epiphany, the story ending at a soft, quiet, interior moment of insight and comprehension (rather than a narrative conclusion, typical of short stories up to the early 20th century), writer's have pushed the limit on what constitutes an epiphany: a rainbow in the sky? A gaze out over the ocean? There has been no more extensively abused literary device, I'm afraid (particularly by mfa students). But writers today may be pushing epiphany abuse even farther - established writers, for that matter. Enright and Szalay are both Man Booker winners or finalists and their fiction is in the most prestigious of American publications; have you read their stories? Enright's is about a man working in an office in Dublin, leaves work a little early on the even of the winter solstice, almost drifts off while driving in rush hour, gets home, wife has prepared a "rustled together" dinner, slight awkwardness w/ teen daughter and with younger son, squabble with wife, next morning chats w/ young son who climbs into bed w/ him and they await the precise moment of the solstice - that's it. Is the point that from the darkest hour things can only get brighter, i.e., better? How juvenile. Then we get Szalay's story, which begins w/ a quote from Plato in which Socrates says he's much happier now that he no longer has a sex drive, in old age. These story is narrated by a 62-year-old professor, divorced 10 years, who has taken several "holidays" with a widowed colleague; the story is addressed to her in 2nd person. We learn that they have traveled as friends, not lovers, but one night they share a double bed, which gets him thinking (obviously) about having sex w/ her. Over the course of their travels that summer (fall?) in Turkey and Greece the possibility of sex with her dominates his mind; but he doesn't say anything to her, nor she to him, about these thoughts. Why? For fear of ending their friendship? He doesn't say. We feel pretty sure this is building toward some moment of crisis - but at the end, they visit some ruins, an old monastery (he looks suspiciously at a young priest - thinking about sexual repression? devotion?, again no insight) and then they move on in their travels. In effect, the story goes absolutely no where, and if there is an epiphany I guess it's contained in the epigraph. God, I'm no saying that every story needs on O.Henry surprise ending, not that every story is going to match the snow falling across Ireland - but, writers, you owe your readers, who've gone w/ you on your journey, some sense of an ending.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Austen's final novel and the shadow of death

It's great and appropriate that the final words Jane Austen composed were a quip: describing the salon of a wealthy woman twice widowed she notes that that the portrait of her first husband is a miniature and that it must distress him to take a second billing in his own household. With that she put down her pen and never completed her final novel, Sanditon. A pity, because it's a novel that gets off to a great start (11+ chapters, about 70 book pages), and it's been "finished" through several attempts by other authors over the past century. (I stopped reading at the point that Austen stopped writing; I was slightly curious as to whether the other authors could even approach Austen's style, but didn't want to dilute the beauty of her prose by going further into the muck.) Sanditon has the usual Austen array of characters: a completely oblivious and narcissist wealthy matron, kindly gentlemen with malicious, meddling, or malingering siblings, the usual barbs at the self-pitying hypochondriacs, and most notably the young woman without fortune but with wit and acuity who makes her way in the world of the slightly wealthier. One element in Sanditon that I don't think we see in any other Austen novel is the entrepreneurial civic boosterism that drives the main male character, Mr. Parker: He is set on turning his small eponymous coastal town into a seaside resort to rival Bath. His spirit and drive seems almost American - in no other Austen novel that I can think of are the main characters motivated by earning money (emphasis on earning). Though Austen was clearly in ill health when writing Sanditon, it doesn't in any sense have the feeling of being written in the shadow of death; in fact her last completed novel, Persuasion, has much more of a valedictory feeling (a somewhat older heroine, winning her long-lost love after years of separation). If anything, Austen snubs her nose at those who focus on illness and death - much more than in Emma - setting her sites on the sickly Parker siblings: You can almost sense her thinking: Get over it, you don't know what real suffering is like.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The loneliest character in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

