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

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

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Guessing as to the plot direction of Six Four

By the mid-point in Hideo Yokoyama's Six Four we learn why the police (in unnamed Japanese city, 2002) are pushing, 14 years after theevent, to resolve the case of the kidnap and murder of a 7-year-old girl. The protagonist, a police officer and former detective now assigned to the lowly (ha!) area of media relations, Mikami, has been ordered to get the father of the kidnapped girl to agree to a visit from the highest-ranking police official. The father resists, at least at first, and Mikami finds that he's been shut out from all info on the case - which makes it almost impossible for him to work to get the father's trust and compliance. Through Mikami's many inquiries of present and former police officers, we learn that the police seriously screwed up the crime investigation, specifically, the device they'd set up to record any calls from the kidnapper failed and they missed the only chance to record his voice. Worse, they covered up this failure - and are concerned that now it will come to light, as HQ wants to close out this case. The failure of the device ruined the careers of at least 2 men. For many crime novels, this would be enough and we would now be moving toward a conclusion - but we have 300 dense pages to go! So what will happen? My guess is that the issue goes well beyond the failure of the recording device. Why would it fail? I'm guessing someone on the police force was involved in the kidnap plot and sabotaged the recorder - not suspecting that the plot would go awry and the girl would be murdered. HY holds my interest, but as noted in previous posts, and still very much true, it's almost impossible for an American reader to make sense of all the internal squabbles within this police department: It's never clear what office various people are working in, what the lines of authority are, where they various players stand in the PD hierarchy, what's the relation between this PD and Tokyo, and so forth. HY does not do much to differentiate the characters - he's strong on dialog but not on physical description, not does he make use of the crime-novel trope of giving the various characters quirks of behavior and interest or even notable "handles" or nicknames. Six Four remains an ambitious and for the most part engaging novel, but you have to read through a number of nearly opaque chapters. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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

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

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

When crime-fiction approaches literary fiction: Six Four

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

Monday, April 24, 2017

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

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

Sunday, April 23, 2017

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

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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

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

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

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

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

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

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

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

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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

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

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

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


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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Character complexity in Cather's The Professor's House

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

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Cather

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

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Friday, April 14, 2017

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

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

Thursday, April 13, 2017

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

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

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

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

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

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

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

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

Monday, April 10, 2017

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

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

Sunday, April 9, 2017

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

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

Saturday, April 8, 2017

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

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

Friday, April 7, 2017

Whyt we hate "salon novels"


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

Thursday, April 6, 2017

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

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

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Guy de Mauspassant and a Shakespearean idea about love

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

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

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

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

Monday, April 3, 2017

What we wish would happen in Agnes Grey

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

Sunday, April 2, 2017

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

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

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Why Anne is the "Zeppo" of the Bronte sisters

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