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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, June 30, 2017


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

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Thursday, June 29, 2017


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

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017


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

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The journey home: Thoughts on first chapter of Sentimental Education

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

Monday, June 26, 2017

The state of Europe as seen in Best European Fction 2017

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

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Thoughts on what may be William Trevor's last story

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

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

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

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

Friday, June 23, 2017

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

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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

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

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

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

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Worth reading to the conclusion of The North Water

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

The spiritual aspect of The North Water

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

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The North Water as Moby-Dick in reverse

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

Saturday, June 17, 2017

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

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

Friday, June 16, 2017

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Powerful concluding section to War and Turpentine

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

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

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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

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

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

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

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

Sunday, June 11, 2017

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

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

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Curtis Sittenfeld's winning narrative style

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

Friday, June 9, 2017

Disappointed by Ali Smith's new novel, Autumn

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

Thursday, June 8, 2017

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

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

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Skip Saunders's novel and read his stories

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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

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

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

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

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

Sunday, June 4, 2017

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

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

Saturday, June 3, 2017

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

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

Friday, June 2, 2017

Why Nelson Algren's novel would made a bad movie and how it presaged the Beats

I'm surprised that Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) was made into a movie, and doubt it was a good movie. This novel, at least from the first 1/4th of it, is plotless - the past 50 pages have been about Frankie Machine's marriage to Sophie and his guilt over the drunken car crash that left her a paraplegic and that she has used ever since to extract guilt and penance from Frankie - OK, a dark and dreary life story set mostly in taverns and police stations, yet elevated by Algren's excellent and funny writing style, his ear for street cant, and his surprising turns of phrase - maybe in tomorrow's post I will have the edition beside me and quote a few examples verbatim (can find them on almost any page). But a movie version? These are characters that could rise from the did and play ancillary roles in The Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire, but a movie needs a story line and Algren is not interested in that: He's creating a portrait of a subculture, at a particular time and place (postwar Chicago); these characters emerge, to a degree, in a different form in the literature of the beats a decade later - but with a focus on drugs, rather than alcohol, and with a more of a contempt for "bourgeois" society. But you could imagine Algren opening this novel w/ Ginsberg's phrase: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness ... " OK, his characters are far from the "best minds," but there is a shared sense of the marginalization and their being doomed.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The influence of Man with the Golden Arm

Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) influenced many writers - but the strange thing is that he mostly influenced nonfiction writers and journalists, or so it seems to me on initial reading in this long novel. Algren wrote about the most down and out, depressing, depressed characters living on the criminal fringe of the streets of Chicago, just after WWII. The two main characters are Frankie Machine, aka The Dealer, who fancies himself a sharpie at cards, dice, and pool, and his feckless sidekick, Sparrow (Solly Slotkin, or some such name), a "Hebe," who lives on the margins and makes an occasional buck as a dog-stealer. We meet these guys as they're being booked, and the cop who brings them in is called Record Head, as he remembers every petty crime and criminal. Peripheral characters include Blind Piggie, whose stench is so great they seat him on the barstool closest to the men's room, as his odor overpowers the men's room effulgence, and Frankie's wife, grumpy and nasty and wheelchair bound, and there are hints that Frankie caused her to lose her walking ability, possibly through a car accident? The writing is grim but also hilarious, with some great turns of phrase, both among the characters and from the sharp-eyed narrator. These Chicago street scenes definitely inspired writers such as Royko and Terkel (also inspired a lot of street photographers; some of their work is captured in the 50th-anniversary critical edition, though in very poor quality printing), but I don't see a lot of fiction writers picking up Algren's trail. The work closest to his in style and milieu that I can think of is Berlin Alexanderplatz, about similar underworld petty thieves and criminals is post-War (I, that is) Germany. The post-war element is significant: characters such as Frankie return from service traumatized (they didn't have the term PTSD then, but it applies) and often addicted to pain meds (e.g., morphine, in Golden Arm) and without any foothold in the workforce or the community. Not sure I'll be able to take the darkness - dark humor notwithstanding - for 350 dense pages, but giving it a go.