It's no surprise that Carson McCullers's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter ends with darkness and sorrow - the whole tone of the novel is of sadness, of people with lofty ambitions who are isolated from one another, prey to their character flaws and addictions and obsessions, and trapped in the dismal poverty that affected all but especially the black population in the mill towns across the U.S., in the 1930s and still. At the end, all of the major characters are alone and frustrated by their failures - with the possible exception of the teenage girl, Mick, whom we believe will move, somehow, beyond the confines of her family and her community - that is, we sense that she is a stand-in for McCullers herself and will tell this tale, in some manner. (We have to assume at the end that she's not pregnant; we never learn the fate of her next-door neighbor, Jimmy, who ran away after he and Mick had sex.) What does come as a surprise - possible spoilers here if you haven't read the novel yet - is the death of Mr. Singer, the man who is deaf and who is at the center of the novel: All of the other main characters tell him their stories, their hopes, their aspirations, and of course he says little to any of them - his hopes and dreams remain his own secret. We readers, however, see that the others do not - his deep love for the "best friend," Antonopoulos, another man his is deaf and mute and confined to a mental institution about 200 miles away. Though McCullers is never explicit about this, it should be apparent to most readers that Singer is in love with his "friend," and their relationship in a way mirrors the relationship between Singer and the others in the novel: Singer communicates to A., who says very little and in fact doesn't seem at all interested in Singer or his affections. At the end of section 2, Singer takes a long vacation and plans to spend a week visiting with A., but when he arrives at the institution he learns that A. has died. Singer returns to his home in the boarding house and shoots himself. This shocks everyone but us; why did he do it? First, his friendship w/ A. is seen, at least he sees it, as homoerotic love - and he also sees A. as the one person to whom and w/ whom he can truly communicate his own thoughts and feelings. (The other characters aren't especially interested in what's on S's mind.) Second, A's death was a complete surprise to Singer - maybe it shouldn't have been, as in his previous visit A had been in the medical clinic, and he has not heard from A for several months.  A's death, thought, is an ultimate rejection of Singer; we would expect that A. might have left instructions to communicate w/ Singer or even include Singer in his will (we learn at the end that Singer had left his meager estate to A.); or, at the very least, Singer's cousin, who runs the fruit and candy store in town, should have communicated something to Singer. The complete failure to include Singer w/in this sphere of knowledge is a final and bitter rejection - he is as much an outsider as any of the other characters, the loneliest one of them all.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and gender identity

Though I doubt it was a major topic when Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter appeared, in 1947, I would guess a lot of readers have commented in recent years about the sexuality and the "queer" aspects of this novel - far ahead of its time in so many ways, and in particular in the examination of the borders and boundaries that separate (and unite) genders. At the center of the novel is Mr. Singer, who is deaf and mute, and who is the confidante of all the major characters - a truly mysterious literary protagonist in that he "says" almost nothing - but the other characters confide in him and, as one notes somewhere in the novel, they project onto him, the make of him whatever it is that the wish to see their confidante. What we see, however, is a man who has a deep homoerotic attachment to the only other male who is mute in the city, Antanoupoulos - who in the first chapter is taken away and held as an patient in a state mental hospital; Singer is terribly lonely and sad w/out A., and builds his whole life around his visits to the hospital, in which he showers A with (unappreciated) gifts. Similarly, one of the other main characters, the widowed restaurant owner, Biff Brannon, has a gruff, manly appearance with a beard so dark it's almost blue, but in secret he has many "feminine" traits and tastes - he sews, collects dresses, and seems alarmingly obsessed with the young (boyish) girl who visits the diner, Mick. Mick is perhaps the most dynamic character in the novel, and the one all readers will associate w/ McCullers herself. Mick in a sense crosses genders over the course of the novel; when we first meet her she seems like a stereotypical young boy, right down to her name - it was actually hard for me to remember that Mick was young girl - but over the span of the narrative she enters high school (at age 13) and transforms, and eventually goes on a long bike ride with her handsome but up-tight next-door neighbor (a h.s. senior); the journey that starts out as a friendly outdoor adventure transforms (like the novel itself) when they swim in a wild stream, and then have sex. They're both surprised and ashamed afterwards - the Edenic references are pretty obvious - and the boy decides to leave town and to later send for Mick and offer to marry her. Wow, a pretty desperate character. Throughout, it appears that McCullers is exploring, questioning, various aspects of sexual attraction and identification, always in subtle ways - the sex scenes such as they are are extremely discrete, even by 1940s standards - with the overall idea that sexuality is a range and a spectrum, not a fixed idea, but that societal pressures, expectations, and prejudice force so many, especially in her time, to lead quiet lives of desperation.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: linked stories or a novel?

Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a novel composed of what could stand alone as short stories, but unlike so many such novels it doesn't feel like "linked stories" but like a fully developed narrative. In other words, McCullers is able both to create a series of narrative arcs that cohere to form the grand narrative arc of this novel. How? The chapters themselves are each like a narrative about one of the people in the small Georgia mill town, but the chapters together constitute a narrative about the town itself - much more so than, say, Winesburg, Ohio, in which the town comprises a series of individual narratives but does not have narrative life of its own. Among the great chapters in section 2 of McCullers's novel are the "promming" chapter - Mick Taylor, now a 13-year-old in the Vocational High School (I for one was surprised that she is that old) who doesn't feel she quite fits in w/ any of the social sets invites about 20 classmates over for a "prom" party - which seems to mean that they take turns walking with one another up and down a the block, as in "promenading" I think; predictably, the party turns out somewhat disastrous - but Mick does get a chance to prom with her next-door-neighbor, a Jewish boy - leading to some strange scenes later in which Mick gives him a Hitler salute that he does not find to be funny in the least - one of the moments that places this novel in time. The other great chapter is Bubber's accidental shooting of the young neighbor Baby: in a panic after he shoots her w/ a shotgun or maybe a BB gun he runs away; Mick finds him and, to teach him a lesson, tells him he's killed the girl and the police are seeking him. Mick's not as smart as she thinks she is; rather than put the fear of God in her brother, this sends him into a real panic and he runs away. Anything could have happened, but they do track him down and bring him home - but as we see in later chapters, he's never the same child again, he's morose and angry. Other chapters in section 2 concern Doctor Copeland and his leftist advocacy and commitment to the black community, the death of Biff's wife, Alice, and Blount's continued attempts to be a leftist organizer, though he's continuously unhinged by his drinking - and always present is Mr. Singer, the man who is mute, and who draws everyone's story out, as he is the serene and sympathetic, nonjudgmental listener. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Some reasons why The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a great novel

Starting with the obvious, like all readers I'm astonished that Carson McCullers could have written The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter when she was 23 - the style is so clear and elegant, the observations so wise, the narrative structure so seamless, sharp images, surprising turns of phrase, complex characters who interact in surprising but credible ways, the knowledge about a community and way of life so profound - it would seem that this novel has to be the work of a mature writers whose tired her hand a # of times before attaining this goal. Yes, it's truly great American novel, often forgotten because McCullers had relatively little production in her short life - but really it should share a ranking w/ Faulkner (an obvious influence) and Sherwood Anderson (less obvious). McCullers's novel is about a small city in Georgia in the late 1930s, and she tells the story - at least through part 1 (of 3) in a series of chapters that are overlapping narratives, each focuses on a new character but each character appears in multiple chapters, and the interactions among them become more complex as the narrative develops. Perhaps the central character is Mick Taylor, a spirited young girl whose family runs a boarding house (where some of the other characters live or work) - she's recognizable as McCullers (a similar character is central to her other major novel, Member of the Wedding) - and we sense that she's the observant force. Other lead characters include Mr. Singer, a man who is deaf and mute, and as such is someone people feel comfortable speaking to about their deepest thoughts and needs (he does understand through lip-reading), Dr. Copeland (?), a black physician, an intellectual who feels (rightly) marginalized and victimized, and Blount, the stranger who arrives in town and whom we gradually learn is a political radical who hopes to stir up a labor movement in the cotton mills (he is not well received). These are the people - but the town itself is a character, in the way McCullers captures the mood of the streets at night, the ever-pervasive heat, the poverty of some of the lives - and even the minor interactions of characters - a late-night squabble between man and wife, the strangely tender (and perhaps homoerotic?) relationship between Singer and his best friend confined to a mental hospital and indifferent to Singer's kindnesses. This novel is drenched in missed connections and sorrow.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A novel with lots of atmospherics that brings us nowhere

I'll say this about Samanta Schweblin's very short novel, Fever Dream: It does feel much like a dream, w/ the tumultuous and inexplicable cross-cross of events and feelings in dream logic - a child is in a room behind locked doors and then suddenly outside of the room, strange forebodings and premonitions, always the threat of catastrophe just beyond the grasp of reason. The story, narrated entirely in a dialogue between a woman (Amanda) who is we learn in a coma or catatonic state in an rural emergency clinic after some kind of poisoning and a 10 or so year-old boy (David), who 6 years back had endured a similar poisoning which, it seems, changed his personality - making him somewhat like a severely autistic child, although the diagnosis is never clear. It may be (dream logic) that David doesn't even exist, and he's a projection in Amanda's fevered brain. OK, so over the course of these 180 (very small) pages we learn that Amanda and her daughter, Nina, have come on vacation in a rural village (in Argentina? Schweblin is an Argentine writer, living in Germany) where she learns that David, a neighbor's son, has suffered this strange poisoning about 6 years back; over time, she sees that many children in the town seem to have birth defects or other symptoms of poisoning. Then Nina becomes ill - and finally Amanda herself. Over the course of the novel, David, interrogating her about why she's in the clinic, insists that she hurry her narrative, there's only limited time; he says often, as she narrates, "this isn't important" and then at other times "this is important" as if he's trying to unearth vital facts about his (or her?) illness. There's a lot of tension and mystery - and yet - I have to say - very little results from all the tension. There's no explanation about these mysterious poisonings nor about why David is interrogating Amanda nor about why some parts of her narrative are important and others aren't. Yes, we do see that in the fields around the village farmers are using chemicals, most likely highly toxic - but is this story an allegory of some sort? I don't think so; as the title says, it's like a dream, for better or worse. But dreams don't have conclusions - we just wake up. That's a disappointing end to a novel that has a lot of atmospherics but - unlike, say a scifi movie or miniseries, which has to at least strive for explanation or conclusion, however feeble - brings us nowhere.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Expanding our expectations and assumptions about contemporary literature

ZZ Packer steps in with a terrific story, Brownies, from ca. 2000 in the anthology 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories. The story is smart and poignant and has a real surprise twist that I won't divulge; essentially it's about an black, urban Brownie troop on a weekend camping expedition, and in a short space Packer gives a great account of the various girls in the troop and their range of attitudes - from belligerent and aggressive to shy and thoughtful (the narrator). At the outset, the girls notice a troop for white suburban girls arrive for the camping weekend and the more aggressive Brownies determine on the spot that they will beat up the white girls and "teach them a lesson." Not all are eager to go along w/ this plan, but all acquiesce to one degree or another, bullied by peer pressure. The girls concoct a story that one of the white girls called one of the black troop a "nigger" - and they will use this accusation as an opportunity to fight the white girls in the washroom. Packer builds the tension, as well as the pathos - we can easily understand how the black troop felt, underprivileged and isolated, and though we can't fully sympathize with the plan of attack, nor does Packer mean us to do so, we see what drives these girls to push the limits of authority, and we get a sense of the consequences as well. We really see, reading through this anthology, how the world of American short stories opened up in the 90s and beyond, bringing to the mainstream literary culture a range of voices and experience that were marginalized, silence, or ignored earlier in the 20th century, a major shift in our sense of the possibilities, expectations, and assumptions of contemporary literature.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Comparing stories about th immigrant experience

Jhumpa Lahiri's story the third and final continent in the 100 years of the best american short stories anthology is the third in the volume from the 1990s and 2000s about immigrants to the us and the immigrant family experience. It's an interesting contrast w junot Diaz's story about Dominican immigrants very urban and working class and focused on the experiences of a young man trying to fit in w his peers - socially sexually - And to make sense of his troubled family life - and w akhail sharma's story not about Indian immigrants per se but we sense that he is a child of immigrants - his story from a woman's point of view a look at a failed marriage by a male author - whereas lahiri's is the opposite - a man's point of view on a successful marriage. We get the sense here too that this is lahiri's take on a version of her parents' marriage, and we see in her writing a completely different set of immigrants compared w Diaz's - hers are educated and demure almost excruciatingly polite w all and w each other. The story is a mature man's reflection on his arrival in the us 20 years or so back and the poverty and assimilation in his first weeks and the arrival of his wife - an arranged marriage - whom he hardly knows. They are so sweet w each other, so shy - and lahiri's does a great job in her elegant manner (even the title of the story is elegant) showing how the narrator's eccentric, elderly land lady served to bring this shy couple to love one another by giving their marriage a benediction that was totally unexpected. The end of the story, reflecting back and thinking how differ things now seem to Theo child/children - those of lahiri's generation - who can hardly understand the experience of their parents - tho the story itself, lahiri's benediction, gives the lie to that idea.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Junot Diaz and the struggle for assimilationist and recognition

The junot Diaz story fiesta, 1980 is included in the 100 years of the best american short stories collection not because it's a strikingly powerful story in itself but because it's an excellent representation of all of Diaz's early work.  Starting w his collection drown Diaz has been a sharp,funny, insightful and sometimes self-effacing voice of the generation of Dominican immigrants who arrived in the us in th 70s and 80s and have both assimilated into the mainstream culture and transformed the culture - sociologically, politically, artistically. In this story Diaz uses his later-ego character, yunior, to show a Dominican family in struggle and in evolution: the NJ family is going to the Bronx for a party to celebrate the arrival of yunior's aunt.  Over the course of the story there's a lot of eating, music, dancing, warm embraces, and family squabbles - in some ways v Dominican and in others typical of any american family gathering. But there is a dark undercurrent as well: yunior tends to get nauseated and ill when riding in his father's new be van, a potential crisis ready to erupt so to speak on any family outing. Over the course of the story we learn in pieces about the tension that may lie behind his nausea: dad has a girlfriend, and even takes yunior (in the van) to her house and asks yunior to watch tv while he spends an hour w/ the girlfriend. The tension of keeping this secret from mama lies behind everything in the story - and has us see the superficial cool of y and his brother in a new, different light. This story is a powerful family portrait, or sketch maybe, and becomes more profound in the context of other stories about this character and his struggle for assimilation and recognition

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Tragedy on a small but universal scale

Akhil sharma's story if you sing for me like that included in the 1990s section of 100 years of the best american short stories is surprising on a number of levels - first one of the few stories by a male writer from a female pov that feels lived and credible and not like a stunt. Second it's interesting to note in the intro passage that this story was rejected w form letters from a # of prominent lit mags. Do they even read what they receive? Or was there an innate bias at the time against publishing a story set in contemporary India?(today that would be a plus). Simply put the story is an older woman's look  back at her married life and explaining how it is that she has never loved her husband. It's in some ways  a denunciation of arranged marriages but it's much more - it's also a harrowing examination of a cold marriage that to outsider may seem a success and it's a look a the kind of oppression - not violence or crudity or deprivation but just plain dominance and the crushing of spirit - that millions of women accommodate to in order to get along and meet societal and family's expectations. In other words the story of a sad and diminished life. I don't know if women readers can embrace this story; there's a sadness and maybe an irony in that a man wrote this story about the crushing of a woman's spirit. Either way though the story stands on its own - an Indian short story version of madame Bovary or mrs dalloway - without the rebellion or tragic ending. It's tragedy on a small, but universal,  stage scale - all the more intense for that.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Orwell's 1984 and today's state of affairs

A few salient points re orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four and politics today in th US - including various comments on the party and Big Brother all fro part 3 when inner party member O'Brien works over Winston smith to break his spirit and bring him to a low point at which he actually believes he loves big Brother - first the concept that power is the end not the means, that there is no goal or ideology driving those in power other than attaining power and maintaining power and control. (Does anyone for a second think that DJT has any vision for America - he will say whatever brings him adulation and keeps him in power); second, the idea that the past is meaningless that the past itself is malleable and that facts themselves are relative: a prescription for alternative facts and a free pass for official lies and prevarication. Third: the idea that in the hands of the state everything contains its own contradiction and its own opposite so one can be pro free trade and against trade agreements, can be in support of health care for all and against Obamacare, can be for a one state solution and a two-state solution, can be for investigations and against the, and on it goes - to the point where words are meaningless and statements of position and belief are infinitely retractable because in essence it's all and only about aggrandizement of the leader and maintaining of privilege for the inner party. Most profound of all - freedom is slavery (and vv) as the public must be kept in the dark and stripped of responsibility and possibility in order to maintain the illusion of freedom and the legitimacy of the current leadership. Obviously Orwell was writing about Bolshevism and the political struggles of postwar Europe - but his words have proven strangely prophetic and predictive not for 1984 but for 30 years later.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Ideas and ideology in Nineteen Eighty-Four

The 2nd section of Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four becomes a political polemic, as the protagonist, Winston Smith, gets a copy of the secret manuscript that explains the theory of government, Ingsoc, that rules in Oceania. As Smith notes, he's aware already of all of the principles (as are we, from the excellent depiction of life in the Ministry of Truth in section one), but this manuscript, which he reads to himself and then reads aloud to his girlfriend, Julia, who falls asleep (me, too) puts it all into a theoretical construct. The theory is, so far as I can tell, pretty much standard Marxism - the class struggle, the exploitation by the capitalists of the working class and their labor, faith in the proletariat as the only force that can produce change, or revolution, the need for constant warfare so as to provide steady markets for otherwise useless manufactured goods (i.e., bombs and artillery). It seems that Nineteen Eighty-Four is Orwell's analysis not of the failures of Marxism but of the perversion of Marxism in the Soviet state. Good points all, but makes for dull reading at times. As noted yesterday, the challenge for contemporary readers is to elicit from the text the dangers still present - notably, what Orwell calls doublespeak - the ability to say one thing and mean another - blackwhite - the ability to hold contradictory ideas at the same time - and the revision of all past history to match the current ideological needs of the state: all of these phenomena have new life in the administration of 45. Section 2 ends w/ the arrest of Smith and Julia: they'd been spied on in their love-nest hideout, and the shopkeeper who rented them the space turns out to be a spy for the Thought Police (why the extraordinary interest in this couple - that's never made clear, except that we are to read them as representative of their society, just trying to live a life, not as extraordinarily bold or thoughtful members of the resistance).

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Nineteen Eight-Four in the Age of Trump

The 2nd section of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four seems antiquated and even sexist today - as an attractive young co-worker in the Ministry of Truth literally throws herself on the protagonist, Winston Smith, sending him a note saying she loves him (they have never spoken a word to each other), and they quickly set up a secret rendez-vous where they have sex en plein air - the woman (Julia, no last name) says she's done this hundreds of times. (Smith hasn't had sex except with prostitutes for years.) OK, so we can't really buy into this ridiculous romance, but it does move the plot forward - the first section had been entirely devoted to explaining to us the bizarre nature of the autocratic government machinery - as Winston and Julia make furtive contact with an insurrectionary force - so they are now committed to working to bring down the government. It should be obvious to all readers that - it's obvious to them - that they are doomed, so the question is: Who's the double-agent? Who will betray Winston? I don't actually remember for the last time I read this novel, decades ago, but I'm betting on Julia - she's gathering all kids of private information about his life, his aspirations, he phobias, that the state will be able to use against him. So for readers today the second question is: What does this tell us about life in contemporary America, in the Age of Trump? We definitely see a counterpart of the Ministry of Truth, in everything emanating from the Trump White House: the continued spewing of lies, and antipathy to a free press, the demonizing of outsiders and of "Eurasia." Orwell didn't foresee "alternative facts" and the use of fake news (not in the perverted sense that Trump uses the term, to discredit media coverage critical of him, but in the actual sense - making up stories and posting them as if they were real - as in Breitbart, the Enquirer, numerous scurrilous alt-right publications). In a way "fake news" is even more insidious that the rewriting of past news that is the main strategy in Orwell's dystopia: It's much easier to just fake a story, put it out there, keep referring to it (i.e., Hillary's email, Benghazi, the pizza parlor scandal) and gradually it becomes "real." The scary thing is that DJT himself doesn't appear to know the difference. A careening, deranged autocrat is possible more frightful that a brutal and efficient one.